What do I mean by traditional publishing?
I mean getting a literary agent who sells your book to an acquiring editor at a publishing house (either Big 5 or indie publisher). I’m talking about the type of publishing where you don’t have to pay money. I’m not talking about self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or publishing short pieces online or in magazines. Although those are totally valid means of publishing, too, and many of these tips will apply to them as well.
So. What do I, Eva Langston, know about what it takes to succeed in traditional publishing? Fair question. Although I’ve had a number of short pieces published in literary magazines, I don’t have a published book yet. YET being the keyword. Because it’s going to happen one day, mark my words.
I have friends who have succeeded in traditional publishing (like Lish McBride and Monica Gomez-Hira). And I’ve interviewed people who have succeeded in traditional publishing (like Brianna Bourne and Rachel Sarah).
I’ve also been studying the world of traditional publishing for the past decade: going to conferences, reading books and blogs, spending time on writer-Twitter. I’ve listened to about a million podcasts about traditional publishing, many of them containing interviews with successful writers (for example, The Manuscript Academy podcast and Queries, Qualms, and Quirks). So at this point I know what it takes. Want to save yourself ten years of research? Here’s what I’ve learned…
#1 Adjust your expectations
This is an extremely hard business, so when I say “succeed in traditional publishing” I don’t mean become a bestseller, win a prestigious award, or make gobs of money. My definition of success in traditional publishing is getting an agent and getting a book deal. That’s it.
If you’re aiming for traditional publishing because your goal is to make money or impress people, you may need to choose a different goal or drastically adjust your expectations.
So what should you expect? Expect to write several novels before you write one that’s good enough to get an agent’s attention. Expect to make multiple revisions. Expect to query a lot of agents before you find one. Expect that your first time out on submission, there’s a chance your book won’t sell. Expect that success will not come quickly or easily. The process of becoming a traditionally published author could take years… or decades. Make sure you can handle that.
Along the way, celebrate the (not-so) small stuff. Be proud of finishing a chapter or revising a draft. Typing “the end” on a manuscript or getting a request from an agent is a great success. So is winning a contest or snagging a mentor. You can feel successful even without a published book to your name. So I guess I have had some success — it’s good to be reminded of that. This business can be hard on the ego.
#2 Do everything you can to make your book the best it can be
Agents are swamped with queries, and because of the pandemic editors are taking on fewer projects. If you want to succeed in traditional publishing, don’t query until you KNOW you are submitting your very, very, VERY best work.
- Go through several rounds of major revisions. This often means letting your manuscript rest for a few months (or longer) before revisiting it with fresh eyes.
- Get feedback from trusted writer friends or find critique partners online through Twitter, facebook writing groups, writing conferences, writing centers, or other avenues such as CP Match. Then revise again!
- Hone your writing craft by taking classes, going to conferences, reading craft books, joining a writing group or creating your own writing group.
- Find beta readers, as well as sensitivity readers if you need them.
- Read in your genre to better understand where your book will fit into the publishing landscape. This will also help you with comp titles in your query letter.
- Consider hiring an editor, story coach, or professional beta reader.
- Get feedback on your query letter. At the very least, check out queryshark and google “successful query letters.”
#3 Just keep trying!
The more I learn about traditional publishing, and the more I listen to interviews with writers, the more I realize that persistence and hard work is what matters most. After all, you have to send the right manuscript to the right agent at just the right time. They have to send it to the right editor at the right time. It’s such a subjective business. Luck and talent are helpful, too, of course, but mostly it’s the people who refuse to give up who succeed in the end.
Want proof? Listen to the following interviews:
–Mindy McGinnis on The Good Story Podcast — definitely listen to this one.
–Basically all the Queries, Qualms, and Quirks episodes but especially the interviews with:
#4 Think about what will get an agent/editor’s attention
As I said, agents and editors are swimming in submissions. What often gets noticed in the slush pile are high concept books and books that make an agent sit up and say, “wow, I haven’t read THAT before.” If there’s a way to inject a little (or a lot!) more excitement or uniqueness into your book, do it. And if you are writing a memoir or autobiographical fiction, think long and hard about why people other than you and your family will be interested in this story.
Then, think about the best way to pitch your project, and get feedback on your query. Agents are going to spend only a minute or two skimming your query letter. Make sure you get to the point: what is your book about, and what makes it unique.
#5 Work on building your platform
The good news is, if you’re writing fiction, having a platform is not a necessity for getting published. However, it’s very helpful. Publishing houses don’t put much time or money into marketing debut books. And if your first book doesn’t sell well, it might be harder to get a second book deal. The more you can start now — building a platform and connecting with potential readers and other writers — the better off you will be once you have a published book.
Suggestions for building a platform and/or “writer brand”:
–Create an author website or facebook page. Make sure there’s an email sign up form, and start building your email list.
–Create a blog, or write guest posts for other blogs (like this one! Seriously — contact me, I’m always looking for guest posts.)
–Connect with other writers and readers on social media. Twitter is popular among the writing crowd, but also facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Tik Tok, and even Youtube. Pick just one or two social media sites to focus on — whichever ones you like best. Social media works well when you are regularly active and when you interact with others (not just post your own content).
–Connect with other writers at conferences (both online and in-person). Keep track of the people you meet!
–Create a youtube channel (about writing or about something connected to what you write about).
–Explore fan fiction (both reading it and writing it), if that’s something that interests you.
–Write book reviews and/or author interviews. (Only review books you enjoyed in order to leave positive reviews; then maybe the authors you review/interview will write blurbs for your book one day!)
#6 A few more do’s and don’ts for success in traditional publishing
–Don’t write to trends. Publishing takes so long that the trend will be over before you’re done writing and revising the book.
–Do think about your potential readers. Of course you want to be passionate about your manuscript and write what you love, but if you want to be traditionally published, you’ll also need to think about the people who will pick up your book one day — how can you make it an incredible reading experience for them?
–Do read in the genre you’re writing. Writers need to be readers. Period.
–Don’t compare yourself to others. Everyone has different roadblocks. Just because someone’s journey to traditional publishing seems quick or easy from the outside doesn’t mean they didn’t struggle. Also, comparing yourself to others is the fast track to feeling like crap. If you need to get off Twitter for a while because you’re starting to seethe with a jealous rage when people announce how many words they’ve written today or how they just signed with an agent — do it. Jealousy is normal, but best to avoid stoking it. As much as you can, celebrate the successes of others, and one day you will get there, too.
–Do take a break from writing if you need it. If your mental health is taking a hit from all the rejection and self doubt, by all means, give yourself a sabbatical. Just because you’re not writing right now doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. Take the time to read and to refill your creative well. Take care of you. The writing will be waiting for you when you’re ready to return.
–Don’t give up! If being traditionally published is your dream, I truly believe that persistence and hard work is pretty much all you need to succeed. I’m not saying it’ll happen soon, but if you’re still trying it means you haven’t failed!