So You Wanna Be a Published Author?
This page is now static, but it will remain up for archiving purposes. Please keep in mind that a lot of this information is almost a decade old, although most of it should still be relevant.
Since Tokyopop began publishing me when I was seventeen, I've received floods of e-mails from young and/or amateur authors who wanted to know how they can break into the publishing world. Since I can't answer every e-mail, I figured making a page about writing and publishing would provide an easy resource for anyone interested in the topic. What is posted here is a collection of advice I've sent to fans, parts of presentations I've given across the Northeast, and information I've provided in various interviews over several years, but reorganized and expanded in the hopes that it will answer most general questions readers and writers have; please peruse if interested.
Also, please understand that I am far from a veteran of the publishing world. As of this writing, I'm twenty years old and have only been officially published through Tokyopop by means of the Sailor Moon novels (update). There's much, much more I need to learn about writing and publishing in general. I do, however, love writing and publishing, and for the most part consider my times with them some of the highest points of my life; I want to encourage more people to take part, since writing, and publishing, can be life-changing experiences.
Where to start?
Whether or not you already partake in writing as a hobby or just dream of it, there's one point I can't stress enough: you will never be an author if you don't sit down and write. Dreams are wonderful--picturing yourself as a popular Internet author, maybe, or as a published writer with books across the country? Great. Maybe your dream will come true one day, but first, sit down and write something. Potential alone won't get you anywhere if you're a new author. I know that many writers are perfectionists, and don't want to write a sentence until they're sure it's exactly what they want, but you can't let that hold you back from getting to work; sometimes, if you're behind in production, you just have to sit down and start cranking out words without so much thought. You'll be surprised with some of the things you write when you just stop trying so hard. ^_^ Of course, revising these words into your perfect product is very, very important, but that comes later. You need words on the page before you can start revising them.
Which brings me to my next point: finish things. You need endings to your works! Particularly if you're a new author, you want to show that you have the ability to close up a story and your themes and that you have the talent to write a decent ending, which is not always easy. Starting many projects at once can be fun and all, but it's not necessarily very productive. You should really have some completed pieces to work with.
And please, please, for the love of God check your spelling and grammar. In your own personal drafts, you can do whatever you want, but with your final product you had better get your work edited or you're going to look very unprofessional. Always edit yourself first, but it's good to get another set or two of eyes to proofread as well. (If you have the money and you think your project is worth it, you can even hire a professional copyeditor.) Make sure that final draft of yours is as error-free as you can get it.
And the big one.... EDIT EDIT EDIT. When you're finished, go through your work and make sure that throughout the writing style works, the characters work, the themes work, the symbols work, etc. etc. etc. The rewards of revision are worth it: there's nothing like seeing a rough piece turn into a gem. This can be a very long, difficult process, so get a big cup of coffee and don't get upset.... as an example, my second draft of Children of the Sky was, with the exception of maybe the last few chapters, almost completely different from the first draft. You know what that means? I wrote about 70 single-spaced, 12-point pages completely over. For any of you suffering through rewrites, I know exactly how you feel.
If possible, get others to read your work. Other than just people editing for errors, see if you can get a family member or two and maybe a few friends to read it and give you an overall impression. Maybe it's too confusing. Maybe it's too boring. Some things are hard to tell on your own--after all, if you came up with the plot in your head, it's never going to seem confusing to you ^_^--so you really need some outside sources to give you opinions. Again, using Children of the Sky as an example, I had two close friends from school work through the whole thing with me (I bounced ideas off them, read or lent them initial drafts, got their opinions on which characters were likable and which weren't, etc.), and then had two or three trusted online friends read through the semi-polished draft. The online friends had little background on the story, and I asked them character- and plot-related questions after sending them each section, so I was able to get an idea what first-time readers would think (was the book too hard to follow, how did the characters come off as, and the like). All in all, this group of "editors" worked out great, and I love them all. ^_^ Since you're asking a big favor of these people, be sure to reward them for putting up with your annoying creative process; all my editors got free books and were listed on the dedications page.
See below for some additional resources to help you with your writing.
So now you've got a completed editorial, essay, poem, short story, novel, or whatever. What next? Let's start with the small stuff.
Publishing a short story, poem, or article
For the most part, I believe a magazine is the best place to get your short piece published. True, short story and poem anthologies get published in book form often enough, but if you think about the number of magazines in this country and how many short pieces they publish a month, yes, your window's going to be a lot bigger if you go for a magazine. The most direct way is to find a magazine you think your work would fit in (for example, if you wrote a short story about unicorns, don't expect it to go in Better Homes and Gardens) and contact them. Maybe they take submissions, maybe they don't. Maybe they don't want what you have, but they have a list of topics they'd like articles on, and maybe you can try writing one of those. It's hard to know what they want if you don't talk to them.
If you don't want to contact a magazine directly, or if you have no idea what magazine to contact, you can check out listings of magazines that are specifically asking for articles revolving around certain topics. A found a great listing in The Writer magazine, where all sorts of magazines were asking for submissions, and listed many specifications such as topic, number of words, and payment. That's especially good if you're willing to write on a dictated topic, but, then again, your completed story may actually fit into one of those categories, so you may not have to write anything new after all.
Online publishing is also an option--big websites that feature many articles may be looking for submissions, and that could be for you. Not to say the web can't be a great place to start (see Fanfiction), but if you're hoping to break into bigger publishing someday (like getting a book published), being published in a magazine may look better on your resume than being published on the Internet, particularly if you get published on a small website. Since I'm not an expert on either magazine publishing or non-fanfiction Internet publishing, I'm afraid I can't give much info regarding what publishing avenue is more respected, but I'd guess that paper publishing is more respected in general. If magazine publishing doesn't work out for you, though, you may want to give the Internet a shot.
Publishing a book
Ok, this one can get very, very complicated. For now, I'm just going to talk about getting a fiction novel published; rules for nonfiction can be a bit different, so see the resources below if you're interested in that. I took a class on book publishing at Wesleyan University in 2000; most of this information was given to me then.
Over-the-Transom Submission to a Publisher
First of all, submitting a manuscript "over-the-transom" means you're sending it directly to a publisher without any sort of agent promoting you, i.e. your manuscript is unsolicited (I'll talk about agents later). And yes, you can just submit to a publisher without anyone else's help, but there are some steps you have to follow and general rules to adhere to.
First of all, like with short piece publishing discussed above, submit to a place that may actually be able and willing to publish you; don't send a sci-fi manuscript to a publisher that only does scholarly publishing, for example. I'd recommend deciding what general genre your novel fits into (teenage fiction, sci-fi, mystery, whatever) and then browsing a bookstore to find out what publishers may be right for you. It's especially good if you've read some novels in your genre published by the company you're submitting to, because that'll help with your book proposal (see below). You should really research your potential publishing houses.
Speaking of which, once you've found some publishing houses, contact them so you know exactly to whom you'll be submitting to. Maybe Scholastic has a certain address they want fantasy manuscripts sent to as opposed to where fiction manuscripts go. Maybe they'll tell you they're not the right publishing house for your work (though don't annoy them by going into a lengthy description of your book and/or situation--that's what your book proposal's for, and this phone call is just for general submitting info). Get an address, a general set of rules for submission (most or all of those will probably be covered in what I'll be talking about here, though), and a name. You need to know who you're going to be addressing your proposal to. John Doe, Director of Publishing, or whoever, know which specific person you should be addressing your stuff to. No "To Whom It May Concern!"
Next, you have two routes: the Query Letter, which, if successful, will lead to the Proposal, or just the Proposal. You can skip the Query Letter if you wish, but it may help you narrow down your submissions, so I'll explain it for those who want to go for it.
A Query Letter is basically a letter you send to the publisher (remember, know the name of the person you're sending the letter to!) explaining a little bit about your novel, its potential, maybe a little bit about your past achievements, etc. It's not very long, as its purpose is to see if the publisher would be interested in your Proposal. If the publisher is interested, then you send in your Proposal. Since you can just send the Proposal right off the bat and not bother with a Query Letter, why a Query Letter at all? I suppose the Query Letter is a way of narrowing down who you'll be sending Proposals to, which can save you and the publishers time and money; after all, why go through all the trouble of sending out a million Proposals if Query Letters let you know just a few publishers are interested? For an example of a Query Letter, you can see the novel A Writer's Guide to Book Publishing. When you're ready to send your Query Letter, see Sending a Query Letter or Proposal below.
Now we move onto the Proposal. This can be quite a little packet, and should include:
-The copyrighted (see below; remember, never send anyone uncopyrighted stuff of yours because they could steal it!) manuscript of your book. With fiction, you should have the manuscript completed; I think nonfiction doesn't require a completed manuscript, but that's another story.
-A cover letter with an introduction to your proposal, a summary of the overall plot/purpose of your book, and then a summary of each chapter of the book. This letter should also discuss who the audience of your book will be, why it could sell well, how your book compares to other similar books already on the market, etc.; this is where researching this publishing company beforehand comes in handy. If you know other books similar to yours published by this company and/or other companies, you can compare your book to these other books and try to sell it to the publisher better that way. You want to look like you know what you're talking about. ^_^ Besides, giving the publisher potential marketing strategies for your book makes it easier for him/her if s/he decides to publish you.
-A press packet, or, if you don't have enough for a press packet, a short background letter or notes on your past achievements. This section includes any writing achievements of yours (or achievements that are not writing-related, but have to do with your proposal; for example, if your book is about a motorcyclist, and you've raced professionally and know the motorcycle racing ring quite well, you can push that), recognitions, prior publishing, etc. For example, my press packet includes a little bio, listings of my writing awards, writing conferences I've been to, books of mine that I've self-published, books of mine that have been professionally published, articles written on me, etc., in a nice package in a folder and with color copies where applicable (color copies of the book covers, the magazine articles, etc.).
-Be sure your proposal and all parts are organized, well-written, involved, neat, and edited. It's the first thing the publisher will see, so messiness or errors will give a really bad first impression, and poor writing will make you look like a poor writer. You want your publisher to think you're talented and can offer something quality, so be neat and correct! I can't stress this enough! Oh, and make it interesting! A person is going to be reading your stuff, not a machine, so make it a good read and as visually stimulating as possible (nice letterheads and paper or whatever). If you catch the publisher's eye, even if they decide not to publish you, they may suggest other publishers to try. Make them respect your work and you'll be much better off.
-Also, just please note, the Proposal I made to my Internet fans a number of years ago prior to writing Rain is not the same thing as the Proposal I'm discussing now. They both just happen to be called "Proposals" (and I just capitalize the two of them out of a personal preference; when writing your own book proposal, you probably shouldn't refer to it as "this Proposal" with a capital letter ^_^;).
Sending a Query Letter or Proposal
It's rare to get your work accepted on the first try, so, unless you have a lot of patience or have a lot of faith in a few publishers, you may want to ship out your Query Letter and/or Proposal to a number of different publishers at once. There's a little discrepancy here: I believe Richard Balkin of A Writer's Guide to Book Publishing said fiction proposals shouldn't be sent to more than one publisher at once, but my professor last year, who runs a publishing house, said sending fiction to multiple publishers is all right. Either way, you should let the publisher know what you're doing. In your Query Letter or Proposal, be sure to mention "I'm currently sending this proposal to your publishing house and two others" or "I'm currently sending this proposal solely to your publishing house, as I believe my novel would best be an addition to your house rather than another" or something along those lines.
A Few Additional Notes
These are the topics I'm a little less familiar with, either because I haven't had many dealings with them in my own experiences or I've been out of touch with them for a while (it's been some time since I've dealt with the Library of Congress....). In general, here are a few tips.
Agents: Basically, an agent is someone who tries to get publishers interested in your work. Getting an agent is almost like getting published; you need to send him/her a Proposal and get accepted first! This means earlier rules apply: never "To Whom It May Concern," try to send your work to an agent who works with your genre, etc. There are ups and downs to getting an agent: a good agent can get the publisher to pay more attention to your manuscript than had it been sent over-the-transom, but a bad agent that a publisher doesn't care for may actually attach something negative to your work! Not only that, but agents cost money (I'm not sure how payment goes; it works mostly on commission, I would imagine). If things work in your favor, though, and you manage to snag a good agent, it can be very good for your publishing career, and can help you greatly in the long run (if you have someone in the business who's on your side....)
Copyrights: Never, ever have anything of yours available for any sort of public consumption (Internet, local publishing, or even when sending your manuscript to your publisher) without including the copyright © Your Name, Month Year on it. This is very important! The last thing you want is someone stealing your work, but, unfortunately, if you don't copyright it and someone else does, you're stuck. I've heard a few things regarding copyrights over the number of years I've been involved with them:
-Including copyright © Your Name, Month Year gives you some degree of protection, but you'll be best off registering your work with the official copyright office, otherwise known as the Library of Congress, and paying the fee so you'll be officially copyrighted. I would imagine publishers have no problem with you being officially copyrighted before you send your work to them, and if they do have a problem, I'd guess it's because they want to take advantage of you and I wouldn't listen to them. ^_^ I plan to research that, though, and have an answer to that question the next time I update.
-If you don't have the time or money to register your work with the Library of Congress and want to stick only to copyright © Your Name, Month Year, another tip I've heard is sending your manuscript to yourself in the mail and leaving it sealed when you receive it; afterwards, stick this sealed envelope (containing the manuscript with the copyright © Your Name, Month Year on it) in a file just in case you need it. Do you see what this does? The post office dates letters when they're sent ("postmarked"), so you're getting them to put an official date on your copyright © Your Name, Month Year manuscript, further strengthening said copyright. Good stuff!
Dealing With Rejection: You're probably going to be rejected many, many times when trying to get published. Don't let it get you down! There are tons of publishing houses out there--just keep trying, and listen to the feeback of others (especially publishing houses, if they offer it) to better strategize where and how to submit next.
What to Do if a Publisher Wants to Publish You: A contract? A deal? Yikes! Just remember, don't put too much faith in anything verbal--always get any deal or any agreement in writing with signatures to make it official--and never, ever agree to or sign anything without getting someone else's trusted opinion first. Get someone else (or a few other people if possible) to help you with a contract, someone you trust and who knows what they're doing, like a family lawyer. Legal stuff can be tricky.
Also, if you're interested in alternative publishing venues, I recommend looking into self-publishing, vanity presses, and Internet publishing. These all generally cost an author money (which you may or may not make back), and the author is pretty much responsible for everything but the physical printing of books. This is not "standard" publishing, but it can be the right choice for some types of writing: memoirs that you want to keep as a family heirloom, books for hand-selling to an existing audience, or, in the case of Internet publishing, a story that could benefit from stranger feedback. Just keep in mind that if someone is offering to "publish" you but asks for money down, you're talking to either a vanity press or, well, a scam artist. Be very careful in this realm. A friend of mine had good experiences with Trafford, if you want an example of a decent vanity publisher.
Writer's Guide to Book Publishing
This book has tons and tons and TONS of information on how to get published, including information I would've never even thought to mention (like how books are actually printed--like the paper publishers choose to print their books on, etc.). It's an invaluable resource, so if you're seriously thinking about getting published, buy that book. Even includes information on publishing nonfiction, and a sample Query Letter and Book Proposal in the back! ^_^ Also, please note: you don't have to buy it through that link I put up there, so for those looking to order it somewhere else (such as through a bookstore), ISBN# is 0-452-27021-9
If you want to register your copyright, get the information and the forms here.
This page is copyright © Lianne Sentar, April 2002 and July 2010.