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How to Get Published


Attracting the attention of a literary agent or editor—for better or worse—is just like applying to college. Depending on your type of writing (short stories, novel, non-fiction book), that you hope to publish, there’s an established application process that every writer must follow. The basic application—query, synopsis or proposal, and sample chapters—remains industry standard. Just like applying for college, where the quality of your overall application (grades, SAT scores, personal essays) determines your acceptance rate, the same holds true for agents and editors. Indeed, writing awards, MFA’s, client referrals, publishing credits influence most agent and editors, but most important is the quality of your writing.

So before you embark on the journey towards publication, make sure you’re the best student you can be. Write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Then show your mom, your friends, and attend a writing workshop before rewriting again. Your writing must be 150% Grade-A+ quality. Otherwise, you’ll be crushed with a disappointing acceptance rate. And in the world of publishing, there are no safety schools.

I want to publish:

NONFICTION

It is much easier to sell nonfiction in today’s marketplace than fiction. In fact, it’s the rare agent who only specializes in fiction because nonfiction serves as the industry’s bread and butter. Every psychologist, relationship coach, medical expert, design guru, culinary extraordinaire, talk show host, politician, ex-Hollywood assistant, and organic farmer has a nonfiction book to sell. So why not you?

It’s true that literary agents prefer nonfiction authors with credentials and a platform (professional in-roads for promoting your book). But if you study the nonfiction books sold by many of the agents in the AQ database, you’ll find that credentials don’t always mean a PhD or a ten-year gold star career. For example, spending a year as a university admission counselor gives you the authority to write a book on “How to Get into College.” Comb your life experiences and stretch your mind. You might just qualify as an “expert” nonfiction author after all.

As for the submission process… Agents require a query, describing who you are and why you’re qualified to write your book, and a proposal, including an outline, table of contents, and sample chapters. But that’s it. Agents don’t always need to see the whole nonfiction book because they can sell it to major publishers on the merits of your credentials and proposal.

So how do you write a nonfiction proposal? Carefully and professionally. There are a ton of books and websites out there that walk you step-by-step through the process.

We recommend the following resources:

How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book by Blythe Camenson

How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen

"Non-fiction Writing Resources" on literary agent Steve Laube's website.

Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington will help you write your memoir and Elizabeth Lyon's Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write will help you format it for submission to agents.




NOVELS

The good news about getting fiction published is that there are no rules. You don’t have to be previously published. You don’t have to be a graduate of a MFA creative writing program. You don’t have to be the winner of a prestigious contest. And you don’t have to write like William Faulkner. You just have to tell a brilliant, intriguing story in 85,000 to 100,000 words. Write a story that neatly falls into a popular genre category like commercial fiction, women’s fiction, romance, suspense, or mystery, and you’ll be golden.

Still having trouble picking a genre for your book? Need help understanding the difference between chick lit and women's fiction? What about the difference between mystery and thriller? Use our Genre Descriptions to help.

The fiction market is tight. You’ll hear that a lot, so get use to it. You’ll also find out that it doesn’t matter how beautiful you write. You better tell a good yarn or you’ll be rejected. A good story with the “oooooh” hook, some snazzy characters, great pacing, and an intriguing plot will garner agent representation and a six figure advance ten times faster than the next wannabe Raymond Carver short story collection. So if you've written a literary masterpiece, be prepared for a lot of rejection.

Are we advocating selling out? Not entirely. We just want writers to mentally prepare themselves. It's easy to tell yourself that you don't care about being published while you're writing the great American novel. But four years later, when you're finished with your masterpiece, and you begin shopping it around, you'll find it hard to swallow all those positive rejections from literary agents who say, "Wow, you're such a beautiful writer, but sorry, I can't sell your book."

Plot over prose is the mantra of publishing nowadays. Just prepare yourself.

One final thought, novelists… write a query letter and start soliciting agents, but ONLY if you’ve finished the whole manuscript. Agents will want to see the whole polished book before they extend representation to a newbie unpublished author, so don’t query agents until your novel is complete.

NOVELLAS/SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS

Publishers want novels, not novellas (adult novels under 60,000 words) or short story collections. And agents simply follow these orders. While it’s true that agents can sell linked novellas or short story collections to publishers, it’s often in a two-book deal in which the second book is a future novel. Although story stories are great for literary magazines, the mantra in the publishing world is that short story collections don’t sell. So if you’ve got one to peddle, be prepared for a long uphill battle for your short story collection.

Don’t get us wrong. It’s not impossible to sell a short story collection to a major publisher, but it does help if the stories are closely linked somehow—thematically or through a few reoccurring characters. It also helps if one or two stories in the collection have been previously published in notable literary journals. And no—being published on the internet doesn’t count—unless it’s on The New Yorker’s website.

Don’t take our downtrodden attitude towards short stories as dismissive poo-pooing of their merit. We fully understand that plenty of contemporary writers have broken into the publishing scene with their first short story collections. Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Melissa Banks, and ZZ Packer all come to mind. We just want all aspiring authors to know that novels are easier for agents to sell. So don’t sell yourself short—literally.


CHILDREN'S BOOKS

When we say children’s books, we mean children’s "picture books." Picture books are tricky to get published if you’re an unpublished newbie writer. It’s a tough market to break into. Reprinted old favorites continue to dominate booksellers shelf space. Moreover, veteran children’s book authors have become mini-brands, cornering the market and making it very difficult for new writers to make an entrance. However, it can be done, and fortunately, writing a 3-8 page children’s book manuscript is a lot less time consuming than a 300 page novel, so set to work and explore every viable idea. If one doesn’t seem to be catching on with agents, try the next one.

When querying agents, send your complete 3-8 pages manuscript along with your initial query. Don’t ever send accompanying illustrations unless an agent represents illustrators as well as authors (most don’t). As a first-time children’s author, it’s unlikely that a major publisher will use your illustrations or the illustrations of your sister or best friend. They will hire their own famous big-wig illustrator to put pictures to your words. So start querying, keep an open mind, and see what happens. With a fabulous enough idea, anything is possible.

How do I write a query letter?

How do I begin my agent search?