Twenty Tips from Published Writers

Aug 29, 2018

The best advice comes from people who have been in the trenches. Battled the highs and lows, enjoyed successes and perhaps been disappointed--or delighted--by the unexpected.

I recently asked some of my writer colleagues, friends, clients and former students--all now published--for advice they wish they'd known before launching into the process. Here are the top twenty tips:

  1. Deadlines are gods; it's the best thing a publisher does for you, other than actual publication of course.
  1. Hire local grad students to help with research - it will go much faster and you need to bounce your ideas off other brains to hone them...working alone is never a good idea in this biz… and the students will be eager and grateful for the work.
  1. Don't get discouraged when a pitch took 20 pitches for my first book to get in...rejection doesn't correlate with the value of your work.
  1. Always talk to other writers. Connections made at Grub changed how I saw things and helped me believe in myself as a writer - and develop my identity as keynote speaker (they go together frequently, I've learned).
  1. "You miss 100% of the shots, you don't take!" I love that quote by Wayne Gretsky!
  1. I wish I had known more about all of the fellowships available for nonfiction writers and applied for several fellowships before starting on my book. Some examples (all of these are highly competitive, but my theory is to keep trying):
  • Nieman Fellowship for journalists. I'm told you should apply repeatedly.
  • Radcliffe Fellowship, open to nonfiction writers and others.
  • Lukas prizes 
  • Guggenheim; NEA; Shuster at Brandeis 

7) I didn't realize how much things would evolve later, after the proposal. It just helps to know what a proposal really is and that you have flexibility to make dramatic changes down the line. 

8) One thing that really helped me: An author friend told me to think of each chapter as a magazine piece in a way so I didn't get overwhelmed by the idea of writing a 'whole' book. I still thought of the chapters as connected to each other, but writing one piece at a time really helped!

9) I didn't fully understand that my "final draft" was still a work in progress. After signing with an agent, I worked on my novel for another year. After getting a publishing deal, I worked on it again, for almost another year. I learned that this doesn't mean it wasn't good in the first place, it simply means it could get better. And I wanted to write the very best book I possibly could.

10) Network, network, network. I always advise this, but it's just as key with nonfiction books. The more people you connect with related to your book topic, the better. They can be other authors. They can be scholars, etc, or heads of organizations. It helps to prove to a publisher that there will be people out there eager to blurb your book and to buy it - and to even use it in their college classes. 

11) When you write and publish a book, the public sees you as an "expert." Try to wear this mantel comfortably, without apology. If you can do that, it will serve you well.

12) Speak on panels, lead workshops, meet writers, agents, publishers. Go to book festivals and make friends with your local booksellers.

13) Don’t expect much help from friends and family. They just don’t get the business we're in!!

14) Don’t be shy about asking for help, but be brief and very specific. Make it easy for people to help you. If you are vague, ask too much or too often, even your mother will ignore your desperate pleas! For example, if you’re asking people to review your book, include explicit instructions (where and when) and a link. Also, when wording your request, ask them to post a review if they think your book is worthy of 5 stars. You wouldn’t believe how many “helpful” friends post 4/5 stars thinking they’re being smart and they just bring your numbers down. No one understands how the system works. You only want 5 star reviews, if possible!

16) Before you’ve got a deal and are meeting with someone influential, it’s really important to remember they are just human beings and you are a peer. Behave like a confident adult—and try hard not to be OVERLY confident or OVERLY sychophantic. Just be a real person with a great book to sell.

17) Don’t talk about money with other authors or students or readers. It’s uncomfortable for everyone, and people tend to exaggerate, anyway. No one should be in this for the money, it's too hard!

18) I wish I had spent more time organizing the footnotes and references properly while I was writing the book so that I didn’t have to spend so long completing that part of the process (so boring but necessary).

19) The biggest hurdle for me in self-publishing was learning to talk about my book as though it was a real thing, not just a vanity project. You can’t act like you’re sorry to take up people’s time. You have to project authority, competence, and maybe a little humor and humility.

20) My book publicist was 23 years old. She was so overworked and undervalued. I sent her little gifts from time to time and I know I was one of her favorite authors. I liked to spread some gratitude around because it takes a village!