• Tips for Entrepreneurs

What Can 25 Best-Selling Authors Teach You About Writing a Book?

“Writing a book is hard. Selling a book is even harder,” admits broadcast icon Tom Brokaw, author of seven books, including “The Greatest Generation,” and The Time of
Our Lives.

As you’ll see in the Tips below, few authors disagree, even the ones who have sold millions of copies of their books. Certainly, a lot has to do with talent. Even more has to do with having a great story — especially one that is timely, truly memorable, or simply captures the imagination of the masses.

To find your own recipe for book success, consider the tips below from best-selling authors whom we have had the privilege of interviewing since launching Be Inkandescent magazine in January 2010. We thank each of them for taking the time to offer their words of book publishing wisdom.

Here’s to your publishing success!The Inkandescent team


Secrets to Book Publishing Success

1. Stay in the chair. “The temptation for many writers is to get caught up in the angst of not knowing where to start or where to go next with a character or the plot. So they wiggle around — in their minds and their desk chairs. They get up, make some coffee, walk the dog. And all too often they give up. Authors lovingly call this writer’s block. I say hooey. Designate a chunk of time every day when you are going to do nothing but work on your book. Force yourself to keep your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. And never talk to me about writer’s block. It’s a figment of your imagination. Put that energy to better use.” — Ridley Pearson

2. Breathe, touch, and taste the world where your characters live. “The four-page story about a girl named Velva Jean, which my mother, Penelope Niven, wrote when I was young, always stuck with me. So when I was old enough, I bought the rights for $1, and turned the story into a screenplay. It became an Emmy Award-winning movie in 1996, but I couldn’t get Velva Jean out of my head. I knew that eventually I wanted to bring her back to life in the form of a book, and I did in 2009. I advise others to do the same: If you can feel fictional characters in your skin, and have a burning desire to know more about who they are and what they do, you know that you have a story that’s worth telling.” — Jennifer Niven

3. Decide if you are a sissy, or not. “The best reason to write a book is because you can’t bear not to write it. The publishing process is not for sissies. The process is hard. The business of marketing and selling books is even harder. So if you’re not on fire to share your message, don’t bother. But if you have a passion for spreading your message, then don’t let anything stop you.” — Lisa Earle McLeod

4. Fall in love with your material. “Writing a book requires so much energy, dedication, and focus that if you aren’t deeply engaged, you will not have the patience to tackle all the challenges of writing, revising, birthing, and taking the work into the world. Be open to the material. It works on you as you work on it, deepening your understanding of what you are saying, inviting you to stand for what you know and have discovered. Writing is a vocation, a calling, a commitment to clarity. As far as the process of putting a book in the world goes, nothing is impossible. Much is difficult.” — J. Ruth Gendler

5. Don’t worry whether or not your book topic is commercially viable. Write what is truest for you. For me, that was a story about the years my Japanese-American mother and grandparents spent in an internment camp during World War II. I started writing it as a short story when I was getting my degree in creative writing from Columbia, and thought it might be respectfully reviewed as a good work of historical fiction, but didn’t think that this would ever find more than a few hundred readers — if I were lucky. It came out in 2001 and became a New York Times Notable Book, a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers finalist. Even if it didn’t get that kind of recognition, I would have been glad that I wrote it because it was a story that I needed to write for myself as a way of understanding the world that I grew up in. And remember, there’s no rush. Take your time to write the best book that you can. If it’s good, it will find a home.” — Julie Otsuka

6. Ignore the naysayers! “I knew going in that getting my book published was going to be a long shot. I was not an established author, and I didn’t have a ready-built big platform (publisher-speak for folks who follow your work). However, I had an appealing message that I researched thoroughly and wrote about passionately. I decided to take the chance and followed the rules of writing a nonfiction book proposal ‘to a T.’ Add a little luck, lots of faith and determination, and now I’m a published author. It feels great. But most importantly, I got to spread my message to thousands of readers about the magnitude, power, and potential of giving by everyday donors.” — Wendy Smith

7. Realize that things can change in a heartbeat. “My last novel was rejected on contract by my publisher, who said it was not ‘special enough.’ I was sure my career was over, because I had never really had any sales with any of my other novels. But then one day the novel, Pictures of You, was snapped up by another publisher, Algonquin, who turned my ‘not special’ novel into a best-seller that made the New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists. Sometimes a publisher and a writer are the right fit — and that’s when magic happens.” — Caroline Leavitt

8. Build a support system. “You need a team of professionals around you to make sure your book shines. When it comes to an agent, make sure you find someone whom the publishers respect and who treats your manuscript like a treasure. After all, a great work may never get a good publisher, because the agent shopped it around and destroyed its appeal. Make sure the agent and the publisher value you, the author, not just your work. Then, once the book comes out, don’t go it alone here either. Even great publishers will do relatively little to promote your book, so know up front that you will need some help. Set aside a promotion budget and retain a good media consultant. You will be glad you went to the professionals for help.” — Herta von Stiegel

9. Snag a great editor. “Your job as an author is to write the best book you possibly can. If the book isn’t good, everything else — getting an agent, finding (or keeping) a publisher, striving to hit the best-seller lists — is a moot point. That’s why everyone needs a great editor to help them whip their manuscript into shape. If you already have a publisher, then an editor comes with the deal. If you don’t, then you need to get your completed manuscript in the hands of a competent editor, preferably someone not related to you, who will give you critical feedback. Market research tells us time and again that the well-written novel, like the proverbial cream, will rise to the top. It isn’t rocket science. Write a good book, and it will sell. So get someone to help make sure it’s the best book you can turn out.” — Marcia Talley

10. Help a publisher find you. “While many authors consider self-publishing, I think the better approach is to work with a well-known publishing house. The process is even better if the publisher finds you, which is what happened with my first book, “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions” (Freeman 2000). I had written an article on the same topic for Scientific American, and the editor of their book publishing arm saw a copy of the galley proofs and asked me if I would turn it into a book. What the editor liked most, he said, was my style — something the lay public would want to read, not that they had to read to pass an exam. Having been an academic for most of my career, I could relate. Similarly, for my second book, “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being,” the editor of Harvard University Press heard me deliver a talk at an international conference and wanted me to turn it into a book. This time I was more hesitant, as I didn’t really want to write on the topic at the time. But he convinced me over coffee — and it turned out he knew what he was talking about. “Healing Spaces” has become an influential book that is now a PBS documentary and an Amazon best-seller.” — Dr. Esther Sternberg

11. Research potential agents like you research your book. “There is lots of great advice out there about what makes a good agent and how to find one, but one of the most important and often overlooked characteristics in an agent is whether or not the agent is seeking new writers. Keep an eye on the personnel news of websites and enewsletters like Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly. Hunt for agents who are new, or who have recently switched agencies, been promoted, or struck out on their own — they are much more likely to be seeking new writers. A new agent at an established agency can give you the best of both worlds: someone young, energetic, and open-minded, but with all the resources of a major agency.” — Jonathan McGoran (pseudonym)

12. Don’t rule out a best-seller on a small print run. “Sometimes, make that many times, authors are excited to land a literary agent and a book deal and then disappointed when they learn their first book run will be in the low thousands. Good stories have a way of taking off. Think J .K. Rowling, author of the wildly successful “Harry Potter” series. Bloomsbury, the publisher, printed only 500 copies of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (its original British title). There have been plenty of other unknown authors whose books have sprouted wings. Even in the self-published ebook world, authors such as Amanda Hockings and John Locke have soared to best-seller status. Each author’s book(s) appeared to take off for different reasons — J. K. Rowling had the word-of-mouth playground effect we all know from recess. Amanda Hockings did her research on what genres were hot and got in near the bottom of the growing cascade of book bloggers who wanted free books to review, and John Locke, an insurance salesman, knew how to market a product.”
S. Z. Berg

13. Make a thorough outline. “Staring at a blinking cursor on a blank Word doc is incredibly intimidating and overwhelming, so do yourself a favor and make a thorough outline. For my book, I made an initial, high-level outline that I shared with my editor and then kept drilling down and adding to it until it was very, very detailed and filled with lots of references and information I wanted to make sure to include and cite. It helped turn what initially felt like the prospect of climbing Mount Everest all alone into the prospect of climbing a slightly smaller mountain with guides and help along the way. Hey, I won’t lie — it’s still climbing a mountain! And that’s hardly easy. But having an outline really helped me segment the work and feel good about finishing each section. I also printed out a copy of the outline so that I could actually draw lines — with a real pen on real paper — through each little part as I completed it. That helped somehow and made my progress tangible.” — LouAnn Lofton

14. Know you’ll have to write a lot of junk before you get to the crux of the story you want to tell. “So don’t spend a lot of time stewing about the writing process, or you’ll get stuck in the idea that you need to do it a certain way that doesn’t feel right. Every writer needs to master their own process. Outlines, for example, don’t work for me. And for a while I was so caught up in the idea that I was supposed to write a nice, neat, comprehensive outline, that I didn’t write a thing. So I threw out the fantasy and just started digging in and writing what I felt like writing. I focused on quantity, and just got it all out of my head and onto the computer. I knew I’d go back and edit later. And I did. A lot.” — Rachel Machacek

15. Write with a friend. “While not every author has the chance to write with a close friend, in the two books we’ve written together we have found that the benefits in doing so are numerous. First of all, two people can write twice as fast and produce twice the number of words as one. Co-authoring also allowed us to take full advantage of each other’s personal experience and expertise. Perhaps best of all, the collaboration helped us spiritually and psychologically. When one of us was down, the other was there to offer optimism and encouragement. When one of us did something especially well, the other was there to offer congratulations. And in the end, nothing is more important than keeping your emotional stability during the long slog of writing a book.” — Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais

16. Use the Meat-and-Salt Method. “To make the people and events in your book spring to life, remember this simple recipe: Start with a hearty helping of meat, which includes all the facts you’ll ever need to know to explain your story properly. And be sure to flavor it with plenty of salt — some juicy bits of humor or a few spicy anecdotes, for example. And one more thing: The facts aren’t always pretty. But I strongly believe that as authors, we have to be honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of our past and present.” — Rosalyn Schanzer

17. Write with the reader in mind. “I write books about HR topics, and I always think through what someone would need to know before I sketch what I think they should know. The reason is simple: Sometimes, what I think they need to know and what they really want to learn is very different, and if I tell them what I think they should want to know, I come across as ‘preachy.’ The fact is that adults learn at their own pace, so I do my best to step back and think about the topic from the point of view of someone who knows little or nothing, and then I go from there.” — Barbara Mitchell

18. Write like no one is watching. “You were born to go out, hunt, gather, and survive, and that’s a far cry from sitting on your duff writing for hours each day. Humans writing books is about as natural as unicorns riding unicycles. Yet, we do it. Odd activities require odd behavior, so give yourself permission to read your book out loud. If you can’t get a sentence out without taking a breath, shorten it. If you’re lecturing to yourself like your high school English teacher, explain it in a way that a kindergartner could understand. And be a writer’s-block-buster! When your head gets clogged, jump around, wave your hands, and make any noise that comes naturally — disturbing or desirable. Really, no one is watching.” — Laura Berger

19. Don’t edit while you’re writing. “It’s harder than it looks. But by following this advice, I was able to allow my ideas to flow and simply get everything that came into mind onto paper (or, more accurately, into my Word document). The trick was letting my ‘stream of consciousness’ do the work. Somehow, the information evolved, and one idea would remind me of a story that would lead to an example, idea, or action item to include. My focus was on getting my thoughts and ideas captured, and it was a relief to know that I didn’t need to be concerned, at that time, about grammar or punctuation, or even whether information was in the right order. Once I had everything written, it was effective to go back and make the edits.” — Donna Fisher

20. Promote, promote, promote. “Once your book is published, the fun really begins. Now it’s time to start promoting it so that you can sell copies. We always list our books on a variety of author-friendly websites, and our favorites are the ones where you can offer signed copies as a prize because they get some great attention. One of our favorites is www.goodreads.com. Check out their Author Program, because when we posted our book we got some great traction. In fact, more than 850 people entered to win our book as a prize, and that helped drive book sales and also helped the book get some nice reviews. The key is to be savvy about getting the word out about your book — and keep at it.” — Sam Barry and Kathi Kamen Goldmark

21. Don’t expect the publisher to market your book. “They won’t. Or at least not much. So do something every day to get the word out. Do speaking engagements on the topic, write articles, blog. You are the expert on the issue, so get out there. And give away as many copies as you can. It’s more important to get the book circulating — and develop good word of mouth — than to make a few pennies on royalties. So keep at it. Just as I learned that I have a capacity to write at 3 a.m. for several days in a row the week before the manuscript is due, I was able to put as much energy and passion into promoting the book. You can, too!” — Sharon Armstrong

22. Remember, Facebook is your friend. “Working with a publisher to do the mechanics of book publishing — editing, proofing, graphics — is a valuable service that can be difficult to find and coordinate on our own. But if funds are tight when it comes to promoting the book and you can’t hire a professional publicist, get busy in the social media sphere. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn all provide great platforms to expand your base and establish yourself as a thought leader on your book topic. These outreach outlets have helped get my recent book off to a terrific start.” — Andy Hines

23. Just like when you were writing a report in grade school, take the necessary steps to get the story out. There’s a story that you have been itching to write, but can’t get it out, right? So be methodical about the process. a) Give yourself permission to write a “sloppy copy.” Just get that first draft out! And don’t listen to the editor on your shoulder. b) Keep a notebook with you all the time. Some of your best ideas will come when you least expect it. I have to write them down or I forget. c) Write often, but don’t put limits on yourself like word counts. d) Dream big! When I started out, I had never written anything before in my life! My first book has sold over 100,000 copies. And my agent is shopping my third. e) Prepare to think of your book all the time. It will never leave your mind. You’ll go to sleep thinking about it and wake up thinking about it! f) Find a good editor who will tell you when something is not funny. g) Have fun. It’s a terrific ride! — Phillip Done

24. Keep moving forward. Great writing (and a great book) is the fruit of multiple drafts. However, reworking your writing before you have a completed draft is generally unproductive and even tortuous — in other words, an immense waste of your precious time and energy. Only after your manuscript has a beginning, middle, and end will it be clear what is missing, what doesn’t need to be there, and what needs refining. Thus, be good to yourself and avoid the inevitable temptation of trying to rework pages before the draft is done. Make it your daily commitment to forge ahead to the completion of your next draft, and what will one day be your final draft. — Rod Stryker

25. Know when you don’t have another book in you. “I actually don’t know if I have an 11th book in me. When I look back to the beginning of my career as an author, I simply had to get the word out. My latest book, Enchantment, was the same experience. I had a burning desire to talk to people about what it means to be enchanting in business. Before I published the book, I knew that I was drawing a bull’s-eye on my back, and that if I was going to teach others to be enchanting, I’d better be a good role model. So if I go through the writing and selling process again, I’d better have something important to say — or there will be no point in attempting the endeavor. I’ll keep you posted.” — Guy Kawasaki

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