As a publishing professional who spends much of his day serving as a customer support line for authors, I see a whole lot of questions about the “small stuff:” micro-etiquette questions, author bios, whether they should be on TikTok, whether they have the perfect comp titles.
I don’t blame anyone! I try to answer these questions, big and small, because I’ve been in their shoes and depended on advice from experienced publishing types in order to make my way.
But at the end of the day, there really are only like five things that actually, truly matter to your book’s success. No one is going to reject your book if you have a typo in your synopsis. No one is going to refuse to buy your self-published novel because your author bio has insufficient short story publications.
Here are the things that actually matter. Everything else that’s not on this list? You’re probably wasting your energy sweating about it, or it’s outside of your control.
99.5% of your effort should go into the five things on this list.
Write the best book you can
Particularly in this day and age when so many authors are lost in the weeds of Amazon algorithms and marketing strategies and social media and querying etiquette, it’s shocking to me how many people forget this: it all starts by writing a book that people want to read.
And not just want to read: writing a book that makes other people press it into other people’s hands so they’ll read it too.
That’s it. That’s by far (BY FAR) the most important thing.
Unfortunately, it’s also really, really, really hard to do, which is why it’s tempting to focus on things that are easier and feel more in your control.
I am happy to answer questions about query etiquette if you really want to know, but there’s always a part of my brain screaming, “Just focus on improving your craft!!”
Writing craft really, truly matters, particularly in an era where word of mouth travels on swifter wheels than ever. It might not mean overnight success (just look at Colleen Hoover), but this is the foundation of everything else.
Plus, writing is rewarding, right? Otherwise, why in the heck are you doing it in the first place?
If it’s just to make money, no offense but you should consider literally any other vocation. You’ll be in a very privileged minority if you manage to beat minimum wage once your hundreds of hours writing, seeking publishing, and getting paid assistance are accounted for.
Get good editing
Even the best writers in the world need editing. It’s extremely difficult to view your work objectively, see what is and isn’t on the page, and spot what needs improvement. You must find an editor prior to seeking publishing. (And feel free to reach out to me).
Getting good editing doesn’t mean you have to pay an editor (good feedback comes in many different forms), but particularly if you’re seeking traditional publication, editors with previous experience working in the publishing industry bring a valuable perspective that I believe is worth paying for if you can swing it. Just don’t spend any money you can’t afford to lose, because the ROI of pursuing publication is tremendously uncertain.
Also: don’t sweat typos.
Getting good editing doesn’t mean getting a copyeditor, unless you’re on the verge of self-publishing and your manuscript is completely finalized. Barring serious grammar and punctuation issues that interfere with basic readability, agents do not sweat typos. Publishers provide copyediting prior to publication.
The substance of your book is what matters.
Write a killer pitch
If you are seeking traditional publishing, the most important thing you’ll ever write apart from your book is your two-three paragraph plot description (fiction and memoirs) or book description (other nonfiction) for your query letter.
Throw everything you have into it. You need to positively nail it.
Everything else that goes in a query letter, like personalization, your bio, publishing credits, comp titles, a logline, themes, and ancillary materials like a synopsis? It’s just window dressing. Sure, get that stuff right too, but no one is going to accept you or reject you over those things.
Your two-three paragraph pitch is what matters. And it should be where you devote the lion’s share of your efforts. If your query letter is more than 350 words, you’ve either written a bloated plot/book description or you’re wasting your breath on things that don’t matter (or both).
Same goes for self-publishing. You need to write killer jacket copy that makes someone want to spend money on your book.
Market as best you can
You have to do something to give your book a boost. You need to reach those initial readers who can then, hopefully, start doing your marketing for you by telling their friends about it.
Marketing doesn’t mean doing everything under the sun. The only real must-do is to build a competent website. Other than that? There are a lot of things you could do, but nothing you must do.
Focus first on marketing to your existing circles, who are going to be more inclined to buy your book and help spread the word than strangers.
Then pick two or three marketing activities you are good at and enjoy, and forget the rest. If you hate Twitter, you’re not going to build an audience and you’re not going to sell any books that way.
And if there were a tried and true formula for making a book a success, everyone would follow it. Don’t let anyone out there fool you: there isn’t a formula.
Play to your strengths, and remember that improving your writing craft has more long term bang for the buck than spending all your time and energy on marketing.
Conduct yourself like a professional
This is one that often trips people up. Authors hear advice like “be professional” and soon they’re twisting themselves into knots spending several hours tweaking an email following up with an agent and fretting about whether it’s the perfect blend of polite and casual.
This is an area where principles matter more than the specifics. Stick to the basics here too:
- Be honest. This one’s simple and straightforward. Just tell the truth. Lying will catch up to you in the long run in an industry this small.
- Err on the side of transparency. Yes, there’s some judgment here. You don’t need to go overboard exposing every skeleton in your closet starting with that time you spelled ketchup all over yourself in front of the whole cafeteria in fifth grade, just remember that when in doubt, err on the side of being transparent, particularly with things like your publication history.
- Try to empathize. You don’t have to be the shiniest sunflower in the world (it’s okay to just be yourself), but before you dash off an angry or impatient response to someone, just take a minute and try to empathize with what else they might have going on. And don’t forget that the publishing industry moves slower than anything else on earth.
As I often say: no one is going to reject you over a minor faux pas, and if they do, you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.
But it really does pay to be professional. There are plenty of writers who are jerks, but whenever there’s a decision to be made around whether to take on a project, who to devote marketing dollars to, or which author to book for an event, the tie tends to go to the writer people like working with.
Get these five things right! And do your best not to sweat the rest.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Mountain Scene by Albert Bierstadt