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The AAB of Publishing – Aspiring Author Beware!



At an author event some time ago, I sat next to an amiable, chatty young man. It wasn’t long before he whipped out his business card. ‘Author, Publisher’, it said.

‘What have you published?’ I asked, nodding my approval at the classy design of the card.

‘Nothing yet.’ He beamed a smile.

‘Oh, okay.' I looked up. My eyes scanned his face. “What have you written?’

‘Nothing yet,’ he replied.

The man astonished me with his confidence and optimism. I have never forgotten him.

More recently, at an author event hosted by 'Books and Everything' - a Facebook Book Group I am part of, someone said, “When I started out I didn’t know much; now I still don’t know much.“ I loved these wise words. I, too, don’t know much. I can only speak from what I have experienced. The publishing pool has become so vast, it is hard to develop in-depth knowledge on the many options at our disposal

I currently have seven books on the market. My first one was published in 2009. As a writer then, I had to write, keep to deadlines, attend to editorial flags, endure some gentle or sometimes not so gentle correction, and wait for the day, some twelve months later, when I could hold my book in my hands. Then followed a run of talks and interviews during which at first I tried to show up congenial and witty, but since being witty did not seem to be one of my strong points, I did my best to pretend to be unpretentious and humble. Inside, you must know, I was really, really, really… proud of my book. True humility soon followed, however, when at one radio talk-show a whole hour was dedicated to my first book, and not a single listener called in to ask a question.

Since 2009, the number of publishing options from which to choose has virtually exploded. In this article, I address those of you who have completed a basic manuscript, but don’t know where to go from there. Traditional publishers, vanity press in hundreds of guises, writing platforms - too numerous to count, crowd funding, crowd writing, online self-publishing options, author programmes, editing software (free, demo, trial, monthly subscriptions, once-off purchases, upgrades), PR ‘experts’, in fact ‘experts’ for everything. And then - all that ‘free’ advice! “Open up your book to the public domain – it’s the only way to get started!” they say. “Better still, give away the first 1000 hard copies of your book, and your book is guaranteed to take off.”

AAB - Aspiring Author Beware: The aspiring author and his money are soon parted!

Coming back to not knowing much. I will share with you some of my experiences and hope that it will give you a little orientation. You may experience publishing differently; as I said there are so many ways of going about it.


1. Traditional publishing


My first book was published by Penguin Publishing. Contrary to what I had expected, it was not hard to get a publishing contract. The people there were approachable, friendly, and even encouraging. Here’s what you need if you want to go this route:

  • A topic you know a lot about
  • A reputation as someone who knows a lot, in other words - you may be an expert, but you must be a publicly acknowledged expert (on something!). If you haven't had exposure, it's never too late to get your name out there.*
  • A succinct proposal (introduction letter, outline, brief marketing strategy*)

The most important of these three points is YOUR REPUTATION. If you have a name, you will almost certainly find a traditional publisher that will take you on, irrespective of your topic of choice. If Thuli Madonsela (South Africa’s acclaimed and generally admired Public Protector) were to want to publish a book on her favourite cookie recipes, publishers would stand in line to finance her project. If Donald Trump (entrepreneur and US presidential candidate for the Republican Party) wanted to publish a veterinary book about the bovine abdomen, chances are he would get that published, too. This is because by the very nature of things, big names equate to big sales. Contrarily, I often receive letters from people who want to write. 'What’s your story?' I ask. The answer I get mostly, irrespective of age, gender, or profession is ‘I want to write my autobiography’. And indeed there are many ways to realise this dream, but it is unlikely (but also not impossible) that we will find a traditional publisher interested in commercially funding the biography of a person who has not at some point been a public figure, at least for a day.

And this is the crux – you need to convince your publisher not so much of your ability to create mind-blowing prose, but of your ability to ‘show them the money’ (as in your book will bring in revenue). A great deal of your proposal should address this point – how will you help the publisher to let people know that your book exists? It’s not personal, it’s just business. Publishing is a risky, capital intensive business with high barriers to entry. If a publishing house wants to stay in business, it must make prudent commercial decisions. When my first book came out, I had no idea how important it was for me to be involved in the marketing of my book. If I had known then what I know now, I could have done much more for my publisher and my book.


 2. Agent or direct approach?


This depends on a) your genre b) your country.

In principle, for non-fiction it will be easier to present to a publisher directly, than for fiction.

In the US and the UK, especially for fiction, if you want to go the traditional publishing route you should pitch your project to an agent. In South Africa, it is not necessary to engage a literary agency, but of course, let nobody stop you, if this is the path you choose. Those who have done it say it is no less difficult to find a good agent than it is a publisher. I have never approached an agent, so I can’t say much about it since I promised to stay with what I have personally experienced.

3. Self-Publishing


For my second non-fiction book, I decided to go international, and again, a reputable publisher based in Berlin, Germany, took on my project. Their process was a little more regimented, but in principle, it was the same as with Penguin, and the people there were as warm and kind in their dealings with my fragile author soul. But then, for my first thriller, I decided on the self-publishing route. And the world that opened up to me made every day an adventure. I did a lot wrong and I did a lot of things right, often because I didn’t know it wasn’t done that way. They say, ‘If you don’t know that it doesn’t work, it works.’ And indeed, ignorance was bliss often, but not always – sometimes it was costly. Here follows some of what I learned:

In principle, you can do everything yourself. There is a constant trade-off between time and money. If you want people to handle certain aspects of the process for you, you will find no shortage of people to help you every step of the way. If you have time but little or no money, do not let people catch you! It is not necessary to spend one cent on bringing your FINISHED book to market! In e-format or print! Especially when you start out, be careful. You will need every available cent to get your manuscript FINISHED. By this I mean getting it ready for publishing.

AAB - Aspiring Author Beware! Most people starting out spend most of their money on getting the book published (unnecessary) instead of on the book itself (very necessary)!


Rather invest your money here:

  • Editing – if you have a limited budget, this is the place to invest it in. Family members, friends and editing programmes do not replace a professional editor. Your friends and family members can help by clubbing in (birthdays, Christmases) and contributing to the editor’s fee, and they can help by beta reading your book (and I caution against overfamiliarity here, too), but editing is a profession. Take anything that you do really well, chances are that you spent some time learning this craft. I'll leave it at that. No need to get preachy.
  • Formatting – takes time when you have never done it. So you may want to pay someone to do it for you. I recommend you do it yourself though as it’s only hard the first time. And if you are very IT-literate and good at navigating around the writing software you are using, it should be no problem at all.*
  • Cover – some self-publishing platforms make it easy to create a pretty good cover, but if you can, hire a professional cover artist.
  • Advertising – be extremely careful of so-called PR experts who will promise to broker all sorts of media engagements for you. Find a local person if you can (never someone operating from a remote-island-in-the-South-Pacific-e-Mail-address!) and check out references carefully. Even if they are successful, media coverage will give some exposure but does not necessarily lead to direct sales. In fact, it can be very time consuming and yield little result, except of course a stroke of the ego. I have experienced direct sales from media coverage with magazine interviews often being more effective than TV appearances, but the results are fleeting. You will observe a surge of sales, which may plunge as fast as it rose. A steady small advertising budget, however, may keep you in the mind of book buyers for longer.* PR itself you pay for in the currency of TIME. As an up and coming author, unless you are a wunderkind, and discovered as such, you will not be spared the laborious task of relating to the public. When I started out in a new market, truly not knowing a soul, I did so by creating social media profiles, and joining interest groups frequented by my target market. And then I started to interact. And interacted. And interacted. Even today, I can tangibly influence book sales by how much effort I put into my social media presence. Many will tell you social media is overrated, it does not work. Wrong they are! It WORKS if you WORK it. Opportunity is missed by most because it shows up in overalls and looks like work”. Thomas Edison. If you just don’t like this or really don’t have the time, you can pay for social media ads. They work well, too, as long as your market is defined correctly, but AAB! Aspiring Author Beware – if it looks cheap… it’s not.*
  • Give-aways – Do give-aways, but be discerning how, where and when you do them. Use a targeted, intelligent approach. Remember if it costs nothing, it’s worth nothing. Your book is no exception! I have seen many incidents where an author friend has overused this method and it backfired in nasty ways. Once your book has gained some exposure, book bloggers will ask you for a copy of your book in exchange for an honest review. That is great news, but check them out. About 50 percent of ‘book bloggers’, who have approached me, don’t have a blog!
  • One big problem with self-publishing is that once your book has shown up in any of the best seller charts, pirates usually operating from domains based in Togo, Russia or China will strip the electronic copyright protection off your book’s online version and offer it either for free or for a reduced rate of which you will never see a cent. Right now, we self-publishing authors are living with this injustice. If you would like to read more about this topic, write to me and I may be persuaded to write an article about what I know about this horrible practice.


So now you want to know: which is better?

It’s a matter of choice.

Traditional is great. After you have submitted your finished manuscript, while the publishing process is in progress, you can use the time to write your next one, instead of tearing your hair out with formatting, writing blurbs, getting a cover designed, and sorting out printing margin and bleed issues. Writing another book is really, really important. For aspiring authors, there are two rules of thumb: 1. Writing another book is the best marketing strategy for your first book. 2. Authors can expect a break-through or a significant improvement in book sales after they have published their eighth book.

Once the book is out, get involved in its marketing, especially if your launch coincides with the launch of a big name’s next publication because most of the attention and budget for that month may go into that project, and not yours. Just pull your sleeves up and spread the word yourself. The days of big marketing budgets for books are gone.

Self-publishing is great. You have full control. You really are the captain of that ship. Even if it goes down, you know what to do differently next time. The stigma that self-publishing is for second rate authors is disappearing fast. Don’t let people put you down. Self-publishing has arrived, can be extremely lucrative and it will be around for a while. If you have a manuscript ready for publication right now, open your drawer, take it out, and just do it!*

Hybrid is great. It really is the best of both worlds. Give your publishers the heads up about your other projects upfront though, or use a pseudonym. They don’t like it when they position you as an expert on photovoltaic energy conversion while you simultaneously market your UFO-abduction thriller.

If you found this helpful, please share it with other aspiring authors you know and please follow me.


*I can help you some more with that. Get in touch with me if this topic is of deeper interest for you. +27-11-958-5081 or via e-mail at inspiration at -


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