Let’s Get Lit-erary: How an idea turns into a book

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So you have an idea, but how exactly do you turn it into a fully-fledged novel? What does it take to see your idea unfold and make its way to a bookstore? The process can be long and grueling, but certainly worth the investments of time and money. The road to publishing is easier for established authors, but, of course, they too were once rookies. So here’s a guide to getting your book written and published, from someone who has yet to do either of these things, but spends her free time aspiring to be a novelist.  

The first step is to write a manuscript — essentially a polished draft. Now, this is easier said than done. Different writers have different approaches to tackling a manuscript. Some are plotters, others consider themselves pantsers. A plotter goes through the different acts of their story before even delving into writing it. Developing a clear outline guides plotters as they type their tale, preventing it from straying off track and minimizing revision time. Pantsers, on the other hand, prefer to let ideas come to them as they write, allowing more freedom than an outline might provide. Other writers do a mixture of both, creating general guidelines beforehand, but diverging as they feel fit.  

The time it takes to write a manuscript greatly varies from writer to writer. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years. Many writers partake in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), committing to write 50,000 words every November. This often puts a huge dent in their novel, if not completes it. Others go on writing retreats, dedicate a portion of each day to hitting word count goals, watch videos or listen to podcasts for motivation. One of my favorite writing podcasts is “The Kate & Abbie Show.” 

Once a first draft is finished, it’s time to revise! Revising, and even rewriting, your manuscript is strongly encouraged. After reworking the piece, new writers will typically turn to beta readers for fresh perspectives. Beta readers should be people who can provide honest and unbiased feedback. They provide much-needed constructive criticism, but by no means replace a professional editor.  

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

From this point forward, you have to make a critical choice. To quote Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood / And sorry I could not travel both.” One route is self-publishing, the other is traditional publishing. And as Frost asserts, only one can be pursued.  

Self-publishing occurs when an author goes through the publishing process from start to finish on their own. They make all the decisions, own all the rights and royalties and are responsible for covering all associated costs. Self-publishing is considerably faster than traditional publishing. Sites like Barnes & Noble Press and Kindle Direct Publishing help guide you through the process, the latter allowing you to sell your book on Amazon. However, self-publishing doesn’t typically yield great results. It can be difficult to produce a product that comes across as professional and will probably never hit The New York Times Bestseller list. That’s not to dissuade anyone from choosing this route, but it’s not exactly practical for those pursuing writing as a career.  

The other, more competitive, route is traditional publishing. Here, an author works with a publishing house to bring their novel to life. Authors give up a lot of rights, but don’t have to cover the costs of printing and publishing. Traditional publishing is usually more desirable but requires a lot of patience.  

Before a writer can even begin working with a publisher, they have to find a literary agent to represent them and their manuscript. This is a process in itself, requiring you to assess the marketability of your work. After clearly defining a genre and target reader, writers will research credible agents that specialize in the genre they’ve written. Then, they’ll write a query letter, pitching not only their manuscript, but also themselves. A query letter is generally one page, including a synopsis, the target audience and personal information; it’s essentially a first impression, and it has to be good. 

After receiving dozens of rejections, a few agents will hopefully express interest, having you send over a copy of your full manuscript. If they’re still interested after having read it, they’ll send over an offer of representation. Finally, a writer can accept an offer and sign a contract with their agent.  

From that point on, the agent will take some weight off their shoulders and begin submitting a writer’s manuscript to various publishing houses. If all goes to plan, an editor will reach out, offering a book deal. After you and your agent negotiate royalties and advances, a final contract is signed and a launch date — set a year or two away — is decided upon.  

After an editor helps you make changes, usually plot-wise or structural, they’ll send it off to a copy editor, who dives into the nitty-gritty grammatical issues. Around six months before publication, there will be a push to market the novel, settle on blurbs, send out advanced reader copies and finalize a cover. Unfortunately, most authors don’t have much control over what the cover of their piece will look like. Instead, that is largely up to the art department and designated illustrator. 

At long last, the work is printed, distributed and officially released. Publishers will generally pay authors once or twice a year, the amount based on the negotiated royalty rate. Authors can be given an advance before their book is officially published, but they act like loans. A standard royalty rate might be 10% of a book’s retail price, profit that will go directly to “paying back” the publisher for the advance. After that, the royalties are theoretically all yours, though your literary agent will likely earn a 15% commission on all royalties as well.  

After such an exhausting process, authors don’t even end up getting paid that much. Nonetheless, it must be unbelievably rewarding to see your work in a bookstore and see people willing to pay to read your train of thought. So here’s to all the authors out there, because they deserve all the praise they can possibly get.

After such an exhausting process, authors don’t even end up getting paid that much. Nonetheless, it must be unbelievably rewarding to see your work in a bookstore and see people willing to pay to read your train of thought. So here’s to all the authors out there, because they deserve all the praise they can possibly get.  

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