A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Published

© 2007 Jeff Kleinman

Work your way slowly through this page – there’s a lot of information on it, and it’s pretty condensed.

STEP #1: Write Project & Develop Credentials

Seems like two steps, doesn’t it? It’s not – or at least it may not be. You need to write (or perhaps just develop) the project, and at the same time, you need to make it clear (first to yourself; and then to others) that you’re the best person to be writing it in the first place. This means having the writing “muscles” to do the job, as well as having the expertise to prove it.

  • Step #1A: Write The Project
    • Fiction: Write the entire book (most novels are generally between 90K-120K words), rewrite as necessary.
    • Nonfiction: Write a proposal (outline + a sample chapter or two), rewrite as necessary.
  • Step #1B: Develop Your Credentials
    • Fiction: Publish! Win awards, grants. Try to give the appearance of a writer whose career is really taking off. Bottom line, though: the book, and the writing, must stand on its own. If the book’s fabulous enough, you don’t need any further credentials.
    • Nonfiction: Become an expert. Earn an advanced degree (Ph.D., etc.), find speaking engagements, have personal experience in the matter, and so forth. Keep in mind that if your expertise is impressive enough, a publisher can always find you a ghostwriter to do the writing.

STEP #2: Assess Your Project

Go to the bookstore. Figure out exactly where your book will fit on the shelf. Make sure it fits solidly on one shelf – of course your goal may be to cross “genre” lines, but if there’s not an initial place to put your book, bookstores (and publishing professionals) may not know what to do with it.

Fiction comes in a variety of flavors.

  • Commercial: more “plot-driven.” Genre fiction (mysteries, thrillers, romances, etc.) are often preferable to “mainstream commercial fiction,” which tends to be harder to sell for first-time novelists.
  • Literary: more “character-” or “writing-” driven. Can also have genres (literary mystery, literary thriller, etc.).
  • Experimental: unique, different, genre-breaking works.

Nonfiction usually falls into two broad categories.

  • Prescriptive: “How-to.” You’re providing information. Depending on the subject matter, academic books usually fall into this category, as well.
  • Narrative (Creative): You’re providing information, but in some kind of “story” format, using some kind of narrative arc. Essays, memoirs, biographies, and so forth fall into this category.

STEP #3: Decide on the Publishing Venue

All publishers are not created equal. Some are far better suited to certain types of projects than others. Review Steps #1 and #2 to assess both your project and yourself: determine where the project (and you) would be best suited. Consider:

  • Regional v. National: does your project have national appeal (will it appeal to people in Maine, Idaho, and Alaska)? Or is your project more regional, appealing to people in a certain region (state, city, county, etc.)?
    • If regional, consider: Small Presses, Specialty Presses, Regional Presses, Academic Presses.
    • If national, consider Medium Presses, Large Presses.
  • Trade v. Academic: do you envision your project to be sold primarily through bookstores and other “trade” channels, or through educational and academic venues?
    • If trade, consider Small Presses, Specialty Presses, Regional Presses, Medium Presses, Large Presses.
    • If academic, consider Academic Presses.
  • Niche v. Broad Market: does your project have the potential to reach a vast number of readers, or is it targeted towards a specific, smaller audience?
    • If niche, consider Small Presses, Specialty Presses, Regional Presses, Academic Presses.
    • If broad, consider Academic Presses, Medium Presses, Large Presses.
  • Local v. National Platform (especially for nonfiction): do you have a national platform with speaking engagements and media across the country? Are you better known in a single region?
    • If local, consider Small Presses, Specialty Presses, Regional Presses, Academic Presses.
    • If national, consider Specialty Presses, Medium Presses, Large Presses.

Some definitions:

Direct-Submission Publishers (Go To Step #4):

  • Small Presses (including “Micropresses”): Relative term, but generally means they publish 3 or fewer books per year; many are family-run. See International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #4.
  • Specialty Press: focus on a specific subject (collectibles, etc.). May have national or regional distribution. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #4.
  • Regional Press: focus on a specific region (e.g., Southwestern America). Usually have regional distribution. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #4.
  • Academic Press: publish much more than scholarly monographs and academic tomes. Now do cookbooks, popular fiction, serious nonfiction, literature in translation, reference works, art books, textbooks, etc. Approximately 100 U Presses in the U.S. Often focus on region or strengths of affiliated university. See Association of American University Presses Directory. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #4 or #5.

Literary Agency-Submission Publishers (Go To Step #5):

  • Academic Press: The more prestigious academic presses often prefer submissions from literary agents. Go to Step #5.
  • Medium Press: Smaller than “large” Presses; may publish 10-100 titles per year. Other criteria are generally the same. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #5.
  • Large (“Commercial”) Press: Books published “for the trade” – not textbook, technical, or scholarly publishers. Books sold to the general consumer through bookstores, chain stores, Amazon, etc. Have major national distribution, major media ties, often the best chance of being reviewed in prestigious papers, journals. If this is the proper venue for your book, go to Step #5.

STEP #4: Find A Direct-Submission Publisher

Direct-Submission Publishers (my term) don’t require the intermediary of a literary agent to approach them, work with them, and negotiate contracts. These generally include Small Presses, Specialty Presses, Regional Presses, and most Academic Presses. In addition, some Medium and even Large Presses may accept direct submissions – it will depend on the publisher.

Research the Direct-Submission Publishers: Find reputable publishers through Literary Marketplace, Writer’s Digest, and a variety of other hardcopy and electronic sources.

Skip Step #5; proceed to Step #6.

STEP #5: Find A Literary Agent

Literary Agents are the link between the author and medium and large (and the more prestigious academic) presses. If your book does not fit one of those categories, you may not need a literary agent. Agents walk the author through the publishing process, helping with crafting the materials, positioning it for the marketplace, submitting it to the publisher, navigating through the often-labyrinthine world of publishing, and generally holding the author’s hand and providing both a cheering section and a sounding board. They also sell the book to foreign markets, where appropriate, as well as dramatic (TV and film), audio, and other rights. They charge between 15%-20% for their services.

Research the Agents: Find reputable agents through Literary Marketplace, Writer’s Digest, agentresearch.com, literaryagents. net, publisherslunch.com, and a variety of other hardcopy and electronic sources. Members of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives) are preferable.

STEP #6: Learn Submission Guidelines

Whether you’re approaching a direct-submission publisher or a literary agent, the process remains the same.

  1. Begin by learning what materials the publisher/agent wants to see. Generally, most publishers/agents don’t want to see the entire book (or even proposal) if they haven’t asked for it – that’s called an “unsolicited submission,” and is frowned upon in the industry.
  2. You’ll start by submitting a “query” – asking the publisher/agent if s/he wants to see your materials. When you research the publishers and agents, the research guides you use will tell you their submission guidelines for these “queries.”
  3. Most queries consist of a cover letter +
    • Sample materials (especially if fiction);
    • Proposal (especially if nonfiction)
    • Clips of previous work.

But do your research ahead of time – find out what the publisher / agent wants to see.

STEP #7: Submit Your Materials

Send the publisher/agent the materials listed in Step #6. Be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (“SASE”).

STEP #8: Wait

How long is too long? For fiction, the wait can easily be up to 6 months, or more, to hear from both publishers and agents; but it’s often much sooner than that. As a general rule, give the publishing professional two months to respond. If you don’t hear from them, send a polite follow-up letter. It’s always best to write with something (new, exciting, wonderful) to report – an award won, a prestigious speaking engagement confirmed, and so forth.

STEP #9a: ACCEPTANCE!: Publisher/Agent Responds Positively

If the Agent/Publisher is interested, s/he may ask to see the rest of the materials (either exclusively or nonexclusively). If s/he remains interested, find out:

  1. Assess Publisher/Agent: is the publisher/agent reputable?
    • Direct Submission Publishers: Talk to other authors, see the quality of other books they’ve done, discuss distribution, how often the books are reviewed, and by whom, and what kind of publicity (if any) you can expect.
    • Literary Agents: Talk to other authors, check out agentresearch.com, find out if the agent is reputable, and if you feel that the agent’s style is compatible with your own.
  2. Review Contract.
    • Direct Submission Publishers: be sure to have a qualified attorney review your contract. All publishing contracts are not created equal.
    • Literary Agents: many literary agents offer “retainer agreements,” but not all do. If they do, have a qualified attorney review the agreement. If they don’t, draft one yourself.
  3. Publishing Process Begins.
    • Direct Submission Publishers: your project goes through the editing/production process.
    • Literary Agents: you work with the agent, perhaps, to edit the project; the agent submits the project to medium, large, and academic presses. If accepted by the publisher, your agent negotiates the contract and your project goes through the editing/production process.

STEP #9b: REJECTION!: Publisher/Agent Does Not Respond Positively

Don’t take it personally – there are a lot of would-be authors, and fewer and fewer publishers to publish them. If you’re not having much luck, here are some suggestions:

  1. If you’re receiving all “form” rejections, start over at Step #1 – be sure that the writing is strong, your platform is strong, and the book can be classified into a specific genre.
  2. f you’re receiving personalized rejections, review Step #3 to be sure that your book is going to the right venue. If you continue to receive rejections, start over at Step #1.
  3. Remember: the rejection shouldn’t be taken personally. Publishing’s a very subjective business.
  4. Be persistent. Try to figure out what’s wrong with your presentation, and fix it.