Best Advice for First-time Novelist

Here’s my advice for someone who has just written her first novel and is wondering how to proceed.

Should she submit it to an agent or a major publisher?

Sure. Professional publishing credits have far more cachet than self-publishing credits. But don’t hold your breath for a response – if you send out twenty queries, you may hear back from a few of them in a reasonable time.

1)       Agents are difficult to get. They are of diminished use in an overcrowded, over-booked market; and many of them are tired of beating their heads against the wall in the current market conditions.  Som experts like Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith think agents are never a good idea. But I think they can sometimes land you a bigger deal than you could get for yourself, and relieve you of the administrative burden if you have a hugely successful career.  


2)      As a writer you may be better off submitting your work directly to the publisher. Or not. The  big publishers are all backlogged because of Covid. Good books on which the publishers have already paid advances are first in line. Many others have been delayed indefinitely, including some where contracts have already been signed, but are not yet in production. Many publishers will be even pickier than usual until the backlog has been cleared. When the market opens up again, there will be too many books to release all at once. Books by big stars that will bump new writers yet again.  Publishers will be wary about flooding the market and some will be surviving on credit. Having the patience of job will be an asset.


3)      Many small publishers are probably in the same boat – too short on finances to move forward aggressively. If they can get books out there, there are plenty of readers are looking for fresh distractions. So some entrepreneurial small publishers are ready to leap into the abyss. They probably don’t pay advances, but may pay up to 20% royalties. In order to spur sales, they will may also put your book on sale. If they sell copies for 99 cents, you could make 20 cents a book. You could make several hundred dollars if you break out and become a Canadian best seller. But they may offer worthwhile evaluation of and suggestions on how to improve your work.

4) Which brings us to the final option, self-publishing – a road that is absolutely fraught with peril and almost as difficult to negotiate successfully as getting traditionally published.

The hardest aspect of publishing, whether traditionally or through self-publishing is finding readers and building a fan base. Most of us have to start that process from scratch. If you were traditionally published and have an existing fan base, all you have to do is sign them up. Right? Well that's more complicated than it seems.

I have over 50 published stories. Surely I must have gathered a few fans along the way. Right? Wellll, I could probably count the fans I’ve made from short stories on my fingers and toes. Making a fan is just the first step. Then you need to keep them. And that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Think about the logistics.

Short Stories as Calling Cards

Most publications reach a few hundred people at best. If it’s a big name publication a TOC full of famous authors, you may reach a few thousand people. Most of those people read only some if the fiction in whatever collection or magazine you appear in. If you’re the least well-known name in the publication, they may give you a few paragraphs, or at best, a few pages to hook them.

2/3 of the people who know your name or reputation will actually read your work. 1/3 of the readers who aren’t familiar with you may give you a shot. So maybe half of the potential readers will check you out. That’s no more than 100 to 150 people for most small press publications. A good number, say a third of those readers, won’t be hooked and won’t make it past the second page. Of the 70 or 80 who finished it, maybe half will actively like it. If there were eight stories in the publication, then maybe one eighth of the readers will consider it their favourite story in the book. Which leaves 10 people who were quite impressed. But life is busy and there are lots of writers and plenty of other distractions. Despite their good intentions, your name has faded into the background within 48 hours. If you’re lucky, five of those people may visit your website through a link you were canny enough to post in your bio. If your website is fun and intriguing and provides lots of entertaining free distractions, a few of those visitors may poke around for 20 minutes. Of two who bookmark your site, one may actually make a second visit. If you have more fiction on your site that they like as much as the story that brought them there, they may share their discovery of you with some friends and one or two of them may visit as well. 

Most writers don’t have more than three or four story publications per year, often in diverse venues. If you sell multiple stories to the same market, some subscribers could become your fans.

If you sell at an array of markets, there will be little crossover. You will have one shot to impress in most cases. And in the years that may elapse before they read another of your stories, they will forget all about you.  Awards or appearances in ‘best of’ anthologies may win you a bit of extra attention and improve your odds of standing out in the crowd. But unless you get lots of awards and are frequently anthologized, even that recognition won’t bring and hold fans unless you are prolific, persistent, and patient.  If you write lots of really good stories, editors and readers may start talking about you. You may simply become a familiar name through repeated exposure. This notoriety usually takes years to build. It’s not something you can accomplish in a week or a year unless you are brilliant. And if you’re that good, people would find you anyway. But over the course of several years, if you’re talented enough and persistent enough, and you work hard enough, you will likely make some inroads and earn some fans who know to seek out your work.

Novels Instead of Short Stories

You stand a better chance to make a strong impression on readers who find and enjoy a novel you have written. But no trusted figure like a magazine edition will be putting your work in people’s mailboxes. Especially if you’re self published. You have to get people to read your work in the first place. Then, if they like it enough, they may read something else you’ve written. Careers are seldom built on one book.

This all sounds very discouraging, and it should. You need to know that succeeding as a writer is a brutally hard and requires you to believe in yourself like no other endeavor on the planet.

Building Your Confidence and Establishing a Presence

There are ways to affect the outcomes in almost all the scenarios I just outlined.  Maybe you have a great website that hooks 2 out of three visitors. Maybe you’re a great blogger and are brilliant at self-promotion and can get some name or brand awareness happening. Maybe you are a celebrity on another field and can capitalize on an existing fan base.

If it’s your first book ever, and you have no current fans and low name recognition, you’re starting in a vacuum. The very first thing you need to do is start building your brand. You should use your name or your author name as the website name. Mine is because I use my middle initial to distinguish myself from another Dale Sproule with a solid web presence. I keep the page as simple as possible, but did not go for a free web host that would limit my number of pages. We are writers. We deal in words. Words fill pages. You need more than three.

Don’t use the title of your book unless you want to create a new website for each book and start with zero audience each time.

Use the website to start building a brand for yourself. Put your best work out there for free (or some of your favourite excerpts from your book), so readers will stick around - and know what to expect from your writing. Make your site attractive, easy to navigate; oh, and…don’t expect any visitors. You have to work for each and every one of those. Entice them into your web with the siren call of your voice. Or threaten to kneecap them of they don’t visit. Do watcha gotta do…whatevah ya gotta do.

One of the biggest challenges for new writers is maintaining self-confidence. It’s hard to keep writing if you don’t believe in yourself. And it’s hard not to lose faith when your writing career is moving at a glacial pace. Self-confidence is not an attribute you can summon like magic. We all want and need others to tell us how good we are.

And there are thousands of sharks out there who are far more interested in making a buck off you than they are in actually helping you. They will offer proofreading, and beta reading and copyediting. They will want to teach you courses, help you market yourself, build numbers for your website, create ads, and review your books – for a price. There are a smaller number of honest literary service workers who will provide the same services. My rule of thumb is – if they approach me, I’m suspicious. If I approach them, I am a bit less suspicious, but almost as cautious. Lots of perfect capable folks can turn out to be not a good fit for you. My upcoming guest post from Nina Munteau has lots of good advice on that.

Stay on the lookout for publishing scams. There are so called publishers who will pick up everything they can in a pure royalty basis. Their strategy is to buy your soul for a dollar and hope to luck out by simply throwing everything and anything it at the the wall until something sticks. They don’t care about you or your work. They may tie up your copyright and keep you from getting published by legitimate publishers. And you may never see a cent from them.

The Secrets of Success

I think my main advice for any new novelist would be to look at your own work and try to judge it honestly. Did it achieve everything you set out to do? Is it funny where it’s meant to be funny and truly gripping where it’s meant to be exciting? Is the story interesting? Are the characters sympathetic and three dimensional?  Do you show rather than tell? Is it well paced? Is your book truly finished and as good as it can be? If you say yes all through the list, then it may well be good enough to send to an agent or publisher – or to publish by yourself once you’ve laid the groundwork.

If you say no to any of those questions, then what you might need is to find someone who can help you identify and fix the shortcomings; a writing partner you have reason to trust; or a substantive editor you can pay for professional advice. Consider it a necessary one time expenditure and iInsist on honesty. Would they buy your book off the shelf? Why or why not? Can it be turned into a book they would buy? How much work might it take?  Would you have to betray your vision to satisfy them? Choosing the right editor/evaluator is essential. Some people will never be able to see or appreciate what you’re trying to do. You need someone on the right wavelength from the start. If that someone can help you polish up the manuscript in the process, then you’re way ahead of the game.

So those are the big secrets of writing success.

Learn to trust yourself.

Keep at it until you get it right.

Watch out for predators and

Never give up. 

So simple, and yet so freaking hard!


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