8.30.2009

So, How DO I Get Published, Anyway?

"You say on your website that it is not your job as a freelance editor to make sure I get my story published, but surely you must know something about how it works!" I've received this question, or at least something like it, on a number of occasions. People of all ages and skill levels who have written a story or a book now have a finished product, and they're wondering what's next. Most people think they have a pretty good idea how to get published, but they are often wrong. Heck, I'm still learning new things, and I make it my business to pay attention to this stuff. Most folks say, "I'll just bundle it up, send it to the publisher, and pretty soon it'll be sitting on the front table at Barnes & Noble, at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or on the front pages of my favorite magazine, and I'll have a fat check in my hand! Success!"

 Ah, if only it were that easy. I'm a little reluctant to even write this blog, and I'll tell you why: for some really great writers (and some pretty bad ones too), that above scenario has more or less been true for them. That's because one of the biggest secrets to getting published is really nothing more than having the right pair of eyes on your manuscript at the right time. You may be the next James Joyce, Stephen King, or Jodi Picoult, but that doesn't mean much in this very subjective business, where one person's work of art is another person's favorite toilet paper. If I had been an acquisition editor, I very likely would have passed on the first Twilight book. It wouldn't have been the end of the world for Ms. Meyer, of course. Rejection from one person only leaves the manuscript open for someone else. It's not like your piece of work has a giant scarlet letter written on it. Keep peddling it, and chances are, someone will like it enough to buy it. I'll briefly detail my own experience.

I have started my still very fledgling writing career with short stories. Two of them have been published in very small markets, and I'm currently working on a book. Right now I have two more short stories in circulation, and I'm about to send another one out on a second voyage after multiple rejections (I made some needed revisions). This November, I hope to enter a story in the Writer's Digest Short Story Competition. Early next year, with a completed novel in hand, I'll start hunting for an agent.

A lot of hopeful novelists take the short story route to help them build some publishing credits before swimming into the deeper water of enticing agents with a novel. Shorts are also a great way to just get used to the act of writing stories altogether, which many people need if they hope to write a 70,000 word (average length) novel. The market for short stories is much smaller (and pays far less, if anything in some cases), but it's still a great way to whet your appetite and help you get used to the concept of rejection, which is really the most important thing. But I'll get back to that later. But let's say you bypass that route. You have a BOOK, dang it, and you want to get it out there! What should you do? Here are a few things you should do or at least consider:

1. Read and research the market for your book. Have you written science fiction? Women's fiction? Historical fiction? An autobiography? Comedy? Horror? Hopefully, you have already read many books by successful authors in your chosen field. Doing so will give you an idea of what has worked for publishers in the past, and what is commercially successful at the moment. Look on the copyright page to see who published it. Find out whether they accept unsolicited work, or if they require that you have an agent. Chances are, you will need an agent, but I'll get to that in a minute.

2. Have your book edited. No, I am not saying this to plug my own editing business. I am saying this because I wouldn't even have a business if the need for good editing weren't absolutely essential. Even if you got all A's in your English classes, your fresh, completed story is likely not ready for submission yet. NO ONE reads their own work the same way other people read your work, and this makes a huge difference. We become lulled by our own meters. After awhile, our eyes sort of just glaze over and skip mistakes that a fresh pair of eyes spots right away. Also, today's market is tougher than ever and prospective agents and publishers want very polished work. You don't necessarily have to pay for an editor if you have someone in your life who knows how it goes, isn't afraid to tell you the truth, and can do it all for free. Keep in mind that editing isn't just about words; it is also formatting. It may surprise you to know that a lot of agents will send rejection slips without even reading the first paragraph of your work if it isn't in the proper format. PLEASE for the sake of your own success and the sanity of those who read hundreds of manuscripts a month, research proper manuscript formatting before submitting it to an agent or a publisher, or hire someone to do it for you.
If you don't, you're wasting your time and your hopes, and you are all but guaranteed a rejection slip.  


3. Join local writers groups, clubs, and associations, and attend writer's conferences. One of the best ways to learn the landscape of the author's universe is to attend conferences and seminars and mix with the pros. Here in my neck of the woods, we have the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, who has an annual conference in July, but almost all regions of the country have similar groups you can join for nominal fees. You can find out about even more conferences and seminars through trade magazines like Writer's Digest. The classes are invaluable, and they give you the opportunity to receive professional critiques and pitch your story to agents. You can also meet other people who are in the same "trying to get published" boat as you, and their support and networking can be invaluable. On the same token, if you have already published work in a particular genre, it would be to your benefit to see if you qualify for a membership with associated writers organizations, such as the Science Fiction Writers Association, the Horror Writers Association, or any applicable group. Of course, if you're not yet a professional, you'll only qualify for affiliate or associate memberships, but it still looks great on a writer's resume. Agents like seeing prospective clients who take the craft seriously, and such memberships help with that. Also, even affiliates still enjoy many of the benefits of being a part of these professional organizations, and they have great lists for short story markets that can earn you full membership qualification if you get published with them.

 4. Yes, you will probably need an agent. This especially applies if you want to go big time, and publish with someone like Scribner, Baen, Penguin, Viking, Tor, Harper Collins, etc. This wasn't true 20 years ago, when agents were more of a luxury for the already self-made, but these days most major publishers won't even consider unsolicited work. So if you have a grand vision for the future of your book, your first order of business will be not to entice a publisher, but an agent. And that alone requires its own separate blog. In the meantime, do your research on literary agents and what it takes to find one, including how to write queries and synopses, or how to effectively pitch (or sell) your story. Attending the aforementioned writers conferences is a great way to learn these things, but Preditors & Editors is a great place to start. They have great resources and guidance on how to avoid scam artists.

5. Research Small Press Publishers, Markets, and Competitions. If you're not sure you're ready to start looking for an agent, or if you just have some short stories you'd like to shop around, one great resource is Duotrope, which is a free search site for publishing markets, most of whom don't require agent solicitation. You can specify electronic and print markets, as well as learn their submission requirements. It's a great way to get acclimated to the demands of the publishing market. I found the publishers of my two short stories through Duotrope. Writer's Market is also good, but they charge a small membership fee for the use of their website. However, your library or local bookstore will likely have their directory in book form. Also check trade magazines like Writer's Digest and Writing and Poetry, which list all sorts of markets to which you can submit your work.

6. Be Patient. Publishing is a very slow-moving beast. Someone has to read all those manuscripts, and slush piles can often take several months to work through. If you're wooing a particular agent with a book, you can expect to wait 6 months or even over a year for a response from some of them. On average, it's at least a few months before you'll get a response back. And then, even if you get an agent, it's at least another 6 months to a year (or more) before you get a publishing deal. After that, it can be months more (depending on the publisher's schedule) before you actually see your work in print. While you're waiting, you should be working on your next book. I hate to break it to ya, but if it's your first book that's in circulation, chances are it's your subsequent efforts that will earn you the break you're looking for. Writing stories is sometimes like making crepes. The first few are almost always failures, but as you get your technique down, you get better. Not to say that first efforts don't ever see the light of publishing day. Just ask Julia Glass, who won the National Book Award for her first novel, "Three Junes," while working as a freelance writer and editor. No matter what, just keep writing. Finally, and most important:

7. Grow a very thick skin. This business is very tough and it can often feel very unfair. As in any other field, there are a lot of people competing for the same thing as you, and more people get turned away than get accepted. Even really talented ones. Rejection will become a regular part of your life. Read biographies on some of your favorite authors and you will learn that their bedrooms or offices were practically wallpapered with rejection slips. I have a nice collection of them growing in my e-mail box, and just added two more to the pile last week. It happens, and it will probably continue to happen throughout my career. After awhile, you just learn to expect rejection so that when someone actually does accept your work (I've had that feeling of exhilaration exactly twice in my life, and plan to have it again someday) it feels like the most magical and validating moment of your life. People who think they are entitled to success are often the quickest to fail. Keep your head down and work your ass off, even in the face of rejection. In fact, work HARDER, learn from the experience, and realize that you were probably not as good as you thought you were in that moment. Persist, accept the criticism and the beatings, and you'll get better. 

Finally, have a game plan and keep looking toward the future. And don't be afraid to identify yourself as a writer, even if you aren't published yet. You don't need a special plaque, degree, or a publishing credit to be a writer. You just have to love it and DO it. If you believe that you are a writer, chances are you will behave like one, and you will be treated like one. Of course, then there is the self-publishing route. But I'll save that doozy for another day.

3 comments:

  1. You've got one of the most information dense blogs on this subject out there. Big fan of your articles.

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  2. I really appreciate that, Anton. If there is a subject you'd like for me to cover, please let me know. I am always open to suggestions on topics from readers! :)

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  3. A great post with particularly great accompanying images. The Twilight as Toilet is brilliant. Did you create this image? I am writing a critical analysis of the series and the fandom and would love to here more about this image if you are willing to share...

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