If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.
Well, hello there. It is review time again. Every week I provide you with at least one writing tip, and I have put together a clip show of the last few writing tip segments as a refresher for you.
As you will hear, this season we traveled the road to publishing. I answered your questions and offered vital information that had not already been discussed on the show. The main thing I would like you to remember about publishing is that no two authors have the same experience. In fact, no two books travel the same publishing road, even if they’re both by the same author. The publishing process can be challenging. There is a lot of information to sift through, but you can do it. And, as we’ve discussed, you don’t have to do it alone.
If you have a writing or publishing question you would like me to answer, email me at email@example.com or send me a message on Instagram at @writingbreakpodcast.
Now, let’s settle in at the Writing Break cafe and get started on a full episode of writing tips.
From Episode 75: 7 Tips for Landing a Literary Agent
We’ve talked this season, and since the inception of this show, about the challenges of landing a literary agent. Today I’m offering 7 practical and actionable tips to help you land an agent. Please note that I am not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this list.
Understand that you will be contacting a lot of agents. I have met many authors who understand that they are likely to be rejected early and often, yet once two rejections come in, they’re ready to give up the search entirely, change careers, and maybe even their names. Rejection hurts, and you will be hurt. But that’s not the tip here. The real tip is that you need some kind of spreadsheet that will keep all your queries organized. Google Sheets or Excel would work just fine, but you can also get fancy with a program like Query Tracker, which also has a built-in database of literary agents. Check the show notes for a link to Query Tracker.
Query new agents interested in books like yours. While landing an experienced literary agent is undoubtedly a boon to your career, that doesn’t mean you should completely overlook new agents. This is why I make sure to let you know when I hear of a new literary agency. If your dream agents are not taking the bait, shift your focus onto new agents with a publishing background–many of them used to be editors, the poor souls–and make sure they are seeking manuscripts in your genre.
Have an active online presence. We’ve talked about this before, and it is something that is going to remain important for a long time. I recommend having an author website, one or two social media accounts, and one classy photo of yourself to tie them all together. In addition to connecting with potential readers, you should also connect with fellow writers. Contemporary writers have a fount of knowledge about today’s publishing industry, and I have found that many are eager to make friends with other writers.
Craft your query letter with care. There are a vast amount of free query letter templates and examples online. So many. Look at examples that fit your genre, and take your time writing a few different ones. Then you can ask your fellow writers which they think is the best one. You can also hire a professional to write or critique your letter for you. Again, make sure this person has publishing experience. You can also try submitting to Query Shark’s blog and see if your letter is selected for a free critique, which is published on their website, or you can pay them $100 for private feedback. The free critique takes 90 days, and there is no guarantee you will be selected. The paid critique takes five to six weeks. Check the show notes for links to their blog and their rates. The blog is also useful in that it lets you see the feedback other writers received on their query letters. But Query Shark is not your only option, and many professionals will provide feedback in a shorter time frame.
When you do get a nibble on the line from a literary agent, be prompt and professional with your response. Once you get an offer from a literary agent, consider reaching out to other agents to see if they’re interested in you now that someone else is interested. This might help you land your dream agent.
Let people critique your book. I would start with those writing friends you made and then hire a professional editor. If I’m booked, you can search the Editorial Freelancers Association’s directory for other editors. Check the show notes for a link to their site.
This is really the top tip in the list. I think the best way to land a literary agent is to write a good book. I know, it’s revolutionary thinking. But I have met some writers who do not want to revise anything until after they land an agent. They think the agent or even the publishing house will tell them everything that needs to be fixed and that’ll be the entirety of the revision process. The flaw in that plan is that until you prove to them that you are a good writer, they’re not going to want to spend a minute with you.
From Episode 76: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?
This season we’re talking about the road to publishing, after you’ve finished writing a book. We spent some time on literary agents, which is of concern only to those who are seeking traditional publishing. In the time it takes authors to land a literary agent, self-published authors have published and partied and are on to the next title.
But, ok, you’ve landed the agent, and the agent has landed you a publishing contract. Yes! Now what? Well, two things begin happening simultaneously: promotion and production.
We’ve already talked about marketing your book, neither of us likes to talk about it, and we’re far from done talking about it. Turning your book from a work of art into a cash-generating product is like leaving the colorful Land of Oz to dwell forever with your gray family members.
As you already know by now, you should start promoting your book the same day you decide to start writing it. It’s every talented author’s least favorite thing. I know, but the marketing campaign put in place by your publishing house will work off of what you started. If you didn’t get the snowball rolling down the mountain back during the first draft, should you really expect an avalanche of sales on release day? Oh, gosh, I’m feeling metaphorical today. Heaven help us.
While the marketing machine is whirring along, the production team is producing. As the author, you’ll have to review copy edits and galley proofs. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a say on the book cover. Ideally, you should get a lot of hand-holding during this process, which is one reason many authors prefer traditional publishing.
The satirical book Yellowface by R. F. Kuang offers a good insight into modern-day publishing. I’m not recommending the book based on plot. The plot was . . . fine. I am strongly recommending it to anyone who wants to imagine what their life would be like if they were to become a bestselling author tomorrow. Please remember that it is a satire. I mean, it’s no Candide, but keep in mind that it is meant to be satirical. Mostly, things are exaggerated in this one. Still, you will get a good look into the back and forth that happens between authors, literary agents, and editors during publication.
So, that’s it. Once you’ve landed an agent and your agent has landed you a book deal, you should be well on your way to seeing your book in print.
From Episode 77: Increase Your Chances of Getting a Large Book Advance
Once you decide that you want to remain an independent author, you’ve already started to think like a publisher. You’ve decided to acquire your own manuscript for publication. The next step is to decide how much of the production process you want to do on your own. Some of the authors I work with do as much as they can on their own, learning how to use software programs like InDesign and Photoshop along the way. Some authors decide to use hybrid publishers or small independent presses, which we’ve already discussed.
And still others build their publishing team from the ground up, selecting a cover designer, interior designer, and distribution company as they go.
Your mindset does need to change a bit when you’re taking on the role of publisher. You’re a business now, which means you’re going to have your mind on your money and your money where your mouth is. There will be challenging, expensive, and frustrating moments during publishing, and it is your passion that is going to carry you through to the end.
Austin Ross, an acquisitions editor for a few different HarperCollins imprints is also a published author. Even though he works for HarperCollins, he does not have an agent. Instead, he is published by a small independent press. In an article for Publisher’s Weekly called “Seeing Novels from Both the Writing and Publishing Sides”, he wrote:
“What began as a form of creative expression becomes a start-up business, focused on metrics and output and analytics. We can get so caught up in the rat race of wanting to break out that we lose sight of what made us want to be writers in the first place. The lifestyle and trappings of art and artistry are a cheap substitute for the writing itself. We have no control over whether our work will be remembered or not, so we may as well have a little fun along the way.”
From Episode 78: What Can Beta Readers Do For You?
Last week I said that the writing tips for the remainder of the season were going to be for independent authors only, but actually, this segment pertains to those seeking traditional publication as well because we’re talking about both beta readers and editors, not because they’re alike but specifically because they’re quite different. Way back in episode 10, I offered you 4 dos and don’ts for working with beta readers, so you already know how to select and work with beta readers.
How important is the beta reading process? That depends on your manuscript, your genre, and you as the author. A medical textbook would require highly specialized beta readers called subject matter experts. A kindergarten teacher working on a childrens’ picture book could use their students as their beta readers.
Would a poet need beta readers for a book of poetry? If you’re putting together a collection of short stories that have already been published elsewhere, what are your beta readers going to do for you? No matter what kind of book you’re writing, the question to ask is, what do I need from my beta readers?
An author might need general remarks, specific feedback, or maybe just encouragement. When guided properly, your beta readers should be able to provide you with exactly what you need. Just remember what you don’t need from them: copy editing. Your text is being edited for content, so new typos will continue to be introduced. You will need a copy edit when all is said and done, yet some beta readers believe checking for typos is part of the beta reading process. It’s not. Two things will happen if you don’t stop them: (1) they’ll run out of steam midway through the book; and (2) they won’t share substantial comments about the book’s plot, pacing, or characters. Refer to episode 10 for more on guiding your beta readers.
The curious thing about the beta reading process is that you’ll receive conflicting comments about how to revise the book. This is because, simply put, everyone is different. Our lived experiences and biases inform our opinions and values. This is what makes life interesting, but it is not possible to please everyone, and you might not want to implement some of the changes your beta readers suggest.
For that matter, you might not want to implement some of the changes your editor suggests, and you don’t have to either. However, a good editor will know how to keep their preferences out of their editing. Editors are trained to edit in a comprehensive way that leaves their ego out of it. We edit with disappearing ink–that is, we do our best to remain hidden so that no one knows where we did what. Your voice and the book’s message is at the forefront of every one of your editor’s suggested modifications. For more on the editing process, refer to episode 64.
Saying that you get what you pay for when it comes to professional editing feels mean because everyone should get the chance to tell their story but not everyone has a large budget for professional editing. Editing can be pricey, but it is worth it if you’re working with the right editor. This goes for self-published and traditionally published authors. If you’re seeking traditional publishing, an editor will help you improve your work so that the manuscript you shop around to literary agents and publishers is more likely to be selected for publication.
While an editor should be included as one of the services provided by a publishing house when you sign a book contract with them, editors at traditional publishers are overworked and might not have enough time to give your book the focus it deserves. They’re looking for manuscripts that do not need a full makeover. Some traditional publishers outsource editing to freelancers, which might mean that you don’t get a chance to discuss the changes directly with the editor. Yes, I do speak from experience.
From Episode 79: Build Your Publishing Team
Continuing our discussion on getting your book ready for self-publication, today we’re building your publishing team. You’ll need an editor or two, an interior formatter for both print and ebook, a proofreader, a book cover designer, a printer, and a distributor. As discussed in episode 69, there are hybrid publishers that do as much of this as you want. There are also some freelancers who can step into more than one role.
But where do you start? How do you find the best people to work with?
I would start with author recommendations. Ask your author friends who they worked with and if they recommend them. You could also check author acknowledgments or the publisher’s information page at the front of any book you like to see if there is any information on the cover artist or interior designer.
Next, I would check professional organizations like the Editorial Freelancers Association and ACES: The Society for Editing. You can search their directories or post a job to their job lists or both. You can also turn to your own publishing team for recommendations. For example, once you find an editor, ask them if they have a recommendation for a cover artist.
I know some people who have had success working with interior formatters on sites like fiverr.com, which makes sense because there are talented people everywhere, but it’s important that you review their portfolios to make sure that you like their artistic style.
Wherever you find your team members, make sure to also look at their testimonials. Even better, check the published acknowledgments of a book. If the author has gone through the trouble of publicly acknowledging their publishing team by name, that’s usually the sign of a happy author. As for editors, many will provide a short sample of copyediting, about 1,000 words. I think providing a short sample of developmental editing is pointless because the editor needs to read the entire manuscript at least once before beginning again and offering developmental suggestions. But I know that some editors do offer this and some authors really want it.
Make sure you understand and are comfortable with each team member’s workflow. How many redesigns does your cover artist allow? How much does your interior designer charge for correcting typos found during proofreading? If you are not comfortable with what they tell you, that doesn’t mean that either of you are wrong; it just means you’re not compatible.
For example, I haven’t done an editing sample in years. I don’t like starting a great book and then not being able to finish it. If you really need an editing sample before you hire an editor, I completely understand and can recommend another editor.
From Episode 80: What Makes a Good Editor?
Once upon a book signing, the featured author (who shall remain nameless) was asking the people in line what they did for a living. Based on their reply, he wrote something witty in their books before signing his name. When it was my turn, I told him I was a book editor. He said nothing and signed his name. Just his name. No witty comment. No further eye contact. I think it’s safe to say that he does not have a good relationship with his editor.
The question writers should be asking isn’t, “Do I need an editor?” Even editors need editors. The real question a serious writer should ask is, “Who will be my editor?” Your editor will be your and your manuscript’s long-term friend and enemy—frenemy, if you will. Typically, your editor will love your manuscript, and you will dislike your editor for making you change any of it.
A good fiction editor reviews your manuscript’s premise, plot structure, pacing, characters, dialogue, and marketability. They identify weak points and make useful suggestions for story and character development while ensuring continuity. A good fiction editor is professional, always meets deadlines, keeps a style sheet, and treats you with respect.
A great fiction editor does all of the things a good editor does while understanding your vision, loving your characters, and preserving your voice and writing style.
Your ideal fiction editor does all of the things a great fiction editor does but also knows when to motivate and guide you and when to keep their mouth shut. They get to know your personality and writing process, and they offer only as much help as you actually need. An ideal fiction editor might suggest that there is a character that will eventually need to die but won’t name names. When all is said and done, the story remains yours.
I do not think that I am everyone’s ideal editor nor is everyone my ideal client. I do not give my literary heart to just anyone. Likewise, an author should be careful about who they allow to edit their manuscript.
If you are serious about having a long-term, successful career as an author, the sooner you cultivate the right author–editor relationship, the better it will be for your writing.
From Episode 81: Free Audiobooks, Wholesale Discounts, and Amazon’s New Policy on AI-Generated Books
I told you that IngramSpark is raising their minimum wholesale discount from 30% to 40%. The minimum discounts in the UK, EU, and Australia are 35%. IngramSpark says that most of the books they sell have the wholesale discount set to at least 40% already. Authors who do not increase their wholesale discount to at least 40% risk having their books removed from global distribution.
So what are we talking about exactly? Well, a wholesale discount for books is a percentage off the retail price that a publisher or independent author offers to wholesalers and retailers who purchase books in bulk. The standard wholesale discount for books is 55%, but it can range from 40% to 60%, depending on the publisher, the sales potential of a book, and the terms of the distribution agreement. Anything less than 40% is considered a short discount and is an unacceptable discount for booksellers because their profit margin is too small to make carrying the book worth their while. Even though the industry standard is 55%, owners of independent bookstores have told me that only 30% of the 55% is passed down to them. It seems the distributor keeps the rest. This might not be the case for chain bookstores or even for all independent bookstores. That’s just what I’ve heard from several indie bookshop owners.
I do know that Amazon’s KDP requires a 40% wholesale discount for local distribution and a 60% wholesale discount for global distribution. Keep in mind that you still have to factor in print costs before you can determine how much you’ll actually make per book. In self-publishing, the cost of printing comes from the author's share of royalties.
Let’s look at some numbers. According to Amazon, a standard size 300-page black and white print book costs $4.60 to print. With US-only distribution, that book sold on Amazon through KDP would have a 60% royalty rate, which means the author keeps 60% of the royalties after print costs. Amazon keeps the rest. So, if that 300-page print book is listed for $12, 60% of that is $7.20, and from that number, you subtract print costs, which in our example is $4.60. That means the author would make $2.60 in royalties while Amazon makes $4.80. With global distribution through Amazon’s KDP platform, the author has a 40% royalty rate, so they would only make 20 cents per book while Amazon would make $7.20.
When you’re setting a wholesale discount, you want to make sure that you are still making a profit after the wholesale discount and print costs are applied. You also want to make sure that your book is priced competitively with other books in the same genre.
If you’re wondering how much you should charge for your book, check the show notes for a link to KDP’s royalty calculator. The calculator provides print estimates, but it does not provide estimates for global distribution. You can do the math yourself by changing the royalty rate from 60% to 40%.
So, some distributors, like IngramSpark, require less of a wholesale discount and have a few other perks. In Ingram’s case, for example, you can get into schools and libraries. If you’re being published by a publishing house, you’ll have no control over this end of publishing, but if you’re an independent publisher, you’ll have to look at all of your options and decide which distributor and what wholesale discount is best for you. Maybe you’re not interested in getting into bookstores or don’t think you have a global audience, so you might prefer to offer a short discount instead of the 55% industry standard. You might even just want to sell your book on your own website.
Remember that as an independent author, you are the publisher of your own book. No matter what you decide as far as book prices, distributor, and wholesale discounts, as an independent author you’ll need to keep monitoring your rates and fees and be ready to pivot as needed. IngramSpark authors who are now being told to increase their wholesale discount have to decide if they are happy with their new royalty payout or if they would prefer either removing their books from global distribution or raising their prices.
An author who chooses to raise a book’s price will need to redo the book cover to reflect the new price. If the author previously made a bulk purchase of their own books, it could leave them stuck with an inventory of books that have the wrong price on them.
So, how do royalties work for traditional publishing and for other book formats? OK, here we go. For traditionally published print books, the author makes 8% of the sale price for the first 150,000 copies sold, and 10% thereafter. So, in our previous $12 book example, the author would make 96 cents per book and $1.20 per book after selling 150,000 copies. Right off the bat it might sound as though it would make more sense to self-publish, and that might be true. I think self-publishing is a great option. However, readers are more willing to pay a higher price for a traditionally published book than for a self-published book, so it’s likely that a publishing house can list a 300-page book for $24 without hurting expected sales. Then there’s also the marketing power of a publishing house. They know how to sell books, so you’re more likely to sell more copies than if you had self-published.
As for other book formats, here are some estimates from selfpublishingschool.com. An author’s hardcover royalty rate on Amazon is about 25%, but that depends on a lot of factors, such as the book’s size. And, of course, the author pays for print costs. For publishing houses, the royalty rate for hardcover books is 10% for the first 5,000 copies sold, and 12.5% after that.
The ebook royalty rate is 35%-70% on Amazon and 25%-50% with a publishing house, and the audiobook royalty rate is 20%-40% for both.
If you have different rates, I would love to hear them. Wholesale discounts and royalty rates are a big factor in deciding whether or not to self-publish. Again, I think self-publishing is a fantastic option, and with today’s royalty rates, an author who can market themselves well stands a good chance of making more money than if they were traditionally published.
From Episode 82: What to Do When Marketing Your Book
One thing we have not discussed yet is selling books on your own. Some authors choose to sell books only on their website and either ship books out themselves or use a third-party to fulfill orders.
Then there are book conventions. In episode 17 I shared with you tips for successfully marketing your books at conventions, which is another great way to sell if you have the right personality for that kind of face-to-face interaction with conventioneers.
Then there are consignment deals with independent booksellers and other local shops. In these instances, you leave a few books with a bookshop and they agree to give you about 40% of the sale price once the books sell. You might have to wait a long time to get paid, and if the books don’t sell within a few months, they might send them back to you or ask you to pick them up.
Every author needs to do a cost analysis in order to find the bookselling options that are best for them. We know that time is money when you’re working for yourself, and things like marketing, inventory tracking, and order fulfillment take up a lot of time. Then there’s the cost of printing, packaging, and shipping your books. And no matter how you sell your books, you will need to pay taxes on your royalties. A lot more math goes into being a published author than people let on.
Some people only want to write one book in their lifetime, maybe a memoir or a business book. Those people can focus all their efforts on selling their book once it’s written. But for those seeking a longer career as an author, the most important thing when marketing your book is to keep writing. Bookselling is a numbers game, and authors with more than one book make more money. Not just because they have more books to sell but also because they have more credibility in the eyes of readers.
I hope you enjoyed this bonus episode. Next week, we begin season 5, which will focus on writing non-fiction as well as fiction. Tune in for more writing tips and the latest publishing news and book trends.
If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.
Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at email@example.com.