In 2014, your first step towards becoming a published author with a traditional publishing house is to start a blog focused on what you’ll eventually want to write a book about. Your second step is to grow a community around the writing you’re doing on your blog. Step three is to start writing for sites that have bigger, stronger, and more influential readerships than your own blog does. Eventually, and often immediately, you’ll watch your hobby become a profession.
I have been saying the same thing for over a decade: you can write yourself into any job you want. And it’s still true — and may be even truer today than it was in 2003. Why? Because in 2003 there were plenty of jobs, plenty of money, very few Internet-savvy hirers, and the Internet really wasn’t ubiquitous like it is now. And, back in 2003, the publishing industry was still deeply in denial that their hegemony would dominate the written world for years to come (where they were in 1993, a decade earlier–it’s true, denial is our strongest muscle).
Do I have a recent example of this happening in the wild?
Case-in-point: my buddy Minh Lê. He just sold a picture book to Disney! During the day, Minh works for the Federal Government. At night, he’s a loving husband and father. At some point in his busy, fulfilling life, he also loves literature. He love literature a lot. He’s the guy who always has a thin paperback book of short stories or essays in the a pocket of his blazer. When he sits or waits, it’s always a book he settles into and not his phone.
On February 11, 2007, Minh started Bottom Shelf Books. On March 14, 2007, Minh created the @bottomshelfbks Twitter account. Over the last seven-years he’s helped design Dave Eggers‘s DC interpretation of his 826 National creative writing center for kids, 826DC’s Museum of Unnatural History. He’s also expanded to writing for Book Riot, New York Daily News’ Page Views, The Atlantic’s The Wire, and then The Huffington Post. While seven years isn’t overnight, it kind of is. Because Minh didn’t write a KidLit book back then, he was just having a laugh, writing blog posts about children’s picture books and literature with the mind and wit of an adult male prankster. Here’s the warning he has on his first blog, Bottom Shelf Books:
Warning: Not Meant For Kids …unless you are the kind of kids that are allowed to read tasteless satire sprinkled with naughty words, expose yourself to various degrees of blasphemy, and see the occasional picture of a bare butt. In which case, by all means: Go on with your bad selves. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It was through his blog that he charmed every single author he satirized. He did it warmly and with admiration. He also treated each of these authors like adults and with professional respect. Additionally, as a Dartmouth- and Harvard-educated man, he was able to see more deeply into the true art and subtlety of these books, books that neither insult the parents nor the kids.
I was talking to Minh the other day and he thanked me for helping him seven years ago with Bottom Shelf Books. He also thanked me for introducing him to my editors at Huffington Post.
As it turns out, when his upcoming children’s picture book comes out, LET ME FINISH!, it will be published by Disney Hyperion and illustrated by Isabel Roxas after the rights were sold at auction. Rotem Moscovich bid for the book, in large part, because she started making the connections. “Oh, that Minh Le!” she might have said, because she was already a fan, already followed Minh on Twitter, and had read both his Best Picture Books of 2013 and 2014 Spring/Summer Picture Book Preview on Huffington Post.
While Elizabeth Bird got it right, “I could not be more pleased with the news I am about to share. It is my great honor and privilege to introduce to you the next blogger-turned-children’s-author,” the publishing world will probably call him a first-time author rather than someone who has been laying the groundwork for over seven years now.
He was never more than modestly compensated for any of these posts, for any of his blogs, or for his articles on Book Riot, New York Daily News, The Atlantic, and then The Huffington Post. But, much more valuable than some ad revenue he may have scratched together, he’ll not most assuredly become a published author, and this will assuredly be only the first of many books, some of which will be more children’s picture books, though I am sure that’s only the beginning, if I know him. Nobody puts Minh Le in a box.
Minh may very well have become a KidLit author without blogging, tweeting, Facebook, and by writing for some of the top online magazines — he is a force of nature, very passionate, very funny, charming, and smart, but I can assure you that the sort of constant feedback from putting public work into the world as well as all the industry introductions, author familiarity, and media attention surely kept him motivated while he was working his day job in an industry outside of publishing or education, and also make him feel in the fold. A known creative entity.
OK, I am just spitballing here. I don’t know what’s in Minh’s mind, though we are buddies. What I do know is I that is how it makes me feel! If you’re a passionate person, even if you’re in the industry, it lovely to keep in touch and get the sort of immediate feedback one receives on social media and in blogs versus the years it takes between when the press release goes out that announces a book being bought and when the book actually finally hits the shelves (2016 in the case of LET ME FINISH! — a long time, right?)
Please understand that blogging will not turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. You need to do the work and you need to do good work. You need to do work as least as good as anything you handed in in grad school or for the boss who pays you — actually, better. To rewrite the old saying that you need to dress for the job you want, not the job you have, you need to blog for the job that you want — in the career of your dreams — and not just for the blog that you have. Consider every piece you pen to be the equivalent of the writing sample you’d need to write or submit for the job of your dreams.
Potential employers and publishers feel like they’re getting the rare opportunity of catching you with your hair down when they’re reading you and what you write when you’re not writing explicitly for them. Little will they know: you’ll always be writing for them. Well, with one caveat: don’t be so damn uptight, don’t be so buttoned-down, don’t be so damned boring! That’s kind of a Catch-22, isn’t it: be yourself but also be dateable, right?
The same Catch-22 you probably deal with when it comes to finding Mr. or Mrs. Right, when it comes to being super-appealing on your Match.com profile. That’s always the rub: how are you both yourself and also as gorgeous, interesting, rich, and powerful enough that you can be lovable, desirable, and worthwhile enough to be wanted and pursued, by a lover, an employer, a publisher.
I’ll give you the same exact advice everyone has given you since you were knee high to a grasshopper: you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you. It’s true, and only when you can allow all of that passion, natural ability, intelligence, and skill to show through your work, then everything will just line up for you. (Another hackneyed saying is “you need to love yourself before anyone else can” — and it’s true, too, though admittedly hackneyed)
All things being equal, you’ll win the book contract and get the job. But you can’t just call it in. You’ll need to make it your best work. Hopefully your best work will also be your most fun work. I know that everything that Minh has ever done online has always made him laugh his ass off. While I am sure it’s all hard, challenging, and surely time-consuming, it’s a labor of love. And it would need to be, too, to distract him away from his hot wife and handsome little boy.
Between you and me, four of my closest friends are publishing soon: four books being published by major publishers. They all have always been smart but they all have been very smart with social media and blogging as well. They have also inspired me to take my own advice and I am going to start leveraging my decade-and-a-half of blogging and my years of writing and being a practitioner in the art of social media and content marketing and I will be starting to work on my own blogger-does-good-and-publishes-a-book story as well. Wish me luck and I wish you luck, too. It’s never too late but it’s also never too soon, either.
The world’s big and there really aren’t that many talented people. Or passionate people who are driven and can deliver — as well as talented. What you really need social media for, via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, whatever, is to make it as easy as possible for the people who are fellow birds-of-a-feather to find you. Maybe, if you’re lucky, some of those birds can also lay a couple golden eggs.
Go git ‘em, tiger!
- Blog your way into a first book (biznology.com)