Publishing 101: an Overview
by Dani Hedlund
Welcome to Publishing 101! Here you’ll find an overview of the steps that will take you from wanting to write a book to finally fondling your last name on the spine!
In order to understand all of the resources and tools that we offer, let’s first talk about the landscape of the publishing industry.
It’s a common misconception that writing a good book is all you need to achieve publication. As the publishing industry continues to become more competitive—as the reading public is flooded with more independent and self-published books—it’s getting harder and harder to make your voice heard.
As a result, there are now several additional steps that prospective authors need to take in order to land a great publishing deal.
Essentially, before you sell a book, you need to prove to an agent or publishing house that you’re worth taking a chance on.
At TBL, we like to call this “proof” a Publishing Platform, and you can think of that as a writer’s resume. This all boils down to that little paragraph in your query letters that describes where else you’ve been published, why you’re the right person to write your book, and what makes you marketable to a prospective publisher.
SUBMITTING TO LITERARY JOURNALS AND CONTESTS
The number one way to prove that you’re actually good at your craft is to garner publishing credit. This means getting short work— short stories, short nonfiction, or poetry—published in literary journals, magazines, or anthologies.
This intermediate level is incredibly complicated. There are thousands of publications and contests that are constantly seeking new work, but they each come with unique aesthetic interests, reading periods, and requirements. Thus, a huge focus of this Resource Center is to help you navigate and organize all that information.
For more on this topic, check out How to Submit to Literary Journals, our up-to-date contest database, and our list of journals currently reading for general submissions. Because you’ll be sending that great new story out to several publishers simultaneously, we also have a nice little tracker to keep you organized and motivated.
We also publish great Q&As with authors who’ve mastered this step. In these interviews, authors discuss what literary journals they read and submit to, including some great insider knowledge about their experience with certain publishers.
MAKE YOURSELF MARKETABLE
Proving that you’re a great writer is only part of the battle. As publishing houses become more competitive, the departments that are taking the biggest hits are marketing and publicity. This means that more and more of the marketing responsibilities are thrust upon the writer and agent.
As a result, agents and publishers are looking for debut talent that already has a strong following. By “following,” we typically mean social media presence, reach in the literary community, and general ability to garner press.
The unfortunate catch-22 of this situation is that most of us gravitate toward literature because we have introverted personalities. Let’s face it: if you’re going to spend enough time in your own head to create an entire book, you’re probably not keen on slinking into cocktail dresses and rubbing elbows with industry movers and shakers. Not to mention that many of us don’t live in industry centers (New York, Los Angeles, or London).
But fret not! There are a lot of great ways to build this platform, no matter where you are (or how much you’d rather not leave the comfort of your computer screen). There are certainly the basic avenues (hit the world with a storm of self-promotion), but we recommend something a little more aggressive…and a lot more helpful:
A big problem with contemporary marketing themes is self-promotion—we all know that too much of this has the potential to turn everyone’s stomachs, and nobody wants to start a writing career that way. We are all acquainted with strangers telling us to check out their blogs or download their books, and this market is so saturated that this type of self-promotion creates a red flag for publishers, editors, and agents.
In our opinion, that’s because the promotion isn’t earned.
These authors, especially in self-publishing, often haven’t contributed to the community, so it feels disingenuous for them to ask the community to support them.
So, what’s the fix?
Become a good literary citizen. Simply put: get involved in the community. Go to book readings, read good books and write reviews, get to know your local writers, read journals and message your favorite authors, patronize your bookstores, join a literary journal or society. Essentially, do all you can to connect with people who love literature as much as you do.
This will be invaluable in growing your following online and in person, but it will also teach you about the industry and the people in it. We promise that becoming a good literary citizen will be one of the most valuable things you can do to improve your craft, your marketing platform, and your overall perspective as a writer.
GETTING THE BOOK DEAL
Okay, let’s assume you’ve buffed up your Publishing Platform and you are market-ready. Now you need to find a publisher for that book of yours.
The next step is querying to agents or publishing houses. This “querying” process simply means that you are sending them a short letter, telling them what your book is about, showcasing your Publishing Platform, and asking them to read your manuscript in hopes that they’ll pick it up.
It’s important to note that most large publishers do not accept unsolicited queries, so if you’re hoping to land a top ten deal, you’ll need to go through an agent. If an agent picks you up as a client, he or she will pitch your book up to large publishing houses, help you submit work to those pesky literary journals that don’t accept unsolicited submissions, and navigate the legal process for you.
If you want to explore a smaller publishing house, many of them do accept unsolicited queries. To learn more about how this works, check out Independent Houses and How They Work.
With that said, it’s our policy at TBL that you should always try to go big and snag an agent. If you’ve spent all this time bringing your book to life, you want to give it every chance you can to reach the widest possible audience. After all, great stories are meant to be heard.
However, most agents are receiving hundreds of queries a day, so constructing a query letter correctly and ensuring that you’re sending it to the right agent is essential.
We have in-depth articles and resources on how to construct this letter, how to find the right agent, where to find them, and how to keep track of this process.
If you’re feeling a little lost along the way, we also offer a really cool mentorship program through our community division. Every month we host a Celebrity Mentor who landed a major publishing deal. In our online forum, you can ask them directly about their querying and publication process.
BACKTRACK TO THE CRAFT
What we haven’t discussed yet is the starting point. All of the above steps assume that you already write well, but writing well is just 90% of the battle. It’s also a battle that never ends. Bestselling authors are constantly returning to the drawing board, trying new, stronger styles, and experimenting with voice and language.
Because reading constantly is the best way to learn how to write well, we encourage you to check out our overview of How to Master the Craft. And don’t feel like you have to be a deity behind the keyboard before you begin taking these steps—the process of creating a Publishing Platform, becoming a great literary citizen, and querying for representation is nearly as important as your fundamental skills and talents.
Every short work you write, every rejection, every acceptance, every book you review, every book you read—all of it is there to teach you how to be a better storyteller and a better professional.
Learn as you go. The only failure is quitting, and as long as you’re writing, as long as you’re submitting, your writing is inevitably improving.
Remember: Submit. Never Surrender.
DON’T LOSE YOUR MIND
The process we’ve just discussed—going from first publishing credit all the way to selling your book—is long and often lonely. You’re looking at years of your life, sitting in front of the bright glare of your computer screen, wondering if what you’re writing is any good.
It’s easy to get lost in those thoughts, to start believing that you don’t have what it takes to make it.
So in addition to all these informative tools and resources, we also publish lit lovers articles, fun essays, reviews, and book recommendations that keep you plugged into what you loved about writing in the first place.
We also have a lively Community Division, full of readings, lit events, forum discussions, and random get-togethers that allow you to connect with other people who love literature as much as you do.
These people, and this passion, will be the armor you need to get through the ups and downs of writing.
Remember, writing is hard. Very hard. But creating something meaningful, something that can inspire us, transport us, enchant us—well, it’s worth it.
And we’re here to help.
Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.
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