Saturday, September 8, 2012

First Steps toward Publishing Your Novel

I have been receiving more and more emails from people who’ve read Every Last Secret, or just read of it, in which they ask me how to get their own novels published. Usually, they know just about nothing of the business of publishing, which surprises me. If you took a year or so to write a book that you hoped to publish and sell, wouldn’t you owe it to yourself to research and learn something about the business of publishing that you hope to join?

I always try to answer with a detailed listing of things they can do to educate themselves about the business and to begin to connect with the professional literary community. I have a feeling that I have friends and followers out there in the same situation who might be reluctant to ask, so I’ve decided to write this blog post. Here’s my resource guide to publishing a novel. It won’t get you published, but it will give you a good foundation in the business of publishing/being a professional novelist and get you started in the right direction.

Pitching a novel to a major publisher today can be very difficult without an agent. Most of the New York trade publishers won’t look at novels unless they’re represented by an agent. Smaller specialized presses, literary presses, and university presses will take unagented queries during their open submissions period, if they have one. Often they can be the best bet for a first novel that’s not necessarily a commercial novel. Poets & Writers has a database of small, literary, and university presses.*  Many of these won’t do novels, so you’ll have to sort through them. Here’s a list of 16 small presses that do novels.  You can also do an internet search for small presses that specialize in your particular genre of novel, if you write in one of the genres.

For agents, I would suggest that you check the website of the Association of Author’s Representatives.  This is the professional association of reputable agents. It’s very easy to get involved with folks who call themselves agents and are really running scams to part authors from their money. Members of AAR have sworn not to do this stuff and are kicked out if they do, so you can trust them. Another good site to educate yourself and protect yourself from scammers is Writer Beware.  This is a site provided by the SFWA as a service for all authors, science fiction or not.

But the first thing you want to do is to get current copies of Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer magazines. (The Writer has just been purchased by another company. I don’t know how that will affect what they offer or their publication schedule, but for over a century, they were a helpful magazine for writers.) These magazines often talk about which publishers are looking for what kinds of books at the moment. P&W focuses more on the academic and literary writer, while WD focuses more on the commercial or freelance writer. If your library has them, also read back issues of P&W, The Writer, and WD. You’ll learn a lot about the business that way.

Look for professional authors groups to join. There are groups for children’s writers, mystery writers, romance writers, sf/fantasy writers, etc. These groups are usually tremendously helpful in learning the publishing business and making useful contacts. If there is a chapter of a professional writer’s organization near you and it’s not your kind of writing, it can still be useful to you in learning the business. I once belonged to the local chapter of RWA, Romance Writers of America, though I didn’t write romance. I learned about agents, what editors want, what is and is not acceptable behavior in the publishing world, what are and are not good contracts, and tons of other things that became useful to me. Now, we have a chapter of Sisters in Crime here, and I’m active in it, but that time in RWA laid a very good foundation for me. The same goes for SFWA or any of the others. The purposes of these organizations are to help their members with the business of publishing and being a professional—and that’s very similar across the boards.

A book I always recommend to students and aspiring writers is Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. I’ve written about this book on the blog, Writers Who Kill. It’s the best book for looking at how to be a professional writer and work on getting published, how to get established within the literary community, how to make a career as a writer without living in NYC, and much else.

If I were you, friend with a book manuscript under your arm, I’d start with these resources. I’d also go to every writer’s appearance/reading/event that occurs in your town if it’s a small one or a good selection if you live in a big city with an active literary community. Buy a book, if you can. Introduce yourself to the writer. Follow up with emails or mailed notes talking about what you liked about their reading or book—not asking for help with your own. Friend writers on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter. Don’t spam them about your own book. What you’re doing is building relationships within the community of writers. These are the folks who can answer questions for you or later (if you’ve built a good, real relationship) give blurbs that will help your book sell. Basically, my advice is to educate yourself about publishing and become a contributing member of the community. Getting a novel published is a long, hard haul, so arm yourself with information and allies.

The best single piece of advice I could give, however, is this—make sure you write a good novel. Get professional feedback and revise, revise, revise until it shines before you ever try to send it out. I suspect that a certain number of folks who are looking for a publisher for their novel have never had anyone professional look at it and haven’t done much with revision. Writing is an art and a profession. Learn about publishing, the business, while you learn about writing, the art and craft. Editors and agents have long memories. Don’t stick out in theirs from sending an amateurish manuscript out. Make sure that what you send is the very best it can be submitted in the most knowledgeable and professional way you can.

Best of luck!


  1. Great post. Thanks so much.

    Are there writer's groups attached to SIC/Border wars that are critique format?

    Thanks so much for all the tips and recommendations!

    Ruth Michel

  2. Ruth, the Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime (which serves KS and MO) has a critique group that meets once a month. Border Crimes has a Facebook page and probably the quickest way to find out the critique group's meeting times is to post a question there. If you have problems getting on that page, let me know, and I'll make sure you're added.

    Border Crimes meets the first Saturday of each month at Mysteryscape bookstore, 7309 West 80th Street Overland Park, KS 66204. We also have a group writing session the last Saturday of each month at the Cedar Roe branch of the Johnson County Library.

    Sisters in Crime at the national level offers to all members a wonderful group called Guppies, which is short for the Great Unpublished. Guppies has a number of online critique groups and a coordinator who works hard to place each member who wants critique in a group that will be helpful to them.

    Good luck and thanks for stopping by!

  3. Thanks, Warren. Add any that you've discovered in your journey, please.

    And thanks for stopping by.

  4. Excellent post. It's taken me a few years to learn these tips. Wish I had read this four years ago when I decided, "I think I'll write and sell a novel this year." Later this month, I'm attending a William Bernhardt writing workshop. Then maybe I'll know if rewrite #4 is getting close.

  5. Thanks, Faith. I'll bet you're closer than you think. Enjoy the workshop, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. Thank you kindly. The specificity of your information is actually rather hard to come by when trying to educate oneself on the topic (and yes, I have been trying; I am already a performing-arts professional, so I know how to hustle and am not afraid to do so-- it's more that it's nice to have an idea of to WHOM to direct your hustle, you know?)

    So I really, really appreciate your taking the time to spell all of this out. Sadly, a community of fellow writers will not always yield this sort of nuts-and-bolts type of information. Earlier this year I was in residence at a very lovely and rather prestigious writers' colony, and none of the writers in my group were very forthcoming with this sort of thing. Again, thank you.

    1. And thanks also to Proyecto Latina for linking to your blog!!

  7. Thanks, Rasquachi! And thanks to the awesome Proyecto Latina for the link! Those lovely women are doing such good work. I'm a big fan of theirs.

    I've heard again and again from folks who haven't been able to find this kind of information elsewhere. I've been asked to do an online version of my book promotion workshop, and I'm getting that put together now. I may offer one also on where and how to start looking for book publication. Because of the need to keep things brief for a blog post, I had to pass over lots of aspects. I'll see how the first online workshop goes--and how my energy holds out. :-)

    As writers, we're artists first, and many don't want to look at the business aspects afterward. That may be why you couldn't get other writers to give this kind of information. But once we've written our heart's work and made it the very best we can, we have to shed the artist and become the business person--if we want readers for our work and even, heaven forbid, a little crass lucre.

    Best of luck with your own endeavors!