Columns > Published on January 3rd, 2012

Ask The Lit Coach: 'Can You Publish Your First Novel If You're Broke?' and More

Over the past three swift moving years, we've witnessed significant changes in the publishing world. Despite the many publishing options available to writers today, some things are still worth the time and investment (book publicity), while other things are not necessarily important (an author blog). One thing that hasn't changed though, is the importance placed on the quality of the work. 

Question from Jessica T. 

I've written a novel, made major edits, and had a couple of people proofread it. I still have another round or two of light edits before I try to send it out. Once I'm ready, it appears that obtaining an agent is the next step.

First question: I've read in a few different places that one is expected to put up money (I've heard $10,000+) in order to try and get a book published. Is this true? I don't have any money!

Second question: I've also heard that who you are (aka, how big your online audience is) is just as important (if not more important) than what you've written. Is that true?

What is the best use of my time now that my novel is for the most part complete? Should I be sending out query letters, working overtime to save up cash, producing content online to gain more followers, or all of the above? I have a full-time job. Initially, completing a novel felt like a major accomplishment, but now I realize I've barely scratched the surface in terms of the work I'll need to do.

If you feel that an agent is the right choice for you, then research agents who would be right for you and your book. I'd delve deeper into why agents are a great way to go and how to go about finding one, but there are PLENTY of resources for you to research for that kind of information. Check AAR, and Poets & Writers agent education and database, for starters. Let's move on to your more pertinent questions.

You do not need $10,000 to publish a book traditionally. But there's more to this.

Reputable agents should never charge you fees for their services (reading; critiquing; editing; developmental). The only out of pocket expenses you may encounter with an agent is if they express deliver your manuscript to an editor or if there are unusual copying fees; you should discuss these fees and how you will be expected to pay for them before you sign a contract. In our increasingly digital age, however, express shipping and copying fees are, I'm sure, a thing of the past with most agents or they're on their way out.

Should your agent sell your manuscript to a traditional publisher, you will not be paying your publisher a nickel to publish your book. They will likely offer you an advance upon royalties whereby they pay you for the sale of your book. You then will need to turn around and sell X amount of copies to earn back the advance they paid you before you see your share of the royalties earned. 

Where that $10,000 would come in handy is for book promotion. Is it required to have this hefty sum in savings before a publisher buys your manuscript? No. Should you receive at least 10K as your advance, I would highly recommend you turn around and stick it into an interest bearing savings account and start researching book publicists. Begin with referrals directly from your agent, editor or publishing house's publicity department or from other authors you know who've had a successful book PR campaign. Really, 10K might buy you only a few months of PR. Yes, your publisher's PR department will handle some of the PR for your book, but you want the most attention for your book you can get. Ideally, you want to invest in 6 months of book PR - three months before the book launches and three months after the pub date (in tandem with your publisher's PR efforts). A good book publicist with a successful track record could be well worth your money. Again, $10,000 is a very conservative figure. You also have the book launch party to consider, buying copies of the book for your own use and promotional efforts, travel expenses, website development, business cards, etc. Don't let this depress you, though. The more you educate yourself about the process, the better you can plan for it. And there are many ways to score free publicity as well. 

To answer your second question, sure, who you are and what you've accomplished with your writing is always of interest to an agent, but the most important thing to an agent and a publishing team, where fiction is concerned, is the quality of the manuscript, which is where your primary interest should lie. Don't freak out about your lack of online presence and your lack of author platform. If you're writing fiction, it's OK to be unknown. If your manuscript rocks and you want to write more novels, then you should be in great shape with an agent. You will want to develop your author platform by looking into freelancing for other print and online markets and seeing what other writing opportunities exist for you. I'd advise you to seize those opportunities that make the most sense for you and your career, but understand this all doesn't happen at once. Building an author platform, building your writing portfolio can take months if not years, so take some pressure off yourself right now. There's a lot of frenzy around this topic of author platform and a publisher's grand expectations of their authors...and quite frankly, I think some of what you're reading is hyperbole. Sure, publishers expect more of their writers today than ever before, but their expectations aren't totally unreasonable or impossible, otherwise who in their right mind would want to publish a book? 

Completing a novel IS a major accomplishment. You should be very proud of yourself! Take the time you need to get your novel as close to perfect as it can possibly be. You should only build an online presence before you seek an agent if it makes sense for you and your work. Not every aspiring author needs a blog or website. Not every author needs to share. What is important is attention to your craft and being part of a writing community that supports authors within your genre. As for everything else, just take it one step at a time, my dear.

Good luck, Jessica, and thanks for your question.

That's it for this week, LitReactors. Now go do something worth writing about!

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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