Personal,  Publishing,  Writing

The Fabled Path to Being Published (In Theory)

Temper all hope, ye who enter here.

Let me start by saying that I’m still on this path—so take my words with a grain of salt. I haven’t reached the end of this journey and I still have much work to do and time to commit before I get there.

I’m deep in the trenches, torn between continuing to query and cut down a bizarre and indulgent work of dark humor/science-fiction or developing a fresh and much more marketable work of young adult fantasy with the right elements for a debut novel. There’s a perspective I can share as someone in the middle of his process and many warnings I can give to people earlier in this journey, things I wish I could have known a long time ago. So let me start by laying out the basic steps to getting published, then I’ll smash them with a hammer and pick out the bones for you.

  1. Write a book
  2. Find a literary agent to represent you
  3. Work with your agent to “sell” your book to a publisher
  4. Get published!
  5. Repeat steps 1, 3, and 4 until you’re the next Stephen King

This post will be a grazing overview of these steps. Look out for future posts when I’ll dive into each of these steps in greater detail.

Step One: Write the Damn Thing

Okay, this may or may not be the hardest step for you, it depends on a lot of factors. For me, I wrote a story for the fun of it, and only once I finished did I think about pursuing publication. This comes with some unique challenges. While I was writing, I was completely unplugged from the “world of writing” and I even stopped reading for a while since I found it hard to balance that as I wrote my manuscript. I didn’t much know or care about the literary market. I didn’t know what books or genres were trending, what agents were looking for, and most unfortunately: what a debut novel from an unpublished author should look like.

We all have our favorite books, the stories that stay with us long after reading them. Many of these are bold, experimental, weird, fresh, and probably wouldn’t get sold as a debut novel. Unfortunately, book publishers, like any other commercial industry, need to make money. They look at what’s selling and they find books they know they can market to a particular audience or trend. These things change with time and having a pulse on the market isn’t the only way to find an agent and sell a book, but if you want a bigger probability of someone taking a chance on your word-baby. then it’s important to know dealbreakers and factors that will up your marketability.

Consider wordcount. The more pages a book has, the more expensive each copy will be to print. Established and popular authors can get away with pumping out books that soar beyond 200,000 words, but it’s nearly impossible to sell a novel that goes beyond the recommended industry guidelines. If you’re wondering what they are, here are the recommended adult fiction word-count ranges according to The Artful Editor.

  • Literary Novel                        70,000 – 110,000 words
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy     90,000 – 120,000 words
  • Historical Fiction                    90,000 – 110,000 words
  • Thriller                                    90,000 – 100,000 words
  • Mystery & Horror                  70,000 – 90,000 words
  • Romance                                50,000 – 90,000 words
  • Novella                                   20,000 – 40,000 words
  • Short Story                             1,000 – 8,000 words

These are guidelines of course. Some debut authors may have published novels past these ranges, but most fall in the middle to the shorter end of these ranges.

It’s also a good idea to look at what genres are popular at the moment since it’s easier to get your foot in the door if you’re offering a commercially viable product.

These discoveries took the wind out of my sails as I started doing my research. When I finished my book it was creeping up to the 150,000-word range, and while I still had a lot to cut down on, everyone I spoke to with more knowledge on the subject told me that agents won’t even look at a query letter or the first chapter of a book that long. It’s a tough sell. Most writers I know do it for the love of it, not to make money, not to make stories tailored to the whims literary market. Here’s the thing, you don’t need anything or anyone else to write a great book. There are more options than ever to create a professional product and self-publish. If you have the discipline and people in your lives who can help you fine-tune a book without the help of an agent or professional editor, go for it! This advice about the market is geared toward folks who want to get their foot in the door as an author published by a major house.

That can be a good way to look at it. You just need one book to get your foot in the door as a published author. This book may need to conform to the norms of a debut novel, but once you have it under your belt, and if you continue to develop a good relationship with your agent and publisher, the doors will open down the road to more ambitious and risky projects.

I’ll save more details for a future post on this subject, but for now just know that if you want an agent to even consider signing you as a client, you should consider genre, word-count, and you NEED to have a finished and polished manuscript that has been revised and proofread multiple times. Don’t think you can get ahead of yourself with an idea or a half-finished product. For good advice on starting or outlining your novel, check out the snowflake method.

Step One & a Half: Edit until you lose your damn mind. Then edit some more.

This step is so grueling in real life that I’ll try to be as brief as I can about it here.

Once you finish your novel you will be glowing and it feels like you’re done!


Sweet summer child.

By all means, celebrate! You’ve accomplished something incredible and you deserve to feel great about it! But if you want to be published (and even if you don’t), then chances are you’re still several revisions away from a polished product. Take a break from it, enjoy life, and come back to it weeks, if not months, later. Grab some people you trust to tell you the honest and sometimes harsh truth about your work and ask them if they’d be interested in reading the book, join a critique group, get as much feedback as you can, and edit the hell out of it!

I lied when I showed you the list above, it really looks more like this:

  1. Write a book
  2. Edit the book
  3. Edit the book
  4. Edit the book
  5. Finish editing the book!
  6. Edit the book
  7. Find a literary agent to represent you
  8. Edit the book
  9. Work with your agent to “sell” your book to a publisher
  10. Get published!
  11. Repeat steps 1, 3, and 4 until you’re the next Stephen King

Step Three: Find a Literary Agent!

For a long time, I thought the next step after editing and having a polished manuscript in your hands was to send it out to the publishing houses! Maybe like me, you imagined yourself walking into some smoky oak-paneled office to meet with someone to whom you’d pitch your idea and leave a copy of your manuscript. Maybe, like me, you already sent an unsolicited manuscript to Tor before learning about the world of agency and maybe, like me, you still haven’t heard back from Tor and wonder if it got lost in the mail like they said it probably did if there was no response.

Every time I heard mention of a literary agent I thought that this was some bougie shit that only authors with the money to afford them could have the benefit of working with. The reality is that if a literary agent is charging you money upfront to work with them, you should walk away because that’s not a real literary agent. Much like real estate agents, literary agents make their money in the back-end in the form of commission from book deals and sales. If you make money and get published, then they make money. It’s in an agent’s best interest to represent serious clients with manuscripts that can be reasonably sold to big-name publishers.

Being represented by a literary agent isn’t a luxury, it’s practically a necessity to get published. Just like unknown actors don’t walk right into Universal Pictures to get signed for a movie, a publisher is very unlikely to accept an unsolicited manuscript from an unrepresented author. Even if a publisher does accept unsolicited manuscripts, the chance of them offering you a publishing deal is slim to none, not to mention that you probably don’t have the knowledge or experience in negotiating a book deal or how to navigate those choppy waters. That’s what an agent’s for.

This is the first major obstacle to getting your book into the right hands. According to many, it’s also the most difficult. Why? Because you have to convince an agent to dedicate their valuable time and energy to your debut project in a crowded and competitive market. And how do you do it? With the one-and-only query letter. I’m going to dedicate a whole post to writing a good query letter, but I’d recommend checking out Query Shark. They have people send their letters to them and get feedback on how to edit them in the hopes of getting an agent to request to see more of your work. Think of it as the cover letter for your work, and in a way, it’s also a sort of resume for you as a writer.

A good query letter should be short (150-300 words is the typical range you’ll hear) and it should hook the agent into your project. Here’s an article by NY Book Editors on the elements of a good query letter.

This is the part of the process I’m on. You want to send out your letter to as many agents as you have the time and energy to do some good research on and get ready for the wall of rejections. Do not get discouraged. Most authors will get an offer of representation only after dozens of rejections, and careful revision of their query letter.

Remember what I said about the market and word counts earlier?

Well, the sci-fi story I wrote is a genuine labor of love. I poured my heart out into it and I actually adore it for what it is. It’s strange, authentic, fun, and it was a blast. I really followed the advice that a writer should set out to write the book you’d most love to read but doesn’t exist yet. I’ve gotten positive feedback from multiple readers and I’m really proud of it, even after years of writing and revision.

But here’s the thing. It’s not a good debut novel.

It’s long, it’s not easy to boil down or compare to other books that are popular at the moment, it’s got a large cast of characters, several branching simultaneous plotlines, it’s got some elements of magical realism in an otherwise near-future corporate cyberpunk setting, and there’s also a genetically modified drag-queen koala with a penchant for violence.

See what I mean? There’s probably a market for that somewhere, but I’m also aware that I made that novel for nobody else but my own enjoyment and it’s a tough sell as a debut author. The audience may be too niche for this novel to be picked up by an agent whose main concern is “can I sell this thing to a big publisher?”

I’ve been hacking away at it trying to make it more marketable after a wall of disinterested agents, but there’s only so much I can change before it loses its heart. For this reason, I decided to take all I’ve learned and write a new manuscript.

Now, it probably sounds like I’m biting the bullet and forcing myself to dispassionately write something entirely shaped by the whims of the market. The truth is that I’m still pouring my heart out into a project that I’m excited for and is still genuinely me, the only difference is that now I have boundaries and a shape for the foundation before I start pouring my concrete. Before, I spilled all the concrete to my heart’s content and then tried to shape the foundation for a good debut novel.

There are certainly ways to stay within the parameters of a marketable debut novel and not have it be a soulless slog. Chances are if you’re not having fun writing it, nobody will be having fun reading it.

Well, this is as far as I’ve gotten. I’m in the process of repeating step 1 of the process with my new manuscript.

I’ll leave you now in Lindsay Ellis’ able hands. She recently got a book published and this incredible video is a must-watch for any debut writer who needs to hear some real advice from someone who has traveled the fabled path of publishing and made it out of the other side with a book deal.

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