So, You Wanna be a Published Author?

I get a lot of questions and queries from people who want to know what they need to do to get published. While every person’s route to publication is different (and some people never get there), there are some basic things that will help every writer out. Some of the below hints and tips may sound pessimistic (and some optimistic), but what I’m trying to do here is be honest. The advice covered below is specifically for those seeking to write a fiction book (and who have never been published before), but could be applied generally to any writing.

First of all, writing is not easy and being an author/writer is not a cushy job by any means. Recent news articles highlighting the “instant success” of some authors are misleading at best and sometimes grossly sensationalized (hey, it’s the press…they need a story and writing about the drudgery side of writing doesn’t sell stories).

Writing takes work and dedication. Success is never overnight (no matter what the press might like you to believe). Writing is also not the most lucrative of professions, certain big name authors notwithstanding. If your goal is to be able to quit your day job (whatever that may be) and write full time, please understand that you may never be able to do so or that it will take years of effort (or a very supportive spouse). Many (eh, probably most) successful authors who have sold multiple books still work a separate job to support themselves.

So, what’s a wannabe author to do?

  • First and foremost, write. And finish what you write. You’ll need to finish and polish a complete manuscript before you start submitting (non-fiction first-timers may not have to, depending on their background and their proposed topic…but non-fiction is entirely a different beast). For those writing a children’s picture book, understand that it is NOT your job to do the illustrations (unless you happen to be a professional artist) or to even find an illustrator; that’s something the publisher will do if and when they accept your manuscript.
  • Reading is also key. Read what’s out there in the market. Who is your competition? What writing styles do you like and admire? What publishers publish the stuff you like to read or are similar to what you like to write?
  • Join professional and non-professional organizations like the SCBWI or local critique groups. And don’t just join them; utilize them. Learn to take constructive criticism. Network with other writers. Go to conferences and meet authors and agents and publishers.
  • Research. Subscribe to magazines like The Writer or Writer’s Digest or whatever works for you. Read author blogs. Pay attention to publisher’s press releases. Sign up for the Publisher’s Lunch and find out what is being bought, right now (and who is buying it). Read the dedications in books to see if an author thanks their agent (this is one way you can figure out who a particular author’s agent was). Remember that Google (or whatever search engine is your fav) is your friend (you truly can find just about anything on the Internet these days). My one caution – don’t spend so much time researching that you spend too little time writing.
  • Understand that the publishing process is SLOW. It is NOT instantaneous. It can take years to write a book, revise it, submit it to agents and/or publishers, and get an acceptance. Do not give up after just a few rejections and turn to self-publishing. In my experience (and this is purely my own opinion…there will be many who will argue with me on this), of the good self-pubbed books I’ve read, many *could* have been published with some additional work or patience. Of the bad, they really just shouldn’t have been published at all. This, of course, goes back to what your particular goal is – do you want people (other than family and immediate friends) to read your book? Do you want to make a career out of being a writer? If your goal is really just to write something that you can put on your bookshelf and/or share with family and friends and you’ve really just “got that one book in you and it’s got to come out” then self-publishing could be for you. As I mentioned earlier, I’m sure many people (and authors) would argue with me on this point, perhaps pointing out how publishing is often a business of who you know rather than what you know and that there are lots of good self-published books out there. I can easily agree on both of those points. But I personally think that if you want to be an author, then do the work. There are no shortcuts. Maybe your first book isn’t the one that makes it into print (trust me, that’s NOT a rare thing at all and nothing to be ashamed of). Maybe it isn’t your second, either. But the more you write, the better you get. Being patient is hard. Heck, getting published is hard.
  • On the question of whether or not you need an agent…in general, I would say that an agent is a good idea and the first place to start (once you have that complete and polished ms in hand). I myself found a publisher without an agent and have known many who also went that route. So an agent isn’t necessarily essential…but if you can find one who is a good fit with you they can make the entire process much easier. Understand that many publishers (both large and small) will not even look at an un-agented manuscript. Another caution: make sure the agent is on the up-and-up. There are a lot of charlatans out there who prey on inexperienced writers.
  • When submitting, put your best foot forward. Take all that research you did and put it to good use. Target agents or publishers that are likely to be receptive to your work. Follow submission guidelines (in other words, read the instructions and follow them). Do not try to be cutesy (like submitting your ms in a strange font you think is cool or by using pink paper for your manuscript, etc.). Writing and publishing is a business and anyone who forgets that does so to their detriment. If an agent asks for a cover letter, a synopsis, and the first three chapters, then that is what you should send them. If they say no e-mail attachments, don’t send them any. Agents and editors are literally buried under submissions, so they are looking for any reason to drop your ms and move on to the next one. Don’t give them a reason to do so.
  • Have patience. Do not hound the agent or publisher. Understand that your submission may be one of hundreds or thousands. Do not expect overnight results. I can’t stress this enough. Also, don’t let a few rejections deter you. I know some very successful writers that could literally wallpaper a room in their rejection slips. It didn’t stop them (though I’m sure it depressed them) from eventually getting published. You can learn from every rejection.
  • Do be completely professional in all your correspondence and in your presentation. Pay attention to formatting guidelines.
  • Don’t be rude; it’s a small publishing world out there and word will get out. For instance…Do not stalk authors or editors or agents at a conference (or, well, any time). Don’t dump a copy of your manuscript on anyone without a valid introduction / reason (and “I bet you’d love this” is not a valid reason). Do not ask an author you don’t know well to introduce you to their agent or publisher. Do not assume that any author, of any stature in the business, has the time available to help you. Yes, you can certainly ask (but please do your research first), but keep in mind that they may be working on a deadline or, for any number of reasons, not have the time to help you (especially when they know you could find out the same info easily by searching online). Honestly, I’m not trying to discourage you from contacting or speaking to any author/agent/editor here, though it may sound that way. Just be reasonable. How would you feel if someone you didn’t know accosted you in the grocery store or at your job and demanded that you help them change careers to your career? I’ve heard so many horror stories from people in the business of people doing similar things and much, much worse (like agents being followed home by complete strangers).
  • Do NOT publish your full manuscript online in the hopes of attracting a publisher or an agent. Be careful even publishing parts of it — there are many reasons, but think of it this way: a) someone could easily steal your work; and b) why would an agent or publisher want to buy something you’ve been giving away for free?
  • And most importantly, keep writing and keep your chin up. Yes, it can be a really hard business, but it is also rewarding in ways that few things can be.

Oh, and if you’re wondering “who the heck is she to be giving advice??” — I’ve worked as an editorial intern (which meant some serious slush pile duty…I once had to read a translation of Dante’s Inferno into jive…seriously, I kid you not), have been a book reviewer since 1998, have interviewed hundreds of authors, gone to conferences, have published a number of short stories and articles, and my first book came out in August 2008 (Sucks to Be Me) and my second is due out in May 2010 (Still Sucks to Be Me). And I’ll tell you one thing — I’m always learning something new. So be sure to keep an open mind as you research things; you never know what you’ll learn or from whom.