A Case Against Shortcuts for Writers

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

I’ve found that if I have a good view of the big picture for something, it is easier to understand how, and more importantly why, the individual pieces fit into place the way they do. For writers, a big picture view should lend understanding when you’re tempted to take shortcuts and submit your proposal before it’s ready. I’m going to focus on several areas, which I’ll call the Three M’s.

Manuscript. What is needed: a can’t-put-it-down manuscript, beautifully crafted, that conjures the reader’s imagination or convinces the reader to pay attention to the author’s compelling description of a problem affecting his life and to which the author has the solution. In just the right number of words, not too few and not too many. Why?

In an online interview here, Seth Godin predicted 15 million books would be published in 2012, up from 3 million in 2011 and a little over 1 million in 2009. The phenomenal increase is due primarily to self-publishing, online purchasing, and e-books.

This trend is sure to continue. Why? Just look around you. It’s quicker and easier to count those children through Millennials who don’t have electronic devices than those who do. The next generation largely prefers e-books over print; the self-pub, click-to-purchase, less expensive e-books appeal to their electronic lifestyles. Conversely, the generation of readers who prefer traditional print books will be shrinking.

Combine these details to create a big picture view. How is it relevant to your manuscript? Obviously, 15+ million books being published in 2013 means writers have stiff competition for readers. As has always been the case, stellar writing will make your book stand out above the fray.

Marketing. Gone are the days when a writer could turn in his manuscript by the publisher’s due date, get paid, and the publisher would take care of the rest. When the author had only to wait for the royalty checks to come in regularly. It’s a new world. Cognizance of the ocean of books being published underscores the realities of diminishing advances and increased marketing initiatives needed by authors to grab attention for their books.

Authors who previously have exercised the creative side of their brain exclusively for their writing must shift to a new paradigm and also use their creativity for the business end of their career. This has been increasingly true for the last few years and is the reason agents want to see a comprehensive marketing plan with strong social media numbers in your proposals.

Common sense says you can’t grow large followings in all of the social media networks and still have time to write and polish your irresistible manuscript. Choose several networks you are most comfortable using and grow your following long before your next manuscript is ready for submission. Learn how to utilize each of those networks to their maximum potential for efficiency and to get the best return on your time investment.

Me. Meaning YOU, the writer. You are the primary representative for your work. Good people skills are vital in developing genuine relationships with your followers and readers. A blend of confidence, friendliness, and professionalism is necessary in communicating on the business side of your career.

Read a couple of business books like Great by Choice by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras to help you to gain a general understanding of big picture challenges that businesses must balance in order to ensure long-term viability. The goal is to increase your business savvy and fluency with business language, which will help you to communicate professionally.  

Does your awareness of big-picture views motivate you excel in the details instead of being tempted to submit your proposal too soon? Which M(s) do you feel is your strongest right now? Your weakest?


The competition is stiff for writers. Don’t submit your proposal until it’s ready. Click to Tweet.

A big-picture view should motivate writers to complete the details. Click to Tweet.

Completing the details makes the big picture view brighter for writers. Click to Tweet.

27 Responses

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  1. Norma Horton says:


    Excellent blog.

    My tendency is possibly too MUCH attention to detail. As I complete the Craftsman couse, mentored by the amazing DiAnn Millls, I have to sit on my hands to leave the FIRST manuscript, written before the course, alone—even though I’m working on the THIRD now.

    You’ve walked this e-mail-littered platform path with me, so know I’m maniacal about the marketing platform.(Mary is a patient survivor, folks.)

    Do you think the lack of attention to marketing on the part of some writers is from lack of understanding or funds, disinterest in the business end of the work, or just being overwhelmed? As an old marketing dog, I see much in author marketing that would not fly commercially. Your thoughts?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Good questions, Norma. All the reasons you suggest may play a part in some authors’ lack of attention to marketing. And they are symptomatic of the need to shift to the new paradigm. An author’s successful marketing plan must involve both commercial effectiveness and relational effectiveness with your followers, your audience.

      • Norma Horton says:

        I see a new marketing niche on the horizon, although I’m retired and writing fiction so happily! : ) Thanks for your perspective.

  2. Mary, even though the message isn’t what we want to hear, your points are accurate. There seems to be a disconnect when it takes me six months (or more, if not pressed) to write a book, but a reader finishes it in a few days and asks, “When is the next one coming out?” If I could produce them more quickly, would the reader still want to read them? For that matter, would the publisher still want to publish them?
    The times they are truly a-changin’.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Richard, those are great questions. I think of Downton Abbey as an example. As long as the core qualities which attracted the audience was maintained, that audience was willing to wait for each new season. In fact, the audience has grown each year. However, there was some slippage in those core qualities last year. In fact, the last episode was quite disappointing. I suspect a portion of the once loyal viewers will be lost for the next season. The lessons for writers: 1) each book you write must be as good or better than the last one, 2) survey your readers to determine the unique characteristics of your books that keep them coming back, and maintain the quality of those characteristics especially, and 3) grow with your audience.

  3. Jeanne T says:

    Mary, I appreciate your thoughts on these three M’s. I think my strongest M right now is Me. 🙂 Not to sound boastful. I know my MS doesn’t shine yet, and I’m still figuring out how to master social media so it doesn’t eat up my precious writing time. But, I have pretty good people skills. That being said, I still have room to grow in all three of these areas. 🙂

    Thanks for the exhortation to not use shortcuts, but to put forth the very best work I can into the publishing world.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jeanne, you are approaching your writing career in the right way. Addressing the M details before you submit will, in the end, be the most promising shortcut for your writing career.

  4. Rick Barry says:

    Mary, I couldn’t resist smiling when you mentioned the temptation to take shortcuts. My wife recently walked up to me with my latest novel draft in hand and said, “Set aside everything else you’re writing and concentrate on this one. This is it.” She’s never done that before. Talk about temptation to rush a proposal! But my other critique partners were still poring over their copies, and I want to capitalize on their joint wisdom. Yes, I will aim for the big picture and continue polishing. I’d rather submit a diamond than a diamond encrusted with dirt and other debris still clinging. 😉

    P.S. I’m curious whether Mr. Godin’s figure of books published refers to unique titles? My first two novels came out in print versions. Now the publisher has added ebook versions. So would Mr. Godin’s calculations call that 2 novels or 4?

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Rick, I don’t know the answer to that question. But applying your example to all the books published, there would have been 7.5 million unique titles published in 2012, which still is stiff competition.

  5. I’m still tweaking my manuscript, but I think that’s my strongest M right now. As for marketing, I have a LOT of ideas and a lot of things I want to do to continue to grow my platform, but I’m lacking some technological savvy. It can take a lot of time to figure all that out! I never thought that, as a writer, I would read business books. But considering today’s market, that’s only logical. Thanks for the suggestions, Mary.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, it takes time to become savvy with technology. That’s one reason writers can be tempted to take a shortcut, but that isn’t a wise choice.

      There are ways to speed up your learning. Here are a few possibilities. Writer friends can help each other by sharing knowledge. Attend a writers conference specifically to take a session on social media. Or ask a savvy young friend or relative to give you some hands-on training.

  6. I love clicking over to the Books & Such blog to be challenged by your posts, Mary. I feel I have a good handle on all three M’s right now, which is why I felt confident submitting my manuscript. I have a lot to learn (I won’t ever stop learning), but I think the one I need to focus the most on right now is the Marketing. I’ve been watching other friends and authors release novels, gaining insight into their marketing and looking for ideas that I like and don’t like. With 15 million books being published this year, it’s a challenge to gain the reader’s attention–but not impossible. The beautiful thing about the electronic generation is that they’re online…you just have to know where to look for your audience. Instead of being overwhelmed with the plethora of social media outlets, I like the idea of finding which ones I’m most comfortable with and then becoming really good at using them. For me it would be Facebook, Pinterest and Goodreads. Twitter is still a mystery to me, although I’m working on it! I will definitely be checking out the business books you recommended.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Gabrielle, you are so right. It definitely is possible to attract reader attention. The upside of the electronic world is that an author’s savvy use of social network technology to attract readers has the potential to go viral.

  7. Chantille the Nun says:

    Wow. With so many books being published (15 million) there are not enough readers to read them. I see the big picture now.

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Chantille, there is good news. A client directed me to an article, “The Paper Chase,” in the May 2013 issue of Smithsonian, in which Mike Shatzkin, CEO of Idea Logical Company, reports that ‘more reading is taking place’ because electronic devices allow books to be mobile and accessible in spare moments.

      • I would also say I’m talking to more and more people who are listening to books on iPods and electronic devises. It’s an exciting, and challenging, time to be a writer. But, like with all technological advancements, we need to meet the challenges and discover new and innovative ways to be noticed.

  8. Would also recommend the Heath Brothers’ “Made to Stick” as a great book on big-picture marketing.

  9. If you gave me a dirty, wobbly, ugly 5 drawer highboy with pen marks scratched into it, in 3 or 4 weeks, I could give you back a treasure that gleemed and brought a string of ohhhh’s out of you.
    But that is because I know exactly what to do. I’ve been doing that wee hobby for 24 years.

    If I gave you my MS right now?

    I would not give you my MS right now.

    I could probably market it, and me, no problem.
    But because the big picture view is clear, I am not taking any chances. I am waiting on the word from a few people to make sure the MS is ready. By ‘people’ I mean Frasier judges. I love it, but I want their fresh eyes to love it, too. And until I get some results and editorial feedback, nobody is going anywhere. Although, the proposal IS ready.
    I think.
    Yeah, it is.

    Yup. It IS.

    Walks away, pondering that thought like a neurotic worrier with second guessing issues.
    Or not.

    Great post, Mary! Thank you. And I’m certain about that.

  10. All businesses must focus on the three “M’s” you’ve mentioned, Mary. So glad you suggested a couple of trade books to read. I haven’t read either, but will add them to my list.

    Two of my favorite business books are: “Success Made Simple: An Inside Look At Why Amish Businesses Thrive” by Erik Wesner…and…”The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It” by Michael E. Gerber.

    Substitute restaurant, retail or a service company for “manuscript”…and the concept is still the same…don’t open your business (don’t submit) until you can provide the best food, products or service.

    Marketing and branding are essential in any type of business. You have to know your target audience and know how to connect with them. Will they be listening to the radio, and which station: talk radio, country western, or classical? Will they be reading a print or online newspaper? Will they pay attention to FaceBook or Twitter postings?

    The “Me” aspect is an influential part of every entrepreneurial venture. Not only must the owner of a business be people savvy, but any employee must reflect the mission of the business. A dear friend of ours owns a lovely restaurant, recently had to let a new employee go because he didn’t treat customers according to her standards. (She talked with him and gave him more than several chances…he knew what was expected.)

    Thanks for encouraging us to view authorship as a business enterprise, not just a creative endeavor.

  11. Jean Huffman says:


    My current MS has been through various edits by myself and several beta readers. I sought out and paid a professional editor for her thoughts a couple of years ago. Her crit put me in major denial of some problems she saw. It was very painful–I guess my skin wasn’t as thick as I thought it was!

    Then life happened and the MS stayed in the drawer. . . God saw fit to give me the most unselfish, talented crit partner I’ve ever had. She’s helped me with each chapter of this last edit. I’ve also “put on my big girl panties” and incorporated many of the suggestions the professional editor made. I’m in between regular jobs right now and amazingly have time to do pull this last-last edit together before sending it to an agent and praying for the best (laughing, because God is in always in charge!)

    As far as the second “M,”, I’ve made the move to get connected via a couple of social networks. So the “Marketing” is kind of in place (though probably needing to be revved up if something happens with my MS).

    I want to be faithful to see this process through. . .if God is behind it, then it will succeed. If He chooses, I want to be the person He can use through the medium of story. It can so change hearts with God’s truth and get conversations rolling!

    Thanks for listening! God bless!

    Lookin’ up,

    • Mary Keeley says:

      Jean, it sounds like you are taking the necessary time to make your manuscript the best it can be. But you need to rev up your marketing plan an social media following before you submit your proposal. Those numbers give an agent or editor an idea of the size of your audience, and consequently potential purchasers of your book.

  12. Andrea Cox says:

    Mary, this is a very insightful article. I recently subscribed to this blog and am really soaking everything in right now. I’m realizing I’ve got a LOT to learn! Thanks for helping me learn more about the process.


  13. Mary, You’ve made such a good case here about the challenges writers are up against. It seems that as writers, we will need to consider writing/our books as our product, and will have to market that product, and relate to the public about it, in the same way any small business would. A business plan wouldn’t be a bad idea. I have known that social media numbers were important for some time, and feel I’ve made good progress in that direction since starting a blog in early 2012, and have made some progress in the last week to get those numbers up. I need to improve my efficiency in that area though. Hootsuite, as Rachelle mentioned in a blog post recently will help me with that. Attitude will be important when looking at the tasks of marketing and PR optimistically. Efforts can be made to enjoy making contacts, and seeing those tasks as just another way to express our creativity. I think showing our love for our work (our books) and wanting to share it with others will go a long way toward others wanting to connect with us, to read our books, or provide a marketing venue. And it looks like I’ll have to add the two books you mentioned to my ‘to read’ stack! 

  14. Grace says:

    Great comments! As a new writer, the marketing is definitely the hardest for me. It’s hard to devote equal time to creating and networking, and I find I can’t switch my brain easily from the right to the left side. I’m not used to blogging or cyber-friending. But I’ve got a drive to work hard, and am starting younger than most people.