I’ve written a book, now how do I get it published?
(I get asked this question a lot, so I thought I’d try to answer it here in ten easy steps.)
1) First off, congratulations on writing a book! Seeing your vision through to the end, sticking with your characters for a few hundred pages, and revising the story until it’s a polished gem of literary brilliance is no easy thing. Bask in the glory a bit. Give yourself a cookie for what you’ve done. Then put it in a drawer for three months and write another book. If you’re serious about being a writer, it’s vital to have a few projects going at once (see Step 9).
2) Don’t send a book out before it’s ready. Even though on the back of many books it says “This is his/her first book,” that’s a lie. It’s just his/her first published book. The author most likely wrote several “trunk novels” before he/she tried to get a book published. I spent ten years writing four practice novels before I attempted to get my fifth book published. A good friend of mine wrote seven before she got a book published. And another friend claims she wrote thirty practice books! Getting a book published can take a great deal of time and energy so make sure, when you try to publish, that the book is ready.
3) Work with a writing group to get your book ready. Most of my practice novels I couldn’t even stand to read, so I wasn’t going to burden other people with them. I knew I was getting somewhere when I wrote a draft that, after I set it aside for a few months, I came back to it and liked it. So did I send it out to an editor? Hell no! I shared a few chapters of it with my writing group, and they tore it to pieces. Then, after licking my wounds for a week, I came back to the book and set to work revising it. After five months of working on a new draft, I asked my group to read it again, and the process repeated. Every professional writer I know works with a writing group, and has his/her book read by several critical readers (not friends or family) before they send it out. Don’t expect an editor to do this revision work for you. Most editors don’t have time anymore. Only send something out when every page sparkles like Edward in sunlight (yet not so pale or cheesy). Believe me, the editor will still find plenty to revise. (For more on finding a Writing Group, read this).
4) Decide if you want to go for a big publishing house, a smaller press, or if you simply want to see your words in print and get some people to read it. Obviously, going big is the hardest. Big publishing houses can also be brutal and impersonal. A smaller press might give you more individual attention and support. And self-publishing will be the quickest and easiest way to print. Also, self-publishing an e-book can be relatively inexpensive, and some writers have found a lot of success with this. Just remember, you’re building a literary reputation, so make sure what you publish is well-revised, quality work that’s ready to live a life of its own (see Step 3).
5) Research publishing houses! Writers Market is one of the best resources for this, although there are others. In addition to the online Writers Market resource, there are also Writer’s Market books (Pick the Writer’s Market book that fits your audience and genre, then browse through it and star the publishers who might be interested in your work.) Do they accept unsolicited manuscripts and submissions from writers without an agent? How do they want things submitted? Get a sense for how the business works and what editors and publishers at various houses are looking for by checking out the books they’ve published. And don’t overlook niche markets.
If you decide to self publish, you’ll still want to research the best way to do this. You can do e-book conversions yourself, or you can contract someone for a few hundred bucks to walk you through the process, and help you set things up (like this guy: kindleexpert.com). If you’d like physical copies of the book, then decide if you want to go with a print-on-demand companies that have major distributers (like Lightening Source) so bookstores and schools can order your book wholesale should they choose to do so, or POD services that just sell copies to the author and other readers online. Good luck.
If you want to go for traditional publishing, you’ll need to decide if it’s necessary to work with an agent or not. Most big houses only accept agented material. So if you think you’ve written something with mass market appeal, go for an agent (but remember, agents are interested in representing careers, so if you’re only publishing one book going for an agent probably isn’t right for you). If you think you’ve written something that would appeal well to a niche audience, you might try smaller presses —you’ll get more editor attention and publisher support, and you can always find an agent later if you need one. BTW, there’s a Writer’s Market guide on agents, too, and WM usually has great articles on what different agents represent, and how to submit to them. Note: Never trust an agent or publisher who asks for money upfront (unless you’re self-publishing). Agents work by commission –usually 15%. And usually, agents negotiate for a higher advance to cover their fees, so an agent shouldn’t cost you anything.
6) Send queries and submissions to editors and agents. Just about every edition of Writer’s Market has suggestions for how to do this (and there are online articles on this, too, if you subscribe to Writers Market). Follow the guidelines. Don’t give editors and agents a reason to reject you before reading the manuscript (ie: by having typos, writing a long explanatory cover letter, sending glitter, or shipping your submission with lobsters –no joke, someone did this once). Editors and agents get hundreds of submissions each week. They’re looking for reasons to toss manuscripts, so be professional and show them that you’ve done your homework and are sending the manuscript to them for a reason (if you’ve read some of their books, you could mention this too!).
7) Expect rejection. Every writer I know has been rejected dozens, sometimes hundreds of times (in fact, one very successful writer I know was rejected over 500 times before he ever got something published). Don’t get discouraged. There are countless reasons why good manuscripts get rejected (they didn’t read it, not right for their list, their cat peed on it…). But, if you get any sort of hand-written notes on a rejection, revision suggestions, or a request to see other work from you, take that as a VERY POSITIVE sign. And be grateful that the editor or agent took the time to review your work. So follow up. Send them a thank you letter. Send them other work, if they request it. If they still reject you (but seem to appreciate your writing) you can always see if they have any suggestions for other agents or editors you might try (sometimes you can get invaluable introductions this way). The writing world is small. Most big editors and agents know each other personally, so developing good relationships with people in the business, and fostering connections, is crucial.
8) Go to writing conferences! This is probably the easiest, most effective, and most direct way to develop relationships with editors and agents. I know several writers who signed with an agent and got their first book published this way. Here’s how it works: most major writing conferences fly editors and agents out from NY to participate in the conference (regional SCBWI conferences do this every year, as does the NCW Conference in Colorado, Pikes Peak Conference, and others). If you register early for the conference you can usually sign up for an editor or agent pitch session (ten or fifteen minutes to sell your book). Be ready to pitch multiple projects if the editor or agent asks what else you’re working on. Show that you’re a professional. Remember they’re just people. Don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions and recommendations. And if you get any positive feedback, follow up and thank them.
9) Write another book. The above eight steps take a lot of time, so while you’re going through all this, try writing another book or two. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and sometimes taking the focus off one book will help you come up with better revision ideas for that book. As I mentioned in Step 8, interested editors and agents will often ask what else you’re working on. Keep in mind that if a book is accepted by a big house, it usually takes two years for the book to go from manuscript to something people can find in stores. During that time, most authors write another book. As the extraordinarily successful editor and author David Levithan once told me, the best way to promote your book is to write another one. Publishers and agents want to invest in a career.
10) Get published, but know that this isn’t the finish line. If you think of getting published as the finish line, you might be disappointed. It’s not the end so much as the start of a new marathon. Once you’re published, you’ll need to worry about book promotion, sales numbers, writing your next book, repeating steps 1-9 (because publishing doesn’t mean that everything you write afterwards will be golden), and so on.
I know many authors, and no matter how successful someone gets, there is always something more that they want. Think of this as the “if only” syndrome. For instance, a friend of mine who’s won several major awards for her books thinks if only she could write a bestseller she’d feel successful. Meanwhile, another friend who’s had several bestsellers sees winning awards and critical praise as her “if only.” The drive and desire and “if only” yearning to publish that you feel now is the same drive, desire, and “if only” yearning you’ll feel after you get a book published. All that will change are your goals.
But here’s the thing: that love of stories that pulls you to the page now and causes you to put up with all this agony —that will exist regardless of whether you’re published or not, and no one can take that away. Trust me, the writing you’re doing now is every bit as enjoyable and important as the writing you’ll do later. So rather than living in expectation and thinking “If only I could get published,” focus on what you’re writing now, and enjoy the process. If you can enjoy every stage of the writing journey then you’ll definitely keep writing, and the rest —publishing, finding readers, writing new books, personal success— will take care of itself. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “Why stake your happiness on the future, when you can be happy right now?”
Enjoy the journey!