How to Be a Publishing Authority in One Step

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

You might not think of yourself as an authority, but lots of other folks do if one thing is true of you: You’ve published a book.

With one book under your belt you can get workshop gigs at writers conferences; write blogs on how to get published, how to find an agent, and how to write well; speak at conventions that center on your book’s topic; hang out your shingle as a free-lance editor or book doctor.

That’s good news, right? Yes, except for one thing: The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.little girl playing doctor

I’m regularly stymied by how easily some authors slip into the role of expert based on their having “broken the code” to getting published. They don’t seem to realize that, while they worked hard to reach the end of the rainbow, a tremendous number of factors happened to align for them: They wrote the right book at the right time; they found an agent who knew how to sell such a book; and publishers were looking for such a book.

What I’m saying is that it takes more than talent to land a book contract. There’s some sort of alchemy at work, too. We would say that it’s God, others would it attribute it to luck or fate.

If you’re published, remember that understanding publishing and the art of writing is a life-long learning experience. You never arrive regardless how long you work at it. That doesn’t mean you never have insights that can help others, but surround yourself with those who can help you to discern when you should stretch yourself by offering aids to fellow artists and when you should resist the urge to be placed in the position of an authority because you’re not ready for that role.

If you’re unpublished, don’t imbue undue authority to those who haven’t earned it.

I read a blog post (on the Writers Digest site no less) in which the writer’s sole qualification for writing the post was that he had published one book. His topic was on what to look for in an agent. Most of his points were accurate and helpful. But then he suggested you find an agent  who will negotiate your book contracts with an emphasis on what’s important to you: foreign rights, film rights, or free copies for the author.

That sort of emphasis is naive. I’m hard-pressed to think of any novelist who doesn’t think his or her book would make a great movie, but the truth is, novels are much harder to place with a film maker than nonfiction. So, if an author sets out to find an agent well-connected in the film industry rather than one who is most capable of landing a book publishing contract, a secondary issue has turned into a primary one, based on unrealistic expectations.

The blog post writer then goes on to say that those looking for an agent should find one who has a special interest in what your book is about. For example, if you’re a young mom writing about insights on how to raise children adopted out of foster care, you  should find a young female agent who also has adopted children. Um, agents can’t specialize in such a specific issue but must, of necessity, have clients writing about diverse topics and for diverse audiences. How many slots are there for such a book in all of publishing? Very few.

It, of  course, wouldn’t make sense to approach an agent who didn’t enjoy the genre or category you’re writing in, but that agent wouldn’t want to represent your project either. Agents self-eliminate if your idea doesn’t intrigue them and make them enthusiastic about representing it and you.

We agents spend lots of time and energy telling you what to look for in an agent; there’s no need to turn to the guy with one book to his credit to figure it out. The same is true for any other publishing advice he offered; consider the source.

Have you ever been dubbed an authority, although you knew that wasn’t true? How did you handle that?

When someone offers writing or publishing advice, how do you decide if that is a person who really knows?

What do you do if you receive contradictory advice?

As a side note, later this week I’m heading to Mount Hermon Writers Conference where I will be, yup, you guessed it, speaking as an authority.

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75 Comments

  • I have talked with lots of people who are sure there is a magical formula to being published. Once I was a member of a writers’ group (critique, encouragement) at my church. Many people came and went over the course of several years as they saw that the leaders did not offer a quick route to publishing.

    More recently, a writer approached me, asking for an exact number of pages and chapters she should write for nonfiction. I don’t even write nonfiction for adults! When I suggested that she check with the Market Guide or the publisher’s website for an idea of word count, she was quite upset. She kept rephrasing her question as if I surely knew and did not tell.

    When “dubbed an authority” I try to gently and positively point the person to an authority (blog, book, website, conference).

  • I was once considered an authority.

    A suicidal – and armed – college student sat in my office and asked me why he should not kill himself. He came to me because he thought I had it all together, and could answer his questions.

    Nothing like pressure to make you focus on authority that’s real – that comes from Above – and that which is assumed as an act of vanity or opportunism.

    We can’t tune our hearts to a clear note, any more than a violin can tune itself. We all have knowledge we can share, but knowing where the limit is needs Grace.

    And no, he didn’t kill himself. He turned over the weapon, went to counseling, graduated, and went on to a successful career.

    To God alone the glory.

  • Pete Nikolai says:

    Thanks for saying what many of us have come to realize: Not every “authority” has the experience or knowledge that we would hope they have. In addition, we need to have a healthy skepticism about motives when considering the advice from any authority. Every provider (including me) has a bias, and those who speak loudest may be those who have the most to gain.

  • I remember reading that post, Janet. It was interesting to see what he said and line it up with what I read on other sites like this one. Personally, I’m much more inclined to trust those who have a greater breadth of experience and a lot of wisdom than a person who has published one book.

    I’ve been dubbed an “authority” a couple times. Usually, I try to correct the person, especially if it’s in an area where I KNOW I’m not an authority. If people ask me questions and I don’t know the answer, I do my best to point them in a direction that will give them the information they seek.

    If I receive contradictory advice, I weigh it out and talk to those who know more than I do about the topic. Then I weigh it out some more. :)

  • I would probably compare that to our family adopting two children. People seem to think you are an authority … but like you said, so many things had to line up. That wasn’t our ability, that was God’s. He moved us to the right location, had us meet the right people, moved our hearts, and so many other things. Every situation is so unique.

    It’s steps of faith. Take a first step … see what doors God opens and closes.

  • This is where a healthy bit of skepticism goes a long way. :) I lurk for a while and read plenty of sources. For me, it takes time for an authority to prove their worth. If the same point keeps coming up from multiple sources, it grows in validity. It didn’t take long to discover that the agents at Books & Such (and a few other agencies) were true authorities.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, it’s wise to take your time to observe before you determine who seems worthy of being considered an authority. Thanks for giving the nod to those of us at Books & Such.

    • I agree with Meghan. When I hear the same advice multiple times, I tend to pay closer attention. That doesn’t mean I don’t process other’s comments, but when I’m going to make a decision, or change my direction, it cannot be based on a stranger’s opinion.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    I have discovered a long time ago that the more I learned the less I knew. When my first book was published, it was as you said, right book right time. It is always important to surround yourself with those who really are authorities. How do you know if a person is an authority? Do your homework! That is why every good writer needs an even better agent. Great questions, Janet.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jim, I can’t tell you how often something will happen in publishing or with an author that makes me respond, “Hm, I guess I don’t know anything.” I suppose it’s better to realize how much we don’t know than to assume we know everything.

  • Elissa says:

    I am an authority on being me– only sometimes I’m not very good at that, either.

    The more a person assures me they’re an authority on something, the more skeptical I become. Like Meghan Carver above, I do a lot of lurking and research, and I try learn enough to know when someone is blowing smoke.

    If I’m ever mistakenly taken for an authority, I will try to point the inquirer in the right direction. There is always more to learn.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Elissa, it’s so true that what we know best is ourselves, but it’s easy to delude ourselves about true motives, which sometimes aren’t too pretty. So, well, that doesn’t leave us a lot to be an authority on, does it?

  • Sapele, also known as ribbon mahogany, is such a soft wood, that I can write on it with my fingernail. If I have to work on a piece that has waterfall sapele, I will charge triple for the insane amount of work it takes to sand that stuff on the grain without destroying the piece.
    Birds eye maple is so valuable, it’s poached. And it’s almost rock hard. It’s also utterly beautiful. It’s my absolute favourite to restore.
    Rock maple is SO HARD, I refuse to ever work it again. Ever. EVER. AGAIN! It’s like concrete.

    I will not do spindles. I spent a fortune on on Dremel bits doing a spindled cabinet.

    Now, do I sound like an authority? Probably. Until I get into a shop of professionals, then I’m just a wannabe with power tools. And the more they’d talk, the further back in the room I’d wander, until I was in my van, on the road…

    If someone offers me advice, I say “What’s the word count on your WIP?” If they answer without blinking, we’re good. If not. I smile and let them talk.
    If I receive contradictory advice, I go to a trusted mentor, someone who either tells me the truth, or says “I don’t now, let me ask around.”

    No one is an expert on anything, we’re all just at various stages of knowledge. Some insanely high, annnnnd some not so high.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Hmmm…deciding which experts to listen to. It takes time and experience I think. I noticed an interesting phenomenon when I started researching for a book idea. There are many experts and sometimes one will say the opposite thing as another. But after reading books on my subject for a time I got a feel for all of the information and was able to form opinions for myself. Same thing with writing. I like to buy a new book or two on writing every year and read it. At first I was so overwhelmed, and then stuff started getting out of date. But after doing this for over a decade and having 20 odd writing books that I have read, I am starting to get a feel for the body of information and am beginning to be able to form my own opinion based upon all of the conflicting info I have read. So time, I’d say time and lots of reading can help you know who to trust.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Kristen, that’s a good insight to read broadly. I would think you would not only gather enough information to form your own opinion, but you’d also find consensus.

  • This is such an important topic in any area of life. Because I’ve promoted books online via virtual book tours for the past seven years, I’m considered an authority on that topic. Because I am well-organized and know how to manage my time, I’m sometimes called a time management expert. Trouble is, I don’t feel like an authority or expert on those topics because I’m still learning all the time. It never ceases to amaze me how little we have to know to be called experts.

    Receiving conflicting advice happens from time to time–especially when it comes to grammar. It’s entertaining when you belong to the same online group and you watch the argument unfold for all to see. I just back away and look for an alternate resource.

    Wishing you many blessings as you travel to your conference.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, it is sobering how quickly the label “expert” gets slung in our direction, isn’t it? Sometimes author label themselves an expert–e.g., organizing expert, time expert, writing expert. That’s when it gets scary for those receiving that person’s advice.

  • I don’t have a book published, but because I write so much, people assume I’m a grammar and language arts expert. I feel uncomfortable when friends and family correct their grammar for my benefit. They have no idea how often I have to look up the rules for using “who” and “whom.” Lol :)

    I know of some writers who’ve published poorly written ebooks, and now they’re spreading their “expertise” through more poorly written ebooks and blog posts…It makes me feel embarrassed for them. It’s also a reminder that you really have to be careful of the “expert” advice you heed.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      The grammar expert label is challenging. I thought I knew a lot about grammar until I met my husband-to-be. Egads, I discovered I was sadly lacking in an understanding of syntax. But I think it’s good to find those who have more expertise than we do; it keeps us humble and learning.

  • Angela Mills says:

    This made me realize I need to do more homework when reading advice from “experts.” I appreciate comments on blogs because often blog readers will point out mistakes like the ones you shared in that particular post.

    I’m doing 2 workshops at a homeschool convention this summer and they are both in areas that I’m not an expert in at all. But I have made it very clear that I’ve struggled in these areas and I’m just sharing what I’ve learned that has helped me. I find that people appreciate it when you admit you’re not an expert and you’re still figuring things out. One of my workshops is called “Homemaking for the Domestically Challenged,” and in the description I call myself a former slob. So people know what they are walking into!

    I will try to work up the nerve to meet you at Mount Hermon and I promise I won’t slide my ms under the bathroom door at you :)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Angela, I like the way you’re presenting yourself at your homeschooling workshop as “domestically challenged.” Not only does it present you as a real person, but it also enables attendees to think, “So am I!” Very smart.
      At Mount Hermon, each faculty member hosts a table at lunch and dinner. Please sit at my table for a meal; it’s an easy and nonthreatening way to meet faculty members.

  • I had this happen shortly after I started a professional face painting business. Someone contacted me for lessons so they could also face paint. I was thinking, I just started and barely know what I’m doing yet. Even though I had a degree in art, it took time to learn the ins and outs of a new business, even one founded in what I already did. Needless to say, I turned her down.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Beth, those types of requests show how undiscerning some people are. Just because you’re doing something, and it looks good, doesn’t mean you understand the task well enough to transfer how-to’s to someone else.

  • Amy Sauder says:

    In a writer’s group I am a part of, one man constantly directs every question to me instead of the group leader – I assumed because I received an English Lit degree he decided I knew more than the leader about writing…? How wrong an assumption! Often I’d say “I don’t know, what do you think, Kim [group leader]?” Or if she had already stated her opinion I would say, “Like Kim said…” But it’s still so frustrating to be singled out that way for no reason, when a person with a more credible answer is right there.

    On the other side of things, at church I discovered a couple of teen girls love writing. When they both said (at different times) they didn’t have time to write because of school, I knew I had the answer to that. I could be a guide to these girls who had hardly written. So I explained that almost every writer has a full-time other job and prioritizes writing in their life. That encouraged them to make time for writing, and now occasionally they come up to me for more encouragement or advice. Do I know the answer to every question? Of course not, but as they’re just starting out I’m further along and can definitely guide them through alot of their current struggles. Anything else, I get back to them on after talking with Kim from writer’s group or finding thoughts on blogs or in books.

    • Sue Harrison says:

      I love your attitude of learning AND giving, Amy!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Amy, thanks for sharing examples from both sides of the coin. It’s really helpful to see how each of us at some point can be the “authority,” and at other times, someone else holds that position. But how odd that the guy in your writers’ group keeps turning to you even when you continue to point out that Kim is the authority. I think I can guess that his writing isn’t progressing well…he’s too busy not listening!

  • Sue Harrison says:

    I once had a published author/contest judge criticize one of my manuscripts because I had used two distinct voices throughout instead of one. All I could think was, “Yikes! Do you not understand that VOICE isn’t necessarily a characteristic of the writer (and thus static) but can be used to define and enhance the novel’s POV characters?”

    I suppose there is controversy about that, but I do so love a novel that becomes dimensional with two(sometimes three)POV voices rather than just a one-size-fits-all “author voice.”

    • Sue Harrison says:

      My apologies. My reply comes off as very know-it-all. I was just so discouraged about that criticism on my manuscript, but I was definitely helped by other suggestions and ideas that person put forth.

      Janet, your wisdom and your words are so apt. I love the idea that we can all learn from each other no matter how long we’ve been writing, because we all have strengths and weaknesses.

  • Becky Jones says:

    I like the bank teller part (in your comment to Shelli)–about how you wanted to just be frank, to say the biz really boils down to a good bit of prayer and luck.

    I finished my manuscript (for the fourth, maybe fifth time in 10 years…!) yesterday afternoon and told my husband that now I’m officially scared. The season’s right, finally, and the shopping around starts. Translation: The rejection starts. And he looked at me, too pragmatic, and said “no matter what happens, you wrote the book.”

    Publishing is the holy grail, for a lot of us, but we have to remember that there’s something to be said for the sweet sweat of actually writing, for the art itself. Knowing that the publishing part, sometimes, is the alchemy of prayer and art ( to paraphrase you) puts the focus back where it belongs.

    Not that the publishing isn’t important…but we have to focus on our locus of control!

    • Amy Sauder says:

      I love that, Becky! Thank you for sharing. That will be an encouragement for me when I finish my WIP and have a freak-out.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Becky, your husband is so right. While it’s hard to face what’s likely to be a round of rejections with hopefully some enthusiasm as part of the mix, you should be proud of the work you’ve put into your manuscript. Most people don’t have the staying power to get as far along as you are.

  • Lisa Bogart says:

    Yet another good topic with insightful discussion.

    I am team teaching a morning track at the Mount Hermon Writers’ Conference the end of this week and I’ve been struggling with this very issue. I have some insight into the publishing world but as you mentioned, Janet, it’s a career long/life long learning curve. So I am trying to approach this teaching opportunity as a way to share knowledge rather than dictate advice. That said I’m really excited to get a chance to encourage writers! It’s really a privilege.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lisa, the important point is to be aware of your limitations and not to be afraid to let people know you don’t claim to be an expert. We all enjoy learning insights from those who are a wee bit ahead of us on the path.

    • Lisa, I have no doubt you will teach, as well as learn from, the people who attend your workshop. Large doses of laughter and encouragement are sure to be a highlight too.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Wonderful post. Full of “amen-able” points. And a bonus–the fun word alchemy. Haven’t run across that noun in ages, but it fit perfectly here. Blessings to you!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Rick, thanks for the special appreciation of the word choice. Sometimes just the right word pops into your head when you’re writing. I love those moments.

  • For a couple of years I ran a writing critique group at church. During that time, and after it died, I helped a retired missionary hone her stories from the field into a missions book. It was picked up by our denominational press, to be published in 2015. This winter one of her sons and daughter-in-law visited, and at church the d-i-l asked me “What are your qualifications to help Mom like that?” I don’t believe she meant this negatively. I told her I didn’t have any qualifications except having studied the industry enough and tried getting my own books published to know enough to be in the right place in the right time to help her m-i-l.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      David, it almost sounds as though she was being protective of her mother-in-law. Regardless, I would think you disarmed her by not presenting yourself as some sort of expert.

  • Sales 101 says there are four types of salespeople:

    1. The unconscious incompetent- they don’t know they don’t know anything.
    2. The conscious incompetent- they know they don’t know anything.
    3. The conscious competent- they know they know some things.
    4. The sustaining resource- the expert who truly adds value to every situation.

    It takes a great deal of time and experience to get to stage four.

    Great post, Janet, on making sure any expert trying to sell us ideas is somewhere between stage three and stage four.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      James, thanks for reminding us of this succinct and accurate list of salespeople. Hopefully, if we’re called on to be an expert, we’ll decline if we fall into category #1!

  • What a perfectly glorious week to come to California and the Santa Cruz Mountains! I will be just down the hill thinking of you all fondly.(And a little enviously. But mostly fondly.)

    I’ve always been amused when asked to speak about topics relating to parenting, as if I knew what I am doing! Two boys in ten years does not me an expert make. But sharing the process, the good, the bad, and the downright tough, has value.

    Wish I were going to hear your wisdom next weekend!

  • You and Wendy will be a dream team this coming weekend. Praying for you both.

    A friend of mine referred to me as “botany-savvy”. She remembered my offer to identify mysterious plant images, but I admit I was stumped by the one she sent me last week. The thrill of the search is fun, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert.

    In the B&S community, you all have made it very easy for us to ask questions about the publishing industry, and that’s one of the reasons I keep coming back. My interactions with people in ACFW have also been reliable and helpful.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, it seems the phrase “tried and true” fits the people you turn to for publishing info. And that’s a good slogan to live by. I’m sorry I won’t be seeing you at Mount Hermon this year.

  • Anna Labno says:

    “What do you do if you receive contradictory advice?”

    I pray and listen to my heart.

  • Great post and something I struggle with as I travel the country teaching at conferences. Or as I advise my clients. I pray. A lot. Asking God to keep me from leading people astray.

    I remember when I signed up to write for About.com. We were taught that anyone could be an expert. You simply called yourself an expert and then you got the TV news people to make you the go to guy on whatever issue you wanted to be considered an expert in. They are always looking for accessible experts, we were told. So if you made yourself available to the TV news, you would very quickly be the expert you were telling people you were.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Sally, yeah, that whole “you are an expert because you say you are” is what drives me crazy. I would hope the media would be a bit more discerning, but maybe I’m being naive.

  • Darby Kern says:

    Years ago I read an article about submitting scripts to Star Trek by a writer who sold one script which was almost entirely rewritten by a staff writer. I thought it was a joke. Now, were I to look him up on IMDB I would probably find no more than one or two more sales to any TV show.

    I assumed there was a tongue in cheek quality to this blog when I saw the title- as if there’s any one magic bullet. The reality is sometimes as simple as: you were born at the right time.

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