So you want to become an author…
Well, I have good news and bad news.
The bad news first:
Writing your book won’t be easy. If you’re in the middle of that right now, you know exactly what I mean.
But here’s the good news:
All that work could open some amazing possibilities for you:
- Getting published
- A career you love
- Impacting people
- Media attention
- Added income
In this extensive guide, my goal is to give you an honest look at how to become an author—using lessons I’ve learned from nearly 50 years working with some of the top publishers in the world.
Having written 200 books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers, I’m confident I can advise you in your writing journey.
What You Will Learn
Everything I cover in this step-by-step post on becoming an author:
- DON’T Try to Become an Author Until You’ve…
…Studied the Craft and Polished Your Skills
…Written and Published Things Shorter Than a Book
…Joined a Community of Writers
…Started Building Your Platform
- Writing Your Book
Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick to
Identify Your Target Audience
Research and Plan
Keep Your Day Job
Become a Ferocious Self-Editor
- Landing a Publishing Contract
How to Get an Agent
Selling a Publisher
Editing Your Book
- Whether to Self-Publish
How to Set Your Manuscript Apart
Choosing the Right Company
The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books
- DON’T Try to Become an Author Until You’ve…
How to Become an Author in 4 Steps
1. DON’T Try to Become a Writer Until You’ve…
I get it. You’re antsy. You’re ready to pen your bestseller right now. You’ve heard of writers who scored with a million-seller on their first try.
Throttle back. Those stories become big news because they’re so rare. Don’t bank on winning the lottery. If you want your book (and your message) to go anywhere, make sure you’ve:
…Studied the Craft
There’s no need to write by trial and error anymore. Your best bet is to follow proven methods.
Here’s a list of my favorite 12 books on writing to get you started.
The competition has gotten so fierce, you do yourself a favor if you learn how successful authors write before you try to get a look from a publisher.
…Written Things Shorter Than a Book
You shouldn’t start your writing career with a book any more than you should enroll in grad school as a kindergartner. A book is where you arrive.
Start small, learn the craft, hone your writing skills, write daily.
Journal. Write short stories. Write a newsletter. Start a blog. Write for magazines, newspapers, ezines. Take a night school or online course in journalism or creative writing.
Bottom line: Work a quarter-million clichés out of your system, learn what it means to be edited, become an expert in something, build your platform (more on that below), and only then think about writing a book.
…Joined a Community of Writers
Think you can do it alone?
Almost every traditionally published author I know is part of a helpful community. That’s one way they deal with:
- Wanting to quit
I’ve written 200 books, and at this stage, community means I can bounce ideas off colleagues when I need to.
When you first become a writer, another pair of eyes on your work can prove invaluable. Ten pairs of eyes can be even better.
Join a writers’ group. Find a mentor. Stay open to criticism.
One caveat with writers’ groups: make sure at least one person, preferably the leader, is widely published and understands the publishing landscape. Otherwise you risk the blind leading the blind.
…Started Building Your Platform
When you eventually pitch agents and publishers, one of the first things they’ll do is conduct an Internet search for your name.
They’re looking for authors with a platform. If platform is a new term to you, it simply means the extent of your influence—how many people are interested in what you do? So start building yours now.
Bottom line, to become a published author you’ll need your own author website.
Add a blog and invite readers to comment, then interact with them. Join your favorite social media platforms and interact with readers there regularly.
Publishing short pieces can boost your name recognition.
With all the social media vehicles available, building a following has never been easier.
2. Writing Your Book
Most people never get this far. Writer’s fear leads to procrastination, and few ever make it to the first page.
To avoid this, you need a plan like the following:
Create a Writing Schedule You Can Stick To
Successful writers show up and do the work whether or not they feel like it.
Writer’s block is no excuse. In no other profession could you claim worker’s block.
Carve out at least six hours a week to write. You won’t find it, you’ll have to make the time by sacrificing something else. Lock these hours into your calendar and keep them sacred.
You’ll get a lot done when you finally plant yourself in your chair.
Identify Your Audience
Once you’ve determined your genre, identify the readers you want to read your book. Agents and publishers need to know the audience you’re targeting so they can market your book.
But resist the temptation to say it’s for everybody. Naturally, it’s tempting to wonder who wouldn’t want to read our work. But the truth is, that kind of thinking makes you look like an amateur.
Even mega-bestselling books don’t appeal to everyone. They’re written to specific audiences, and if they cross over to other markets (like the Harry Potter Young Adult titles—which have become vastly popular to adults as well), that’s a bonus.
Research books in your genre. You should read dozens and dozens of them to learn the conventions and expectations of readers. And who are those readers?
- Primarily Male or Female?
- Age Range
- Educational background
Get to know readers by regularly interacting with them through your website, on social media, or in person.
Research and Plan
To give your manuscript the best chance to succeed, don’t skip this step. Excellent preparation can make or break your book.
Two main ways to prepare:
Regardless how you feel about outlining, you need an idea of where you’re going before you start. If you’re writing a novel, you’re either an Outliner or a Pantser (who writes by the seat of your pants. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you must outline.)
On the fiction side, Pantsers write by process of discovery—or as Stephen King puts it, they “put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
If you’re an Outliner and a novelist, you’ll benefit from Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. But if you’re a Pantser, check out this post. It’ll teach you how to work within a structure without actually outlining.
2. Do the research.
Great stories can be sunk with less than solid research.
If your character drives 10 miles east out of the Chicago Loop—as I once read in a bad novel, he’d better be in an amphibious vehicle, because he’d be in Lake Michigan.
Immerse yourself in the details of your setting. Accuracy adds flavor and authenticity. Get them wrong and your reader loses confidence—and interest.
- Atlases and World Almanacs offer geography and cultural norms and can provide character names to align with the setting, period, and customs. If your character flashes someone a thumbs up, be sure that means the same in his culture as it does in yours.
- Encyclopedias. Buy your own, access one at a library, or find one online.
- YouTube and online search engines can yield tens of thousands of resources.
- Use a Thesaurus not to find the most exotic word but that normal one on the tip of your tongue.
- Interview experts. People love to talk about their work, and that often leads to more story ideas.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job
I didn’t become a full-time freelance author until I had written and published nearly 90 books. A veteran author advised me that my freelance income ought to be around three times what I made at my job before I considered going solo.
Why so much?
He listed everything I would have to pay for: insurance, retirement, benefits, travel, equipment, office supplies—in short, everything.
Your job doesn’t have to keep you from writing. Keep it and write after hours.
- You’ll have steady income—one less thing to worry about—while trying to build your writing career.
- You’ll be forced to be productive with limited hours.
How big a sacrifice is that for your writing dream? How badly do you want to become an author?
Become a Ferocious Self-Editor
This section is so important that it has the power to determine whether your manuscript sells—or slides into the editor’s reject pile.
Get serious about self-editing.
Editors know from the first page or two whether your manuscript is worth pursuing. I know that doesn’t sound fair or even logical. You’re thinking, It took me months, maybe years, to write hundreds of pages and you didn’t even get to the good stuff!
How could they do that to you? Why did they?
First, the good stuff ought to appear from word one. And if they see 15 needed adjustments on the first two pages, they know the cost of editing three or four hundred pages of the same would eat whatever profits they could hope for.
To avoid the dreaded “Thank you, but this doesn’t meet a current need” letter, your manuscript must be lean and mean and a great read.
My 21 rules of ferocious self-editing:
- Develop a thick skin. If you can’t take a critique, this may be the wrong pursuit for you.
- Avoid throat-clearing—scene setting, description, philosophizing—anything that slows getting to your story or your point.
- Choose the normal word over the obtuse.
- Omit needless words.
- Avoid subtle redundancies, like: “She nodded her head in agreement.” Those last four words could be deleted.
- Avoid the words up and down, unless they’re needed for clarity.
- Usually delete the word that. Again, use it only when necessary.
- Give readers credit. They understand more than you think.
- Avoid telling what’s not happening. If you don’t say it happened, we’ll assume it didn’t.
- Avoid being an adjectival maniac. Good writing is a thing of powerful nouns and verbs, not a plethora of adjectives.
- Avoid hedging verbs like smiled slightly, almost laughed, frowned a bit, etc.
- Avoid the term literally when you mean figuratively. [NOTE: I literally died when I heard that.]
- Avoid too much stage direction, describing every action of every character ad nauseum.
- Maintain a single point of view (POV) character for every scene.
- Avoid clichés, and not just words and phrases, but situations—like beginning your story with a character waking to a jangling alarm clock.
- Resist the urge to explain (RUE). If a character enters a room, we need not be told he came through the open door.
- Show, don’t tell. Telling: John was cold. Showing: John turned up his collar and faced away from the biting wind.
- People say things; they don’t wheeze, gasp, sigh, laugh, grunt, or retort them.
- Specifics add the ring of truth, even to fiction.
- Avoid similar character names. In fact, avoid even the same first initials.
- Avoid mannerisms of punctuation, typestyles, and sizes, like overusing ellipses, italics, boldfacing, exclamation points, etc.
3. Trying to Land a Publishing Contract
Becoming a published author isn’t easy. But let me show you the available options and suggest the best practices to increase your chances.
Acquiring an Agent
Once you’ve finished your manuscript and have ferociously self-edited it until you’re happy with every word, your first step in trying to land a traditional publishing deal (in other words, one where the publisher takes all the financial risk and also pays you) should be to try to land an agent.
There may seem a dichotomy, especially if you write for altruistic reasons—you have a mission, a passion, a message, something you want to share with the world. Yet agents and publishers appear to base their decisions solely on the bottom line.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t share your passion. They simply must make a profit to stay in business—even faith-based publishers who are all about ministry.
Though it’s hard to find an agent, it’s also rare to get traditionally published without one. Most publishers will not consider unsolicited manuscripts, though some allow you to submit at writers conferences or with the recommendation of other clients of theirs.
Check The Writer’s Market Guide and The Christian Writer’s Market Guide for agents and publishers.
An agent can make your life a lot easier.
Besides the instant credibility of an agent’s approval, evidence that your writing has survived a vetting process, you also get valuable input and coaching on how to fashion your query and proposal from someone who understands the publishing industry, knows the players and who’s looking for what, and has experience pitching publishers.
Obviously, there are good and bad agents. Whom can you trust? Credible agents welcome scrutiny. Check with their clients. Ask:
- Were you happy?
- Did you feel taken care of?
- Were they pleased with the results?
Feel free to ask agents:
- How do you like to work with an author?
- Have they succeeded in my genre?
- And any other question you have.
Once you compile a list of agents who seem to be a good fit, follow their submission guidelines. They’ll likely ask for a query letter, synopsis, proposal, and perhaps a few chapters.
If any ask for any sort of reading fee or other payment up front, eliminate them as candidates and do not respond. Agents make their money when they sell your book to a publisher.
Check out the submission guidelines for any agent by going to their website.
You may be asked for:
1. A query letter
This is just what its name implies—a letter querying the interest of the agent in your book idea.
Four parts of an effective query letter:
a. Your elevator pitch
This is a summary of your book’s premise, told in the time it would take the editor to reach his floor if you happened to find yourself in the same elevator. So it has to be fast and easily understood.
The elevator pitch for my very first novel:
“A judge tries a man for a murder that the judge committed.”
While today I might have added a few more specifics, that either interested an agent or an editor, or it didn’t. Fortunately, it did.
b. Your synopsis
In a paragraph, tell what your nonfiction book is about and what you hope to accomplish with it. Or tell the basic premise of the plot of your novel. The synopsis would naturally go beyond the elevator pitch and tell what happens and how things turn out. Don’t make the mistake of trying to tease an agent into reading your manuscript to find out what happens. Tell him up front.
c. Your target audience and why they’ll enjoy your book
Agents need to envision how to pitch it to publishers, but be careful not to oversell. They know the business better than you do and will not be swayed by your assurance that “everyone will find this amazing.”
Tell what readers it’s intended for.
d. Your personal information
Sell the agent on yourself. What qualifies you to write this book? What else have you published? What kind of platform have you built? Where can they read your blog? Include your contact information.
Other query letter tips:
- Keep it to one page, single-spaced, and 12 pt. serif type.
- Don’t gush—let your premise speak for itself.
- Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to a T.
- Have someone you trust proofread your letter. Any typo on such a short document makes you look like an amateur.
A great example of a query letter, with a breakdown of why it works, by Brian Klems of Writer’s Digest.
2. A book proposal
Most agents want only this. Succinctly describe your idea, your goal being to make them want to read your manuscript in its enentirety as soon as it’s ready. For nonfiction, include every major issue you’ll cover and the basics of what you’ll say about it. For fiction, synopsize the plot.
Three trusted colleagues have produced masterful works on how to write book proposals:
Michael Hyatt: Writing a Winning Book Proposal
Jane Friedman: How to Write a Book Proposal
(Jane also has great material on query letters.)
Terry Whalin: Book Proposals That Sell
Proposals contain components such as:
- Elevator pitch
- Target audience
- Chapter synopses
- Marketing ideas
- Your analysis of competing books
- Up to three sample chapters
Every word should be designed to pique an agent’s interest in seeing your entire manuscript.
Connecting with the Right Publisher
Should you choose to approach publishers on your own (without an agent):
- Precisely follow their submission guidelines.
- Personalize your cover letter to each.
- Avoid flattery and obvious sentiments like, “I’ll do anything you say, make any changes you want, meet any deadline…” Just express that you look forward to hearing from them.
A rule of thumb:
If you’re writing fiction, most publishers require a complete manuscript before offering a contract.
Many writers come up with great ideas, and some produce promising starts. But few see their way through to the end. They want to know you can finish.
If the publisher offers input for the rest of the writing, you’ll have a much better chance of success if you can accommodate their wishes.
Professionally presented manuscripts follow these submission guidelines:
- Use Times New Roman font (avoid sans serif fonts).
- Use 12-point type.
- Left-justify your page. (This means your text should be aligned at the left margin, but not the right. This is also called “flush left, ragged right.”)
- Double-space your page with no extra space between paragraphs.
- Each paragraph should be indented one-half inch.
- One space between sentences.
- Microsoft Word .doc or .docx file format.
- 1” top, bottom, and side margins (or whatever is standard in your Word program).
Editing Your Book
Though you’ve already spent countless hours editing your own work, be ready to do more.
Once a publisher accepts your manuscript, they assign an editor to suggest changes, maybe major ones.
Develop a thick skin and avoid defensiveness. You can argue your points, if necessary, but remember, they’re on your side and want the best finished product. A published book is not a solo. It’s a duet between the writer and an editor.
Let them do their job. Keep an open mind and remain easy to work with. They’ll remember.
4. Should You Self-Publish?
Exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish before resorting to self-publishing. Even honest self-publishing executives would advise this. Why? Because with traditional publishing, the publisher takes all the risks, and you’re paid an advance against royalties and royalties based on sales. So nothing comes out of your pocket.
With self-publishing, however, you pay for everything, and packages can cost upwards of $10,000. Even so called co-op publishers, who ask you to cover only publicity or invest in an initial press run, require a significant investment.
Back when self-publishing was referred to as “vanity publishing,” you could always tell a self-published book from a traditionally published book due to schlocky covers, boring titles, the word by before the author’s name on the cover, a misspelling of the word Foreword or Acknowledgments, too much copy on the front and back, sans serif typeface and interior design, shoddy editing and proofreading, etc.
Admittedly, the game has changed.
Publishing your own book is vastly different than it used to be. Your end product can now look much more professional, and your price per book much more reasonable.
Print-on-demand technology allows for low-cost printing, so you can order as few as two or three books at a time for the same cost per book as you’d pay if you were buying hundreds.
So, you no longer need to store countless copies in your garage or basement. And self-published books look nicer these days too, because writers have demanded it.
How to Set Your Self-Published Book Apart
If you go this route, realize that it falls to you to advertise, promote, and market your own book. And though you’re earning profits after expenses, not just a royalty, don’t assume this will net you more money per copy. You’ll be amazed at the expenses required before you see income. But of course it happens.
It’s also rare that a self-published book finds its way to bookstore shelves outside the author’s home town.
(The hard truth is that it’s not easy for even traditionally published authors to place their books in bookstores. Experts say as few as one percent of all published books can be accommodated by bookstores and that the rest must be sold through other channels like the Internet, direct mail, and by hand.)
To give your self-published title the best chance to succeed, you need to invest in:
- A great cover, which will involve purchasing a photo or artwork, type design, and layout
- Inside layout, type design, and typesetting
- Editing (resist the urge to use a relative who majored in English or even teaches English; book editing is a specific art)
- Proofreading (same caveat as above; friends and loved ones who are meticulous spellers are not enough; there are myriad style matters to deal with)
Each of these elements will dramatically increase the professional look of your final product and, thus, your hope of selling more books. Do NOT skimp on them.
If you’ve ever built a house without a contractor, you have an idea of how complex this can be to do right.
So despite that many self-published authors swear by it and believe it’s fairer to the author than traditional publishing, I maintain that traditional remains the ideal—except for those unique titles targeted to deserving but very limited audiences.
Choosing the Right Company to Self-Publish Your Book
More than 2 million books are self-published every year in the United States alone, so there are many companies to choose from. But sadly, many are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
They’ll let you create a poor product and tell you it’s great.
They’ll “award” you a contract, telling you their publication board has “evaluated” your manuscript and “found it worthy” to be published.
They’ll tell you they’re “not a subsidy publisher” or “not a self-publisher” or “not an independent publisher.”
But they’ll use another euphemism to justify the fact that you’re paying “only for promotion” or “only for [this many] copies,” or “only for…” something else, when the fact is that the fee will cover all their costs and will include their profit.
They’ll imply they can get your title before the eyes of every bookstore owner and manager in the country. They might even give examples of a few titles of theirs that have sold in some stores or even made some bestseller list.
But they can’t guarantee your title will be sold in any store. Because that list your title is on that is “available” to every store owner and manager is merely a master list of all the books on some distributor’s internet site of every title in their catalogue. That means your book will get no personal attention from a salesperson and no more emphasis than any of the tens of thousands of other titles on the list.
Such companies are using you as little more than a content generator, pretending to have “chosen” your book from among the many they have to choose from, when the fact is they would publish anything you send them in any form, provided your accompanying check clears the bank.
Be wary of any company that:
- Doesn’t take seriously the editing and proofreading of your book
- Lets you commit embarrassing typos
- Allows the word by before your name on the cover
- Over-promises what you should expect in the way of personal sales representation, public relations, marketing, distribution, and advertising
That said, when you do need to self-publish, legitimate companies with proven track records are ready and eager to assist you. Do your homework and go beyond an internet search, which will likely turn up beautiful websites for countless companies putting their best foot forward.
Find previous customers and ask about their experience. You want a company who will answer every question straightforwardly and without hesitation. If you feel hard-sold, run.
A litmus test question for the publisher: ask if they would advise you to exhaust your efforts to traditionally publish first. I asked this of the head of WestBow Press™, a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan, and he said he always advises customers that this is the ideal route.
That kind of refreshing honesty bodes well for a company.
The #1 Killer of Self-Published Books
When writers run out of money to invest in their book, too often the first place that suffers is the content itself.
Writers may understand that they are not experts in cover design, layout and typesetting, marketing and promotion, warehousing, distribution, and sales. But they overrate their writing and editing and proofreading abilities.
So, they invest in those other services and cut corners on editing and proofreading.
What they wind up with is a handsome product that looks like a real book but reads like the manuscript that made the rounds of the traditional houses and was rejected.
You must determine what will set you apart in a noisy marketplace.
That certain something that will set you apart is what it has always been:
Having been in the writing game for 50 years and an author for more than 45, that is something I am able to tell you with certainty.
To use an ancient adage, cream rises. Readers recognize quality.
You or your agent may be looking for a deal from a traditional publisher. Or you may have chosen to self-publish online, in print, or both.
Regardless, you want your manuscript to be of the highest editorial quality you can make it.
What does that mean?
It means you must:
- Learn the craft and hone your skills. Rigorously study writing, do exercises, write stories, ferociously edit your work. It can all pay off. Just as with physical exercise, the more the better, but anything is better than nothing.
- Recognize that writing well is much harder and more involved than you ever dreamed. If you thought writing was merely a hobby, this realization could crush you. So, to push through, remember why you wanted to become a writer in the first place: you have a message, and people need to hear it.
- Don’t trust friends’ and relatives’ flattery. Sure, they’re great for encouragement, or keeping you from quitting. But when you need solid input on your writing, their enthusiasm won’t translate to sales.
- Accept criticism and input from people who know what they’re talking about. Find an experienced writer or editor who’ll offer honest feedback on your work. Join a writers group. Attend writers conferences. Get a mentor.
If you really want to become an author, it can be done. Don’t allow the magnitude of the process to overwhelm you. You’ll know you’re ready when you’re willing to carve the time from your schedule to write. You won’t find the time; you’ll have to create it.
Something on your calendar will have to give so you’ll make the time to write. What’ll it be? What you’re willing to sacrifice will tell you how important your writing dream is to you. Welcome to the journey.