For many years I have been fielding questions on how to publish a book. Is it my imagination, though, or have the frequency and the intensity of the pleas for help and access increased? It is now a rare week in which I don't get sent a pitch for a historical ghost-mystery novel or a memoir about a hilarious renovation, along with an earnest request to speed its publication with my many powerful publisher friends. They come with marketing plans and suggested cover designs and endorsements from unknown bloggers. They are product pitches, like something you would present on Dragons' Den. These requests are heartbreaking because they reflect a misunderstanding of what possible influence I could wield (pretty much none) and of how writing publishable books actually works.
Why are these pitches and proposals and pleas so much more ubiquitous now, and why are they being fired off so promiscuously to the wrong people? Why does everyone suddenly think that a book might be a viable business proposition, even in the face of dire reports from writers and publishers about their declining fortunes and the disappearance of readers?
I suspect this bizarre enthusiasm is the product of our own confused reporting about the subject. For every item about a depressed literary novelist there is a stunning success story about some other genre: a self-published sci-fi novel by a first-time author that has sold a million copies; a children's book that everybody's mom has read; a new platform that enables every hobbyist to reach a million teenagers in the Philippines. It looks from one angle like a gold rush. And we the media are responsible for stressing the business angle of these deals, reinforcing the idea that a book is but a concept, and its granular details will be worked out by committee. The truth is that most books are still written by individual authors in isolation.
It is true that there are new means of publishing available, but they are entirely, so far, dependent on large online communities centred on specific genres – fantasy, sci-fi and romance in particular. If you are involved in those then you are not writing to me for help. The world of conventional publishing, that many people still want to penetrate, is quite different and still operates with very old-fashioned literary values: Editors are still, believe it or not, preoccupied above all with story and with language.
Bearing this in mind, consider the following advice for aspiring authors:
1. Stop thinking about the business side of it
The question of how to market your book is not the tricky part. That is the part lots of people will be eager to help you with. The one thing they are not eager to help you with is the set of words that make up each sentence and the set of sentences that make up each paragraph and the complete set of paragraphs that make up each page. So focus on that – the hard part. A marketing plan is useless without a book, and a book is useless until it is written to the very end, because endings are notoriously hard to write. The ending is not a detail to be wrapped up later. Concentrate on completing an excellent book – the kind of book you yourself would love to read – before thinking of what to do with it.
2. Don't worry about someone stealing your idea
No one is going to steal your idea. Everyone has lots of great ideas for books (and for movies and for apps and for themed night clubs); few people actualize them. An idea on its own is pretty much useless in the world of books (especially if you are not a well-established author). The book will be attractive on the strength of how that idea is written, and writing is hard. Editors are not interested in ideas for books; they are interested in completed books. So you may tell anyone you want about exactly what you are working on: in fact, it is a good idea to do so, because you may well stir up some curiosity about it. Someone obsessed with secrecy is, in this business, clearly a novice and won't be taken seriously.
3. Don't get too much feedback
Your aunt and your high-school English teacher are going to have very different ideas about what makes a great novel. Listen to both of them and you will be no further ahead. Even professionals who charge you for "manuscript evaluation" have no idea what each publishing house is looking for in any given season. Trust yourself. You went into this because you were really smart, right? Stick to your own vision.
4. Don't self-publish
Again, genre writers – in sci-fi, mystery and romance – have had much greater luck with self-publishing because they are already participants in large online communities and so already have audiences. The vanity presses that promise you they will market and promote your literary book are sharks; nobody reads their press releases. Don't give them your money. Don't think you can build an audience just by acquiring Facebook friends.
When submitting your manuscript to agents or publishers, remember that nothing counts except what is actually written in your bundle of pages – not endorsements from bloggers, not courses you have taken, not possible cover designs. The professionals will skim through all those and start reading the first page of the manuscript. By page five they will know if you are an actual writer or not.
6. Bum in chair
This is still the most accurate and useful description of how to write a book. You must occupy that chair until it is written. Even in the world of phone-novels and tweet-novels and ghost-written memoirs, somebody has to worry for many, many hours about the difference between that and which and the appropriate use of metaphor. Somebody has to sit in the chair.