In this article Angela Scheff from the Christopher Ferebee Agency interviews several amazing authors—Lisa Whittle, Jonathan Merritt and Leeana Tankersley—who describe what they’d do differently regarding their publishing careers and what tips they’d pass along to aspiring writers.
WOULD YOU DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY IF YOU WERE STARTING OVER IN YOUR PUBLISHING CAREER
LW: No and yes. 🙂 No, in the sense that I can see how God clearly orchestrated this path for me, as it was one I did not go looking for. Even though I cringe sometimes at the simplicity of my earliest writing, I love the way my books reflect my own growth and each in some way have helped people—so I can’t regret the sometimes bumpy journey.
Yes, in the sense of having a better understanding for the parts of the publishing business that make me uncomfortable at times (marketing, etc.) but are also completely necessary. I wish I had embraced them earlier on. I became an author before I grew an audience. That’s a hard, backward way to do things. So if I were to start now, I would start blogging earlier, pour more into my core followers from the start and watch the ministry grow from that.
JM: Yes. I asked my mentor, Margaret Feinberg, for advice a few years ago. She said, “Go write for the general market.” At the time, I was writing mostly for Christian magazines and websites. I think Margaret knew how difficult it was to work within this niche and how little they pay. And I believe she also saw that my gifting and interest was broader than just the Christian market. I made the switch after that conversation, and it has really paid off. If I could rewind my career, I would have started writing for mainstream publications sooner.
LT: Yes. I garnered my first book contract without an agent and I decided to forgo agency with that book. I assumed that an agent’s role was to help negotiate a contract, and since I was happy with the contract I had, I sort of felt like I’d just be parting with 15% of my advance, which didn’t seem to make sense at the time.
What I didn’t know then is that an agent—the good ones, like I have!—will stick with you through the entire publication process and help advocate for you and your work in the months leading up to release. A good agent will make sure there’s a marketing plan and a marketing budget and will be sure there’s an investment being made in your book so that the release will be as successful as possible.
I didn’t know all this until it was too late and, due to life circumstances (I had twins during the pre-release phase of my first book), a lack of knowledge about the process and the changing industry of publishing, and some significant turnover at my publisher, I was not able to adequately advocate for myself, and I believe the release of my book suffered as a result.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to Chris Ferebee, and he became my agent.
I have not looked back. Chris and his team have stood in my corner and navigated conversations I got to steer clear of. They have advocated for me and supported me in so many tangible and intangible ways, and I wish I would have had the foresight to reach out to Chris for that first book.
WHAT ONE TIP WOULD YOU PASS ALONG TO YOUR ASPIRING WRITER FRIENDS?
LW: Choose a mission statement over your writing early on (even if it’s of a secular bend or fiction) and drive down only that road of purpose. Never get off that road. Though you will change and your topics will change as you experience life, driving down that one road will be your constant and cut down a lot of confusion over things like: should I write this or that?
When you have a mission for why you write, the what of your writing will answer to it. It will help you stay encouraged in down times and give you that ultimate goal to always keep looking toward. It helps you self edit, as well, as everything answers to the question, “Does this support my mission?” If it doesn’t, it has to go. Purpose in writing is vital. It keeps you honest and from making your writing solely about you.
Press yourself to answer the deeper question—not just “I want to write beautiful things for people” but take it a step further—“I want to write beautiful things for people to help them feel joy.” Then go forward down the road of helping people feel joy, whether it’s through hearty fiction or writing about gardening or how to dress better. Always drive down your same mission statement road and it will keep you steady and focused.
JM: Don’t stop writing. If you want to become a writer, you have to work harder than everyone else and you have to outlast everyone else. Each year, aspiring writers quit and go back to focusing on their day job. The ones who keep learning and keep working and keep plowing away are the ones who break through. I felt called to be a writer in 2004 and didn’t publish my first article for nearly two years. That’s three years of rejection. I didn’t publish a book for another three years. Which is to say, I endured another three years of rejection. But I refused to quit growing, quit networking, and quit writing. And today, I’ve published more than 3,000 articles and am working on my fourth book. The road to becoming a writer is paved with discouragement, disappointment, and a dump-truck load of rejection. If a writer has the skill to succeed, they only need the will to succeed.
LT: Work on your craft and not just your platform.
I am learning every day what it means to stop writing to please or protect or prosper or perform, and instead, to start writing to partner … with myself, with God, and with a tribe that has expressed interest in my particular way of seeing.
A disproportionate amount of airtime is given to the art/science of building a writer’s platform compared to honoring and honing his or her craft. Yes, an audience is essential. But what’s more essential, in my mind, is something to say and a clear, honest way to say it.
If you find that you don’t yet know what your truth is or you can’t bring yourself to tell it, then do the work necessary to help yourself become a more unified, congruent, integrated person.
As we have the courage to be more honest in our writing, in our message, in our material, we will find our own unique voice more clearly in the world, we will find a readership that truly wants to connect with our perspective and posture, and we will offer something important to the world—which is, a person congruent in their being who is making art. Whoa. That’s exciting and subversive.