Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Aspiring Authors!

I almost titled this piece "For Aspiring Writers," but that doesn't really work, given the fact that we are all writers and have been since elementary school! So instead, one of the nouns I revere most: "Authors."

I was emailing this morning with two teachers who contributed to "One Size Does Not Fit All" and they both want to publish more of their work. So, I figured I'd put together a summation of what I learned from my publishing experiences of the last eight years and also what I learned while trying to get a novel published in the 1990s. It's the only real advice I have to give. I hope it helps and please feel free to pass on to anyone you know who hopes to get work published. This economy has to recover sometime!

Getting published has always been difficult and is especially so now, given the changing landscape of book publishing (Kindle? iPad? Blogs? Apps? Who knows what?!?!), plus the realities of our economic times. Many publishers have cut in half the total number of books they will publish per year, making it even harder for writers to get their work out there.

However, there are other ways, besides traditional publishing. One way to get noticed is with blogs. The river of offers that once flowed my way has slowed to a trickle as publishers take less risks and produce fewer titles, so I’ve just started to explore blogs as publishers, editors, and agents like writers that already have followers. I currently have 9, so I doubt that’s going to cut it! Anyway, I started by picking an area of focus (teaching) and am now trying to gain fans and followers by hitting up people who share that interest. You can also go the self-publishing route (which includes trying to sell your book at related conferences), but I know even less about that than I do about blogs…

Back to traditional means of publishing, I always tell everyone that I am the wrong person to ask for advice. Of the 25 projects I’ve worked on, only two were my ideas and even they were developed in conjunction with an editor who was already working closely with a sales team who already had their ear to the ground, listening for what book buyers were interested in. So, I don’t have any experience with cold calling a publisher, but what everyone says is that you have to get an agent first. If you send directly to a publisher, the chances of somebody ever reading your letter of interest, your synopsis, and your sample chapters (see Literary Marketplace reference below) are about as good as winning the lottery. Basically, some administrative assistant at a publishing house puts all unsolicited manuscripts in a “slush pile” when they arrive and you don't want all of your hours and hours of hard work to end up in a slush pile!

Back in the 1990s, I went the agent route with a novel I worked on for seven years. The economy was flowing, everyone was happy, and I got back some nice letters of interest (they wanted to see the whole manuscript), but that was where it ended. No more contact from anyone. So, I changed my focus to paying jobs like writing educational articles. But while going through the process of submitting my novel, the main tool I used was a reference book called Literary Marketplace. It was here that I learned how to submit work and found some names of agents/agencies where I could submit it. You don’t want to buy it (~$300), but the library will have it. There are also several books on finding literary agents, but I haven’t nosed around in any of those. I haven’t even seen Literary Marketplace since those optimistic days 15 years ago! But, I know that in Literary Marketplace you can look up agents who specialize in different areas (fiction, children’s book, how-to, self-help, etc) and also are willing to work with first time authors. Just photocopy the contact information for 9 or 10 agents/agencies and start by focusing on them. It can be overwhelming to send to more than that and hard to keep track of who you’ve followed up with. Hello, Excel spreadhseet!

I think that the two most important things I did were 1) take a writing class (two summers in a row at Gotham Writer’s Workshop in NYC) and 2) accept a paying job that wasn’t necessarily in my area of writing interest, because not only does this give you a working experience to put in cover letters and on your resume, it serves up an invaluable taste of life as a professional writer. Anyone who treats writing like a hobby will only ever do it as a hobby. I’ve built two stone walls and it is the work that most closely compares to writing. Hours of hard labor and false starts and finally, eventually, a beautiful finished product that you will forever see the flaws in but hey… at least it’s done.

All of this may seem difficult and like an impossible journey, but trust me when I say if I could do it, you can too!!!

Best of luck,

To take a look at Literary Marketplace, click here:


  1. PS Don't bother with an agent (or reader) who wants money up front. Only contact those that will take a percentage of your advance and royalties. That way they will actually work for you, rather than being content to earn a fee...

  2. Great stuff. Thanks for all the advice! How did you find jobs writing educational articles? And who did you write for with that?

  3. McGraw-Hill's college division used to do something called PowerWeb, which supplied professors with a weekly resource of articles. I wrote a philosophy article for them for almost two years. And I have no idea how it all came together! Eight years and two kids later, my memory is shot. I literally have no idea how that worked out. :-)