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Top 5 Publishing Misconceptions (and How to Unlearn Them)

Publishing doesn't work how new authors think. Here are some misconceptions to leave behind!

Every year, writers enter the world of publishing with ambitions. Yes, some only want to publish a book but many desire more, either in the form of awards, fame or riches. Fresh out of college, English graduates often think they can pen a bestselling novel because they did well at university. Retirees and practicing workers, meanwhile, believe they can crack the system because they’ve “lived a life” and understand the world. A smaller group — book trade staff, journalists and other related professionals — think they will do well because of expertise and connections. The truth, though, is that few people fully understand how to succeed from day one.

A common issue is that many of us show up carrying misconceptions. Like settlers arriving in the New World, we arrive with enthusiasm, self-belief and a goal. If we didn’t, we would never try to write books in the first place. But while these qualities are admirable, they spawn from naivety and questionable sources of inspiration. What are these sources? Often, they’re movies, books, the news and uninformed friends. We base our decisions on outdated sources and subjective viewpoints and, as a result, start out making lots of mistakes. We think we know best until a gauntlet of hard knocks shows us the truth — that we’re clueless and unprepared.

If you’re a new author, though, don’t worry. You don’t have to follow this hard-won path because today’s blog post will show you an easier way. Walking through a series of misinformed phases many new authors use when talking about success, it will expose the flaws in their opinions and help you to unlearn any biases you may hold yourself. Will the upcoming points challenge your own biases? Possibly. But the faster we identify ignorance, the faster we can exit the gauntlet of hard knocks and see real progress. Start now and, instead of chasing your tail, you’ll open your mind to more meaningful lessons that can greatly improve your chances of success.

“Originality Is Key”

The Holy Grail, according to many new authors, is originality which, they claim, is both clear to them but completely indescribable. If they could just write a book that’s totally original, many theorise, a monsoon of riches and acclaim would follow. What most experienced authors discover after striving for originality, though, is that it’s overrated. Generally, this is because many new authors materialise originality as non-commercial fiction — work that has no established audience and isn’t written to market. Aiming for originality, they write flowery, self-indulgent books that bypass all the proven literary mechanisms that mainstream readers love.

Meanwhile, veteran authors aim to provide style but not to the detriment of substance. Indeed, ask 100 non-fiction authors how to succeed and lots will reference Robert Kiyosaki’s quote: “I’m a best-selling author and not a best-writing one.” This attitude works for business books because those readers want actionable tips. That said, it also applies to fiction. Indeed, whether they like award-winning novels or page turners, most readers value readability over flowery sentences. Yes, they want originality, but not to the point where they can’t pinpoint the genre and must keep reaching for a dictionary. Write clear, readable work, with familiar elements and you’ll engage more readers — including the judges of major awards.

“My Book Is My Baby”

It’s unclear whether new authors refer to their book as a baby because they’ve heard other authors do it or because traditional publishers have artificially inflated the perceived importance of debut novels. Either way, it’s a harmful way to think as an author if you plan to see your work succeed. The reasons are twofold:

  1. This attitude makes you precious and uncompromising during the editing process, sometimes to the point where you ignore expert-advised changes that could improve your book.
  2. It blinds you from making wise production and marketing choices that seem like selling out but are actually standard practice and necessary to run a profitable author business.

What most veteran authors learn is that they would have seen success sooner if only they viewed their debut novel as a learning experience and all their books as assets. If you want to win awards, you typically need expert help to polish your drafts. And if you need to give books away to attract readers, that’s fine. Books are not babies; they’re tools that, individually, play a small role in a business. Sure, produce work that fulfils you as an artist, but remember you need flexibility to achieve ambitious goals and that requires emotional distance. If you want to gain clout, awards or profit, you need to view your work as assets within a wider marketing strategy.

“Slower Means Better”

Prominent media voices have long promoted the idea that books produced slowly are of a higher quality. In the past, though, many critically acclaimed and bestselling authors have defied that logic to great effect. Indeed, Fleming, Burgess and Boyne respectively wrote Casino Royale, A Clockwork Orange and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just a few weeks. Writers who achieve this sort of productivity do so by ignoring the call to write only when inspiration strikes. Instead, they work regardless, scribbling in the cracks of life and pouncing on every opportunity, even if it means seizing a minute while queueing at a checkout line. For them, wordcount is king.

It seems illogical but, generally, as long as you seek feedback and iterate accordingly, you will produce good work. Just be careful with the maths as a new author. Anyone can write 1,000 words for 80 days but that doesn’t necessarily result in 80,000 words of award-winning fiction. Knowing this, professional authors tend to “write fast but publish slow.” They produce quick first drafts but account for quality checks, marketing and unexpected production hitches. It’s important to get your ducks in a row with each book. Slower doesn’t mean better but neither does rushing to hit an arbitrary deadline. If success is your aim, it’s best to balance patience and haste.

“An ‘Expert’ Will Save Me”

Two decades ago, authors expected to “get picked up” by agents and commissioning editors. Kept in the dark, they had to rely on luck and gatekeepers to generate much of their success for them. After Amazon launched Kindle Direct Publishing and indie-focused services emerged, however, everything changed. Suddenly, we didn’t need to be picked up; we could create our own platforms and lift ourselves onto bestseller lists and award line-ups. We could produce books with freelance expert help and reach millions of readers without a publisher taking 80% of our profits. Yet, to this day, many new authors still believe they need a supposed “expert” to save them.

The truth is that any new author can make it as an indie, even without contacts or cash. Will you become Rowling or King overnight going it alone? No, but neither do most successful authors. And no big publisher can guarantee success anyway. Believe it or not, the book trade contains millions of authors — many of them indie — and lots of social mobility. Some start out as starving artists and become household names. Others earn a comfortable living in the midlist. If you want to reach prominence, you can do so in stages without an “expert” publisher dictating your actions. You’ll have to learn as you go but, generally, this will only make you a better author over time.

“I Must Hide My Secrets”

It’s easy to see why lots of new authors protect their ideas and strategies like they’re the Coca-Cola secret formula. After all, wouldn’t everyone want to plagiarise them once they hear such genius? Honestly, no. Peek into the lives of most book trade professionals and you’ll discover a pattern of overwork. Most folks have lots of good ideas already but little time to implement them. Yet this reality doesn’t stop with newbies. Indeed, fuelled by paranoia, some act guarded at networking events and even avoid sharing their key plot points when pitching to agents for fear of seeing their book appear on a bestseller list with someone else’s name on the cover.

What successful authors realise after publishing several books is that this Area-51 level of secrecy is unhelpful. Say, for example, you have a book idea and you want feedback. It’s unlikely any critique partner will steal it. Likewise, omitting details from a pitch only hides your book’s unique selling point, making your pitch less attractive. And marketing tactics are similar. If you’ve thought of a “revolutionary” marketing idea then you’re probably not the only one. Generally, you’re better off being generous because, if successful, your tactic will emerge eventually and you’ll get far more reciprocal help than competition if you act with generosity.

Recognise any of these biases in yourself? Don’t worry. We all have them and sometimes they take a while to shake. Generally, listening to advice from more experience authors, rather than basing decisions on your own assumptions, will help you bypass a lot of pain. That said, no two authors are the same, so maintain a healthy level of scepticism and try to root out the biases of mentors just as much as your own. In reality, the fastest way to succeed is to listen to what works for most practicing authors who are already doing what you want to achieve, but run your own experiments to figure out what works for you.

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.