The Right Way to Ask a Published Writer for Publishing Advice

Image: An author smiles at an audience member as he prepares to autograph a book at an in-store book signing.

Today’s post is by author and journalist Elisa Bernick.

Many years ago, I was at a book launch for a writer I didn’t know for a book I hadn’t bought. A mutual friend urged me to approach this writer with a question about how to publish the book I was working on. I hesitated for all the right reasons: I didn’t know this writer, why would he share this precious information with me? Was this the right venue and moment? I barely knew what questions to ask. Etc. Etc.

But my friend insisted he was a nice guy who wouldn’t mind a few questions. So, I walked up to him and asked if he had any pointers to offer on the publishing journey. I swear I saw smoke coming out of his ears. He was incensed that I would ask him this question on his big day, and he curled his lip in disdain and stalked away. 

I felt about three inches high. How dare I—a complete stranger and newbie writer—have the audacity to ask him for advice about something that probably took him years of rejections and hard work to achieve, and I wanted him to spill the secrets of his success in a sentence or two? (At his launch? Yikes!)

All these years later, having published two books and many articles, I still cringe at the memory. But equally distressing is that I often feel the same way when newbie writers ask me for advice. I hate that I feel this way because I want to be a resource for writers even though (and probably because) that writer was not a resource for me.

The publishing journey is hard. There are many dues to pay along the way in terms of the number of drafts written, the number of rejections received, the odds against a writer getting published and the even greater odds against a published writer making any real money from their books. When a newbie writer (and a complete stranger) blithely asks me to sum up all that hard work and tie it up with a bow, I feel tempted to do exactly what that writer did years ago.

To save you from an equally cringy fate, here are some tips on what to do before approaching me or another published writer with questions about how to get your book published.

Be a serious writer who understands the drafting process. Please don’t approach me (or have a friend “connect” us) until you have written several drafts of your book. Bonus points if you’ve had beta readers or an editor look your manuscript over. That gives me a sense you have the persistence and intentionality at the book-writing stage that’s required for the publishing journey.

Ask specific rather than general questions. This makes our conversation valuable and efficient. General questions get general answers, which are not very helpful. Specific questions mean you’ve put some thought into this process and have already taken the time to research the publishing industry, which assures me you’re not expecting me to give you book-length answers about things readily available online and in books.

Have a concrete sense of your publishing journey. Before reaching out, please write a book proposal (Jane’s got a great free template you can use for nonfiction books!). This will give you a better sense of your publishing goals, and it will give me a better sense of how to help you reach them. This document will be the basis of our conversation, and it will allow us to get into the nitty-gritty details of publishing (such as how to effectively research small and academic publishers to exponentially increase your odds of getting your manuscript read).

Have a little background on me and my book. If you’re writing fiction, please don’t approach me—approach a fiction writer. If you want to be published by one of the Big Five, approach a writer who has been published by a large publisher. I write nonfiction and memoir. My books were published by a small publisher and an academic publisher. I can offer specific information about my own publishing journey and its tradeoffs (going with a small or academic publisher keeps your books in print for a long time, which can potentially make up for a small or non-existent advance). But I will have only general information about working with a larger publisher.

Do me a solid and buy my book. There are rarely shortcuts in publishing. Writing a book is an art form but selling that book is business. It’s important to be strategic from the get-go and understand that publishing is transactional—not only in terms of money but in feedback and camaraderie. If you want me to be interested in your publishing journey, please take an interest in mine. Buying my (or another published writer’s) book before asking them for advice is both a strategic move and, more importantly, a respectful thing to do. Buy my book, tell me what you think of it, and then let’s chat.

I really do want to be a resource for other writers, just as I wish that writer long ago had been a resource for me. If only I’d bought his book and asked him to sign it, and if only he’d taken a moment to say, “Actually, this isn’t the best time to chat, but I’ve got some pointers on my website.” And if only I’d done the research and found suggestions like the ones I’m offering here, my publishing journey might have been just a little bit easier (without that awful cringing).

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