Getting Published

I keep hearing writers say that they can’t get their manuscript published. On closer examination, most of them haven’t tried the right way or they haven’t tried enough. What’s the right way? How much is enough? Here’s my take on it:

1. Start with a manuscript that’s good enough. How do you know if yours is ready? Get a critique of it from an editor, bookstore buyer, or someone else in the business who has worked with that kind of book. Don’t ask an English professor or someone who has worked on self-help books, when yours is science fiction. Don’t rely on the opinion of anyone who is fond of you, and never trust the opinion of anyone who’s related to you!

2. Know the market. Writing a book is only part of the author’s responsibility. The rest of it involves promoting that book. Know who your ideal reader is, with great specificity. Understand why that reader wants a book of this type, and what needs that book should fill. Know a lot about the other books available to meet those needs. How is yours better for that reader? (Yes, this applies even to fiction, and no, writing with the reader in mind doesn’t have to mean becoming a hack. Literature reaches deep into our psyches and fills our most important needs.)

3. Know the market even more. Figure out where these narrowly defined ideal readers hang out, and what else they may be doing (besides reading books). Think about how you might help those who will most want it to find it. This may entail blogging, participating in listservs, or writing for magazines that are read by your target reader.

4. Write a pithy sentence or two that captures the essence of what makes your book distinctive and appealing and to whom. (It’s called an elevator speech.)

5. Using all of the above, write a proposal that tells an agent or editor about your book, its market, and why it will appeal to that market. Include enough information that it’s clear you will be an asset in the marketing of this book.

6.Assemble a list of 50 or so agents **who handle your type of book**, and write half or a quarter of them a personalized query that encapsulates the proposal in 2 or 3 short paragraphs, all within the expressed requirements of that agent, and the conventions applicable to your type of book.

If you don’t get a request for a proposal and/or a manuscript from a good number of them, your query needs work. If after sending proposals, you don’t get a request for a full ms from most of those, your proposal needs work.

When you’ve ironed both of them out, send more queries to the rest of your list. Don’t use up the full list until you’ve got a solid query and proposal.

7. If you haven’t got 50 rejections from agents and editors, try again and again . . .

8. Work on the next book while you’re trying to sell this one. Even if this one doesn’t sell initially, you’ll probably be able to place it after you have another book that sells successfully.

9. Once your book is published, work hard, in concert with the publicist assigned by your publisher, to make your book a success. Every agent and acquisitions editor can now easily see what your past sales were like. So can the buyers who order stock for bookstores. It’s no longer enough to leave your career in the hands of your publisher’s over-worked and under-paid marketing department.

10. The book business is a very, very small one. Treat everyone well, or you’ll get a reputation that you don’t want. Treat them very well, and word of that will spread, too.

Now for the stinger: I’ve never written or published a book. I’ve never been an agent or an acquiring editor. All of the above is based upon what I’ve heard from those who are agents and editors over the 17 years I’ve been doing this.

So, all you who read this — what did I get wrong?

5 Responses to “Getting Published”

  1. Sounds about right to me. Although I wrote about three bad novels by the time I was 20, the breadth of my experienced as a published writer extends to two short stories—one in the lit mag of a college I attended—and a year or two of film crit for a local arts paper—your list really looks right to me.

    Oh, but wait, here’s some advice for writers who aren’t just doing the Emily Dickinson thing for themselves but actually want to be published: Know the market.

    I started collecting rejection slips when I was 13. The first one was the best, as an editor at McCall’s added some handwritten encouragement: This is very well-written, but there is not enough of it. So I turned it into one of my three bad novels, not knowing the market.

  2. Yup, KNOW THY MARKET deserves to be graven in stone!

  3. […] or not. There are other things you can do to try to get traditionally published. I’ve blogged before about those […]

  4. thanks for this post on fiction

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