Given that I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not just in the context of all the (probably tiresome) fandom-related yelling I’ve been doing, I decided that I’d go ahead and toss this up there. I was also having drinks with some dear friends (who are not writers) recently, and they were congratulating me on books, which was lovely, but it struck me again that they didn’t seem to totally understand a) how little money you can actually make in this business, and b) how incredibly labor-intensive building up a backlist is, and how having four or five novels out there almost never means you can quit your day job. Or how you get four or five novels out there to begin with.
I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions. I’ve seen a lot of people – talented writers, to be sure – who seem to think that basically all you need to do to get published is write a great book and wait for people to come to your door and ask to pay you for it. I’ve seen talented writers stumble or get hurt because they didn’t know the lay of the land before they charged enthusiastically into it. I’ve seen talented writers just pretty much never go anywhere at all. Talent is not enough, and alone it’s not a guarantee of anything. It would be great if it was, but it ain’t.
So here, at least, is my experience and my understanding of the process. It’s not comprehensive, it’s not what will work for everyone, and it’s not representative of everyone’s experience. I’m also not by any means the first person to say any of this. Regardless, here are some things that you might or will need to do if you want to sell a book.
- Finish it. Seriously. There are situations where a proposed book or a half-finished book gets picked up, but on the whole your chances are made immeasurably better if you have a completed manuscript in hand.
- Edit it. Having a completed book helps. It helps less if it is, shall we say, rough around the edges.
- Decide what you want to do with it. Because there are a number of things you can do. Do you want to self-publish? Do you want to send it directly to publishers? Large or small press? Do you want to query agents with it? All of these will require different things from you and you need a plan. Regardless of which route you go – with the exception of self-publishing – I would personally create and compile this packet of submission materials early in the process and keep it on hand:
- A synopsis (publishers/agents differ on length but the general standard is two to three pages)
- A query letter (in my opinion, every query you send should be somewhat personalized, but the basic content – one-paragraph pitch, bio, etc. will be pretty much the same every time)
- A sample of the first three chapters of the manuscript (three chapters or fifty pages is often what’s asked for).
- Research. You need to know your industry. If you’re self-publishing, figure out what you need to do in order to get your book in the shape you want before you put it out there (editing, cover art, etc.) and how to maximize the effectiveness of your promotion. If you’re submitting directly to publishers, large or small, familiarize yourself with who wants what. If you’re querying agents, learn who the good ones are. Make lists of likely candidates. Read the submission guidelines. Then read them again. Then again, just to make absolutely sure you didn’t overlook anything. Don’t waste these people’s time – they are already very, very busy and it makes them grumpy. And make sure you know what your rights as an author are, what industry standard contracts tend to look like, and what to watch for in terms of not getting screwed over. Because yes, there are people out there looking to screw you over.
- If you’re going the non-self-pub route, submit/query. You have to do this. Yes, a tiny percentage of people skip this step and get offered contracts without looking for them for whatever reason. The chances that you are one of those people are vanishingly small. If you want publishers or agents to take notice of you, you need to put yourself in their faces. If they don’t notice you, that is almost certainly on you, not them.
- You will get rejected. Submit/query again. Then do it again. Don’t take it personally, because it’s almost never personal. This is a business. Agents will represent books that they think they can sell; they reject books that they love but don’t think they can sell all the time. Same goes for publishers. A manuscript that isn’t right for one might be right for another. This is why I said to make lists, and I generally recommend beginning at the top and working down, because you’re starting at zero and you have nothing to lose. Just, again: you’ll get rejected. It hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot. I know, my work has been rejected literally hundreds of times. Many of those stories went on to find homes elsewhere. Suck it up and keep moving.
- Don’t lock yourself into one way of doing things. There isn’t only one way. Authors who have agents and contracts with publishers also self-publish on the side. Authors who start in self-publishing move on to have agents and contracts with publishers. Authors move from small to large presses and back again simultaneously. Authors sell books without agents. Authors get agents right away and never sell anything without one. Authors change agents. Authors change publishers. Authors publish books with more than one publisher. Authors publish with one publisher for the entirety of their careers. Just because you’re doing one thing now doesn’t mean you will or should continue to do it, or to do it exclusively. What you do will be as individual as you are and no one thing will work best for you all the time. Be flexible; in professional writing, flexibility is survival.
Here are some resources that I’ve found invaluable:
And if you are or are becoming a neo-pro speculative fiction writer (someone who’s sold one or more short stories/novels to reasonably respectable markets and is in the early stages of their career), join Codex, which is a writer’s group. It’s probably been the single most useful thing, career-wise, that I’ve ever done.
So go to it. Just make sure you know what you’re doing. You’ll thank yourself
when you’re sitting on a pile of money later.