Another book in the wall: what I have learned as a debut fiction writer

Newsflash for the uninitiated: for most writer’s, the biggest challenge is getting our work published. While perfecting plot, pacing, realistic dialogue, world building, and writing rich characters all pose their challenges, the real hurdle is marketing your work to prospective publishers.

I am a published author with two academic books and about 100 research papers in leading mathematics journals. I also am editor-in-chief of an academic journal, Internet Mathematics. The process in academic publishing usually focuses on anonymous refereeing. Editors can outright reject submissions if the quality is low or the work is outside the scope of the journal or book series. You can wait over a year to receive referee reports (for an eight page paper, I waited three years!), and decisions to accept or reject are almost exclusively tied to their content. One bad report can kill your book/article. Some referees are more careful than others, and the set up is not without challenges.

Now for fiction, there are essential 2.5 ways to publish your novel. The first is traditional publishing, where you obtain a book deal with one of the big five publishing houses, or one of the many smaller presses out there. Second, you can self-publish your book either in print or on-line or both.

The final platform (the 0.5) is partnership publishing, where you work with a team of editors, book cover designers, etc., who take some of the profits towards the traditional publication of your book. Companies like Booktrope, Inkshares, or She Writes Press do this either on a competitive or crowd-funding basis. Many will not publish the work until there is evidence of demand (for example, getting x number of pre-orders).

In traditional publishing, you need a literary agent. Sounds easy: query them and wait for the offers of representation to flood in. Well, no… it’s not easy for the majority of us. It depends heavily on your existing literary networks, your writing skill, your genre, and your ability to pitch.  Literary agencies receive thousands of queries every month, and take on only a few new clients per year. You need to target literary agents who are interested in your genre. Someone in interested in romance will not read your steam punk novel.

In my genre of science fiction, for example, there are a handful of agents carved out from the thousands of agents in North America who represent fiction. Agents have to be excited by your query letter, and fall in love with the first few pages or its a no go. It can take months before you receive a response, or they may not respond at all. Many authors do of course, get to “yes”, but not usually without a pile of rejection letters.

If you are lucky and talented enough to find representation, then the agent shops your book to the publishing houses. This also is not a sure thing.  If you score a book deal, then as a debut author the promotion for your work will usually be limited. Time to ramp up your own SEO and social media presence! An author friend of mine who easily found an agent after some big media exposure discovered that the hard way: publishers don’t have ample budgets to promote the work of new authors. They are cultivating their big sellers; after all, publishing is a profit driven business.

With self-publishing, you essentially have complete control of the publishing process. If you just want readers and don’t care about royalties, try serializing your novel on Wattpad. Many outfits such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords, CreateSpace, will help you get your book distributed. There are great freelance editors out there who will polish your book, and graphic designers who will make you a professional cover that stands out.

To some, self-publishing still doesn’t have the prestige of traditional publishing. There are big counterexamples out there that everyone knows where a self-published author hits it big (think Andy Weir or E.L. James), but these tend to be quite rare.

People are losing interest in physical book stores, and opting for ordering books on-line. E-books are taking a chunk of the market. In such a marketplace, does it really matter to readers that the book is produced by a big publisher? Time will tell. Like the music business, the book industry is in a state of severe flux, and things will continue to change in the coming years.

My friends tell me they like the physical feel of a book. They enjoy turning pages with their fingers, the smell of an older book from a collection or library, and the sensation of holding the novel in their hands. Others tell me they are in love with their Kindle; it holds hundreds of novels, and they take it everywhere. As the french say: chacun son goût!

I hope to some day soon publish my book and find an audience. I don’t have a crystal ball predicting how and when that will happen. Whatever the future brings, readers will keep reading, and writers will continue crafting their stories.

Anthony Bonato

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