Getting published...
April 24, 2005 11:37 AM   Subscribe

What is the process for getting a book published?

I have a friend in Philadelphia who is working on a novel piece by piece, and is getting ever closer to finishing. He has no experience with getting published, does not know who to talk to, etc. but is probably not interested in self-publishing and self-distribution.

Recommendations for an agent, or the general procedure for sending out manuscripts to publishers, ideas regarding editing, etc. are all appreciated, especially any contacts within the Philadelphia metro area. Thanks in advance!
posted by Rothko to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I do not have a novel published, but I will dispense some advice anyway. I'm in a similar situation - finishing a novel, hoping to start sending it out this fall. I do have some publishing experience, having worked in 'big publishing' and also having a few short stories published. But, I've not published a novel, so take my advice with that in mind.

Anyway, the book Novel and Short Story Writer's Market has a ton of info on markets - agents, specifically, and what they are looking for and how to get in touch with them.

Your friend might also benefit from showing the novel to somebody. This can have its drawbacks, but if this is your friend's first foray into novel-writing, it might help to seek out a writer's group, or maybe better yet, somebody with some qualifications (teaching, editing, writing) who is willing to give your friend their opinion (perhaps for a price.) I dont think this is necessary, but there are many, many easily corrected mistakes that somebody who knows the biz can help them fix before sending to an agent, who won't give something a second look if it's got a lot of amateur mistakes. I'm not saying your friend has this problem, just a friendly suggestion. A way to find people willing to do this would be to look at the English department faculties of the local universities and look for fiction writers. If they've only got one or two books, they might be willing to do some freelance editing. There are also community writers groups all over the place where your friend might find somebody to do this. The key is to find somebody with some qualification to do this, which can be tricky, but if they've got a book or two and aren't charging a ridiculous fee, then it might be worth it.

A copy editor might be another step that your friend might take before sending to an agent. I think the more polished your friend's book, the better shot they have.
posted by drobot at 12:23 PM on April 24, 2005

As I understand it, in theory the publisher should be doing a lot of what drobot talks about, but in practice they don't always.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has some advice for would-be authors, IIRC, but I can't find it. Maybe you could google it up or ask on her blog.
posted by hattifattener at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2005

My understanding is that at one time publishers/editors would invest a lot in helping you polish your book, but this is no longer the case, or is rare, at best. An agent might do some of that work for you, but there are *so* many people out there trying to sell novels, the better yours is upfront, the greater chance of somebody reading it.
posted by drobot at 1:41 PM on April 24, 2005

Oh, gosh, seriously look for a writer's group. I'm a member of the RWA (Romance Writers of America) and they have local chapters everywhere. The members are exceedingly helpful.

Is he writing genre or literary fiction?

There are resources all over the Internet for finding an agent and avoiding scammy ones (google Preditors and Editors) but it's not like this magic thing where he'll send off his first three chapters and have an agent the next day (though I guess that it could happen.) More likely he needs to send it off and expect not to hear anything for a while. Use that time to get started on the next one.

Send things to agents but after that let them come to you. If you have to work for your agent, then something is wrong. Agents work for *you* -- they're the ones making money off of you, after all.

If he's looking at a small press he doesn't necessarily have to have an agent. Each press's website will note if they take unagented submissions.

Editing can be done with the agent and with the editor (once that happens.) But don't let that be an excuse to send sloppy shit out, because that doesn't work either. He needs to make it the best he can before it goes anywhere.

There are lots of books, too, on how to get published. You'll find them in the reference section of your local bookstore.

After learning all this stuff, I figured the mantra of "Hurry up and wait" fit publishing just as well as the movie business. Good luck to your friend.
posted by sugarfish at 1:48 PM on April 24, 2005

Theresa, mentioned above, really does have the best advice, delivered with dry wit and friendliness. Her best standard advice is to avoid using self-publishing companies: don't take the success stories in this New York Times article as anything but rare exceptions (and the story has plenty of cautions and warnings that one should listen to). The main reason being this: even if a real publisher (and I mean "real" in every sense of the word) does nothing to support your book, it will still be listed on their catalog, will still be listed on their web site, and you can do the exact same things to support it as you would if you self-published. If you self-publish, there is no publishing company that might do any promotions to supplement your own promotions. Then, if it does turn out to be a success (and it probably won't, no matter where you publish) a real publisher has huge promotional machinery that they can put to work for you. HUGE. It's more than you could possibly do on your own. Plus, your odds are higher for a second book deal.

The Times' article says a self-publishing company will make your book "available at, and other online retailers." Do you know what "make available" means? It means that the self-publishing company will let the book book chains order copies if they want them. It doesn't mean your book will be in a huge pyramid display in every Barnes and Noble front window.

Also, the story uses Amy Fisher as an example of a successful self-publisher. Her co-author says, "We figured we might make more money doing it this way." He doesn't say whether or not they did, but in his statement is the number one reason people go to self-publishers: they think that their book being rejected by real publishers is an insult to genius and that surely, surely, if the book is printed, it will be an enormous best-seller. It's a road covered in delusions, which is an ugly flower.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:21 PM on April 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

PS: Teresa Nielsen Hayden's main blog link is here. Some interesting threads, although you should really explore the archives. Not only is she a working editor, but many of her commenters are published writers.


Atlanta Nights: baiting the truly fraudulent "publishers" and "agents".

Displaced advice and other sorts.

The power of the press, sort of.

Squick and squee.
posted by Mo Nickels at 5:36 PM on April 24, 2005 [1 favorite]

My first book will be published in November 2005, and the sequel to it will be coming out in Spring 2006. Both books are humor books, rather than novels, but I'm guessing that the process is similar. Here are the steps that I'd advise for anybody who hopes to get a book published:

1. Finish the book. Put it aside for a few weeks. Come back to it and read it with as objective an eye as you can. Then find other writers who can read it and give you feedback. If you find yourself rejecting every piece of feedback you get, that is a danger sign that you are too close to your work to be objective. (On the other hand, if you find yourself accepting every piece of feedback you get, that's a danger sign that you lack confidence in your own work.) Re-write as necessary until the book is as good as you can possibly make it.

2. Generate a list of agents who seem like good matches. The aforementioned Novelist and Short Story Writer's Market is a good starting place. If there are published works that are similar in spirit to yours, you might want to track down the author's agent (by calling the publisher, for example) and adding them to your list.

3. Write a killer query letter. It will likely fit the following pattern:

A) a paragraph or two conveying what the book is about ("With only 24 hours left in his term, a United States president must figure out who is murdering the members of his cabinet")

B) a paragraph or two explaining why you are the perfect person to write this book-- because of your demonstrated literary ability, your personal experiences, or both("As the current President of the United States, I have a unique understanding of what actually happens when a Secretary of Defense goes insane and begins murdering his fellow cabinet members. Before beginning my current term, I published several short stories in The New Yorker under the pen name 'John Updike'")

C) Information on how the agent can contact you if he wants to read the manuscript ("If you would like to read The Oval Office... of DEATH, simply open your office window and nod to any of the Secret Service officers who will be standing on the sidewalk. Or you can just e-mail me.")

Remember that your query letter is the only writing sample that an agent will see before deciding whether or not to request the manuscript. If you're trying to sell a humor book, your query had better be funny. If you're pitching a literary novel, your query had better be stylish and eloquent. No matter what, your query had better be well-written and carefully proofread.

4. If agents want to read the manuscript, send it off to them. If an agent reads the manuscript and wants to represent you, don't let your excitement stop you from interviewing the agent just like you'd interview any other prospective employee. What experience has he had? What makes him think this is a marketable book, and how does he plan to sell it? If the agent wants to charge you any sort of fee up front, THE AGENT IS A SCAMMER. A legitimate agent who thinks she can sell your book will just wait until she sells it and deduct her expenses from the advance the publisher gives you. A legitimate agent who doesn't think she can sell your book won't take you on in the first place. The only agents who will demand an upfront fee are illegitimate agents who don't have any expectation of selling your book.

Once you have an agent, he or she will generate a plan tailored to your specific book. A good agent will know which publishing houses are looking for a book like yours, and which editors at those houses are most likely to appreciate your work, and how best to approach those editors. For our book, our agent advised us to sell the book as a proposal, rather than as a completed manuscript--so we ended up retroengineering a proposal from our already-finished book! The editor who bought it was surprised at how quickly we were able to send the book after signing the contract...

5. If no agent wants to read the manuscript, you might need to write a better query letter. If agents read the manuscript and don't want to represent you, you might need to write a better book. If any agents offer you feedback, consider it carefully. As before, you need to strike a balance between muleheadedly ignoring sound counsel and weak-willedly ignoring your own artistic voice.

6. If, after numerous rejections from agents, and serious consideration of any cricitism they've offered, you still feel that you've written a marketable book, start approaching publishers directly. I was lucky that I didn't have to query publishers myself, so I don't know too much about doing this, but I imagine that the process is similar to querying agents. As with agents, the more you can target specific editors and publishers who are truly well suited for your book, the better off you'll be.
posted by yankeefog at 6:09 AM on April 25, 2005 [10 favorites]

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