Introduction to Publishing

Many novice writers know that they want to write, but have no idea how to go about getting their work published

While it varies based on the type of work (short stories, editorials, novels, or non-fiction books), there are some commonalities.

The most basic outline for how you publish a novel is as follows:

  1. Write the novel.
  2. Get an agent for the novel by querying.
  3. Once you have an agent, begin the next book while the agent tries to sell the first one.

For non-fiction:

  1. Write a proposal
  2. Get an agent for the proposal by querying with the proposal.
  3. Wait for the agent to sell the proposal.
  4. Once the proposal is sold, write the book.

The good news is that nearly anyone can successfully write a book.

The bad news is that getting the first book published has A LOT more to do with luck than skill. Most authors spend years trying to get their first book published, regardless of their skill. It took Steven King seven years before a publisher bought his first book, Carrie. J. K. Rowling was rejected by every publisher and agent you can think of. It’s a long, arduous process, not for the faint of heart.

And while skill will carry a career, luck determines when you first publish. Given enough time, luck will turn your way, whether you’re a good writer or not (and some horrid works make it to the bookshelves)–skill will determine if you get a second book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t things you can do which can boost your chances.

imagesThe first thing any serious writer must do is buy the Writer’s Market. You can find it in nearly any bookstore. It’s the writer’s bible, and frankly, even published writers should buy it every year to stay current. It contains a list of nearly every agency in the country, as well as essays on how to publish, how to present yourself professionally, and other business elements of being a writer. It’s now available online, which is a game changer, because rather than go through every agent by hand to see who wants what, you can just do a online search (a task that took days by hand can now be done in a few seconds if you’ve the online version).

jh-guide-2015-front-323x400Herman’s Guide is the largest competitor to the Writer’s Market (who am I kidding–they’re the only competitor). It contains fewer listings, but those listings have a great deal more detail. Herman’s Guide receives greater prestige in the industry, but the truth is most people use it as a supplement to Writer’s Market, simply because Writer’s Market is easier to reference, and contains a greater breadth of information.

Get these books as soon as possible so that you are preparing for the querying process before you finish your book.

Querying agents and publishers, while despised by writers, is an essential part of being a professional. It is the process whereby you send a one page letter to an agent, asking him or her to represent you. The first paragraph is your introduction, the second outlines your book, the third is your bio and qualifications, and the fourth is your closing. That’s it! One page, four paragraphs, no more. It’s brutal!

Note only one paragraph is dedicated to the 300 page precious gem you’ve been toiling over for years. One paragraph! Querying is to writing what a “cold read” is to acting–nobody expects you to give a complete recounting of the complexities of your book in that one paragraph, but they do expect you to impart a strong sense of it, and to get a feel for your skills as a writer. If you can’t condense your work down to a paragraph, they assume you don’t have the skills to succeed in the industry… and they’re probably right (to those of you whose mind just flashed with all the reasons your manuscript is so nuanced and complex so as to necessitate an exception to the one paragraph rule–and that’s pretty much everyone reading this–you’re wrong).

In general you should only query agents in New York or Los Angeles. There are a few agents outside of those cities who are good, but to be effective you really need to be near the publishers. Good agents will “lunch” with a dozen publishers every week, finding out what their needs are and how to fill them, keeping a finger on the pulse of the industry. It’s something that really can’t be done effectively over the phone.

An agent typically will take a 15% commission on your work, and doesn’t charge money upfront. The good agencies, the ones who have been around for more than three or four years, have survived because they sell work, because they represent their clients well, not by the money they get for reading fees. Any agency which asks for a dime before your book is sold is a bad agency. The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) and Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR) do not allow members to charge clients money upfront (this policy has loosened a bit, letting agents charge for incidentals like photocopying, but I’ve yet to see a reputable agency take advantage of that. If an agency wants to charge you for this, watch out!). Agencies can charge expenses to you, to be sure, but they are supposed to take it out of the back end, out of the money you make from the sale of your book. If the book never sells, they don’t get their fees.

WGA and AAR Members adhere to the highest standards of ethics. Never sign with an agency which is not a member of one or both, no mater what the excuse.

So… How likely are you to succeed in the query process?

It’s been a while since I looked at the numbers (which I assume have gotten worse), but, when I started querying for the first time, the average agent received 300 queries every week (that’s 15,600 a year). The average agent accepted only four new clients… a year. That means that, statistically, you’ve got about 1 shot in 3900.

I have to remind my wife of this when she bitches about competitive her field is.

Fortunately, there are ways to improve your chances. First of all, make sure there isn’t a single grammatical mistake or clumsy sentence. Half of all query letters are rejected out of hand solely because of a punctuation or grammatical mistake, because the writer failed to practice his craft on the single most important document of his career. Having a flawless letter instantly raises your chances to 1 in 1950.

Remember too, that you can (and really must) query more than one agent at a time. 10 is a good number… enough that you’ve improved your chances, but not so many that you begin to send “form” queries (a bad idea–quantity never trumps quality in this endeavor). By sending 10 at a time, you’ve upped your odds to 1 in 195.

The top 10 agencies in the US represent 90% of the published material, so it’s best to go after those. But there are roughly 20 more agencies which are still quite successful. This means that if you query all of them (which will take about six months to a year, doing 10 at a time), your chances are up to about 1 in 10.

So, with a little work, and adherence to professional standards and practices, you can take a base chance of 1 in 3900 and increase it to about 1 in 10. Beating the other 9 trying for your spot becomes a matter of skill, and luck (sometimes the market has no interest in what you’re selling, no matter how good it is).

If an agent takes you on, congratulations! If you have one of the top 35 agents in the United States, you have about a 60% chance that they’ll find a home for your work–a process which takes 3 to 8 months. If it sells, it’s usually another 4-8 months before it’s on shelves, so this is a long haul process.

It is a phenomenally difficult process, and is just as hard on the publishers (4 out of 5 books published fail to make back the money they put into them, and try as they might, they haven’t been able to change those figures much). Larger publishers make their money off of the few, rare best sellers, which everyone tries furiously to predict, and nobody sees coming (which is why the market changes so rapidly).

People sometimes bypass agents and go straight to the publishers. While it can work (one of my students, Don Nelson just got an excellent book on Chappaquiddick published this way), in general this is a bad idea. Most publishers reject un-agented submissions out of hand; why sift through 15,600 queries a year, the agents will do it? Some publishers which do accept un-agented work do so because they want to take advantage of talented, but naive writers. Further, agents spend their careers approaching publishers… your submission will be competing against professional submissions by people who know the needs of the industry far better than you do. Lastly, if you eventually do get an agent, that agent won’t be able to re-submit to publishers who you already approached.

With all this trouble, many people have begun going to Vanity or Print on Demand (POD) services. POD will kill vanity presses, so there’s no point discussing vanity. POD, however, is interesting.
In POD, you submit your work to one of the seven major POD Publishers (Infinity, XLiberis, Trafford, etc), and pay them between $400 and $2000. They publish you book, it appears in Books in Print (the catalog used by bookstores), on Amazon.com and in some cases BarnsAndNobel.com.

This sounds great, but it has some significant drawbacks. First of all, while anybody can look up and order your book in any bookstore in the country, almost no bookstore will actually carry it. The two reasons for this are:

1) Most POD publishers do not buy back unsold books, meaning if your book flops, the bookstore can’t unload it. Even the POD publishers that do buy them back (Infinity is the only one as of this writing) don’t succeed, because most bookstores are unaware that the publisher will buy them back, and are to bothered to believe you when you tell them.

2) Why take the trouble to carry your book, give it space that could go to other books, when no conventional publisher would take it? Why take a chance on your book when they get books from publishers with a solid history of success?

Further, POD is not considered “legitimate” publishing, and rightfully so. POD services will publish anything. Take your favorite swear word, repeat in 300,000 times, and a POD publisher will turn it into a book. A monkey could have written it, and so long as he pays the POD $400, that lucky primate will get his book. Nobody in the industry considers POD authors to be “published”.

And why should they? Would you go to a doctor who had 8 years of medical school, or one who paid $50 for a degree over the internet?

Having said all that, there are legitimate reasons to go POD. One of my clients did POD for her self-help program. She used POD, not to sell the book, but to supply herself with personal copies she could distribute to her clients. She could then track the effectiveness of her program and her book, and use that data to improve the book and to help her market it to agents.

POD services often tout the POD books which were eventually picked up by major publishers. This has a draw for many people who don’t look at the numbers. Less than 1 in 2000 POD books are ever accepted by a legitimate publisher. Your odds of publishing are MUCH higher (1 in 10) if you go the legitimate rout, and do it properly.

As you get more experienced, you’ll learn more tricks of the trade. For example, when an agent switches agencies, they typically leave their clients with the old agency. Target these agents, because they have no client list, they need to find 15-25 new clients in the next year, instead of the usual 4. Also, unless expressly prohibited, you can send the agent the first three chapters of your book (even if not requested). Why? Because agents often find themselves in the position of likening a work just enough that they’d read more if they had it available, but not enough to bother requesting more.

This all is a broad outline, and it varies a bit based on the type of writing. Short Story writers don’t query agents, they go to the publishers directly (who, conveniently enough, are also listed in the Writer’s Market). Non-Fiction writers (for short and long) should actually wait to write until the proposal is actually sold. If you write the piece first, you’ll have a hard time selling it.
But these are the general rules and guidelines, and can help those trying to publish for the first time.

So where does the novice writer begin?
1) Buy the Writer’s Market, this year, and every year for the rest of your writing career.
2) Go to writer’s conferences. Most agents pick up at least half of their clients from these conferences, and you can learn valuable information on the industry there.
3) Get subscriptions to industry magazines (such as Writer’s Digest).
4) Work hard, and write every day.

This sounds overwhelming, and certainly more difficult than most novice writers ever feared. But the majority of writers fail because they do not follow these basic steps. The difference between those who publish and those who don’t is simple… Those who don’t gave up. If you stay in it, your time will come. While you wait, you have a golden opportunity, the opportunity to hone your craft, to improve your skills. Because so many books fail, all you have to do is make your book better than average, that’s it. If it’s better than average, you’ll get a second book, and you have a career.

Whatever your genre or preferred type of writing (short story, novel, non-fiction), these are the basic rules for building a career in writing. It’s a lot of fun, it’s rewarding, and it can be frustrating… it is most decidedly not easy… But anyone with enough patience and practice can, and will, succeed.

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