In October 2015, I began seriously writing my first novel The Nuclear Conspiracy, Part 1 of 3 in the Power Series (I just came up with that…Apparently, trilogies need names, too). I already have a full-time job so I write in my spare time, which is as you can imagine, quite limited. Nonetheless, I’m proud to say that I have written over 89,000 words in less than a year and am gearing up to write the last 40,000 this fall. I’m happy with my progress, but I would be a lot further along if I didn’t have to do so many other things just to become a writer.
When I first thought about becoming a writer many, many years ago, the process was rather straightforward. Step 1: Write book. Step 2: Find agent. Step 3: Agent finds publisher to buy book. Step 4: Write next book. The process was simple, but by no means easy to navigate. I’ve read many examples of now famous authors who have waited years if not decades before they were taken on by a major publishing house. I think every author deep down wants to be picked up by a big name publisher, if not only for the validation that the book is worthy of publication. Based on the stories i’ve read about J.K. Rowling, David Baldacci and many others, I began to manage my own expectations about what would come after crossing the finish line–after achieving the victory of completing my very first novel. Eventually, I made peace with the fact that it might take a year or two or maybe more to catch the attention of an agent. And then, several more years to catch the attention of a publisher. Yes, I could always get lucky…but I’m not going to put my eggs into the “luck” basket. I’d rather be realistic and try to be smart about the next steps after completion.
As I began writing my novel, I started reading everything I could about getting published. How to find an agent. How to write a query letter. How and when to submit a manuscript. As I delved into the latest literature on traditional publishing, I discovered that the simple process of my youth was no longer as simple. Self-publishing has opened the door to anyone who wants to write and publish a book. Now there are more options for authors to choose from and less obstacles to getting a book in print. Initially, though, I wasn’t interested in self-publishing. But then I found out that the rise of the Internet and self-publishing has also radically changed the process of traditional publishing. Publishing houses now expect new authors to come with an already established a platform and fan base, i.e., a significant online presence with a large following. Say what? Now I have to bring readers with me too? And how do I do that if I am a first-time author?
Well, I need a platform. According to the industry experts, a platform for authors consists most often of a blog and a social media presence. For years, I’ve spurned most social media sites. In part because I work for the U.S. government, and it’s a good way to get myself into trouble. But mostly because I’ve found social media to be an enormous time sink and a major distraction. I finally joined Facebook in 2008, and I’ve tried to limit my activity. I’ve used it mostly to stay in touch with friends and family and tend to be more cautious than many about what I post. I promised myself that I would never ever join the Twitter-sphere or anything else similar. But now, as an aspiring author, experts tell me that I need to cultivate a social media presence, to expand it and to expose more of myself online to gain a following…even on Twitter. Ugh.
So, as many of you know, I came out of the writing closet several months ago, declared to the world that I am a writer and started this blog. I am very grateful to my readers and hope that I’m mostly entertaining most of the time. In what little spare time I had to write my novel, I am now blogging as well. And i’ve been busy, busy…writing my novel and also writing my blog. In just six months, I’ve written 17 posts averaging over 1,000 words each. Not bad, right?
Of course, a platform is not just about content, it’s about exposure and building an email list of people interested in me and my book. That way, when my book is finished, I have a few folks to sell it to. I quickly went to task on my online presence. I beefed up my presence on LinkedIn. I also begrudgingly joined Twitter and have tweeted 170 times (still learning how not to write complete sentences). I’ve linked my blog to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, so that whenever I post something on this blog, it gets sent out automatically. I thought I was doing pretty good.
How much exposure do you think I got in six months? Well, I have 17 subscribers to my blog (and I greatly appreciate all of them) and 91 followers on Twitter (I love you all, too). Seriously, when you have so few followers and you’re trying to gain a following to build a platform to become a successful author, each one matters a helluva lot. But let’s take stock. Instead of spending time on my novel, I’ve been writing more than 17,000 words on blog posts over the past six months to gain a following of 108 (many of whom I already know so technically the net gain is less). So my email list may be around 80 people or so. Wow, that’s a lot of work for baby steps in exposure.
Initially, I was planning to pursue the traditional publishing route. But in my reading, I learned some hard truths about the publishing world. I learned that being picked up by a publishing house doesn’t mean that your book will sell that many copies. I learned that publishing houses usually don’t spend much time or resources to market first time authors, so the likelihood of selling copies is not great. There’s no such thing as an all-expense paid book tour and full-scale marketing package for a no-name, first-time author.
I read that selling your book to a publishing house doesn’t mean that you will get very much money for your hard-won masterpiece. An advance for a first-time author might be as little as $3,000-$5,000 or as high as $25,000. And the publisher collects most of the royalties if the book sells. The publisher may decide to print less than 25,000 copies and invest next to nothing to sell those copies. The onus is on you to sell your book. Wait, what? I have to sell my book? I thought I just did. First-time authors often have to invest their own time and money to sell their own book. And the publishing house owns the rights to your book, so you’re contained in the way that you market your own work. In other words, you can’t give a huge discount to move copies out the door. Selling your first book doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to make a living at writing or that the publisher will even buy the next book you write.
Slowly, my mind began to change about how I should best proceed with publishing my novel. If I have to do all the work myself anyway why should I even bother trying to get the attention of a publishing house? With self-publishing, authors have the opportunity to earn much more in royalties. And self-published authors retain total freedom over their book for marketing. They can offer free copies to reviewers and price discounts to increase the number of copies sold. Self-publishing offers a number of key advantages and doesn’t seem to be more work than the traditional route. I have not yet abandoned the idea of traditional publishing completely, but now I don’t have to wait for a publishing house to move forward as an author. I plan to self-publish my first novel.
As the first step, I have to build an email list to sell my book. For better or for worse, I am now a writer, a blogger and a marketer. And my blog isn’t cutting it yet for generating interest. Last week, I began to brainstorm next steps and took a few webinars on marketing. It soon became clear to me that the primary way that new authors build their email list is to offer valuable content in exchange for getting email addresses. A blog can be part of that content, but it has to be more than just the personal interest pieces I’ve been writing. It has to be useful to readers. They need to get some value from it besides sheer entertainment. Many authors offer content that has educational value to their readers. Some provide tips on how to write, how to publish, etc. Someday, I might be able to do this too…but for right now, I’m a novice and am often overwhelmed with how to make this writing thing happen. I’m not yet ready to tell aspiring authors how it’s done.
However, I am a university professor and have expertise to offer. As my day job, I teach at National Defense University (NDU) about national security and more specifically on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). I began racking my brain about what type of content I could offer that would be of interest. I could offer online courses on WMD, study guides, teaching guides, paper topics…the list grew long. But most of the content would require that I spend most of the spare time I have set aside for my novel…on developing content. That would be silly.
Then it came to me. I’ve witnessed an unfilled need both as a student of WMD and a professor teaching on the subject-there is a lack of accessible and brief technical primers on WMD issues. In fact, for my class, I assign a well-known publication by the Office of Technology Assessment (no longer exists) released in 1993: Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction. Every year when I’m updating my syllabus, I search for a better source of technical information pertaining to WMD and it’s just not available.
If you follow my blog, you’ll know by now that I’m a tech junkie. I like knowing the technical background of any issue I deal with. It would not be very hard for me to write a series of brief technical papers on WMD issues. I will attempt to fill this need.
I’ve started work on the first issue of my Technical Series on WMD Issues which will be released this month. It will be entitled “The Basics of the Atom” and examine a few fundamentals necessary for understanding nuclear weapons. I’ll advertise this series here on my blog and give everyone the opportunity to receive this free content in exchange for an email address. Hopefully, this is a winning strategy. Stay tuned!
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.