Jan 05 2010

Another Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

This is the second article in a series. Please see part one here.

9.  Getting published is really, really hard. Publisher’s assistants at major publishers go through hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts a week. Out of every thousand or so manuscripts, they’ll probably send on around five to an editor for further consideration. That means PAs reject about 99.5% of manuscripts. Of the five surviving manuscripts, usually one or two will eventually be offered contracts.


10. Publisher’s assistants do not have the time to pore through each manuscript. They are not on your side. They have to get through hundreds of manuscripts each week and the only way to do that is to throw out manuscripts as fast as possible. Most manuscripts do not survive to page two. If something does not make sense on page one, they will throw away the manuscript long before you’ve explained what is going on. The story absolutely needs to be clear and engaging from page one.


11. SPELLING, PUNCTUATION AND GRAMMAR ARE EXTREMELY IMPORTANT.  They are the difference between conveying that “I am a polished writer that will be easy to publish” and “I am not familiar with basic writing craft.” If your writing has more than a few typos, you are dead on arrival. Even one typo per page would raise eyebrows. Remember, around 99.9% of unsolicited manuscripts get rejected. Don’t give the publisher any reason to drop the guillotine.

12. Publishers select what they think will sell. If you look like you could sell ten thousand copies with a minimum of editing work, they will probably make you an offer. It depends on the work and publisher, but most publishers need to sell between five and ten thousand copies to break even.


13. It is really helpful to establish an audience before you try to get published. For example, if you’ve established a blog that has hundreds of thousands of readers, it will seem more plausible that your book can sell tens of thousands of copies. If your writing is not yet good enough to attract a hundred thousand free readers, it may help to practice more before you try selling thousands of copies. Alternately, get some professional writing experience with a newspaper, a magazine or any other company that needs writers. (Most large companies have offices for marketing/PR/communications/etc).


14. You should know who your target audience is. That will make it much easier for an editor to visualize selling ten thousand copies of your book. Preferably it’s an audience his publisher works with frequently. The most important audience attributes are gender and age.


15. Even after you get published, your publisher won’t do all that much to publicize you. Selling the book is mainly your job.  Starting a website is a good first step. For example, you only encountered my writing today because I started a website about how to get published. If you aren’t quite tech-savvy enough to handle your own website, try making a page on Facebook. Just make sure that you update it regularly.


16. Websites are great, but you’ll still probably have to promote your book in person after you get published. Identify accessible sites where you can talk about something interesting, preferably something related to your book. Depending on your target audience, college campuses within driving distance might be a good place to start. If you’re writing a superhero novel, ask any comic book stores near you if they’d let you do a promotional event. You might also find conventions devoted to comic books, fantasy, science fiction or horror helpful.


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38 responses so far

38 Responses to “Another Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists”

  1. Wingson 05 Jan 2010 at 11:19 am

    Someday, I should create a website of my own…

    – Wings

  2. Banana Slugon 05 Jan 2010 at 2:00 pm

    11 seems a little basic to me. What I’m stuck on right now is 13. It scares me. XD Lord knows why I daydream of being published when I’m too shy to write a blog.

  3. B. Macon 05 Jan 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Grammar, punctuation and spelling are indeed very basic, but I figured they were worth repeating because they’re probably the single biggest manuscript killer. More like a manuscript serial killer.

    With #13, if you don’t feel comfortable writing a blog or for a media company, you might benefit from experience in corporate communications. It’s probably a bit less daunting than asking strangers to read your stuff.

  4. Ikaruson 05 Jan 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I have lofty dreams about #13, starting a website and such, but it’s kinda hard. And I’m not so good with people so everything else up there is kinda daunting.

  5. B. Macon 05 Jan 2010 at 6:03 pm

    Starting a website and updating it regularly does take a lot of time. If you had the time, I figure you could learn Blogspot. I think the trick is being okay with awfulness early on. Three years ago, my writing was shockingly bad. My artistic skills were even worse. So it was sort of a cosmic convergence of awfulness. Just keep practicing and it’ll all get better.

    I don’t think I’m all that good with people, either. I think that being mostly cheerful and sane will put you ahead of most authors. I don’t think that you need an outsized persona or intense charisma or anything like that. Also, people will identify you with your product and as long they like your writing they will want to like you. If you’re constantly learning and improving, you’ll eventually have more readers than you will know what to do with.

  6. Poet Warrioron 06 Jan 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Wow this is really helpful–naturally 🙂

    I’ve been lurking on this website for a good while, and have just now gotten the courage to post. I love your website, and have found several things (especially the article How to Introduce a Novel, and the ones on character developement)

    Thanks again!

  7. […] Superhero Nation continues its (depressing) article Facts About Writing That Surprise Young Novelists. […]

  8. […] Superhero Nation continues its (depressing) article Facts About Writing That Surprise Young Novelists. […]

  9. B. Macon 06 Jan 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Hello, Poet Warrior. I’m glad to hear that it’s been helpful for you. Thanks!

  10. mytg8on 09 Jan 2010 at 10:54 am

    Sound advice, as always.
    Y’know, I’ve heard a lot about those ‘hundreds of ms’ piles in editors and agents offices. I’m not saying those folks are not overworked–they most certainly are–but I believe that’s an exaggeration. Couple hundred manuscripts this week!,blah, blah.
    In a genre like spec fic? Even the major publishers wouldn’t have that many. I belonged to one of the largest online workshops and at any one time they had fifteen hundred, maybe 2 thousand members from all over the world, of which maybe a couple hundred were brave enough to post excerpts for criticism. And 90 per cent of these were short stories. Are they telling me they get a hundred novel ms a week per publisher?
    My opinion–slush reading at the houses is low priority but must eventually be done. So they let their in-boxes pile up and every couple of months or so they have a pizza party with all their asst. assistants and have them weed out the majority.
    Since they procrastinate this responsibility the piles grow and grow. Hell, I think it’s DAW that requires the full ms these days. Over a couple months even a few dozen items of slush would have thousands of pages there!

  11. bretton 14 Jan 2010 at 12:32 am

    Aren’t you more likely to get published with an agent first?

  12. B. Macon 14 Jan 2010 at 5:07 am

    Agented manuscripts are more likely to get published. (For more about agents, please see this).

    Publishers generally regard a manuscript more seriously if it has a credible agent. For one thing, having an agent shows that you’ve impressed at least one publishing professional with your writing ability. Agents also help you pick publishers that are more likely to be receptive to the style, length and target audience of your book. So you’ll mostly avoid a publisher’s assistant throwing out your manuscript because “umm, you know we don’t handle this sort of stuff, right?”

    Agents also negotiate on the author’s behalf, which is a hugely important service for an author that is new to the field. (You’ll probably be paid more).

    However… all of these benefits of agents hinge on the agent being competent. Pretty much anyone can say he’s an agent. If you’re going to place your professional career in someone’s hands, make sure that (s)he has a successful track-record selling manuscripts at least remotely similar to yours. (It’s best if your agent specializes in your kind of fiction because then he’ll know more about the market and who to talk to).

    For more about what you can expect from agents and why you might want to submit to them, please see this article by an agent and this one.

  13. esnippleeon 28 Jun 2010 at 3:46 pm

    …but one day i will get one done…
    …even if i dont have a computer then…
    …or maybe that wont be possible…

  14. Chaz Morganon 20 Dec 2010 at 10:55 pm

    I have read several books on publishing, and I have to say, your advice is on par with what I have read. I also have a following for my novel on Facebook. I am also a graphic designer, and already have the cover designed. I want to publish it myself, and thought if not, what is your opinion of P.O.D. publishing? Does it have a better rap than when they started? I know it is cheaper, but I have heard horror stories about covers published with gross errors, even names misspelled. I just don’t really think I have much stock in traditional royalty publishing, mainly because of the volume of material mixed in with mine.

  15. B. Macon 21 Dec 2010 at 9:48 am

    I have a few issues with print-on-demand.


    POD books usually sell poorly and you’ll have to sell all of your copies yourself. (In contrast, a professionally-published rookie will get at least some nominal support, like placement in bookstores).

    POD print quality can be very uneven and some operators are just downright shady. I’d recommend speaking with at least a few people that have published with the POD houses you’re looking at.

    Cost-per-unit is usually pretty high. (This could probably be overcome somewhat by also releasing the book for the Kindle, but you’ll still probably have to work a bit harder to make each sale than a comparable professional publisher would).

    Most first-time authors don’t write all that well at the beginning. The main difference between a first-time self-published author and a first-time professional is that the professional has probably benefitted from years of the process of rejection and rewriting and now enjoys some editorial guidance. At the very least, I would recommend spending a few months with a writing circle if you haven’t written professionally before. If you’d like, you can send me the manuscript at superheronation[at]gmail-dot-com and I can make some suggestions. (Another option is going with a freelance book editor, but I think they’re generally well-meaning individuals that charge more than the book will end up selling).


    Your comment shows that your book will probably be free of the spelling/punctuation/grammatical errors that plague self-published books.

    You have the skills to design your own cover.

    You’re putting in effort to market the book. I don’t know what your following is like or how many sales you would need to justify the time you’re spending on this project, but I figure if you have 500+ readers that have expressed an interest on Facebook, that’d be a good sign you’ll sell more than a handful of copies. (Most POD books don’t). Then, if the product turns out very well, you’ll have a pool of readers that might pass it along to their friends and family.

    It looks like you’re approaching this with a prudent amount of caution.

  16. Anion 28 Feb 2012 at 7:48 am

    So, looking at these rules, how the Heck did Stephenie Meyer get published? She has more typos and inconsistencies than the short stories my 11 year old friend has.

  17. ekimmakon 28 Feb 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I guess her persistency of trying as many publishers paid off?

  18. Gurion omegaon 16 Mar 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Lawerence watt evans has said that hiring an agent is basically hiring someone to pass your manuscript around and you could basically do that yourself. Is that accurate?

  19. B. Macon 16 Mar 2012 at 2:33 pm

    “Lawerence Watt Evans has said that hiring an agent is basically hiring someone to pass your manuscript around and you could basically do that yourself. Is that accurate?”

    Conceivably you could. However, unless you’re particularly good at negotiating and are experienced with the publishing industry, a good agent will probably earn you a larger advance than you would have gotten on your own. On average, the average advance for an unagented first novel is about $4000, compared to $5500 for an agented first novel. Most agents will pay for themselves.

    Some other benefits to a (good) agent:
    –He/she understands the publishing process and is unequivocally on your side. The agent’s experience and knowledge can make it a lot easier to withstand rejections (or disappointing behavior from a publisher) without losing hope.

    –A good agent lends credibility to a manuscript. Otherwise, if you’re an unpublished author, readers will (metaphorically) have their fingers hovering over the REJECT button. Even if this extra credibility doesn’t get your submission accepted, it’s more likely that the agent will at least be able to ask for a few minutes’ worth of advice about what went wrong.

    –A good agent puts more thought into manuscript submission than just passing manuscripts around.

    –A good agent serves as an intermediary and someone you can vent to. For example, if your publisher has done something that annoys you, an agent can raise your concerns in an appropriate and professional way. Otherwise, the author may end up burning his bridges with the publisher because the publisher did something completely standard. (For example, “HOW DARE YOU DESIGN MY COVER WITHOUT MY APPROVAL!” –> An agent would explain that most authors don’t get consulted over covers and may be able to offer advice about to raise your cover ideas with the publisher).

    The agent actually has to be good, though. As in any profession, there are some lemons. (Some things I’d want to see in an agent: publishing experience*, recent successes in your genre(s), personal attentiveness and friendliness, a solid understanding of storytelling, marketing skills, etc).

    *In particular, experience in acquisitions and/or editing.

  20. Anonymouson 14 May 2012 at 6:56 pm

    I have an idea for a 3-Part book series, but am lost in plot details. I am going to change POV in each book, because there are three main factions. I want to be able to show the hate of the factions, but a long-forgotten friendship between the faction leaders. How can I do this without conusing readers.

    Also, how could a teenage writer get help publishing once finished?


  21. Nathanon 14 May 2012 at 7:38 pm

    I am the “Anonymous” above. I also forgot to ask is “Capricorna Zodia” too long a name? She is the antagonist of the first two books, but the final is shown from her POV. Her ideal is to become the most intellegent person ever, eventually knowing everything. There are no “superpowers” in my intended series, but a but of suspense/mystery work.

  22. B. McKenzieon 14 May 2012 at 8:12 pm

    “I am going to change POV in each book, because there are three main factions. I want to be able to show the hate of the factions, [and] a long-forgotten friendship between the faction leaders. How can I do this without confusing readers?”

    I don’t think there’d be much any potential for confusion in changing point-of-view from one book to the next.

    “Also, how could a teenage writer get help publishing once finished?” You can email the first 5-20 pages of your manuscript and possibly a query letter to me at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com. I’ll look them over and offer feedback. Besides that, I would recommend against bringing demographic information (e.g. age) into a proposal unless it’s relevant–age discrimination might reduce your authorial credibility and give your manuscript less of a chance to stand on its own merits.

    “Is Capricorna Zodia too long of a name?” I’m not a huge fan of Capricorna*, but I don’t think length is a major issue for a first and last name totaling 15 letters. Compare to Hermione Granger (15), Sookie Stackhouse (16), Neville Longbottom (17), Daenerys Targaryen (17), etc.

    *Would a variation like Caprisa, Capresa, Copresa, Caprice or Caprisha work?

  23. Nathanon 15 May 2012 at 11:03 am

    I decided to use “Caprica” as her name. It still references Capricorn, the Zodiac sign. Thanks for the advice as well. I am still writing the first chapter, but i will get it to you as soon as possible.

  24. B. McKenzieon 15 May 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Caprica! I like it.

  25. Helknighton 15 May 2012 at 3:20 pm

    Hey Nathanial what are the three factions in your storie

  26. writingninjaon 24 Jun 2012 at 4:43 pm

    I love to write. I have dreams of publishing a book, but I get hung up on writing mechancs. I struggle with learning disabilities. No excuses for the publishing world, that I know! But I have a hard time grasping it because I don’t see the patterns in it. Do you know of resorces that teach it in logical ways? I know if I shared my work more, people could point it out. But it is embarassing because there are a lot of snide commets. So I really want to improve on my own first.

  27. Tea4Meon 15 Jul 2012 at 5:12 pm

    (In responce to this and the previous 8)

    Well. There goes that dream, haha!

  28. Writteron 29 Dec 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I was just wondering if you had any guidelines on chapter length anywhere on this sight, and if not, would you be able to possible make a page? In The Story that I’m working on, my chapters are usually 1500-2500 words. Is this too short, or too long in your opinion, and does chapter length really matter that much?

  29. B. McKenzieon 29 Dec 2012 at 10:50 pm

    “Does chapter length really matter that much?” No, not really, although in a chaptered work of popular fiction, I’d recommend chapters shorter than, say, 10,000 words. It strikes me as inconceivable that a publisher would say no to an otherwise publishable work over chapter length.* I’d recommend focusing on the much more important factors–notably interesting characterization, strength of plotting/premise, and clarity.

    *Unless perhaps multiple points-of-view are involved. It might be an issue if the story rotated too quickly or too slowly between POV characters. If you’re working with multiple POVs, I’d recommend checking out the best books in your genre with multiple POVs to see what’s standard–my guess would be that anywhere between 2000-6000 words between POV switch would be ideal.

  30. Writteron 01 Jan 2013 at 12:42 am

    Thanks B. Mac. In my story there is virtually no change in point of view, so that’s not really an issue.

  31. Kid Writeron 08 Aug 2013 at 1:15 pm

    I’ve had a website for over a year now, but only a few people get on. Any tips for getting awareness?

  32. B. McKenzieon 08 Aug 2013 at 7:49 pm

    “I’ve had a website for over a year now, but only a few people get on. Any tips for getting awareness?” A few thoughts:

    1) If you’re doing fiction, I’d recommend keeping in sequence as much as possible. I’d recommend removing the “Random Writings” heading on your website in favor of focusing on 1 (MAYBE 2) consistent project. SN’s had ~800,000 readers and I’ve only been able to coax maybe 25-50 of them to visit my review forum more than 5 times. The forum is too random for people to get really attached.

    2) Be as consistent about posting as possible. E.g. post 1-2 pages in sequence per week. This will take a lot of advance planning and work. As your volume grows, your readers will gradually bring in new readers and the readers you get through incidental Google searches will be more likely to stick around.

    3) I’d recommend renaming the headline of your website (“Creative. Innovative.”) to give more information about your writing and/or your writing style. One really useful detail about your writing would be which genre you focus on. If you’re interested in an example here from my work, you can check out my header — “Writing’s like vagrancy, but less lucrative… Don’t quit your day-job!” helps introduce readers to my good-naturedly cynical take on writing, and I think the header and site title make it really, really easy for people to learn that I focus on superhero-themed writing advice.

    4) Branding/identity… “I am The WordWeaver. I am The Kid Tekija (author). I am… a kid.” I’d recommend something more stereotypically professional/adult here. I think cutting the lines identifying yourself as a kid would make it easier to retain readers older than 18.

    4.1) It may help to use a realistic-sounding pseudonym. When I started SN in high school, I used a casual nickname (B. Mac). In retrospect, that created an obstacle to being taken seriously.

    5) Website style – I’d suggest picking a minimalistic Weebly theme which has a light background and dark text. It’s MUCH easier to get a reader addicted to your website and enjoy reading on your website if it’s black text on white font. If you’d like something more visually imaginative, I’d suggest getting a theme with a custom header (which you could fill with your preferred combination of a photograph, captions in Photoshop, commissioned art*, etc). I’d recommend checking out this free theme, this one, and this one. If you’re into WordPress themes, you might recognize this one ;-).

    *E.g. SN’s custom image is a Photoshopped chimera of an office, a helicopter, Chicago, $40 of commissioned headshots of characters from my work, and captions. Total cost: $40 and maybe 5-10 hours of playing around on Photoshop.

    6) As much as possible, respond to every comment and reader email. That makes it easy to help someone become more interested in the website. However, there probably won’t be very many early on. It took me maybe 6 months before the audience on SN was collectively spending more time on SN than I was.

    7) What sort of writing does your website focus on? If possible, I’d recommend focusing on one small niche. Then I’d think about what someone might type into Google looking for content like yours. In my case, I figured that people would probably be looking for “how to write superhero novels” and “superhero writing advice,” so I made my website’s title “Superhero Nation: how to write superhero novels…” (Google strongly prefers websites which have words from the search term in the title and URL).

  33. Kid Writeron 09 Aug 2013 at 8:10 am

    Wow, thank you so much for your time and advice! I will definitely use it.

    And maybe I’ll just cut the ‘kid’ off of my username here too. 🙂

    About my pseudonym. Would “The WordWeaver” sound alright, or should I get an entirely new, more professional name?
    Also (and I apologize for so many questions) should I make an entirely new blog (possibly a blogspot or wordpress), so as to get a new URL that would match a search more precisely?

  34. B. McKenzieon 09 Aug 2013 at 6:13 pm

    “Would “The WordWeaver” sound alright, or should I get an entirely new, more professional name?” I think “Word Weaver” or “[Realistic-Sounding Pseudonym], Word Weaver” could work for the site title, but would recommend using a realistic-sounding name for a pseudonym.

    “Also (and I apologize for so many questions) should I make an entirely new blog (possibly a blogspot or wordpress), so as to get a new URL that would match a search more precisely?” Eventually, I would recommend paying for hosting so that you can cut the .weebly or .wordpress out of the URL. E.g. http://www.CrimeScene.com looks somewhat more professional and is easier to remember than http://www.CrimeScene.weebly.com. This would require ~$15/year in hosting costs. If you’re using Weebly, I think the professional upgrade there costs $45 or $60 a year. I don’t know anything about Blogspot.

  35. Tomason 11 Apr 2016 at 7:20 pm

    For 15 and 16, does it help to know the managers of a chain of bookstores which already has a contract with an important publishing house? (I am not sure about their target audience, though. I think it is different from my writing)

  36. B. McKenzieon 11 Apr 2016 at 11:36 pm

    If the chain in question is fairly small (fewer than 10 stores), I’m not sure a favor there would be likely to lead to thousands of sales. So I don’t think this would push a publisher that wasn’t otherwise sold on the manuscript. If you know the person well enough to get some sort of preferential placement in 50+ stores, I think that’d be worth mentioning, but before I mentioned it, I’d try getting some details about what that might entail.

  37. Tacocaton 29 Dec 2017 at 11:18 am

    I know this has been asked before but how will age affect chances of publishing? I’m pretty good for my age (not publishing good yet, but I took a college reading test and it was really easy for me.) However, I’m not submitting to publishers just yet, maybe in two to three years. Still, I’ll be in my teens. The youngest author published author I’ve seen was 16 and the book received generally poor ratings. I don’t want that to happen, so should I wait 4-6 years and practice my writing before I hand out my manuscripts?

  38. B. McKenzieon 30 Dec 2017 at 8:45 pm

    “The youngest author published author I’ve seen was 16 and the book received generally poor ratings. I don’t want that to happen…” My suggestion would be to do the best you can now, and not worrying about how you might look back on it in XX years. It probably won’t be the best thing that you ever produce, and that’s okay.

    Also, the process of getting a first work published professionally usually takes 5 or 10 years.

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