Since we’re still in January, a new year finally getting properly underway, I thought this would be a good time to do something like an Q&A or an FAQ, but specifically for issues folks new to the publishing game, or even hoping to be new to publishing, will often grapple with. These won’t apply to 100% of you, obviously, since every author takes their own journey. However, I’ve been online long enough to see these questions/issues pop up with substantial frequency, so hopefully this will help some folks who are out there working their way toward their goals.
1) When do you call yourself a writer?
Maybe this isn’t the best one to start with, since the answer will be highly subjective, but I already typed it so here we are. Making the shift from a more traditional job to writing has a lot of hurdles in itself, yet this is possibly the most existential of them. At what point is it okay to start telling people you’re a writer when they ask what you do? Or, in a broader context, when do you start owning writing as part of your career, rather than a hobby you deeply enjoy? Of course that’s going to be different for everyone, up until the moment where you actually go full-time at which point it becomes the only honest answer.
Some writers don’t mention being writers until they hit that very point, feeling that only the distinction of living off their work makes the difference. I’ve talked before about what makes someone a writer, so I won’t rehash too much here, but I don’t think you need to feel forced to wait quite that long. If that’s what you choose, more power to you, however the advice I give people in person is simply this: Once you’re comfortable showing people your catalogue, that’s when you should include writer among your jobs. This way you can answer specific follow-up questions that are likely to come, and have something you can point at to reassure yourself that yes, you made this, you deserve this title. Again though, there is no hard and fast answer here, so remember that the rules are fluid and you should go with what makes you comfortable.
2) When do I feel like a real, professional author?
For some of you, this question is a redo of the one above it, but for many it likely made perfect sense. While I’ve talked about this before, it’s something that can’t be repeated too often: Imposter Syndrome impacts tons of authors. Pretty much every author I know, honestly, self-included. In case anyone doesn’t know, Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that you don’t deserve your own success, and a fear that eventually there will be an “Emperor has no clothes” moment where everyone realizes you actually suck. That’s part of working in a subjective medium. If you make an engine and it runs, you’re a good mechanic. If you make a book or a painting, everyone who experiences it will view it as a different level of good.
All this culminates in a lot of people who have achieved respected levels of success feeling like they don’t belong. So, to answer the question of when that fades and you really feel like you’ve made it… there’s no answer to give. I don’t know when that sets in, when the doubt about your base abilities finally fades. It very well might never go away. Instead of worrying about it, though, I find it helps to take a minute and realize that all the authors you love and respect, all the names who came before you, almost certainly have felt or still feel the exact same way. We’re all just people doing the best we can to make something others enjoy. So long as you’re doing that, you are absolutely earning your spot, no matter what your doubt wants you to believe.
3) How many sales does it take for a book to be successful?
I think part of this ties in with the Imposter Syndrome issues. Lacking a true objective measure, sales are often used instead as a judgement of quality. The idea being that if one can hit an arbitrary target, they will feel as though they’ve reached a tier of success. While knowing the numbers can be important when you’re aiming to take the top spots in categories or make the NYT Best-Seller list, those concerns are generally years away, at best, for newer writers.
Rather than look outward for sales targets, I would coach most writers to examine their own histories. The goal of every new release should be to try catching the attention of a few more people, and hope they enjoy the story. If your first book sells 100 copies, and your second sell 125 copies, that is a successful book. You grew your audience, and ideally a large portion of that number are people who enjoyed your first work and wanted more. This won't happen every time, different books will appeal to different people, and not all are guaranteed to find the same audience. Still, if at the end of the year you can see that more people are enjoying your work, then that’s a success, regardless of how big or small the numbers might be.
4) How do I get published?
This is a classic, but one that still warrants addressing, especially as the options for new writers grow every year. For today, we’ll focus purely on the ebook market, since other avenues have unique challenges that would require more space to address. I won’t try to get detail-heavy with this one, rather just offering up a quick overview of the main methods. If you want to go deeper, you’ll have to pick your method and start researching. That’s part of the job too.
Self/Indie Publishing: No publisher or agent needed. All the work is on you, the author, to either do or outsource. You can upload to Nook, Google Play, or one of the other smaller sites, but you must upload to Amazon. I’m not saying you have to go exclusive, only that Amazon is the ebook market right now, whether we like it or not.
Small-to-Medium Press: Many of these will accept submissions without agents. When you find those, be sure to pay close attention to their requirements, genres, and other details to ensure your work is a good fit for them. Much of the work will be handled by the publisher, especially editing, formatting, and cover art.
Medium-to-Big 5 Press: For these, you’ll almost certainly need to get an agent, and be willing to hold your book back for some while as it is shopped around. I would recommend pursuing this in tandem with another method, since the process to find an agent, shop a book, and eventually see it published can take years, and doesn’t always end in success. If you do get accepted, you’ll have access to skilled professionals, so be sure to listen well and take as much as you can from their experience.