Writing is an intensely personal endeavor even if one chooses to walk down a path toward publication. It’s a monumental task to write a book, and chances are you’re only going to finish if you really love what you’re writing. Thus, you must please yourself first.
At the same time, if you’re hoping to reach large audiences and particularly if you’re pursuing traditional publishing, there are market realities to contend with. It’s not enough to simply crank out a book, blast it out, and let magical publishing pixies take care of the rest.
Publishing is a business and demands to be treated as such.
So how do you walk this tightrope? How do you follow your own vision but still end up with a book that might be commercially viable?
I’m here to help with some do’s and don’ts.
DO: Get in tune with your goals
How much to pay attention to the book marketplace flows first from your goals. So before you even start, it pays to have a chat with yourself to get in tune with what you really want here.
Do you want to just write a book you love and let the chips fall where they may? Do you want the validation of traditional publishing and to see your books in bookstores? Particularly if you’re writing nonfiction, do you want your book to serve as a “flagship” that boosts your platform?
If you don’t care particularly much if anyone reads your book and you just want to please yourself and your immediate friends and family: embrace this! It’s absolutely fine. If you just want to have fun with this, you will not get an eyebrow raise from me.
If, however, you know for sure that you want the challenge of seeking publication or even if you have an inkling, there are some basic market realities to understand ahead of time that will help you avoid time-consuming missteps down the line.
DON’T: Chase trends
Let’s start with the big one. If you want to chase a trend, you’re already too late.
Traditional publishing moves at an absolutely glacial pace. Let’s say you start writing in the hot genre du jour and it takes you a brisk six months to finish your manuscript or book proposal + sample pages. Let’s say you quickly find an agent, and by quickly I mean three to six months. Then you quickly find a book deal–add on another three to six months! Oh and then three more months for the contract. And you’re placed on the publishing calendar a year after that.
We’re talking a minimum of two or, more likely three or four years from the time you start writing. How many trends stay popular for three or four years?
You might be able to hop on things a little faster if you’re self-publishing, but even there the market is quite fickle. I personally think it’s better and ultimately more satisfying to try to start trends than to follow them.
DO: Know your genre
Yes. You are a wonderfully original individual who wants to write something like nothing that’s ever existed before. You are probably not, however, the type of once-a-generation genius who invents a new genre from scratch.
There have been millions and millions of books written before yours. The odds are decidedly against your chance of writing something completely unlike any of them. And if you baselessly suggest that you have written something magically singular, a publishing professional will conclude you don’t read very much and will struggle to take you seriously.
Know your genre. Even if you incorporate elements from multiple genres, it pays to have a base. And embrace that there are other books like yours rather than deluding yourself about your own originality.
There’s plenty of room in the bookosphere.
DON’T: Listen to agents with overly specific manuscript wishlists
I can’t tell you how many authors I’ve spoken to who’ve experienced this essential scenario:
At a writing conference, an agent leans into the mic and says they’re looking for a bunch of extremely specific kinds of books, then… “Oh yeah, and what I’m really looking for is a time travel romance with a pelican who goes to Mars with a rabbit sidekick.”
The author’s heart races. They have literally just finished a time travel romance with a pelican who goes to Mars with a rabbit sidekick.
The author summons the courage to talk to the agent, who excitedly tells them to send them the manuscript. This sounds perfect!!
Two months later, the author gets a polite rejection letter and is left with a pelican shaped hole in their heart.
It’s a big industry and I’m sure there are some happy exceptions here, but my overall point is this: Don’t confuse a handful of agents having bizarrely specific wishlists with the way things will actually work down the line with your agent search. And absolutely do not adjust your writing for one of them (unless you’re working with one on a revision).
Your task with an agent search is not to find the one agent who is asking for your incredibly specific plot, who probably doesn’t actually want that thing anyway. Your task in writing a book is absolutely not to try to please one persnickety individual within a vast industry.
Down the line, send your queries to agents who represent your genre and plan to cast a wide net. Don’t get overly hung up on whether they are going to be attuned to the micro-nuances of your book. Chances are an agent is not going to even know they were looking for your book until they read it and love it.
DO: Pay attention to word count
There are exceptions here. Word count matters, but it doesn’t matter endlessly.
Still, every amount you go over or under your genre’s target word count will incrementally decrease your odds. And even if you’re self-publishing, readers have expectations for word count and pacing that might impact your ratings and sales.
If traditional publication in particular is important to you, try your best to stay in the right range.
DON’T: Benchmark yourself against established bestsellers
Every commercial art medium has megahit unicorns that defied genre conventions and were strikingly original.
But when you think back to many of these hits, they were often written/made after the artist was already established in their field with more conventional works.
George Lucas made American Graffiti before Star Wars. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote In the Heights before Hamilton. Herman Melville wrote the more conventional travel book Typee before he wrote Moby-Dick. More recently, John Grisham established himself writing legal thrillers before he veered off to write about high school football coaches and football players living in Italy and baseball players just to mix it up.
Success gives you artistic license and credibility to get a little wild. It also gives you some room to, well, mail in a few derivative novels. It’s harder to do this right off the bat.
If you want the real threshold for achieving traditional publication, it’s not the groundbreaking follow-up project or an author’s thirtieth cookie cutter potboiler. Look at the debuts instead.
DO: Block out what you think imaginary readers and publishing professionals want and focus on cohesion
After you’ve done some basic research to avoid the most obvious pitfalls, at some point you’re going to have to block everything out and just focus on writing. As you write, try as much as possible to forget about the outside world.
There are nuances here. You need to be empathetic enough toward your future reader to make sure that the things that are in your head are really making their way onto the page.
But it’s important to focus on a book’s internal cohesion rather than trying to adjust the story because of what you think the market wants. Don’t twist yourself into knots trying to anticipate every possible response. You’re never going to be able to predict how your book is received.
Also, if you want to be original and find your own voice, keep challenging yourself about whether you’re truly channeling yourself and your own likes and dislikes or whether you’re mimicking other stories. This is another form of blocking out the broader world and focusing more on yourself.
DON’T: Close yourself off to feedback
Some authors, believing all books out there to be trash, are extremely reluctant to bow to feedback. Even though they might seek out editing, they bristle at any suggestion that the book is anything but perfect as it is. (What they really want is validation that their work is already perfect).
Once you’ve finished a draft, if you care even a whit about the possibility of reaching a wider readership, it’s so important to embrace the collaborative nature of the process, get good feedback, and incorporate it well.
You don’t have to take every suggestion, but the editing process is where books are elevated from meh to stunning.
DO: Trust your instincts
Educate yourself and get a sense of the publishing world. Keep an open mind. Go about the process professionally.
But you have to trust your own instincts.
No one, not even the mightiest literary agent, has a 100% grasp of the market. Don’t be overly deferential to the professionals.
Stick to your guns when your instincts are telling you to do so. At the end of the day, life’s too short to spend the amount of time it takes to write a book only to let it be contorted into something you don’t recognize.
It’s fine to walk away. It’s fine to be idiosyncratic. It’s fine to chart your own path if that’s what your heart is telling you to do.
And who knows, your writing might just end up changing the world.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MARCH 2017
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Low Tide at Grandcamp by Georges Seurat