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Book publishing has been around for centuries. And while I wasn't around during the time of the first printing press, I'm willing to bet that they had all sorts of advice for anyone looking to get published even back then.
I mean, it was probably advice like “get on Henry VIII's good side and Cambridge Press will publish you” but nonetheless, for as long as humans have been publishing each other's stories, there has been advice on how to have your story accepted and published.
But, just as printing and publishing has changed over the centuries, so has the advice on how to get published.
Unfortunately, advice doesn't always keep up with the changing technology and processes. What worked to get people published even just 10 years ago doesn't necessarily work today.
So, let's dive into some of that once widespread advice and find how it has changed over the years.
Why You Need to Ignore Outdated Publishing Advice
As writers, we all want to succeed in our craft and get our work out into the world for others to read. But publishing is a long, drawn out process that can get overwhelming fast. So, we tend seek advice from the people who have gone before us on how to navigate the tricky world of book publishing.
Unfortunately, some people don't update their advice for the times, which is why you'll still hear it.
The Perils of Sticking with Old Advice
Relying on outdated advice can lead to missed opportunities or even harm your chances of success. For example, following the old adage “write what you know” can be limiting and actually discourage creativity by preventing writers from exploring new topics and ideas.
Similarly, only submitting manuscripts to big publishers was once a common practice; however, it fails to account for the rise of self-publishing options that have become more accessible over time. Limiting yourself to only traditional publishing routes could cost you valuable exposure or even prevent you from getting your work out there entirely.
It's critical for writers stay up-to-date with the current trends and advice regarding book publishing. Outdated advice can prevent writers from reaching their full potential and may even harm their chances of success. By exploring new areas of interest, considering all publishing options, taking advantage of self-promotion opportunities, and experimenting with different genres, writers can increase their chances of succeeding in today's ever-changing industry.
Outdated Publishing Advice to Avoid
The publishing industry has undergone a significant transformation in the last few years, with technology and globalization changing the way books are written, edited, and marketed. And the rise and accessibility of self-publishing has an had enormous impact on the processes of traditional publishing.
You Need a Large Following to Get an Agent
Once upon a time, if you wanted a good book deal from a good publisher, you had to build up an author platform that featured, oh, like 100,000 followers.
This was fine back in 2012 before anyone knew any better and follower count was everything (and super easy to achieve compared to today, when people are more discerning over who they follow), but now, clinging to this advice can actually hurt your chances.
I have talked to I-don't-know-how-many literary agents on Twitter and on Clubhouse about what they look for in a new author, and they all agree: it's the quality of followers over quantity.
It's just too easy to buy fake followers and fake engagement.
What agents actually want to see when they check you out on social media is how your audience is relating to you. They want to see:
- Are your voice and brand coming through consistently? if they go through your content, will they be able to see who you are and who you're talking to? Does your author persona come through loud and clear? Or does it change from one post to the next?
- Are people responding to your posts? Not just with generic likes and comments (which can be bought easily), but are they commenting in ways that inspire more conversation? Do those comments show a connection with your content?
- Are your followers excited about your upcoming book? This one is a little trickier because so many people are scared to start marketing their book before it's ready to be sold, but it's one of the most important things that an agent looks for when it comes to choosing to represent you. Have you started talking about your book to your following at all, and if so, what has their reaction been?
Anyone clinging to the time when all you needed to get a book deal was a large following is out of touch with what the purpose of an author platform even is. Your author platform is there to help you connect with readers so you can sell your books. The only reason an agent will want to see what your author platform looks like would be to predict roughly how well it is set up to sell those books.
Additionally, anyone telling you that you have to have a large following to get a book deal doesn't understand social media at all. Social media has changed over the years. It used to take 100,000+ followers to sell hundreds of copies of your books, now it can take as little as one solid video that goes viral on the right platform. You don't even need followers for that! Just good content, an understanding of your ideal reader, and the ability to connect with that reader.
The algorithm can take care of the rest.
Which means the number of followers you have is the least (literally) of your worries when it comes to getting that book deal.
Don't Write for the Money, Write for the Passion
I mean, look, no one ever said that they wanted to become an author so they could learn how to sell books.
And most of us got into writing because we love reading. We love stories and we love reading stories and we wanted to share our stories.
But last time I tried to pay my rent with my passion, it didn't quite go as planned.
Writing a book is a long process that is daunting. Even if you get caught up in the idea of writing a book in a month, which doesn't seem like a long time, you are still going to spend a lot of time editing that book, getting it published, and then you still have to get it to sell.
And you want to do all that for free??
This is what happens when people think of writing as a hobby and refuse to think of author as being a career choice.
Getting paid for your passion does not diminish your passion.
And I don't understand why anyone would ever tell this to authors? We don't say this to musicians, right? We don't say “hey go perform at that concert but do it for the passion of the music don't bother trying to get paid.”
We don't tell it to teachers… we don't tell surgeons “oh you should go fix that man's heart because you're passionate about saving lives, not because you want to get paid.”
(I better stop before someone tells me that we do say these things and I just haven't heard them yet…)
Listen, it's okay to get paid for doing something you're passionate about. You don't need to give away your book for free just because it was a passion project. Anyone telling you otherwise doesn't understand the hard work that goes into writing a book and doesn't value writing at all.
Stick to Traditional Genres with a Proven Market Size
While there will always be readers who prefer traditional genres like romance , horror , mystery etc . , tastes have evolved over time in the publishing industry – what was once considered “niche” is now increasingly popular among audiences (think dystopian YA novels like The Hunger Games).
Writers who stick too closely with traditional genre conventions may miss out on new trends that emerge in the marketplace. Experimenting with different genres can bring fresh life into your writing.
Mixing elements from different genres can produce exciting hybrids that appeal to a broader range of readers – such as magical realism fused with science fiction themes + setting (like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude). Trying something completely new might feel daunting at first but could lead to greater success than playing it safe within existing genre convention boundaries .
As the publishing industry continues to evolve and change, outdated advice should be avoided so as not hinder one's prose development and book sales success. Instead, writers should be open to exploring new ideas and opportunities for growth, choosing the publishing path that best suits their needs, marketing themselves actively through social media and events while experimenting with writing across different genres. Staying abreast of these shifts in the industry is key to staying relevant as a writer in today's market.
Mail Your Manuscript to Yourself to Prove Copyright
Ah, the “poor man's copyright”—mail a copy of your manuscript to yourself and then you'll have proof that it's yours.
I mean it sounds like it should make sense, right? When you send something through the mail, there is a postmark stamped onto it. So, as long as the manuscript remains inside the sealed envelope, you'll have a stamped piece of proof that the manuscript existed and was in your possession at a certain date. This is where I should tell you that this method never made sense to me, because how does that prove that you're the one who wrote the manuscript? It doesn't. And I've never been able to find any evidence that anyone ended up in any sort of court where they then were called to prove copyright and all they had to do was open up this envelope.
According to the US Copyright Office, mailing your manuscript to yourself gives you no real protection—it basically does nothing. Sending your manuscript through the mail is just a waste of time, the paper you printed the manuscript on, and the stamps attached to the envelope.
This probably could have worked back in the 1950s or 1960s, before the internet and widespread use of computers started leaving digital stamps, but there's no evidence that it was widely used by writers to prove their own copyright.
So, at worst, anyone giving this advice doesn't understand how copyright actually works; and at best, anyone giving this advice doesn't understand how today's technology works.
In the United States, your work is protected by copyright the minute you start writing it. Today's computers place a date and time stamp on every file you create. Ergo, the only thing you need to prove copyright is the file on your computer. And luckily, because authors often create backup copies of their work, chances are you have an entire recorded timeline of your manuscript.
And if that's not enough for you, you can also always email the file back to yourself and accomplish the same thing that mailing the manuscript to you would do.
Although you should know that I talked to David Weiner, Assistant General Counsel at Harper Collins, said no one's really going to be able to rely on email or mail to prove copyright should a major conflict come up that requires you to. In fact, he confirmed what I have already been thinking for years: if you think you might need to prove copyright of your work, create a backup.
And while we're talking about copyright and proof of ownership, there's also some really bad advice floating around that if you want to protect your work pre-published, you should register it through the Library of Congress.
I'm not sure where to begin with this one. Yes, registering your manuscript's copyright with the Library of Congress will extend your protection (remember, you're already protected just by having it written, so registration is not required for that). However, to do so requires that you send your manuscript into the library to be available for anyone to read. Yes, that means your unfinished, unedited, unrevised, unpublished manuscript will be available at the Library of Congress for all to see. You will have paid to immortalize every one of your typos and mistakes.
And no, it's not a lot of money to register your copyright (between $45 and $85 depending on the nature of your work), but how many times do you want to pay that $45 to $85 when doing so doesn't actually grant you any more protection?
If you're going to share your work with anyone, such as an editor or a ghostwriter or an agent, use common sense and be careful with who you choose. Then send a copy of your manuscript through a traceable technology like email or trusted online forms to create that digital timestamp.
That's all you need.
If You Can't Get a Book Deal, You Can Always Self Publish
I just can't with this advice. It makes me roll my eyes so hard.
This is right up there with “if you can't handle rejection, you should self publish.” Ew.
Anyone still sharing this advice just is not up with the times with publishing at all and doesn't understand what self publishing even is right now.
In decades past, traditional publishing houses were often viewed as gatekeepers for literary success—writers who secured a book deal with one of these big names had officially “made it.” Subsequently, this meant that self-publishing was for authors who couldn't “make it,” either because their story wasn't good enough or because they gave up after being rejected.
Pretty sure you can figure out exactly why I hate this advice so much…
Today? These agents are viewed more as middle-men than gatekeepers. They are people who profit (usually more than you do) when they can sell your book, and they aren't exactly necessary.
Self publishing options like Lulu, Ingram Spark, and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing have made it easier than ever for independent authors to gain exposure without traditional publishing backing them. And with nearly 30% of the publishing market now choosing to self publish, more and more authors are proving every day you can out-market and out-sell traditionally published authors any day of the week.
In fact, the rise of self publishing has forced traditional publishing to scramble just to keep up. In the past couple of years, I have heard more and more publishers begin to really focus in on the type of direct marketing self published authors have always done.
Self publishing is not a consolation prize relegated to authors who couldn't make it…it is a proud trophy for authors who refused to allow a publishing industry to take advantage of them.
Take Pride in Being an Author, Don't Use a Pen Name
There are so many reasons why someone might choose to create and use a pseudonym, or a pen name, for their books.
But one of the absolute worst pieces of advice I have ever heard one author tell another was that you should have pride enough in your work to use your real name and never use a pen name.
Okay, so let me give you some context.
I was hosting a room on Clubhouse with other authors when a woman came up onto the stage and said she had just escaped a domestic violence situation and wanted to write her story of survival, but was scared of her abuser and would using a pen name protect her?
The advice I gave was advice I always give when it comes to using a pen name:
- It's a lot of work building a brand out of nothing, so be prepared.
- Today's digital age makes it harder for pen names to be kept secure, so take any other necessary precautions to make sure you are safe before you start.
And wouldn't you know but a male author interrupted so that he could chuckle and mansplain about pen names. He started actually yelling at this woman for even considering a pen name “unless there's a celebrity that already shares your name.”
It was one of the grossest instances of being tone-deaf and out of touch that I have ever witnessed.
Listen, choosing to use a pen name is going to be as personal a choice as writing the story itself. If you want to use a pen name for any reason, then please do it. Just be sure to take some time to address certain considerations before you go through all that work.
And above all, if the reason you want to use a pen name is because you don't feel safe: get safe. Your safety is paramount to everything else. Don't let anyone bully you out of using a pen name because of pride.
Sorry for the rant on this, but I just can't sometimes.
Final Thoughts on Outdated Publishing Advice that Should be Avoided
The publishing industry is constantly evolving, and it's important for us to stay up-to-date with current trends and advice. Keep an open mind and seek out new information from people who understand what's happening today, and you'll increase chances of success.
One way to stay current is by regularly reading industry publications such as Publishers Weekly or following industry professionals on social media. Attending writing conferences or joining writer groups can also provide valuable information and networking opportunities.
In addition, experiment with new technologies such as audiobooks to expand your reach as a writer.
Change is only bad if you refuse to follow along. By embracing change and continually learning, you can thrive in today's ever-changing publishing landscape.
Ultimately, while it's valuable to learn from established traditions, it's more important to remain adaptable in a constantly changing world. By seeking out new opportunities rather than limiting yourself with outdated advice, you give yourself a greater chance at success as an author. And that's what we all want.