Getting Your First Book Published

Dark of the Center Line

You’ve finished your book. The research is done; the years of long, late hours of writing and the weekend writing benders have come to this. You’ve written and rewritten, read and revised. You’ve deleted a quarter of garbage-writing that you once thought was golden. You’ve passed it around to the smartest asshole-friend you have, knowing he or she won’t hold back criticisms. You’ve repeated all previous steps here listed. You’re finally finished. Now for the easy part: publication.

No, my friend, you’re beginning a new journey of pain and rejection. The bouts of self-doubt you felt in writing were nothing. A decade of failed relationships, perhaps a divorce, maybe the death of a loved one: these may prepare you for attempting to publish something you care about. So, snap on your emotional Kevlar, and get your work station ready. The research is not done. The long, late hours and weekend writing benders that you thought were over are still waiting. Perhaps my experiences in publishing are exceptional, and perhaps they’ve made me bitter, but here is my proverbial two cents (or whatever the equivalent expression is for your native monetary system) on getting published.

First, you need to consider your options. Different publishers are, well, different. This is a truth that you may only realize when you begin to look at them in terms of whether they could be your publisher. So, here is your first decision: which is your ideal publisher? Okay, good. You probably said some major publisher that will pay you large advances and promote your book by getting you interview spots on Fresh Air or something. No, never think of that publisher again. They are dead to you. Repeat this strategy until you are willing to face the likelihood that your book will never make it to any bestseller list, that Oprah probably doesn’t have the patience for it, and that it’s not going to make you any money–not nearly enough to pay minimum wage for the hours invested in it anyway.

book collection

Now that you’re being more realistic, you’re probably finding that you don’t really know of any publishers that would be interested in your book, that, if Oprah couldn’t finish it, then you don’t think anyone else could either. Good, you’re done. Stop reading here. Burn your manuscript. Never write anything else. Go have a good cry, maybe call your mom (or “mum”), go back to your life of watching television every night, and maybe someday you’ll grow up and stop being such a baby. Or you can get to work (though if the Oprah thing is true for you, you need a therapist to help out with that kind of work). There are thousands of publishers, and they all publish books, so get on the computer and research–seriously, the computer, this is not iphone-work. After a month or two, depending on the hours you spend each week, you should have a list of at least fifty. It’s helpful to rank them as you go; you may also want to pop over to their websites to see if they accept “unsolicited” or “unagented” submissions, and if they do not, then they are no longer on your list.

Many independent publishers only accept submissions during particular “windows” each season or year. Many accept “simultaneous submissions,” which means you can submit a manuscript to more than one publisher at a time, but some do not. Some require a submission fee. A fee is a way for a small publisher to fence people who indiscriminately submit manuscripts everywhere they can, and usually it’s not a ridiculous sum; if it seems ridiculous, then don’t pay it, don’t submit, and cross them off your list. Many publishers will ask you to write a brief summary of your work, and they will either ask you for more or not. One big point here is that publishers only want to interact with you when they want to interact with you. If you don’t hear back from them, then it’s because they have decided you are not worth their time (hence the emotional Kevlar). Don’t send them emails; don’t call them: they don’t want you. This process can go on for months or even years. If you get through your list, make a new list. You either keep at it or you give up, have a good cry, call mom (or “mum”), and so on.

“Wait,” you say, “what about agents?” Okay, you’re an idealist. You think, “My story is worthy of a bigger publisher and a larger readership.” Perhaps you’re right (or perhaps you received too much encouragement as a child, played in sports leagues where everyone was a “winner”; you’re that sort of person). You have a slightly different kind of research, since different agents are also different, some only representing certain kinds of writing, and so on. Instead of publishers, you’re going to be emailing agents (though there are a few holdouts who still only take regular mail–and if they can maintain a business on that model, then they’re not going to take you on because they don’t need anything from anybody). You will have to perfect your “query letter,” the letter you send to the agents, and there are places that can give you tips on this sort of thing (more research). This is an art in its own right. Many agents will ask for the first ten pages, more or less, of your manuscript, and they will get in touch if they want more. This goes in increments. In my case, a few agents said, “Okay, send me ten more pages.” Then it was ten more or the first fifty. Don’t get too excited. Usually, these little sparks of hope will result in despair. I still occasionally get rejection emails from agents, and I haven’t contacted one in over two years. At least they are getting back to me.


As you continue on this path, you grow a thick skin. You begin to welcome rejection; you write emails with the sick expectation of receiving another dose of the stuff; you want more. You dare them not to reject you. And just when you’ve become a weird masochist who thrives on the abuse of being ignored or turned down, someone offers you a contract. For me, in both cases, for nonfiction and fiction, this came from independent publishers, so my insights on agents end here. And, not to be too dramatic, the process of placing a manuscript seems much more straightforward and quicker in the world of academic nonfiction. And it’s at this point that the game changes.

Once the contract is signed, you’re in a committed relationship, and things begin to happen fast. Your first move is to go back to the manuscript. Some time has passed, so give it one more revision, or two, if there’s time, before submitting it. You will be probably be assigned to an editor, and the editor wants the best version of the manuscript to work with. Find out what your timeline is, and deliver the document when it’s due. When you’ve done so, you wait. You may get emails with questions; you may get a sample image of the cover; mostly, though, you wait. But, for a few weeks or a couple of months, you just keep thinking about how nothing seems to be happening. Don’t worry. It’s in everyone’s best interest for things to move along, and things are moving along. Usually, at the worst possible time in your life, you will be asked to approve an edited draft (for nonfiction, you may also be asked to compose an index or something). Usually, it will be made clear to you that this is your last chance to change anything.

Nothing happens again for a while (but again, wheels are turning). You will get emails. Read these emails. Something may be required of you, but, at this point, they are probably just keeping you informed.

Then one day, it happens. Your copies just show up in the mail. There’s a box, and you know what it is. You hesitate before opening it. You’re not sure why. You look around. No one else is home. You open the box and get out the goodies and lay them out on the counter. It has all led to this, and you know you should be happy. Maybe you built it up too much; maybe you didn’t prepare yourself. Something feels wrong. For some reason, you’re not sure why, you feel disappointed. And it’s not the book itself. It’s not the cover or the layout. But it’s like when you had your dog euthanized, and you saw the animating principle, the soul, go out of the eyes. She just stopped breathing with one last exhalation, and all of a sudden she just became an object, just a piece of meat on a veterinarian’s floor. It’s kind of like that. And you think, “Was it worth it?” And this is a question only you can answer, though, hopefully, the emotional Kevlar is within your grasp.

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