Monday, September 17, 2012

How to Get Your Novel Published

by Stephanie Morrill

Recently I've had a few questions from teen writers that go something like, "I really want to get my book published. What should I do?"

And I usually just kinda stare at the screen for awhile, trying to pick which response I should given them.

Do I talk about finding a publishing house that's a good fit? Because really, getting an editor practically requires a literary agent these days. So maybe that's how I should respond. Well, but that leads to query letters and writers conferences. And, gosh, before querying you should really make sure you have a good proposal put together with the right genre and target audience and such, or you're likely just wasting your time. Oh, and you should also have written the book ... is it insulting to start there?

And as fun as it is to fumble through a response every week when I receive that question - picture me rolling my eyes - I thought maybe I'd put together a somewhat comprehensive blog post on what a writer needs in order to get published.

Everybody wants to be published long before their skill level merits it. And there's no shame in that. Just like there's no shame in a pre-med student wanting to someday be a doctor. In fact it seems rather obvious, doesn't it? Of course they want to be a doctor, they're a pre-med student!

But while a pre-med student has a clearly trodden path to follow to becoming a doctor, the correct path for a newbie writer to grow into a novelist can be tougher to discern.

Every writer's path is different, but I've attempted to break down some general, tangible steps with brief explanations. I'll go into more detail on each of these later in the week:

1. Write a good, full-length book

This one surprises a lot of people, but until you're an established author, no literary agent or editor will sign you until they've seen a full manuscript. Having a great idea for a book and writing a great book are two different things - they want to be sure you can do both.

2. Educate yourself on the industry

Before your print off your 90 page manuscript and mail it to Random House like I did as a 17-year-old, take some time to learn about the industry. What houses are publishing new writers? What ideas are already on the market? What conferences are good? What kind of writing groups are in your area? What's the difference between self-publishing and traditional? What's the job description of a novelist, or an agent, or an acquisitions editor? 

You don't have to know everything about the industry, of course, but it's good to be sure you actually want this job before you invest so much time pursuing it.

3. Work to identify your genre, target audience, and brand.

This is tough for creative types who don't like to box themselves in, but these are details agents and editors need before they'll take a risk on a new writer.

4. Grow your audience (also known as "build a platform.")

Again, I'm just giving a brief overview of all of these, but the more people who are energized about you and the book you're writing, the better. This is more true for those who write non-fiction, but it won't hurt you as a fiction writer either.

5. Use the above results to create a book proposal.

This is what an agent will be asking you for when evaluating if you're a writer they want to work with.

6. Acquire a good literary agent

7. Work hard to make connections and build your presence.

Even if you have an agent, you can't just sit back and let them score you a big deal. Though that is part of their job (my agent, I'm guessing, would also list "anxiety management" in her description of working with me...) you can make their lives easier by continuing to write books, grow your presence, and make industry contacts.

We're going to talk through all those steps over the next couple weeks. If you have a particular question (or if the published authors among us have a step they think should be added to the list) post it below and I'll be sure to address it!


  1. I can't stress enough the importance of that line you mention in the last one--continue to write books, grow your platform, and make contacts. The best thing you can ever do when trying to break into publishing is keep working. Keep writing. Keep learning, keep growing, keep trying. And don't give up. Because rejections are part of publishing, and you can't let them slow you down. None of us know which of our projects will eventually find that perfect fit with our dream publisher--and the only way to figure it out is to write them, pitch them, and see what happens. It's a shampoo industry--involves lots of "rinse and repeat"ing. ;-)

  2. Great post! I loved the comparison between pre-med students and pre-published writers.
    ~Sarah Faulkner

  3. Gosh, I have so many thoughts and questions with this one and Stephanie im probably gonna make you roll your eyes so get ready (if I can even remember them :). But I have a feeling that there's no concrete answer to some of them so don't worry if you don't know,

    I've heard a lot that writers submit too early but how do you know when you are ready and when you aren't? We are all driven by wanting to be published and just reading this weekends 500 free write entries shows me how un-ready I am but how do you know when it crosses over?

    *side note* analogy w/the med students. Having spent a lot of time with med students & residents I can tell you that you can also spot ones that are really gonna "make it" and ones that aren't. I bet that's true of agents & editors, huh?

    Some ppl just want to be published, some of us are silly enough to want it to be our career, I'm going from agents blogs I've read & none of them have the time to answer this question. There's a lot that goes into planning a career and do you think you are better off holding back, writing a number of books and have a solid plan (almost like a business model small businesses have) of achieving a career than if you go in with one MS and try to get it published? I dont know if I worded that right? Like, i know publishing is hard and do you think the ones that are much more calculated in preparation and presentation have a better chance of succeeding OR is it still all based in a gamble?

    And if you do write a book and get an agent how far do you take self promotion? When does it become boastful? I actually know someone who had an agent & from the outside it appears she doing more telling people she's going to be published than anything else. It makes me wonder if her agent telling her to do these things or is she jumping the gun?

  4. Reply ISnt working for me but I wanted to clarify my first two question
    1. Example, I'm writing a book now, I dont have strong sense that it has potential, However, I realized I have a few solid premises-in-waiting. I feel like I'm a squirrel gathering nuts. I feel like these premises & ideas have potential but they need proper time & care. If written correctly they could be published (I think) and I want to give them their due. So I'm just storing every little spark I can. I keep working on the more flimsy in the mean time.

    2. After all the planning/agent blah I typed what I'm really asking is - can you plan a career or is the bottom line that it's a gamble no matter what?

    1. These are great questions, Tonya, and I didn't roll my eyes at all :)

      I'll do my best to answer them.

      In my experience, the way you find out if you're ready or not is by submitting stuff. Either submitting to contests or sending out query letters to agents or something. It can be a rather painful way of finding out if you're ready, but it's really the clearest way. Critique groups are great and valuable, but usually you're working with authors who are about the same level as you are. I was told, "No, not good enough," quite often before I wound up with an agent, and it was almost surreal when she called and was like, "I love this!" (Wait ... you do? I'm finally good enough?)

      Yes, I think agents and editors can tell who has potential and who doesn't. Or even authors who mentor and teach. It's not always those with the most talent or the most creative ideas. It's the people, I've found, who want it bad enough to work for it.

      I think a business plan is always a good idea ... though you honestly just don't know which way the market is going to turn. Chick lit was huge, then it died. Historicals were huge, no one wanted contemporaries. Everyone wanted dystopian, now no one wants to see a dystopian. You can't chase the market trends, but you need to be mindful of them when pitching. So what I'm trying to say is when you write a book you love, go ahead and try to sell it, and just be aware that the genre you publish in might be one where you need to be comfortable for a bit.

      There's a difference between self-promotion and book promotion, I think. What that writer is doing sounds super annoying to me, though since it's beaten into all of us that we need to promote, promote, promote and build our audience, I get where she's coming from. But nobody wants to be THAT person.

      I'm no expert on marketing, but promotion gets a lot easier when you're doing something you believe in. Yes, I need to promote my books ... but I believe my books can be a valuable experience for readers, so I don't mind promoting them in an organic kind of way. Same with Go Teen Writers. There are a lot of things I do that technically promote the blog ... but I believe Go Teen Writers is a valuable resource so if I'm talking to a teen and I find out they write, I have no qualms about saying, "I have a site that you might find really helpful."

      Do you see the difference?

    2. Whoa! Thankyou so much for such a detailed explanation! It was helpful.

      One of the hardest things in writing is that there isn't a clear path. Especially when the market changes so often.
      I have a feeling ill struggle with self promotion bc it isn't my thing, lol!

  5. Great points, all Stephanie! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Okay. This is cool. AND it's exactly what I need! Exactly. How do you time these things so perfectly?? ;) Your answers to Tonya's questions were really helpful, too. Thanks, Stephanie!

  7. When it comes to the marketing portion of the book proposal I always get lost. Also, if it is fiction do you need a chapter outline? I've had some people tell me yes and some say no. I think each agent has different preferences for book proposals?

    1. This is definitely something where you have to look at who you're pitching to. As a rule, no--most just want to see a 2-4 page synopsis. I know of one publisher who required chapter outlines, but they recently merged into another line, and I'm not sure if the requirements for that have changed...but definitely check the specific guidelines of each agent or publishing house. If they want chapter-by-chapter, it'll state it clearly. Otherwise, assume not. ;-)

      As for marketing--I know Stephanie has blogged about your ideal reader before. When you have an ideal reader in mind, then it helps you come up with your marketing section. If you reader is 17, a senior in high school, and living at home, you're going to market differently than if your target reader is 65, retired, and thinks Kindle is something you do to the logs in the fireplace. How do you reach YOUR reader? That's what the marketing section is about. Do you do high school visits? Church ladies' group visits? All online? Do you have magazines in mind that you could try to write articles for? Are you from a small town where the newspaper will highlight you? Local TV? All that stuff goes in there.

      Enough babbling from me now, I think. ;-)

    2. I'll just ditto everything Roseanna said :) And I'll be sure to cover that when we talk book proposals in a few days. Thanks, Mandi Lynn!

  8. Another thing, I'm coming to the end of the process of writing my novel. I've been through 7 drafts and draft 8 is going to come once I get feedback from someone reviewing the manuscript. The point is that I think I've learned enough now to move onto pitching in person. I've done something like this before in front of a crowd of near 100 at a writer's intensive when I asked a question and the non-fiction publisher wanted to know what my book was about because I was only 16 (sadly I write fiction). But I did't fault when I went over the plot of my book and I think I'm ready for a Writer's Conference because I think seeing a 16 year old pitch in person would "sell" better.

    Here's the question: how do you find a writer's conference? The closest one I can find is in NYC and I live in MA. We just spent a few hundred to travel to the writer's intensive and the conference I'm looking at is $600 not counting the hotel fee to stay over night for four days. What are the average prices for a conference?

    1. It's depends on a lot of things, Mandi. If you want to go to a Christian conferance the most comprehensive listing is Sally Stuart's writers market guide.
      I haven't found a full listing for secular conferences you'll just have to google "writers conferences 2013" or something.
      Price can vary depending on size and location.
      I don't know where you are in MA but if you're willing to travel there is a Christian conference in Montroe Pa. It is on the border of upstate Ny/ Pa. I used to live near there & it'd take 3 hours to get to MA
      It's a smaller conference but still has good
      teachers & some agents. It's a lot less expensive than ACFW

    2. It's called Montrose Christian Writers conference.

    3. Mandi Lynn, I don't know if you have any agents or editors who you're particularly interested in (I don't think I would have early on, anyway) but a lot of them post their schedules on their blogs or something so you can see what conferences they're going to be at. Conferences certainly have value outside of agent/editor appointments, but if that's one of the main reasons you're going, it's good to make sure there's going to be someone there you're interested in seeing.

      Conferences can be pretty pricey. (I've had writers tell me they're conference junkies, and it always makes me think, "How on earth do you AFFORD it???") I'm going to one this weekend, and it'll probably cost about 1,000 once you add up registration, hotel, air, and a couple other costs.

      Let me see if I can hunt up a list of good conferences...

  9. Hey Stephanie! I am so excited to learn about how to publish, very great to know! I have a question; Could you please do a post on proposal formatting? Or is there a link to where I can see a good book proposal? Thanks!

    1. Hi, Sarah! Absolutely. That can feel so intimidating! When I talk in depth about proposals, I'll mention this again, but Jill Williamson posted one of her sample proposals in this post:

  10. This is really helpful! Thanks Stephanie!

  11. How important do you think it is to get a literary agent in your OWN country?? Obviously I have writing quirks and tendancies that would appeal to my country more than America (but, as I've researched, there are a lot more opportunties in the USA). I'm kind of drawing near to the time when I want to test the waters and explore the publishing world myself. Should I hit my country first? Or just take whatever opportunties present themselves?

    Loved the post! Very helpful.

  12. So much to learn. I wish I can do things you suggest. Thanks for enlighten me.

  13. Stephanie, yay! This is just grand.

  14. I have always wanted to become an Author (don't laugh i know it will probably always just be a dream) I'm a teenager (still at secondary school) and i wanted to know if there is any point in pursuing writing as a career, this is because mostly all i here from people is 'hardly anyone gets published' 'there's one in a million chances you'll even get yours read'so im wondering if its all a waste because i know the writing industries probably huge. So my question is,

    Im a teenager at school and its coming up to that time where you are advised to choose your career paths, is there a point in trying to persue a writing career or not? Im not sure if i'm good enough 1) because of my age and 2)just in genral

    i need some advice please help me it would be great ? :-) x

    1. With persistence and a dedication to growing as a writer, absolutely you can get published. But it takes a long time for money to come in, and even after it does, it's not very consistent. So it's a good idea to have a back up plan.