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What to Know Before Writing Your First Book

You’re sitting down to write your first book.


Good for you. It takes courage to do something new. We’ve helped thousands of first-time authors, and we know what you’re up against.


There’s probably a lot you don’t know, and that’s totally normal. How would you know how to write or publish a book when you haven’t done so before? It’s okay to be learning. We’re here to help you through this process.


Here are some basic, helpful facts to know when you’re setting out to write your first book:


You might know these facts already, but we find that most first-time authors do not!


  • There are five “big” publishing houses: Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan. They dominate the publishing world.
  • Outside of the big five, there are numerous small, indie publishing houses.
  • Within the big five, there are subdivisions called “imprints.” Each imprint has certain genres and topics it generally publishes, and, within the imprint, each editor has their own interests and specialties.
  • Traditional publishing takes a long time: after signing a contract, the process typically takes about 18 months. Before signing a contract, you’ll need to secure an agent (another time-consuming process).
  • As an author, you don’t have to contact editors directly. That’s what an agent does.
  • You don’t pay an agent: they receive a portion of your advance.
  • Typically, an author receives about 11-13% of royalties.
  • You don’t have to traditionally publish: you’ve probably read several self-published books without knowing it. In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to publish on your own and sell through Amazon.
  • When looking to traditionally publish a nonfiction book, you don’t have to finish the manuscript before you get a contract: what you need is a book proposal document: a document which secures you an agent as well as gets you a book contract.
  • A typical nonfiction, trade book is 50,000-60,000 words.
  • A typical nonfiction, trade chapter is 3,000 – 5,000 words.
  • In both traditional and self publishing, the author markets their own book.


We have opinions about those facts: 


Here is some advice we give first-time authors: 


  • Having a well-developed idea is more important than having finished chapters.

People get caught trying to finish their book or crank out words. They focus on writing pages and pages without stopping to look at the big picture or strategize about what they want to say and how they want to speak to their readers.


  • Developing what you want to say and why precedes any publishing or marketing decisions.

There are many publishing paths out there: instead of fixating on getting the attention of Penguin Random House, consider what you want to say and why. These questions will lead you to what makes sense for publishing.


  • It’s never too early to start getting feedback from the people you want to reach.

Since you’re in charge of marketing your book, it’s best to know who you’re writing to—really well! You don’t have to develop your idea in secrecy. Get to know what people have to say, what their questions are, and what they challenge you on. It will strengthen your writing and your ability to reach them.


  • It’s best to be flexible.

Writing and publishing look many different ways. Your idea will shift over time, and you’ll get lots of input (agents, editors, audience) along the way. Stay flexible.


  • It’s never too early to begin.

If you feel like you’re not ready to start your book or it’s too soon to start thinking about audience or publishing options, you’re wrong! Our best advice is to, first and foremost, start developing your idea: what do you want to say, how will you say it, who will you say it to? It’s never too early to do this.


Best of luck, and check out our Prepare to Publish Self Study course: designed to help first-time authors like yourself navigate these new waters.

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