You Only Need One
Shopping your work around, hoping for an agent and then a publisher to fall in love with what you have written is a grueling journey, and not for the faint of heart. The whole publishing process is a journey up a mountain after some of the path has washed out. You can make it, but only if you make wise choices and simply refuse to give up. Many fellow writers who try to make it up the mountain will lose heart, quit, or head off on a different path that leads to a different destination. Only you can decide whether you will keep climbing, confident that there is a goal and you can reach it.
The First Step: A Map
If you want to make your publishing journey as easy as possible, you begin by getting a map. For writers, this means researching possible markets (or agents, if appropriate) long, long before you’re ready to send off your manuscript. You might be slowly working on the list during the writing process as part of your daily work time. Or you might choose to wait and make the list during the long revision process. Whichever works best for you will be the right way to go.
By working on the road map for your submission process during the period that you absolutely know you do not have anything to send out will help you avoid that internal pressure to rush through the market research or agent hunt. Rushing in the submissions stage can have catastrophic results. You can accidentally send to disreputable publishers or agents. You can jump at the first offer and say “yes” to something you later regret horribly.
Disreputable publishers and agents often respond far quicker than good ones, so if you’ve not done careful, thorough research into where you intend to send your work, you’ll often allow eagerness to make you jump into a bad publishing choice when a good one was coming. Now, sometimes even a good publisher or agent can respond quickly and positively if you caught them at exactly the right time with exactly the right project, so a quick response doesn’t automatically mean someone is disreputable, but if you’ve researched well and thoroughly, then you simply won’t be sending out to bad publishers or bad agents so you won’t have to second guess whether this offer is from someone acceptable.
So where do you find the folks to research in the first place? First, market guides can be a huge help (like the ones produced by the Institute of Children’s Literature [INSERT LINK]), but they are only a starting point. This is because all market guides take time to research and produce. And then they go off to be printed and bound and shipped. Each step in the process adds time. But the publishing industry is constantly changing. So after you use your market guide to make a list of possible houses, you must then begin researching those houses before you ever submit anything. Find out if the company has changed policies or staff or even ownership since the time the market guide added them. The internet has a wealth of information on virtually all publishers and agents if you search carefully. And as research should be in the bloodstream of every writer, this is a time when it can save your book’s life.
Beyond market guides, you can also sometimes find market lists, especially genre specific market lists all over the web. Writers are always looking for more information so different organizations and blogs have responded by curating lists of publishers. This can often give you more places to look for possible publishers or agents. And don’t panic if your carefully researched list of the best possible homes for your work is short. You don’t need dozens of publishers or agents. You only need one, the one that works best for you and your work.
Step Two: Finish Your Work
It’s easy to send a book or story out too soon. Both editors and agents report that one of the number one problems they see with submissions they receive isn’t that the writer is somehow subpar or untalented; it’s that the work needed more revision. The key to good writing is solid rewriting and revision. And revision is much more than proofreading for typos (though we should certainly do that too). Fiction revision means making sure all your character’s actions make sense and are well motivated. It means being sure you don’t have dead spots where nothing seems to be moving. It means being sure your work has begun in the right spot to engage the reader without confusing the reader. It means being sure your ending has a satisfying feel to it. It means being sure every chapter of a book has an arc. It means being sure every exchange of dialogue and every scene has a purpose.
In nonfiction, revision means ensuring you have clear organization and nothing that feels forced in. It means an engaging opening hook and a clever ending with oomph. It means clear, interesting transitions between ideas. It means being sure you have clear supporting evidence for any assertion you make. If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, it means ensuring that your timeline is clear (especially if you’re jumping around in time at all). It means being certain of your research and your facts.
In picture books and magazine stories, it means being absolutely certain that every word is serving a purpose and wouldn’t be better served by the different word. It means choosing the strongest nouns and verbs and pondering the necessity of every adjective or adverb. It means your story structure makes sense and feels purposeful. It means having a plot (and knowing what one is). It means solid characterization.
If you’re wise, it means someone besides you has read the work completely through and checked for all the things I mentioned above. It means asking this test reader specific questions to ensure all the important things are in place. This is especially important if your test reader isn’t a writer, because most people won’t know to look for the things that can kill you in the submissions process. And it means listening beyond what your test reader says. If the reader says there was something off about a section, the person may not be able to tell you what it was (and if they guess in order to give you an answer, their guess may not correctly identify the problem.) But trust that something problematic exists, and it’s something you should fix. Don’t be too quick to justify a choice and end up not listening.
For instance, I’ve had editors point out things and ask questions that I knew were already answered in the text. I could point at the answer. The reader missed it. But I realized the problem wasn’t that I created a question in the reader’s mind that I didn’t answer. The problem was that something about where I answered this question was lost in the normal reading process. Maybe it was lost because I put it in the second half of a sentence. Or because I put it in the middle of a busy paragraph. Or I slipped it into dialogue where something much more interesting was going on. But if the question is bothering one person and she missed that the answer was there in the text, then I need to fix it because it will trouble other readers as well.
Step Three: Don’t Chicken Out
One of the reasons we’re so tempted to rush the submissions process is because all our insecurities and worry about the book or story can swamp us if we give it enough time. We can suddenly be absolutely certain no one is going to want this thing. I’ve done this so many times. A work I’m really excited about when I write it becomes something I’m fairly sure is terrible by the time I’m ready to submit. This is another reason a second reader can be helpful, because if that reader is really enthusiastic, it can give you some encouragement when you’re in a downward “I’m a loser” spiral. Submission can be scary. And rejection is never enjoyable. But sometimes you simply have to be brave. You’ve done the work. You can see people enjoy the work. So send it out. Be brave.
Let’s take just a moment to think about “worst case” possibilities. What actually happens if the editor or agent doesn’t like it? Realistically— the person simply doesn’t buy it. They don’t send you hate mail. They don’t blackball you for life (honestly, they don’t invest that kind of headspace to something they didn’t buy). They simply don’t buy it. Sure, take a moment to read the work again and fix any problems you may have missed earlier, but don’t let a single rejection or even a few rejections defeat you. Send to the next place, and the next, and the next until you make the golden connection and sell the work.
Two Truths and No Lie
Now, here’s a hard truth. Not every good book or good story sells. Sometimes you hit publishing when the business of publishing has decided people are tired of exactly the kind of story you’ve written (even if you’ve written it really well). Sometimes you really should have spent more time in the market research step and the places you sent your piece to weren’t ideal. And sometimes a pandemic hits and all of publishing is a bit muddled. If a piece doesn’t sell, then set it aside and move on to the next thing. If it’ll help, throw yourself a nice, robust pity party (I’ve had more than a few), but then get back to work. Because writers write. And you’re a writer, so write the next thing. And tell yourself, “When the tide changes, I’ll send that out again.” But for now, move on.
Here’s the good news. I firmly believe every good writer will be published. Maybe not this book or the next, but if a writer keeps going and doesn’t give up and continues self-educating about the business, then publication is virtually inevitable. You may hit bumps and boulders but you will reach the goal. And when you do, all those bumps make for really good stories to tell the young whipper-snappers starting out in writing after you. And we all love a good story.