If you’re here to find out more about publishing, I’ll tell you right now: I don’t have all the answers. But I have worked as a freelance editor for indie authors and small pubs, and my YA fantasy duology (Shielded and Untethered) was published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House (one of the big five publishers).
I don’t have all the answers, but what answers I do have based on my experience, I’m happy to share! This post will have my best tips and resources, but first off: please recognize that everyone’s path is different. There are so many ways to find success telling stories! I’m only offering what my experience was in the hopes that you can take what advice you like, and leave what you don’t.
So, if that’s interesting to you, here’s a bit of my journey, boiled down to (hopefully) usable info for you in your journey.
Okay, so if you’ve made it this far, chances are you have a story you might maybe want to tell. Or maybe you have a first draft. Or maybe you’ve re-written the dang thing twenty times. GREAT! Welcome to all!
If you’re wondering what next steps are for getting it published, you’re in the right place. (If you want to know next steps for the writing process, I’ll have to do another post on that.)
First question: What kind of published do you want to be? Traditional, big-five publisher? Small, local press? Self-published? There isn’t One Best Route. It just depends on who you are and what you want.
If you want to learn more about the different paths of publishing in one helpful infographic, this is the best resource I’ve found: https://www.janefriedman.com/key-book-publishing-path/ . Jane Friedman’s website has a ton of great advice for both traditional and indie authors, so do be sure to check it out!
Additionally, these two questions will be helpful as you’re making the choice of how you want to publish:
1. Ask yourself: why do I write?
Dig deep into the reason, and ask why five times. Example: Why do I write? Because I love stories. Why do I love stories? Etc.
2. Ask yourself: What does success look like for me?
Keep in mind your current work in progress, but also your career as a whole. What does your ideal career look like? Does success mean winning awards? Reaching the right readers? Finishing stories for your family to read? Writing for yourself to help you figure out life and all its intricate traumas? All are valid, wonderful reasons! But each view of success will have different steps to get there, and different expectations in place. The idea behind these questions is that if you know where you’re going, you can take away all the paths that won’t get you there, and focus on what will.
Once you have an idea of where you want to go, set your expectations accordingly. Any form of publishing is hard. There will be facets you hate, no matter the path you choose. Making a living out of a creative, subjective art form is hard. But it can also be rewarding and fun—if you have your expectations where they should be. Also note that you are always free to change your mind at any point, or add new goals and new successes. So dive in!
If you want more information on traditional publishing, keep reading!
If you want to traditionally publish at a major publishing house, there are a few steps you must follow. The first is you must have polished, completed manuscript (for fiction; nonfiction is different). For more info on improving your writing, check out my post, Writing Advice. Make sure your first chapter (or the first ten pages) is interesting and polished to within an inch of its life.
Second, you will need a literary agent. A good literary agent will guide you through the publishing industry, negotiate contracts in your favor, and advocate in your best interest. AKA they are invaluable. Note that smaller publishing houses don’t require an agent for submission; this is for the larger publishing houses. (Also note that bigger isn’t always better—your path depends on what you write and what you want for your career.)
To get a literary agent, you send out query letters, which is basically a cover letter for you and your book. Query letters are highly specific and need to catch the attention of agents who read 50+ queries a day. It’s not an easy task, but it’s fully possible (hi, hello, I’m proof). So here are my favorite resources on querying, as well as covering my process of querying. Again, your mileage may vary—every author has a different story, a different path to publication!
Query Letter Resources
Examples in different genres:
Example with explanation of why it worked:
The parts of a query letter:
Writing the Query Letter
First, DO YOUR RESEARCH and FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. Finding an agent who will represent you as an author, and your books, is key to having a successful career with big publishers. This is the bare bones of what I did—tears and waiting and refreshing my email not included:
1. Learned how to write a query letter. (I took a class at a writing conference taught by Elana Johnson, but here’s her blog post on the subject: http://elanajohnson.blogspot.com/2009/01/writing-query-letter-part-one-hook.html)
2. Revised my query letter and got feedback from people who knew more than me about querying by reaching out in local writing and Facebook groups.
3. Edited the query letter even more. Seriously. It’s important. Make it better than your best. I had the opportunity to attend a writing conference where I could sign up to have a literary agent critique my query and first ten pages. It was eye opening and so helpful. She ended up telling me that my query was solid, so I went ahead to the next steps.
4. Researched literary agents. Note: you never have to pay an agent ever for any reason—stay away from scammers! Agents only get paid when you, the author, get paid, and the publisher usually takes care of it.
I used these sources to research agents:
Manuscript Wish List: A searchable database for agents and what they represent: https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/
Twitter: search the agent's @ and #MSWL
Query Tracker: keeps track of queries, as well as offers insights to query process/stats
Agent Query (recommended by Tricia Levenseller): https://agentquery.com/default.aspx
In my research, I noted the books and clients the agent represented, how long they’d been an agent, what prominent books/authors the agency represented, and made an overall ranking from 1(best) to 10(least best) on how much I would like to work with that agent and how well I thought we would fit professionally.
Then, once I had all my research done, I paid for one (1) month’s subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace (https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/ ), and I did more research. All deals are listed on PM, so I researched how many deals the agents had made overall, how many in the last year, what those sales were—same genre as my writing, or different; and who they sold to—big publishers? Small? Mix of both? Somewhere in between?; etc. Then I canceled the subscription once my research was done. :D
Sending the Queries
Once you’ve done all your research, it’s time to start actually sending out query letters. Please make sure you follow whatever directions the agent gives on their website, and make sure, for the love of spell check, that you address each personalized query to the right agent, and that their name is spelled correctly. Kthanks.
I queried in batches of ten. I did this because once you query an agent with a project, that’s it. You don’t get to query again, with a possible exception of a massive re-write, but agents are busy enough that it might still be a no. So. One shot. I didn’t want to burn through my top agent choices and have them pass when all I needed was a better query letter or first pages.
This is what batching looked like for me. I’d choose about eight to ten agents, from a mix of my top choices, middle choices, and lower choices (using that numbered 1–10 scale), and I’d send to a range of all: some in the 10–7 range, some in the 6–4 range, some in the 3–1 range. This way, I could send the query and first pages out and see what kind of response I was getting—immediate no? Form rejections? A bunch of requests for more pages? Then I could adjust my query or pages, and send out another round.
My first round, I received all rejections except one request for the first 50 page. YAY for the one request! But only one in ten, so I decided to revisit my first chapter. I didn’t change the first chapter so much that the meat of my story changed—when you query, your manuscript should be as polished as you can get it. But first chapters are HARD. I am not exaggerating when I say I re-write my first chapters over twenty times, if not more. So I tightened my first chapter. Made it more catching. And sent out another batch.
In my second round of queries, I again had one request for the first fifty pages, and the rest were rejections. I also heard back from the first request—they ended up requesting the full manuscript, and then rejecting it. Which hurt, but she had great feedback for me to learn from.
I sent out a third round (again, trying to tighten up my first chapter), when I got the request for the full, and then the offer of representation from my incredible agent, Laura Crockett! (After I received the offer of rep, I reached out to any agents with outstanding queries and let them know I had an offer to give them a chance to read and offer, or at least check my query off their to-do list.)
So I spent about four months actively querying, had two requests for fulls, and one offer of representation, and thirty-three rejections (which isn’t actually that many rejections). Having Laura on my team has been essential in my publishing journey. A good agent (like Laura) will fight for you, for your books and career, will de-mystify the publishing world, and talk you off all the ledges we find ourselves on as creatives. So do your research, and find an agent that will be a good fit.
Oh, another thing to note is that if an agent offers representation, it’s pretty standard to ask if you can speak with some of their clients so you can get an idea what it’s like working with them. I'll have to do another post sometime on good questions to ask agents who've offered you representation.
I hope this was helpful! Have more questions? Leave a comment.