What Does It Really Take to Get a Book Published?
Writing and publishing a book is a bucket-list item for a whole lot of us. Yet many don't succeed. More people than you’d think have a manuscript just sitting there on their hard drive, because, somewhere along the line, they came to an unfortunate conclusion: Getting a book published is hard. Really hard.
And sure, the polar ice caps are melting. Seas are rising. Your city still has no decent Indian food, and your spouse still thinks that Crocs are an acceptable choice in footwear. The world is full of tragedies both great and small, and surely the loss of one more book crowding the shelves of your local brick-and-mortar is the least of these.
And yet, I can’t help but think of all the unique visions we’ll never see, all the singular voices we’ll never hear, because that person has given up. Honestly, I’ve seen some of the most talented writers I know let their literary dreams die on the vine because they could never quite get that book (or the next one) over the finish line, and I think it’s a goddamn shame.
Here are some publishing “secrets” I think everyone should know.
1. A powerhouse opening is key—and harder than you’d think to achieve
There’s nothing trickier to write than a strong, propulsive opening, and nothing more essential to getting your book published.
It’s tricky because you can’t “unknow” where your own story is going. For that reason, it’s hard to see the picture your opening is creating, sentence by sentence, in your reader’s mind.
Tricky too because, if you’re writing fiction, your reader has essentially just woken up in a new body, in a different time and place, and has to figure out what’s going on in just those few sentences—basically, there’s a lot of backstory to establish. But at the same time, that opening also needs to set up the story to come, in that microcosmic fashion that frontloads as many of the novel’s key themes as possible into those first few pages, piquing the reader’s curiosity to read on.
When I work with aspiring authors, this is why we zero in on those all-important opening pages, with a focus on clarity, concision, and word choice. I also encourage my students and clients to think critically about where that book opens, what kind of questions it raises, and how to frontload the book’s most compelling themes in those first few pages, creating the sort of opening that commands attention.
2. Voice is key
Many of us know that agents and editors are looking for voice. But what does that mean, exactly?
It means that the narrative of the story suggests a particular human intelligence behind it, with a particular take on the world, whether it be high brow, low-brow, deadpan or lyrical, understated or over the top. There’s the story, yes, but there’s also someone telling it—someone the reader wants to spend time with.
That’s the obvious part. The less obvious part is that prose with a strong voice is distilled prose, free of qualifying, backtracking, and redundancies (unless those sorts of tics are a stylistic choice, in support of that voice).
This sort of prose is not only concise, it’s accurate, and conveys a sense of authority—the sense that this narrator not only knows this story, they know the best way to tell it.
3. Stakes are key
Why does this story matter? And why is it being told now?
When I’m reading for contests, anthologies, or small presses, if I don’t get a sense for this within the first few pages, no matter how beautifully written the submission may be, or how compelling the voice, it’s going in my trash queue.
This doesn’t mean that I have to know a lot of details about the story to come, or even have the sense that the protagonist knows what’s coming down the line. What it means is the author has to send me some sort of signal as a reader why this story is so important.
4. The view from 10K feet really matters
It’s easy to get caught up in the details of a novel, the backstories, the tangents, and anecdotes. But once you’ve managed to hook an agent or editor with your opening, the details are not what they’re reading for.
What they’re reading for is the big picture, looking at the way your themes, threads, and arcs develop, the way one thing leads to the next—and, ultimately, how all of these elements cohere, creating emotion and insight for the reader.
This is why, when I work with clients and students, I emphasize the essentials of long-form storytelling: character arc (and the internal reflection that reveals it), causality and consequence, questions and tensions (the fuel that feeds narrative momentum), and pacing.
5. Publishing is a little bit of strategy, a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of perseverance
Will satisfying these key requirements in your creative work get your first book published? No.
Will satisfying these requirements and then getting serious about your submissions strategy do it? Yes. In fact, it’s the only thing that will (unless you happen to have a relative in publishing, a byline in the New York Times, or a bottle of fairy dust you’ve been saving for a special occasion).
If you find yourself struggling to submit, take part of the time you set aside to write, be it weekly or monthly, for submissions instead. Like the process of writing, submitting should feel routine, rather than something that only happens when you’re inspired. (I’m also a big fan of the submissions spreadsheet, which not only helps you keep track of what you’ve sent where, but of the publications you’re gunning for.)
Remember that the more “in the pocket” your work is for the publication or agent, the higher your chances of success. Maybe your work fits a specific theme or angle that a publishing pro is looking for, or maybe you yourself fit a particular demographic or geographic constraint on their wish list; really, any constraint at all can narrow down the competition considerably. (There are far fewer female writers over fifty from the greater Columbus area than there are writers who just want to get published).
In my upcoming class for LitReactor, I’ll be working closely with participants to get their novel in shape to submit to agents and editors. I’ll also be helping them focus on what it really takes to build a career as a writer over the long term.
Want to get that manuscript off your hard-drive and into the world? Join me.
Fiction: Final Draft was developed for writers who’ve put in their 10,000 hours but have yet to break through with their first book deal. Participants will learn how to win the battle of publication at the level of the line, with tips and tricks from the editor’s toolbox, as well as storytelling principles derived from neuroscience, information theory, and other sexy stuff. Called by one participant “a finishing school for writers distilled into just four weeks,” Final Draft begins September 24.
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