I receive many emails from fellow writers who want to get their work published. I’m often asked how this process works and what “secrets” I can share. While I’m short on trade secrets, I’ll address the topic as best I can. Keep in mind that my take is simply that — my limited and imperfect perspective on an involved and ever-changing process. I’m hardly an expert and I would strongly encourage you to explore what reputable sources like the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org) have to say on the subject. Also, the advice below is limited to getting your work published via a traditional publisher. I know very little about self-publishing other than that it’s a growing segment of the market. So, here goes…
HAVE SOMETHING TO SELL: Finish your manuscript and make it as polished as you possibly can. Do not rely solely on mom, dad, or your best friend for feedback. Their instinct (bless them) is to make you happy (“It’s wonderful!”) rather than give you objective advice on the work’s strengths and weaknesses. Tighten your story from big (overall story arc, character development, and pacing) to medium (loose plot points) to small (grammar, language). It is critical that you have a finished manuscript to share. Unless you have already been published, it is difficult to sell a concept or a few sample chapters. The publisher will want to see that you can construct and complete an entire story before they commit to you.
HAVE AN AUDIENCE IN MIND: Is your work a picture book? A chapter book? A novel? Who is the ideal audience for your work and why do you think your book will appeal to them? Remember that publishing is first and foremost a business. As precious as your idea may be to you, a publisher must ultimately try and sell this work to retailers and readers. If your work doesn’t really resonate with a particular audience or doesn’t align with an audience (i.e., you’ve written a 500-page book targeted at toddlers) then you may need to rethink your strategy.
DO YOU WANT AN AGENT OR DO YOU INTEND TO REPRESENT YOURSELF?
A literary agent is someone that sells your work to a publisher, negotiates the contract, and ensures that the terms of the contract are met (i.e., you get paid in a timely fashion). In exchange for this, an agent typically takes 15% of whatever revenues the contract generates from now until…forever. Many writers seek representation because agents have relationships at most of the major publishing houses, are aware of the latest industry trends, and are more experienced when it comes to selling/negotiating a work’s rights. Those are all wonderful things! The downside (depending on your perspective) is that your agency will take 15% of your royalties regardless of how much work they’ve put in. If they sell your book quickly and negotiated a standard contract, you might end up compensating them thousands of dollars (or more) for what was ultimately a few hours of their time. Some authors view them as an overpriced luxury; others find them indispensable. It really depends on your needs and the agent in question.
Know that agents are predominately your sales force — they’re not your publicist or career manager. They do not market you, manage your appearances, create/handle your website, do publicity, etc. You’re on your own for all that stuff. If you can sell your work independently, you might well decide that paying someone 15% of an unknown (and potentially large) sum of money is not worth it. If that’s the case, you can always hire an attorney who specializes in book contracts to negotiate your contract when and if a publisher makes an offer.
If you do choose to seek representation through a literary agency, you need to research those that handle authors/work like yours. You should also research reputable agencies as the business can attract some shady characters who are eager to exploit those who are desperate for representation. A good source of information is the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). You can find them at www.scbwi.org. If you are serious about becoming a children’s book writer or illustrator, it is well worth joining as they offer many invaluable resources for aspiring authors. As a general rule, you should not sign with any agency that charges a “reading fee” for reviewing your manuscript. Reputable agencies do not charge these fees. Another tip is to be patient. Strange as it sounds, it can actually be more difficult to get an agent than it is to get published.
SUBMITTING TO TRADITIONAL PUBLISHERS
If you have an agent representing you, they will handle submissions on your behalf and seek to match you up with houses/editors that are a good fit. If you do not have an agent representing you, you have a couple of options:
- Send a query letter to publisher in the hope they will “solicit” your manuscript
- Send your manuscript directly to a publisher and hope that it finds its way through the “slush pile”
- Attend SCBWI conferences/workshops in the hope that editors and/or agents will accept submissions from participants
Here’s what I know about each option. The first is the “polite” way to get your stuff in front of someone. Most publishers get swamped with submissions. Their preference is to deal with writers who are represented by agents, since the agents serve as a filter (presumably because agents know the industry/marketplace and generally represent writers whose works have artistic or commercial potential). Consequently, most traditional publishers do not accept what they term “unsolicited” manuscripts. Can you entice them to solicit your unagented manuscript? Possibly, and the way to do it is through a query letter. There are many books and resources about writing a proper query letter. The two sources I can personally recommend are the SCBWI and Aaron Shepard’s concise (possibly outdated) The Business of Writing for Children. Once you’ve summarized your project and why someone should be dying to read it via a query letter, you should send it to only those publishing houses/editors that actually handle this kind of work. I cannot stress this enough: you must research which publishers/imprints and/or editors actually publish the kind of work that you have created. Many manuscripts are discarded simply because the aspiring author didn’t do their homework. Cookbook editors aren’t interested in your tween fantasy novel and will toss it without a second thought. Save yourself time, money, and heartache by only submitting your query letters and/or manuscripts to those who publish works for your audience.
If you want to bypass a query letter and roll the dice, you can always send your manuscript directly to a publisher. Many editors frown upon this, but I’ve heard that it still might get a glance from a horrifically overworked/underpaid editorial assistant. Editorial assistants are typically right out of college and often screen submissions that haven’t been passed directly to a more senior editor by an agent. If your manuscript gets a look, it needs to command their attention immediately. If it doesn’t, it will likely be tossed into a rejections pile. Right or wrong, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. If your initial pages are weak, boring, or riddled with errors, the manuscript is probably dead on arrival. It goes without saying that your work should be formatted precisely along industry standards. This is often the first indicator that the work should be taken seriously. Generally speaking, this means it should be in 11 or 12 pt. Courier font and double-spaced on clean white paper with 1” margins. A cover letter should accompany your manuscript. You can find examples and tips through the SCBWI or other books on the subject. If you’ve submitted an unsolicited manuscript, you’ll need to be patient. It may be many months before you hear anything. There’s a chance you may not hear anything at all.
If you’re not represented by an agent, your best bet at getting your stuff read by an editor or agent is to attend a regional or national writers conference. The SCBWI holds many and you can often sign up for various workshops that are hosted/led by established agents and editors. They often agree to read submissions by those in attendance and thus you’d be well advised to show up, hear what they have to say, and have your work ready to share. This is the route I would go.
ONCE YOUR WORK IS SUBMITTED… Be patient and develop a thick skin. While a lucky writer might generate immediate interest, finding a publisher can be a long and potentially discouraging process. Chances are you’ll hear many more “no’s” than “yes”. Don’t take this personally or get down on yourself. The industry is rife with stories of best-selling books that were rejected by countless publishers before they finally found a home. Keep in mind that a publisher might pass on a story for the simple fact that they already have similar books/subjects and need to diversify. Your werewolf tale might have the misfortune to arrive right when lots of werewolf books have just been published. Maybe fairies are the flavor of the month and that’s all they’re acquiring. You never really know. If your work is rejected, but the publisher (or agent) provides some feedback or insight as to why, you should pay very careful attention to what they say. They might spotlight a legitimate flaw in your work that needs revisiting. I’ve heard many editors and agents say that they can tell if an author/story has real promise in the first few pages. It is absolutely critical that these pages spark interest. In the meantime, while you’re waiting to hear on a submitted work, starting writing that next masterpiece….
SOME GENERAL DO’S AND DON’TS
- Do your homework.
- Make certain your work is polished and going to the right people
- Be polite
- Be professional
- Be persistent
- Don’t be lazy, whiny, or sloppy. Getting published is difficult and there are no shortcuts. I periodically hear of acquaintances that have “an idea” for a book and assume that this is enough to make their dreams come true. It isn’t. You need a finished, polished product and you need to get it into the right hands. That takes a lot of work and persistence.
- Don’t get offended if someone doesn’t love your story. Not everyone will.
- Don’t ask authors to read your work, provide detailed feedback, or hand it off to their publisher and/or literary agent. Authors are not editors, agents, or publishers.
- Don’t write to get rich. Most writers (even published ones) have to work a second or third job. The grim truth is that few books earn much, if any, money. Unless your work cracks the bestseller lists, you’ll be struggling to make a living solely as an author. Write because you love the process and have some good stories to tell. If the goal is simply to get rich, you’re far better off applying your time and talents to more predictably lucrative professions.
- Don’t get discouraged. Almost every writer has a rejection story. They probably have dozens!
There you go — a few brief thoughts to get you started. If you have additional questions, post them below and I’ll try to refine the content to address them. Your best bet, however, is to join the SCBWI or visit your local library and research some books/sources specific to getting published. Hope this helps and good luck with your project.