Jun 22, 2009
Q&A: How do I get published?
Recently, within a period of about 24 hours, I got emails/questions from three different people about how they could get published. This was a little startling to me since the questions came in such close proximity.
I’ve gotten questions like this before. I wrote about it last November, in fact. Back then, I side-stepped the whole mechanics of how to get published and focused on giving aspiring writers a pep talk. This time, I think I’m going to have to actually answer the question, if only so that I can point future question askers to this blog post (hi, future question askers!).
But first, here are a few caveats:
- I know nothing about how to get a nonfiction book published. For that, I suggest you try reading The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing: A Professional Guide to the Business, for Nonfiction Writers of All Experience Levels (Amazon). It was published in 2003 and might be a bit out of date, but it’s a good place to start.
- My experiences are my own experiences and will most likely be different than yours. All I can tell you is what I went through to get where I am today.
- I know slightly more about getting young adult fiction published than I do about adult fiction. I know some about mystery fiction, a smidgen about science fiction/fantasy and romance, and pretty much nothing about literary fiction. This just means that the publishing industry is wide, and every genre has its own requirements.
Now, to start off with, a bit of background about my own qualifications to answer this question:
I worked at Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, as an editorial assistant from 1996-1998. This was pretty much my first job out of college, and what I learned there is now ancient news and probably extremely out of date! After I left Ballantine, I spent a long time in graduate school before dropping out to become a “freelance writer.” I’ve freelanced for a number of LGBT publications, was an associate editor at Curve (a monthly magazine), and then was managing editor at AfterEllen.com (now a division of Logo, the television channel). My knowledge of editorial practices and decisions come from these experiences.
My knowledge as a published writer of fiction comes from my limited experiences around the publication of Ash. Really, it’s like a year and a half of experience here. You should probably ask someone with more experience for advice. Need a suggestion? Check out Cassandra Clare’s advice, or Justine Larbalestier’s extremely informative posts on writing, or read Jennifer Weiner’s page on how to become a writer.
Still here? OK, here’s what I know about how to get a NOVEL published by a commercial (mainstream) publisher:
1. Write the book first. You must finish it. If you haven’t finished it yet, you’re not ready to get published.
2. Polish that book until it shines. You should never submit a first draft to any publisher or agent you’re pitching. Make sure your book has been honed until the prose is as sharp as you can make it. To do that, you will need to get feedback from someone — a friend you trust who has a critical eye, a writers’ critique group, etc. — and you will need to make a lot of changes. There are thousands of websites and books out there with advice on how to revise and rewrite; here are some places to start:
3. When the book is finished and polished, you can begin to search for literary agents. Some people do sell their novels without an agent, but I wouldn’t recommend it. When I was at Ballantine, I only recall my editor signing one new author without an agent. You have a 1,000,000% better chance of getting published with an agent.
To find a literary agent, you can do any or all of the following:
- Search for agents on AgentQuery.com. This is honestly where I found my agent. You can specialize according to the genre of your book, and take note of whether the agent says he or she likes to work with new authors.
- Look through the agent listings in the Writer’s Market or the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market.
- Find some books you really liked and read their acknowlegments and dedications. Often, authors thank their agents in these. You can then look them up in AgentQuery or elsewhere and make sure they are still looking for new clients before submitting to them.
4. Write your query letter. There is tons of advice out there on how to query properly. You might start at Nathan Bransford’s blog (he’s a literary agent), which also has a ton of other very useful info for those looking for an agent.
I’ve read thousands of queries myself, both at Ballantine and in my later jobs. In my mind, the query letter is very simple — it’s a pitch, yes, but it’s also a business letter. There are only a few things you absolutely must do (everything else is open to debate):
- Make sure it’s professional, not gimmicky. Write it in business letter format; you do not have to have fancy stationery.
- Spell everything — especially the agent’s name — correctly. Do not trust spell check.
- Only submit what the agent says he/she requests. If they only want a query letter, do not also send them three chapters. If they want the entire manuscript, do not merely send them three chapters. Follow their rules in this area so that you make a good impression: This is their introduction to you as a professional writer.
5. Send your query letter, with its accompanying sample chapters or whatever the agent requires, and then sit back and wait. If they don’t get back to you within the amount of time they say they will take (in their AgentQuery listing, for example), you are allowed to contact them once with a follow-up email or letter. After that, assume the worst, and don’t take it personally.
6. Months or even years may pass when you don’t get a positive response. Don’t despair. This is the life of a writer: Learning how to wait. Believe me — even after you get a contract, you’ll still have innumerable things to wait for. Might as well get used to it now.
7. When an agent contacts you to say they want to represent you, yay! Before you quickly agree, though, you should think things through.
You might talk to a few of the agent’s clients to get an idea of how he or she works; you should look around online and see if he/she has been interviewed or blogged about anywhere; and of course you should ask her all the questions you want before agreeing to anything. I suggest that you particularly pay attention to how you might end this business relationship (because that’s what it is) if things don’t work out (e.g., if he/she never sells your book, or if you wind up not getting along, etc.).
8. After you agree to work with your agent (congratulations!), he or she may ask you to make some changes in your manuscript. Then, once the manuscript is ready, your agent will submit it to various publishers. With luck and a good story, you’ll get an offer (or maybe more than one) for your book. I’m purposely skipping quickly over this part because, well, once you have an agent, it’s largely out of your hands. You should be quite busy enough working on your next book.
This entire process can take anywhere from a few weeks (though unlikely) to several years to complete. I spent five years writing a presentable draft of Ash to submit to agents. Then I sent my query letter out to about eight agents; over a period of 11 months, it was rejected by all but one — Laura Langlie. She offered to represent me in December 2007; I did another revision of Ash by January 2008, and in February 2008 we got our first offer from a publisher. Ash doesn’t come out until September 2009.
That will mean Ash was seven years in the making. So if you want to get published, get ready to wait. It’s definitely not about instant gratification!
With that, good luck on your own journey to publication! It’s long, but can be very satisfying.