Thursday, May 23, 2013

How to get your book published

Shepherding a book to publication is like coaxing an orchid into bloom.  This is a purple Dendrobium orchid, 27 year old plant, blooming today in my living room at the North Carolina beach.  Bought in Hawaii, this is one of the easiest orchids to care for.  It loves to be severely pot bound and wants to be watered only once a month.  Its long-lasting blosoms are among the most common used in leis.

It is a quantum event.  Suddenly, with the stroke of pen on contract, you become a published author.

For me, it seemed to happen overnight.  It was as if I went to bed a clueless wannabe and woke up an expert on getting published.  I pinch myself.  Am I still asleep?  Is this a dream?

Well, it wasn't a dream.  Nor was it an overnight success story.  The reality is far more complicated than some sort of mystical caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis.  It was a long process, like a nurturing a plant until it flowers, or watching a sunrise crescendo to its apex out of the gloom of night.

Sunrise, North Topsail Beach, NC, May  21, 2013

It was a process that took patience, persistence, plenty of hard work, and commitment.  And, in fact, there's nothing magical about that moment when you can declare yourself a royalty-earning, no-fee paying, genuine published author.  Successful marketing of your product takes just as much determination and energy as the research, writing, revising, editing and pitching of your manuscript.

Hundreds if not thousands of blogs, essays and books have been written on the subject of getting published.  What I offer in this post is one person's experience.  As the epigraph to this blog says: I offer a few small crumbs to mark the path that led me to this significant way-marker in my writing journey.

In my experience there are two broad classes of authors.  First there are people who decide they want to be writers and then start looking for opportunities and homing in on preferred story lines or subject matter.  And then there are those who have something they want to write about.  These folk didn't necessarily intend to become writers, but if they are serious about getting their message out to the public, then they quickly realize that they're going to have to hone the writer's craft.  I fall in the latter category.

Which ever group you fit into, the first steps in becoming a published author are to practice and learn.  A formal education is the most reliable path to success.  Go to college and earn an English degree with a focus on writing; then follow that with an MFA - master of fine arts.  If your circumstances don't allow for formal education, then there's always the School of Hard Knocks.  Find a local writer's group or an online group.  Join a critique group and exchange drafts.  Learning to criticize the work of others will help you identify the weaknesses in your own craft.

Then write, write, write.  Revise, revise, revise, and write some more.  There's a wise saying among writers that goes: "The first million words are practice."  In my case, I continue to go through draft after draft of the book series 'Eden's Womb'.  Because I consider it my 'life work' - my magnum opus - I didn't want to give up on the plot or the ideas.  I have rewritten it entirely from scratch half a dozen times and revised more times than I care to remember.  I've had three different professional editors provide their (sometimes conflicting) developmental edits.  I learned different lessons from each.

For most other people the process of practicing and perfecting their skills involves a series of writing projects, each improving on the last.  You have to be pretty pig-headed to keep working on the same manuscript for decades.  'Stubborn' is not far from 'stupid' in the dictionary.  I wouldn't recommend my approach to others.

Look for feedback from people you respect.  Enter your writing in contests, send drafts out to unbiased reviewers, to editors, to agents - anyone willing to consider a paragraph of your writing and offer some response. Go online to writer-reader feedback sites like WattPad and Amazon Kindle Write On.  It is important to take the feedback you receive as constructive criticism.  Take it seriously even if you don't believe in it.  Use the criticism to experiment with different ways of presenting your ideas.  It's fine to believe in yourself and your skill; but I find that the most progress comes when I'm willing to explore ways to make what's already good better.  Remember that nothing created by a mere mortal is perfect.  There's always room for improvement.

The publishing industry is in a rapid state of flux.  Your choices for publication have never been greater.  Sometimes it seems that getting your work accepted by a 'traditional' big-house publisher or by many of the new no-fee small presses is harder than ever.  But it would be wrong to blame the system for your failures.  If your work hasn't been accepted for publication, assume that it's not good enough, because on the face of it, that's what the feedback suggests.  Keep trying for publication of course, but also keep questioning your work.  Ask yourself: "How can I make it better, more attractive to the intended audience, more worthy of an editor's or agent's attention?"

Last of all, when seeking a publisher I do not recommend the 'shotgun' approach.  You will hear the advice that "if you throw enough sh*t at a wall some of it will stick."  But do you really want to settle for sh*t?  Is just any old wall acceptable as a destination?  My advice is to be selective.  Research the publishers before sending them a query/submission.  Find out what they want and how it fits your work.  Submit only to those that you honestly believe in and those that feel like a good fit.  Then send a personalized query/submission with a cover letter that explains why that particular publisher is right for your particular manuscript.  Cookie-cutter form letters are like junk mail.  Who reads that?

I feel strongly about the personalized approach because it worked for me.  Quality outshines quantity.  Throughout my life I've found success by choosing carefully and reaching out only after thoughtful consideration.  I know I'm a rare exception, but when I graduated from high school I applied to only one university because that was the one that had the program I really wanted to be a part of.  Later I applied to only one graduate school.  Then out of school I applied for only one job, got it, and held on to it until I retired.  Now it has happened again.  I found a royalty paying no-fee publisher on the first try.  Yep - one submission, one letter, and I got published.  So what?  A book in print that's only read by a few close friends and family members, even by a few walk-in readers at a book signing, doesn't do much for your pocket book.  Publication is the first small step in a journey of a thousand miles.  Marketing is next, and the very best way of marketing your writing is to write more good stuff and keep getting it out there in front of the public.  Maybe it's about throwing sh*t at the wall after all.

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