Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How Do I Get Published? The (Very) Basics

I've done a handful of author events over the past few weeks and at every one I've had at least one writer ask me about the steps to take to get published.

So I thought maybe there are some people looking for this sort of information. And, hey, maybe you've somehow stumbled upon my blog while doing it! (In which case, hai, fellow writer).

So here are my 10 very basic short answers to "What do I do to get published?" And, of course, take everything with a grain of salt as there are no real "steps" to anything in life (particularly anything like this). But in my own personal experiences, and after having talked to many other published writers, here are some of the common threads.

1. Have a completed manuscript. It really needs to be the whole book. Not a proposal, not an outline, but a finished story.

2. Polish your manuscript. Take a class. Do an online writing workshop. Find beta readers (in children's books, SCBWI can be a great resource for this). Make sure others have read and commented on your manuscript and that you've at least considered (and in some cases rectified) their issues. You need some eyes with distance because, ultimately, the agent, editor and -- finally -- reader of your book won't be you.

3. Take one more look at the two steps above. You need your manuscript to be in the best shape possible.

4. My opinion: find an agent. It is possible to get published without an agent, but it's much harder. Many less publishing houses accept unsolicited manuscripts. PLUS when you get to the part where you have an offer and you're actually getting published, you will want a good agent who's on your side helping to guide your career and understanding your contracts.

5. And, of course, how do you find your agent? The Internet will be your best friend. Again, for kidlit, I recommend SCBWI -- if you join, you get a very handy cheat sheet of agents, agencies and some of the genres they represent. But any genre you're writing in should have a group like that. Look into it. Look in the acknowledgment sections of your favorite books and find out who those authors' agents are. Compile a list of names of agents who represent your genre and then...

6. Whittle down those names. Find the 6 or 7 agents that you REALLY want to represent you -- the ones that if they offered you representation wouldn't cause you a moment's hesitation. Go to their websites and find out their exact submission policy. FOLLOW IT. I  know this sounds like I'm being completely obvious but you wouldn't believe how many agents get query letters where the directions are not followed at all. They will already like you if you can just do this simple thing. And you want them to like you.

7. Ah, the query letter. That's what most agents will want. Some will want a sampling of the manuscript as well, but almost all will want the "elevator pitch." Keep it short, professional and -- most of all -- interesting. You want this person who reads hundreds of these letters a week to stop and say, "I want to read the story this person is pitching RIGHT NOW." There are tons of resources on the Internet on how to write a great query letter. Again, my manservant Google is your best friend (he can be your manservant too -- I'm big into sharing).

8. Keep track of all the agents you're querying -- the date you queried them, what you sent and, also, their response policy (I used an excel for this). Some may ask you to follow up if you haven't heard after a certain amount of time. Some may have this information on their website. Some may say, "Don't contact me ever! I'll call you." Again, whatever it says -- follow it!

9. Rejections are hard. I'm not going to pretend otherwise. But after you get over the emotional aspect of it, see if you can glean anything useful from the rejection. If it's a form rejection, just tick off a box in your excel and move on. But if it's a personalized rejection with suggestions -- that's actually a GOOD thing. It means a very busy person saw enough potential in you and your work to give you their professional advice. You do not have to take every bit of advice that is thrown out you, but make sure to see if their notes resonate with you. Some agents may even ask you to resubmit if you decide to take them up on their notes. If that's the case, take that very seriously.

10. Did you get rejections from all 6 or 7 of your top agents? Take another look at your manuscript. Really consider doing another round of edits. Then find 6 or 7 other agents who would be a great fit for you. Repeat steps 6-10.

Do you have any other questions? Ask in the comments section and, if I can answer them, I will!


  1. Helpful list. Thanks. Looking forward to reading THE MAPMAKER AND THE GHOST. My ten year old self is squirming in anticipation! :)

  2. Thanks for this perfect list; it covers all the bases. I wish I'd had the list two years ago as a road map for my debut tween book. I'll print these off and post on the wall as a reminder for book 2,3,4, etc. (Hopeful, huh?)

    1. Glad you find it helpful, Mike. And it'd be very hard to get anywhere without being hopeful!

  3. Thank you for your tips! I somehow found your blog (probably googling middle grade writers) and I'm so glad I did! I'm an aspiring middle grade writer and complete newbie to learning what it takes to actually get published. So I love posts like this!

    Plus, can I say that your book sounds like exactly the type of book I would have loved to read as a kid and still do! Seriously, it's on my to-buy list right now.

    1. Thanks, Leslie! I'm glad this is helpful. Good luck with your book! :-)