Writing a book is a lifelong dream for so many of us. Whether it’s an idea for a novel you’ve been dreaming about for years, a non-fiction book on a particular interest, or maybe even your own autobiography – everyone has a book in them, or so the saying goes.
If you believe you have a book in you, then writing it is only the first step. Most people write books because they want them to be read. It seems a shame to write, edit and print a book to only have it sit on your desk collecting dust. There’s a unique joy in holding a copy of your own book and being able to share it with both strangers and your loved ones. And, as 62-year-old first-time writer John D. Anderson told us, writing a book can also be the best way to leave a meaningful legacy for your grandchildren.
Once you’ve written a book, getting it published isn’t always easy. And as a twice-published author, I say that from experience! Luckily, however, in today’s digital world budding authors have lots of options.
From mastering the writing process to deciding whether you want to self-publish or find a literary agent, here’s everything you need to know to write a book and get it published.
How to write a book
Before you start writing
All books begin with an idea. But what if you have lots of ideas? How do you pick the one you’ll actually be able to turn into a book?
It’s helpful to try expanding on your ideas. Consider how an idea will develop: where’s the story going to go? What’s the purpose? Do you want your book to inspire or inform? Do you want to help people, or offer a new perspective? Who are the characters, and what’s the message? If you struggle to see where an idea is going to go – and what you yourself want to get from writing about it – then it might not be the right idea for now.
Before you begin, you should also consider who your audience will be. This can help to narrow down your ideas; after all, all books need an audience, and if your idea is too niche, it may restrict your chances of getting published later on. Once you know exactly who your audience is, you’ll have a better understanding of the elements your book needs to possess. This will help you not just in idea-forming, but with staying focused while writing later on.
Research and planning
So now you’ve got your idea…what next? Do you simply sit down to write and see where it takes you? Or should you spend time planning and plotting? Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is a famous example of the latter, meticulously planning each and every stage of her seven-book series, and knowing exactly how the seventh book ended before she’d even finished the first (to the disbelief of many publishers!)
There’s no “right” or “wrong” way, but generally speaking, writing a book without a fully-formed idea isn’t ideal. For non-fiction writing, knowing how the book will be structured helps you stay organised and stick to the subject, and for fiction, knowing what happens to the characters and how you want the story to end keeps you focused.
With this in mind, novels are about imagination, and often it’s when our imaginations are left to wander that they provide the best material. The more you write about your characters, the more fleshed out they become, which can have a big influence on the direction of the story. While writing my first book, there were dozens of times when the story took an unexpected turn because something I’d planned for my protagonist to do suddenly seemed entirely out-of-character.
Perhaps the best suggestion is to have a solid idea, to add depth and substance to major characters, and to map out all important plot points before you start writing – but to remember that novels are fluid and subject to change. Giving yourself the freedom to see where your words and imagination take you is one of the most enjoyable parts of the writing process. Consider downloading a free plot worksheet to make constructing your plot that bit easier.
If you’re writing non-fiction, research usually forms a large part of the planning process, but many fiction books require huge amounts of research too – for example, if you’re writing a crime thriller you may need to read up on how the police or legal systems operate.
Whatever you’re researching, it can be helpful to put together a research plan to help you stay organised and keep your research focused. However, it’s important not to get too carried away, as it can easily become a form of procrastination. Don’t allow it to get in the way of writing, once you’ve begun; you can always add more information or detail later on. That’s what the editing process is for.
How can I learn more about writing a book?
If you want more guidance, then you could also look into taking a creative writing course. Faber, one of the UK’s leading publishers, offer a great course for those of you who are London-based. Luckily, wherever you live in the UK, there are dozens of writing courses you can benefit from. Check out a selection of creative writing courses on the Workers’ Educational Association site, or consider a free online writing and publishing course you can do from the comfort of your own home.
If you’re writing non-fiction you might also benefit from a class. Non-fiction books require a huge amount of organisation, and learning how to record ideas, sift through notes and structure your book efficiently can help you stay focused and productive. Have a look at online non-fiction courses to help you get that first draft done, or if you live in London, check out City Lit’s non-fiction courses; from history writing to personal essays, there’s probably a course here that’ll interest you. Alternatively, you can listen to a creative non-fiction course on Audible – it’s free for the first 30 days!
Should you only write about what you know?
Perhaps the most well-known piece of writing advice is to only “write what you know” – but this phrase is both misunderstood and misinterpreted, and to take it too literally can be extraordinarily restricting for an author. Writing about what you know doesn’t mean you should only write about events you yourself have experienced – if that were the case the fantasy genre wouldn’t exist!
Writing what you know, relates more to feelings and emotions. For example, if you’ve ever had your heart broken, write about that. If you’ve ever been consumed with longing, write about that. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing futuristic sci-fi with a protagonist who lives on another planet; if you’re writing about emotions you’ve felt, your reader will be able to relate. This is what makes us connect so deeply to the books we love: we relate to them. A powerful advantage to writing a book in your 50s, 60s or 70s is that you have years of life experience.
More relevant advice would be to “write what you love”. Whatever you’re writing about, whether it’s a historical event or a psychological thriller, you need to be passionate about the subject. Passion is what keeps you typing when frustration and boredom kicks in. Because no matter how much you enjoy writing your book, there are some days when the words just won’t come. It’s simply part of the writing process…which brings us along to the next point.
The writing process
Once you’ve got your ideas down, the next step is beginning to write in earnest, because books don’t write themselves! The key to actually finishing a book, rather than starting it and giving up halfway, is discipline and consistency. It’s important to factor writing into your daily routine. You don’t have to write huge amounts, you just have to write regularly.
John Grisham wrote his first book working full-time as a lawyer, with a new baby in the house. He didn’t have a lot of ‘free time’ to write – but he made time. This is another reason why you have to be genuinely passionate about what you’re writing; you need to be able to prioritise it over, say, sleeping an extra few hours in the morning, or catching up with your favourite show in the evening.
It’s true that sitting down in front of a blank page, knowing you have a whole book to write, can seem overwhelming. You might feel that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew – but try to think of it another way. You’re not sitting down to “write a book.” First, you’re just writing a few sentences. Then you’re writing a paragraph or two. After a while you’ll have a few pages, and after that you might even have a chapter!
Remember that it’s called the writing “process” for a reason. Writing a book doesn’t happen overnight, or in a few weeks. It usually takes months or even years. And if you’re feeling bad about how long it’s taking you, remember that it took J.R.R. Tolkien 12 years to write Lord of the Rings; Gone With The Wind took a decade; and Jurassic Park took 8 years. Good literature is a labour of love!
Set daily goals
It’s helpful to set daily writing goals – maybe 500 words a day. It can be helpful to start out small so your goals feel much more achievable – this is how you start building momentum. However, you should never place a limit on how much you write a day. If inspiration kicks in and you find yourself writing thousands of words a day (it happens!), this is almost always helpful, even if you don’t end up using the writing in the finished book. You might read some writing back and wonder what you were thinking at the time, but this can help you realise where the book should go next!
It’s also a good idea to try to write in the same place every day. You don’t have to stick to this rigidly (e.g. when I’m on the move, I enjoy writing on trains) but having a designated space where you step into the “writing zone” often makes it easier to focus. It could be at a desk in your study, or at the kitchen table (with easy access to the kettle!). Maybe it’s in the library, or perhaps you prefer a quiet corner in your local coffee shop? It doesn’t matter where you write, only that you come to view it as your special place for writing.
You may also want to carry a journal, so that if inspiration strikes when you’re out and about you can jot it down and return to it later. Nothing is more frustrating for an author than having an idea flash into your mind when you’re away from your laptop, only for it to dissipate before you’ve got it down!
How to get your book published
So you’ve finished your book… congratulations! Whatever happens next, take time to celebrate your achievement. Around 81% of people want to write a book – but only a fraction of that will ever do it. Anyone can start writing a book, but it takes dedication to finish it.
Now the hard part – the writing – is over, we come to the second part: getting your book published. There are two main publishing options: traditional publishing and self-publishing. But which is best for you?
Traditional publishers include the ‘Big 5’ (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) and their respective imprints, as well as a whole host of smaller, independent publishers. Traditional publishers pay for the entire publishing process – editing, proofing, typesetting, printing, art and design, promotion, advertising, shipping, and, of course, paying author royalties – a percentage of the book sales. In other words, traditional publishers shoulder all the risks: if the book fails to sell, the publishers lose money – you don’t. If you want to find a large audience for your book, traditional publishing has the means to get you it.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s very difficult to secure a traditional publishing deal – particularly if it’s your first book. Many publishers won’t read unsolicited manuscripts (although Penguin Random House and Allen & Unwin are an occasional exception to this rule), only accepting manuscripts that have been given to them by literary agents.
Not having an agent shouldn’t stop you pursuing traditional publishing, if you think it’s the right choice for your book. But how do you stop your book ending up on the stack of unread manuscripts that sit on an editor’s desk (or more commonly these days, in their inbox)?
The best thing you can do is research the market. Think about which publishers would be the best fit for your book. Is your book historical fiction? If so, research other novels in this genre and see who the relevant publishers are. Are you writing a self-help book, or a cookbook? Which publishers are the market leaders for this category? Remember that publishing is a commercial business, and if a book is published it’s because there’s a market for it.
Once you’ve found the right publishers, it’s time to see who to send your manuscript to. Look online and check out the ‘submissions’ page on the publisher’s website; if there isn’t one, then call up and ask if they accept submissions and if so, who to send it to. Most publishers prefer to receive email submissions, with a cover letter, the first few chapters and a synopsis of the whole book. Your synopsis should be a lively summary of your book, between 500–1,000 words. Have a look at some guides to writing a fiction synopsis here, and a non-fiction synopsis here.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t write your synopsis in a salesy way. As the writer, your job is to tell the story, not to sell it. Leave the sales to the publishers! Then, once you’ve sent it off, all you have to do is wait, and be patient. It can take months for your submission to be read, and even longer for you to hear back. Remember that publishers receive hundreds of submissions each day. If you haven’t heard back after 8 weeks, you can always send a follow-up email – but always keep it short, sweet and simple.
Should you get a literary agent?
If you want to pursue traditional publishing, you could consider getting a literary agent. The right agent will advise you on the publishing market, sell you and your book to the right publisher, and negotiate the best deal for you. You never pay an agent; instead, they take a cut of around 15% of your earnings. This means they’ll always fight to get you as much money as possible!
But how do you get an agent? To be frank, it isn’t easy. In fact, many authors say it’s harder to get an agent than it is to get a publishing deal! To learn more about this, have a read of TV writer Ken Pisani’s humorous account of trying to find an agent, or how 11 celebrated authors found the process.
For a monthly fee, you can locate and message agents on sites like Publishers Marketplace – or if you don’t want to pay anything, simply check out a list of UK literary agents and see which ones are suited to you. Once you’ve found a suitable agent, read their submission guides before you send over your request.
So should you get an agent? My advice: if you’re pursuing traditional publishing, an agent makes the process infinitely easier and more enjoyable. My first book was published by Penguin Random House without the aid of an agent, but that was a unique case (an editor contacted me after reading an article I’d written). My second book was published with an agent, and it was a much smoother, less stressful experience. Not only does it mean you can remove yourself from the whole contract side of things, safe in the knowledge your agent will secure the best deal, but it also provides you with support throughout the entire publishing process.
Dealing with rejection…
If you decide traditional publishing is what you want, you do, unfortunately, need to prepare yourself for rejection. This is no reflection on the quality of your work or your ability as a writer; rather, rejection is just part of being an author. Literary agents spend most of their time looking after their current clients, and have to reject most submissions. Unsolicited manuscripts sent to publishers are also usually rejected.
Don’t take this personally. Part of being a writer is about keeping your chin up and trying again – and remember that some of the greatest books were rejected multiple times: Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected 30 times; Harry Potter, 12 times; Chicken Soup for the Soul, 33 times. C.S. Lewis amassed a staggering 800 rejections in his lifetime. If you get rejected, move on and send your submission elsewhere.
Or, alternatively, try self-publishing….
If traditional publishing doesn’t seem like the right option for you, self-publishing might be the way forward. These days self-publishing is easier than ever, and online self-publishing is a market that’s positively booming.
The main perk of self-publishing is that you have total control. You decide the publishing timeline and the price of the book. You do the editing. You choose the interior design of your book and the cover. This is a big perk! The worst part of my traditional publishing experience was realising the author has little to no say over cover design, and in spite of my protests, I dislike the covers of both my books!
The rise of print-on-demand tech means that the cost of printing is low, so the price per book is reasonable, and the end result can be slick and professional. Also, once you’ve paid the initial expenses, you keep all the profits. Bear in mind that authors who publish traditionally usually only get around 10%!
The big drawback of self-publishing? Because you have total control, this means everything is your responsibility. If you self-publish, you’re not just the writer, you’re also the publisher, the financier, the manager. You need to think about:
- Editing: Are there spelling errors? Have you included page numbers?
- Design: What font should you use? What size? How should the cover look?
- Price: How much will your book cost?
- Print: How many copies will you print?
- Supply: How will people buy your book?
- Delivery: How will your book get from A to B?
- Marketing: How will you market your book? How will people hear about it?
- Sales: Where will your book be sold?
- Funding: How will you pay for all of the above?
This is a lot for one person to take on! It’s also worth considering that self-publishing usually means your book won’t get as much exposure. Your local bookshops might stock your book, but most won’t – in spite of what many self-publishing companies may promise. If you want to see a physical copy of your book on a bookstore shelf, self-publishing probably isn’t the way to do it.
However, one way to circumvent a lot of these issues is to only publish online – and in fact, ebooks are easily the most popular way of self-publishing today. This not only means you don’t have to worry about things like supply and delivery, but it also means you can focus your attention solely on the ebook market.
It’s true that for prospective authors, holding a physical copy of your book in your hands is part of the dream… but there’s never been a better time to self-publish an ebook. The self-publishing market is growing, as is the eBook market. And best of all, publishing an ebook on Amazon – the world’s largest self-publishing platform – is incredibly easy. Simply upload your edited manuscript onto their Kindle Direct Publishing system (KDP) and get ready to start selling. Check out this handy guide for more detail.
How to self-publish successfully
Even if you do decide to publish online only, you still need to take responsibility for editing, design and marketing. So how do you go about this? The best thing you can do is call in the professionals. Just because self-publishing means these jobs are your responsibility doesn’t mean you have to do them yourself.
Editing & Design
First things first, consider hiring a professional editor. They’ll be able to spot any typos, grammatical errors or omissions from your manuscript – and they might also be able to help refine the structure of the story and make other helpful suggestions. Resist the temptation to ask a friend or relative to look over your work. Even if you have a daughter who’s an English graduate, or a son who’s a journalist, that doesn’t make them qualified to edit your book, which requires a unique skillset. You can find a good selection of freelance book editors here.
Having an error-free book that reads well is a great way to set yourself apart from low-quality books in the overcrowded self-publishing market. Once your book has been edited, then it might be a good idea to have friends or relatives look over it to see if they can spot any overlooked typos – which are still, unfortunately, frustratingly common in first-edition books (Even though both my books went through editing and proofing at ‘Big 5’ publishers, they still contained stray typos!).
No matter how beautiful your book may end up looking and no matter how well you promote it, if you skimp on professional editing and proofreading it’s glaringly obvious.
Set yourself apart from the amateur art of other self-published books and hire a professional graphic designer to create an eye-catching cover. Think about the themes and tone of your book and how you want them expressed, as well as how your book can stand out. The graphic designer will be able to help with other cover-related issues too – e.g. for ebooks, how will the cover look as a thumbnail online? Many graphic designers can help with the interior design of your book, too. Have a look at some professional book cover designers you can hire here.
And then there’s the marketing. You can have produced the most beautiful and engaging book, but if people don’t know about it, it probably won’t cause a ripple. You have two options here: hire the services of a professional book marketing company, or do it yourself. Check out sites like Authoright, which help with publicity campaigns and author websites (as well as cover design and editing), or Publish Nation, who offer social media marketing, Amazon promotion, press releases, etc.
If you want to do it yourself, be aware that marketing is a big task. You need to think about setting up an author website, building relationships with book sellers and how you’ll get book reviews and press coverage – to name just a few responsibilities! It’s a lot for one person to take on… but it can, and has been done successfully. Have a read of inspiring stories, like that of self-published author Rob Dircks, who sold 20,000+ books with next to no money, and read advice from those who have been there, done that and sold the book.
Hybrid Publishing & Vanity Press
If all this seems like too much responsibility, there’s another option: hybrid publishing (sometimes also called “vanity press”). Hybrid publishing is, essentially, self-publishing, but it provides the author with more of a traditional publishing experience.
So what are the pros of hybrid publishing? The first is that hybrid companies usually have their own editorial, design, and marketing teams, so if you just want to write a book and have it published, and have no real interest in marketing or design, it’s a much easier ride. You can follow the experts’ lead and enjoy just being the author.
Also, sometimes hybrid companies are subsidiaries of larger publishers, which means they might have useful industry connections. They also give you a bigger cut of royalties than traditional publishers – often around 50% – and you’ll have much more creative control. Important, if you want to end up with a book cover you actually like!
The drawback to all this? Well, firstly… money. Unlike traditional publishers – where you don’t pay a penny – hybrid publishers require upfront payment. Full publishing packages (which include editing, design and marketing) can cost thousands. This is a big financial risk with no real guarantee. There are also, sadly, many dubious hybrid companies who promise hopeful authors the world and deliver very little. Even though you’re paying for a traditional publishing service, hybrid companies don’t have the same expertise or connections, particularly when it comes to sales and marketing.
If you choose to go this route, it’s enormously important to do your research. Have a read of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s criteria for a reputable hybrid publisher, and read up on common publishing scams and how to avoid them. One thing that’s important to remember if you choose hybrid publishing or vanity press, is that these companies don’t make their money from book sales; they make it from upfront payments from authors. Unlike traditional publishers, it doesn’t make much difference to them if your book sinks without a trace. They’ve already been paid.
Before making any decisions, check out this useful infographic, which highlights all the key differences between the traditional publishing experience and hybrid/vanity publishing. There are good hybrid companies out there, but always take time to do the necessary research.
However you decide to publish your book, always remember that writing a book is an incredible accomplishment. It requires an enormous amount of passion, discipline, and dedication. So before you even think of the publishing process, give everything you can to your writing. Read as much as you can; read about the writing process, and read for enjoyment too (reading is easily the biggest cure for writing block).
Whatever happens afterwards, celebrate your achievement. Then, take care and time before deciding which publishing route is right for you. Never allow questionable companies to sully your efforts. Your book deserves better. And so do you. Good luck… and happy writing!