Publishing, Part 1 of 5: The Basics

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Every writer shares the same dream: to get published, sell millions of copies, have our stories captivate the mind of thousands of readers, and get paid for all that work. I would like to say that it’s a clear-cut road, but the truth is, nowadays more than ever before, there are many, many ways to go about it, and there is so much contradictory advice out there that it can get very confusing.



The very first thing you have to do is adjust your expectations. While publishing certainly is an accomplishment, it definitely does not mean automatic sales and success. Hundreds of thousands of books are published every year in the U.S. alone; it becomes millions when you look at it worldwide. Statistically speaking, all of these books can’t possibly sell millions of copies each, and when they do, it doesn’t happen miraculously, with no effort on the author’s part. Usually, when you land a publishing contract, there are lots of revisions to be made, re-writing, and, when the book is finally ready, marketing. And even with all that hard work, it is extremely likely that you will just sell a few thousand copies, and that you will not make enough money with the book to quit your day job. For every author whose work becomes extremely popular, and sells millions of copies, there are thousands more who need to have another source of income to keep a roof over their heads and a meal on the table, published or not.

So am I telling you this to discourage you? No, of course not. But I would be doing you a disservice if I made you believe that landing a publishing contract would be the realization of all your dreams, and that it would mean you could immediately quit your day job. If, on the contrary, you go in with realistic expectations, your chances of success are much higher, because you will go in ready to do the work that needs to be done. You should absolutely dream big, but you should know there is no such thing as instant success.

Agent or no agent?

Having an agent is a wonderful thing. Does it mean that you won’t get published without one? No, it doesn’t. With epublishing and small presses, you stand an equal chance of getting published with or without an agent. But getting an agent will significantly increase your chances of publishing with a big name publisher. Will it guarantee it? No, definitely not. Agents don’t sell every book they take on, and they do also market to small presses in addition to big names. But they have lots of advantages; they know the market better than you do, they often know the acquisitions editors enough to know their tastes and what they are likely to buy. But agents are also insanely busy, and it can be extremely difficult to get an agent, especially if you’ve never sold anything before.

My recommendation? If you really want an agent, don’t send your work to their slush pile. Even the agents who are looking for new clients rarely get them that way. Your best chance is to go to a conference and book a pitch session with an agent. There usually is a fee (on top of the fees for entering the conference, of course), and no guarantees that you will get an agent, but it is the best way to go about finding one. Also, don’t just pitch anything to anyone. Make sure your prospective agent actually represents the genre you’re trying to sell. Research them, and their clients. Get to know their tastes before pitching. If you’re pitching hard sci-fi to someone who represents mostly historical romance, you’ll have wasted your money, their time, and yours.

Also, when you do get an agent, make sure they are legitimate. For example, no agent should ever charge you fees for anything; agents make their money by making a percentage of what you make. If they’re charging you reading or editing fees, then you’re probably dealing with someone shady. A good way to check is to ensure your agent is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

If you decide to go down the agent slush pile road, you can use the site Agent Query to find a good match; their database is very extensive. Also, if you are ready to publish, I highly recommend getting a copy of this year’s Writer’s Market. They have up-to-date listings of most publishers and agents, whether or not they are open to unsolicited and simultaneous submissions, and their websites and addresses. It’s a must-have for anyone looking to publish!

What about publishers?

If you decide to go down the unagented publishing road, then you need to find a publisher who will be likely to publish your work. A very good source, again, is the Writer’s Market; as I mentioned before, they have comprehensive listings of publishers, with the genre they are interested in (as well as what they absolutely do NOT want), and whether or not they are accepting unsolicited submissions. When you’ve made a selection, go to their website to take a closer look.

What you can also do is ask Google. Narrow down the genre you have written as tightly as possible, and then research publishers who come up. Make sure you read the submissions guidelines carefully; for example, some publishers of paranormal will not look at your manuscript if it’s not a romance. Most will also list their terms on their website, and what they are looking for the most. And don’t just look at the submissions guidelines; look at the other books they’ve published, too. Does it look like your book would fit in with them? Do you like the design of the covers?

Another good idea is to check your library and bookstore. Find the books that are similar to yours, and look inside the cover at the copyright information page to find the publisher. When you have done this, go to their website and look at their guidelines and requirements. I would do this last, because it is more time consuming.

When you have looked at enough websites, you should have a good list; don’t write down just one, but do make a list, by order of preference, with the one you would like to deal with most at the top, and so on. A good number to start with is at least a half-dozen, but if you find more, go for it; just remember to maintain them in order of preference.



The following segment is about publishing fiction. The rules are very different if you are publishing nonfiction, and part 5 of this miniseries will be dedicated entirely to nonfiction.

The very first thing you have to know is that, for fiction, you MUST have a FINISHED, POLISHED, AND REVISED MANUSCRIPT to submit. If you’re halfway through your first draft, don’t even think about sending out queries! You must be done, and you must be done revising. Never query about, or worse, send in something that’s unfinished. You may think that you will write quickly enough to finish it before they get back to you, but what if that’s only two weeks? Maybe you’ll be done writing, but that is nowhere near enough time for a proper revision. There will be a section called “While Waiting” in the third installment of this miniseries. The bottom line here is, don’t send in something unfinished. WAIT. It’s much better to make a good impression later than a bad impression right now. Besides which, when you look at their submissions guidelines, you will see a lot of publishers will actually warn against this.

The second most important thing you must do is look at submissions guidelines. Publishers tell you everything that you must know about the process in there, including whether or not simultaneous submissions are appropriate. Though some publishers have started to accept simultaneous submissions (submissions that you send at many places at once) most still frown upon it, and the ones that do accept them request that you be very clear that your submission was not sent to them exclusively, and mention it in your cover letter. When in doubt, err on the side of caution and submit exclusively. It’s better to do this and wait a little longer than to get blacklisted somewhere because you didn’t submit exclusively!

Follow the guidelines carefully. If they ask for snail mail submissions only, send it that way. If they ask for a SASE, include it. If they want email submissions only, make sure you have the right address. If they have an online submissions form, use it. Some people want a query only, some want a cover letter accompanied with a short synopsis and three sample chapters, some want a long synopsis and no samples, some want only a cover and full manuscript. SEND THEM WHAT THEY ASK FOR. If they ask for specific formatting, or fonts, REFORMAT to fit their demands. One of the surest ways to get rejected is to not follow the guidelines. Publishers (and agents) receive a LOT of queries and unsolicited submissions, and they look for ways to cut people faster; if you don’t respect their guidelines for formatting and sending, your manuscript will not even be read.

This concludes part 1 of the publishing miniseries.

Part 2, which will be posted next week, will cover the difference between a query and a cover letter and how to write both of them, how to write the long and short synopsis, what a pitch is, and what is the most common way to format your manuscript.

Part 3 will concentrate on the most common reasons for rejection, what to do while you wait, how to manage your submissions, especially if you are a prolific author, and what a publishing contract looks like.

Part 4 will be devoted to self-publishing, marketing, contests, money management and other avenues of income for people who wish to make a living writing.

Finally, part 5 will be dedicated to nonfiction proposals, submissions and marketing.

4 thoughts on “Publishing, Part 1 of 5: The Basics

  1. I got my agent through slush!
    And since I’ve been with him he’s picked up another author that way too. It IS possible to get picked up that way, and not as rare as people make it out to be.

    1. It’s definitely not impossible, but still pretty rare! Agents typically only get 5-8% (though that statistic varies a lot depending on where they are in their career; typically, the more clients they have, the less they look at slush) of their new clients through slush, and that’s taking into account that most semi-established agents get as many as 10,000 submissions every year. If there were two of you in that number, the odds remain astronomical, though it is by no means impossible! If I believed it was impossible, I would have simply said so in the post. It is still an option, though as odds go, it is not the one that has the highest odds of success.

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