You know that joke, “The actress was so dumb she slept with the writer”? Why is that funny? Because the writer is always the lowest person on the totem pole. And there are reasons for that.
It would never occur to somebody to practice law without learning the law or to put out a shingle as a plumber without ever having apprenticed, but for some reason many writers think they can just have an idea, write it, and sell it, without learning anything about how publishing works.
My areas are fiction, journalism, nonfiction, and playwriting. I’ve published two novels and I edit and develop nonfiction with writers and publishers. Here’s some broad-stroke advice from these areas:
=> A professional text matters! It matters that a book read well, have proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar. It matters that you follow the Chicago Manual of Style (for books and magazines). Or proper film or TV format. Or AP style for newspapers and journals that require it.
=> Learn the lingo. For instance, “a fiction novel” is redundant; a novel is always fiction.
=> If you are writing nonfiction and presenting yourself as an expert, you should be an expert. That means you’ve published on the topic, you work professionally in your area or you teach the topic, you have academic credentials in the topic, you have undergone training where you were evaluated by knowledgeable people in the field and you have been tested and substantiated as an expert.
=> If you can’t afford a professional edit for your book, read Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition. Actually READ it. It will not only tell you rules and lingo, but it offers a pretty good course in publishing.
=> Read all the articles in Writer’s Market. Learn about how to present work, rights, and contracts.
=> Understand that being a writer is no longer enough. For book writing, writers are expected to have a “platform” — expertise, ties to the readers of their work, the ability to present and sell. If you resent this, let that go and concentrate on creating or discovering what your platform credits are.
=> Read Publisher’s Weekly, or subscribe for free to Shelf Awareness-Pro (http://www.Shelf-Awareness.com), a daily newsletter about book selling. Even if you don’t plan to self-publish or start your own publishing company, you can join Independent Book Publishers Association (http://www.ibpa-online.org) which has a wonderful magazine full of education and news as well as many other benefits and marketing opportunities.
=> Read Peter Rubie’s book The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events, or read the free web chapter on book proposals: http://fineprintlit.com/resources/writing-a-book-proposal/.
=> If it’s a time in your life when you can afford it, try to get an entry-level job at a publisher or whatever kind of company is appropriate for your interest. You’ll learn the lay of the land from the inside out and make next to no money, but, if you’re like me, it’s a lot more fun than going to school.
=> If you are a working writer or editor, join the Linkedin group LinkEds & writers (https://www.linkedin.com/groups/LinkEds-writers-37917/about). It’s filled with smart professionals who generously share their education.
=> If you’ve already written your book and know nothing about the publishing industry or editing, I recommend getting help. Ask around, listen to people you trust who work in the industry. And if you need a professional edit or coaching, search (by key words or subjects) the free database of Editorial Freelancers Association (http://www.the-efa.org/); job posting is free.
Educate yourself about the industry you want to work in. It’s fun!
Betsy Robinson is a freelance book editor, specializing in spirituality, psychology, and self-help. Her novel, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, winner of Black Lawrence Press’s 2013 Big Moose Prize, was published in September 2014. Her website is www.BetsyRobinson-writer.com.