If you're a writer looking for publishing other types of writing besides novels, I won't really be covering that. Generally, though, it's a simple process. If it's nonfiction or a full book of smaller works, you follow the same kind of pattern. If you've written just one or two smaller pieces, look for contests and collections online and around.
Also note that this post is about traditional publishing, not self-publishing. Why? Personally, I'm not into self-publishing. I don't think it gives you any credibility, and it's just not the way I want to go. So you'll need to decide which route you're going, and then follow the process from there. If you've picked traditional, here's how to do it:
Yes. Contrary to popular belief, you do have to have a completed work before you try and
publish it, haha. The only exception is for some nonfiction, which operates on proposals and a whole new kind of process. I'm sure I'll be sharing more advice on the writing process later on, so stay tuned to this blog for that! Writing tends to be the messiest and most personal part, I think, which means it's hard to break down to basics.
2) Edit your novel.
This may be the most key step. (It's definitely the one I've spent the most time on.) Believe me, you want your work to be as polished and awesome as possible. You are selling this to agents, and then to publishers. They want as great of a piece as they can get out of you. Yes, they're going to do some editing themselves. No, that does not mean you can let it slide. This is a business. So act like it!
Second, have other people read your novel. Non-writer types for this are called beta readers; writers who read each others' work are critique partners. I recommend using both. If you don't know any real writers in person, look online! There are tons of resources and communities. Each beta or CP will have a different flavor in their edits, hopefully due to different expertise areas. You need to be sure to get a lot of varied views--someone who's good with facts, someone for language, for emotional impact, for thematic construct, etc. I always make sure to get the "fangirl" reading in--a reader who doesn't have any professional experience in the publishing or writing sphere but is eager to check out your work. I find that type of reader to be great with the emotional response, in an almost purer way, and if you're lucky, they're also quite flattering. Good for the ego... which means, for obvious reasons, they can't be your only person. Make sure to also get lots of people who will, instead, crush the ego. It's what you need in the editing process, even if you cry. Maybe especially if you cry.
Then you must take their suggestions, read over your work, and edit. This must be done multiple times, this magical thing called editing. Look at it from all sorts of views yourself. Look at the overall storyline, the character development, the setting, description, emotion, detail, factual validity, etc. Over time, you will find your own special writerly weaknesses, and learn how to counter them. For example, I am a plot-rusher. I'm so excited about the big picture and seeing what happens, that I tend to leave out the filler stuff and just run through all the major plot points. So in edit, I get to go back and fill it in! (which is actually really fun).
After you do the big picture edits (LOTS OF THEM), you must do a line edit. This is the most horrific part. You have to read every word and make sure they all have a place and they all sound right, and check grammar and such. There are a lot of words out there that you should eliminate or minimize your usage of. It's part of the craft of writing. Often, you'll have a few ones that you uniquely overuse, but the previously linked lists have the most commonly overused terms. My personal weaknesses here are passive voice and iterations of the words "look" and "eyes."
Once you've edited the heck out of your book, to the point that you're pretty darn confident about it (and then edit it a couple more times just in case), you can move on.
3) Write the pitch material.
A lot of this material you may actually draft during the writing and editing process, but at this point, you need to edit and polish it. This is what you're going to send out to agents in order to get them interested in giving you a contract. Because this material is all about summarizing, organizing, and marketing your ideas, it has the side effect of clarifying your novel, which is why writing this material early on in the process can be helpful to you as a writer.
Here's what you need :
- a query letter
- a plot synopsis
- a plot outline
- and yes, a finished novel
No, you cannot just outright send your manuscript to agents. That's unprofessional and rude, and it'll probably get you ignored. At this point in the process, you've got to fully switch from artist to business type thinking, which means going through the proper channels and being smart about it. It's a lot of the same kind of stuff required when applying for and working a regular job. The above-listed materials are what agents are most likely to require, so get them ready in advance. You also may be asked for an author bio or a marketing plan, and if you attend special writerly events, you'll probably have to condense your query letter down even further: 140 characters for a Twitter pitch online or a minute long "elevator pitch" in person.
What's a query letter? Think of it as a mix between a project proposal and a job application. Besides your manuscript, the query letter is the most important part of this process. That means you need to perfect the heck out of it, just like you did your novel. A query, essentially, is a one-page, professionally formatted letter written to an agent or editor about your novel. Generally it begins with a summary/pitch of your manuscript (make it exciting but professional, like on the back cover or inside flap of a book--you're trying to get your audience to want to read your manuscript, so market it), followed by a paragraph with the title, genre, word count, and a couple of comparable titles. You don't want any comps that are so blockbuster-popular that you'll sound obvious and egotistical (like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games), but you want some well-written, probably bestselling or award-winning titles that have the same kind of theme, style, and/or genre as your book. It shows that you know the market and helps the reader better understand what you're going for in your manuscript. Then you include any relevant and significant writing credits you may have, followed by a closing paragraph. In that final paragraph, you offer the manuscript to the agent or editor for reading and thank them. You may also mention your reason for choosing that particular agent to send to.
Make sure that your query is one page only and professional! This is your introduction to the agent, so you want to make it good. Otherwise, you'll never get any further in the process. Have your CPs look over it for sure, do more research online about how to get your query just right, and keep working until your novel pitch sounds utterly fantastic! It's difficult to condense it, I know, especially if, like me, you struggle with any kind of shortform writing. But the better your query letter, the better you'll understand your own book and where it fits in the world. Also, y'know, these guys aren't going to request your actual manuscript unless you've got their attention. People in the industry get thousands, even millions of these a year. They're picky.
The plot synopsis and outline are less important, but a lot of agents will still request them. You'll want to research online for how to do these properly as well. A synopsis is essentially a longer version of your query pitch that includes the ending. The page length will vary based on what the agent wants, but you'll want to be thorough. An outline is the same sort of idea, except usually broken down by chapter or scene--even more detailed. Outlines can be very helpful in editing, so you can pinpoint any scenes that aren't necessary or are missing. Thus, I recommend filling those out then. (If you haven't already in prewriting, which many people do. I'm a pantser, so I don't really prewrite.)
Remember, to be at the sending out phase, you need to have a polished and finished manuscript already. A lot of agents will request that you send the first few chapters along with the query, so those especially need to be great--but if they like your query, they'll ask for the full novel. Right then. So you'll need it to be, you know, not only in existence, but on point.
4) Select who to send your materials out to.
This is a very important step that involves a lot of research. Because, see, there's no point in marketing your novel if you're marketing it to the wrong people. As a matter of fact, that can be very dangerous. So here's how to select your prey--I mean, business partners.
First, you need to choose whether to send out to literary agents or skip straight to publishers. I'm going to stop you right here and say that I recommend you go for the agents. Nowadays it is very very very VERY rare to get a publishing deal unless you have a literary agent as an intermediary. It's a weeding out process, you see. The agents select the best clients and best novels they find, prepare them more, and then send them to publishers, who know that the novels are higher quality than most because the agent already found them. It's a bond of trust. Editors at big publishers will not look at you unless you're working with a good agent. Indie publishers you have a better chance with, but agents are still super helpful on so many levels. They're your advocate, your partner. Often they'll help you edit more, and they know the industry and the legal issues better than you probably do.
Once you've decided on that yourself, you need to do your research. Writer's Market and the website QueryTracker are reference sources that list tons of agents and editors. Each agent (or editor) will have different genres they specialize in. They're not going to look at your work if it doesn't fit their specialty, and you don't really want them to, to be honest. So narrow down the field to the agents that work with your novel type, and look at their websites. Be sure you're looking not just at the overall agency, but at the individual agents of the agency to find which one fits you best. You will be expected to address that person directly in your letter, and it's to your advantage to know about them. This is where you also need to look at personality types, past records, and the like to figure out if this agent is a good, respected one who can really work with you. Check places like Predator or Editor online to make sure the agency isn't a scam one that'll rip you off, or worse, ruin your career entirely. (If an agent asks for money upfront, you probably want to run the other way--the standard is that agents take about 15% of revenue once your book is published, but nothing before.) Find who the agents have worked with and what books they've sold to be sure they're trusted by publishers. Also look at their social media to see how they interact with others--that part's kind of fun if you like social media, like I do!
Once you have a list of agents you'd like to work with who fit your book, find what their requirements for sending out are. Each one will have slightly different rules about what materials they want sent where, and they'll have different response times. (Many of them are so busy, they don't respond at all unless they want to read more.) Get that information and follow it to the letter. Again, professionalism! Be the person others want to work with because you know what's up and you're ready to cooperate.
5) Send out your work!
Now that you've got everything sorted, polished, and professional, it's time to send out. I'd recommend sending to a handful of agents at a time--multiple ones because you're very unlikely to get a yes the first few times, but not too many that you get confused. Keep track in a spreadsheet as well, so you know if they've exceeded their response time and it's time to a) check in or b) move on, depending on what their website says. Follow the rules, be patient, and be respectful, always.
Remember, you will be rejected. It happens to all of us. I've now been rejected 76 times. If I'm not your prime example (seeing as I ain't published yet), look up any author, anyone you idolize. They have been rejected. A lot of them many times. J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times, for example. It happens. It's part of the process. Be strong, never give up, but be ready to move on.
If, however, you're being rejected over and over again without any requests for more material, take another look at your work. Edit it again. Send it to more friends to critique. Try again. Remember that sometimes (as has happened to me), you're going to get caught up in the trap of PUBLISHING TRENDS. After a particular book/series becomes wildly popular, many books in the same vein will be published and consumed, becoming a trend, but by the time it is a trend, it's too late to get on board. It's time for the next thing. So sometimes, a well-meaning person who writes a particular genre will get in trouble because of this. If that's the case, wait it out. Be patient. Write another book. Trends do pass. Right now, it's gone from Twilight to The Hunger Games, or, paranormal romance to dystopian sci-fi. It only took a couple years.
Finally, if you go through all of that and it's just not happening, and the trends have nothing to do with it, you might have to "trunk" that novel. If you've been writing another book in the time that you've spent sending out (which you really should be), you can move on to sending out that one. Sometimes books you write end up just being practice, or being just for you. That's valuable, so don't feel bad that they weren't meant for publication. Don't get stalled. Move forward until you get to the book that does work.
6) This is what happens after.
Okay, so you get rejected, a lot. But hopefully, a few agents will want to look at your full manuscript. This is an in. This is ideal. You'll still get rejected at this stage, a lot, but it's a step forward. Eventually, someone will read one of your books, the full manuscript, and decide to take you on as a client. Which is fantastic! Good for you! Celebrate like crazy.
Done celebrating? Okay. Because it doesn't end here. There's still trouble that can come up. This is a business relationship, and like all relationships, it takes work, on both sides. One of you might end up breaking the contract and things get messed up. Possibly you just don't work as well together as you both hoped. I was accepted by an agent once, but that relationship ended, before a contract even got signed, when the agent stopped responding to my e-mails with no explanation. It stinks, but you have to move on. This is a difficult, messy industry, but for the end result, if you're really here for this, it's worth it.
if it does all work out, you sign a contract (do some research on that, just in case), and then most likely will go into another round of edits with your agent. As always, be true to your work, but accepting of how much you have to fix. It's a cooperative business venture. Your agent will then begin sending your materials to publishers with their implied seal of approval, and the process begins all over again, although you're now further along and have someone on your side. Hopefully, you'll soon get an acceptance from a publisher, and then, again, you sign a contract, and you edit a ton with the help of multiple people, including a specific editor you'll primarily be teamed up with. Finally, you get to publishing! It usually takes at least a year after a contract is signed with a publisher before the book hits the market, and you'll have plenty of work in the meantime with editing and marketing. Hopefully, though, your team will be a great one, and you'll be able to do good work that gets you a solid career, even with inevitable setbacks of varied kind.
Look at how far you've come. You made it to publication. YOU WIN!