Four Truths and Four Myths That Every New Novelist Should Know

by | Jul 25, 2016

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 www.pred-ed.com 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 www.fussylibrarian.com promotion who claims to have 121,000 e-mail subscribers, or $65-2,525 for a www.BookBub.com 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 www.florenceosmund.com 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 authorcentral.amazon.com

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

Line-editing
Sentence structure, clarity, fluidity, tone, redundancies, consistencies, continuity, and phrasing

Copy-editing
Grammar, punctuation, spelling, verb tense, subject/verb agreement, and capitalization

Proofreading
Spelling, grammar, and punctuation

Here is a good article on how to find the right editor. https://janefriedman.com/2013/05/31/find-freelance-book-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 https://www.novelelements.com 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.

 
Photo: pixabay.com.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

29 Comments

  1. Eva Blaskovic

    “Truth #2: You have to spend money to make money” — Yes, yes, yes. It is especially true for marketing. This makes it hard to get known without money. It also means the best known books are not necessarily the best books, and vice-versa. As for production, it costs thousands to produce a book as a self-pub or hybrid-pub: professional critique, professional editors/proofreaders, cover design, publishing agreement (hybrid publishing) — and that’s before promo costs such as event fees, marketing material, travel, etc.

    As for traditional publishing, you’re still paying professionals for critique and editing before you ever submit (if you’re wise), and these fees can be substantial.

    Reply
  2. Erik Winther

    It’s hard to be a novelist. Some have it easy. I like when newcomers become instant success and they get a movie deal.

    Reply
  3. Brian Corbin

    Is it a good idea to have everything lined up, editor etc…. well before your novel is completed? This is my first go at writing, other than just doodling in my spare time. Great article! Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      Thank you for your question and feedback, Brian.

      Lining up an editor before your novel has been completed is recommended. Most editors will critique the first chapter for free to give you an idea of what they will do for your manuscript in exchange for the fee they charge. This will give you an idea of the condition of your writing and whether to continue writing that way or make changes that will pay off in the long run. Most editors want to make sure it’s going to be a good working relationship as much as you do, and having them critique the first chapter is an excellent way to test that.

      You probably want to have your manuscript complete at least in draft form before you engage a cover designer because you want to give that person an in-depth synopsis (including spoilers) in order for him/her to create the most relevant design.

      As for formatters and printers, I recommend thoroughly vetting them beforehand so that when you’re ready to engage them, you know their reputation, turnaround time, and pricing.

      I hope I’ve answered your question. Good luck with your debut book!

      Reply
  4. Robert Kirkendall

    Thank you for the helpful article, Florence. A quick question, I was informed by someone in the publishing field that a novel has to have at least 50,000 words. Is it now 80,000 words? I don’t want to have to stuff my novel with unnecessary verbiage just so I can call it a novel.

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      I have always used the 80,000-word rule, Robert, but since you raised the question, I decided to investigate it a little further. I couldn’t find a standard that had been set by any writers organization–all I found were a number of opinions. Most agents I found use the 80,000-word rule for commercial and literary novels, longer for sci-fi, and shorter for middle grade and YA.

      Being there is apparently no hard and fast rule, I don’t think you’d be rebuffed by many for writing a novel with less than 80,000 words. What I wouldn’t recommend is to add words just to reach some arbitrary number. If you’ve written a strong story that is 50,000 words long, I would leave it alone.

      If anyone else can shed light on this, please jump in.

      Reply
      • Robert Kirkendall

        Thanks for the response, Florence. I’ll go with quality over quantity. :-)

        Reply
  5. Dana Michaels

    Thanks for this helpful, encouraging post, Florence! May I ask about writing styles? I’m talking about APA style, Associated Press style, Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), etc. I’ve used these for years to write public information and non-fiction articles. For my first attempt at fiction, I’ve used CMS. To me, it’s the best for clarity and readability.

    But I wonder… is there a standard style, or one preferred by top editors, for novels? Are different styles preferred for different genres? Thank you.

    –Dana

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      Thank you for your feedback, Dana. Every editor I know uses The Chicago Manual of Style, so that’s what I go by as well. To the best of my knowledge, editors use the CMS for all genres, but I will check around and if I find out any differently, I’ll add a comment to this post.

      Good luck in your writing projects!

      Reply
  6. Mira Prabhu

    Terrific post! Thanks so much, Florence. I’m going straight to your website now. Oh, and today’s the formal launch of my second novel…so your post was particularly interesting for me to read. All the best, Mira

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, Mira! Thanks for your feedback, and good luck on your book launch.

      Reply
  7. Dale Furse

    Great article, thanks, Florence.
    Yvonne’s comment re editing, shows how quickly things change in the trad or indie publishing industry.

    Reply
  8. Marie Fostino

    Hi Florence, I really enjoyed this article. I am from Oak lawn Ill, and very jealous that you live downtown Chicago. I LOVE CHICAGO. I live in Phoenix now. I have written a few books and have some reviews but would love to get my books really out to the reading world. lol I think that there are so many writers out there, that we are a dime a dozen and our query letter has to make the literary agent really want to see what we wrote. It is the query letter that gets us past the front door but than our writing better be edited or we are thrown out again. Plus they want something new, never been written and I know I don’t have that kind of imagination. lol Thanks for your article and keep writing. Maybe someday I will be able to have a best seller but for now I am enjoying writing and reading any reviews I get.

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      Thank you for your comment, Marie. I’m glad to meet a former Illinoisan! Getting published through an agent and traditional publisher is tough, very tough. If you self-published the books you have written and are looking for exposure for them, visit my website for ways to develop a platform for you and your books. It’s a lot of work, but the simple truth is that if no one knows your books are available, no one will buy them.

      Good luck to you, and if I can be of any further help, please feel free to contact me via my website contact form.

      Reply
  9. Yudron Wangmo

    Just FYI: Young adult novels usually have word counts of 50,000 and up. Middle-grade fiction is often shorter still.

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      Thank you for the clarification, Yudron. I didn’t know that.

      Reply
  10. Kerry J Donovan

    Never a truer word. Excellent article, Florence.

    Reply
  11. Ellie Campbell

    Thanks Florence. Really interesting article and sound advice!

    Reply
  12. Linda Lee Williams

    Amazing post worth reading, sharing, and keeping on hand. Thanks, Florence!

    Reply
  13. Patricia Zick

    Thanks for some good information, Florence.

    Reply
  14. Florence Osmund

    Joel, thank you for allowing me to use The Book Designer to express my thoughts about writing a novel. This highly-competitive industry is a tough one, especially for new authors, and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.

    Reply
    • Joel Friedlander

      Florence, it’s a pleasure to host you for your second article on The Book Designer, and I’m sure many new novelists will profit from your work.

      Reply
  15. Yvonne Hertzberger

    For the most part I agree with everything you say here, with one exception. Many traditional publishers now expect the author to find an editor, and pay for that editing – that is if they will take a new author on at all. Most also no longer offer promotion support. Only authors that have already earned money for the publisher are supported with promotion funds and direction. The result is that it is almost impossible for a rookie to break into the market.

    Reply
    • Florence Osmund

      That’s pretty interesting, Yvonne. I knew about traditional publishers scaling back on promotion, but didn’t know some are actually requiring authors to handle their own editing. New authors are best served by self-publishing, unless of course they fall into one of those “I had this relationship with this celebrity” category. Thanks for your feedback.

      Reply

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