How to become an author: your step-by-step guide

In some ways, becoming an author isn’t as hard as it seems. But in other ways, it’s much harder than you might think.

To become an author, you have to produce a book or writing that’s for public viewing. The good news is technology has made this more accessible than ever! But another way people conceive the title “Author” is as someone who makes a living from the books he or she sells. The bad news is that this still remains a considerable challenge—a challenge, but not impossible. Whether you choose to become an author through self-publishing or traditional publishing, whether you’re working on a visual book or a written book, follow these steps to get your work in the world and claim the title “Author” for yourself.

1. Develop your skills

If you want your book to be read and sold widely, it has to be one of the best. In order to make a book that beats the competition, you have to become an ace at your craft. Take a real photography class that gets you used to critique and encourages you to make a real body of work. Read widely about how to improve your writing. Cultivate inspiration. Join a creative community. You need to do this to become an author, but also long after. Every author you can name has never finished working on his or her craft.

2. Practice creating content

Practice, practice, practice. For traditional authors, this often means starting and keeping a blog. Committing to a publishing schedule keeps you practicing and gives you a place to share your work.

This is true if you’re a photographer, too. Make photographic work constantly—even if it is outside the scope of your project. These shots might not make the final cut, but they do give you practice creating the best work you can, so that when you’re presented with the shot you want, you know how to take it.

For a writer, you need to make so many sentences that your own sentence patterns reveal themselves. You need a place where you can try out new sentence patterns and new material. For most authors, 1 in 100 pages they write never see the light of day. The same is true for photographers, and this was cited by professionals! Until you’ve done your notorious 10,000 hours to be an expert, you can’t afford to stop. Your book will be your high point, your culmination of years of creating—not the first thing you’ve ever written and not your first SD card of photos.

Someone typing on a green typewriter to become an author

3. Do your market research

Why would you do this if you don’t even have a book yet? Because becoming a widely read and sold author means you slot into a market niche perfectly. No book appeals to everyone. The key is to find your people and give them the book they want. But you won’t know what that is until you get to know them. As a first-time author, you can research your market by:

  • Reading widely in your genre. Make note of which books inspire you and what they have in common. Look at covers, plot patterns, design, and marketing for that book.
  • Find authors in your genre on social media. See who else is reading them or following them, and drill down into their demographics. Follow other influencers in that field.
  • Find your section of the bookstore. What do bookstores do to sell your type of book? Make note of what jumps out at you and why, and aim to repeat these things in your own work. As much as creators prize originality, becoming an author means finding a market. You’re not going to publish your first book and create a new market at the same time.
  • Select 5-10 books that epitomize the kind of book you want to make. Track down the product pages for those books on the original publisher’s website. Often, the publishers will identify the market and market demographics as a way to appeal to bookstores to carry it. You can get some market data from these look-alike demographics. These look-alikes are the people to keep in mind as you create your work.

4. Create an author website

This is a non-negotiable aspect of becoming an author. You’ll use this as the base for your platform. It works as a landing page for social media, and a home for your blog. It makes you searchable online and helps you build your online presence. And it is a place to post your writing portfolio, distinguishing you as a professional author. At first, it might just be a single, brochure page, but as you create your content and practice, you can build it out. Your website gives you the opportunity to tell the world you’re an author. Call yourself an author, then act like one by adding more and more content to your site.

White, red and black desk space for an author

5. Build your audience

There’s a difference between building an audience and getting more Facebook fans and Twitter followers. You need to set aside time every day to engage on social media from a business perspective. Read what’s trending, like and comment, respond, and post yourself. Behave like a good member of a community and treat it as though you’re interacting with real people. An audience—which means book buyers—responds to authentic contributions. There are no shortcuts here.  While social media is part of your platform, it’s not all of it. Practice submitting smaller articles or photo collections to magazines and online publications. You’ll build your credibility, be seen by people other than your friends and family, and have credentials when you approach agents or publishers—and that’s if you get selected! More likely, you’ll learn another way.  If you don’t get selected, you’ll refine your work through the rejection process and the scraps of feedback publications send, and your work will be stronger for it. Mastering the smaller submissions only makes your book submission stronger and gets you closer to becoming an author.

6. Create a production schedule

Experts recommend setting aside—which sometimes feels more like carving out of a rock—6 hours a week to work on your book. The only way your book gets finished is when you consistently show up to the page, day after day, and chip away at it. If it isn’t 6 hours, commit to so many pages or so many words 5-6 times per week. Set time-based goals for yourself and stick to them. Complete your research by this date and your outline by that date. Get a friend or family member who can truly hold you accountable and motivate you to help you stick with it when the schedule starts to feel impossible.

Creating a book will feel impossible in the middle of it. The key is to set a challenging schedule so you finish, but not so challenging that it cannot be done. Know that becoming an author means you will be working significantly on your book most days of the week. And it will feel hard. Committing to your deadlines on your production schedule will carry you through when you don’t want to do it anymore.

Stack of white papers next to a black typewriter with a blue background

7. Research, plan, and write

What do you do in those hours? Research, plan, and write. You don’t need to do all your research up front to start writing. Research can become a way of procrastination. You need to do enough to get a framework for your book, then get started writing. Create an outline. For non-fiction authors, this is essential. For fiction authors, there’s still a way to set yourself up, even if you write by discovery.

Sometimes you have to start writing and fleshing out your outline before you see where you need more facts and information. Fill in your knowledge gap with more research, but don’t get stuck in this phase. When you write your book, block out that hour as if it were a meeting. Have 2 documents open; your book, and your journal. If you get stuck on your book, move over to your journal. This won’t be wasted time. Writing in a space that’s not your project can help you get unstuck. The only rule is that for one hour you never leave your two documents. You stay in the chair, either working on your project or writing in your journal until that hour is up.

A few more notes: You don’t have to create your book in order. If some sections are easier to write, tackle those first. Get some momentum going. Remember that done is better than good at this stage. You will have made so many changes by the time your project is complete that whatever you don’t like right now will probably be irrelevant later. Even if you don’t like something, put it down on paper and move on.

8. Edit your work

Once you have completed your project, you’ll need to ruthlessly edit it yourself. Then you’ll need to have it edited by capable family and friends. Then you’ll need to edit it again. At this stage, don’t be surprised or discouraged that whole sections of your book have to be discarded or reworked completely. This is normal, and professional authors understand that the first draft done is a book half done. When you’ve finished your edits and the friends and family edits, hand it off to a pro, like the ones over at Reedsy. When the pros get hold of your manuscript, that’s when a whole new work begins.

Colorful fine point markers laid out on a grey background

9. Get help with your work

Regardless of how you publish, if you want your book to sell widely, you’ll need to get professional help from someone who specializes in book design, cover design, and editing. If you traditionally publish, the publisher will arrange this for you. If you self-publish, you’ll have to find these pros on your own and pay for them. But it will be worth it.

10. Choose your publishing path

Once your manuscript is in the best possible shape, you need to try to sell it. There are two ways to turn your manuscript into a book.

  • Traditional publishing, where you get an agent and work with him or her to sell your book to a publisher. Having an agent opens many more doors than trying to submit a manuscript yourself to publishers who likely don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Do your research and find out who represents the lookalike books from Step 3. Start with those, because they may understand your market better than even you do. The agent then shops your manuscript around to the publishers who are most likely to have access to the right audience. Published authors can expect to make less than 20% of the cover price per copy, so for small runs of niche books with fewer than 5000 copies, you make more money overall with a successful self-publishing run.
  • Self-publishing. This one doesn’t require an agent or round after round of submissions, but it may cost you $10,000-$50,000 for professional services including book design, editing, and cover design, as well as printing a large number of copies. Print on demand makes the up-front cost lower, but with a significantly higher per-copy cost, which eats into your profit margin. Some experts recommend going down this route only after all other traditional publishing efforts had been exhausted.

11. Put your book in the world

No matter the publishing route you choose, becoming an author means telling people about your book, advocating for your book, and connecting to your audience. People need to know about your book in order to buy it. There are multiple channels where you can market your book and tell them about it.

The bottom line? Becoming an author is about creating a book and getting it into the world. You can do this without experience or any special degree—just put words to page and share them. But set realistic expectations for being a paid author. Even when authors finish books and submit them for publication, there’s no guarantee it will sell, let alone sell enough to make it possible to quit your job. It takes a few books (3-5) to get recognition enough to live solely off the earnings from your books.  Be patient, show up to the page every day, and give away copies to anyone who wants one. If rejection comes, shake it off like the pro that you are, and move forward with your vision. These things, beyond all others, are how you become an author.


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