How to Get a Book Published

in ten not-so-easy steps



The Straight Story

Practically everyone in publishing has had the experience of participating in a panel or workshop and — regardless of how remote the topic — hearing this first question from the audience:“So, do I need an agent?” While we might conclude from this that many aspiring writers need to work on their listening skills, it’s equally an indication of how strongly many people crave guidance on getting a book published.

So I’m going to tell you how to do it. (I'll be talking about traditional book publishing, not self-publishing or print on demand, which I will address later in a separate document.) What I have to say won’t be the spiel you usually hear, and you might not like what I have to say. But it’s my best advice based on more than thirty years in book publishing. Here it is, 10 not-so-simple steps to publication.

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Step 1: Read

You're not going to be a good writer without doing some serious reading (by which I don't necessarily mean reading serious books).

What should you read? Of course you should read contemporary writing, especially in areas relevant to your aspirations. But to read only contemporary writing risks making your work thin and ephemeral. You should also read the classics, works from other cultures and times. Include some poetry. Read some work in foreign languages — how can you understand English if you have nothing to compare it to?

Read widely. Read a lot. If you're writing fiction read some nonfiction. If you're writing nonfiction read some fiction.

Read ink on paper, not just electrons. It's a different experience.

Oh, and by the way: reread. Rereading is the key to understanding how books work.

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man reading newspaper in Trent, Italy

Step 2. Examine your values

You won't hear this mentioned much, but it's important. Why are you writing? (If you answer "I don't have any choice, I've written since I was little. I'm just driven to write" then you should examine not only your values but your propensity for cliche.)

Are you trying to write a popular book? Are you trying to write a book that you can be proud of? Are you competing with a friend? Do you crave attention? Do you want to improve the world? Would you be satisfied with a small but informed audience? What do you want, fame? money? respect? What do you really believe in?

And what kind of books do you really enjoy reading? If you're an avid reader of mysteries but you're trying to write an art novel, consider whether that disconnect is meaningful.

Unless you are honest with yourself about what you're trying to do, your work will come across as false, a little off — a good reader can pick up on this pretty easily (and some editors are good readers).

I think it's best to write honestly, even if you don't like what it reveals about yourself.

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Step 3: Learn something about how publishing works

You can find out something about it on this website. But you need to go a lot farther.

If your situation permits, intern or do some volunteer reading for a publishing company. Meet and chat up people in the industry. Consider a job in publishing. Bookstore experience is invaluable. The more you know about how the system works the better the chance you have of succeeding in it.

But beware: publishing has a way of turning idealists into cynics remarkably quickly, and this is sad to watch. Interns may not know as much about the industry as long-time insiders but they usually have healthier attitudes to books, and they're more fun to hang out with. That's because industry insiders get so corrupted by the system that they don't realize how much it has changed them.

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Working on a book

Step 4. Do some market research

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about Pierre Menard, "author of the Quixote." The story tells how Menard recreated Cervantes's work word-for-word — not by copying it but as an independent original creation. According to Borges, Menard's feat was greater than Cervantes's.

But his book would be unpublishable.

You've got to know your market, especially in nonfiction. Finding out how your topic is covered in the marketplace will help you to find your niche. It will help you get to know your audience and what they want to know. You should do some market research early on in your planning.

That means visiting libraries and bookstores. What aspects of your subject have been covered, and how well? Has new information caused existing material to become outdated? Which books have gone out of print? (These days there aren't many books that stay in print for very long.) How are the books formatted and priced? If there's a big art book on the subject, maybe the market can bear a low-cost introductory text, for example. Or maybe the general outlines of a topic have been covered but there are specific subcategories that would find an audience.

Market research is more difficult with fiction. But I don't think it will hurt to go to a bookstore and see who is publishing what kind of fiction. Just be careful about trying to write according to what you imagine an editor is looking for — see my remarks above about honest writing.

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woman in bookstore

Step 5: Write the book

This seems obvious, but many people try to publish on the basis of a chapter and a proposal. That's possible if you're (1) an established author or (2) a recognized authority on your subject. Most people, though, will have to do the writing.

And that's a good thing. Writing is the best way to learn about your subject and to develop a more sophisticated understanding of it. Often you will find that a book develops in unexpected directions — be open to this.

At this stage you mainly want to get the book down. Make your way to the end and then see what you've got. Don't obsess about polish. Don't worry about whether it's good enough (it isn't — yet).

Don't obsess about formatting or length. Unless you are writing very strict genre fiction it's all about making it work, not hitting some magic number of words.

Most people slag off in the middle of the project. There's an excitement about beginning, and this will sustain you for a while. It's at the middle where you start to fear that you've painted yourself into a corner, that your work isn't good enough, that you will never finish. You've got to suck it up and work through this middle patch. When you hit the home stretch things will pick up again.

Consider nonlinear writing. In fiction, for example, you might want to start with a few key scenes and then fill in the gaps.

The most common cause of failure in writing is dropping out.

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Tom writing

Step 6. Rewrite

Never mind Kerouac and the precept of "first thought, best thought." Your first draft, let's face it, sucks. (Ernest Hemingway supposedly said "“The first draft of anything is shit."*)

And let's be clear about what a draft is. Sure, you've scratched and scribbled and emended your way through the whole manuscript. But that isn't rewriting — that's working up your initial draft.

Now that you have a manuscript you need to put it aside for a while and then appraise it critically. Change the point of view, move the first three chapters to the middle — that sort of thing. Manuel Puig once wrote a scene made up only of dialogue. It had three characters. In revising he eliminated one character completely. That made some of the dialogue a bit mysterious, but on the whole it was an inspired solution to a pedestrian scene.

As a translator and editor I know that the most common failing of translators is being satisfied too soon. Once your text begins to look like English there's a tendency to think you're done. You aren't. The same principle applies to original writing.

Some writers advise getting feedback from people you trust before submitting your manuscript for publication. This can be good if you have the right temperament and the right friends. (Writer Anne Lamott advises that if your friends can't find anything good to say about your manuscript you should get new friends.)

If you're worried that something might be wrong with your manuscript, it very likely is. When in doubt revise. You can always revert. But you will rarely want to

Remember that your first couple of pages are make or break. If you don't capture the editor's attention on those you never will. So give those pages special attention.

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Step 7: Do some more market research

Now that your manuscript is finished, where should you send it? Probably nowhere — first do a query.

Okay, where do you send the query? If you've done your market research you have identified some publishers who might be interested in the kind of book you've published. Doublecheck your conclusions in a bookstore. See which agents and editors the authors of similar or competing books thank in their acknowledgments

Then go to the reference desk of your library and consult the LMP (Literary Marketplace). Forget all the hokey Writer's Market-type publications. The LMP will give you the names, addresses, and phone numbers you want.

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8. Query

A good query letter is a short one. Your goal is to find out whether the publisher is looking for books like the one you've written and whether they will give it an honest read. Why send your ms. out to languish for months at the wrong place?

Do you need an agent? A good agent will certainly help, mainly because the agent knows the market better than you do. Major publishers may not read unagented mss. Still, there remain smaller independent publishers who will consider, and publish, unagented manuscripts. Below I talk about submitting the book to a publisher, but the same principles apply to submitting to an agent.

By the way, when it comes to negotiating contracts, agents are usually better than lawyers. That's because lawyers know the formal aspects of agreements, but agents know the book business. Later on I'll suggest some guidelines for finding a good agent. Recommendations from authors are one good way. Be careful, because this field is mostly unregulated. I would stay away from agents who charge a reading fee, for example.

Even if a publisher has published books in your area before, they might have shifted their focus, the editor might have moved on, they might already have more books signed up than they can handle, they might see your book as potentially cutting into the sales of one of their existing titles ... there are hundreds of reasons why you might unwittingly be knocking on the wrong door. So call or send a letter before submitting.

Keep your letter to one page. Explain who you are, what the book is in general terms, what its potential market might be (this can be difficult with fiction; if you can't do this in a natural way just leave it out).

f you want to get an idea how publishers think about books, get a few publishers' catalogues. Books are sold in the book industry on the basis of a few sentences. Why should you require more?

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A publisher's catalogue'

Step 9: Submit

If the publisher or agent responds favorably to your query, send the manuscript with a brief cover letter. Explain why you think the publisher or agent is right for the manuscript.

our target publisher or agent might request a synopsis and sample chapters. I hate synopses, and as an editor I never felt they could tell me anything. But, if you feel that this is your most promising avenue, then you will need to comply. In this case you should try to avoid exclusion factors by keeping the synopsis as brief as possible in order to get to the next step.

When you do submit your manuscript, make it easy to read. Double space. Don't justify your paragraphs. But there's no need to obsess about formatting.

Number the pages. I once dropped a manuscript. Its pages were unnumbered. You can imagine how successful that submission was.

I recommend against an SASE. Just have the agent or publisher recycle the pages instead of returning them. This is easier for everyone and postage costs as much as a photocopy does.

Don't include your photo. Do include your address.

Be natural. Don't follow rules. Be honest. Be real.

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author's manuscript

Step 10. Follow Up. Persevere

YSome people advise waiting six months before following up on a submission, and then dragging the business out at least a couple of more months with various follow-ups. That's fine if you don't mind being published posthumously. If you do three publishers in two years it might take you a decade to find the right house.

In my opinion two or three months should be plenty of time. Most manuscripts only get their first few pages read anyway. How long can that take? I'd rather pull a ms. back and keep it in play somewhere else than bet on a shot whose odds fade more and more as time goes by. So politely request a progress report. The response you get can tell you a lot about whether there is enthusiasm for your manuscript.

Don't mistake slow response for interest.

f you're serious about writing the main thing is not to give up. Remember, most people drop out after a while. So just by keeping at it you're getting ahead.

Later on I might add a section on book contracts. If you get to that point and you still need help you can be in touch through my contact page.

When your book is published, mail me a copy!

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