Things Every Aspiring Author Should Know Before They Get Started

This week, I announced the signing of my book deal with HCI publishers. It’s been a truly incredible week of disbelief, gratitude, and realized dreams.

Since the announcement, I’ve had many friends, followers, and acquaintances ask me for information about breaking into the publishing industry. I am a newbie to the industry myself, but I do think there is utility in sharing insights as someone who is just getting started. Although authors with more experience can offer a more rounded perspective, hopefully hearing pointers from someone who is just a few steps ahead of you (and can easily recall being in the place you are in right now) can be useful.

So, here (in no particular order) are some interesting things I’ve learned about the publishing industry that I don’t think are often known by aspiring authors:

#1. If you want to publish through traditional publishers, you’re probably going to need an agent.

Most traditional publishers won’t accept manuscripts from un-agented authors (although there are a few who will). You can find ways to publish without an agent, but it will be harder, more frustrating, and less likely to end in success. If you want to learn how to acquire an agent, see my article here. Your agent not only helps you secure a book deal, but also handles the negotiations of that deal. My agent turned a great book deal into an excellent one, and I didn’t have to be involved in those negotiations at all.

#2. If you are a non-fiction author, you don’t have to have a completed manuscript in order to query agents and publishers.

Unlike fiction authors, non-fiction authors can query agents and publishers before the work is complete. If you have three chapters written and a good proposal ready, you can go ahead and begin the querying process.

#3. Publishers care about your platform, but maybe not the way you think.

It seems to me that publishers have caught on to the fact that social media numbers can be misleading. In a world where followers can be bought and platforms can be built through less than organic means, publishers recognize that more followers doesn’t necessarily mean more book sales. In my personal opinion, the best thing an aspiring author can do, when it comes to your platform, is this:

(1) Focus on building a community, not a following. Engage with the people who comment on your posts. Develop relationships with your most active followers and supporters. It seems to me that publishers are more interested in how you are connecting with your audience than how “big” of an audience you have.

(2) Try to make your platform somewhat relevant to your book, while doing your best to make sure the platform doesn’t become one-dimensional. I learned through the submission process that there is a lot of variance in what publishers are looking for in an author’s platform. I do know that, especially for non-fiction authors, publishers are looking to see that you have already put in the work to establish yourself as a credible voice in your topic area. However, based on feedback I received on my own book proposal and feedback my friends have received on theirs, publishers also don’t want you to be uni-dimensional. They want to see someone who can speak powerfully on a diverse range of topics.

#4. It is very hard to get a book deal for a memoir-style book unless you are already famous.

Memoirs are one of my favorite types of books. They also align very well with my writing style — using personal stories as the vehicle for showing readers something about what it means to be human. But true memoirs, books that tell the story of a person’s life, don’t tend to be picked up by publishers unless the person writing the memoir is already very well-known. A nice work-around for this, if you want to publish a memoir, is to make it your book part memoir and part self-help. My book is laid out this way. I use my personal stories to anchor a message about something bigger that the reader, no matter their background, can relate to.

#5. Things take much longer than you think; learn to practice patience.

The publishing industry is a big beast with many moving parts. Things take time. If you let it, it can really dig at your soul. There is a lot of worry in the wait — wondering if something fell through, if somehow your opportunity is going to slip through your fingers. The best thing you can do is embrace the reality that thing will just take time, and that doesn’t say anything good or bad about your project.

#6. You should think about what kind of relationship you’re looking for with a publisher.

From the start of my journey, I had two complimentary (but competing, as I learned later) goals: (1) to work with a Big-5 publisher, and (2) to have a highly personalized and intimate relationship with my publisher and editor. After speaking with my agent and other authors who are further along the road than I am, I learned that it’s really hard to have both of those things at the same time. Big-5 publishers bring obvious benefits, such as higher budgets for advances and marketing, as well as the prestige of a highly recognizable name. However, a downside of working with a Big-5 publisher is that you don’t get the kind of personalized care and attention that you might get with an indy publisher. (This is, of course, not a comprehensive statement of fact — rather, just an observation a few of my personal acquaintances have made). My book deal is with a smaller publisher who is distributed by Simon & Schuster, a Big-5 publisher. My agent told me that going this route would lead to the kind of relationship I’m looking for, one where I have a say, where my participation in the creative process for the book is considered heavily, and where I can develop a close relationship with my editor. I’m really looking forward to that! As you evaluate your options when it comes to publishers, think about what kind of experience you are looking for. There are pros and cons of both types of publishers.

#7. Rejections don’t necessarily say anything about the quality of your book.

It seems that most editors (the people who work for the publisher and decide whether your book might be a good fit for publication) have their own interests and goals for what kinds of books they want to acquire. Sometimes, a rejection of your book simply means that your topic is not one that is of interest to that particular editor or publisher. You’re going to get more rejections than offers — that is just a statistical fact. So, do your best to remember that rejections aren’t personal. And often, getting your book published is simply a matter of finding the write editor. (However, if you are getting consistent rejections and critical feedback about your book, that’s obviously useful information to help you make improvements).

Overall, I’ve learned that the publishing world can be an uncertain and sometimes confusing place, but it’s not something that needs to be feared. Once you find your footing and gain a little experience, things seem to be manageable, to make a big more sense. Hopefully, this article gives you a few more tidbits of information to put in your tool belt as you navigate your book publishing journey. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Keep going. Your words matter, and there are people who need to hear what you have to say.

Believe in yourself enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one word beyond the next.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.


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