By Emily S. Smith
You want to be an author? Fantastic! You are in great company: Jane Austen, Stephen King, J.K Rowling … all talented writers. But they all had to begin somewhere, right?
I’m Emily S. Smith. I’ve self-published two picture books, had two picture books published by a traditional publisher (Larrikin House), and I have another picture book due for release in early 2022.
I have learned a lot along my journey that I wish I’d known at the start:
1. Join a Writers’ Group.
When I look back now on my early stories, I cringe a little. I really had no idea what I was doing. So glad I joined the HWC Writers’ Group!
Writers’ Groups are a wonderful way to dip your toe in the water and have your work looked at by others who share your passion. They provide a safe space to air your stories but they also offer something more important: Feedback.
In the beginning, I thought my stories were great. I thought every publisher out there would be excited to read my work and offer me a publishing contract. In hindsight, my stories were not so good. But I was new to writing and hadn’t developed the ability to critique my own work. I didn’t know about the unwritten guidelines for picture books. This is where joining the Writers’ Group and having my work critiqued by people with experience was immensely valuable (and still is). I learned how to critique my own work and become a better writer as a result.
2. Look for your writing ‘tribe’ on Social Media.
The writing community is strong and supportive online. There are many different groups on Facebook that you can join to share your ideas and information, such as when a traditional publishing house is open for submissions, writing competitions that are open, and any upcoming Writing Conferences. I’m a member of a number of children’s writing groups on Facebook, and it’s a wonderful way to connect with like-minded people and learn new things. It’s also a place of support and encouragement. Groups for children’s writers include Just Write For Kids, Creative Kids Tales Network, and the Duck Pond.
3. Research your genre and market
You want to write that book? Great! So do a million other people. But writing a book and writing a GOOD book are two very different things. Read as many books as you can in your genre. What makes them work? What do you enjoy about them? Are there any similar structures that they follow? Who is the target market? What does the target market want? How can you meet the wants of the market in a new way? (Point of difference is a huge thing in the book publishing community).
A trap I fell into in the beginning of my author journey was writing what I wanted to write regardless of whether there was a market for it or not. There’s no point writing something nobody wants to read if your goal is to get published. You really need to look at the market.
What’s selling well?
What can you add?
You may feel really passionate about something, but if there isn’t a market for your work, you will struggle to sell books (or be picked up by a publisher). At the end of the day, selling books is a business, and you have to approach it with a business-mind.
4.Take part in writing courses and classes
Even if you think you are an amazing writer, you can always learn more. I have been to many classes and courses and have always come away with something (even if it was just a renewed sense of motivation, or the realisation that I have actually grown and learned a lot about writing over the years). The Hunter Writers Centre has offered some incredible workshops in the past with established authors such as Jacqueline Harvey (of Alice Miranda fame) and Leslie Gibbs. These people know their stuff. Go and learn as much as you can from them.
5. Go to Writing Conferences
In Australia, there are a number of literary conferences that take place throughout the year. At these conferences you get to rub shoulders with editors, publishers, agents and fellow creatives, attend workshops and talks about the industry that give you valuable information and insight, as well as have the opportunity to get your work in front of publishers and agents. I have found the networking opportunities at these events so worthwhile and have been asked by editors to submit my work to them through such events.
For the children’s writers out there, we have Kid Lit Vic in Melbourne, CYA in Brisbane, Writers Unleashed in Sydney, and Creative Kids Tales in Sydney.
6. Submitting your work to publishers
Don’t send your manuscript before it’s ready.
Have it looked at and critiqued by other people.
Re-edit it again.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written a first draft, thought it was the bee’s knees, sent it off to my writers’ group to be critiqued only to find out it actually had many issues that I didn’t even notice. I’m so glad I didn’t send it to the publishers prematurely. No matter how great you think your work is, it can always be improved.
Traditional Publishers (like Penguin Random House, Allen and Unwin, Pan Macmillan) will have all of the information about how to submit on their websites.
If they say they don’t want rhyme, don’t submit rhyme. If they don’t want historical fiction about ladies of the night, don’t send them historical fiction about ladies of the night. Look at the kinds of books they publish, and if yours doesn’t fit, don’t send it.
As part of the submissions process, publishers will often ask for titles that are comparable to your book, word counts etc. Make sure you know this information. Practice writing a synopsis of your book, as a lot of publishers ask for these too.
Often publishers may only be open for unsolicited submissions during certain times of the year. It’s important that you check their websites regularly to find out if they are open. (Again, this is where online groups are wonderful as people often share this kind of information in the forums).
7. Helpful Software Apps for Writing
There are some great apps out there that I find super useful with my writing.
Grammarly – it picks up all sorts of issues in your writing, such as long-winded sentences that are difficult to understand, the over-use of adverbs, passive voice, spelling and grammar mistakes. It’s awesome.
Hemmingway – like Grammarly, it picks up issues with passive voice, adverbs, sentences that are difficult to understand, but it also tells you the ‘readability’ level (such as 3rd Grade).
Microsoft Word Text-to-Speech Function – This has actually been a bit of a game changer for me. When you listen to your work being read back to you, you hear things that you overlook when you read the work yourself. I’ve picked up spelling issues, missed apostrophes, the need for commas to break up sentences, and rhyme and meter issues in my books as a result of this function.
8. Self-publishing VS Traditional Publishing
As an author who has self-published books and also had my work published through a traditional publishing house, I have a little bit of insight into both of these methods of publishing. Each are challenging in their own ways.
Self-publishing offers you a lot of control over the project. You are in charge of everything – from writing, to designing, to distribution, to marketing. Many authors get their start this way, including the incomparable Andy Griffiths of the Treehouse Series fame. In saying that, it takes a lot of time and energy to do this.
If you have written a picture book, you have to find an illustrator and pay for their services. You have to design the book (or pay someone else to). You have to pay to get it printed (whether you do print-on-demand through somewhere like Ingram Spark/Lightning Source or you get your books printed in China, like many authors choose to). You have to go out and sell your book to bookshops (distribution of self-published books can be very challenging, as many big chains don’t do books on consignment). Marketing and advertising are also completely down to you. That being said, you get a much higher percentage of profit when the book is sold, compared to what you would if your book was published by a traditional publisher.
I personally learned a huge amount the self-publishing process, and I’m glad I did it. It is a great way to get started and get noticed by publishers.
Traditional publishing is a very different ball-game. If your manuscript has been accepted by a publisher, they will send you a contract to sign. The publisher will pay you an advance, find and pay for the illustrator, pay for printing, and be in charge of distributing. They will do some marketing but there is also the expectation that the author will put energy into marketing and promoting their book through in-store visits, book launches, school visits, social media campaigns etc. Because the publisher absorbs so much of the costs that go into making the book, the author’s percentage of profit is much lower than with self-publishing.
BEWARE VANITY PUBLISHERS. Any publisher who says they are open to submissions, contacts you to say that you have been successful, and then asks for $5000 is not to be trusted.
9. Do I need a website and to be active on social media?
The bigger the platform you have, the better. Even if you don’t have a book out yet, you can still have social media accounts that are ‘book-related’ or ‘writing-related’.
Have a website.
It’s about building YOU as a brand.
I’ve had conversations with different editors and publishers who have said that they often go to authors’ websites and social media accounts to see what they are about. It’s a way for people to connect with you, and connection is key.
10. Have fun
Seriously, writing is about expressing yourself and your creativity. If it gets to the point where writing is more of a chore than a joy, take a step back. It will always be there for you when you are in a different headspace. Look at George R.R. Martin. He’s the author of the series A Song of Fire and Ice that the TV show Game of Thrones was based on. He still hasn’t finished the last book and it’s been 10 years since the previous book was published. He knows what he’s doing, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.