The Ins and Outs of Publishing Your First Book - Jenna Kutcher

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The Ins and Outs of Publishing Your First Book

Jenna Kutcher 

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In case you missed it, I recently announced that I wrote a BOOK! Coming out this June, How Are You, Really? has been my biggest professional labor of love to date (emphasis on both labor AND love), which got me thinking about this whole process of book writing and publishing… Peeking into the world of book publishing is like squinting through a foggy window. You can make out some shapes, but not with real clarity. And frankly, I know how much of an obstacle that is for people who have a story in their brain and feel like it’ll always stay there. So, let’s break down what publishing your first book could look like.

Imagine with me. Take in the information, own it, because you can’t ‘trust the process’ if you don’t know what the process looks like! Let’s take a tour of the primary parts of my experience to get an idea of yours!

Even though you will need support from others as you go, remember this: everyone starts alone. Whether it’s in the moment you make the choice to give it go or that day when you open your first blank doc to start writing, you begin by yourself.

So, consider this our coffee date after you asked, “Can I pick your brain about book publishing?” And my response? A resounding, “Yes!”

Tip #1: You’ve gotta write that book.

It’s that simple, and that hard. The truth is, so many of us let all of those pesky details hold us back from telling our story. Questions like, “But what if it never sees the light of day?” or, “What if I never get an agent?” or, “What if no one picks it up?” But you’ve got to start at square one. You can’t publish a book if you don’t write it, ya know? So… write it.

Start there; let the beginning be the beginning, even if it feels awkward. Some people want to write the proposal first and land a deal, while others (like me) will choose to write the book first and then pursue the different publishing paths that exist. No matter which route you choose, it all starts with writing and sharing your vision for your book.

Tip #2: Be ready for the long-haul.

Make sure you love your idea enough to be all in for the time investment. If you’re familiar with the digital world like I am, you’re probably used to quick turnarounds and taking things from idea to reality rather fluidly (aka, fast). If so, then you might be surprised when I say that from start to finish the journey from deciding I was going to write a book to launch day was just shy of two years long.

I would have scoffed about that timeframe even just a few years ago, but now having lived the experience, I can see why it takes so much time to put a (great) book out there! You need to be connected to the mission and vision of the book so that you’re willing to face the time it will take to take an idea and make it a reality, one that you can hold in your hands!

Tip #3: You don’t have to be an expert to get published.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that you can only write what you know, and while that can be true, it can also be NOT true. What if you didn’t write what you knew, but wrote what you wanted to know? What if you wrote down your life quest in real time? Your grand experiment in living on less or starting your own knitting line or cutting out sugar? What if you wrote what you didn’t yet have figured out, what you weren’t an expert in? The publishing industry has enough experts. What it doesn’t have? You.

Tip #4: Your job isn’t just writing.

There’s a saying that I’ve heard thrown around a lot of publishing water coolers, and it’s this: Writers can’t afford to write. In other words? The publishing industry has changed so much in recent years, and a lot of the marketing/promotional work of an author falls on their own shoulders. It makes sense, in a way: no one’s going to root for a book more than the one who wrote it, right? But it also means that you have to expand your definition of what it means to write a book.

If you’re picturing a snowy cabin and a typewriter with long, languorous afternoons finishing your manuscript, and then, boom, six months later it arrives at your doorstep…. you’ll probably need to rethink your vision and shift it closer to reality. Authors are now heavily involved in every part of the book process—from copy edits to page proofs to cover design to marketing plans and PR pitches to media appearances and everything else.

It’s actually a profound honor to be involved in every aspect of publishing the book, and you’ll get to learn a TON. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I also would be remiss if I didn’t spill the beans that being a published author means a whole lot more than hitting “send” on a manuscript.

Tip #5: Gather a trusted team.

Here’s the good news: you don’t have to do the whole thing alone! Even if you go the self-publishing route, there are hundreds of beautiful humans who make it their life’s work to see your book through from start to finish. Here are just a few worth considering onboarding:

A literary agent:

If a book is a baby, your literary agent is like the super intense grandparent that’s going to sneak you bites of a cheeseburger during the birth and—once that babe comes earthside—flash the photos all over Grand Central Station. They’re in your corner, no matter what. They’ll fight for you when you’re stuck in a rut, and they’ll fight with you when you’re stuck on a title.

From contract obligations to negotiating advances and royalties, a good literary agent is a must. Ideally, you’ll find someone who believes in you as much as they believe in your book. You’re looking for synergy; for someone who gets you. And you’ll know when you’re being understood, much like you know when you meet a new friend that just makes sense.

An editor:

Even though most publishing houses come equipped with a fantastic editorial team, a dream team member is a developmental editor to help see your story through even before it makes its way to the chopping block. An editor is the doula! So many of us think of editors as the grammar police, but there are so many different types of editors.

Look for a developmental editor that will help you tell your story in the best way possible. They push the book in the direction it needs to go, and push you when you need an extra nudge. They shape the entire narrative—from arc to take away—and are, ideally, meticulously detailed, checking your manuscript for consistency in both tone and timing. A good editor gives you both macro vision to see the larger story, and micro vision to focus on the importance of each and every word.

A creative director / designer:

A good cover is a godsend, and I’d highly recommend finding the right person to tackle yours. Look for someone with a similar aesthetic in colors and textures. Make mood boards to communicate what sort of feel you’re after, and collect book covers you personally love. Every bit of information you can offer will lead your designer to more understanding in terms of what’s in your head, and together, that communication will help you nail a cover you’re both crazy proud of.

This is a beautiful dance if planned well. I trust their expertise, honor their work, and they catch my vision as someone who knows the book intimately. The end result? A book cover that both catches the eye from a sea of other books on the shelves, and adequately represents the heart of the work within.

However you choose to publish and whoever you choose to take on this journey with you, you’ll likely find that the process has a few different phases to it from the actual writing to the pitching (if you go the traditional publishing route) to the launching and promotion of the book. These three pieces will be there for you and each phase of the journey will hold triumphs and challenges!

Tip #6: Be prepared to feel vastly under-qualified.

I mean, ‘Author’ feels like the world’s most daunting title, doesn’t it? Like I should be wearing black rimmed glasses and attending poetry slams. Like I should have proof that I know everything before I write about anything.

But truth be told, every author I know suffers from some level of imposter syndrome when release day rolls around. Or long before. It’s the nature of the beast! You’re putting yourself on the bookshelf with millions of beautiful stories—some bestsellers, some not yet. Your spine—like, the book kind—is resting against the greats.

Shoulder to shoulder, shelf to shelf. I mean, that’s some high-level anxiety, you know? Because it does matter. But if you tell yourself that the real feat is in the writing—not the publishing—it’s easier to rise above all of those butterflies. Because whatever happens after you hit “send” on your manuscript doesn’t belong to you. You did the work. You made the work. And, as soon as you publish it, you bravely give that work away.

I’ll leave you with this simple fact

Like with most risks, know the cost in both directions. What happens if I do this? What happens if I don’t?

Writing a book will take time, effort, patience, and communication. But if you really want it, think about the cost of not doing it? For me, the value of going for it far outweighed what I knew I’d need to give of myself to make it happen.

I know that the book writing and publishing world has a certain magic to it, and I know it can feel like explaining what goes into the process might feel like I’m giving away too much of that magic, but I think that’s impossible. It will always, always, always be magical to ponder how someone created something out of nothing. There were once blank pages, and now there is adventure. There is breakthrough. There is love, hope, mystery, and learning. So, knowing the facts will only show you how to get your own magic out there.


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