“How did you get a book published?” I get this question from the check-out lady at the Pick ‘N Save’ to the mechanic who is fixing the air conditioning in my car to my dentist (but he always waits until I can’t speak so he can tell me about his book). The short answer is I became an expert on what you have to do to get a book published. The long answer can’t really be covered in a short conversation.
I realized that nested within this question are so many others and so began my idea for this post. I asked my writing students to make a list of perceived roadblocks to publishing, so we could talk about navigating these This is a sample of what they came up with. When you read them do you see what I see?
- I don’t know if my writing is any good.
- I don’t know if my book is any good.
- I don’t know who to ask about either of the above two.
- I think I might be too old to start this.
- What are comparables? How do I pick comparables?
- How do you write a query letter?
- Who do I query?
- How would I classify my book?
- What’s a platform? What counts as a platform?
The answers to these questions require one-on-one conversations with each writer talking specifically about their project.
Everyone in the class wanted a nap and a cookie after this.
I get it.
I was a Girl Scout and one of the best things about being a Girl Scout was that there was a manual with checklists in it. If you wanted the Back Yard Fun or Gypsy badges you opened to those pages in the manual and got to work checking off boxes. Publishing isn’t that. There isn’t a linear check-list. It’s more like an Etch-A-Sketch where the writer has a vision and she/he must go back and forth over-and-over it again until the vision starts to look a little like a book.
Can this process be expedited? Can we skip a few steps and get there a little less frustrated and little more excited? The answer is Yes but you have to ask the right questions to the right people.
The thing is, before I wrote fiction, I was (am) a scientist. When I’m not writing or teaching writing I’m teaching research methods. The one thing you learn as a scientist is to ask the right questions from the right people.
This is tricky. There are so many people who are willing to give you advice. Everyone appears to be an expert when the fact is, some people are experts and some people are just trying to make a living. It’s all good though because this is a buyers market. You get to decide who you want to work with.
The five questions you really need to ask will take a little courage but writing takes courage so you’re already there.
1. What are you particularly qualified to help me with?
The right people will be clear about what they can and cannot give you. They are able to articulate what their expertise area is and what it isn’t. For example, I’m really good at shaping manuscripts, writing queries, and listing what is missing in an ‘almost there’ story. But, if you want to know where a comma goes. I am not that girl. The rules are a mystery to me. If you came to me for line edits I would give you the name of a line editor. I know my limitations and I’m not going to fix errors. That’s co-dependency and I learned that….oh, wait. That’s my next novel.
2. Have you worked as an editor or writer and can I check your references?
The right people are living, working, and excel in the field you are asking for help in. They should be able to provide success stories, references, and a relevant history. They may have edited a hundred manuscripts but have any of them gone on to being published? Ask that question. Maybe they had a best seller ten years ago but times change and so does the industry, are they currently publishing their own work?
3. Where can I see your published fee-schedule?
The right people are reasonably priced but are neither giving away their services nor over charging. They should meet the industry standards and any excess should be related to question number two above. If they have a chart on their website that compares prices to other services you know you have the right place. Their prices should be extremely clear so that no assumptions are made on either side. You know what they say, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
4. Will I get published after employing you?
The right people will not say, “I have the connections to get you published.” Nor will they say, “If you…you will get published.” They will make no guarantees at all except to give you what you paid for, their answer to this question should be, “No”.
5. Do you have teaching qualifications outside of what you yourself claim?
I mean, you can word that in a nicer way, but for our purposes, this is what you should ask. If you are taking a class you should take it from people who are teachers. They should have teaching qualifications or have students who recommend them. Their only claim to teaching shouldn’t be their own praise, “I’m a great teacher.” Some people are authors, some people are business owners and some people are teachers. There are even people who are all of these, you should find these people.
The thing is, you’re worth these hard questions. These questions take time upfront. Before I was a teacher, an author, and a business owner I read that the number one mistake people make on the way to their idealized future is impatience. I know this is true. Wasting time and money on sub-standard services is wasting your dream.
Nobody has all the answers, and no blog post can help you navigate all the roadblocks that exist between you and holding your published book in your hand Knowing the right questions to ask can help clear the air and help you find the people that hold the answers. Knowledge is power and in this case knowledge could mean publishing.
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Dr. Ann Garvin, is an internationally published author, speaker and professor. Her novels, I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around, The Dog Year, and On Maggie’s Watch are each about women who struggle to find their way in a world that asks too much from them, too often. Garvin balances her literary pursuits with teaching in the University of Wisconsin and New Hampshire systems, and teaching at writing conferences.
In her free time she runs the The Fifth Semester and the marketing collective The Tall Poppy Writers while raising a family. Garvin teaches at a low residency Masters of Fine Arts Program and recently decided she could do something similar for half their price. Her desire is to help wonderful writers access the knowledge and tools that traditional and low-residency MFAs in creative writing just don’t offer.