“So, how’s it going with your book?”
I get this question all the time. If you’re a writer, you probably do, too. So I offer you this primer on the process of getting your book out into the world the traditional way–i.e., finding a literary agent to represent your book and submit it to major publishers. (Self-publishing is a different process altogether.) Why 12 steps? Well, I just finished reading Lit by the brilliant Mary Karr, which is her moving memoir of how she started and stopped drinking, so a 12-step guide seemed appropriate. I’m no expert (I’m only on Step 5), but I hope this little glimpse into the writing world will at least give you a pre-fab answer to the book question.
- Research Literary Agents. A literary agent, like fictional film agent Ari Gold in Entourage, is your point person, your representative in the world of publishing. Hopefully your future agent has the same amount of zealousness as Ari, but a lot more tact. It takes time to find this advocate, this agent. You want to find someone who represents not just any books, but successful books in your genre, whether it be women’s fiction (like I write), sci-fi, young adult, zombies, or what-have-you.
- Send Query Letters. Once you’ve researched potential agents, it’s time to make the initial contact–the query letter. A query letter is a one-page letter, similar to a cover letter when you’re applying for jobs. That’s it. You get one page to convince an agent to take time out of her demanding schedule to read part or all of your manuscript. Sometimes the agent’s submission guidelines allow you to submit sample pages along with the query, but often you’re just emailing or mailing a short letter.
- Wait, wait, wait. You may get requests from agents, based on your query letter, to read a part or all of your manuscript. You’ll definitely get some rejections. In rare instances, you’ll get constructive feedback, and maybe you’ll go back and revise the book for the 8,754th time. You’ll send out more queries and do more waiting.
- Start work on a new book. Working on a new book is supposed to keep you reasonably sane while you are waiting to hear back from agents on the partial and full manuscripts they have in their hands. Partial and full manuscripts take a long time to read and–here’s the shocker–agents already have established clients, to whom they need to devote most of their time.
- Wait, wait, wait. Get more rejections, more requests. Feel bad about the rejections until you read posts like this one and this one on literary agents’ blogs and realize that having an agent request your full or partial manuscript puts you in the minuscule percentage of the slush that actually gets more than a 30-second glance. You’ll obsessively check your email for responses from agents, secretly hoping you don’t get an email, but that you get the elusive “call” instead–the call in which an agent offers you representation.
- Accept Offer of Representation from Agent. If you’re lucky (and talent counts as luck, too), you may have more than one offer. You’ll decide on the agent who will best represent your work. You’ll do a happy dance, but only for a minute because there is still a lot of work ahead. Your agent doesn’t get paid unless she can sell your book to a publisher, so she’s probably going to have more than a few suggestions for you.
- Revise. Remember all that revising you did? Well, there’s more in your future. Your manuscript needs to be polished again before it can be submitted to editors at publishing houses with your agent’s name and reputation behind it.
- Submit to Publishers. You’ll go “on submission,” which is what happens when your agent sends your manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
- Wait, wait, wait. Are you noticing a recurring theme? Your book is at a crucial make-it-or-break it moment. Working on another project (see Step 4) may help distract you from that fact. Good luck with that.
- Offer of Publication. If you are really lucky, you’ll get an offer for your book to be published. Now you do that happy dance again. But don’t do it for too long. There are more edits in your future and, in the meantime, you need to be getting yourself out there, letting the universe know that YOU’VE GOT A BOOK COMING OUT. This is not the time to crawl into a cave or onto your couch to watch reruns of Top Chef. People need to buy that book if you’re ever going to get the chance to have another one published. So…
- Market Your Little Butt Off. This is the point in the process where, if you haven’t already been whoring yourself out on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, GoodReads, and other media outlets, you need to get started pronto. Your book may be so awesome it’s going to sell itself, but probably not. So you need to work it. Jonathan Franzen would disagree, but if you can write something akin to The Corrections, then feel free to crawl under a rock and wait for accolades to come your way.
- Rinse and Repeat. When your publication day comes around, you’ll hold your little book in your hands, or on your Kindle or iPad, and you’ll bask in the wonder of it all. Then you’ll resume marketing your little butt off. And if the book sells enough copies to justify publication of another one (remember that new project you’ve been working on all along?), then you get to repeat the whole thing all over again. Enjoy the ride.