I’ve had quite a few people asking me for the scoop on this lately, so thought I’d put my publication story up here for all and sundry. But first off, a caveat: every journey to publication is different.
Steve Berry, for example, wrote eight complete manuscripts, took six years to get an agent, and another seven to make his first sale, after a total of 85 rejections.
James Redfield skipped the whole traditional route, self-published The Celestine Prophecy, and sold a gabillion copies.
And we all know what happened to E.L. James.
So please, Aspiring Writers, keep in mind as you read this that when it comes to writing and publishing a novel, every case is unique. That said, here’s the step-by-step guide to how this particular author managed to find a publisher for one particular book.
1) I learned a bit about how to write. I’ve been writing seriously since I was a child. I got a publishing deal for The Smoke Hunter when I was 33. The intervening decades were spent practicing. Being capable of writing a complete novel that people might actually want to read did not happen overnight.
2) I wrote a complete manuscript. I began my first novel when I was fifteen, and didn’t complete one until I was over thirty. That’s fifteen years of starting projects, getting several chapters in, deciding they were a complete pile of crap, and abandoning them for something shinier. Yes, I learned a lot along the way, but if you want to get published, you do need to finish a damned book.
3) I queried agents. I used Query Tracker, a wonderful resource, to carefully research agents who had a history of accepting my type of story. In the case of The Smoke Hunter, that means agents who accepted both thriller and romance novels. I made sure those agents were actually accepting unsolicited submissions and carefully noted their submission preferences (Just a query letter? First three chapters? Synopsis?) and sent them exactly and only what they asked for.
4) I got an agent. Most of the agents I queried never responded. A couple sent me form rejections. One was kind enough to write me a thoughtful, personal letter detailing why he ultimately decided not to take on The Smoke Hunter. Then, after several more months, I did get an offer of representation. The agent who took me on happened to be the only one I had not queried directly myself. Instead, another author he represented was kind enough to send him my manuscript, which he read in full.
5) I edited the crap out of my book. Before we started submitting, my agent, Howard Morhaim, had a few suggestions for improving The Smoke Hunter – things like sharpening and more clearly delineating point of view. I took the opportunity to make a few improvements of my own.
6) My agent got me a publisher. At this point, I had very little to do with how things moved forward. My agent took The Smoke Hunter and made the rounds of submitting it to editors he thought might be interested. Several expressed interest but ultimately turned it down. In the end, we had one offer that stuck, from Grand Central Publishing, who offered to take the book on as an ebook-only release.
7) I edited the crap out of my book. My lovely editor, Caroline Acebo, took her red pen to my manuscript, making cuts and suggesting improvements, all of which were spot-on. Once again, I added changes and edits of my own as I went through the manuscript. Some of these were really big, significant changes that ultimately made the book much more coherent and helped increase and maintain tension.
8) My publishers decided they wanted to print my book. Grand Central was so happy with the revised version of The Smoke Hunter, they decided to release it as a print trade paperback as well as in ebook format. This meant delaying publication by a full year. I was entirely fine with that.
And that, as they say, is that. I was lucky enough to secure both an agent and a publisher in my first round of submissions, with my first manuscript – and I wince to think of the condition that manuscript was in at the time. That said, there are a few pearls of wisdom I garnered from the experience that I’m happy to pass along:
1) Keep your query short and simple. When it comes to writing query letters, less is more. Keep your prose short and direct. Don’t succumb to the temptation to embellish, or to try to tell the whole damned story. Agents – or the people who filter through piles of unsolicited query letters for them – are busy folks. You want to tell them just enough to show that you can write, and that you’ve got a potentially intriguing and marketable manuscript on your hands. Anything else is wasting their time.
2) Networking matters. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. We’re social animals, so I’m of the opinion our preference for people we know is hard-wired into our brains. The world of agents and publishing is no different. This is not to say that you can’t find an agent purely on the basis of your query. You can, and people do. But I do believe that an agent is more inclined to take the time to consider your pitch if they know who you are, either because they met you at a conference, or because you’re being introduced by another writer they already respect.
Note: This is not a recommendation that you start harassing writers for an intro to their agent. If a writer feels that they want to put you forward to their agent, they will offer. But attending conferences, joining writing groups and other such activities that strengthen your connections with other authors increases your chances that someone will take an interest in what you’re doing. As a bonus, you will make neat new friends and maybe learn some things.
3) Genre matters. One of the biggest obstacles to getting a publisher for The Smoke Hunter was that the book didn’t fit into a clear sales channel. It’s not a conventional historical romance. It’s not a conventional thriller. It’s really not like much of anything else out there right now, and marketing departments do not like a wild card. If you want to increases your chances of getting published, it will help if you write a book that looks something like what other people are writing, whether that’s steampunk vampire romance or murder mysteries with cats in them.
That said, I’m a firm believer in writing the sort of stories you want to tell, regardless of whether they fit into someone’s handy marketing box or not. I’m just warning you that if you happen to be the sort who colors outside the lines, like me, you’re going to have a bit more of an uphill battle.
4) Be open to suggestions. The manuscript I submitted to agents is very, very different from the book that eventually reached print. I honestly cringe to think of how rough that first attempt was, and am very grateful that my agent and editor were kind and patient enough to suggest ways to improve my story, and that I had the time to make my own additional edits before printing. I understand there are probably authors out there who think anyone suggesting something might be wrong with their book is a hopeless plebeian. I am not one of those people, and I think my work is better for it.
5) And finally – if you’ve submitted the hell out of a manuscript, and can’t find anyone willing to take it on, it’s possible you are destined to stand next to David Foster Wallace in the World’s Most Misunderstood Geniuses Hall of Fame. It is also possible that your work just isn’t quite there yet. Be willing to consider that second possibility, and use rejection as reason to continue the struggle to make yourself an even better writer. That struggle is never going to end – or at least, it shouldn’t – so you might as well get used to it.