I started writing my first book, THE TESTIMONIUM, in March of 2012. I finished it in November of that year, and it was published in August of 2014. Since then I have published three more novels, with my fifth, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, coming out this May. I still haven't hit that big break - my novels sit around on Amazon, selling a copy or two a week most of the time, and I still lug boxes of books to civic groups, bookstores, and churches, giving talks and trying to gin up a few sales. I dream about that big endorsement or review that will boost my sales into the thousands, or of that elusive movie contract that will let me retire to a life of luxury. Those are my dreams, but in real life I've made a little money and learned a good bit about the trade, and I thought that I would share some things I wish I had known when I sat down and started writing THE TESTIMONIUM way back in 2012. Here are the ground rules of writing in the 21st century:
1. A WRITER WRITES, ALWAYS! (Yes, that line comes from "Throw Momma From the Train,"
a great little film about two aspiring writers, among other things.) Let NOTHING that I've written below keep you from putting your words down. If you have a story to tell, tell it! Hop on board that beast and see where it takes you. It's OK if you don't know how the tale ends when you begin it - stories have a way of spinning themselves out. If you like poems, write poetry. If you like short stories, write them! If you have issues with spelling, get someone who has a strong English background to proofread for you. If your first story sucks, write another one! If you can't figure out how to finish your novel and it just grinds to a halt, start another project. You can always come back to it later, or realize that maybe that story just wasn't that great to begin with (I started one novel in high school and another during my Navy years, and didn't finish either). The bottom line is simple: You will NEVER become a writer if you give up on writing!
2. DON'T GIVE UP ON GETTING PUBLISHED! It took me about a year and a half from the time I typed THE END at the conclusion of my first book until I finally found a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on it. I shopped it around to agents, and had zero luck getting one to rep my story. Then I started going down the list of publishers who accepted works in my genre (Christian-based adventure stories). These days, most of them won't even send you a rejection slip. Their website simply says something to the effect of: "If you don't hear from us in six months, then assume that your work does not fit our present publishing criteria." It's a bit hard not to take that personally, but remember, there are thousands and thousands of people out there dreaming of becoming writers. Publishers see a ton of manuscripts and most of them stink. Keep plugging! And, if you can't find a traditional press to take an interest in your work, that brings me to
3. AVOID VANITY PRESSES! There are hundreds of publishing firms out there that will publish your book for a fee. Most of them try to tell you that they are actually publishing your book for free, and that the $3000-5000 that they want you to spend is for promotional purposes, to help market your book. DON'T BUY THAT FOR A MINUTE! They will give your book an ISBN and get it listed on Amazon (something that you can do for free if you self publish), and maybe give your book a mention on their website or social media page, and then pocket your money. One of the most predatory vanity presses, Tate Publishing, went out of business last year. But one of their favorite hooks was that they would fully refund your $3500 "publicity fee" as soon as your book sold 1000 copies. The problem is, their books were badly edited, overpriced, and not stocked in stores. From what I read on several authors' forums, even those writers who did manage to sell a thousand copies of a book published by Tate had a hard time collecting their money. You should never have to pay a third party to publish your book for you! Vanity presses are vultures who feed on the hopes of aspiring writers. Don't become their next victim!
4. SELF PUBLISHING IS ALWAYS AN OPTION. Fortunately, I had a traditional publisher take an interest in my works, so it wasn't an option I had to resort to. But Amazon and a number of other sites offer self-publishing services that are inexpensive and give you the basics: access to professional editing, an ISBN and listing on the major online platforms, and cover art design. Honestly, it is easier than ever before to publish your own book, and that leads me to
5. GET USED TO COMPETITION. Amazon lists over 100,000 new titles every MONTH. There are LOTS of aspiring writers out there competing with you for sales, and you aren't going to break into the top 100 or the top 1000 or even the top 10,000 sales rank just because you wrote a book. If you just write your book and stick it out there online and wait for people to buy it, you're in for a long wait! That's why #6 is SO important.
6. HUSTLE YOUR BUTT OFF. I cannot emphasize this enough. There is no silver bullet, no magic formula, other than simple self-promotion. Radio ads don't sell that many books, neither do TV ads. What sells books is name recognition, and name recognition comes from putting yourself out there. Schedule book signings - that can be hard, brick and mortar bookstores are going away at an alarming rate. B. Dalton, Walden Books, Hastings, and Family Christian have all gone belly up in the last decade or so. But find what bookstores you can and get yourself in them. Jump through whatever hoops they place in front of you. Fill out forms, keep on pestering the book managers, simply walk in with a copy of your book and ask to talk to someone. Above all, do personal appearances and social media. Those are the two main venues that move books. Start a blog, do a podcast, start your own YouTube Channel, accept every friend request you get on FB (except hot girls in bikinis who write English with a foreign accent and ask you to come visit their webcams!), and keep it up! Speak at banquets, at libraries, at civic groups, any place that will let you come in the door and set up a book table.
7. This is the hardest lesson of them all. IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW GOOD YOUR BOOK IS. I have four novels that have all gotten marvelous reviews from their readers. I will stack them against any novels in their genre, but the fact is that I see a lot of books that are not as good as mine reach the bestseller list because they were by established authors. "The enemy of the new author is obscurity," I forget who told me that but it is a tough lesson I've had to learn. You want sales? Build your brand. Especially, I will add this - if a traditional publisher accepts your work, then it's good. They have LOTS of submissions, and if they picked yours out of them all, it's because your book IS worthwhile. But that being said, it doesn't matter how good your work is - if you just stick it out there and expect people to buy it, you are going to be disappointed. This brings me, last of all, to this -
8. Don't quit your day job. Writing is fun, and being able to say that you are a published author is a source of great pride. I hoped (and still hope) to turn my novels into a retirement income. But the truth is, right now they are bringing me about $2000-3000 a year in profits, no more. I am still working all the time to establish my brand and get my name out there, but it's an uphill climb. So relax, have fun, enjoy the little bit of extra income your books bring you, and keep on plugging. The dream is still out there. Obscure writers today become famous writers tomorrow. One of you - or maybe it is me, who knows? - is the next John Grisham, the next J,K. Rowling, the next Stephen King. Keep chasing that dream, and remember, a writer writes - always!
So, if ANY of this has helped you in any way, and you would like to do a small favor for the blogger who encouraged you - or if you would simply like to read a stirring historical novel about the Roman Empire and the dawn of Christianity, or perhaps a moving tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism - well, here is the link to my books on Amazon. Please, go buy one, read it, review it, and recommend it to friends!!