Dreaming of seeing your name on the New York Times Bestsellers list? Hoping your words will hit the bookshelves with a bang? Don’t know where to even begin? Check out our tips for aspiring authors!
Find an idea.
Historical fiction? Sparkly vampire romance? There are so many books out there already that finding a unique idea can seem daunting. But don’t give up! Think of your experiences, the people you know, the events or figures that inspire you. What can you share to make a difference? What kind of world will you build for your readers?
Many websites provide creative writing prompts. Or, flip through a history book, an atlas, a photo album. Does anything catch your eye?
The worst thing you can do is come across a fantastic idea and then completely forget it. Don’t wait to get those words on paper! A note here and there, a snippet of dialogue, even the actor you want to have play your protagonist when your book is adapted to the big screen. Every little bit is part of your creation. Brainstorm, make connections, research, and WRITE!
Some authors map out entire series before starting their actual writing. If that’s what works for you, go for it! But here’s a little secret: often, authors will just spew out words for a first draft, and will edit it until readers can’t tell they had no idea what they were doing at the beginning.
Know your audience.
But before you get too far, decide on a target audience. French kids? Southern U.S. grandmas? Literature majors? It doesn’t have to be super specific right away, but knowing for whom you are writing helps you decide HOW to write. You wouldn’t tell the story of Red Riding Hood the same way to a small child and a horror novel enthusiast (would you?).
Do some research on your target market. Think of the length of your work. Children’s books aren’t as long as YA novels, which differ from adult non-fiction, and so on.
Edit, edit, edit.
The step most people hate… Editing. Let’s be honest: you need to edit your work (don’t tell us that Stephen King doesn’t—you aren’t Stephen King). Be sure your work has no spelling mistakes, no typos, no sentence structure issues, no punctuation errors. Get rid of anything unnecessary! Be concise and trust your readers to make inferences (depending on your audience, of course). Think of your readers; while you may know your story inside-out, a first-time reader may find certain details unclear.
If you are going through a publisher, their editors will help with this part. Some editing includes major structural changes. Sometimes, all you need is proofreading. But handing a publisher your manuscript full of errors doesn’t bode well and could affect your chances of getting published. Consider editing software, such as Antidote or Grammarly, if you don’t have anyone who can proofread your work.
If you aren’t noticing any problems, it’s time to ask beta readers what they think. Send your work to friends, family, or even strangers to get different opinions. They may flag something that causes confusion, a plot hole or inconsistency, perhaps. They may find typos you missed or have bigger suggestions, like reworking a section of the plot. You don’t have to agree with everything they say, but remember that they are trying to help you!
Again, depending on the publisher, you might receive feedback regardless of whether a company agrees to publish your work. Even if a publisher refuses to publish you, keep your chin up. Sometimes, the timing isn’t right—companies may have too many projects at the moment. Maybe your work doesn’t line up with the publisher’s mandate (pro tip: when choosing publishers, find out what kind of books they publish). Maybe your work isn’t good enough YET, but with more hard work, will be.
Reflect on the feedback you got. What would make your work better? What new ideas have the comments given you? You may want to go back and forth a few times with your beta readers to discuss changes. Come up with a solid new draft of your work and edit again for clarity, grammar, etc.
Find an illustrator.
If you can make your own illustrations and/or cover, great! Just remember, people DO judge a book by its cover. Just like a restaurant menu gives you a glimpse into the establishment’s dishes, a book cover (and back cover) give readers hints as to what’s inside—and what they’ll like. Don’t crowd the outside of your book with a million reviews, but don’t leave it empty, either. Research what other authors in your market have done.
For children’s books, illustrations are even more important than the text. While a good story is important, the images make the difference between an okay book and a great one. A neat story cannot replace quality illustration. But amazing illustrations can carry a text that is only good, not great!
Format your work.
If you’re doing your own formatting, here are a few tips. Pick a book size (even if you don’t plan on printing copies!). Research appropriate margins. Find a program within your budget (Adobe InDesign is great, but more expensive than, say, Gimp—which is free). Watch videos on how to best use your program and make use of shortcuts, like tools that let you format all pages at once.
If you’re adding illustrations, remember that you still need to be able to read the words. Think of contrast, font, font size, and image opacity. Ask beta readers if they feel the text and images look good and can be read with ease.
Start thinking about selling features.
There are three major marketing factors you need to consider before finishing your book: the title, the cover, and the back cover blurb. While the cover and back cover design are crucial in catching a reader’s eye, the title and blurb help would-be readers find your book through keywords and searches—and decide to buy it.
Identify the buzzwords that authors in your genre have used for their book descriptions. YA fiction, for example, often uses the term dystopia (an imagined society full of suffering controlled by a totalitarian power) to give readers an idea of what to expect. As for a title, imagine you pick up a book in a bookstore. The title, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, gives you a glimpse into not only the content but also the author’s style. When selecting a title, think of how catchy it is, how long or short, what words you use. A title is to a book what a CV is to a job applicant!
Choose a publishing method.
Here’s the million dollar question: do I self-publish or go through a publishing company? The answer depends on a lot of individual factors. When self-publishing, you’re on your own. So, what would a publisher do for you? In a nutshell, you pay a traditional publisher to be able to focus on writing. Your profit is the lowest, but your book gets the best exposure it can get. Think of all the steps that go into publishing: editing, formatting, finding the illustrator and editor, illustrating, proofreading, page layout, cover and back cover… it never ends. With a traditional publishing company, you need only submit a great text, and they’ll take care of the rest using their team of professionals, their network, and their experience.
Basically, a publisher is there to do what you, as an author, can’t. About 90% of writers don’t have the know-how to design a stellar book cover and format either physical books or eBooks—and that’s okay! What you don’t want to do is lower your chances of making sales with a poor book cover and illegible fonts. But if you do have the technical skills, great! Consider publishing both physical and digital copies of your book to reach a larger market. You can use Kindle Direct Print (KDP) by Amazon, Lulu, Createspace, Ingram Micro, Draft2Digital, Kobo, or one of many other programs made to help you get your book out there.
Let’s talk finances for a minute. A good book cover might cost you anywhere from $100 to $500 (we’re talking Canadian dollars here). If your book is illustrated throughout, you’re looking at another $2000 ish, depending on the number of images and the illustrator’s rates. Page layout costs you per page. Then you need an editor! It definitely racks up, but once those initial payments are out of the way, all profits are yours, whereas with a traditional publisher, you’re looking at around 5%. Be careful selecting a price for your book: while cheaper books sell more, they don’t bring in as much money. But pricing your book higher means some people won’t buy it. You need to find a balance. Check what other authors in your genre are doing!
Oh boy, time to promote your book.
So you’ve got an amazing product with a gorgeous cover and the perfect price point. How do people know your book exists? First off, you need a website. Programs like WordPress make building your online empire easy! Choose your domain name carefully (hint: that means the words in your URL). Get on social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest… anything to make it easier for people to find your book. When you post on social media that uses hashtags (Instagram, Twitter…), look to see which are popular that day. Find related hashtags with hashtagify.me and follow accounts that post the same kind of stuff as you to see how they manage. Some websites, like Hootsuite, allow you to pre-program your posts, but direct interactions with your followers are often what make your account more popular. You can use Combin to check on your Instagram, Twitter statistics to see what posts are making an impact, and Facebook ad manager to get the word out that your product is worth buying.
When it comes to ads, think of key messages and links. Don’t put too much and overwhelm viewers, but don’t put too little and not catch their eye. Make a few versions of the same ad with slight differences to see which perform better—then keep only the best ones. Ads can be videos, too! Make a book trailer to post on social media and use small clips as ads. People are drawn to movement and colour. Marketing is a lot to think about! That’s another reason why many authors leave that to their traditional publishers.
Expand your market.
Find ways to expand your market by translating your book (or having it translated… $$$) in many languages. Publish in colour if you haven’t already or make a black and white version for a lower price to rope in the stingier buyers. Add a sequel to your book, or make it a whole series—once people love your first book, they’ll likely buy related works. This is the time when you finally reap the benefits of your efforts. Once this step is done, it’s probably time to write something new and start all over again!
Creating a book is a lot of effort and takes many, many hours. Make sure your writing setup is ergonomic or you may end up with a neck, back, or wrist problem! But those of us who’ve published a book know this: it’s definitely worth the pain, the frustration, the money, and the time. There’s nothing like seeing your name on the cover of a book people love!