Photographer: Rob Friesel
Being an online publisher, I wanted to reach out to writers, because I am aware that trying to get a book published can be a stressful time for a fiction writer. You have to struggle with feelings of self doubt, worry about rejection, and agonize over changing your beloved work to please others. With all these emotions swirling around, the last thing you want to worry about is if you are taking the right steps in your quest to get published. This is why I have written this article: to demystify the process and guide writers through the steps of what they need to do and in what order. This way, instead of hopping up and down haphazardly on the stairs of publication, possibly slipping and breaking some bones in the process, writers will be able to swiftly reach their goal without too many scars (and, most importantly, a lighter load of rejection letters!)
1. Write your book!
It may not be surprising that the first step to getting published is to have something to publish. Ah, you say, you know that already? Good! But, too often, writers delude themselves into thinking that a query letter and the first couple chapters of a novel are all you need – they can always write the rest while they wait for responses, right? Ehm.. only if you want to be ultimately rejected by the rare publishing companies who will even bother to ask for the rest!
In the world of fiction writing, the unbreakable rule is to have your book finished (and thoroughly edited) before you even begin thinking about publishing it. With other types of writing, you may be able to get away with a few chapters or pitching an idea but, while you may only be submitting a few chapters at first, publishers will expect the entire book to be already completed. The last thing you want to do is grab the attention of a publisher only to leave them dry later. So get writing and make sure you have a sizable manuscript before you put all the extra work that publishing entails. A good range to shoot for is between 75,000 and 120,000 words. This is just a general range so do not be afraid to stray outside of it should that fit your purposes better. At the same time, be aware that longer books are harder to publish. This is why even Proust had to self-publish, after the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past – a “mere” 500 pages long – was rejected with this statement: My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.” In general, shorter is better. However, if you can come up with a compelling plot that holds together even after hundreds of pages, write to us and let you know how you did it!
2. Get feedback
This is a nice way of saying: make sure that what you wrote will bring some enjoyment to the editors who read it…not just make them want to quit their job and become Scuba Divers!* If you are one of those who think that your NaNoWriMo sketch of a novel, or the first draft that your boyfriend likes so much, are ready for publication…well, you are not ready, I promise. You are, however, past step 1, and encouraged to keep reading!
After you have written your initial manuscript, make sure you let some other people read it and get feedback. While this step can be excruciating for many writers, it is necessary to get multiple opinions on your work. As much as you hate having others tear your work apart, your writing will ultimately be better for it. You will be surprised: people might find confusing details or plot-points that you, as the writer, thought were clear as day. “Wait, I don’t get it: why would Luke go save that squirrel? Isn’t he allergic to fur?” a friend might ask. And you would embark in a lengthy explanation of why squirrel fur is not like cat fur … then reread the scene with the squirrel, only to realize that the scene doesn’t make any sense, anyway, and that you have no idea of how or why that squirrel made it into your story.
Alternatively, a fresh eye may catch inconsistencies within the story that your eyes, red from sleepless nights spent writing and inured to the abominable grammatical errors they have basically committed to memory, might miss. Writing workshops are great for this step. Ideally, you want feedback from other writers and the target audience of the book as well. Once you have a good amount of feedback, rework your manuscript to take the best advice into account. This process should also help you with proofreading your manuscript. A manuskript filed with speelling and grammatical horrors will be hard t read, an wil reflekt pourly on u (see, I can feel you looking down on me right now!) So please, please, have you manuscript be edited thoroughly, before you shop it around!
* Or any profession that doesn’t require writing or reading!!
3. Decide if you want an agent
Once you have a tight manuscript in your hands (Yay!), you have to choose between contacting an agent to help you sell your work, or reaching out to publishers directly. This is an important decision to make, as it leads to two drastically different paths. (Of course, you can always self-publish… But, today, we are explaining how to do this the traditional way.)
Many writers loathe the idea of an agent, and see them as the layabout middlemen of the publishing world. However, there are good reasons to work with an agent – if you can build a good relationship with one. The benefit to getting an agent is that they already have relationships with people in publishing houses. They know what the publishers want and how to best position your book so that it will be published. They will also be able to make suggestions to strengthen your work and edit it to ensure publication (even though these changes can be hard to stomach). Basically, they will do all the work to get your book published and will take a cut from the profits, usually around 15%. However, their experience and negotiating skills may get you a better deal than what you would be able to get on your own, (hopefully) offsetting the cost of their fees.
Your other option is to contact publishers yourself. This option involves much more work on your part. You must conduct research first, and determine which publishers to target your manuscript to. Then, you can start sending off queries, (and pray that someone is reading them.) If you decide to go riding solo, don’t worry too much about being successful: the experience you will gather during this process could always be useful to you later (as in when you self-publish your book or, disappointed by all the rejections, decide to play a prank of those “damned” editors). Regardless of what happens, learning more about the process will serve you well: you may even be able to help other writers in the future (for a 15% cut!).
4. Follow your agent’s advice
If you decide to get an agent, follow the submission guidelines on their websites carefully. It might seem obvious to you, but one of the main obstacles to getting published is the writer’s inability to follow directions. If you get a rejection letter, move on, (or nail it to the wall, a la Stephen King). Unless… the agent specifies a condition on which you can contact them again. However, beware of delicate breakups: agents may be so graceful in their rejection letter that they may give you false hope. But we all know that the “it’s not you, it’s me” approach to things isn’t one we should believe in. Hence, if you do try to get the editor to give you another shot, do it without getting your hopes too high – similarly to the other kind of relationships, having low expectations can sometimes help to be hurt a little less when we get rejected.
If you are now so nauseated that you want to skip to the next step directly, I understand. If you do get an agent, though, it may be wise to take to their advice, as they have experience in the field and you do not. This is not to say that an agent always gives good advice, but it is often best to at least hear them out, because, after all, this is why you hired them, right? Agents are not as scary as I depicted them in this piece (at least, not all of them!) Try to find an agent that you like and admire, maybe someone who has worked on pieces of literature that you have read and liked. This way, it will be easier to follow their advice when they tell you something like: “the ending sucks. Don’t you know that even Tom Clancy couldn’t get away with what he did in Teeth Tiger?”
Find a publisher
For the fend-for-yourself types, you will probably decide to contact publishers yourself. If this is the case, you should research extensively to find out who is publishing content that is similar to yours. For example, if you have written a book geared towards young adults, go to a bookstore or library and look around the Young Adult section to find out who is publishing the newest and most popular books. Submit your manuscript to the publishers you have targeted and be sure to follow all instructions in their submission process (just because you decided to lone wolf it does not mean you do not have to play by the rules!). They may suggest changes, and you won’t have much say in it… But, then again, remember that finding and improving good books is their job…they might know a little bit more about it than you or I do..give them a chance! Ultimately, just take it as a learning experience and don’t get too caught up in it: self-publishing is always an option, but it’s useful to at least try going through the traditional route: your book might improve because of it!