How to Get Traditionally Published, Part 1
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?
January 18, 2013 @ 5:31 pm
Question: Did you use someone completely different–not from your group of critique partners–to beta read for you, so it was someone with fresh eyes? Someone who didn’t remember all the drafts/revisions/removed plotlines/characters from previous versions?
January 18, 2013 @ 6:15 pm
Hi Hannah! Yes, I DID get a completely new beta reader for SS&D. I had already worked with…3? 4? Critique partners/beta readers, and I had reached a point where I thought the book might be “ready” or very close to “ready”–but I wanted fresh eyes to look through it. As such, I reached out to a writer on YALitChat, we exchanged a few chapters (and I realized she was an AMAZING writer as well as critiquer), so I sent her the entire book. She gave me some line-edit time feedback as well as a few broader pointers…but overall, she said she thought it was ready to query! 🙂
January 18, 2013 @ 6:54 pm
Thanks Susan! I’m currently working with a few critique partners and they’re offering a lot of suggestions for changes and improvements, and I was completely clueless about who to show the manuscript to/how to proceed once I’ve really reworked it to my and my critique partners satisfaction. YALitChat sounds like a great resource–thanks for the recommendation!
January 18, 2013 @ 6:13 pm
This is a great overview! I’m in the querying phase right now so I’m going to bookmark this post for if I’m lucky enough to get “the call” and need your list of questions!
January 18, 2013 @ 6:49 pm
Yay! I’m so glad you can find something helpful in it. 😀
January 18, 2013 @ 6:32 pm
I love this post! It offers such practical advice when it comes to publishing, and I’m certain that I’ll be able to utilize the info when I decide to (finally) dip my toe into the industry. Thanks for sharing!
January 18, 2013 @ 6:50 pm
You’re SO welcome, Alexa!! I hope it’s useful when the time comes for you!! <3
January 18, 2013 @ 6:45 pm
This is such a great How To list! I totally agree with it all.
January 18, 2013 @ 6:51 pm
I’m so glad to hear another published author agrees. 😉 Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll say all this and then have a bazillion authors attack me for getting something wrong or making it sound too easy/hard…
January 18, 2013 @ 7:16 pm
Totally Evernoting this for when I finally get to Step 5 🙂 As always, your advice is straightforward and greatly appreciated!
January 22, 2013 @ 6:17 pm
😀 YAY! Good luck getting to step 5!! <3
January 18, 2013 @ 8:53 pm
Thanks so much for being so open about your process and way to being published! It’s a huge help to those of us still on the road and feeling a bit lost 🙂 Also, thanks for all the links about quering and how to find critique partners! I’m also glad to hear that I’m not the only who takes forever to revise. I wrote ‘The End’ a year ago but still haven’t really made much revision progress… I just feel so overwhelmed and daunted by it all (95k) and then I find excuses not to look at it. But your post motivated me to put more effort into this story again, so thank you 🙂
January 22, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
It IS daunting to revise. I found help from Holly Lisle’s course on revising, and since then made my own method. I have to stay organized, otherwise I get too overwhelmed and paralyzed. 😛 Good luck with everything! 😀
The Fear of Opinions
January 18, 2013 @ 9:00 pm
This is the single most helpful post I’ve read on getting published. Thank you!
January 22, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
You are SO welcome!!
January 21, 2013 @ 4:20 am
I always find it very helpful when you, and other writers, give details on getting published. For anyone who hasn’t finished a novel (and seriously, people actually query BEFORE finishing a novel first?!?), or anyone who hasn’t queried agents yet, the route to getting published is quite the endeavor. I love the step-by-step guide you have here and I have to say, I have Step 4 down perfect by now 😉 Although I really hope that’ll be changing soon and I can move on to Steps 5 and 6. Thanks for always giving great advice and insider looks at publishing, Susan! I don’t know where I’d be without your help.
January 22, 2013 @ 6:19 pm
Ah, step 4. It’s good to get that one down because you will face rejection FOREVER in these creative fields. Building up a thick skin is so important (says the lady who accidentally read a bad review of her book today and is now mopey and sad!), and it helps you learn to just keep on going no matter what. YOU CAN DO IT, Lori! Good luck!
The Writing Junkie
January 24, 2013 @ 2:01 pm
it’s not easy or quick but it is simple. So many people give up prematurely. They should keep trying!
I review books and try to promote writers 🙂 Why? Because it’s fun!
January 25, 2013 @ 7:01 pm
You’re SO right–people definitely give up too soon. I know many authors who took YEARS before they got an agent…and then years more before they got a book deal. You just have to keep working no matter what! 😀
January 25, 2013 @ 12:39 pm
As always, such a GREAT post on writing and publishing. Thank you SO much. I am bookmarking this postfor when I hopefully get to use it, when I send out my first query letter.
January 25, 2013 @ 7:00 pm
Eeek! Good luck whenever that day comes!! YOU CAN DO IT!
Pet Clothes for Small Dogs
September 9, 2013 @ 6:33 am
How to Get Traditionally Published, Part 1…
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Silvana H. Kraus
September 6, 2014 @ 6:36 am
This helps so much! Thank you Susan 🙂 I wish I had the guts to publish one of my books, but it’s kind of hard at 14…
September 7, 2014 @ 12:59 am
Awww, that doesn’t mean you can’t do it, though!! I’ve heard of young authors….And heck, if not now, then this will all be waiting for you in a few years. 🙂
November 25, 2014 @ 12:54 pm
Hi I know I am a little young for this but I have always wanted to be a writter. What age do you recommend would be better to start a career in being an author?
November 26, 2014 @ 4:52 pm
Hi Karla! There is no perfect age to start a career. I mean, I started writing when I was 12, and I’m still writing today. 🙂 I didn’t try to get published until I was 25, but that was because I, personally, didn’t have a book that was ready for it until then. Any age is a good age if you feel like you have a book that’s ready to be out in the world! 😀
November 27, 2014 @ 11:09 pm
Wow you started writing at my age!
December 7, 2014 @ 11:18 pm
You’re so welcome, Karla! <3
December 5, 2014 @ 9:59 am
Hi, I saw that you said you found your Beta reader on YALitChat. As you didn’t know her, how could you be sure that she wouldn’t steal your story and make it her own? Obviously, you’d hope she wouldn’t, but bad things do happen
December 7, 2014 @ 11:18 pm
Hi Hannah! For the most part, people don’t plagiarize. I’ve been doing this for years and have NEVER heard of this happening to anyone I know. While it certainly *can* happen, anyone who’s on YALitChat is looking to get published–meaning, they take writing and craft seriously. They just aren’t the kind of people to waste time trying to steal someone else’s book.
Also consider that as soon as you’ve written something, it is copyrighted to you. So legally, if it was necessary, you can pretty easily prove you wrote something first (based on when the files were first saved). But again, I have NEVER EVER heard of this happening. Sometimes on Wattpad where people share stuff publicly for free, but NEVER on a forum like YALitChat.
December 8, 2014 @ 5:05 am
Thank you Susan. That has been one of my greatest fears with sharing on forums such as YALitChat to get some critiquing feedback. It puts my mind more at ease.
March 9, 2015 @ 9:14 pm
Thanks for making this, Susan! Very helpful indeed.
July 2, 2015 @ 12:17 am
So, this may sound a little strange, but at 17 would it be incredibly hard to find an agent and publisher? It seems as though it would be, since you are younger, but I’ve seen many younger children’s books published by people ranging from the age of twelve to seventeen (Although I am trying to write a young adult novel) . . .
July 7, 2015 @ 9:26 am
Hi Kaitlyn! You can definitely get published at 17! It’s not unheard of. 🙂 There are other some things to consider (which I discuss here: http://forum.susandennard.com/forums/topic/aspiring-to-publish-at-a-embarrassingly-young-age), but it’s definitely doable!! <3
January 2, 2017 @ 2:23 pm
Thank you so much for sharing your own experience and insights, Susan! I found the breakdown of your writing timeline – from drafting to getting the offer – especially helpful. Your manuscript and query must have been bullet-proof to have received representation within a week! You are an inspiration. Thank you for your kind words of encouragement – I needed that <3
February 14, 2022 @ 2:24 pm
Hi Susan, thank you for your articles. I have a few questions for you. First of all, how would the process of getting published that you outline above change if your book is a cook book? How do you find agents to send queries to?? Also, with the pandemic still an issue, I have not been traveling. I am assuming this would impact the ability/methods of promoting a book, whether it be by traditional means or self publishing? And that brings me to the last question….the ins and outs of self publishing. For example, Is it expensive? Does it pay off? Can you get your book in bookstores, etc? Thank you!