If there is anything that I’ve learned on this journey, it’s that there is no one set path to publication – though it can sure feel like there is a path and everyone is just keeping it hush hush. But there really is no chronological “to do” list that will guarantee publication – even if you have written the best book that has ever been written. It’s an isolating path, and it can seem overwhelming because so much of it is out of our control. I am in now way an expert – just sharing what I’ve learned along the way.
Beta Readers. Once you have a manuscript completed, and you’ve gone through and revised/edited it, the first step is to find beta readers (several – and try to make it an odd number so that if there is a disagreement on anything, it can’t be split down the middle) – specifically find people that you can trust to be completely honest with you. Having a love fest is not going to help you. You need people that can and will point out confusing passages and plot holes and things that just don’t work. This can be where having a writing group would come in handy – although your readers don’t have to be other writers. When you get your manuscript back, do your best to be honest with yourself as you go through and consider their feedback and your revisions.
Documents to Prepare. While your beta readers are reading, there are some documents you will want to put together. The first is the query letter. There are a lot of resources out there that can walk you through how to write such a letter, but the essentials are as follows: address the agent by name (obviously leave blank for now – but you should not be sending form letters with “to whom it may concern”), start with the hook and comps (titles of published books that would fall along the lines of your own), follow with a brief summary of your novel, mention why you chose to query them specifically, and end with a brief bio (mention platforms and previous publications/experiences only if they are meaningful). I emphasize brief – try to stick to one page/less than three hundred words.
Next, write up a synopsis of your novel. Again, be brief – one or two pages. If you are tipping over a thousand words, you are telling too much. Stick to the main characters and plot points – this is not a time for minor characters or subplots. On the flip side, this is not just a simple laying out of the plot – it needs voice, it needs character of its own. This is a chance to show off your own voice. Write it in third person. (NOTE: A lot of writers find it really helpful to write a two page synopsis before they even begin writing their novels.) Again, there are a lot of great resources out there for writing such a document.
Revise these documents. Have people read them over. Revise again. Edit like your life depends on it – because your book’s life depends on it.
Once you’ve done all that, attempt to write a Twitter pitch – it doesn’t have to go on Twitter, the point is just the brevity. If you had to sum up your novel in 280 characters, how would you do this? (Bonus if you can leave enough characters for a couple hashtags, such as those used for social media pitch fests.)
Editors. Before you send your manuscript to an agent, you may want to consider getting an editor. This step requires funds, though, and not all writers can afford this. An editor is not a requirement to submit to agents, but an editor can make sure your manuscript is truly ready. This is another place to be really honest with yourself about what you have written. Do you need a content editor? Do you need a copyright/line editor? Can you afford to do this? Your eventual publisher will assign an editor at their cost once you have a contract, but if your manuscript is riddled with plot holes and typos, it likely won’t grab the attention of an agent/reach a publisher. I often tell my writing students that an essay riddled with typos tells the reader that the writer doesn’t care about their work – so why should the reader? The same applies here. You don’t need to be an English major to be a writer, but if you don’t have a handle on grammar/mechanics, it’s best to get some help.
Searching for an Agent. Agents are the gatekeepers to larger publishing houses. There are a number of publishers that won’t accept unsolicited/unagented work. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, there are a lot of places out there that will provide searchable lists to help you locate agents that are interested in the genre you are writing in. Two such lists are AgentQuery.com and Manuscript Wish List (MSWL also has an editor search). The key here is only submitting to people with interest in your genre and who are currently open to submissions. It doesn’t matter how good your book is – if you don’t meet their requirements, they will not even open your query. (The same goes for works outside their stipulated word count range.)
Also, make sure you only submit what they ask you to submit. The majority of agents will ask you for a query letter. Some might ask for a synopsis. Others might ask for a specific number of pages (I’ve seen requests for the first five, ten, twenty, or fifty pages). There may be other things they request. Biggest note: only send your manuscript when you are asked to do so.
If all goes well, you’ll get a request for a manuscript and then an offer to work together. The agent will then work to get you a contract with a publisher.
I would advise tracking which agents you have submitted to (you can submit to multiple agents at once) and when you sent them. Some agents will send letters (via email, generally) letting you know they aren’t interested. Others won’t respond – they will just note that if you don’t hear from them in, for example, six to eight weeks, that means they aren’t interested. (I had submitted to seventeen agents. I only officially heard back from six of them.)
Alternate Routes. If after a time, you find that you are not getting the bites you hoped for, or even alongside sending agent queries, there are other ways to get your manuscript noticed. One is contests – smaller publishers may offer contests that allow them access to manuscripts. The winner of the contest is usually published. (There are also usually reading fees associated with these contests; sometimes, there is a monetary reward for the winner in addition to what they will eventually get in royalties.) You can find these by searching for publishers that publish in your genre and see what they list on their websites. Another is a pitch fest on social media. For example, there is #PitMad and #DVPit on Twitter. (#RevPit is a contest to win a free edit of your manuscript.) Like contests, pitch fests can be tailored to specific genres, author identity, etc.
Small publishing houses are also (sometimes) open to unsolicited manuscripts. Get to know books that are in the same genre/line as your own – see who is publishing them, who their agents and editors are – then see if any of them are open to queries.
Contracts. My first piece of advice if someone does offer you a contract is to take a deep breath. Take five. Sleep on it if you can. This was an exciting experience for me – and it was a bit strange because they emailed me to let me know they wanted to offer me a contract and was I interested. I said sure since it couldn’t hurt to look – and looking didn’t obligate me to anything. When they send you the actual contract, read over it – but take a few more breaths. I was not given a date I had to decide by (I even asked if there was one, and they said there wasn’t). If the publisher is rushing you – that might be a red flag. You should have the time to explore legal representation (which is again going to cost money).
A piece of advice offered to me that I took was to apply to the Authors Guild – this was given to me about a week after I was sent the original contract. I wish I had known right away – so I’m telling you, whoever is reading this. Please note, this is ONE option – you do NOT have to do this. There is a fee associated with membership – but when you have a published book or a contract offer, you can apply for a membership level that includes free legal assistance in a couple of ways – including reviews of contracts. This will allow someone who does this for a living to catch any red flags that might exist within the contract.
Another piece of advice I offer you is this – ask the publisher if your contract is open to negotiation or if it is the finalized offer (i.e. take it or leave it). While you want to make sure you have someone look over the contract, you should know what they should be looking for – are they only looking for red flags, or are they looking to offer advice on what you should negotiate for? This will affect the time you then take to consider the offer – either you are looking for a straight yes/no, or you are considering the points the legal advice offers and deciding what you will then turn around and ask the publisher. Understand negotiations are a discussion – they may say no; they may come back with a counter-offer. Just don’t waste the time coming up with that initial response if their offer is already finalized in their eyes.
The biggest piece of advice I can give you is this – you have a right to walk away, and if you feel at all uncomfortable with an agent or a contract offer, walk away. I know this sounds bonkers considering this is the goal – but you wrote the book, and you deserve to feel comfortable with how it will be handled moving forward. Don’t sign everything away just because you want to see your book in print.
The next piece of advice – ask questions. Even if you feel like you have asked too many questions. Get your questions answered before you sign anything.
Last bit of advice – read rules/stipulations carefully. Some agents will note not to send to other agents at the same agency until you have heard back from them. Some contests will stipulate things like unpublished authors only or stipulate things like an author’s sex or race/ethnicity. Don’t submit to things that you don’t qualify for.