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DIY MFA: Are You Ready to be an Author? (Part Two)

Welcome back to your Do-it-Yourself MFA program.

Okay, so what do you need to have in place before you start trying to find an agent (or a publisher if you skip the agent route–more on that in future posts)?

Platform

Platform is a term that you’ll hear people use a lot and it means, pretty much, your reach.  How visible you are and where you are visible, your reputation (do people respect what you have to say?  Are you an authority in the field?), and public reaction.  Think of it as a literal invisible platform that you’ll stand on at a rally.  Where do you visualize its placement?

Think of your reach as a literal — if invisible — platform that you’ll stand on at a rally, and think about where this platform would be placed. Are you on the main stage for your niche? Are you sort of on a side stage? Um … are you in the back of the audience, not even on a platform at all, with several heads blocking your ability to see the main stage?

Stephen Colbert is definitely on the main stage, because he has a hit television show and can sell his book via that medium. But plenty of people who do not have hit television shows will also be on the main stage when it comes to their smaller niches in the world.

Are you gulping right now and thinking, “But I don’t have a platform!” Well, actually, if you have a blog, you do. Your blog is part of your platform. It has reach if you have readers.

The best thing you can do right now is build your blog, because it is a litmus test of how people respond to your writing (and books are obviously about writing). Blogging has changed the publishing world, since anyone can self-publish her thoughts and build a following before her first book hits the shelves. (In the past, you needed to do a lot of freelance work to build your author platform, which meant even more hoops to jump through. Be thankful you’re living in the blogging age.)

How many readers are “a lot of readers” differs from writer to writer — a big six publishing company* is going to have a different opinion about that than a smaller independent publisher.

If you don’t have a blog, start one. And dedicate time to writing it. Here is all the blogging advice I have to give in how to build a following.

Social media extends your reach, too. Get involved in Facebook; get involved with Twitter. But know that even agents can distinguish between organic followers (those who are genuinely interested in what you have to say) and filler followers (people who follow you numerically, but aren’t really reading you from TweetDeck), and they don’t put a ton of stock in those numbers.

In the end, a blog, with long-term statistics provided by Statcounter or Sitemeter and documented proof of your readership, is the best measurable platform as well as sense of your writing style.

Media

Agents and publishers are going to want to know your media contacts.  Do you have any?  You probably do if you think about this long enough.  Start with the newspapers and magazines and television programs most likely to feature your book–do you know anyone there?  Build relationships if you don’t have any yet.  And do this before you start looking for an agent because they’re going to want to know if you have any connections.

And this is not the time to be shy–you will need to call in favours.  And be clear that your media contacts can ask favours from you.

Self-Publicity

Are you okay with public speaking, with talking about your book, with shmoozing and attending events?  No?  Well, then book publishing might not be for you because authors today are expected to be their own publicists along with their actual publicists.  You need to be willing to get out there and give interviews and attend events and speak about your book effusively.  And if you can’t do that, practice.  Because how you come across to the agent matters too.

Thick Skin

If you try to publish a book, you will get rejected a lot. First, you will be rejected by agents. If you sign with an agent, you will be rejected by publishers. If published, your book will be rejected by critics, or by people who you wish would buy it and talk about it. There is a lot of rejection inherent in publishing, and before you begin, you need to know if the rejection is worth the outcome. Because damn, the rejection stings.

This is the way I think about it: I really wanted to get married, and I knew that if I wanted to get married, I also had to put myself out there and date and possibly get my heart stomped on pretty hard. And plugging away at that sucked. I hated not knowing if all the hard work of dating was going to pay off with a long-term relationship, and I based my desire to get married on a leap of faith that it would be worth all the nights I cried because I either couldn’t meet anyone or I had managed to find the biggest losers (Abortion Man ring any bells?). I was willing to put my heart through just about anything to get to a good partnership (oh, yes: I also wasn’t willing to settle).

There were two other places I was willing to push myself and go through all the disappointments in order to reach the goal: Building my family and publishing a book. Everything else — not worth it to me. There have been plenty of other things I’ve wanted in life, including a hit show on Broadway called “Jazz Hands,” but they aren’t worth the disappointments that come with putting your heart out there.

And you may look inward right now and say, “You know what, as much as I want to publish a book, I think I’m going to skip straight to self-publishing, because I really don’t think I could handle the rejection now. I’ll wait until Melissa discusses that in a few weeks.” It is good to know yourself — life is short, and it is not worth using up emotional energy on projects that are not grabbing you by the ovaries. Or you may decide this isn’t the time, but another point in your life will be the time. Or you may already have a thick skin and say, “Rejection shmjection! Who cares what others think as long as I get to that end point of seeing my book at the local bookstore?”

And that, my friend, is your best asset when it comes to getting through the next steps.

Time

Lastly, do you have the time to dedicate to this? People will expect you to make the time, especially if you’ve asked them to make time by considering your work. Do you have the time to make edits and return e-mails and send out more queries? Because other people will get pretty damn cranky with you if you do this half-assed.

If you’re the type (and be honest) who would receive an e-mail from an agent and sit on it for several days before deciding that you just don’t have the time to do this, I’d probably stop before you begin.

I treat the business side of writing with the urgency of stop-drop-and-roll: I forgo other things–such as relaxing at night–to return e-mails in a timely manner, complete edits, or get whatever to whomever. People want to work with others who are focused and serious, so weigh out whether you have the energy and time to dedicate to this.

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here?  Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below.  Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below).  So keep your questions to platform, media, self-publicity, thick skin, time, or other things you’re wondering about before you get started.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. THIS POST

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal and Choose Your Chapters

4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Find and Sign with a Reputable Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

*I’ll use this term in the future to distinguish between big six publishing, small press publishing, and self-publishing.

14 comments

1 S.I.F. { 06.13.10 at 11:26 pm }

Yep… filing this one away too! Thank you so much for doing this Mel!

2 Bea { 06.13.10 at 11:46 pm }

This is very informative. Although, I have to say, you are not encouraging me to get publishin’ here, but then that’s important, too – making sure people know what they’re in for and don’t waste any time if they’re not in for it.

Although it does beg the question: why on earth would you take on being an author, in preference to buying your P&P bookshop? Surely the latter is the less risky alternative?

Bea

3 Lollipopgoldstein { 06.14.10 at 7:43 am }

Bea–

It’s true, it may not be the most encouraging series but then again, it’s what people need to hear before starting down this path. Probably the most important thing people need is determination. It goes a long way and most people quit before they see the goal at the end because they simply don’t know how to fight for that goal. I’m hoping that (1) someone who doesn’t have their whole heart in this steps back because I don’t want them to waste their time and emotional energy and I’m hoping that (2) someone who does have their whole heart in this will now have the tools to make tweaks to their life and get that book published.

I think the most important thing to take away from this post is that if you want to try to publish, you’re going to hear a lot of rejection. Two things can happen. You will take that rejection to heart and you will quit, and that will be a shame. But hopefully knowing how much rejection out there awaits you will help you focus past it. Ignore it, have it become an annoyance rather than an end point. Which is not to say that you won’t spend the night crying, but after that cry, that you’ll pick yourself up again and keep moving forward.

And I think you take that risk because the pay off is huge. I mean, why do people climb Everest instead of walk up the hill near their house? Why do people go on 3000 auditions a year, hoping to be chosen for a television show? Because it is so freakin’ cool to hold your book in your hands and think about everything that has come before that point.

And, because there are things you can get from traditional publishing that you can’t get from self-publishing. Published books and self-published books are two very different things and if you want to create a published book, there are so many hoops to jump through that you should come prepared.

4 serenity { 06.14.10 at 9:58 am }

This is informative. I’ve always had the desire to be published, but had a sense that it would take a LOT of hard work – real TIME to get in and get my hands dirty – in order to make it work. Thanks for confirming that for me.

xxx

5 Mel { 06.14.10 at 10:01 am }

So now the question is, knowing how much work it takes to get to the starting line, will you push ahead and do it? I know you can because you’ve put that sort of energy into running; but, of course, the difference is want. I think you have to want this pretty badly in order to put in this energy or else the whole thing ends up as an exercise in frustration rather than having the frustrations simply be stepping stones to the final goal.

6 Busted Kate { 06.14.10 at 2:17 pm }

Thank you Mel! This is really helpful. I have sort of, not-all-too-seriously been toying with the idea of putting a book of essays together based on my blog, so your advice is great. Thanks!

7 JCB { 06.14.10 at 2:41 pm }

I’ll add my thanks for sharing your advice–it’s honest and thought-provoking, which is the best kind of helpful. My question is: I can easily see why having a blog/other social media platforms would be very useful for a nonfiction writer who’s trying to get commercially published. What do you think is a good way to use those tools if you’re an aspiring fiction (fantasy) writer like me?

8 Lollipopgoldstein { 06.14.10 at 7:44 pm }

JCB–

Truly, I think it’s a lot of the same mentality, with a different slant. With non-fiction, you may be showing that you’re an expert in a topic and you have something to say. With fiction, you are giving people a sense of your writing style. It would follow that people who like your blog would probably like your book.

I would work on connecting with other fantasy readers, since they’re the potential audience for your book. What sort of blog would attract fantasy readers–perhaps book reviews? An online book club of a hot series?

9 Half of a Duo, Raising a Duo { 06.15.10 at 6:51 am }

Excellent advice, Mel!

10 Aunt Misfit { 06.15.10 at 7:46 pm }

I’ve been casually reading along here. I’ve got a few chapters stashed on a book, but what you said about heart being stomped is just the realization I made last week after coping with yet one more freaking loss. I like the idea that I can still put my heart out there and be willing to fail fertility-wise, only to maybe use that tough skin to make that book sing. Food for thought? Thanks for that!

11 Lollipopgoldstein { 06.15.10 at 11:17 pm }

Absolutely, Aunt Misfit. I have to say that there are A LOT of similarities between the frustration of IF and the frustration of publishing. And I think IF gives you great perspective. But I’m sorry that you have gained that perspective through loss, and I’m doubly sorry for this most recent loss.

12 Kristina { 02.04.12 at 12:57 pm }

I have been reading many interesting articles and tips on publishing…, yours is very down-to-earth, thank you.
I am also one of those who knows that rejection will upset me and probably take the wind out of my sails.
One of my thoughts to combat this was to start a blog round my character and publish a small chapter now and then as a teaser and offer the e-book for sale via my blog/site as a Kindle or iBook…
Please note I have not developed an on-line presence yet.
I have engaged the services of an illustrator and together we will have a good product. Once available as an e-book I will have to spread the word around for it to sell.
Is this a coward’s way to go about things?
Is this what authors do who have already been rejected?
Am I approaching this whole publishing business the wrong way round?

13 iside { 05.29.12 at 1:26 pm }

I got into this discussion by chance, and although it is interesting, I think you should really specify it’s not worth reading if you are thinking of academic writing, where none of what you say applies

14 Rachel Lewis { 02.28.14 at 12:34 am }

I am ever so thankful for this series. I’ve read it through a few times over the last few years of building my blog. I’m finally at the point where I’m ready to take the next step. Thank you for being an amazing resource for all of us.

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