QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, March 28, 2011

In Brief: The Path to Publication

I decided it was time for a post that pulls all the basics together in one place.  For a lot of people, it will be review, but you never know – you may discover something you didn’t know!

One: A Writer Must Write

I’ve met a lot of aspiring writers.  In fact, it seems like nearly everyone has an idea or two for a novel; some people claim to have the whole thing mapped out in their brains. They just haven’t taken the time to get it all out on paper.

Ideas are just that, ideas.  A writer must write, and writing is a lot harder than thinking about an idea.  After all, “nothing you write, if you hope to be any good, will ever come out as you first hoped,” said playwright Lillian Hellman.

And one can’t just write when one feels inspired – to be a writer, one must write often, and wrestle with the prose, editing it into shape.

Two: A Writer Must Edit

There’s a big difference between writing and writing well, and if there’s one single thing that stands between most people and publication, it’s the writing well part. To be a successful writer, you must be a true master of the language in which you’re telling your tale.

You know all those movies that show a cocky young swordsman who believes he’s the Best That’s Ever Been? And then a true master gets his hands on the arrogant young fool and makes him realize he’s no good after all?  If you’re having trouble getting published, assume that’s where you are. Like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, you may need your butt kicked by someone better than you (in Wayne's case, that's Liam Neeson’s character, Henri Ducard) to really learn your craft.  For you, that someone is a critique partner or, better yet, a critique group.

Three: A Writer Must Accept Feedback to Grow

A lot of writers have trouble finding good crit partners, get defensive, get confused about which critique to listen to, or just plain old give up after they've been knocked around a bit (in a friendly way, of course) by their crit buddies. But this is not the time to make like a turtle and pull into your shell!  The only way you're going to grow and improve is by sorting through the feedback, using what you can, and thanking your crit buddies for their time and assistance (perhaps by helping them with writing of their own).

Did Bruce Wayne like getting knocked down?  Of course not! Did he like realizing he wasn't as good of a fighter as he wanted to be? Absolutely not! But what had he been taught about falling down? Why, that we must always pick ourselves up again.

Don't launch your attack on the publishing world before you're truly ready. And don't ever stop learning, growing, or picking yourself up.

Four: Finding An Agent

There are lots of different approaches to publishing these days, and thanks to the internet it's easier than ever to try to work around an agent and/or self-publish, but we're going to focus on the traditional route for now.

Literary agents are people who have established themselves as go-betweens for authors and publishers.  Many of the big publishers won't even look at a writer's work unless that work is represented by an agent.  Why? Because the agents act as screeners.  They receive hundreds, often thousands of letters each year from aspiring authors.  These letters are called queries, because they succinctly introduce the writer's project, explain the story's premise, and introduce the writer's platform, or ability to sell the novel.

Ninety-nine percent of queries are rejected.  Yes, you read that right, 99%. Some of them are wrong for the agency because it doesn't represent that genre (so always do your research!), or maybe it's just not looking for that type of book this week.  Overall, though, the biggest problem is that the writer's work isn't polished enough to go out.  A mere 1% of queries are good enough to warrant a request for more material.  (This is why it's crucial to spend most of your writerly energy on becoming a great writer and editor!)  And only some of those requests for more material will lead to an actual offer of representation.  

Keeping track of all of those queries, requests, and, let's face it, rejections used to be a big pain, but QueryTracker.net makes it easy! (If you don't already have a free account to help you find and keep track of your queries, run over now!)  Also -- QueryTracker only lists legitimate agents, which means agents who abide by an ethical code and refuse to charge writers to review or make suggestions on manuscripts.  Remember, any agent who asks for money up front is to be avoided!  Legitimate agents make a commission from sales and royalties of their clients' books, not from reading or editing fees.

Many agents will help you polish your manuscript, either before or after The Call --  a phone discussion about possible representation. If you agree to work together and are able to produce a final project you are both happy with, it's time for the agent to start shopping your manuscript to publishers!

Five: Finding a Publisher

Here again, the numbers are downright depressing -- only about half of the authors whose books are shopped will end up with a sale to a publisher.  Of those who do, most will never earn back their advances -- the money they are paid up front, usually upon acceptance of the publishing contract.

Six: That's Why You Need a Platform

That's why you need a platform -- a way to market your own books.  It's rare these days for publishers to spend thousands launching your book, and even when they do, you're still expected to carry your share of the work.  If you don't know where to start, try books like:
Thinking ahead and planning to work hard to help sell your books will guarantee that there will be a second book...and a publisher who wants to buy it!

* The Importance of Determination

I've emphasized throughout this piece the importance of being a good writer.  And that's key.  But so is persistence and determination to keep getting up when things don't go as you'd hoped.  Assuming you write well enough (to, say, keep readers from wondering what the heck you're trying to say), many people in publishing believe that determination and persistence are in fact the most important qualities any writer can bring to the table.  Not arrogance, mind you -- determination.

So just remember, when you fall...pick yourself up again, polish those writing skills, and try again!

All right, readers -- it was tough to consolidate this all into a brief post, and to keep it from getting unwieldy I had to stop without getting into how things work after you're in contract with a publisher.  Before that point, however -- what important landmarks am I missing?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook!


Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Excellent post. I fully utilized QueryTracker when I was doing my agent search. It's a priceless tool.

I'm off to Twitterville to tweet this article! I'll probably link it in my next blog post. Thank you, Carolyn. Great job!

Anne Gallagher said...

Thanks for another great article. I think you covered all the basics. The only other thing I'd say is - just keep writing. You can only grow in your craft.

Kristine Asselin said...

Great post, Carolyn. Very succinct, but you covered everything. Well said. I'm also going to link to it!

Unknown said...

This is a great post. It sets out the basics in a clear and succinct way: learning, improving and persevering are key skills.

Unknown said...

Zero: A writer must read. This might seem obvious--so obvious that it didn't merit inclusion in the list, but sadly it's not. A survey on a writers' critique site I saw recently suggested half their members--allegedly writers--read fewer than 15 books per year.

Unknown said...

Hooray for Mike! Yes. READ. That's on the top of my list too. I wrote three book determined that "reading" would "ruin" my voice... and then read the one book that taught me about page turning... and then wrote the book that got me an agent... So, READ.

Great post! And the traditional route is the way to go. I'm so tired of reading self pubbed titles with typos and plot holes!(and I'm the typo QUEEN so if anyone can spot them, I can!) Even the most successful self pubbed authors are going back to the traditional route. There's something solid about that contract. *eyes with longing,reaches out while whispering..."PRECIOUS".*

Unknown said...

See, I counted at least three typos in that one comment. And I won't delete it just to make my point.

How many times did I read it over? Seven. Seven times. Geesh. Someone get that girl an editor!!!!! :)

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Agreed, Mike -- I know that I recently remarked on how many so-called writers say they don't read, and you're right -- it should be in this list, at Zero! Thanks for the great comments, everyone!