Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Getting started: Reading Between the Lines

"I'm a new writer. How do I get started in publishing?"

If you attend any writer's convention, or even a fan convention with published authors, the above is the most common question you will hear. I can't blame them for asking them question; I sure asked it (and still ask it). After all, shouldn't a twenty of thirty times published author be able to offer a career path to follow?

The problem is that a newbie's career path (and I'm counting myself in this category, too) is often very different from someone with the clout of dozens of contracts spanning several decades. For one thing, publishing has changed. The stepping stones of yesterday are not today's stepping stones.

Does that mean we can't learn from the experts? Not at all! Their experiences and careers offer substantial knowledge and should always be listened to with an open mind. They have the numbers and experience to back up what they say. However, just as you should listen, you shouldn't also just take one person's career advice blindly. Copying another person's path might not work for you.

  • Get a blockbuster agent, get a blockbuster publisher, and get a blockbuster contract.
I don't know many people who'd turn down this option. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this advice.


What happens if you don't want an agent? Or, if you write regionally-focused books? Or, if you want to self-publish while doing trade publishing? Or, you want to write for another publisher at the same time? Or, you write more niche than general? Or if you want to write long novellas and not novels? Or, or, or...

The choices one person makes for their career may not be the best option for you. Instead, ask people what choices they've made in their careers, the things they've enjoyed and regretted, and then consider which of those points are important to you. What you want out of your career may not resemble another.

  • Write short stories before writing a novel.
This advice is most common in the literary, science fiction, and fantasy genres and it's solid. Learning to convey a single message in three thousand words is tough work. You can learn a lot from the submission process, learn to grow a thick skin, learn to deal with rejections, learn to work with editors, and have something to put on your query letters when you submit your novel.


What if you don't like short stories? Not everyone does. Not everyone is good at it, either. Short fiction is a different style of writing than novel writing, just like screenwriting is a different form all together. It requires a different set of literary skills. Many people learn to write both. But, some don't...or aren't interested in learning.

Also, there was a time when writers had to build up their career in the fiction magazines. These days, it's less important. Not everyone reads the short story magazines and, sadly, there aren't as many as there used to be. Most don't pay that well, either. (To give you an idea, I've never earned more than 2 cents a word selling short stories to fiction magazines. Yet, I've made 17 cents a word selling fiction to non-fiction magazines...but those opportunities are even more rare).

If you love short fiction or want to cut your teeth on something smaller, write short fiction. If you hate short stories, don't torture yourself.

  • Don't self-publish until you know what you are doing.
Followed closely by...
  • Self-publish everything and learn as you go.
Depending upon who you ask, you will get lists upon lists of why you should or shouldn't self-publish. Go to Website #1 and they'll tell you how self-publishing is the next thing to godliness. Go to Website #2 and they'll tell you self-publishing is the next thing to Satanic worship. If you are really lucky, Website #3 will have both sides fighting it out.


To make the decision on which publishing path to take, look at all of the opinions available for a project. There is the agent/big publisher route, the large publisher route with no agent option, the small press route, the micro press route, the regional press option, the epublisher route...oh, and the self-publish option.

Yet, if you listen to the internet, you'll only hear about two options: an agent and self-publishing. Take your time and look at what is involved on all sides. Then, make a decision. You can even make different decisions for each project. What works for one might not work for another.

The important thing here is to look at your project, look at the options, and make the best business decision for your work and sanity. What works for Big Named Author 001 might work for you. Then again, it might ruin your sanity and leave you weeping in a corner. Research. Ask questions. Make intelligent decisions.

Easy, right? ;)


  1. I'm also troubled by all the conflicting advice! What I try to do is consider the source. If the advice-giver is someone who got started publishing 20 years ago, their tips for newbies might be a tad outdated.

    I like the advice about writing short stories before starting a novel, because it worked for me. But many short stories do not a novel make, and goodness knows nobody wants the shorts when you're done!

    Self-publishing is, just like dancing and playing cards and enjoying music, the path to ruin! Naturally. :-)

  2. I think it stems from writers wanting a quick checklist of steps to follow to get published and make a living from writing books. We don't want to think; we just want someone to tell us what to do.

    I see this at writers conventions a lot. The first question asked of the writing guests of honour is "how do I get started" and "what advice can you give me to help me publishing my book."

    Perhaps the best advice is still "write a great story."