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How to get published

In this article I want to show you how to get published, and also how real publishing works.

(Articles Index)

I'm currently putting together a how-to book containing updated and revised editions of all my articles on writing and publishing, plus a lot of new material. If you'd like to know more, follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter

If I said you may have to write five complete novels before getting published for the first time, would you still write the first four? If the answer is no, then you're not writing for the love of it, you're writing because you want to be published. I doubt that'll be enough motivation when you're facing a blank screen.

I'm not going to gloss over the facts - it's very hard for a new writer to break into print with a reputable trade publisher. Getting a book published for the first time took me five years, three completed manuscripts and countless setbacks, and at times I really considered taking up something less taxing - like teaching fifth graders (!)

This article was written in 2008 and has been updated regularly ever since. However, in the past year publishing has undergone the sort of seismic shift you only see once a century, and therefore I've added this new section: 'A 2011 perspective'.

A 2011 perspective

I've added this new section in response to major changes taking place in the publishing industry. One is the rapid loss of booksellers, which are disappearing quicker than anyone expected. The other is the rise of ebooks.

First, the loss of shelf space. Once upon a time, publishers released new titles, bookstores put them on the shelves, and keen readers went to their local stores and discovered new authors while they were picking up the latest King/Grisham/Rowling/etc. Unfortunately, as the number of new titles increased year after year, booksellers became more picky about what they put on the shelves. They started ordering based on authors' previous sales, minus a safety margin. They were also quicker to return books, and much less likely to restock copies of books they'd sold out of. In effect, this created a career death spiral (and an impossible market for ongoing series), and midlist authors fought back by using pseudonyms. Bookstores added stuffed toys, board games, music, and anything else they could lay their hands on, and keen readers started buying online.

So much for shelf space, what about ebooks? Go back a few years and you'll find my posts on various forums declaring that ebooks would never replace print, because LCD screens were nothing like reading from paper. So they brought in e-paper. I was dubious, but after I got a Kindle last year I never looked back. Add me to the 'ebooks please' column, and if I ever walk into a bookstore again it'll probably be for a stuffed toy or a board game.

In December 2010 JA Konrath posted a blog titled 'You should self-publish'. Here's a NYT best-selling author who, for years before this post, blogged about query letters, editing, and getting published. I don't need to repeat his findings - just read his post, and maybe everything he's written afterwards.

I'm not suggesting anyone skip trade publishers and go straight to ebook. Who knows, your work may be the next big thing, so why not give it the best chance of exposure? However, what I am suggesting is that you define the amount of time you're willing to spend on the submission/rejection roundabout for any given novel. Once that time elapses, if you haven't found an agent or sold the novel to a publisher, you could maybe consider releasing it as an ebook while you query agents and publishers with your next novel. (You did write the next novel while the first was out there, didn't you?)

Now, back to the article ...

A quick note for teens: I occasionally get emails from teenagers asking whether publishers will discriminate against them because of their age, and I always reply with the same answer: publishers want novels they can sell, and if you can write a really good novel it doesn't matter if you're twelve or eighteen. The problem is, it can take several years to hone the craft, and that's why there aren't more published teenage novelists ... it's not their age, it's the fact that in 99% of cases they haven't had enough time to write all those unpublishable novels the rest of us have stashed away in the attic. So, if you're a teen author, set yourself a goal ("I'll be published by the time I'm 20") even if that seems like centuries away, and then work out what steps you need to take to get there.

There are three ways to get a book published: The first, and recommended way is to keep sending your manuscript to publishers or agents, one after another, non-stop. Never harass them, because they won't appreciate phone calls about unsolicited manuscripts, and you will drive an agent or publisher away quicker than you can burn a sheet of paper. While you're mailing the manuscript, don't sweat on the results - make sure you're writing the next book. (Then you'll have two manuscripts to send out, and you can write the third.)

Remember: money flows to the author. If your publisher wants money for something - anything - you're not being published, you're being printed.
To get into print (with fiction, at least) you need to write well, you need to tell a fresh story and you have to be able to put together a logical plot and believable characters. If you're missing one or more of those pre-requisites I would suggest joining a writers group. Critters (free) or the Online Writing Workshop (modest fee) are good for science fiction and fantasy writers, and there are similar groups for other genres.

Maybe online workshops aren't your thing, or perhaps you'd rather spend money for a professional opinion. If that's the case, I know two freelance editors here in Australia who might be able to help: Janet Blagg at Yellow Wallpaper and Satima Flavell at Professional Editing Services. Both are experienced no-nonsense editors with impressive resumes.

Before you start submitting to publishers you should consider getting an agent. If you want to go it alone you should bear in mind that most publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year, and of those they might buy one or two. Increase your chances by researching your market before submitting. A publisher's web page will give you an idea of the type of books on their list, so don't submit a horror novel to a romance publisher or you're just wasting your time.

Warning! Before you send ANYWHERE do a Google search on the name of the publisher plus the words 'vanity' or 'scam'. If you don't know what a vanity press is, you're prime target for an approach by one and you shouldn't be sending manuscripts anywhere until you've done a lot more research.

This bears repeating: In the publishing industry, money flows TO the author. You should NEVER pay your agent or publisher, whether it's for book doctoring, editing, printing, buying copies of your book, cover art, advertising or fees of any kind. A reputable publisher will offer a first time author an advance, and will pay you a percentage on every copy sold.

Having checked out your publisher, make sure you submit in a professional manner. I've just added a short article on writing a query letter which you might find useful, and you can always search Google for manuscript formatting guidelines. Don't print on a wheezy old dot matrix, and don't send out a tatty old manuscript which has already done the rounds umpteen times.

Responding to rejection letters is unprofessional and a waste of time. Check SlushKiller for an analysis of rejection letters and authors' responses to them.
When your manuscript comes back there will usually be a brief 'no thanks' letter. This can be anything from 'Doesn't fit our list' to 'Not for us', and while you might disagree there is absolutely NO point firing off a letter telling them just how wrong they were to reject your masterpiece and how you'll prove yourself to the world and make them feel two inches tall and... and... Don't laugh, it happens.

Here's why making a fuss won't make a blind bit of difference: When your manuscript arrives at the publisher's premises it goes into a (big) pile. If it's a publisher who doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts they'll be paying someone to pack them up and send them right back again (assuming you included return postage) If they do accept unsolicited manuscripts they will usually have a junior editor who scans the first page or so of each submission. If the writing is shaky, back it goes. If the characters have been cribbed from the movies or popular TV shows, ditto. Only if the first few pages pass muster will that first reader move the manuscript into a (small) pile destined for a higher authority.

To help your manuscript past the first stage, see 'The first five pages' on my books-for-writers page.
For every hundred manuscripts received at the publisher, perhaps one or two reach this stage. They will now be read more fully, to see whether the author has a story to tell. And whether the book fits with the publisher's offerings (which is why you researched this first.) And whether it's similar to another title the publisher is bringing to market. And whether it's a blue moon and pigs are flying. (The last one isn't necessarily true, it just seems that way from time to time.) Of 100 manuscripts which make it to this stage, perhaps two or three make it through to possible acquisition. That's one out of every five thousand received. Because so few make it, many people assume publishers don't want new writers. Incorrect - they need new writers to replace those lost to other publishing houses and to natural (and unnatural) causes. It's just that there are a lot more writers than there are places for them to be published.

Over 95% of all manuscripts submitted to publishers and agents aren't of a publishable standard. See my article on rejection for more on this topic.
Now, some people have asked me what their chances are of getting published, as if the novels you see in bookstores were selected by pulling names out of a hat. The truth is, if you've honed your craft and written something publishable, your chances of getting published just improved by a huge margin. And how do you know whether it's publishable? Send it to publishers! (Alternatively, seek honest peer review.)

Unfortunately, writing is like driving, because everyone believes they're good at it and nobody wants to be criticised. It's important to be honest with yourself, though, otherwise you could spend years and hundreds of dollars submitting something which will never get past the first round. That's why it's important to keep writing, because practice does make perfect.

You can see it's a long-winded process, but I don't believe there are any shortcuts... which leads into my next point.

The second way to get published is to become President, or a gold medal Olympian, or a senior member of the Aussie cricket team (you get my drift - fame sells). Hire a ghost-writer and then open bank accounts to hold all the money.

There is a third way, which is self publishing. This is where you write the book and pay to have it printed (or upload it as an ebook.) If you choose this route I recommend paying an editor for an evaluation - and preferably, a complete edit - before publishing. I have a lot more to say on self-publishing in a separate article.

Self publishing will give you a quick rush, since your book can be on sale within weeks and you can tell friends and family your work is in print. Enjoy the feeling, but get to work on your next book. By the time it's ready you'll have sales figures from the first one, and you'll be able to make an informed decision about whether to continue self-publishing, or whether to try for a trade publisher this time around.

Please remember that none of my articles are meant to discourage. In fact, they're all written for the me of ten years ago, the writer who was ready to take the next step but didn't know what that step was.

About the author: Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series, and works as a freelance writer. Simon is also a freelance programmer, and he designed and wrote all the software on spacejock.com (e.g. yWriter).

If you have any comments, please contact me