I originally published this in September 2012 on my old blog.
Today’s post provides an overview of the traditional novel publishing process for anyone who wants to brush up on the basics! Authors may deviate from this path in a variety of ways, but this is the standard journey.
Write a novel.
Contrary to popular belief, you do have to have a completed book before you try to publish it, haha. Nonfiction operates on proposals and is a whole other kind of process, but for fiction, you want to have the manuscript ready first.
Edit your novel.
Most of writing is, in fact, editing. You want your work to be as polished and awesome as possible before you start putting it out there. You are selling this to the industry, and they want as great of a piece as they can get. Yes, they’re going to do a lot of editing themselves. No, that does not mean you can let it slide. Make the best product you can on your own.
Start by stepping away from your work once you’ve finished your first draft. It’s important to get some space to improve your perspective. You won’t be able to see your mistakes until you’ve had some time away from them. Come back later to get the job done.
One important part of the editing process is getting readers who can offer even more perspective. Be sure to seek out varied views from people with different skill areas, some of whom tend to be harsher and some of whom tend to be more complimentary. Then look over the responses, consider what you want from your story, and figure out what you need to change.
It’s a good idea to start with the bigger storyline stuff before you get down to editing the exact wording. Over time, as you write and edit new manuscripts, you’ll also find your own special writerly weaknesses and learn how to counter them. For example, I am a plot-rusher. I’m so excited about the big picture and seeing what happens that I tend to leave out important filler. So in edits, I get to go back and fill it in! When it comes to words that are overused or that weaken the prose, like those listed in The Elements of Style, my personal weaknesses are passive voice and iterations of the words “look” and “eyes.” There are lots of tools online that can help you find yours, including word cloud apps!
Once you run out of notable issues to edit, it’s time to move to the next step.
Finalize the pitch material.
You may actually find it helpful to draft these documents while you’re in the midst of the previous two steps, but whether or not you do that, you need to polish them afterwards. These documents are key. They’re what you send to literary agents in order to obtain their interest in representing you. Because pitch material is all about summarizing, organizing, and marketing your ideas, it has the side effect of clarifying your ideas. Getting it right is so important.
Here’s what you need:
- a query letter
- a plot synopsis
- a finished manuscript
This step is where you fully switch from artist to business thinking, which means being smart, professional, and exact. It’s similar to what’s required when applying for a regular job. A query letter is a mix between a cover letter and a project proposal. A plot synopsis is like a more detailed project proposal. Samples are often requested, which is why you need that book ready! You also may be asked for an author bio or a marketing plan, and if you attend special writerly events, you’ll have to condense your query letter down even further: 140 characters for a Twitter pitch online or a minute-long verbal “elevator pitch.”
The query letter is the central piece here. It begins with a pitch of your manuscript (make it exciting, specific, but professional, like on the inside flap of a published book), either followed or preceded by a paragraph stating the title, category/genre, word count, and a couple of comparable titles. You don’t want comps that are so blockbuster-popular that you’ll sound egotistical, but you want some well-written, recent titles that have a similar theme, style, and/or genre as your manuscript. Then include a paragraph with any writing credits you may have, followed by a closing where you offer the manuscript to the agent and thank them. You may also want to share your reason for choosing that particular agent to send to. Make sure that your final query is one page only!
There are all sorts of resources online to help you write a top-notch query, but I recommend seeking out other writers who are familiar with the process, at places like WriteOnCon, to specifically critique yours.
Choose who to send your materials out to.
This step involves a lot of research. There’s no point in marketing your novel if you’re marketing it to the wrong people. It’s important, first, to know that it is very rare to get a publishing deal without a literary agent as an intermediary. The agents select the clients whose work they most love, prepare them more, and then send them to editors at publishing companies, who know that these novels are higher quality because the agent chose them. Agents also assist with the entire rest of the process, including contract negotiations, which makes them indispensable.
Second, Writer’s Market and the website QueryTracker are two great reference tools that can help you find agents. Each agent has different genres they specialize in. Narrow down the field to the agents that work with your novel type and look at their websites. Be sure you’re considering not just the overall agency, but the individual agents to find which one fits you best. You will be expected to address that person directly in your letter, and it’s to your advantage to know a good bit about them. Check places like Writer Beware and Absolute Write online to make sure they aren’t scamming you. Find with whom the agents have worked and what books they’ve sold. You can also look at their social media to see how they interact publicly with others.
Third, once you have a list of agents you’d like to work with, find what their submission requirements are. Each one will have slightly different rules about which materials they want sent where, and they’ll have different response times. (Many of them are so busy they don’t respond at all unless they want to read more.) Get that information and follow it to the letter. Again, professionalism! Be the person others want to work with.
Send out your work.
Once you’re ready, I recommend sending out to a handful of agents at a time. You want to query multiple agents because you’re very unlikely to get a yes the first few times, but not too many agents because it can get confusing and you need time to correct your materials based on the responses. Keep track in a spreadsheet so you know if they’ve exceeded their response time and if it’s time to a) check in or b) move on, depending on what their website says.
Remember that you will be rejected. It happens to all of us. For example, I’ve been rejected 111 times so far! If I’m not your prime example, you can look up any author and see what their experience was like. Rejection happens. It’s part of the process. Be strong, never give up on becoming a published author, but be ready to move on to another manuscript if the time comes.
If they haven’t asked for the full manuscript up front, which is rare, agents who are interested will ask for that once they read your query. Based on where in the process you’re getting rejected most often–whether it’s with the query, the first few chapters, or the full manuscript–you can figure out where you need to focus your edits. Reconsider your materials. Get more opinions from people you trust. A lot does depend on the current market and individual taste. Agents may also ask for a revise and resubmit (R&R), where you edit your manuscript based on their critiques and they check whether it’s right for them afterwards. You don’t have to make those edits if they don’t feel right for you–just move on to somebody else.
If it’s really just not happening, you might reach a point where you have to “trunk” that novel. If you’ve been writing another book while you’re been querying (which you should do!), you can move on to that one. Sometimes a manuscript you write ends up just being for you. That’s valuable in so many ways, so don’t feel bad that it wasn’t meant for more. Move forward until you get to the book that does work.
Continue your work with the professionals.
Hopefully, you’ll reach a point where one or more agents decide they want to represent you. At this point, you need to notify the others who have not yet responded. There will be a phone call so you and the agent can discuss your visions for the manuscript and your future career. That’ll help you figure out if you’re the right fit for each other. Your agent is your business partner, so you need to be able to communicate with and trust them. Once you and an agent officially decide to work together, with a signed contract and all, take a moment to celebrate! This is such an important step forward. (One I haven’t yet reached myself!)
Done celebrating? Okay. This is a business relationship, and like all relationships, it takes mutual work. You might do some editing together. Then your agent will start sending out to editors at publishing houses who the agent sees as a good fit–and you’ll get more rejections in the process. With luck, you’ll find the right editor, but things can go wrong. You might still have to move on to a different manuscript. It’s also possible that someone might end up breaking the writer/agent contract, and you’ll have to start over. This is a difficult, messy industry, but if you’re really here for this, it’s worth it.
Once you’ve negotiated and signed a contract with a publisher (which requires the okay from multiple editors, usually), there are still more ways it can go wrong. It often takes a year or two for the book to actually hit the market because there are multiple levels of editing that you have to undergo along with designing and formatting and marketing. Your agent will help you through it all. Together, you and your publishing team will hopefully be able to kick off your authorly career!
Then you can look at how far you’ve come. You made it to publication. YOU WIN! (I mean, you still have a whole career to manage, and there are a million more ways it can go wrong. Your book sales will determine how likely you are to get published again, and you don’t have much power over that! The best determiner is actually how much marketing the publisher chooses to do for your book. There’s also all sorts of complications with payment schedules and advances and taxes and a sad lack of health insurance. But that’s life! This moment is still monumental and deserves congratulations.)
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