Congratulations! You’ve put together a wonderful collection of words, and now comes the scary part: can you get it published?
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Unfortunately, there’s no simple 5-step plan to publication, but there are great guidelines that I’m going to reveal to you that will help you on your way.
Pick Your Sub-Genre and List “Comps”
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Once you’re confident that your manuscript is the best it can be, you need to start thinking about how to market your book. Often, publishers and agents specialize in particular types or genres of books, so you better spend an afternoon figuring out how your novel fits into this grand pantheon.
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Most authors only think about the big genre categories — YA, Romance, Erotica, Mystery, Thriller, etc. But you really should get more specific. It’s a paranormal romance, or an espionage thriller. Narrow down what you’re writing.
But what agents and readers really like to see is what the industry calls “comps.”
Comps are comparisons between your book and 2 or 3 other books. The other books can be similar in relationships (sister-sister, father-son), similar in tone (dark, brooding, cynical), or similar in location (international travel).
Listing a few comps helps the agent know how to sell your book to the marketing department, and listing a few comps helps your reader know what to expect.
Big Publishers or Independents?
You need to make a decision: to aim for big publishing houses or small, independent houses.
Nearly 100% of big houses get their books from agents. So if you want to publish with a large publisher (and get a big advance), you have to get an agent first.
Some very small independents take submissions directly from authors, but the medium-sized independent publishing houses (like Graywolf Press) only accepts agented submissions as well.
Smaller independent publishers are not second tier. I’ll say it again because so many people have this misconception: they’re not second tier. In fact, many established writers will go to independent publishers first because they treat their novels with more respect. But the upfront money is much smaller. For example, Tin House Books, which publishes absolutely fantastic writing, often only gives a $4,000 advance. Many small publishers regularly give $1000 advances.
The downside of big houses is that you can get lost in the shuffle. There’s no personalized services, you’re just one book in a long line-up of books. On the other hand, at a smaller publisher, you might be one of 3 books they’re releasing that quarter, and so you will get all their attention and love.
Build Yourself a Road Map
Build yourself a road map by writing down exactly what you want to get out of the publication of this book. What you really want, not what others tell you to want.
What do you want your book to accomplish? Are you looking for:
- Critical Acclaim?
- Personal Fulfillment?
Now that you have that end point in mind, figure out how to create a road map that will get you there.
Personal fulfillment might be best accomplished by self-publishing.
Critical acclaim will only come through publishing with a publisher.
Money and fame, however, can come through a variety of ways. Usually money comes from a big advance from a big publisher, but if your book sells well, a small publisher could provide that as well. The best key to money and fame is actually writing a killer book.
To make the middle of your road map more specific, clarify your expectations about the experience of publishing.
- What kind of editing process do you expect? (many publishers only provide very light editing, nothing approaching the kind of hands-on developmental editing that most books require).
- What kind of copy-editing? (you probably don’t know what to expect. But most places will fill every single page of your manuscript with 5 – 15 red marks on punctuation, grammar, consistency, etc).
- How do you anticipate marketing to go? (Whether big publisher or small, you’re on your own. You have to be your own marketer).
- Do you expect a book tour? (You shouldn’t. Nobody pays for book tours any more. Authors pay out of their own pocket).
- Do you expect radio interviews, blog interviews, television interviews? (Better hire a publicist. But beware — the majority of freelance publicists will take $5000 – $10,000 and provide very little in return).
Before you go any further, take out a piece of paper and write down what you see as your ideal path to publication. I’m not talking about the scenario that gets you the most money and the biggest name, but rather the scenario in which your publishers and editors are willing to do their best to stay true to the novel you created.
Nab A Literary Agent
The literary agent serves as the middle man between the writer and the editor. They’re the ones with the expertise and the connections to get you the best possible book deal. Bookfox has a great list of agents currently looking for authors.
While in theory it might be cheaper to cut out the middle man, please consider that as hard as it is to get yourself an agent, it is that much harder to get a publisher without an agent (at least with the large NY publishers).
Ideally, if you chose to use an agent, they’ll be not only enthusiastic about your work, but also well versed in your novel’s particular genre and sub-genre. You should ultimately be able to trust their advise and opinions not only about the market, but also about your novel. They’ll likely ask for changes both big and small, and be your primary editor, so it’s important that they have a strong background supporting their opinions.
With that in mind, you should start building a spreadsheet of any and all possible agents. Consider what books they’ve worked on in the past, and research them on every medium you can get your hands on. Try some of these to get started:
All this being said, it’s important that you check and make sure that the agents you’re applying to are accepting unsolicited submissions.
While I’m giving warnings, don’t fall for any con-artists. No one should ever ask you for a reading fee. If someone tries to get one out of you, walk away.
The Secret to Getting An Agent
There’s really only one way to get an agent. In fact, it’s not only the best way, it’s the only way I would ever try or recommend.
What’s funny is that most writers don’t try this route. They throw out hundreds of unsolicited submissions and wonder why they’re getting rejected.
But the way to get an agent is simple. You have to shake their hand before you send them a manuscript.
Here’s what that means: you have to go to a conference or a retreat and meet them eye to eye. You don’t even have to pitch them your manuscript, but you do have to talk.
Then, when you send them your manuscript, the very first line should be: “I met you at X.”
Your query letter and novel will get immediate consideration. You’re automatically ahead of 90% of the other applicants.
It’s so easy, yes, but why do so many writers skip this absolutely crucial step?
To be clear, your goal here is to woo over the agent or editor and encourage them to actually read the manuscript you’ve just written. They are receiving 2,000 – 10,000 queries annually, so you have to make sure yours stands out.
Within a one page limit, you should try to include:
- The specifics of your product: genre, comps, word count, title
- The Hook: not quite a summary, between 100-200 words
- Customization: you may be sending this letter out in batches of 20, but it shouldn’t look like it
- Thank you for your time and have a lovely day
Everyone in the writing/publishing world knows that this is quite a daunting task, and more than a few of them have stepped up to help other writers rise up and get the agent of their dreams. Take a look at just the surface of what the internet has to offer (reword):
- The most complete guide you might ever find
- A query-editing database filled with examples and advise
Remember that list of potential agents you definitely made not too long ago? This is the part where you go down the list and apply in batches of five and really start hoping that someone sees just as much potential in your novel as you do.
This process may be filled with more rejection that success, but keep going. It’s time to grow a thick skin.
Was That a Yes? An Agent Said Yes!
If your query efforts pay off, then you may just be lucky enough to get a partial or even a full request from an agent. From there, they may chose to take on your manuscript and work with you to help find you a publishing deal.
You have to meet your agent. It’s best in person, but otherwise have a long phone call. The most important thing to discuss is how the agent thinks about your career long-term. Do your visions of your career match up? They might want you to write one type of thing, and you want to write a variety of things. Or you want to go in a literary direction, and they want you go to in a commercial direction.
You and your agent needs to be on the same page, so make sure before you sign a contract.
These are good questions to ask an agent:
- What does the agent like best about your project?
- What kind of revisions does the agent think are necessary before sending to publishers?
- What kind of relationships does the agent have with publishers? Do they have lunch with so-and-so?
- Which publishing houses does the agent believe would be a great match?
- How many editors does the agent think is a good amount to pitch at first (anything less than 5, run away)
- How often will you two communicate (some are low-frequency communicates and others are higher. Figure out what you need from an agent).
- What kind of agency is this agent a part of? Do they have other agents in their agency who can handle subsidiary rights like film, translation, international rights, and audio?
Editing With Your Agent
Agents are the new editors. They are responsible for at least half the editing you will receive, maybe more.
So it’s important to trust their editorial taste.
Remember it’s a give and take relationship. You should have things you’re not willing to change, and your agent should have changes that they insist upon in order to make the book work.
Generally, it’s in your best interest to listen to your agent, although if any of their changes really brings you pain, they should be willing to listen and work with you.
I know this is a stressful point, but there is something to be said for keeping up positive energy and a willingness to learn and change. Your agent will notice, and they’re going to be much more willing to work with you if you’re willing to work with them.
Become a Professional Waiter
No, not a restaurant waiter. A sitting-at-the-doctor’s-office, waiting-for-the-mailman waiter.
When your editing seems done, your agent will prepare their list of publishers and start sending out their own query letters, while for the most part you just sit back and recover.
Usually, this submission period lasts for a set amount of time, often 30 days, although the set amount of time can very from agent to agent. As depressing as it may be, you do need to be prepared for the possibility that your book may not find an editor, even at this stage.
It’s very sad and very stressful, but the important thing is that you DO NOT talk to, stalk, or in any way contact any editors during this time. That’s not your job, don’t mess up the hard work your agent is putting in for you.
A Publishing House Accepts Your Novel
Congrats! You just sold a book!
Now, keeping that fantastic news in the front of your mind, your nice new editor is going to ask for even more edits and modifications. Do your best to accommodate the nice people who want to sell your book, but if things really go against your wishes, talk to your agent.
Do not angrily call the publishing house. Let your agent handle it. They’re very good at this sort of thing.
Bidding Wars (A Writer’s Dream)
Now, in some cases multiple publishing houses will want your novel. This is a fantastic thing. Because you then enter a bidding war.
A bidding war is when multiple publishers all compete against one another to buy your work. It works like an auction. One publishing houses offers $80,000 for international rights, while another offers $90,000 for North American rights alone.
If your agent is smart, they will have already sold your novel rights in a single foreign country (like Spain or Germany) so that international rights are off the table. That way you can usually get just as much money for American rights as you can get for international rights.
A third publishing house might counter with $130,000, and then the agent goes back to the first two houses and tells them they have an offer for $120,000, at which point one publishing house drops out and another offers $110,000.
Your agent might tell you to take $110,000 instead of $130,000. Why? Because you shouldn’t always go with the highest offer.
Because money isn’t the only important thing. There is the quality of the editor, there is the quality of the publisher, there is how much marketing they promise, and there is the question of whether the house will make your book their “lead book” for the season.
Salman Rushdie, when publishing the “Satanic Verses,” was counseled by his agent Andrew Wylie to take less money.
Because Andrew Wylie “The Jackal” is the most famous literary agent in the world and also the best. And Wiley knew that “Satanic Verses” would be very controversial, and Rushdie would need a publisher with backbone, one who wouldn’t withdraw the book when Islamic clerics began denouncing it.
The publisher who had offered the most money was not the most courageous publisher. If Rushdie had gone with that publisher, they would have pulled the book after the controversy began, and Rushdie would have had to deal with a sentence of death (the fatwa) and not even had his book in circulation. But he took less money and his publisher was one that kept his book in circulation.
The Marketing Phase
Once this is really and finally done, you get to begin the process that feels so strange to many of us: marketing.
Your publicist may set you up with a blog tour, but in large part, the marketing is what you make of it. This is your book and you need to get the word out. This means contacting local newspapers, managing Twitter, and getting your name out in the writing community. If you’re at a loss for where to begin, here’s a nice collection of ideas for you.