Ahh, the glamorous life of an author. Sleeping in. Wearing pajamas all day. Traveling the world on book tours. The fame. The money. The glory. That’s the life for you.
Okay, this isn’t really the experience of most authors, but writing is still a pretty good job. If you want to be a novelist but don’t know the publishing process, this introductory guide is for you. (Note—I’m focusing primarily on traditional publishing because that’s what I know.)
Step 1: Write the novel. Yep. Writers actually have to write. If that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you might want to reconsider your chosen profession. How you go about writing the novel is another topic for a different post, but you need to write it from beginning to end before you think about publishing.
Step 2: Edit the novel. It’s probably best if you don’t show the first draft of your first novel to anyone. Polish that thing till it shines. Look at big picture stuff (characters, plot, pacing) and small picture stuff (grammar, punctuation, word choice, dialogue).
Step 3: Get feedback and edit some more. You have a few options here. You can join a critique group, in which case you’ll probably share your novel a chapter at a time. You can find a beta reader, someone who reads the book and gives you a critique. If you have the money, you can hire an editor. Just make sure someone else has looked at your manuscript, especially if you’re fairly new to writing.
Step 4: Write a query. This is the letter you send to agents. It’s one page and includes a couple of paragraphs summarizing your book, the genre, the word count, and anything relevant about yourself. The summary should include the main characters and the basic plot, but it doesn’t include all the details, the subplots, or the ending. Keep it short and focused. It’s meant to entice the agent to read more, so it’s a little like the copy you see on the back of a book, but it tends to be more specific in terms of plot twists and mysteries—you’re not worried about spoilers. Don’t go on about how your friends and family love the book or how amazing it is.
Step 5: Submit the query to agents. You’ll need to create a list of reputable agents with good sales records. Avoid agents with no experience or who charge fees. Send your queries out in batches of 5 to 10 in case you decide to tweak the query later. Most submissions are done via email these days. Follow the agent’s instructions; many ask to see the first 10 or so pages of your manuscript, too.
Okay, this is where the process starts to diverge depending on the response you get. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure novel!
Scenario One: An agent requests your book and offers to represent it. If the agent looks legit and the two of you have compatible visions for the book, you sign. If several agents offer, you pick the best match based on sales, communication style, and vision for the book. Then your agent submits to publishers, probably while you work on your next project.
Scenario Two: No agents offer representation. You decide to edit the novel and query and try again.
Scenario Three: No agents offer representation. You decide to work on a new novel and start the process over.
Scenario Four: No agents offer representation. You decide to submit to publishers on your own. Most big publishers don’t accept unagented work, so you’ll be dealing with small to medium publishers. This process is a lot like querying agents, but you’re going directly to the publishers.
Scenario Five: No agents offer representation. You decide to self-publish. Really think about this first. When you self-publish, you have to provide the editing, cover design, and marketing yourself. Also, be realistic. Did your book fail to land an agent or publisher because it wasn’t at a professional level yet? If so, self-publishing is a bad idea. Instead, refine your skills as you work on a new novel. If you’ve gotten feedback that the novel is great but publishers don’t want it because they already have similar titles or the market is too niche, self-publishing may be a good option.