How to Get Traditionally Published, Part 1

Read Part 2 in this series.

Read Part 3 in this series.

Recently, an email landed in my inbox that asked the basic question of, “How do I get published?”

I get asked this a lot, and every time, I write out an answer. Inefficient much, Sooz? I’d say it’s about time to lay down the basic (and I mean VERY basic) framework for getting published traditionally–so not self-publishing, but with a traditional publishing house.

Now, for those of you who didn’t already know all the steps involved, PLEASE don’t freak out. Getting published isn’t easy; it isn’t simple; and it isn’t quick. But if I can do it, then so can you.

Also, please remember there is no “magic” way to get a book deal or some “perfect premise” that will let you skip all the steps. Most people spend years trying to get published (heck, I spent years writing before I even got the guts to try!), and that’s just the way it is. If you want it badly enough, then a few years shouldn’t bother you. 🙂

Also also, please remember that most book deals aren’t for much money. We all hear about the GIGANTIC 25-figure 8-book deal that sold at auction to every territory on the entire planet, but these deals aren’t the norm. At all. 🙂

Step 1: Finish the book. 🙂 Seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many people don’t finish their books before they start querying or reaching out to agents/publishers. Do. Not. Do this. FINISH WRITING YOUR BOOK.

Step 2: Revise the book. This is NOT something you can skip. I hate to be harsh, but no matter how great you think your book is, it still must be revised. The industry is much too competitive–even a “pretty solid” book won’t sell. It needs to be the absolute best you can possibly make it! For Something Strange and Deadly, I spent a solid year of daily work revising and polishing the book. Now, I have a method and more skills, so it only takes me a month or so–but I still ALWAYS revise (I would never give my poor editor a first draft!).

If you want to read about the  basics of revising, I have a whole series on it that starts here.

Step 2.5: Work with a critique partner and other writers. This still qualifies part of revising, but I think it’s critical enough to point out. I have only ever met 2 published authors who didn’t have critique partners.And one of those authors now has one because she realized what she was missing out on.

So what is a critique partner? Here’s the lowdown from Beth Revis and here’s another fab intro from Erin Bowman.

Step 3: Try to get an agent. This is a MUST–especially with the current insanity in the industry. Agents sell your
books. They know what editors are looking for, they have connections, and they can get your book onto desks that you cannot reach. They also negotiate your contract, and trust me: you need them for this.

Truth: I would not be published if it weren’t for my agent–she is worth her weight in gold. I also would not have survived this industry if not for her–she protects me, fights for me, and takes care of all the business stuff I would forget. She is AMAZING, and I ♥ her like mad. You want to have this same relationship with YOUR agent.

Here’s a primer for getting an agent, and here’s some more info on how to get an agent (and also how to write a query letter).

Step 4: Get a bunch of rejections from agents. Try again. Get more rejections. Keep trying.

I got plenty of rejections–everyone does. It’s a badge of honor, so wear it with pride. And…then send out some more query letters.

Step 5: Receive an offer of representation and talk with the agent to see if you’re a good fit. FIRST, though, make sure the agent is legitimate. Check out this list and this site to verify the agent’s credentials.

The agent is okay? Good. Now answer them as well as all the other agents you queried (here’s how) and prepare a bunch of questions before you chat so you can make sure you’re a good fit. I offer a few questions here, but you can also come up with your own. You are building a long term, serious relationship here–don’t just say “yes” because this is the first or only agent to offer.

Truth: I turned down the first agent who offered on me because I didn’t think we would be a good match. Best decision ever.

Step 6: Accept the Perfect Agent! You have found him/her, so now it’s time to say “yes” and sign the agency contract! Of course, you’ll want to go over that contract with a fine-tooth comb. Here’s an example contract for comparison. If you have any questions or concerns, voice them NOW.

Stay tuned…for more steps next Friday (sorry, no post on Monday! I’ll be traveling!). After you’ve signed with an agent, the work shifts, so I’ll discuss what’s involved in that and share some more links.

But, just to give you an idea on the time frame that these steps took me (and I moved “quickly” through the process because I worked at it 9-5 everyday), it went something like this:

  • Step 1: I spent 2 months drafting. (Keep in mind: this was not the first book I ever wrote. It was just the first book I decided to try to get published with.)
  • Step 2: I needed a full year to revise.
  • Step 2.5: I worked with multiple critique partners for 8 months of that year revising.
  • Step 3: I spent ~6 months researching and honing my query letter. I queried for 2 weeks.
  • Step 4: I got some rejections, but I was also lucky to get an offer within the first week. That set the ball rolling way faster than it would have rolled otherwise.
  • Step 5: I spent a week talking to offering agents on the phone and making a really tough decision.
  • Step 6: I spent a day or two combing through the contract and making sure I had chosen right.

So, as you can see, it took me a little over a year to start with a blank sheet of paper and get an agent. To a newbie, that might seem slow…but the reality is that that is FAST.

Of course, like I said, I was in the very blessed position of working on this and ONLY this. Every morning to every night, I slaved over my novel. Many people do not get to do this–and yet, they still get published too. The commitment is the same no matter what. 🙂

I also made the wise decision to make my query letter rock solid (I had lots of people help me fine-tune it) and to polish my book to its absolute best before I started querying. I did not start sending out letters until a beta reader (who I felt was sufficiently skilled and qualified–i.e. a better writer than I) said, “This book is ready. I have no suggestions.” I also ONLY queried agents who I knew would be interested in my book (they either already represented something with a similar vibe or had mentioned in a recent interview that they were seeking something like my book).

But there’s one more key piece that I have failed to mention that equates into success: timing/luck. You must offer the Right Manuscript to the Right Agent at the Right Moment. Research can help this (i.e. you already know X Agent is seeking cozy mysteries set in coastal New England), but if you’re a few weeks too late (that agent just signed someone who wrote a cozy mystery set in Maine), then research won’t matter. Nor will research or a polished ms help if, despite being what the agent wants in a broad sense, your writing just doesn’t jive with his/her tastes. I know authors who have queried for years and years before finally hitting that perfect moment, and I know authors who have queried for a few days. There is NO WAY to get around this little, subjective part of life. All you can do is keep on querying until your letter and book land on the Right Desk at the Right Time.

So, the winning combination is polished manuscript + stellar query letter + tons of industry research + perfect timing. If you talk to almost any published or represented author, I promise you, they have at least 3 of these 4 components (but they probably have all four).

And, as I always say–and TRULY believe–dream big + work hard + never EVER give up! You’ll get there one day. 😉

Now, do you have any questions? Insight?