The New Path to Writing Success

photo by jonmartin

Therese here. I’m so pleased to bring you a post by today’s guest, Jon Bard, the managing editor of Children’s Book Insider–an established, well-respected newsletter for children’s writers–and “Fightin’ Bookworm in Chief” of The CBI Clubhouse, the Online Community for Children’s Writers. Jon has worked with aspiring children’s writers for more than two decades, and is with us today to talk about possibilities in for children’s writers in the modern market. His enthusiasm is contagious, and I think you’ll love his essay. Enjoy!

The New Path to Writing Success

We’ve been working with aspiring children’s book writers for 22 years.  And, for the majority of that time, our response to the question “How do I get published” has been  the same:

Craft a terrific manuscript, research publishers, assemble a strong submissions package, send it off….and wait.

If you’re one of the fortunate ones, your wait will be rewarded with a contract offer.  If you’re like most writers, the cycle will be completed by another rejection letter.  Not the most fulfilling process, but it was the only process that worked.

Placing your fortunes in the hands of an unknown, unseen editor is such an ingrained part of being a writer that it’s hard to imagine an alternative reality.  And yet, an alternative reality is precisely what’s been created.  And each of us are citizens of this brave new world.

Writers can, if they are so inclined, completely sidestep the traditional publishing structure and take on a more entrepreneurial role.  Thanks to eBooks, apps and print on demand, the ability to create, promote and sell one’s writing are now within the reach – and budget – of almost every writer.   And, for the first time since Gutenberg, the very definition of “book” is being rewritten.

For many in the  writing community, the reaction to all of this has been panic.  That’s easy to understand. Unlike the world of computers and technology, publishing has always evolved at a rather glacial pace.  But now, the future of the written world is tied inextricably to the ones and zeros of the digital marketplace, and — just like that —  writers, librarians, booksellers and publishers find themselves part of an industry that moves at light speed.  After centuries crawling at a snail’s pace, the new velocity is startling.  And scary.

But here’s the good news: the dust is settling, and the road ahead is finally becoming clearer. And, we believe, it’s a road that can take writers to some very exciting places.

In order to fully appreciate this new path, each of us must first take a giant step back, and remember something fundamental:

We’re storytellers.  And, for thousands of years, storytellers have known one vital fact — it’s about the story, not the medium.

Whether on cave walls, around a roaring fire, on papyrus, glossy paper or in the glow of an eReader, a story is still a story.   Failing to understand every detail of how books got typeset, printed, bound and shipped never prevented anyone from writing a bestseller.  Nor should your current level of knowledge regarding digital technology be in any way in impediment to thriving in the decades ahead.

Just tell your story.  You’ll figure out the rest when you need to.

So let’s move on, and examine four key elements of writing success in the 21st century:

1. In the New Media Environment, Craft Is King

More now than ever, the ability to write well and tell a compelling story reigns supreme.  The days when a publisher could turn a subpar work into a hit by sheer force of marketing dollars is over.  Today’s big sellers are the result of one thing:  word of mouth.  Parents talking to other parents.  Kids talking to other kids.  Bloggers championing their favorite authors and titles. The impact of this is simple to see:  Bad books don’t get recommended by word of mouth.   Good books do.

This is the true antidote to “content glut”.  Yes, the easy access to publishing media has resulted in a tidal wave of poorly written, poorly edited books that create an almost unbearable signal-to-noise ratio.  But Charles Darwin knew a thing or two.  And the fittest will ultimately thrive.  It will just take a little longer.

The new model for a hit book is a slow build, a rising tide of organic buzz about a great read. It’s all about the quality of the writing and the story.

So get back to the basics.  Master plot.  Master dialogue.  Master character building.  Write, revise and write some more.   Skill is still the ultimate “golden ticket”.

(And here’s something equally vital:  keep up on current trends so your work doesn’t come across as dated or outmoded.  Kids can smell a stale story a mile away.  To help with this important step, we asked some bestselling children’s and YA authors for their take on what’s hot right now in kids’ lit and we put their replies in a new eBook.  Writer Unboxed readers can get the eBook with our compliments by going here.

 2. The Author Has The Power to Choose His or Her Path to Publication

Choice = power.  And you now have choices.

You can still go the traditional route, submitting your manuscripts to publishers.  It’s as valid a way of reaching the market as it ever was.  But now you can choose to opt out of that model.  Self-publish, create eBooks for the Nook and Kindle, build an App for the iPhone or Android.   It’s all possible, it’s all eminently doable and it’s all now a completely legitimate means of publishing your work and reaching millions. No more waiting around for someone else’s arbitrary decision. You have control, so use it.

And get your ego out of the way.  Sure, it’s a thrill to see your book in a bookstore.  And yeah, perhaps seeing it in online in eBook form isn’t quite as compelling.

But it’s not about you and your ideal of what being an “author” is.  It’s about your reader.  And if a young person is moved by something you wrote, it matters little whether it’s on a printed page, an eReader or even a smart phone.  Reach your readers how they want to be reached, and the rest will sort itself out.

Photobucket 3. Authors Must Be Marketers

Whether you self-publish or get a contract from a big publisher, the reality is the same:  you must learn how to market and promote yourself and your work. With the barriers to publication gone, you’ll have lots of competition for the attention and dollars of your audience.  That’s the bad news. The good news? Few authors really understand how to effectively promote their books. Once you learn a few key concepts, you’ll have a huge edge.

We aren’t talking about going door-to-door to hawk your wares.  Promoting in the modern media environment is actually a whole lot of fun. Imagine blogging in the guise of one of your characters (perhaps your antagonist stops in from time to time to torment the hero in the comments section!), creating a story to send out on Twitter — 140 characters at a time, creating a fun online game for your Facebook page, visiting with a classroom full of giggling young fans…..

Meeting your readers, connecting with parents, sharing yourself with the world: these aren’t acts of drudgery.  They’re endless opportunities for joy and fulfillment.

Ready to learn more? Click here for a piece on how to build your own network of fans easily and quickly.

4.  Your Trail Has Already Been Blazed

Everything I’ve described has already taken place in the music industry.  Long before the Nook and Kindle, the advent of the MP3 format and player changed everything about the way musicians approached their careers.  Many of those who clung to the old paradigm (replace “book publisher” with “record company”) have been swept away, replaced by a generation of artists who independently create and distribute their music and who rely on their strong fanbase connections to earn a living.

And it works.  Singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer, without a record label, recently earned more than $1,000,000 selling her music in about a week, thanks to her understanding of fan-building techniques.  (Click here to learn more about how she did it.)   Upcoming artists are finding footholds by participating in unusual collaborations, engaging fans in Facebook contests, posting viral video and connecting with fans on a one-to-one basis.

Beyond the bottom line, the new paradigm of creating and distributing music has offered intrepid artists avenues for remarkable creative expression.  One quick example to spark your imagination:  the artist Beck is releasing his new “album” by selling an intricately designed and printed collection of sheet music.  Twenty new songs he will never record.  Instead, he’s offering a site where buyers can upload their own recorded versions of his new songs.   The same song recorded in hundreds of different ways, all pointing back to a single artist’s vision.

Stop right now.  What can you do that is as transformative?  How can you express your creative storytelling vision in an equally revolutionary way?

Now consider this:  Whatever off-the-wall, out there idea you came up with is most likely something that be done.  Right now.  Within your budget.

It is, indeed, a brave new world.  Welcome it.  Embrace it.  And then Crush It.

The future is here. And it’s yours.

To learn more about Jon, visit him at The CBI Clubhouse, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!



  1. says

    Great tips Jon. You’re right, there are more options now and we should embrace them and not be afraid of them. Thanks for all your tips on all aspects of getting published, including marketing. You make it all seem manageable and something we can do successfully.

  2. says

    Great post. It can seem overwhelming negotiating all the choices and having so much more responsibility placed in the hand of the author. The world is a’changin’, but as you pointed out, this can be a positive direction, empowering the writer.

  3. says

    Thanks so much for the encouragement, ideas and links! Lots to consider here – and for me, you took it out of the scary/vague zone and transformed it into creative inspiration. My mind is racing (and I don’t even write for children). Bless you.

  4. says

    Thanks for writing a post filled with so many great tips and insights. The biggest takeaway is that craft and story are still king. Thanks again.

  5. Daniel Myatt says

    Haven’t been this inspired in a long time! What a great post! How crucial! Gotta pass this on to my writing friends — as well as friend striving to break into the music business! Thanks!

  6. says

    I really like what you’re doing here- on Writer Unboxed and so glad I found your site…also this article has great tips- there really is no one way or right way anymore. Scary, but refreshing. Thanks for sharing!

  7. says

    Having just recently decided to go the self-publishing route, I’ve been most concerned about how to go about reaching readers. I really appreciate both the upbeat, optimistic tone of this post and your fabulous links on how to develop a fan bases. You make me feel excited, instead of a little overwhelmed. Thanks!

  8. says

    Jon, this is such an inspiring post, but the best part is, it’s all TRUE! As someone with an app coming out in December, I don’t feel any “less published” than I would with a traditional contract in hand. Not that I wouldn’t also welcome a traditional publishing contract, but it’s very liberating that we as creators have so many viable options to get our art in the hands of the people whom it will inspire.