Monday, June 15, 2009

My Advice to Aspiring Authors

Over the past several months I have received messages from aspiring authors seeking my advice as they embark on their journeys into the world of publishing. My schedule doesn't always allow me to respond to such inquiries at length, but I'd still like to help. Therefore, I am writing this blog to answer some of the questions I've been asked so far. I am by no means an expert in the publishing industry and I am still learning each day while attempting to make myself known. At times it's a daunting task since the road is a lonely one to travel, but I am determined to meet my goal.

Attention to detail is extremely important if you want your craft to be taken seriously. In the literary world, many authors have become entangled in situations that could have easily been avoided if they had taken the extra time to check their spelling and grammar. It's often the simplest words that get us into trouble--for example, using 'they're' when 'their' should have been utilized. It happens to the best of us--especially when we're really flowing with the creative rhythm of our tales. Another common mistake is using words out of context. As authors, our vocabulary is constantly expanding. It's the tool of our trade and we have to make sure it's in the best condition possible, so it's worth it to become best friends with the thesaurus and dictionary. Also, it's always good to have an extra pair of trusted eyes to help you proofread your work. You'd figure the more you look at your own work, the more likely you are to catch those sneaky errors. In fact, the contrary is true.

There's a common misconception that becoming an author will instantly earn you fame and fortune. On the contrary, it entails a lot of hard work with little financial gain--especially for those whom are self-published--at least in the beginning. However, if you truly love what you do, it will all be worth it. Setbacks will likely occur during your journey and it's understandable to become frustrated, upset and impatient. But it's crucial that you remain professional in your correspondence to the agents and literary representatives you come into contact with. People talk and word will likely spread to others in the publishing industry if you are rude or belligerent. Keep in mind, this is a business and rejection needn't be taken personally. Seeking an agent is in many ways like seeking a job--you submit your resume and if you're the right person for the position, they select you, if not, you move on to the next possible employer. If at some point you realize you're receiving nothing but unfavorable feedback, at some point you may need to reevaluate and rework your query letter, manuscript or both. However, there are cases where the author's work is fine, but the agent just isn't comfortable or enthused enough to offer representation.

I am most often asked how I got started. After a lengthy uphill battle submitting my query letters to various agents (all of whom rejected my novel) I decided to look into other options--in this case, self-publishing. I just want to emphasize the 'self' in self-publishing since the author does pretty much everything on their own--especially if they're working with a limited budget. The first thing I did after deciding to self-publish was copyright my work. It sounds a bit intimidating, but it can be done online through the U.S. Copyright Office website ( ) for a low fee of about $45. I consider it a worthy investment. The process takes several months, but it won't hinder you from proceeding with your self-publishing endeavors while the application is pending.

The best advice I can offer is to maintain your focus and harness your skills while learning as much as you possibly can. Before you decide to self-publish, really consider how much commitment it will take since you will most likely have to act as your own publicist, manager, secretary, agent, graphic designer (in some instances), etc. It's a demanding challenge that requires sacrifice--mainly money, time and sleep--as well as dedication. I believe the best thing for a new author to do is try their very best to find an agent before diving into the abyss of self-publishing. If you still decide to self-publish, make sure you thoroughly research the different companies that are out there. What may work for one author may not necessarily work for another--not to mention there are a lot of scam artists out there. When researching these companies, check their reputation with the Better Business Bureau and do an online search for independent reviews of the companies you're considering. Also, look at some of the titles they have already published and check their availability. Are their books only available through the self-publishing company, or are they also available through Barnes & Noble and/or Amazon? In addition, check how their books are priced. Even the most avid readers will not want to pay obscene amounts of money for books--especially in this tough economy.

Be sure to ask all your questions upfront and find out exactly what is--and is not--included in the price before signing with the company. This will be an optimal time to see how their customer service operates. If they are pushy from the get go, chances are they will be for the duration of the relationship. Most importantly, take time to really think about everything before making your decision. You've worked long and hard on your story, so give it the consideration it deserves since you'll be entrusting your work to someone other than yourself.

I still hold out hope in getting an agent to represent me--hopefully for my second book, which is currently underway. Try not to get discouraged. Some--if not most--authors work for years before they finally get their big break if ever. I've barely begun to make a dent, but I know if I keep trying, I'll get my big break too.

Here are a some resources you may find helpful:

Best of luck!

Shykia Bell
Author of


  1. Thank you, this is VERY helpful! I am not quite at this point yet as I'm still working on my first book, but I have been very curious about the copyright question and no one has given this kind of answer or guidance so THANK YOU!!!

    Also, I noticed in your bio you were in another field before... I actually started out in engineering and am now working on writing too. It's funny how we sometimes find new paths we never knew we had or because of other things that happen in our lives.

    Thanks again!

  2. You're very welcome, Shauna! It's never too early to do your research on the printing/production/marketing processes. I'm glad to help people avoid the mistakes I've made. As far as copyrights go, you technically own the right to your work as soon as it's written. However, filing for an official copyright certificate provides, I feel, a little added insurance against plagiarism.

    The wonderful thing about life is the ability for one to alter their path whether career or otherwise. However, such versatility is not without its challenges. That's where perseverance comes in.

    All the best!