Four Truths and Four Myths That Every New Novelist Should Know

POSTED ON Jul 25, 2016

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

Home > Blog > Writing > Four Truths and Four Myths That Every New Novelist Should Know

By Florence Osmund

We have the pleasure today to share with you another article by Florence Osmund. Florence’s last article for The Book Designer, Eleven Ways to Get Better Book Reviews for Your Novel, received a lot of positive feedback from our readers. I think you’ll enjoy this one, too!

Please note: Our e-Book Cover Design Awards post has been rescheduled for Friday, July 29th. Be sure to stop by and check it out.

Take it from someone who learned the hard way—there are many aspects to publishing a novel that are better realized before you start writing. As with almost everything else in life, going in blindly when attempting to publish a book can have catastrophic consequences. At a minimum, understanding some key aspects of becoming a published novelist will:

  • make your journey less encumbered
  • increase the likelihood of you finishing the novel
  • better the chances of your book’s success

Here are four truths and four myths about publishing a novel that will help you on your journey to becoming a novelist—a journey that can be enjoyable and rewarding if you go in adequately prepared.

Truth #1: Traditional publishing and self-publishing are not the same.

Aside from crafting the story itself, traditional publishers handle everything required to get your book published:

  • editing
  • formatting
  • cover and interior design
  • pricing
  • printing
  • marketing
  • promotion
  • distribution

They bear all the upfront costs and provide you with an advance on royalties in exchange for the copyright to the publication and a portion of the royalties.

When you self-publish, you take on the role of a traditional publisher in that you are responsible for all the aspects of publishing your book. It is your choice to do as much or as little of the work yourself, hiring outside service providers for the work you choose not to do. That’s both the good and the bad news about self-publishing.

The good:

  • you are in total control of the project.

The bad:

  • you are in total control of the project.

Having responsibility for publishing your book can be a little daunting at first, but most self-published authors don’t regret going that route once they’ve realized the benefits over traditional publishing—namely:

  • higher royalties
  • complete control over:
    • content
    • timing
    • pricing

The only complaint I hear from self-published authors has to do with the amount of time they have to spend promoting their books, as this takes them away from the actual writing.

As a new author, you will benefit from a thorough understanding of all the publishing options available to you. For example, if you plan to go the traditional route, you’ll need to prepare yourself for many rejections before finding an agent/publisher who is interested in your work. And then if you are lucky enough to find someone, expect:

  • a small advance (not enough to live on for very long)
  • low royalties
  • a lengthy waiting period before you’re actually published

Alternatively, if you opt for self-publishing, you’ll need to find someone reputable to:

  • edit your manuscript
  • format it (e-book, paperback, and/or audio)
  • print it (if you’re going to publish in paperback)

The keyword here is reputable. Unfortunately, there are many scam artists in this industry. At the very least, check out service providers on the site that flags non-reputable agents, editors, publishers, and illustrators.

Regardless of which publishing route you take, before signing a contract, understand with whom you are about to strike a deal. Know how they operate, their reputation, and their terms and conditions. And if there is anything you don’t understand about the contract or terms and conditions, ask someone who does.

Understanding the publishing industry up front may seem like an unnecessary deterrent when you’re anxious to start writing, but I assure you that it will pay off in the long run.

Myth #1: Anyone can write a best-selling novel if they put in the effort.

Not quite. Merriam-Webster’s definition of a novel is:

An invented prose narrative of considerable length and a certain complexity that deals imaginatively with human experience through a connected sequence of events involving a group of persons in a specific setting.

‘Considerable length’ by most standards is at least 80,000 words—less would make it a novella. Based on this, I would argue that just about anyone could write a novel. But the captioned statement above includes the word ‘best-selling,’ and that’s another story (a little play on words…get it?).

There’s a notable difference between writing a novel and writing a best-selling novel, but what does that really mean? For the purpose of this discussion, a best-selling novel is one that has appeared on a best-seller list, The New York Time arguably the most well-known. Others include the American Booksellers Association, Barnes & Noble, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon. There are many others.

You can increase the likelihood of writing a best-selling novel if you meet certain criteria.

  1. If you are a celebrity, are a relative of a celebrity, or have some other connection with a celebrity, your chances of writing a best-seller increase…big time.
  2. If you write an amazing book, catch all the right breaks, and have incredible timing and luck, the chances of you writing a best-seller increase.
  3. If you have extraordinary creative writing skills, hire an excellent editor, and promote your book in all the right places, you have a chance—albeit small— at writing a best-selling book.

It would be nice to fall into one of the first two categories, but most of us don’t, so if your goal is to write a best-seller, be prepared for the work involved in #3, and don’t quit your day job…not just yet anyway.

Truth #2: You have to spend money to make money.

If you want to be viewed as a serious author, you’ll have to treat it as a business, and I know of no business that can make a profit without spending money. Sure, there are many venues out there that will offer free exposure and publicity for your book, but that will not likely generate enough revenue to even cover the expenses incurred to publish it. If you want to make money, you have to spend money.

Here are some of the expenses you can expect as an author.

  • Office supplies, equipment, postage
  • Reference materials
  • Dues and subscriptions
  • Educational classes, webinars, and conferences
  • Editing services
  • Book cover design services
  • Formatting services
  • Press release service
  • Promotion and advertising costs

With respect to promotion and advertising costs, you can spend $10-16 on a promotion who claims to have 121,000 e-mail subscribers, or $65-2,525 for a promotion who claims to have millions of subscribers. I have experienced a favorable return on investment on each of these sites and many others priced in between. My experience has been fairly consistent—the more I spend, the more I make. I have never lost money on a book promotion.

Preparing a budget for your book project is often an eye-opener and is best done before you start writing so you aren’t surprised midway through your project, and you have a plan in place as soon as your book is ready to launch.

Myth #2: There are no rules when it comes to writing fiction.

Somerset Maugham once said:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

That may be true, but all kidding aside, there is one guideline that speaks to five basic elements of fiction that many novelists follow. Best-selling author Mike Wells said it quite succinctly.

Each and every story is composed of the same five basic elements: a (1) hero who finds himself stuck in a (2) situation from which he wants to free himself by achieving a (3) goal. However, there is a (4) villain who wants to stop him from this, and if he’s successful, will cause the hero to experience a (5) disaster.

You can’t go wrong following this model—it incorporates all the primary characteristics of a well-balanced story.

Truth #3: Books do not market themselves.

It has been quoted many times in various blogs and trade journals that more than 90% of all self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies. I’ve never seen the source for this statistic, but I tend to believe it. I personally know authors who have written a book, put it on Amazon, and then became disappointed when the royalty checks didn’t come rolling in.

If no one knows your book is available, no one will buy it. But let’s say you get lucky and without doing any promotion whatsoever you sell 100 paperback copies of your book that retail for $10.00 and cost $4.00 to print. By Amazon’s royalty standards, you would receive $2.00 per book or $200 in total. That’s not enough to cover expenses, let alone make a profit.

I have to sell between 1,000 and 2,000 copies of each of my books to recoup the publishing costs, and I couldn’t do that without spending a significant amount of my time building a platform to promote myself and my books.

Some things I do to promote myself are:

  • Offer a website that includes free writing and marketing advice to new and aspiring authors
  • Have a presence on social media sites
  • Participate in on-line author interviews
  • Accept book club invitations and other speaking engagements
  • Network with other people in the industry
  • Write articles (like this one)
  • Take full advantage of all the Amazon author opportunities

And for my books:

  • Submit book descriptions to as many book posting websites as possible
  • Offer periodic book discounts and giveaways
  • Post the first chapter of each book on my website
  • Offer my books for sale on my website
  • Hand out promotional materials
  • Attend book fairs
  • Use paid advertising
  • Establish relationships with other authors who promote my books on their websites and social media pages in exchange for my doing the same for theirs

I spend as much time building an author platform as I do writing. I wish that wasn’t the case—I’d rather spend all my time writing. But until the time I become rich and famous and can afford a publicist, this will be my life. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll actually enjoy all the non-writing stuff that comes with the territory…or not.

Myth #3: It is quite possible to write a book that everyone loves.

Let’s quash this one straight away. No one has ever written a book that was embraced by everyone who read it…and no one ever will. So if you have that notion in your head, save yourself some time and frustration by letting go of it. Instead, think small (I rarely say those two words together, but it’s fitting here) and write your book for a specific audience.

Many novelists, especially those who don’t write genre fiction, find it difficult to identify the target market for their books. What segment of the population is most likely to buy your book? Is it male or female? A baby boomer or a millennial? A liberal or a conservative? A high school grad or someone with a post graduate degree? A social butterfly or a recluse? The more you know about your potential audience, the better writer and marketer you can be.

To appeal to a specific group of readers requires an understanding of their needs, wants and desires. Once you do that, you can lace these characteristics throughout your storyline. Then when you’re done writing and ready to publish, all you have to do is find these people. And that of course can be difficult as well, but keep in mind that the narrower you define the niche, the easier it will be to find your target audience, and the greater the chances of the people you reach ultimately buying your book. Conversely, if you define your niche too narrowly, not enough people will be exposed to your book to generate enough revenue for it to be profitable.

Truth #4: There are several known factors that make a book marketable.

I hesitated including this truth because there are always exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey is a perfect example. It was terribly written. The plot is not conceptually sound. The main character is one-dimensional. And the storyline puts it in the same category as cheap porn. Fifty Shades of Grey sold ten million copies in the first six weeks following its release.

Assuming none of us will ever write the next Fifty Shades of Grey, to make your book marketable, consider the following:

  • Have a front cover design that draws attention to your target audience
  • Write a back cover description that hooks the reader into buying it
  • Create an opening line that immediately pulls the reader into the story
  • Craft a storyline that includes the five basic elements of fiction and is of interest to a specific target audience
  • Create a book that is free of typos, formatting issues, and errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling (see Myth #4)
  • Price the book competitively

Keep in mind that all the marketing in the world will not sell a poorly created book (okay, except for the exceptions). I believe we as authors should strive to make the finished product as flawless as we possibly can—a book for which we are proud to have our name on the cover.

Myth #4: You don’t need to have your book professionally edited.

Actually, this is a myth only if you want to be taken seriously as an author and publish a marketable book. If these aren’t your goals, save your money and forego professional editing. But if these are your goals, consider these reasons for hiring an editor.

  1. The vast majority of writers don’t have the background of a qualified editor—a bachelor’s or master’s degree in English, creative writing, communications, or journalism, and practical experience in all aspects of writing and editing.
  2. Editors are likely to catch errors that authors miss, since it’s easy for authors to inadvertently skip over errors when they know what they meant.
  3. Editors can be more objective than the owner of the writing. After living and breathing the manuscript for months, writers often become too attached to be critical. Editors don’t have this problem.
  4. A good editor will challenge authors to take their manuscripts to the next level.
  5. A second opinion from someone who knows what sells can be invaluable.
  6. A poorly edited book is distracting to most readers.
  7. An author’s future writing can benefit from an editor’s feedback on previous projects.

Having your manuscript professionally edited is expensive—that’s why so many authors don’t do it. But keep in mind that the lack of professional editing is also a contributing factor to why 90% of all self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies.

Ideally, novels go through four levels of editing. Mine do. And so do books that are traditionally published—the ones with whom we compete. That said, if you decide not to have your manuscript edited on all levels, at least consider having it professionally proofread so that your published book doesn’t contain any superficial errors.

Developmental editing
Problematic plots, character development, narrative voice, pacing, clarity, plausibility, flow, dialogue, descriptions, and narrative arc

Sentence structure, clarity, fluidity, tone, redundancies, consistencies, continuity, and phrasing

Grammar, punctuation, spelling, verb tense, subject/verb agreement, and capitalization

Spelling, grammar, and punctuation

Here is a good article on how to find the right editor.

I hope these truths and myths help you on your journey to becoming a novelist, and that it is as enjoyable and rewarding a journey for you as mine has been for me.

Florence_Osmund_headshotx125After a successful career in corporate America, Florence Osmund retired to write novels. “I like to craft stories that contain thought-provoking plots and characters with depth and complexity—particularly ones that challenge readers to survey their own values,” Osmund states. She has written four novels in the literary fiction genre and is working on a fifth. Florence lives with her eighteen-year-old cat Miska in downtown Chicago on the beautiful shore of Lake Michigan.

Osmund dedicates her website to helping new authors—offering advice she wishes she had received before she started writing her first book. There she talks about the writing craft, building an author platform, working with editors, book promotion, and much more.


Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander

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