I received an email from a fellow English teacher the other day that asked me about getting published. She wasn't asking for herself, but asking for a talented student who was inquiring.
I had no idea how to respond.
It's a big question. A lot goes into it. What is the student writing? Where does she want to publish? Is she any good?
Still, I thought the question was an interesting one. After a good deal of thought, I put this together:
I can give my two cents. This is by no means comprehensive.
The short answer is that it depends what she writes. Is she working toward a novel? Does she write short stories? The avenue to publish these things are very different.
Of the two, short stories are the easier (and less lucrative) path. There are hundreds of literary magazines released by universities that vary considerably in quality. With a solid piece (and good timing), this is the quickest way to get traditionally published.
The 'Traditional' route
When we talk about publishing, we are almost always talking about traditional publishing. You submit a completed work to an agent, editor, or publisher and they tell you if it's good or bad. If it's good, they publish.
The Short Story Version
Write an awesome short story.
- Revise, revise, revise.
- When it's good (and you dang well know it's good), go to you local library and pick up a copy of the most recent edition of Writer's Market. It will be in the reference section.
- In this book is a list of all the literary magazines registered in the United States. Their contact information and specific instructions are included with each entry. Follow these instructions to the letter.
- Submit, submit, submit.
- If you get any feedback, consider it carefully. It's a delicate balance to strike. On one hand, by the time you submit, you should feel confident about your piece. On the other hand, if you keep hearing the same notes over and over, there is something that likely needs to be addressed.
The Digital Short Story
You'll find many of these steps to be the same as the traditional short story. The difference comes when it comes time to submit. We've moved far beyond the time when a publication had to be physical to be considered legitimate. I would strongly encourage this young lady to explore the option of online literary magazines. Check out the things that are happening over at Electric Literature if you don't believe me. This will take a bit of leg-work on her end to determine who is legitimate, who is just looking for free content, and what publications will help her build her resume.
Short stories are often the first way that writers get published. There is no money in it (literally none...authors are often paid with 'Contributor's Copies'--that is, copies of the magazine that they can give to friends and family). The reason to publish here first is to build up your publishing credits. Think of this like your resume. Healthy publishing credits make you more appealing to agents and publishers when you begin to 'shop' larger works.
The Novel Version
Write an awesome book.
- Have your friends, acquaintances, old English teachers, and anyone else you can find read it, help you edit it, and tell you (honestly) if it really is as awesome as you think it is (this last little bit may be the hardest part of the whole process, as pretty much everybody will tell you that they liked it...).
- Go back and make it awesome, because it totally wasn't the first time (trust me on this--it wasn't).
- Query agents. There's lots of help online about how to do this, but I've found Nathan Bransford's blog to be pretty on-target...
- Keep on querying/revising your query letter until an agent agrees to read it.
- Take the agents' advice. Chances are, they'll tell you a few things about your novel, even if they don't decide to represent it. this is the first real information you've gotten about your manuscript. Do not take it lightly.
- Repeat steps 2 - 7 until you've exhausted every agent in the country.
- Try small independent presses. These don't have the money or distribution of the big boys, they're also more likely to take a risk on a different type of book, and you often don't need an agent to publish with them. Be warned, though: they tend to be very specialized and highly subjective. Also, do your research first; make sure you don't sign on to an indy until you know they're legit, and at least big enough to get you book into some stores.
- If no agent or indy press will accept it, it's time to do some soul searching. Most likely (as in, in 99.9999999% of cases) this was the first novel you've ever written, and it just wasn't good enough. I'd say about 2/3 of published novelists I know threw away their first novel... some before trying to get it published, and some after. In either case, this brings you to step 10.
- Use everything you learned from steps 1 - 9, and write another novel.
- Repeat steps 1 - 10 until the cold hand of death pulls you, old and feeble and broken, from your barren, heartless keyboard...
Getting Published in 2015
The traditional paths to publication are alive and well, but they are as saturated as ever. I have some ideas about this, but--from here on out--I'm speaking solely about things that I have no direct experience with. With that said, I don't think you'll find these ideas far off.
There was a time when self-publishing was a naughty word among authors. If you were self-published, you weren't the real deal. This time has passed. In fact, many, many people are making a (pretty good) living off of publishing their own work. What has changed? Basically, companies like Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, and Wattpad have cleared the biggest hurdle through their digital distribution.
In short, you write it, you set a price, and Amazon releases it (into a fog of other self-published authors...it's up to you to make your work stand out...more on this later), and you collect 70% of all profits. You have no overhead.
My Honest-to-God advice
If I were going to try to get published today, this is what I would do. Again, we're in the realm of speculation here, but I've seen this pattern again and again, and I think there is something to it.
You need an audience
The surest way to get a publishing company to give you the nod is to show up with your own audience. Do you know why The Fault In Our Stars was such a dominant presence on Best Seller lists? It's not because it's an amazing book. Excellent work goes unnoticed every day. TFiOS was dominant because it is a very, very good book written by an author with 3.75 million Twitter followers and 7 million subscribers on YouTube. When you have an audience like that you can write anything and it will be successful.
This means you need a presence
And in 2015 this means an online presence. In short: You need a website.
This will give you the chance to flex your writing muscles on a regular basis. You should write daily. This will get you used to the 'hard work' that goes in to great writing, and help you further develop your ear for the art. You can use it to not only practice your craft, but to build your audience. This is--I think--a must.
A Website isn't enough
You need active social media accounts, and you need to be diligent and clever in using them. Essentially, you need a brand--a way to interact with your audience and a way to promote your writing (self-published or otherwise).
A niche would be helpful
People don't follow writers because they are in love with the writing (at least largely). People follow writers because they love their subject. Most writers online have a specific topic that they write about: Sports, design, personal finance, humor, music...a dedicated subject matter will give you an outlet to establish yourself as a unique voice in the field. A niche will come with a built-in community that you can make your own. What do you know about? What do you love? What conversation can you add legitimate value to? This is not a 'must' but it's a dang good place to start.
That's everything I know. Writing is hard, and writing well is even harder. The good news is that you are living in a world where it is a more valuable--and more visible--skill than ever before. Work hard. Find your voice. Treat it like a job. Opportunities abound.