Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Moonrat's Guide to Getting Published

By your request, Tory (and others too), here's my abridged blow-by-blow for beginners. I've tried to set biases aside and just be [brutally] honest. I fear this will be a long post, so apologies in advance for those utterly uninterested.

You, in theory, are an author. You are working on your masterpiece first novel (or autobiography, or something else). Here's some things to keep in mind, before you even finish your work:

1) Your literary talent alone isn't enough for an editor to publish your book--and this isn't the editor's fault.
As much as we may love a book by an unpublished author, there are quirks about modern publishing that make the Great Debut Novel a very different animal than it was 100 or even 50 years ago. The evil enemy? The national chains.

Because of commercial dynamics between publishing companies and booksellers (and booksellers and consumers), publishers can't expect to publish a book and automatically get it stocked in book stores. In fact, there are so many books published in the United States (never mind abroad) these days that there is very stiff competition for the limited space in bookstores and many books will never get stocked by national chains--which tend to be rather conservative in what they choose to sell. I'll refer you to a tidbit from Harper's that Bluenana posted a couple of weeks ago regarding the number of books published each year, and how many make their bottom line.

At the same time, it is virtually impossible to get a book to succeed if it is not picked up by national chains. And as indie bookstores gradually disappear (ok, maybe the word "gradually" wasn't particularly appropriate), this means that a very small number of people are making the major decisions about what America is going to read. If they don't like or don't have time for your book, you're s**t out of luck. This is the Walmartization of the book industry. Yes, this means we have had a veritable end to grassroots publishing, and that American culture has been categorically mainstreamed (and will surely get more so). But take heart. It's even worse in Britain.

So no matter how stunning your prose and how great your editor/publisher's credibility with the buyers (the people who select the books that are going to be stocked each season at the national chains), we editors need help from you or we're never going to be able to get your book in. We have the beastly task of convincing these buyers that your book is going to rake in money for them. For this, we need to be able to convince them of the strength of your platform.

2) Build up your platform while you're writing.

Your platform consists of your relevant professional credentials and your published writing experience. Another really important component is your marketing outreach--even if you're superqualified to write this book, are you going to be able to get the word out when pub time comes?

The strongest platform in the world? Previous publication experience at nationally syndicated magazines or newspapers. (Or previous books published.) This shows you have a proven track record. And, necessarily, a strong outreach--lots of contacts in journalism who could review the book, a regular column in which you could plug the book yourself, experience on national television that we can send on tape to Oprah for her consideration, a super-savvy publicist you've hired to work with you during the publicity window.

For example, if you're writing a book on pine trees of the deciduous region, the ideal author platform would include such elements as an advanced degree in botany, a distinguished titled membership at the National Association of Agriculture (that hopefully includes some kind of lecture circuit), and a regular column on plants in Better Homes and Gardens or The New York Times. It's true, most platforms aren't THIS strong, but anything less is a big crapshoot for publishers, so it's possible they will pass on your project until you've created a stronger platform. Believe it or not, there are people out there with these kinds of relevant credentials--lots of people.

So while you're working on the novel or other project, try submitting clips to various publications, even small ones, if you have no track record. Publications snowball, and being printed in your church bulletin might be enough to get you a local newspaper gig, which might be enough to get you picked up by a more regional publication, which might get you noticed by a magazine. Platform-building may seem daunting, but do what you can as you write. Just see what comes of whatever you can do. Doing this will really help your agent's leverage when she's pitching your project to editors.

3) Do get an agent.
Some people think that they are saving money by not seeking an agent to help them get published. Hire someone to suck away 15% of my earnings for work I can do myself?! How dumb do you think I am?

Even from a bottom-line perspective, though, I can promise you--the agent will earn her salary (and then some). First of all, most unsolicited manuscript that come into publishers go directly into the trash bin. They are the bane of an editorial assistant's existence, and become so odious to her because there are so many of them to deal with that after awhile she will have difficulty treating even the best of unsolicited projects with any modicum of respect. Outside of some very rare exceptions, unsolicited manuscripts go the route of the horizontal file. Ie the recycling bin. Your best-case scenario as an unsolicited author is semi-sensitive treatment by an unpaid intern.

However, every proposal we get from an agent MUST be treated seriously--even the crap. Agents filter out most unusable content for us. Also, they provide credibility, stability, and networking opportunities. I have bought projects from agents that I wasn't really interested in as projects for the sake of establishing good relationships with their agencies.

Also, a good agent will negotiate points in your contract that no handbook will prepare you for. The point? Don't try to go it alone. It's a harsh, cruel world out there for the unsolicited author.

There are many books devoted to the subject of agent-seeking, so I won't even make an attempt. But suffice it to say, whatever platform-building you've been doing before you send out your manuscript is going to pay off at the agent-seeking stage, too.

4) Be a fantastic writer.
Despite all my advice above regarding platform, it's your quality of writing that will get you reviewed after publication (and which will eventually cause buzz that will drive people to pick up your book).

Even if you KNOW you're a fantastic writer, try joining a writing group or class. Practice and regular deadlines are never a bad thing to get you going on a project, and even the best and most discerning of minds needs some outside assistance in judging its own creative product. You'll be surprised at the insight your peers have to offer--and it will be your peers, and other people like them, who either will or won't want your book after publication.

Hope this helps...it's not meant to sound discouraging, but do keep in mind published authors are just the writers who had the most perseverance (and thereby were able to overcome all this crap). So keep writing, and see what happens--at the very worst, you're a more reflective person with a great hobby. But with some careful planning and footwork, there is always potential for much, much more.


Tory said...

Moonrat, you are an angel!! thank you so much for taking the time to write this piece, it was an eye-opener, and i'll refer back to it often.
you must get so sick of all the same questions once people find out what you do and I was afraid to even ask any questions of you because of that. thank you so much again and i won't bother you with anymore questions. besides, you were very thorough with the answers.
Love U!!!

angelle said...

I was all despairing after reading your post this morning. Luckily, google reader followed your post with this post: http://raleva31.livejournal.com/49955.html

Haha, I'm kidding, I wasn't despairing. My powers of PR will surely help me one day. And even if not, like I said. I'm ALL about perseverance. I'm going to get myself published if it KILLS me. Or else just die really sad and unfulfilled.

But thanks for the post. Strange how I've never actually... asked you.. for advice. Hahaha. But here it is!

angelle said...

p.s. i crave cupcakes. make it stop!!!

angelle said...

ooh i see there's a shelfari on ur site now. i have library thing - been thinking about if i should put it up on my site or not. but i figure the long lists on the left are probably enough, hahaha.

C. Dappen said...

This is excellent.

earthling said...

I'm so glad I looked by again. You have given some valuable advice to all of us "wanna be's". Thank you.
You are very clever, but sharing that wisdom with the rest of us, that is what makes you a better person. You didn't have to give us all that advice, and no one is giving you anything in return. So that is a noble act from your side.
I have a few questions though. You mention the "unsolicited" works, is that work that hasen't been proofread/edited or work that hasn't been sent by an agent?
And these agents, where do you find them and how can you get a good agent to take you on??

Tashva said...

There's apparently so much more to learn of the big wide world out there and how it works.

Leigh Russell said...

Hi Moonrat,

I just read your advice. Same old same old in the UK, as you point out. It's not just in publishing. Everywhere the large chains, from supermarkets to coffee shops to - yes - bookshops, are putting the independent retail outlets out of business, unable to compete. The bookshops do most of their purchasing centrally so it's not always easy to get local bookstores to stock books.

Getting published is only the first hurdle. Next, you have to try and find outlets to sell the book....

My first book comes out in April, so anticipate a bitter and twisted entry on my blog by May.

My publisher tells me to be "tirelessly self promoting" but I think I'll stick to fiction!

All the best and drop by my blog any time, blogbuddy across the pond.

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

Hi Moonrat, thanks for being so frank and truthful. It's very much the same here. I'm a writer working on my second book. I've recently been to a workshop held by Penguin in London, and their editors and agents said exactly the same things you've outlined here, almost word for word.

The irony is that you stand a better chance of being published if you've been published before, but how do you get published the first time, if no one wants to publish someone who's never been...

You've got a very handy blog here.

Anonymous said...

Your info is so helpful! My problem is in finding an agent who is willing to read my novel. I have submitted the query/synopsis/first 50 pages stuff to dozens of agents and I usually get what appears to be a form letter rejection. Is there anything beyond blind chance that will get my foot in the door?

gem said...

I just learned about your blog through Nathan Bransford's blog. Really helpful information. Thanks for sharing some of your insights. Your observations in several posts have kind of confirmed for me that I'm going about this publishing venture the right way and with patience and perseverance, I may succeed.

Mary said...

hi moonrat,
i'm a newbie to your blog, but i have to say your info has been very helpful. i have heard this advice before but without the emphasis on the 'platform building' which i confess i've overlooked. i'm only starting out as a writer so its definitly given me food for thought. If the US is bad and the UK worse, then i really have no hope in Ireland lol. Thanks again

dara said...

"The irony is that you stand a better chance of being published if you've been published before, but how do you get published the first time, if no one wants to publish someone who's never been..."

That's what I think too...

LOL, I'm 24 now--I'll probably be 50 before I can get my book published. But oh well--still going to go through the process along with the millions of others.

Thanks for the post :)

Glen Akin said...

Dara, don't sell yourself short; it'll happen much sooner if you persist with patience and care and hardwork.

Robin S. said...

Hi Moony,

I've saved this post in my 'favorites' for well over a year. Hope you don't mind if I put a link to this on a blog post.

Chazz said...

Jesus! I do have a column in an inernational magazine an da little blog, but this list (especially #1) makes me want to go all Sylvia Plath.

It's a good thing I enjoy the writing as something I have to do whether I get paid or not, because though I am not hopeless, I have no hope now.

Rebekah said...

I just discovered your blog, and this post, and immediately linked it to my blog, Rebekah: off the record. (http://rebekahofftherecord.blogspot.com)

This post, in particular, is so inspiring! Yes, you lay it on the line - the chances are slim, a writer has to work and work hard, etc, etc. However, you also create a little road map for those of us who are willing to stay on the journey. That's exactly what I needed - a GPS for my writing career. Reading your post reminded me of how much I already have accomplished and how I can use it to get an agent and find a publisher who will take a risk on a new author.


Victoria Mixon said...

Hi Moonrat!

Thank you again for putting the truth about the publishing industry out there for everyone. So much hope, so much despair, so much confusion about what publishing is actually about. Aspiring writers need to hear this over and over again.

Especially #4: Be a fantastic writer.

Otherwise you might as well be driving a bus. (They get benefits!)


Annie Gauger said...

Dear Moonrat,

Will you go into depths about the woes of publishing in the UK?


moonrat said...

Annie--phew. I wish I knew more about the UK. I need to know more, actually. Let me see if I can put something together. It might take awhile.

Bernard S. Jansen said...

I thought this post was great, so I've blogged about it to point more people here.

I only just discovered "Editorial Ass", and hope to uncover some more gems here.

Jenny Woolf said...

I'm in an unusual situation as an author. I'm working hard at getting teen fiction published, and I'm about to publish a biography of Lewis Carroll both here in the UK (small publisher) and also in the US (large publisher).

Your post rings true in relation both to the fiction and the non fiction editors I've spoken with, both here and in the US.

But even though it seems deperessing to focus on giving the reps something hot to sell, I think it makes for a better book in the end.

In talking to people about my biography I've found how vital it is to have a simple short pitch that makes the book sound like fun. And surely it's the way to make anyone want your book - not just editors. The way to make reviewers notice, too, and readers want to buy, and read. Everything.

Thanks for this post. I'll follow your blog in the future. Jenny Woolf

Maddy said...

thank you! I'm a 16 year old writer trying to get published, and I'd drown if it weren't for your blog.

Glynis said...

Thanks for an informative, honest post. All I can say is that I am trying hard to get to the bottom of a slush pile. :)

MG said...

I tweeted Neil Gaimen and he said that it was perfectly okay to be a closet writer which gave me immense comfort. It seems the kind of work necessary to getting your foot in the door is only possible for those who don't have their own lives to live, lives that must be lived in order to develop your soul for writing, in my opinion. What I don't understand is all of the really bad stuff out there that does get published. Why?

Jim Bauer said...

Too much corporate involvement. I suggest we're probably missing out on the next Stephen King as a result. Promote the work. That's just what I think should be at the forefront. What's the story? What's the gist of the argument?

Tamara M Slater said...

Awesome blog! I just came across your site and as a freelance writer and editor, I love the content. I've added you to my blog roll as well at www.wordsherpa.blogspot.com

Thanks again,


anupama kalgudi said...

I'm glad I came across your blog. I always had a hunch what the odds were of my getting published, but in a strange way, it feels good to have it all laid out there in black and white, or rather black and weird shade of blue, as it were.

The thing is, no matter how impossible the journey may seem, especially in the genre I'm writing in (literary fiction), with the protagonist I have (Indian), I can't help but try.

I write for my sanity. I want to get published for my vanity. Either way, it's good to know what the truth is, so thank you sincerely for that.

I do hope you will try one day to cover emerging markets like the Indian publishing industry and what this rich source of life and culture has to offer the world. And whether all these under-represented voices will ever be heard out there in the publishing capital? Or do we all have to be slum-dog millionaires before our stories lift the eyebrows of the powers that be? I think I'm being unfair to ask that question, but sometimes, I do feel that way.

Once again, thank you for your honesty. I respect you for the truth.

And now to try and beat those damn odds...*cracks knuckles*