10 Things I’ve Learned About Being a Novelist

by Roger Colby

It has been a year and a half since I started my blog, and I thought I would write a retrospective about some of the things I have learned about writing novels and the publishing industry in general that would be some good knowledge for people just starting out. This post is intended for people who are new to writing a novel and wanting to publish it, and these are the things I wish I knew when I first began this process.

Here they are, and I hope they save precious time that would better serve the writer doing what they do best, which is writing:

1. Be Wary of Agents – Agents are great if you can get them, but sometimes there are so called “agencies” out there who happily feed you lines of encouragement in order to get you to “publish” with them or buy whatever it is that they are selling. I will not mention any names here, but as soon as an “agent” begins to talk to you about paying them for “publishing” or “publicity”, run in the other direction. Agents (by tradition) only make money if you make money, and if your agent is asking for it up front they are not really an agent. Agents also will happily provide a list of successes they have had in the past. When in doubt, check the agent’s name or company on this database. It will tell you everything you need to know about them.

2. Take Writing Courses – I graduated from Oklahoma Baptist University with an English degree, and whilst toiling away at said monicker, I happened to take several creative writing workshops and seminars. The truth is, I still enjoy a good writing workshop now and again. It keeps my writer’s pen sharp. If you think you know it all, then think again.

3. Editing Services – Even though I hold a degree in English, I still go to other people to edit my work. There is no better eye than someone else’s when it comes to finding your mistakes, discovering when beloved characters need to completely disappear, or when the dialogue is made of cardboard. I charge $1 a page (and that’s cheap), but find someone you trust and by all means pay them, even if they are a colleague and would just like dinner.

4. ISBN Numbers – The best money spent as a writer, except maybe for an editing job, is throwing down the hard earned cash for a set of ISBN numbers. I recently purchased 10 of them for a hefty $250, but it is well worth it to list your book under your own name if you self-publish. You could take the free ISBN that is issued by CreateSpace (which I’ll discuss next) but then your novel will be published under Amazon’s name, and not yours. It is so cool to be the publisher as well as the author and also to be listed in search engines. Bowker will request an upload of a PDF copy of your book to enter into search engines and other internet “find-it” places. You should only need 2 ISBN numbers for each novel you write (and I will explain why in a sec) so the ten numbers will last a while (unless you write like Isaac Asimov). And by all means, pay the $35 bucks to copyright your work online with the government. It’s worth it.

5. CreateSpace – I really love Amazon’s self-publishing machine. I have a tutorial about how to use Scrivener to produce a CreateSpace book here.  It is an easy and cost effective way to produce a print edition of your book, but there are ways you should use it to best utilize your money and time, and then there are ways that you should not. One important thing to note is that (unless you already knew) CreateSpace books are non-returnable, so you will have to buy author’s copies and then find book stores willing to sell your books “on consignment”. This takes leg work on your part, but it’s worth it to help get the word out about your book. You get to buy the printed copies at a discount and can then sell them for the cover price at conventions, do book signings, and then use the money you make from that to buy replacement author copies to continue the cycle.

6. Digital Editions – I have several tutorials about how to use Scrivener to create Kindle, Nook, and iBooks versions of your novel, but recently I’ve been thinking that less is more. Smashwords will convert a text file of your novel to a “Smashwords Edition” and then offer it on all formats mentioned above (plus several more), and all for the same price of sale. It is a good idea to read and follow the style guide offered by Smashwords as a free e-book. Read it cover to cover and do what it says. The directions are pretty simple and can alleviate any headaches with formatting. Go ahead and upload a Kindle version of your book after your CreateSpace copy publishes because it’s nice to link that to your book. Be sure to provide a link to the Smashwords versions (all in one handy place) on your website.

7. Blog – I can’t say enough about the importance of blogging as a writer. I have met some great people: fellow writers, publishers, artists, publishers and agents. I have received advice from some very experienced people who are in this self-publishing game. I have been able to vent my frustrations, get feedback, find editing clients, discover new and interesting ways to reach out to the public to promote my books, and have ample gris for the writing mill. If nothing else, it allows me to jump-start my writing energy so that I can keep going. It has also kept me honest. I’ve been maintaining this blog for longer than most projects I have started and never finished. It is something I look forward to doing, and hopefully I’ve helped some of you out along the way. Don’t forget to comment on other blogs, write about other blogs and like often. I don’t do it enough, and it is the one thing I have to make time to do.

8. Cover Art – Do some research about this. There are tons of covers out there that are downright horrible, yet the people who either hire it out to professional artists or spend hours researching what makes a cover pop are the ones who make the difference. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but in the digital book game it can mean the difference between someone picking up your book or hitting the back button. I frequent The Book Cover Archive, and Design Observer releases the top 50 book covers every year. They are all worth taking a look. Ask yourself what makes them so good, then read articles about design, and if in doubt, hire it out.

9. Social Media – I am on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, GoodReads, Google+ and LinkedIn. I stay connected to many people in the industry this way, and sometimes use it for advertising. However, the most important thing you need to do with social media is not to advertise but to engage the public. I spend more time on social media than I do posting blog entries or commenting on other people’s blogs and I need to do a better job of balancing that. When you teach full time and have four children sometimes the time escapes your grasp (if that is even a worthy metaphor). Be sure to link your blog to social media accounts as well.

10. Stay With It – This one is last, but it is probably the most important. There have been many times in the past few weeks that I have wanted to throw in the towel, and it’s probably why I haven’t posted as much as I’d like. I have a dream of being a best-selling novelist, but that dream may never happen (and I’m not getting any younger). I do not have any illusions about the publishing industry. If there is anything this year and a half has taught me it is that realizing my dream is the same as someone who dreams about winning the lottery, but what causes that guy to keep buying the tickets? He thinks that he will one day get lucky. I know that luck is not something that is tangible, but I’ll keep at it. I can’t explain why. I just love writing, and even if only two or three people read my books and enjoy them, then I’ve done my job. I’m a fan of my own stuff, but I guess I have to be. I’ll keep writing, keep publishing, keep moving forward. One day it’s gotta click, right?


ROGER COLBY is an independent author, who has published "This Broken Earth," "The Transgression Box," "Notes from the NICU: Overcoming Catastrophic Trial," and a short story intitled "Old Freck's Place." Roger is also an English teacher and father of four. He is probably writing a novel or teaching or playing with his kids or romancing his wife if he is not posting on his blog WritingIsHardWork.com.