Since I announced my book deal, I’ve been flooded with questions from friends, family and strangers alike. Mostly they boil down to—how did you make this happen? What are the steps? And why is the release date so far away?
It’s reminded me how much about publishing is a mystery to most people, how much was a mystery to me until I started doing some heavy-duty research. So, I thought I would do a blog post that attempts to answer some of the basics.
Here is how you get a book published in three (not so) easy steps.
Step One: Write the book
While non-fiction books can be sold on proposal, fiction is different– you generally have to write the entire book before you can even think about selling it. Unless you’re famous. Or unless you’ve written enough books that you have some kind of track record. But, for the rest of us, you have to start out with a finished, polished, as-perfect-as-possible novel.
Step Two: Get a literary agent
Just a warning, this step will likely take longer than step one. Longer than writing the novel? Yes. It will make you cry more too.
Do you have to have an agent? Well, that depends. If you want to be published by one of the big five publishing conglomerates (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette or Simon & Schuster) then yes, you do. Big publishers won’t even look at unagented manuscripts. Many mid-size presses won’t either. So, if you hope to see your book on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, then you can’t skip this step.
On the other hand, if you’re okay with being published with a small or regional press, then you may be able to get a deal without an agent. But even with these presses, you’ll get better contract terms with an agent on your side than without.
So, how do you go about getting an agent? First, a massive amount of research. Not all agents represent all types of books. And this breaks down not only to fiction/nonfiction, but much further than that. For example, an agent may represent nonfiction only in the category of self-help or humor. Another agent may represent contemporary young adult novels, but not young adult fantasy. Still another agent, may represent young adult fantasy, but only urban or contemporary fantasy and not high fantasy.
My best recommendation is to start your research on a website like Querytracker.net or AgentQuery.com. Both sites have an enormous amount of information for new writers as well as fantastic searchable databases of agents—you can search by represented genres, method of submission, etc.
As you research, make a list of agents who you think might be a good fit for your work. But you’re still not ready to contact them yet. First you need a query letter—this is a brief business letter with a little blurb about your novel. It needs to sound like the flap copy of a book. And it needs to be good because if this letter doesn’t impress agents, the door closes right there. You can find out more about query letters and how to write great ones here.
After you have your list and your query, you’ll need to send a query letter, generally via email, to each agent individually (most agents will automatically delete your query if it isn’t specifically addressed to them or if there are multiple agents in the subject line .) If an agent is interested in your work, he/she will request to see more.
This part of the process requires a lot of patience. Sometimes agents take a few months to respond to your query and then several more months to respond to requested material. Usually this response is a rejection. I’m not going to lie, the statistics for getting an agent are pretty grim. Kristin Nelson in her blog, Pub Rants, broke down her 2013 statistics like this:
Number of queries received: 35,000
Number of sample pages requested: 972
Number of full manuscripts requested: 67
Number of new clients signed: 7
That means for that particular agency, your chances of being signed in 2013 were .0002% Ms. Nelson’s 2014 statistics were even worse.
Pretty scary, right? But don’t despair, hard work and perseverance pay off big when it comes to querying. If you have an excellent, well-plotted novel and a polished, engaging query, your chances are much better than the statistic quoted above. And many authors don’t get an agent with the first book they write. Sometimes it takes two books. Or three. Or more. One author I know didn’t get an agent until book number twenty.
Step Three: Get a book deal
This part of the journey–where your agent sends your book to editors–is called “going on submission.” In some ways, this is the easiest step because your agent handles it. In other ways, it’s the hardest, because you’ve ceded all control and the only thing you can do is wait. (If Dante had a tenth circle of hell, there would be a sign over the door that said, “Wait Here.”)
But whether you find this step is harder or easier, it still involves a lot of hand-wringing, because here’s the thing: not all agented-books sell. I know—after clawing your way through step 2, it seems like it should be smooth sailing from here, but sometimes it isn’t. I don’t have good statistics on this part of the process, but literary agent Sara Megibow (in an article here) says you have a 60-90% chance that your manuscript will sell once you have an agent.
None of this is meant to be discouraging. New authors get published every day and if this is your dream, there’s no reason you can’t be one of them. But if you decide to make this journey, just know it’s not a quick one. Settle in. Buckle up. Wear comfortable pants.
And then go for it. Read craft books on writing. (I have a list of my favorites here.) Get feedback from others writers. Practice every day and improve. It might take a long time, but it’s worth it.
Because once you do get that book deal–when your agent calls to tell you that you’re going to be an author, that your book will be a real thing that’s out there in the world? Well, there’s nothing like it. It’s amazing. And you will look back at all the waiting and worrying and hard work and sleepless nights and think, “well, that wasn’t so bad.”
Now, as for why the release date is so far away? Well, that’s a topic for another day—one I promise to blog about soon.