January 12th, 2011

How to get published

Yesterday morning I turned in the revision of LOVE STORY (which will be published on July 19). After eight hours of sleep, I'm still trying to let it go. I should have cut out the word "Pablum." I should have made Summer interject something during that long, weird conversation in class between Erin and Manohar. I will continue to obsess about it until I start a new project. And I intend to do just that, right after I take down the Christmas tree, put away everything from the big holiday party I threw a week and a half ago, and figure out how to use the Kindle and the Droid phone I got for Christmas.

But first I wanted to create a post on how to get published. I've gotten a LOT of e-mail lately from readers who have finished a novel and don't know what to do with it. I still try to answer every e-mail I get individually, but the volume lately has gotten to the point that it's eating into my precious writing time. So please don't be offended that I have directed you here instead of writing all this out in an e-mail. This blog post is going to be a lot more thorough than an e-mail answer would have been.

Please note that I am talking about trying to get published by a print book publisher in the traditional sense. I assume that's what you're asking me about, because that's how I'm published. I can't advise you on whether to self-publish or use an e-publisher because I haven't done that. (And I'm not interested in getting in an argument with you about it here--other people have made the points pro and con eloquently and ad nauseam.)

Also, this is my own opinion based on my experience, the experiences of my friends, and everything I have learned by networking and hanging out online and being a member of Romance Writers of America (rwa.org) and my local chapter, Southern Magic (southernmagic.org), which you can join too if you want. And don't ask me how to join. Go to their web sites to find out. God, y'all!

So, my opinion is my opinion. Always check and cross-check your data for something this important. Remember: this is the Internet. There is no policing of the Internet. Any jackass can put up a blog and claim to be a nice lady author. For all you know, I could be an old man in prison.

Can I get published? A reader asked me a few days ago if it's even possible to get published nowadays if you don't have a friend in the publishing industry. Answer: yes, because I did. I will say that once you are published and start making friends with other authors, you will be astonished how many of them are former editors and used those connections to get published. That's not to say that they wouldn't have been published if they had never been editors. They were just using the connections they had, because the publishing industry is all about networking. But there are also plenty of people like me who started from nothing.

Finish the whole novel. Or, if you're writing nonfiction, write a solid proposal. Do not query anybody with half a novel or an idea for a nonfiction book. Agents and editors need more than that to make a decision. If you query before you're ready, you're just asking for a rejection and wasting a chance.

Do your homework. Before you embark on this journey, please read a few books on the subject to save yourself from going down the wrong path. My favorite book on the subject is 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might by Pat Walsh, an editor. By the time this book came out, I was published and I knew pretty much all this stuff, but I was very sad I hadn't had this book fifteen years earlier to answer all my questions. There are a bazillion other books out there on the subject, and the Idiot's Guides and their ilk are always good introductions. The internet is full of information, too, but it can be chopped up, spotty, wrong, or laced with advertisements for Oxycontin. Read a few books and get a good foundation.

Do I need an agent? Yes. The only exception I can think of is if you have written a Harlequin for a specific series that you can't sell anywhere but Harlequin. That particular publisher will look at your work without an agent, and apparently the contract is pretty standard for everybody. Personally, I would not even do that without an agent. I'm just saying it's possible and a lot of people do it. Everybody else needs an agent especially now that e-publishing is complicating the business and contracts are changing. Also, an agent can send your book to multiple publishers at once, whereas you're supposed to send it to only one at a time (and then wait a year for an answer). Finally...remember that I said people were asking me if it's possible to get published without a friend in the business? You don't need a friend in the business, but you have an agent, and your agent is friends with all the editors. A huge part of an agent's job is taking editors to lunch. It's a hard life but somebody's got to do it.

Query agents first. A lot of people send their books straight to publishers because they hear it's so hard to get an agent. Others send their books to publishers and agents at the same time. I do think that if you have ascertained you can't get an agent for a particular manuscript, you might as well send it to publishers and see if somebody buys it, as opposed to retiring it to your closet. However, don't start by sending your book to publishers.

One rule of the industry is that each publisher wants to read and turn down a particular manuscript only once (unless you have revised it extensively, and even then they might frown on a resubmission). Let's say you query all the publishers and they turn you down. Then you query agents and one of them wants to represent you. Now you have to inform your agent that you have been turned down by all the publishers. Your agent has nowhere to send your book because you have already submitted to and been turned down by everybody.

If, on the other hand, you query all the agents and they turn you down, you can still query publishers all you want. You would not tell them anything about agents turning you down because they don't care and it doesn't matter. However, if a publisher wanted to buy your manuscript in this scenario, you should then try to get an agent to handle the deal for you. And now you have an agent too!

Does this happen? I'm sure it does. I can't think of a friend who has sold this way. However, I do have a friend who won a Romance Writers of America chapter contest, had a manuscript requested by the editor who was a contest judge, got an offer from the editor, and then got an agent to handle the sale.

How do I find an agent or publisher to query? There are lots of ways, but this is what I did. And I have to tell you, when I heard about this site on a writers' loop, it changed my life.

Back in the dark ages before the Internet, you had to go to the library and look through this 30,000 page book called Literary Market Place for the agent and editor listings (occasionally it would be on the shelf, but usually it was kept behind the reference desk and you had to ask for it). But all it provided was the contact information and what the agent or editor wanted to represent or publish. An abridged version of the listings with much more information about the particular agencies and publishers was available in Jeff Herman's annual guides. These are still available and there are lots of similar books too.

The problem is that these references tell you what the agents and editors want to see, not what the agents have actually sold and the editors have actually bought. The latter information is what you want to know. An agent could say she wants to represent YA paranormal romance, and--oooh, you have a YA paranormal romance! She might want to see yours. But if she hasn't actually sold YA paranormal romance, she may or may not have the editorial contacts to get that done. If she has sold that subgenre, she definitely does.

Luckily there is PUBLISHER'S MARKETPLACE!!!! It's at publishersmarketplace.com. You can go there right now and find a lot of valuable information about the publishing industry. However, what you want to do is pay $20 a month (and you can do that for only 1 month if you want to, then cancel your membership), because that way you get to search the database. It is not exhaustive because agents and editors aren't required to post their sales here, but a lot of them do.

So you figure out which recently published (and, ideally, successful) novels are the most like the manuscript you've written. (If what you've written is unlike anything that's ever been published, and you go around telling people this at writer's conferences, I am sorry but I have met you about 100 times, and I am always nice to you but what I really want to tell you is that the publishing industry wants books that are like what they've already published, not books that aren't. If you write something completely different, they don't know how to market it. Sad but true. So go ahead with your delusion that you are going to change the face of literature forever, but unscrew your big ol' head for a moment and set it to one side, and then think: if my book were a little like some other books out there, what books would those be?) Plug the titles of those novels into the database and see what agents sold them (and what editors bought them...but remember, I'm suggesting that you query agents first). Now use the rest of the tools on this site to do more research on these agents. Cross-check that information using other sites such as Predators and Editors (pred-ed.com). Now you have a list. Put them in order according to how much you would want to be represented by them. Go to their individual web sites and read their query guidelines. Do exactly what they say because they will get really mad if you don't, and they will talk about you ugly on Twitter (without using your name). Send these queries a few at a time. Agents expect you to query other agents also. If you get rejected by all of them, adjust your query letter before sending it out again.

That's all I can think of. There are plenty of places you can get info on how to write a query letter and what to do when an agent offers representation. Here I just wanted to make sure you knew to query agents first (if you want an agent) and to use Publisher's Marketplace, because I really could have used that info a lot sooner.

Oh--one more thing. Now that I have finished this blog post, I am not starting my next writing project, or taking down the Christmas tree, or cleaning, or figuring out my Droid or Kindle. Right now I'm going to do my freelance copyediting job. That's right, I still have a "real" job after selling seven novels. Possibly publishing a novel does not pay as well as you thought. I do expect to make a living solely from my novels someday, but I think you would agree my work has had some moderate success and yet here we are. So if you are that other person I have talked to at writing conferences 100 times who is desperate to sell your first novel for a bazillion dollars so you can quit the job you hate so much...fix the other stuff in your life. Change your job or find a way to love it. Writing fiction is a hard career in itself and you should not be relying on it to fix all your problems. Do it because you love it.
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