I just had an e-mail from someone asking for advice on getting a first book published. That happens fairly often, either in e-mail or by phone or running into someone in the grocery store–it’s usually the friend of a friend of a friend or someone who knows someone who goes to church with my mother. I never have anything particularly clever to say, and I’ve finally written a sort of form e-mail response. It comes down to, in a nice way: go read some of the many good books written about this subject.
Just because I got published does not mean I actually understand the hows and whys of it. It’s a strange, unpredictable universe. Most writers I know think they first got published ultimately because the stars happened to allign right–the right timing, the right publisher happening to open the manuscript. I can tell you how I got published, but that may have nothing to do with how you get published.
Back when I was desperately afraid my unpublished book was going to stay unpublished forever–which was not that long ago–I went to plenty of writers conferences and read plenty of Web sites. And always in the back of my mind, I thought there must be some inside trick to getting your book published. Some secret society that had figured out how to skip all the querying and waiting and endless rejections. A password, a handshake, a mailing address that only the select few knew. And if someone would finally just LET ME IN on this secret, I too could be published.
So here’s the thing: There is no secret. Or if there is, no one ever clued me in. Plenty of people have written very good, very thick books about how to get your book published. It is not something anyone explain in a paragraph. You read a lot of books about getting published, you polish up a query letter, and you spend a lot of time reading agent and publisher listings (Jeff Herman’s Guide is particularly good).
The one thing I’d say is to consider writing your book the first half of the work. Or maybe, writing it is a third of the work, editing it is a third of the work, and researching publishing is the last third. Camp out in the library or bookstore with a stack of books and start researching agents (or publishers.) Come up with a solid list of who really might be interested in what you’ve written. Go and browse the shelves to find what agents/publishers have already represented and READ these other books. At least skim them. If you have written a futuristic thriller about killer dogs and strip clubs, and an agent represents primarily Christian fiction set in the 1700s, that might not be a good agent for you. Do your homework. Enjoy doing your homework. Don’t rush that part of the process anymore than you would rush the actual writing of the book. Spend weeks writing your query letter, not hours.
And then, eventually, you’ll have a list of agents you’re very optimistic about and you’ll have a kickass query letter. And you will send out your letters with great hope and happiness. And you will wait and wait and wait and probably get many soul-crushing rejections, most of which do not even have your name on them. That’s how it works. I got hundreds of rejections–partly because I did NOT do my homework the first time around. And I started over with a different list of agents and sent out another bunch of queries and did it all over again.
When you don’t even feel a rejection any more, when you read it and toss it in the trash like it’s an announcement of a furniture sale or an offer for a new credit card, then you know you’re making progress. If nothing else, you will have developed a solid sense of self. And this concludes my advice on getting published 1) Do your homework. 2) Let the rejections roll off you like cool refreshing water.