Three Answers to the Question, “So, How Do I Get Published?”

At the end of my creative writing workshops, sometimes with only fifteen minutes left of the final class, someone inevitably asks, “So, how do we get our work published?” People also ask this question when they find out that I am the big-time sm medium-time author of the breakaway, international bestseller moderately successful book See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. Depending on the situation, I give one of three answers to this question:

If I’m feeling world-weary and sarcastic, or if it doesn’t seem like the person wants a real answer anyway:

“Prepare for lots of rejection.”

For best results, I follow this with a sad-little laugh and well-timed sigh.

If the question seems genuine, but time is short:

“My favorite book on this subject is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The authors are a wife/husband, agent/author team. This is the book that guided me through the process, and it’s readable and funny and will save you lots of trial and error.”

The way potential authors react to this type of  tip is telling. If they say thanks and make a note of the book’s title, that’s a pretty good sign. If they read the book – or, really, any book – on the publishing process, and then follow up with a few specific questions, that’s a great sign.

On the other hand, if they say they are too busy to read a whole book, that’s a bad sign for their future as an author. It’s also a sign that they are going to want to explain to me how easy it’s going to be for them to write their book once they get started because their life is so interesting people keep telling them they should write a book! Then they are going to ask me how  much I got paid for my book. Then they are going to ask if I can introduce them to whoever published my book so those people can publish their book. Then… I don’t know what comes next, because I have already made an excuse to leave the conversation.

If the question seems genuine, the person seems patient, and there is enough time to explain the basics of the publishing process: 

“There are a few main steps to getting a book published…

If you’re working on a novel, you start by writing the novel and making it as good as you can.

Then you write a query, which is a one-page letter or email, to try to find an agent who will sell your work to publishers. If agents are interested in the query, they will ask for all or part of your manuscript. If they like those enough, they will agree to represent your work. You don’t pay the agent and they don’t pay you. Rather, they get a percentage of what you earn, usually 15 percent. This means until your work sells they are working for %15 of nothing, which is their incentive to be picky.

Once you sign up with an agent, the agent will submit your work to editors at a publishing house. Hopefully one of these publishers will buy your book and pay you an advance, then work with you to make the manuscript as good as it can be, then publish it and make it into a book.

In almost every case, you’ll have to do most of the work to get people interested in buying the book. If the book sells enough copies to earn back your advance, you’ll start getting royalties, which tend to come out to about a dollar per book sold.

If you’re working on a non-fiction book, almost everything is the same as above, except you don’t have to write the whole book before contacting an agent. Instead, you write a proposal, which includes three sample chapters plus some other information, such as a description of your competition and expected audience, and a bio that explains why you’re the right person to write this book and why you think you can sell it. Then you send queries to agents. If they like the query, they will ask for the proposal instead of the completed manuscript. If they like that, they may be able to sign you and even sell your book based on the proposal. But in the meantime, you keep working on your book.

For details and additional information, my favorite book on this subject is The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. The authors are a wife/husband, agent/author team and the book is readable and funny. This was my comprehensive guide through the publishing process and I revisit it each time I’m working on a new book. It’s especially good for non-fiction because the authors include their own book proposal in its entirety and you can use it as a model.

For fiction authors, I also really like the book The Art of War for Writers, by James Scott Bell. Bell’s book is organized into bite-sized chapters that provide a mix of encouragement, writing advice, and publishing advice.

For guidance on the writing process, I’m not alone in recommending Stephen King’s On Writing, which is half memoir, half solid advice for writers.

And if you need a pick-me-up in the face of inevitable rejection, check out Catherine Wald’s collection, The Resilient Writer, which is an anthology of rejection stories from 23 now-successful authors.

While all of the books mentioned above are worth reading, you’ll also find quite a bit of overlap in the advice they offer. That’s not a coincidence. The overarching advice authors need to hear is actually simple; we just need to hear it from a lot of different sources over a long period of time. Writing a book is a long process.

Here is my distillation of all the writing advice I’ve ever read, heard, learned the hard way, or some combination of the three:

Learn as much as you can about the publishing process and industry.

Set aside time to get your book written and get it on paper at the quickest, steadiest pace as you possibly can.

Get feedback from sources you trust, and expect to do lots and lots of revisions. If you need a number, expect to do about 30 revisions. Some of these will consist of small edits because you’re sure you’re almost done. Others will be complete overhauls of the organization and story after you realize you’ve been doing the whole thing wrong. Not necessarily in that order.

Once you’ve gotten to a point where you feel like your manuscript is as good as you can make it, or if it feels you’re doing additional revisions to procrastinate rather than actually make the book better, it’s time to send the most professional submission materials you can create to the best-fitting agents you can find.

Then, prepare for lots of rejection.

(c) Roxanna Elden

Update: I recently created a Prezi presentation on The Long, Bumpy, Pothole-and-Detour-Filled Road to Getting Published. This was my first attempt at learning to use Prezi, which is a fantastic tool but takes some getting used to at first – so enjoy, but be patient with any rookie mistakes. Also, make sure you go all the way to the end.

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Honesty, humor, practical advice, and occasional oversharing.