The other day, I was asked by a family member to help out an acquaintance. It seems this gentleman is an aspiring author, and he was looking for advice on how to proceed toward publication. Excellent question! Although I haven’t made the leap to professional publishing myself as yet, I have worked through the process, and looked into it, and the basics are fairly simple. I put together a sort of quick-start guide for him, and now I’m posting it here, in slightly modified form.
Two things: First, this guide is by no means exhaustive or authoritative. There are people out there who are far more qualified than me to make these recommendations, and you can find any number of blogs that specialize in this sort of advice, with varying degrees of depth. This is simply a starting point. Nothing will substitute for your own research, but I appreciate you coming here for a first look! Second, when I prepared this post, I had very little information as to what the acquaintance for whom I prepared it was looking for, or what he was writing. Therefore I’ve broadened the scope a bit; this post covers more than just traditional or paid publishing. As a result, there should be something here for everyone. Let’s get started!
What type of publishing are you interested in?
“Publishing” is an inclusive term, and doesn’t just mean traditional, print-book, royalty-earning publishing. There are lots of types and levels to this. Here are the broad options:
Blogging: You’ll want a site you can regularly update with new posts as you see fit, which is just yours (not any other contributors unless you choose to have them). Can be based around an interest, or be general purpose. Some sites that offer blog hosting for free are:
- Blogger.com (formerly BlogSpot)—this one is big and versatile and is owned by Google.
- WordPress.com—I use this one, and you’re looking at it right now. Allows multiple blogs under one email address (most of these do that, but it’s worth noting). WordPress is the granddaddy of blogging sites; it’s big and well-established, (17% of all websites are WordPress sites!) doesn’t often have bugs, has a ton of themes available. Easy to use. WordPress.com is free, and if you ever reach the point where you are doing well and making money on it and want to host it yourself, WordPress.org is the paid service that does that. But really, .com is usually sufficient.
- LiveJournal.com—getting a bit outdated, but still popular. Has a free and a paid version. One useful feature is it allows video uploading on the free version, which WordPress does not (unless you pay a premium fee).
- Tumblr.com—Tends to be more visual than literary. Has a comment reply system similar to Reddit. I, for one, found that it isn’t very useful for posting stories and text as opposed to pictures, but you may disagree. Very popular, but a lot of people make fun of it.
- Blog.com—considered to be a little more professional, but not too much. Tends to have a lot of features that cost premium fees, but otherwise not bad.
- Weebly.com—comparable to WordPress as far as utility and features. I have a friend who uses it and really likes it. I don’t know much about it personally, though.
- Penzu.com—I really don’t know anything about this one. Unlimited storage, though, which is very rare.
- Squarespace.com—Very easy to use, allegedly (haven’t tried it myself). I hear good things, but I don’t know much about it.
- Svbtle.com—No, that’s not a misspelling, or at least, it’s intentionally misspelled. I don’t know anything about it really, but I hear it’s kind of minimalist.
Blogs don’t generate much money unless you are really successful. Most platforms have ad services that can monetize your site, but they’ll have rules about how it works. Just something to look into.
Fanfiction or original fiction (without pay): If you just want to get an audience for your fiction, and aren’t trying to make any money, this may be what you need. Fanfiction.net is for fanfiction, with a huge variety of categories. It’s been several years since I used it, but it doesn’t seem to have changed much, though they do have a fairly active administration team. It’s very hands-off as far as moderation; they might remove something if it’s unrelated to the category it’s posted in, but it’s unlikely they’ll tamper with anything otherwise. That also means they rarely remove nasty comments, though. You sort of take what you get. I’ve found the community to be mostly supportive, though. When I last used it, their html markup was pretty primitive, but it seems to play well with text from most word processing programs. If you are writing original fiction, there’s a sister site called fictionpress.com, which works identically to fanfiction.net.
Self-publishing: If you have original fiction (NOT fanfiction) that you want to self-publish, far and away the easiest way to do it is through Amazon. They have multiple programs for it. You can publish print books through their createspace.com service (usually these books are print-on-demand, where they are only printed and shipped when someone orders a copy). Ebooks are through Kindle Direct Publishing at kdp.amazon.com, and are only on the Kindle format; there are plenty of options to check out. Audiobooks are through their acx.com service. Truth be told, it’s hard to earn a lot of money through Amazon publishing, at least on Kindle, but it’s a foot in the door, and if it sells well it can also be useful for making the jump to traditional publishing if you choose to. Other companies that do self-publishing are out there, like xlibris.com and bookbaby.com, but they usually require some cost up front—they’re legitimate enough, but not free. Bookbaby is especially interesting, in that you can also get single copies for your own library for a fee. However, with any of these services, I should warn you that one major cost that is probably unavoidable is the fee for an ISBN number. This is necessary for print publishing if you want to make money, and it runs upwards of $100 for a book. Most traditional publishers incorporate the cost of the number into their fees, which come out of book sales, so you don’t pay up front; but self-publishing isn’t like that. Your self-publishing company may have a feature for handling the purchase of the number, but you will still be paying the fee. If you must purchase it separately, without the assistance of a publishing company, you can do so at isbn.org, the website of administering organization Bowker, the only authorized source of ISBNs. (I have heard that other agencies will sell numbers as well, but it’s a scam, selling invalid numbers. I have not encountered this personally, however.)
Traditional Publishing: The old-fashioned and time-honored way, in which you publish through a publishing house. There is way more than I can say here about this, because it’s a deep and well-argued subject; but, here are a few basics. It’s generally better to start by getting an agent rather than approaching publishers yourself. First, make your manuscript as good as you think it can be; there are tons of online resources for this (I recommend Brandon Sanderson’s Writing Excuses podcast, which is available for free at the linked website, or for free on iTunes). Then, get yourself an up-to-date copy of Writer’s Market. They have a website (which is where that link will take you), but I’ve found it’s not nearly as easy-to-use or informative as the print book, which comes out every year (and can be ordered from the same site, as well as from various retailers). It is filled with current listings for agents, publishers, magazines, journals, etc. Pick out agents that you think may be promising, and then check that agency’s website. ALWAYS MAKE AN EFFORT TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS FOR SUBMISSIONS THAT THEY LIST ON THEIR SITES, and ALWAYS TRY TO CHOOSE AGENTS THAT SELECT THE TYPE OF MATERIAL YOU WRITE. Agents have a lot of control over what they accept. Look up some resources on how to write query letters and plot summaries, and send some out (but make sure you do it the way each agent wants it—they’re each a little different). Proceed from there based on what you hear back. Don’t get discouraged! Finding an agent is usually the hardest and lengthiest part of the project—it’s a hurdle I haven’t overcome yet myself. Once you have one, they will assist you with getting the book revised and edited, and sold to a publisher.
Miscellaneous: In between all these levels of publishing, you’ll find any number of specialty sites, like Wattpad.com for example. It’s really a matter of what you want. Also, if you are publishing SHORT fiction, there are many options that are not available to novels. You can submit unsolicited short stories to many magazines—just google “Magazines that publish [whatever genre, i.e. science fiction, horror, romance, etc.]” and see what comes up, or check the magazine section of Writer’s Market. Make sure you read the submission guidelines. You can also submit short work to contests—Writer’s Digest, a companion publication/website to Writer’s Market, keeps a list of these every year, including a few of their own. Most contests pay a little, some pay a lot, and nearly all of them including some sort of publishing of your story as a part of their prize packages. Even if contests don’t pay much, contest winners look good on résumés.
One last thing to think about: What software are you using to do your writing? That’s assuming you’re not writing longhand or on a typewriter. Those forms of writing are perfectly respectable—I was writing longhand long before I owned a computer—but they’re very difficult to submit for publishing nowadays. There are a lot of choices for word processing, and they are not all created equal. Some are better for writers, though most are at least okay.
- Microsoft Word/Microsoft Office. The current standard for word processing. Word comes as part of Microsoft Office, which can be bought outright for a significant cost (over $100, varies based on which package you want) or can be “rented” via the online Office 365 version, starting at $69.99 a year. I love Word, and prefer it, but expensive is expensive.
- Apache OpenOffice—free, available online. Very similar to Microsoft Office, and produces documents that are mostly compatible with Office. More streamlined than Office in some ways.
- LibreOffice—I don’t know a lot about this one, but I hear it’s good, and comparable to OpenOffice or Microsoft Office. Also free and available online.
- Google Docs—Google is really a package deal these days. Getting a Gmail address gives you all their services for free. Docs is the word processor, and it’s decent, intuitive, and autosaves frequently. Drive is the storage system, a cloud-based free storage. There are also other apps which are comparable to Office’s other features. The only downside is that the Drive storage space is shared by everything, so if you save every email you ever got, you’re going to eat it up quickly.
- Scrivener—this software was created especially for writers. It costs, and it is definitely NOT intuitive—there’s a learning curve. But it cannot be beat for usefulness. It sorts your outlines, support materials, research, parts of your documents, etc., and has tools to edit, assemble, and export your completed documents. It has so many features, I can’t begin to describe them, and its exported documents are compatible with several other programs. It’s about $50 usually, but frequently goes on sale as low as 50% or 75% off. I really recommend it, but I admit that I haven’t used it a lot yet myself—I haven’t had it long enough to do a lot yet.
- One more thing: If you have trouble plotting a story, check out storylinecreator.com. Storyline Creator is exactly what it says—a program for creating and plotting the storyline of your material. Based on what you put in, it shows you the progression of every character through the story and how they interact with each other. There are subscription options as low as about three dollars a month, but to just buy the offline version outright is about $22.00 right now.
I’m not getting paid to advocate any of these options, or even asked to do it. They’re all things I’ve tried on my own, and in the case of Office, Scrivener, and Storyline Creator, I bought them myself, and found them to be useful. But there are plenty of free options, as I mentioned, and more out there than even I know of, and they work just fine.
I hope this is helpful. Writing is such a satisfying thing when it works out, and getting published—even if it’s for free—is awesome. Happy writing!