To Find Writing Success, Think Like a Publisher

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Want to get published? The key is seeing your work from a publisher’s POV

I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was a child, but I didn’t realize that in order to be successful, I’d need to think like a publisher.

Although I started writing my first novel in elementary school, it wasn’t until about a decade ago that I did it—I finished one! It even made it to the finals of a nation-wide writing contest. I got a phone call from the first agent I queried. She wanted an exclusive over the weekend so she could read the full. I felt like I was finally stepping into the world I was meant to inhabit.

However, that was, as I said, a decade ago. The agent didn’t sign me, and I never did sell that manuscript. Turns out being Cinderella is easier in the movies. However, I’ve gone on to write other books, and I did find an agent. So, yay! Two titles went to market, but they didn’t sell. (Boo.) I say all of this to emphasize that for every person who does have instant success, there are hundreds, and possibly thousands, with a story similar to mine. The truth is, writing is hard. Publishing and finding an audience? Even harder. In fact, they’re two different skills.

If you’re toiling away on your manuscript but wondering if your story will ever find an audience, I invite you to take note of what I’ve learned over the years. Call it a cautionary tale or a hot take from a friend in the trenches, but from what I’ve observed, in order to find writing success, we have to think like a publisher.

Publishing is a business

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’ve been cautioned against “writing for the market” since the market is always changing. Okay. Great. So you decide to write the “book of your heart.” Only, the book of your heart has no comps and without best-selling comparative titles, no traditional publisher wants to take a chance. It’s super frustrating, and I didn’t understand it at first, though now I’m seeing things in a different light. The writer in me feels like I can’t get a break, but when I think like a publisher, it makes more sense.

Here’s what happened. I wrote a YA romantic adventure, a la Romancing the Stone (this will sound familiar if you’re into old movies, lol!). It even got me my first agent. She was enthusiastic about the concept, and after a few tweaks, she sent it into the market. I had high hopes. This was it. Who wouldn’t want to read about two daring teens on a quest to find the heroine’s missing parents in a foreign country? Oh, and did I mention there was potential love interest too? Word started trickling back. Bingo. We had an editor on the line. She loved the book and wanted to buy it.

The problem? Editors usually don’t have the final say in what books they buy. The sales department evaluates the marketplace and weighs whether it’s worth the risk of taking on a new author. It’s a big, fat, expensive deal to publish a book. They’ll need to pay you, the cover designers, the editors, buy paper and ink, bind the book, advertise it, and ship it. A lot of capital goes into the acquisition of a new title, and people’s jobs are on the line if it doesn’t sell. Ultimately, publishers felt my book didn’t fit neatly enough into either romance or adventure, and thus, they passed.

Know your genre

You are a writer, which means you create art. As the artist, you have the right to craft whatever you want. Want to write a werewolf Terminator reboot (wait—that’s my idea!), go for it! Want to do a horror Amish love story (that’s mine too!)? It’s a free country. The change comes when you go to sell your manuscript. At that point, you are now offering a potential commodity. You know, something to sell. Which means: there’s gotta be a buyer. Ideally, a lot of them.

Know who reads your genre

Whether you want to go the traditional route, self-publish, or do something in between, you need to think like a publisher. Who’s the audience for your book? Most writers want to sell as widely as possible, but not everyone is going to like what you write. It’s not personal; it’s just not their thing. Thus, you need to find out who is most likely to cotton to what you do. Find out more about this group. Who are they? What do they like? How is what you offer similar to what’s already out there, yet has your own twist?

Identify your target audience. The better you know who that is and how your work stands out in the marketplace, the better you can communicate this crucial information to publishers and to readers. Do you have a sexy alpha who needs to be tamed? Find out what readers like that sort of story. Have a creepy mystery that borders on horror? You need to know who has published something similar. The more you understand the audience and what is in the canon of your genre, the better you can market yourself.

Hone your craft

As much as you must be strategic with understanding the marketplace, so too must you do quality control. It’s time to hone your craft. It’s a wide world out there, filled with not only books, but lots of other entertainment that vies for people’s time. Why would anyone take minutes out of their day to read what you wrote? Or more than that: pay to read it (which is the ultimate goal). The answer is because you’ve created a compelling escape, fantasy, adventure, or distraction that’s worth their time and hard-earned dollars.

Obviously a great idea is a requirement, but so too are the fundamentals. Can you get a friend or critique partner to give you feedback? Have you learned how to self-edit? Can you plan out the story more so that the plot is tighter and more cohesive? There are many free resources out there, including here at the Writer’s Blog, with lots of craft tips and tricks. Use them! And, of course, do the most important thing of all: write more!

The final secret to success

The final secret? Well, there are two, actually. The first is to read more. Read more of everything but particularly the types of books you want to write. They’ll help you improve your craft because you’ll notice the way experts do it. The other advantage is that you’ll have a greater sense of what’s in the marketplace. However, until you know and understand how and where to place your work, you won’t be thinking like a publisher. Finally? Never give up! Keep writing because there’s a good chance you’ll eventually find your audience.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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