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You've Written a Novel! Here's how to Publish it.

Updated on September 5, 2011

You've slaved long and hard, toiled over drafts and revisions, but finally you've completed your project. Say hello to your new book, a brilliant masterpiece that everyone in the English-speaking world would die to read the first week it comes out. You can't wait to send it to the publisher's house so it can start rolling off the press next week. There's only one problem: you don't know how.

The process of publishing a book is clouded in secrecy. You walk into a back alley, tap three times on an inconspicuous door, give the password, and pass inspection before they let you into this exclusive club. Publishing involves many steps, and even in my graduate-level creative writing class, no one discussed as far as step one.

Here, I intend to provide you with the first steps required to get your book rolling. But first, I have some bad news; you have a lot of things working against you. Because of the computer age, everyone and their mother can pump out a book. Most of them--and I include my own first novel among this--don't deserve to make it to the printer. Yet they still get printed. Editors found themselves buried under a landslide of terrible manuscripts, so most respectable houses decided not to read books anymore--well, at least not unless someone they know says "I've got a good one!" That's how the literary agent came to power.

Literary agents don't have the sleazy reputation that Hollywood agents do, but they still can be frustrating to work with. See, they don't want to read books either. One source told me a literary agent can get an average of 800 submissions per week. So even they have screeners to weed out most of those before the agent even sees it. And if you still think you can reach those hurdles, keep in mind that screeners reject most submissions without reading a word of your book.

Now that the depressing news is out of the way, let's move on. I'm going to start early. There are some things you need to know before you even consider step one.

-1. Agents expect credentials. What does that mean? In short, they'll only publish authors who have already been published. Of course it's not quite that simple, or else authors would dwindle and books would die away--yet every year, publishers release more books than the year before.

So how do new authors get into the business? Contests. Awards. Before you turn to your book, they'll expect you to have won a short story contest (or at least placed), or maybe have a play you've written produced on stage. Absolutely anything that shows someone else has validated your work counts as a writing credential. The more you have, the easier the agent will feel about dedicating time to your book.

0. Understand that your writing isn't as good as you think it is.

You have to enter the publishing world with a touch of humility. We spend so much time with our writing that we fall in love with it. It's a labor. A child we mentor into perfection. Of course we won't see flaws in it after spending a year or more writing it.

Well, I've read one of my novels (not my first one) at least four times, and I still run through it each time with a highlighter to catch some massive screw-up that I missed before. You have to be a bit cocky to think other people should read the product of your mind, but you have to humble yourself enough to know where you stand. You may never finish correcting errors.

1. Revise one more time

I suppose you could consider this optional, but after what I just said, do you want to take chances? You will find mistakes. Two tips for revisions:

  • Wait three months before even thinking about your book, then revise.
  • Read the entire thing out loud. Your ears will catch things your eyes missed.

Focus on the beginning, if you have to prioritize one part over the rest. If an agent does make it to your book, that's where she'll (the majority of people in the publishing business are women.) start. The first page can bore a screener/agent to tears (I worked as a screener. I know this first hand). If they get to the fifth page without rejecting it, you've accomplished something.

So in revision, prioritize:

  1. First page
  2. First five pages
  3. First fifty pages
  4. The rest of the book.

2. If you haven't guessed already, you need an agent. Look for one.

Picking agents isn't easy. Finding them is simple enough. Most agents list in multiple places, but the bulk of respectable agents will list themselves here:

However, you may get snagged on finding an agent appropriate for your book. You can't just pull a name off the list and send them your book. Most agents forge very specific contacts with editors and publishers, so they usually specialize in one or two genres, and probably have a very specific style of book that they represent. I write sci-fi and fantasy. Plenty of agents represent the genres, but they may not be interested in my style--a real-world futuristic blend of the two genres.

So you need to do some research. You could go to their webpages, see if they tell you what they want. Have they represented books similar to yours? One way that worked better for me was picking books out of the bookstore, reading them, and if they share characteristics with your own, see who represented it (it's amazing what you can find on google, and most authors will publicly thank their agent either online or in their book).

Have back-ups. No matter how many people give you the advice, "Find ONE agent who fits you perfectly," you're still going to have to move forward when that agent rejects you.

3. Compose a query letter

Think of a query letter like a cover letter in a job application. Except the pressure is on: this may be the only sample of your writing anyone will ever read! Write it professionally. Don't go over one page. My mentor even recommends correspondence style (Not block style, indented paragraphs without a line break between them).

The screener may not read past the first paragraph. You have to make sure she does. Ideally, this should introduce yourself and your book, as well as persuade the agent why she and no one else is the perfect match for your book (each query letter must be different--no form letters!). It also helps if you can show your competency as a writer--try to write it using the same style of language they'll find in your book. Also, if you have credentials, don't list them off, but it's a good way to snag attention: "I'm a Writers' Digest award-winning playwright looking for representation for my new novel."

The second paragraph provides a complete summary of your novel. Not a back-cover blurb. Not a teaser line. Give them the whole plot--spoilers and everything--and do it in one paragraph. Most people struggle with this. You have to learn to be super-concise. Include only the most vital plot points--including the ending. (I suggest trying to summarize the book as a haiku first. The practice helps with brevity)

Afterwards, explain a little more about why the agent should consider your book. Maybe you have writing credentials up the wazoo--now is the time to list them. Maybe you absolutely love every book she's represented, or that yours have similar themes, plots, tones, or whatever.

Close the letter politely, but that goes without saying.

4. Mail exactly what the agent wants--no more, no less

Most agents list submission guidelines on their websites. Take those as absolute literal directions. All will ask for a self-addressed (to mail to you...their address as the return address) stamped (spring for a stamp--metered postage expires) envelope (SASE) to send your rejection--yes, it's a slap in the face that you have to pay for your own rejection. If they like your work, they probably won't use the SASE.

Other than that, if they ask for 5 pages of text and a 3-page synopsis, write out a full, three-page synopsis (no teasers, include all the spoilers), and only send the first five pages, even if chapter one ends on the third line of page six. If they want to read the end of the chapter, they'll ask you for it.

5. Don't mail them all out at once

Most agents will reject you. You don't want thirty rejection letters showing up on the same day.

6. Be prepared for disappointment

"Jake," you say, "don't be so gloomy! They'll love my writing. Someone's got to print it. After all, J.K. Rowling was rejected umpteen times before..."

Yeah, but she was accepted on attempt number umpteen +1. Not everyone is. And I guarantee that hundreds of authors have written better stories than Harry Potter that will never sit on the shelves of a book store. Unfortunately, agents aren't interested in finding the best writing--they're happy with good writing. As long as they can make money, they can keep doing what they do, and there are enough writers with good writing that it isn't hard to find.

The story has a sadder ending, in that most agents end up only taking referrals, and some accept referrals exclusively. What this means is that you don't have a great chance of getting published unless you're good friends with an author who writes exactly the same genre and style as you.

Sorry. I struggle with this, too.

If you want to do everything in your power to improve your chances, I highly recommend you read this blog:

This woman writes professionally and she offers her experience freely on the internet--and she writes incredibly entertaining entries.

Prepare yourself for a lot of work. Writing doesn't happen easily, neither does getting published. Practice-write every day. Research--look into authors, agents, and read Miss Mini's blog. Enter contests. Get your work out there. The publication process is brutal, but not impenetrable. I wish you the best of luck.

**As always, I appreciate reader comments. Just now I received one that reminded me of two important points that could save you, your writing, and your potential career.

1. Don't Self-Publish or Print on Demand

The traditional system of publishing I described above can frustrate anyone, but any alternative to this process usually is nothing more than a scam. Self-publishing rarely pays, since equipment and distribution cost so much. Printers that guarantee publication--for a fee--print on demand printers, or vanity printers all rely on the author in order to make their profits. No one buys self-published books, and the cost of books from other printers will dissuade anyone from reading them.

2. Watch out for Scams

There's one scam that hits nearly everyone. Watch out for an agency that calls itself "W.L." "Writers' Literary" or something like that--if you google it you can find a list of pseudonyms. It claims to be a literary agent that represents anything. It says it reads submissions faster than most agencies and will respond within a few days. It says it accepts you almost immediately--and then asks you to spend $100 on an objective opinion which they will use for revision purposes.

No respectable agent will ever ask for payment before a book is published. It's unethical to do so, and considered a conflict of interest. An agent who wants you to spend money on a critique makes more money from the critique than by publishing books. If they require this, they have a deal with the critic to receive a part of the profits. If someone asks you to do this, stop, grill them about how many books they've published (there won't be any), and move on to another agent.

Also, there's no way these people--it's actually one guy under a lot of pseudonyms--can actually read your submissions that fast.

Avoid this at all costs.

Thanks for reading.


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    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 6 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Great synopsis of the publishing world. Good luck in your endeavors!

    • Scarlett My Dear profile image

      Scarlett My Dear 6 years ago from Missouri

      Thank you and bookmarked.

    • jplaj profile image

      jplaj 6 years ago from Duluth, MN

      Red Sturtz:

      I'm concerned that an agent has asked you to get a critique. Please tell me you didn't pay, otherwise the money you gave for the critique is probably lining the pockets of the agent.

      If an agent can require an author to invest financially before the book is published, it isn't in their best interest to publish the book. They can make all their money from the wanna-be authors by taking a cut of the profits from the critique service they'll probably recommend. This way they don't even have to bother reading your work. The practice is considered unethical--there's some sort of union for literary agents that keeps tabs on that.

      I came very close to paying once before I found out that the guy I was dealing with (masquerading as a woman) was the biggest scam in the literary world.

      If an agent wants a critique, they'll do it themselves. That way they can tailor the book to their own interests, which will help make it appeal to the publishers that they know. It's a better business decision for someone who actually wants to publish a book their interested in.

      Proceed with caution, and I wish you the best of luck.

    • Nerak2Karen profile image

      Nerak2Karen 6 years ago from Milwaukee, WI

      Wow! Thank you for sharing this very useful information. I thought about self publishing a book but now that I have read your hub...I will think twice ;)

    • RedSturtz profile image

      RedSturtz 6 years ago from A land far far away....

      Not a bad write up on this topic!

      Although agents often ask for at least two critiques before they even look at your work - and a good critique can cost thousands of dollars.

      Independent publishers are another way to go as well - they don't require as much as big publishers, are more likely to invest time into your book because they publish very few each year and are a cheaper option than self publishing and easier to get into than a big publishing house.

    • mcrawford76 profile image

      Matthew I Crawford 6 years ago from Greeley, Colorado

      Is it wrong that I feel both encouraged and completely dismayed at the same time?

      Voted up and useful

    • J Burgraff profile image

      J Burgraff 6 years ago

      This is probably the best short synopsis on to get published that I have ever read. Lack everything else worthwhile, it sounds like getting published involves a lot of hard work (can you hear the sound 'grunt') and a lot of talent, which clearly a lot of people in the self-publishing realm don't have. Thank you.