I noticed a really interesting phenomenon when people I know IRL heard/saw I got a book deal: they were, by far, more impressed that I’d written a book from start to finish than the fact that I’d also gotten an agent and sold the thing.
In my head, I was all, “Wait. Seriously? Of course I wrote a book. All my writer friends have written books. That’s not the hard part of this. It’s the must-happen part. The rest is the stuff not everyone does. How is that not what you’re focusing on?”
But surprise, they’re right. Because while at this point, I’ve taken the whole “writing a book” thing for granted, and I suspect a lot of other people reading this have too, the fact is
HOLY CRAP. WE HAVE WRITTEN ENTIRE BOOKS FROM START TO FINISH.
This is an amazing thing. I know we don’t really get that anymore, and even as I’m typing this, I’m still thinking, “Well, yeah, I’ve written a lot of entire books from start to finish.” I am literally still missing the point in my own head even as I tell you DO NOT MISS THIS POINT.
You, who are writing a book. You are amazing. You really are. Those people who say, “I’d love to write a book when I have the time” don’t get the most fundamental point of being a writer: you make time. We are the people who’ve decided this is worth squeezing in alongside jobs and parenting and bill paying and cooking and cleaning and commuting. We are the people who have found the time where other people don’t even see it exists.
So, we’re kind of a big deal. Separate from agents, and publication, and all that jazz, we write, and that is a really freaking big deal.
You wrote a book. Now what?
Stop. Breathe. Applaud the crap out of yourself.
If you already know what comes next in terms of the querying/publishing business, you can stop reading here, but I also wanted to write a post for those people who legit wrote a book and really don’t know what comes next. Because in truth, I get that a lot, and when you’re really new, the amount of information out there is daunting, even to people willing to do their research.
So, hopefully, this will make it a little neater and easier :)
Step 1: Polish that sucker
Completing a manuscript is awesome, but when you’re done, what you have is a first draft. A first draft isn’t a finished book, period. A finished book requires revision, editing, correction, and general polish. So how do you get that done?
- Run through it several more times on your own. Yes, it gets tiresome to keep reading the same stuff, so find new ways to mix it up. Some people swear by reading it aloud, or backward, or from the bottom of the page up, to take themselves out of the story and see where it needs major copyediting. One thing that works really well for me is sending the completed manuscript to my Kindle and reading it that way; for me, it provides some distance and allows me to read it more objectively, since it really just looks like an ebook.
- Get yourself some beta readers. These are people who read your manuscript and provide critique. Click that link – there’s a lot more information there. I definitely recommending finding at least one or two who specialize in your category and genre (more on those shortly) but sometimes, the best critiques come from non-writers. After all, more of those will be reading your book post-publication than not.
- Revise, revise, revise. There are plenty of great links on the Internet about ways to do this well, from how to trim to what to look for. If you’re not getting enough from your beta readers and your own reads, these may help. You can find some on my Writing Resources page.
Step 2: Pick Your Publication Path
Once you feel your manuscript is absolutely the best it can be, it’s time to figure out what you want to do with it. I’ve laid out the differences between the main publication paths here, but the briefest gist is this:
Your next step is going to be to try to get an agent, or it isn’t.
How do you know? Well, it depends what you want. If you want to give your manuscript a chance at the major publishing houses, your next step is going to be querying (more on that shortly) your manuscript to literary agents, because those houses (including Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, Disney-Hyperion, Bloomsbury, and Scholastic) will not accept manuscripts that are not submitted via agent.
If you know you want a smaller publishing house, then you have to consider whether you’re okay being limited to the ones that don’t require an agent for submissions. Bear in mind that also means you’ll be on your own to negotiate your contract, or you’ll have to hire a lawyer who specializes in such things.
If you know you want to self-publish, then your next step is going to be figuring out how to do just that, which means researching platforms (such as CreateSpace) and vendors.
Because I’ve yet to self-publish, and it’s not my area of expertise, I strongly encourage you to check out some blogs about self-publishing if you’re considering that path. I also encourage you to find self-published titles you admire and pay special attention to those authors, and find out what editors and vendors they used. They’ll be by far the most helpful allies in this process! (You also may want to check this out.)
No matter which of these paths you choose, there’s one thing you have to do first: Isolate and understand what it is that you’re selling. All books fall into at least one category and at least one genre.
A category refers to the age range of your target reader. (Think in terms of in which section of the bookstore your book would be shelved.) So if the target audience for your book is adults, your book is Adult. Even if your main character isn’t. (See Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, or THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon.) Now, this doesn’t mean people of multiple ages can’t enjoy your book, but you still have to target your main audience. JUST ONE. Pitching your book as MG/YA suggests you don’t understand the nuances of either one.
Categories include PB (Picture Book), Early/Young Reader, MG (Middle Grade), YA (Young Adult), NA (New Adult), and Adult. For more information on each category, do some research. You’re far enough along now that it’s time.
A genre refers to the classification of content of your book. It includes things such as Sci-Fi, Fantasy (which can be narrowed down further, e.g. Contemporary Fantasy or Epic Fantasy), Contemporary, Romance, Historical, Paranormal, Dystopian, Post-Apocalyptic, Western, and many more. You can assign a book more than one genre, but for the love of everyone, max it out at 2-3. Just because your book has a romance doesn’t mean it is a Romance.
The key is this: you’re trying to get your book placed in a bookstore/Amazon categories. Think about where you think it belongs, and go from there.
Step 3 (if not self-publishing): Sign with a literary agent or publisher
Congratulations – you’ve made your first major publishing decision! Crazy, isn’t it? There are so many options out there these days, and it can be hard to choose. One really great thing to remember? The choice you make now doesn’t have to be the one you go with forever. Obviously, if you sign with an agent, the paths you take are ones you have to discuss, but it is absolutely possible to publish X with a major publisher, Y with a small publisher, and Z on your own. Yay, modern publishing!
At this point, you’ve reached what I like to call “The First Gatekeeper Step.” This is the first point at which someone in a position of power can say “No.”
If hearing your first “No” is going to make you quit, stop. Breathe. Write something new. You are not ready for this yet.
Have you established you can handle a rejection? Fantastic, because no matter who you are, you’re going to get some of those. Maybe even a lot of those. Read this if it helps. Now, onward!
If your aim is a small publisher that doesn’t require an agent, the first thing you’ll have to do is find out which small publishers don’t require an agent. Research them well to find out what they offer, how long they’ve been in business…read this, basically. Once you’ve isolated where you want to pitch, follow their guidelines!
If your aim is to find a literary agent, there are a few main ways to do that:
- Attend conferences at which they’re hearing pitches
- Enter contests
I have never been to a pitch session, so I’ve nothing to say about that, but by all means, if you have the time to go and money to spend, they’ve certainly worked for people I know. Agent Sarah LaPolla has a post on things to keep in mind if you attend a conference, so go ahead and read it if you’re thinking about it!
For anyone who’s followed my path, you’ll know that I found my original agent through a contest, specifically The Writer’s Voice. Clearly, I’m a fan of these, but they’re not right for everyone (particularly if you don’t write MG or YA), and they’re not right every time. (I’ve blogged about this too.) If, however, they’re something you think you’d like to pursue, it’s important to stay on top when they’re happening and what the guidelines are. If you’re on Twitter, Brenda Drake, Cupid, and AuthoressAnon are all good people to follow.
Querying is the most common way to get a literary agent, and it involves the following elements:
- Create a query list, taking into account agents that rep your category and genre and have the sales and experience you’re looking for. Not sure where to start? Querytracker is an excellent database. Use their search function and go from there. Once you have names/agencies, you can get narrower information if they’re listed on LiteraryRambles. (I also have a list of recent interviews with agents here.) Finally, check Writer Beware to make sure the agents you’re considering don’t appear on a list of agents to avoid.
- Check submission guidelines. Every agent requires queries to be submitted in a particular way – some want just the query letter, some want the first chapter, some want five pages, etc. Make sure you follow each agent’s guidelines as explicitly as possible. Submission guidelines can always be found on an agency’s page. Make sure to check the general agency guidelines as well as the individual agent’s page.
- Write a query letter.
A query letter is effectively where a cover letter for a job application meets the back cover copy of a book. For resources on writing a query letter, check my Writing Resources page. As a very bare summary, your query should include this:
“Query” written in the subject line.
Dear [agent name - ALWAYS. Never "dear agent".]
Information about you and your book that includes word count (rounded), category, genre, title, and pub credits if you have them. A mention of why you’re querying them specifically is nice.
A brief synopsis of your book that reads like back cover copy, including the fact that it does not reveal the ending. (For an example, click on My Books up top. The cover copy for BEHIND THE SCENES actually was my query.)
A signoff, including how to reach you.
How you arrange those central things is up to you. I generally intro myself in the first paragraph, give 2-3 paragraphs to my book, then sum up with my word count, pub credits, and maybe some info about myself, but there are so many query letters available on the Internet you can see there’s no one right way to divvy it.
So, that’s the gist! If you’ve still got questions… learn to love Google :) And good luck!