From the Mailbag: How Do I Get Published?

C asks:

For the past few years, I have been working on a novel of my mine. Just recently, I have successfully finished it. I was wondering what are the steps to get my novel published. Being a renowned author that you are, I am hoping that you can help me into starting my journey as an author.

LOL! “Renowned author!” {{wipes tears from eyes}} Oh, that’s a good one. C, my dear, flattery will get you everywhere.Here you go:

First of all, CONGRATULATIONS ON FINISHING YOUR FIRST BOOK! Yippee! That’s a huge accomplishment, and you should feel very, very proud of yourself. You know, a lot of people go aorund saying they want to write a book, but very few follow through. I’m in RWA, where the members are supposedly paying $85 a year to be career-focused writers, and you’d be surprised how many members never actually finish a manuscript. C, you are in rare company. Give yourself a round of applause.

Okay. Your book is done. Now what?

Now, you revise the heck out of it. Give your book to somebody else to read — someone who is not going to say, “oh it’s good,” and leave it at that, take their suggestions (if they make sense to you) and make your book better, faster, stronger tighter. You can find critique partners in any number of ways, I found my first critique partners by joining RWA (my local chapter had a critique partner matching service) and by joining (which in 2002 — I haven’t been there in years) also had one. There are probably a lot of good critique partner matching lists and forums and etc. out there. I recommend joining one where people are writing the kind of books you are writing. For instance, if you write children’s books or YA, go to Verla Kay’s Blue Boards and try the forum where they want to exchange work for critique. If you are writing romance or women’s fiction, go to eHarlequin, Romance Divas*, or etc.I know a writer who has a group of highly skilled friends who she trusts to read her work (one is an editor, another a playwright, etc.) but we can’t all be that lucky. My husband reads my books, and he’s best at telling me when my jokes fall flat.

There was a lot of trial and error in those days. Getting a good critique partner is pretty much like dating. You go on a lot of crummy first dates in which you exchange chapters only to realize that this person can’t/won’t help you, either becuase they don’t have the skills to or they are more intersted in having their own work read or they are of the “oh, it’s good” variety.

It is important to note that whether or not these critique partners are published is not really the point. The two critique partners I finally ended up with were not, at the time, published. In fact, we all ended up selling our first books around the same time, in 2005/2006 and now one, Marley Gibson, is working on her second series, and the other, C.L. Wilson, is a NYT bestseller. So don’t dismiss someone because they aren’t published.

It’s also nice to get more than one critique partner, because they might focus on different things. One might be a whiz at finding structural problems whereas another might be really good at spotting technical issues or characterization. One of my current critique partners, Carrie Ryan (also not published when I started working with her, now currently taking over the YA world) likes to nail me whenever I slip out of my character’s true voice.

I also know some people who don’t like to show their work to anyone before they submit it, and while this works for them, I think it’s a really hard row to hoe, especially when you are first starting out. If you do have this personality, give it a whirl, but if you find you aren’t getting anywhere with your submissions, it might be time to step back a bit and get a second pair of eyes on the work. For me, I know that very few people are going to be as hard on my work as I am, but when I would send stuff out to CPs and get back a few typos, I generally found a different CP for that project.

Okay, so you’ve got your critique partner, your book is as polished as it can be, and you want to get it published!

Now, you have to put the brakes on and read up on the industry.

I know, I know, that sounds really dry and boring, especially when you want your book out there now now now, but trust me: you need to do this. It will save you a TON of heartache later if you take a stab at understanding the publishing industry first. I recommend setting aside a nice fat weekend afternoon or two, and read everything you can get your hands on. Find out what an agent is, what a publisher is, how books work in bookstores. To get you started, check out my publishing primers, which are a quick and dirty glossary for some of the jargon you’re going to encounter when you start submitting.

There are very few houses left where the publishers will accept material directly from authors. These are mostly smaller houses or niche genre houses (such as Harlequin). In most cases, it’s better to query agents. Writers like to get together in bars and argue this point until the cows come home, but, in my opinion, it’s better to query agents first, unless you are writing in a niche genre market, like Harlequin category romances. The reason agents are useless here is because Harlequin is the ONLY house that publishes category romances, so there’s only one choice if you’ve got a category romance on your hands. (And if you want to know what a category romance is, just google. There are folks that explain it way better than me.) Harlequin can offer you its standard deal (and trust me, with the number of books it publishes per year, they have a very strict hierarchy and ways they like to introduce authors to the market)  your option is pretty much take it or don’t have your category romance published.

The reason I recommend agents over editors is that agents are very wise and know many more editors than you do, so they are more likely to know which editor is going to be perfect for your book. They might even know an editor who has been looking for a book just like yours. And, ifyou submit to editors who are not right for your book and they reject it, and then you get an agent, the agent is just going to say “well, this book is all shopped out” (which means there is no place left to send it).

Great, you say, but how do I know what agent to send to? The best thing to do, again, is research. You need to researcht eh kind of agents that are right for your book. Find the books most like yours in the bookstore and check out the acknowledgements page. Most authors thank their agents. Alternately go online and type in the name of the book/author and “literary agent” into Google. Go to a website like and look up agents by genre, then type their name into Google and see if you can find any books they’ve sold that you are familiar with. Google is your friend.

My favorite resource is called Publisher’s Marketplace. I pay 20 bucks a month to be a member, but if you want to you can join for one month, then quit, but during that one month, you can read all these agent profiles where they list books that they’ve sold *and* (this is the best part, so pay attention) you can read through the “deal” archives. Pick a genre to search and you can read all the deals (which are a lot of them) that agents and editors report to find books like yours, and who sold them.

I know you think that researching the agents sounds very dry and boring, but honestly, YOU NEED TO DO THIS. You can’t wake up one morning and say you are going to be a brain surgeon and pick up a scalpel, and you can’t wake up one mroning and say you want to be a writer and then send off a manuscript. This is your bootcamp. Your training period. Go to different agency websites and look up WHAT THEY’VE SOLD.

I’m going to repeat this, just for emphasis. LOOK UP WHAT THEY’VE SOLD.

It’s very in vogue these days to judge an agency based on how detailed their rejection letter are or how pretty their website is or how nice some agent was to you at a conference, but that’s pretty much bull. If the agency cannot report to you any books that they have sold that you can go to the store and find on the bookshelf, then they are a bad agency. Not necessarily a scam, but certainly ineffective. The bottom line of any agent is what books they have on a shelf. Now, a lot of agents don’t have websites, but the ones that do, if they are GOOD agents, have front and center the names of many of their clients and the sales they have made for them

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

You will notice that in most of these cases, whether the agency was a huge one or a tiny one, they listed their clients/books either on their home page or one click away. This is because a mark of a good agent is not how they write rejection letters, it’s how they deal with their ACTUAL clients — selling their books, maintaining their client’s relationship with the publisher, etc.

I cannot stress this enough. I have seen far too many careers stall for YEARS because someone is staying with an ineffectual agent who has made very few or no sales. Agents are usually thrilled to talk about their clients’ books that are on the shelves or in production. It’s their record, their references, their job experience. If they are not willing or able to mention books they have sold, that is a HUGE red flag.

Become familiar with Writer Beware.

Read Theresa Nielsen Hayden’s Slushkiller article.

Keep in mind the following: Money flows “toward” the writer in publishing. Never ever ever ever ever ever ever cut your agent a check for anything. I don’t care what they call it — reading fee, marketing fee, whatever. Don’t give your agent money. When your agent gets money for something of yours that they’ve sold, they take out their portion and give you the rest. (Some agents do what is called split checks, where they have the publisher send you your portion directly.) If they do charge for things like “copying and postage” (and very very very few agents do that in these days of electronic submissions) then it’s somehting they ONLY take money out of the CHECK THEY RECEIVE for selling your work. In addition, your contract with them should stipulate that there is a cap to these fees. Read the AAR rules. Any agent who charges you a reading fee or a marketing fee is an agent from whom you should RUN. If they tell you that this is the way it’s done, they are lying. Find a different agent.

Okay, you’ve researched agents and you now have a list of agents you think are right for you. Great. Now, find out what each agent is looking for in a submission. Some agents like snail mail. Others are okay with email. Some agents want to read the first five pages, or the first 50 pages, off the bat, some agents just want a query letter. DO EXACTLY WHAT EACH AGENT TELLS YOU. Send them EXACTLY WHAT THEY HAVE ASKED FOR, even if it’s different from what all the other agents have asked for, even if you think it would be easier to send all the agents the exact same thing, or that they really do want the first 50 pages, even if they only asked for a query. Don’t resist it. Don’t decide that you know better. Just follow directions. Is it really so hard?

Query lots of agents. It’s more fun that way. It’s also harder to hung up on one rejection if you query lots. For tips on how to write a great query letter, check out this fabulous list of queries that worked from the members of Fangs, Fur, Fey (including my own).

For my money, hte best thing to do is to query each agent with a letter tailored to them. Sinceyou did your research and have picked a list of agents to send to based on their interest, you automatically have soemthing to put in your letter that shows them that you did your homework and know why they’d be a good fit. For instance, if you have a zombie novel. you can query Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich and say:

Dear Mr. McCarthy,

I hear you’re a zombie fan. After all, you represent Carrie Ryan of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH and Mark Henry of HAPPY HOUR OF THE DAMNED. I have a 60,000 word zombie novel for teenagers entitled MY ZOMBIE DOG ATE MY HOMEWORK (AND MY BRAINS), that I think would be a perfect fit on your list.

And so on.

Agents like it when you do this, because they get dozens, if not hundreds of letters every week where it is obvious that the writer didn’t do any homework at all and are sending them something completely inappropriate. So when one comes across their desk where it is clear that the writer actually gave it some thought before typing their name in at the top, they pay more attention.

The rest of the query letter should be you pretending you are writing the back cover copy of your book, were it published and sitting on the shelf. Just a paragraph or two saying what the book is about. make sure to include the title of the book, the approximate genre (e.g., young adult, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc.), and the word count.

If you think that your bio has some kind of very special connection to the book, include that too. For instance, in my query, I pointed out that I went to yale, so am pretty familiar with the whole “girl at Yale” and “secret society” aspects of my book. If I’d been writing about a girl at Ohio State, I probably wouldn’t have said anything about where I went to school.

So, send out a lot of queries, sit back, and say a prayer. And then — this is the most important part of all:


Good luck!


* In general, if I throw a name out in this post and you don’t know what it means, Google it. This is all about doing the research. Poke around.

Posted in writing advice

7 Responses to From the Mailbag: How Do I Get Published?

  1. Pingback: Making Stuff Up for a Living: The Blog

  2. Cara King says:

    What an excellent post, Diana! You’re doing a lot of good here.

  3. Alexa says:

    Wow great post and lots of useful links, thanks!

    Letting someone (who isn’t married to me!) read my work, is my next big hurdle. It’s terrifying! Does that ever get easier?

  4. JulieLeto says:

    Alexa, no, it doesn’t. Just wait until the people reading your stories are REVIEWERS who will post their opinions for the entire world to see. At this point, friends and family become puppy chow.

    Diana, fabulous advice, as always. I advise new authors not to submit their work anywhere until they’ve been “connected” to the industry for a year. That means going to conferences, reading industry blogs, studying bookstores and sales trends, etc. Only then will you be armed with enough knowledge to stay away from scam agents & publishers and know what a fair deal is. During this year, you can revise your first book and also start writing a second. A year seems a long time, but you wouldn’t send a doctor straight into practice without an internship, right? This isn’t life and death, but it is your career, your dream, so why wouldn’t you treat it with just as much care and consideration?

    Jennifer Ashley is over at Plotmonkeys today with some advice for new writers, too, if anyone is interested.

  5. Patrick says:

    Alexa – The solution to your terror is simple. Marry more people.

  6. I really want to read “My Zombie Dog Ate My Homework (And my Brains)”. Could someone plz write that for realz?

    Hey, I’m around. Check out the link up top, Playing With It for a little info on what’s going on in my life and what’s going on with my site.