Lately, a lot of people have been asking me how to get published. To my horror, I realized I actually have some practical knowledge in that arena. If you’ve managed to just stumble across this blog and have no earthly idea who I am, my name is Justin Robinson, and as of this writing have published seven novels with two more due out this year. This is by no means a complete guide, just what I’ve observed in my short career thus far. And probably a few dick jokes, because this is me we’re talking about.
There are three paths to publication, and I have varying degrees of experience with all of them. The first is the traditional path, where you get an agent who then tries to sell your book to publishers. Many people will tell you this is the Right Way because for many years it was the only way, apart from the few brave and possibly insane people who published their own stuff. I have had extremely negative experiences with this method of publication. Extremely. Here’s the thing they don’t want you to know: agents do not care about you. Seriously, they do not give one tiny fuck. They’ll say as much on their websites, but it’s couched in polite language. Agents only want sure things, books they know they can sell. While they claim it’s all about quality and they do it for the love of literature, it’s important to remember that Donald Trump, E.L. James, and half the cast of Jersey Shore all have literary agents.
The negative experience I alluded to was not in the raft of rejections I received. That’s a completely normal, expected part of the business. Check out how many times Harry Potter was shot down before someone realized it was a magic money press. The worst is when agents are kind of interested. They request more, and right when I had given up hoping I’d ever hear anything back from the latest shipment, they’d send me another request for even more stuff. This took months and months (and postage charges for those Stone-Agents who insist on paper manuscripts), and I would get close — often after an agent held my book hostage for almost a year — before she would tell me that her boss wasn’t interested. And just like that, the dream was over. Basically, it was a colossal waste of my time.
The crazy thing is that agents are, at best, a luxury you don’t need. I know writers who have agents who are getting published in the same places I am, essentially paying 10% to a person for doing something they could quite easily do themselves. I know other writers whose agents are sitting on multiple manuscripts, not even sending them out to publishers. The important thing to remember about agents is this: you are their third priority or lower. An agent’s first priority will always be themselves, followed by their agency. Next on the list would be their biggest names, and if you’re just starting out, that’s not you. There’s always the chance the agent can get you into one of the big houses (they’re still the only ones who can — for now), but if your book flops from there, it becomes that much harder to do again.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have self-publishing. While it’s slowly losing the stigma that it’s carried forever, it still has some undeserved stink on it. No other medium has this, and prose is slowly catching up. When a comic is self-published, it’s a triumph of the little guy. When an album is recorded in a home studio, ditto. When a film is self-financed, it’s fucking Avatar. Only self-published novels are viewed with suspicion, albeit there is some reason. With tools like Createspace, self-publishing has become easier than ever before, and when you remove that barrier, you’ve opened the floodgates. This has caused some truly terrible stuff to get out there, but it’s also allowed untraditional stories to find an audience and removed middle-men from the equation. The problem is that, unless your self-published book is a runaway success (which is, to put it mildly, such a long shot that it’s akin to taking a bath in radiation in the hopes you’ll get superpowers), it’s not something that will help you get published elsewhere. Agencies and publishers alike don’t consider self-published books to count when it comes to listing publication, something you have to do whenever sending a submission off.
I have self-published one book so far, Coldheart, and I learned that while it’s easy to self-publish, it’s hard to self-publish well. I do not recommend self-publishing your first time out. After you have some experience, you’ll better be able to craft a work that can stand without the intense editorial oversight you get from publishers. Or, you could hire an editor, if you have that kind of cash. The one thing that should be non-negotiable is to hire a professional to design your cover. They’re easy to find, and you can get fantastic work done for a little over a hundred bucks. The inside shouldn’t be neglected, as a lot of work goes into making sure a book is easy to read. It’s the kind of work that, if done well you never notice. Layout is difficult in ways you’ve probably never considered: both margin size and kerning can be of vital importance.
The last path to publication is also my favorite: small press. You get editing, cover design, layout, and maybe some other stuff (more on that later). The best part is that small presses don’t require agents to submit to them, once again removing a parasite from the process. Small presses come in two basic varieties, mills and boutiques. In reality it’s more of a scale, mills on one end and boutiques on the other, with the vast majority of presses falling somewhere in between. (A third variety, vanity presses, are basically just self-publishing and should be avoided — why pay someone else for something you can do yourself?) Mills are the bigger presses, tend to acquire tons and tons of titles, devote minimal time to editing and layout, have uninspired covers (with real photos for some reason), and do nothing to promote their titles. They make money with volume: one of their books will hit out of a hundred (I just made that statistic up), and they ride that title. Mills also tend to have large, built-in audiences, a website that’s relatively well known, and a good royalty rate on ebooks (which will be the bulk of your sales). I’ve published two books with companies I would consider to be mills, and one does quite well — the other not so much. Mills are great for writers that are comfortable and skilled at promoting themselves; for anyone else, they’re a crapshoot.
Boutiques are the opposite. They’re very small and they want to put the best possible product out. They tend to have much more inspired cover design, either in house or farmed out, and their layout and editing is top notch. They usually do more promotion, though this varies. The downside is they have less of a reach than mills, and they tend to offer worse rates. I prefer presses on the boutique end of the scale simply because I like the personal attention, the finished product, and the help on the marketing end. The main problem is they’re much more unstable. Profit margins are razor thin, and almost every day some press makes a misstep from which they can’t recover, and falls apart.
Okay, the basics are out of the way. You have a finished manuscript. What’s the plan here?
If you’re going either the traditional or small press route (again, I recommend the latter), your first step is a query. This is an awkward letter in which you describe your book to someone you’ve never met in the hopes they will want it. The format is going to seem bizarre and stilted, but remember, you’re writing it for people who get a ton of these. They love it when people get to the point. Open with a salutation and always address it to a specific person. Agencies and publishers HATE “To Whom It May Concern.” Take the time, browse the website, and pick the person who seems most likely to respond well. With small presses, you’re generally writing either to the head of the press or the acquisitions editor. With agencies, it’s a specific agent, and if they don’t like it, they’ll just throw the query in the trash… even if there’s another agent down the hall who will love it. Seriously, agents are dicks.
There are tons of great query-writing tutorials online. While the best query will always be whatever the agency/publisher asks for on their submissions guidelines (ALWAYS READ THE GUIDELINES), the following format is fairly universal and has served me well: Your first paragraph is a tagline — that’s your novel distilled into one punchy sentence. For example, here’s the one for The Dollmaker: “A troubled genius creates living women out of wood, porcelain and plastic, but with the birth of each one, he loses more of his soul.” Your second paragraph is your synopsis. That’s the book in a paragraph. Third paragraph is your resume, basically. If you’ve published other stuff, that goes here. If you wrote a book about lawyers and you’re a lawyer, that goes here. That kind of thing. It’s pretty easy. Last paragraph is a simple summary: “[TITLE] is a XXX,XXX word [GENRE] novel.” Sincerely, you. Bam. Done.
To pick a place to query, go to Preditors and Editors and browse their listings. Yes, I know the site looks like it should be on Angelfire in 1998, but it’s a great resource. Make sure whoever it is takes unsolicited queries, and go nuts. P&E does a reader poll every year, and this is a good tool to use when selecting a small press. Mills tend to win the top spot (as a poll is basically a popularity contest, and they have tons of writers to stuff the ballot boxes), but boutiques can and do make it on there as well. I like to go through the most recent year’s listings, top to bottom, and check out the website of each one. If the site looks cool and professional, that’s a big point in their favor. After all, if you like it, readers probably will too. Covers are also important to me. They say not to judge a book by its cover, but that’s what the cover is for. Query the places that have the kinds of covers that would intrigue you as a prospective buyer.
A small press should offer 50% as a baseline for ebook royalties. For this, you’re getting editing, layout, a cover, and presence on their site. That’s it. If a site has good covers or better editing, I’ll take a hit in the royalties. If a press ruthlessly promotes their writers, I’ll happily let that reflect in the royalty rates. Think of any other services the press provides as being paid for by those percentages, but 20% on ebook royalties is absolutely as low as you should ever go. There’s just too many other options that’ll pay that or more.
If you’re still not sure on who to pick, seek out some of your favorite small press authors and check who they publish with. If you see someone returning to the same press, as I’ve done with Candlemark & Gleam and Books of the Dead, that’s a pretty ringing endorsement.
I hope this answers most of the burning questions you have about the road to publication. If it seems intimidating, don’t worry, it is. But that’s only because writers have so many options. It truly has become a buyer’s market for us now, and we’d be foolish not to take advantage.