I often get asked by newer writers about finding a publisher or an agent that will consider their work. I don’t have a lot to help them with there. I’ve never used an agent and find publishing companies too committed to the bottom line to publish the kinds of things I want to write. Often I want to refer them to this article that I wrote shortly after I helped write and publish The Shack and have a difficult time finding it on the web. So, I want to reprint it here, so I can send the link to people who ask me these questions. If you’re not interested in writing, please feel free to skip the rest of this.
I understand the frustrations and concerns of writers and artists looking to publish their work. The publishing industry is in great flux right now, and it is harder than ever for a new writer to attract their attention. Many publishers require agents, and most of them will only ask how big your platform is. If your platform is big enough to interest an agent, it is also big enough to publish your own work. Fortunately, we are in a transition that has allowed the Internet to become the acquisitions editor for the publishing industry. Never before have writers had such options to inexpensively put their ideas before the public and let their audience grow organically. If you can’t find an audience for your passions and content on the web, a publisher will not be able to find it for you.
So let me encourage you to move ahead on your own. Don’t wait for a publisher. Hopefully, The Shack demonstrated that just about anyone can put a book out there in this viral world, and it will find its audience in time. Today, especially with new authors, the author sells their own works through the contacts God has given them and the range of their own influence. We can help in that process, but we cannot be a substitute for it. Books sales and reputations best grow organically, rather than through the artificial hype of press releases and interviews.
If you are going to self-publish, you may also want to see this article about The Nine Fatal Mistakes of Self-Publishing. Here are some other things to consider as well.
First, as to the writing process, follow your inner critic. Don’t stop working on a piece until it is something you would be excited to read. Read Simple and Direct, a great book on writing style, and let that shape your style. Books sell well because of two realities—compelling content and an engaging style. That can be done with humor, if it’s your gift, or by telling powerful, honest stories as a way to connect with others.
One thing we’re finding is that people love a story far more than they love a teaching book. My So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore book outsells He Loves Me even though I consider the latter the most significant book I’ll ever write. Why? Because it is a story. People are engaged with stories that straight teaching doesn’t tap. I’ve begun to seriously wonder if the best way to do a teaching book is to tell it as an autobiographical story, not just what I believe, but the roads that took me there. That way, it can be told more horizontally than sounding like it comes from a pulpit. Stories engage people, and they are pretty much tuned out to ‘teaching.’
Second, as to the editing process, pass your work out to your friends. Ask them to be honest and give their gut-level opinion. Demand it of them. Most will be nice and want to be encouraging. Tell them you’d like to know what they loved and what they didn’t like about the book. Rewrite and reshape the book to capture the reader’s interest on page one and carry them through your entire book.
Third, when you find people you know resonating with what you write, then you’re ready to post some things online to see if other readers find it helpful and if they want to pass it on to their friends. Post a few chapters online at a website whose URL has a catchy link to you or your book title. Put up some sample chapters and see if it catches a following. You can do snippets of it as a blog or even put the whole thing on as I have done. This is the best way for anyone to begin a writing project. It involves others in what you’re doing. It begins to build an audience of interested readers, and people can pass it along to others easily.
Fourth, if there’s a growing demand, you can publish it in book form on your own. The most important factor here is to have a compelling, contemporary book cover designed by a professional. People who don’t know you will not read a book that looks like it was produced in a garage. It needs to look like a real book. Then, depending on interest and financial realities, you can print your own copies or use a Publish-On-Demand (POD) service. There are many out there. Amazon has a POD service that will also get you listed on their site. You won’t make much per copy, but it will get your book out there.
Then if you begin to sell a significant amount, you’ll want to print your own copies when you can afford to print at least 1500 at a time. However, before you do that, you should have a reasonable expectation that you can sell those in about two years. Be careful. Many authors tend to be too optimistic here. Ninety percent of self-published titles do not sell more than 200 copies. So please be realistic here. But if you think you have the connections to sell 1500 books, you should, depending on the length, be able to print them for $1.50 to $2.25 per book if they are paperback. Obviously, the return on a $12-$14 book is substantial. You only have to sell a tenth of them to break even. You can sell them from a website and handle transactions with PayPal.
You can also join Amazon Advantage as a small publisher and have your books available on Amazon.com. Now you’re ready for the book’s readership to grow organically, which in our view is a far better way to grow than the artificial audience generated by publicity and media.
Finally, as your audience grows, you may want a publisher that can take it to the next level and save you all that time packing envelopes and printing books. Believe me, publishers are not reticent about contacting authors of self-published titles to help them with distribution. Just realize you will be giving up a lot of income for them to do that, and you will want to ensure that they will actually grow the audience and not just take the income off of your book.
Many people are writing and publishing books today, and it may seem impossible to separate yours from the rest of the herd. You can spend ridiculous amounts of money if you want to pay people who will do publicity or advertising to put your book out there, but that alone won’t make it successful. The best thing you can do is get the book right—something people will want to read who do not know you and who will want to recommend it to their friends.
In the end, though, you have to trust that if God has given you something to say to the world, he knows how to get it to the audience he wants it to touch. Ask him. Follow what he shows you and enjoy the audience he gives you, whether it is five hundred people, five thousand, or five million.