There is no secret formula to getting a book published. It requires luck and good timing and it doesn’t hurt to know the right people. The traditional route has become more difficult as the industry struggles to evolve. The same names appear on bestseller lists and publishers fight over celebrity memoirs. If you’re not already famous or an established author, it can seem like a closed shop. Yet debut authors get published all the time despite the odds. And many authors succeed with self-published books. It takes patience, perseverance and a thick skin to deal with rejection. But these are qualities most writers have developed after months or years tapping away at the keyboard, waiting for the muse to show up, battling with self-doubt. If you have a completed manuscript sitting on your desk, congratulations. Now for the dirty work … put the champagne on ice and roll up your sleeves.
The following information was gathered over five years as I researched the publishing world. Sources include countless books, magazines, websites, and conversations with established authors. I also draw on my own experience as a writer and producer, as well as my work in coaching authors in media readiness and book marketing.
10. Write What You Love to Read … And Read a Lot
A few years ago I was having coffee with an author friend and he asked me what I liked to read. I told him my favorite genre was horror. He smiled and asked: “Then why aren’t you writing horror?” Good question. I realized my writing at that point lacked passion and direction. He then set me the task of completing a horror novel in five weeks. I did it, with two days to spare. Writing in an area you already know and love makes sense. Study the work of successful authors in your genre or field and find out what they do that works. Don’t copy them, but learn from them. You must also read a lot to become a good writer. Read contemporary works in your genre as well as the classics, magazines, and newspapers. So get thee to a library, bookstore or online bookseller.
9. Write a Book That People Want to Read
Sounds obvious, but every writer must take an objective look at their work. You may think your book is marvelous but that doesn’t mean it’s publishable. Think from a publisher’s standpoint. Their concern is whether it will sell. Is your book commercially viable? Who is your audience? Would they like your book? Is it written for a niche market? Is it genre or literary fiction? A non-fiction book in an already saturated field? Does the content better suit an independent publisher? Do some research. Find out what else is out there. See where your book would fit. Then ask yourself a brutally honest question: “Is my book good enough for this market?” If your answer is, “Perhaps not,” get back to the keyboard.
8. “Murder Your Darlings”
Noted writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it — wholeheartedly — and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Most first drafts are not publishable. I made the rookie mistake of submitting my first book before it was ready. After a lackluster rewrite I queried an agent. To my surprise they responded within two hours with a request for the full manuscript. You can imagine my disappointment when it was returned along with a rejection letter. I did another re-write, sent it a second time, and got the same response. They loved the idea, story and descriptions but said it was too “dense.” After weeks of pondering the word “dense” I finally got the message. I took an axe to my book and it felt good chopping off the deadwood. So before sending out your work, cut it to the bone. “Get rid of every ounce of excess fat,” as Stephen King puts it.
7. Write Another Book
Start work on your second book right after completing the first. This keeps the momentum going and it encourages you to stick with an established writing routine. As well as being a voracious reader, a good writer should also write every day. Practice really is the key to success. In addition, agents who have expressed interest in your work are sure to ask, “What else do you have?” or, “What are you working on now?” Agents prefer working with writers who can produce more than one book and are planning on a long-term career. Besides, it’s not unusual for writers to finish two or three books before getting it right.
Get involved with your local writing community, interact with fellow writers, and get to know published authors. Writing groups often publicize events such as talks, seminars and book signings. Joining a writer’s critique group can also be beneficial. If you have the resources, there are various writing conferences where you can pitch your book to editors. Following authors on Facebook is a good way of connecting, as many writers communicate daily with their readers. As a TV producer I became acquainted with a publicist who knew many New York literary agents. I asked her for a recommendation and she obliged. So make the most of every networking opportunity. Be bold but not brash.
5. Build an Author Platform
It’s crucial for aspiring authors to have a platform. This means building a reputation and gaining visibility. The first step is defining your audience, and then finding the best way to reach them. Anything from speaking engagements, to a Facebook page, blog or active Twitter presence, can raise your profile. With an established platform, especially online, you can easily attract and connect with your followers, subscribers, readers, professional associations, clients and fans. There are so many ways to build a platform. Take advantage of social media and create a website or blog dedicated to your book, genre, or your area of expertise. This demonstrates to agents and publishers that you are serious about self-promotion and marketing. The goal is to become somewhat known before your book is published so you’ll already have a following.
4. Research Agents and Publishers
Research which publishers and agents represent your type of book. Read the acknowledgments of authors in your genre, as sometimes they thank their agent. LiteraryMarketplace.com is a good resource, and provides the contact information you’ll need. Make a list of your top choices. Make sure you stick to the submission guidelines. Some request a synopsis, others may not. Check first and give them exactly what they require. Do you need an agent? This depends on your goals. Big publishers often refuse to read manuscripts that don’t come from an agent. Smaller, independent publishers might welcome an author’s submission, but may not offer an advance. The advantage of having an agent is that they know the market, have established contacts with publishers, and can negotiate book deals for you, both here and abroad.
3. Write a Great Query
I spent three days working on a query letter and it paid off. It was short (one page), I had a recommendation, and I included the highlights of my career as a journalist and producer. My book description was barely a paragraph, but enough to generate interest and mystique, and I also included my genre. I did my homework, scouring every book, website, and article I could find on the subject. I advise you to do the same. If you get a rejection letter, study what it says; it may help improve your craft. If they take the time to offer a short critique, that’s a good sign, as they must find you worthy. Just don’t get discouraged, because it’s often more about market trends than your writing or story. The publishing business is also very subjective, so what doesn’t work for one agent or editor may be perfect for another. Be patient — your time will come.
2. Consider Self-Publishing
Once frowned upon by the industry elite, self-publishing is now a viable option, especially for writers daunted by the prospect of waiting years for publication. There are many options, including e-books and print on demand, where books are only printed when someone orders a copy. Although some self-published books become bestsellers, the reality for most is rather bleak. On average, they sell fewer than 200 copies. There’s no advance either, you pay the publishing costs, and if you want your book edited, you’ll have to hire a professional. However, authors do retain all their rights and receive more royalties. Some have succeeded and profited, but it takes hard work and effort to get your work noticed. If you choose this route make sure you have a strong marketing plan. Get to know your market before publishing, have a platform in place, and connect with your audience. Become a media darling and a ruthless self-promoter.
1. Don’t Give Up
Perseverance is essential. Even the best writers have been rejected, some dozens of times. Do not be disheartened. Imagine if Stephen King gave up after a few rejection letters. The fact is that he and other established authors worked on perfecting their craft and kept going. Be authentic and ask yourself why you write. This will quell the self-doubt. Most people write because they feel compelled to do so. Build your platform as you wait for publishing success, keep writing your books, and write articles and blogs where people can comment. These are your potential readers. Always keep “Dear reader” in mind — you’re doing this for them. Keep abreast of the publishing industry, read writing magazines, check out new books, and explore the work of different authors. Learn from them. Above all believe in yourself and enjoy the journey. Good luck.
Alison Hill is a writer, producer, journalist, and BBC guest commentator, with expertise in media and publicity. She is the author of Media Ready, Media Savvy, The Workbook for Authors, and has written extensively for print, television and online. In 2008 she did promotional work for Bill Brooks, an award-winning author of 23 Western novels, and developed and created a series of media readiness workshops for writers. She also designs, produces and edits book trailers.
For more information on Alison Hill’s workbook: www.mediaready-mediasavvy.com