All too often would-be writers look at a bestselling author and to imitate them seems impossible. From my publishing experience, I know it’s a long shot and takes hard work. Yet at the same time, I understand that each of these authors had to begin some place. Can we learn something from those early steps of authors?
Biographies are a wonderful way to learn about some of these early experiences. I mentioned recently reading a new biography of Dr. James Dobson called Family Man by Dale Buss, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal. The writer presents a carefully researched and documented—yet realistic picture of Dr. Dobson, who among his many accomplishments includes bestselling author. Here’s a small paragraph from this large book which illustrates some of Dr. Dobson’s early beginnings in publishing. It relates to his first book, Dare to Discipline, which has sold millions of copies and released in 1970. “Zondervan and Tyndale House each offered Dobson a contract, the latter padded with an advance of five thousand dollars. Word didn’t enter the derby, Dobson recalls, because the company already published the books of another family-advice expert named Charlie Shedd. Dobson couldn’t decided which publisher to favor, but Heatherly [Doc Heatherly who had just retired as the director of marketing for Zondervan] recommended Tyndale House because of the marketing expertise of an executive named Bob Hawkins [who a few years later began another publisher called Harvest House Publishers]. That was the tiebreaker for Dobson. A mere six months later, after a feverish writing effort, Dare to Discipline was published by Tyndale House. Dobson requested 250 copies of his freshly printed treatise to send to friends and colleagues. He autographed them all, then he and Shirley carefully packaged each one of them, addressed the envelopes, stamped them, and wrote fourth-class instructions on the labels. Then they knelt beside the pile of books and laid their hands on the packages as they prayed. They dedicated the work to the cause of Christ, loaded them into the back of their red Volkswagen Beetle, and took them to the post office. It was the last time Dobson would have to do that sort of thing himself.” (p. 42–43) Tyndale House has published the majority of Dr. Dobson’s books over the years.
I personally found these initial steps fascinating reading. If you haven’t published anything, where will you begin the process? It is different for everyone. Many writers hone their craft in the magazine area before they write their first book. It’s a wise decision from my view because you can gain publishing experience (something editors value) and learn a great deal from the process. Others write a book proposal and enter the publishing world in the book area (which is a much harder way to begin from my view). The key for me is to be actively involved in the process at some entry point. Don’t stand on the sidelines but jump into the water and begin this process of building a body of work. I didn’t suddenly wake up and write for over 50 magazines and publish over 60 books. The process happened gradually over time.
It can be the same for you.