Mystified that your terrific manuscript hasn’t been snapped up by a high-powered literary agent? Guess what, it’s not them, it’s you. Before you drop another manuscript in the mail, hunker down and do these two things:
#1: IMPROVE THE QUALITY OF YOUR WRITING
Even if you’ve been making a living as a professional writer, do not assume that publishers will swoon over the quality of your work. I spent ten long months writing a business book with Tom Gegax, founder of the Tires Plus chain, only to hear from publishers that the writing was mediocre and that they weren’t interested in our magnum opus.
Yes, that criticism stung. I had been writing magazine articles for the last dozen years, and consistently heard from editors, interviewees and the general public that I was a wonderful writer. And I was a good writer! In hindsight, however, I wasn’t good enough.
After some indignant wailing and gnashing of teeth, I finally realized that the publishers who had rejected our manuscript knew what they were talking about. So Tom and I threw out what we had worked so hard on and started over. And I challenged myself to step my game up. Fortunately, Tom’s son, Trent, a senior writer at Newsweek, entered the picture. I would polish each chapter as well as I could and e-mail it off to Trent, who would send it back awash in red editing marks.
Writing books is the closest men ever come to childbearing.
We interrupt this post for a critically important lesson for book writers:
Swat your ego aside and kick it out the door! Do not take constructive criticism personally! No matter where a suggestion comes from, if it makes the book better, accept it with gratitude. Never forget this: It’s all about the book, it’s not about you!
The smartest people in every field take the same approach. Listen to what John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for both Pixar and Disney animation, says about the source of good ideas in the 12/11/09 issue of Entertainment Weekly: “It doesn’t matter whose idea it is, the idea that makes the movie better is always used.”
Now, back to our regularly scheduled post.
I looked forward to Trent’s comments because he was a much better writer than I was. As I examined each one, I would find myself thinking, Yes, he’s right, that does make it better and Okay, I can see what he’s doing here, that is a good idea. Trent’s critiques heightened my awareness of how I could improve the quality of my writing. I studied Trent’s approach and techniques and made them my own to the extent that I could.
I’m exhausted. I spent all day putting in a comma, and all afternoon taking it out.
Oscar Wilde (paraphrased)
One day, I wrote a story for a new chapter and fired it off to Tom for his review. That’s how our process worked: I would send my first draft to Tom to get his comments before forwarding it to Trent for a final coat of paint. Tom told me the next day that he had read the story, loved it, but had a moment of complete confusion. He told me that it was obvious to him that Trent had written the story, but then he realized that Trent couldn’t have written it because he himself was only seeing it for the first time. He finally came to the conclusion that I had raised the quality of my writing a notch or two. I was quite pleased! I had learned to Trenterize my writing style while still making it my own. I figure I got maybe three-quarters of the way to Trentville but even that was a major triumph.
That business book was eventually published by Harper Collins as The Big Book of Small Business: You Don’t Have to Run Your Business by the Seat of Your Pants. Thanks to Trent’s input and influence, the quality of the writing is A+.
Best of all, I had become a much better writer. I fully realized this when I revisited an essay I had written about the time that we had finished the first doomed draft of the book. The essay was a humorous and poignant celebration of all the times my daughter and I had visited Wisconsin Dells. I had thought at the time that it was well written. But now, as I read through it a year later, I thought, Wow, I can make this so much better. And I did. Click here to read it.
The point is, I was already a highly regarded professional writer before I started writing that book. Learning that I wasn’t nearly as good a writer as I thought was a huge wake-up call. I tell this story to all aspiring authors, most of whom are not professional writers, to illustrate that the quality of their writing is probably nowhere near where it needs to be. Just because you can type words on a piece of paper does not make you a writer.
Anything that isn’t writing is easy.
Yes it’s hard to write, but it’s harder not to.
Carl Van Doren
I don’t say this to discourage people. On the contrary. If your book is important to you, I hope to inspire you to raise your game and become a better writer. How do you do that? Here are some ideas:
• Subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine. It’s filled with articles that writers at all levels need to read.
• Read Writer’s Digest books. They offer books on every imaginable topic, from magazine articles to fiction to nonfiction to query letters and beyond.
• Take writing classes from local colleges or organizations like The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. The best part about these classes is the constructive feedback offered by teachers and fellow students. (Do NOT ask for feedback on the quality of your writing from friends and family members unless they happen to be skilled writers who are willing to be blunt, which presumes, of course, that you are willing to objectively listen and learn from such feedback.)
A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.
• Enroll in as many writing seminars as you can afford. Locate them by Googling “writing seminars” and your city.
• Write, write, write! The more you write, the better you’ll get. Personally, the better writer I become, the more inspired I am to become even better. And the more I improve, the more room for improvement I see.
• Read, read, read! Consume as many books as you can, preferably in the genre you want to write for, with a critical eye. Absorb, absorb, absorb!
Most of the first-time authors who approach me for feedback have no real desire to become a better writer. They have other priorities, which is perfectly understandable. Perhaps they’re immersed in a subject matter or an idea that they want to share with the world as quickly as possible, and they figure a book is the best way to do that.
If this is you, you have four choices:
1) Ignore reality and continue to submit your tome to agents, who will continue to send you rejection slips. How do you find an agent? Find books in the same genre as yours and look in the Acknowledgments; authors always thanks their agents. Send your manuscript to those agents with a note that you think they’d be a good fit for you since they were the agent for (insert name of book here).
2) Self-publish, which is a whole different world. Self-publishing can be successful if (1) your content is a once-in-a-lifetime blockbuster that goes viral (like The Shack), (2) you self-publish with the intent to get noticed by a big publisher who then gives you a huge advance and lots of love because the quality of your content is top-notch (click here to see how it worked for Lisa Genova‘s book, Still Alice), or (3) if you have professional creative support, an established customer base, killer networking skills, savvy marketing and promotion know-how, inexhaustible optimism and perseverance, and lots and lots and lots of time to do whatever it takes to get your baby out in the world. Then again, it depends how you define “success.” If you simply want to be able to know the joy of holding your published book in your hands, then self-publishing may be the best choice for you. For more info on self-publishing, hightail it to your local library and check out the March/April 2009 issue of Writer’s Digest.
The good news is that self-publishing no longer carries the stigma that it used to. The even better news is that it’s easier than ever to self-publish thanks to sites like CreateSpace.com, a website owned by Amazon. CreateSpace is a print-on-demand service, meaning that a book isn’t actually printed until a customer orders it (typically through CreateSpace or Amazon). The best news is that CreateSpace is free. Yep, that’s Free with a capital F.
Here’s how CreateSpace works: Upload your manuscript as a PDF (a Microsoft Word doc is also an option). Within days, you will be able to order a proof copy at full price. As soon as you receive the proof copy and approve it, your book will be available for sale. It’s that simple. Did I mention it was free? I know, it all sounds too good to be true, but it’s all that and more. Using CreateSpace allows you to publish your book immediately at no cost and retain complete creative control. What’s more, you’ll receive about five times the royalty per book than you would get from a traditional publisher, so you only have to sell one-fifth the number of books to make the same amount of money. You also receive an author discount when you order your own books. Even if you only sell twelve books to friends and family members, it’s still a huge success because you will have actually published your book!
NOTE: If you’re looking for a fantastic book designer, I highly recommend Jay Monroe. He’ll design your cover and the interior of the book, take care of all the publishing details, and upload a PDF for you onto CreateSpace. I’ve worked with Jay on five books and wouldn’t think of working with anyone else. No, I do not receive any commission from Jay for recommending him. I just like to put people in touch with skilled professionals who will treat them well. Click here to e-mail Jay.
3) If your goal is to share information with as many people as possible and you don’t care about making money, then perhaps you should post your content online, either in the form of a blog or on a dedicated website. For example, if you have valuable information about how to live with someone who has Alzheimer’s and you’re not a skilled writer, you probably wouldn’t reach many people via the book route. But if you created a blog about living with Alzheimer’s, you could reach thousands of people, built rewarding interactive relationships, and continually improve the content by editing what you’ve written whenever you feel like it.
4) Hire a professional writer to edit your draft. This can be expensive, especially if your book needs to be heavily revised rather than just lightly edited: such editors typically charge at least $40 to $50 per hour. I have been asked many times to write a book for little or no money upfront with the promise of riches down the road when it becomes a surefire bestseller. Umm, no thank you. The odds of raking in royalties like that are roughly equivalent to me becoming a star player in the WNBA.
If you think book writers are rolling in it, think again. I received a $10,000 advance for my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything. After my agent’s 15 percent commission and taxes, that left me with maybe $6,000, half of which I received in 2007 and half in 2008. Even though we’ve come close to selling out the first printing of 11,500 (we’ve already made tweaks in anticipation of an imminent second printing), and even though the book has been reprinted in German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese (click here to read a very funny story about the Brazil edition), I have not yet received any more royalties. (UPDATE: I was pleased to receive a royalty check for a few thousand dollars in September 2010, nearly two and a half years after publication.)
Yes, foreign rights might bring in a few thousand dollars upfront but typically, foreign language rights income is split 50-50 between the publisher and author after deducting any fees for currency conversion and/or foreign agents—sometimes a publisher works with a foreign agent to arrange sales in their country rather than working directly with publishers, which saves everyone a lot of time and expense. On top of that, the agent gets 15 percent, and taxes further erode the remainder. I’m certainly not complaining; any royalties are welcome! I just wanted to emphasize that, unless the translated books take off like wildfire, the writer’s share will be modest.
Add in the hundreds of hours it took me to not only write the book but promote it via readings, radio and TV appearances, blogging and social networking (click here to read how to build online awareness of your life’s work), and I figure I made twelve cents an hour.
Do I have second thoughts about writing the book? Absolutely not! I’d do it all again in a heartbeat! I didn’t write the book to make money, I wrote it to enrich my life and that of others. And in that sense, I’ve been wildly successful. I’ve built many wonderful relationships and have a deep and abiding satisfaction that comes from knowing I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing in the world. I don’t write only to achieve a goal; I write because I have to write. It’s like breathing to me.
I was once being interviewed by Barbara Walters . . . In between two of the segments she asked me . . . “But what would you do if the doctor gave you only six months to live?” I said, “Type faster.”
I just want you to understand what you’re getting into. The odds are remote that you will make any substantial money with your book. Consider this: In 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. For more sobering statistics, click here to read The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing by Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. (Click here for James Ritchie’s rebuttal to Nielsen’s numbers.)
Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one.
#2: IMPROVE THE CLARITY OF YOUR WRITING
As much as I’ve improved the quality of my writing, I’m continually discovering how to add more clarity and precision. This is difficult to accomplish on your own, no matter how well you edit your own work. I have sent out the manuscript of my next book to a number of people for feedback and I never cease to be astonished at the way other people react to what I’ve written. While reading their comments, I often think, Wow, I never would have interpreted this like that. Even more important, input from others often opens my eyes to some very important and fundamental writing wisdom I really needed to know.
It’s easy to understand why other people look at your finely crafted sentences completely differently than you had intended. Not everyone thinks and processes information the way you do. On top of that, everyone has different viewpoints, biases and life experiences.
This is why I tell all aspiring writers to ask anyone and everyone to give them feedback on their precious prose. In this case, it’s fine to ask family and friends for their opinions because while they may not be able to discern the quality of your writing, they are experts in evaluating how what you’ve written personally strikes them. The way someone sees it is the way they see it, and if one person interprets a sentence a certain way, you can bet plenty of others will too. So again, throw your ego out the window and scrub that sentence until it sparkles with clarity and precision.
You’ll get even better results if you ask for feedback from people who come from different cultures, live different lifestyles and have different beliefs than your own. For example, if I’m writing about spirituality, I want to run it by friends who think my beliefs are horribly misguided because I can’t possibly see my work from their perspective—and I want and need to know how people who have a completely different belief system will interpret what I’ve written.
The trouble is, most people you ask for feedback are too polite to tell you what they really think, even if you assure them that you want them to hit you with both barrels. So I wrote a cover letter that grabs them by the lapels and shakes them silly until they promise to let the fur fly. Here’s the letter. Feel free to use it for your own purposes.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to review the manuscript. I appreciate it very much. The first chapter is attached. As soon as you send me back a chapter, I’ll send you the next one.
Please let me know what changes you think should be made, no matter how minor. If you think a better word should be used in a particular sentence, let me know. If you think a sentence is too vague, say so. You cannot make too many suggestions and no revision is too small.
The bottom line is, I want to make this book as good as it can be. Therefore, while I do want to know what you like, I’m far more interested in what you don’t like. Tell me what doesn’t work for you. Tell me where you think the text is lacking in clarity and precision. Let me know if you think something important is missing.
Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me how you really feel. Be blunt. Don’t pull any punches.
Let me emphasize this: I want you to challenge me! The whole point of this exercise is to make improvements and I won’t be able to do that if you tiptoe around an issue because you think you’ll hurt my feelings. Don’t worry. You won’t.
If you can send this document back with your comments embedded using Track Changes, that would be terrific. If you prefer to give me your comments over the phone, that works, too! I will be grateful for whatever level of feedback you are comfortable providing—macro, micro or anything in between.
Let me repeat: You cannot make too many suggestions and no revision is too small.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
I first discovered the power of book-review feedback while working on The Big Book of Small Business. We would e-mail specific content to professionals with expertise in that area with questions like What do you disagree with? and What killer tips are we missing? The responses we received were enormously helpful and opened our eyes to issues we would not have anticipated on our own.
Of course, what you do with such feedback is up to you. If you feel it’s off base, ignore it. If it strikes a chord, then roll up your sleeves and start polishing. Don’t be surprised if you get conflicting feedback from different sources. Some people in the e-mail focus group for our business book would rave about a particular idea while others said it was the worst idea ever. Oh, well. You can’t please everybody. Just follow your gut feeling and do what feels right.
But don’t take my word for it that feedback is a must. Follow Barack Obama‘s lead. According to book marketing guru Steve Harrison, Obama sent drafts of his book, The Audacity of Hope, to friends, legislators and even media members with a request for feedback. He listened to the suggestions that came back and made changes accordingly. That’s a president precedent I can heartily endorse!
I was heartened to know that other writers approach their work in the same way. My insightful friend Bob Peterson sent me back this note after I e-mailed him my “Hit me with your best shot!” letter:
The most amazing thing is that your letter—beseeching me to be brutally honest—is very similar to ones I have written when asking others to review my work. It was like looking into a mirror and it opened my eyes. It also tells me exactly where you are and what you need because I’ve been exactly where you are standing now. You’re standing too close to the material and need the perspective of someone who’s looking from the outside. I’ll try my best.
A final note about book writing: While writing The Big Book of Small Business, Tom fed me lots of changes every single day, which was great—his instincts were dead on and his input was very helpful. But as we came down the homestretch, Jason, our marketing guy, warned us that anything other than minor tweaks would jeopardize our publisher’s deadline. “Remember,” he said, “a project like this can never be completed, it can only be abandoned.”
As a bonus, click here to download Arielle Ford’s newsletters, which cover publishing, publicity, promotion and platform building. Arielle is America’s #1 book publicist. Click here to visit her website to sign up for her free e-mail newsletter and learn everything you should know about how to become a bestselling author.
Click here to view all my posts related to writing.
Click here to see all my posts featuring Tom Gegax.
ABOUT PHIL BOLSTA
Phil is the author of Through God’s Eyes: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, a comprehensive guide to living a spiritual life. Who will benefit from reading it?
Anyone who is on a spiritual path, or wants to start one
Anyone who loves life, or wants to learn how to
Anyone who is happy, or wants to be happier
Through God’s Eyes won first place in the “Spirituality and Inspirational” category at the San Diego Book Awards on June 22, 2013.
Here is a two-minute video introduction to Through God’s Eyes.
• an overview of the book
• the complete table of contents
• the Foreword by Caroline Myss
• my Introduction
• chapter excerpts
• a sample end-of-chapter story
• endorsements from authors and thought leaders
Just click on the link below to download your free PDF sampler!
THROUGH GOD’S EYES PDF SAMPLER
Phil’s eBook, The Logic of Living a Spiritual Life: Supporting a Life of Faith Through Logic and Reason, is now available for 99 cents on Amazon.
Order it at GodIsLogical.com.
In this eBook, you’ll find answers to questions like:
• What is the cornerstone of a spiritual life, and why?
• What is the secret to liberating yourself from other people’s judgments and expectations?
• Why is there an exception to “Everything happens for a reason”?
Those who worship logic instead of God are only half right. Not only is it logical to believe in God and to live a faith-based life, the existence of a loving, benevolent God that governs all creation is perhaps the only systematic worldview that explains every aspect of life.
Schedule a Mastery Mentoring phone session with Phil to learn how to apply principles of spiritual living more effortlessly and effectively. Priced affordably! Click here to e-mail Phil for details.
Phil is also the author of Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, a collection of 45 inspiring, life-changing stories from prominent people he interviewed, including Joan Borysenko, Deepak Chopra, geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, acclaimed sportswriter Frank Deford, Dr. Larry Dossey, Wayne Dyer, Dan Millman, Caroline Myss, Dr. Christiane Northrup, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Dr. Bernie Siegel, James Van Praagh, singer Billy Vera, Doreen Virtue, Neale Donald Walsch, and bassist Victor Wooten.
Reading this book is like spending a few minutes face to face with each of the contributors and listening to their personal stories. Click here to read unsolicited testimonials from readers. Learn more by visiting the official Sixty Seconds website.
Sixty Seconds was one of three finalists in the General Interest/How-To category at the 12th annual Visionary Awards presented by COVR (Coalition of Visionary Resources) in Denver on June 27, 2009.