The ‘Getting Published’ Advice I Wish I’d Listened To

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on February 2, and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

As you may know, I’ve led many a ‘how to self-publish your book’ seminar in my time. The first few times I did it, I’d sit down at my desk to start putting together my PowerPoint presentation and despair that I only had 90 minutes or however long to squeeze in everything I needed to tell the group about how to self-publish successfully. After I did a few of them, I realised that the best approach was not to aim to tell them everything about self-publishing, but to tell them everything they needed to know in order to start, and start off on the right foot. Those are two very different things.

So I stopped talking about making and selling print-on-demand paperbacks with the likes of CreateSpace and Lulu. Instead I advised that they treat the e-book like a hardback, releasing that first, testing the waters, adapting their plan if need be, and then – if it went well – reinvesting the profits in their print edition. After years of this self-publishing lark, both doing it myself and watching others at it, I think now that this is the best approach. It’s logical, it’s risk-averse and it keeps it simple. But during the Q&A, someone would always ask something like, ‘What about Lightning Source?’ And I’d groan inwardly, because I’d be thinking to myself, Go home, finish your book, self-publish it as best as you possibly can in e-book – and then start worrying about Lightning Source. But not before.

I wish someone had said something similar to me when I was traipsing into Waterstone’s Cork every Saturday afternoon in the early 2000s, systemically working my way through their How To Write Books books section. I hadn’t finished my book – I hadn’t even started it – but I felt like it was really important I know exactly how much an agent’s commission was on translation rights before I even thought about putting put pen to paper. The proliferation of blogs and the constant, never-ending, information tsunami that is Twitter only made things worse. Much, much worse. Years later, when I finally got a clue and concentrated solely on the things I should be concentrating on, I finally learned that getting published is all about the book. So I finished my book. I signed with an agent. And then I got published.

But, but, BUT.

It’s easy to forget that information you think is common knowledge is not actually so. It’s just that you’ve known it for so long, you’ve forgotten you didn’t once. And starting out, I think you do need to know some things. So here is my absolutely bare bones, rock-bottom minimum place to start if you’re aspiring to see a book you wrote on the shelf. This is what I wish someone had said to me five, ten, fifteen years ago.

(Well, someone no doubt did say this to me. But boy, I wish that I had listened.)

Step 1: Write the Book

If I could go back in time and talk to Me From 2009, this is what I would tell her: do nothing else except sit down and write, and keep doing that until your book is finished.

Now, there’s loads you can to delay this. You can read stacks of how to write books books, you can attend workshops, you can hang around the writers’ water cooler on Twitter, you can blog about all the writing you plan on doing, you can play with Post-Its. But honestly, I think there’s only two things you need to do: read as much and as widely as you can, and put your arse in the chair in front of your computer. Honestly, you will never learn as much about how to write a book as you will from the act of actually sitting down and writing one. So go do that. First.

Step 2: Pick a path

Now comes the decision: to self-publish or try to get published? Well, no one can answer this question but you, so there’s really no point in asking me or anyone else.

What you can do is:

  • Research, so you know exactly what you’re getting into (and you can make a plan)
  • Set yourself a deadline

It’s possible that your book will decide for you. It might be very short, too short for a traditional publishing house. Or it might be about something that means time is of the essence, and you need to publish it now. For instance, last year you might have written something about the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising here in Ireland that really needed to be published in 2016 to take advantage of this increased awareness, public appetite, publicity opportunities, etc.

If this isn’t the case, I will say to you what I always say to writers who ask me this: set yourself a deadline. If you’re not sure, give yourself 12 months. Submit to agents, enter competitions, attend conferences, etc – basically, network – and do everything you can to try to find a traditionally published home for your book. Then, once the 12 months is up, if it seems like nothing is happening, perhaps self-publish instead.

Step 3: Don’t Rush Things

Here’s the thing I would love for you to take in: don’t rush. Don’t panic. Don’t feel like you’re missing out or that you need to get your book on Amazon yesterday. I completely understand the feeling you get in your gut when someone says, ‘When is your book out? I can’t wait to read it.’ It’s itchy. It’s panicky. It increases your heart rate. And suddenly all you can think about is getting the book up on Amazon so you can capture that one sale. And that’s a huge mistake.

Just on a practical level, self-publishing does not mean uploading your file to Amazon this weekend. Self-publishing means launching a product. You need to plan. You need to prepare. You need to build anticipation. Ideally, you need to have another book nearly ready to go. (I think, these days, the only way to succeed at self-publishing and to maintain your momentum once you do is by releasing more than one book.) All of this takes time. You can only launch your book once. Don’t diffuse your own momentum by doing it too soon, before you’ve done the work.

Similarly, don’t give yourself 6 weeks to get an agent. Leaving aside the fact that the top agencies get thousands of submissions a year and it would be nearly impossible for even one of them to get back to you in that space of time, that’s so little time that you’re guaranteeing failure before you’ve even begun trying. All this stuff, it takes AGES. Use it to start on your next book.

What I didn’t realise before I got my deal is that, you know what? It’s not the worst thing in the world to be waiting for your dream to arrive. It’s a nice bit. There’s no deadlines, no pressure, no contracts. You’re writing purely because you love to write. Forget about the destination for a second. Enjoy the journey.

Everything else – that can come later. Worry about it then. For now, just finish your book, pick a path and don’t rush.

In its own way, this is the good bit.


Remember: there’s a super sexy hardcover edition of Distress Signals (the American one, out February 2) up for grabs, signed to you from me. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or any post published here between January 5 and February 2. One entry per post, so comment on more than one and increase your chances. Open globally. Good luck!

19 thoughts on “The ‘Getting Published’ Advice I Wish I’d Listened To

  1. LadyNicci says:

    I was like that for a while I think, needing to know everything! Now I’ve relaxed and trying to concentrate on the important things. A lot of the knowledge is absorbed naturally now I think just by reading about an industry that fascinates me. I’ll be approaching book 2 quite differently: with more of a plan!

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    You are so, so right! The number of people I have seen who keep on asking really detailed questions about stuff before they even have a book ready (I may have done it myself on occasion, erm, yeah)…

  3. avrilsilk says:

    Thank you for your wisdom, kemosabe! (And researching Tonto and the Lone Ranger for that reference is exactly the kind of fascinating, procrastinating, obfuscating diversion that stands between me and world domination. That and looking up ‘obfuscating’…)

    • Joel D Canfield says:

      Oh, I see what you did there, making me go research “kemosabe” and then thinking hey, the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation was near where I used to live y’know their radio station played Indian chants sometimes and I remember the Lone Ranger TV show and

      great googlymooglies I got stuff to do (first occurrence of that phrase was a long time ago.)

      • Avril Silk says:

        Oh, it’s on! Now I have to Google the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe reservation… right after I’ve looked up medieval manacles with wooden weights – all in the name of research…

  4. evie gaughan says:

    You’re so right – that instinctive rush to publish is so strong, but this is the time to sit back and enjoy that smug feeling of having finished the book. Aaaaand breathe!

  5. Joel D Canfield says:

    If you write before you understand how stories work, plan on scrapping it. NaNoWriMo-ing a novel is a good experience, but it won’t lead to a worthwhile book unless one is a natural storyteller. (Being a natural story reader does not qualify one.) Even a quick read of Lisa Cron’s two books (Wired for Story and Story Genius) will result in a better “just write” first attempt. No, don’t read 347 books on how to write, partly because it’s a delay tactic, but partly because 83% of them are, erm, unworthy.

    I abhor the advice to consider self-publishing as a fallback position. It’s not. Decide what you want, traditional publishing or self-publishing, know why, and then pursue it with a balance of deep knowledge and wild abandon, and stick with it till the day it happens or you die.

    Seeing self-pub as lesser, a fallback position when your true goal doesn’t materialize quickly enough, is anti-art. Make a choice, then burn your ships and don’t look back.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I absolutely did not mean to imply that self-pub was lesser or a fall back. What I meant was if you are a writer who doesn’t know which path to take, who can’t decide, try to get it published first. If you know you want to self-pub from the start, obviously go for it.

      • Joel D Canfield says:

        I still disagree. A writer who doesn’t know which path to take should figure that out. Any time spent on either path without a good bit of knowledge is time and energy wasted. Neither should ever be treated as the default setting.

        (I love every single thing you write, honest I do. Except that teensy little bit. Really.)

  6. onereasonableperson says:

    I’m not sure that I completely agree on the advice to ignore the paperback at first. To be sure, I have yet to make a dent in the paperback market, but …

    1. The costs are low. I format it myself, so the only thing I’m paying is $50-75 for my cover artist to produce the paperback cover.

    2. The emotional satisfaction of holding a real book in my hand that I wrote (and showing that book to Little Man who was more proud of me than I was) is a big boost to giving me motivation to get to work on that next book.

    • Joel D Canfield says:

      If you can DIY, there’s little reason not to. I do my own covers, pay someone else to format because I hate the tedium. I’ll continue offering paperbacks.

      But if a broke author would have to pay for cover design, interior design and layout, and all that, they should at least consider why they want it.

  7. malousu says:

    I have not at present published my first book but am researching the processes. I have written one book and I am working on book two. I know little about the details of publishing pleasure books. I come from an academic background. I feel I can design a cover page, proofread, and set the book up myself, but the tedium is horrible. I prefer to write and leave the rest to someone else, but I am that poor author living on a small salary and can’t afford to spend a lot. I have read articles, looked seriously at just doing an e-book, and do gave a few connections to friends that are published. I am in the wait and breathe stage. It’s frustrating especially when people don’t think I am working on anything. I am writing a fantasy book. Any advice?

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