The invaluable Nathan Bransford published a guide to the process the other day. I thought I'd share my (slightly less) helpful one as well.
For the uninitiated, the idea of getting published seems simple. You write a book, make a few phone calls, and voila! You're the next [Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling, Stephen King, Agatha Christie]! Alas, it's not quite that easy. I'll break down how it actually works.
Step One: Write a Book
There are millions of people out there who think, "Hey, I could write an awesome book." And then they never do. Which is great--I hate competition.
Then there are millions of people who try but never finish. I also like these people.
Then there are those people, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands, who say, "I'm going to write a book." And then they do. I love these people. It's not easy--go you!
Step Two: Congratulate Yourself and Daydream about Book Signings
So you've got your fancy, shiny new manuscript you finished last night. STOP. Do not research agents, do not send it out to Random House with a big heart sticker on the envelope, do not start booking library tours. Edit it. Trust me.
Don't edit it so much that you never do anything else, but really, make sure it's in the best possible condition. I highly, HIGHLY recommend a writing group (such as my dear and fabulous MoMos). Preferably people who are writers, but definitely people who will be honest with you. Your mom? Probably not going to be honest with you, as she'll be too busy bursting with pride that her darling wrote a book.
A good writing group will not only tell you what is best about your book, they'll help you figure out what isn't working. And they'll help you figure out how to make it work. I can't tell you how much I improved by working with my critiquers--they are truly invaluable.
Step Three: Figure Out What You're Supposed to Do Next
Promise you edited it? Okay then. You probably started this whole process thinking you could print off your baby, send it to a huge publishing house, and get an offer within days.
Well, I mean, maybe you can, but here's what the rest of us have to do. You sit down and write a query letter, which is basically a one page description of your book. It's hard. Maybe harder than writing a whole book. After you've written it, you have your friends look at it. And really, spend a lot of time going through Nathan Bransford's basics he has on his blog. He has very detailed, specific information that I don't provide because I am lazy.
You'll also want to include a short bio in your query letter. For mine, I simply stated that I had a story published in a journal and work as a freelance writer. It's brief, but to the point--someone has seen something in my writing worth publishing. However, if your only publishing cred is the poem you wrote in first grade and decorated with sparkles that your teacher displayed on the chalkboard, well, you're probably better off leaving it out. The bio = not actually very important if you're a newbie.
So, now you've got your query letter all polished and pretty.
Step Four: Send Your Tender Heart Out into the World to Get Trampled
You can't send your manuscript directly to most editors or publishers anymore. They get so much stuff, they simply don't read it. This is where literary agents come in. They act as a filter--if they think your book is good enough to represent it, an editor is willing to give it a chance. Agents are awesome. My agent is the most awesome of all awesome agents. Just sayin'.
You'll want to do some extensive research. I recommend Agent Query. Put together a list of potential agents, then google them, check their blogs if they have one, check out their website. Most agents want slightly different things, and all agents like queries to be personalized. Don't waste your time and agents' time by querying them for things they don't represent.
Then, after putting together your charming, well-written, and error-free email or letter to the agent, you send it out. But don't email every agent you've ever found. I recommend having ten queries out at a time on a rotating basis. That way, if you get nothing but no, you haven't ruined your shot with everyone on a bad query. If you don't get any requests at all, pull back, take another look at your query, and fix it.
After sending out your letter, you wait. Sometimes you wait twenty minutes for a "No thanks." Sometimes you wait two months for a "No thanks."
And trust me, you'll get a LOT of "No thanks." A lot. Really? A lot. And it's not easy. Sometimes it's downright heartbreaking.
However, sprinkled in with all of those "No thanks," you'll probably get some "Yes, please." And those are awesome. Agents will request either a partial, with a specified number of pages, or a full, meaning they want to look at the whole manuscript.
And then you REALLY get to wait. Nervously. Nail-bitingingly agonizingly. Checking your email every five freaking minutes because maybe maybe there's a response (there isn't).
And if you thought getting a no on your query was sad, wait until you get a no on a partial or, worse yet, a full. Because then they aren't just rejecting the idea of your book--they're actually rejecting your book. It's rather crushing.
(I recommend Dr Pepper and M&Ms for self-medicating. Some people like ice cream. Comfort eating is a must during this stage. And whether you are querying for an agent or on submission, you MUST have supportive writer friends who actually understand what it is like. Normal people don't get it. Crazy writers are the only ones who will. Also, please, for the love of all that is good and sane in the world, DO NOT query or go on submission while you are trying to get pregnant. Trust me. That's just asking for a world of hurt.)
But here's where you set yourself apart--you don't give up after that first generic partial rejection. You send out a new query for every rejection. If you aren't getting any requests, you reevaluate your query again. You find new agents to contact. And you DON'T GIVE UP. I think the best example of this is my darling friend Cindy. She sent out well over a hundred queries. And you know what happened? She got an agent and a three book deal. It might not happen with your first book. But if you keep writing, and if your book is good, someone, somewhere out there is going to realize it.
Step Five: Hit the Jackpot
Maybe on your fifth query, or your fiftieth, or your one-hundred and fiftieth, you just might luck out and find that agent out there--your dream agent--the one you've been waiting for who it just so happens has been waiting for you. You freak out.
Then you get to work. You take your awesome agent's advice on any edits that need to be done before submission. You talk strategy. My agent has me write the cover letters; some agents do that for you. Some agents will want to do an edit or two before they officially sign you. Every agent does things differently, and this is why it's so important that you sign with an agent a) you like and b) you trust.
After you've got everything set to go, your agent calmly and gently takes your baby and sends it out into the world, aka the desks of editors. Know what that means? Yup. MORE WAITING. And probably more rejection. Awesome.
Every agent goes about the submission process a little differently. I know some that offer it to just a couple of editors with a strict deadline for response. Some send it out to more at a time hoping to generate some competition. Regardless, make sure your agent follows up regularly, since, as we learn from Moonie, a lot of the time that's the only way to make something happen.
This is where I think Agent Michelle is fabulous. I felt like I got so much more time and attention than I might have with a bigger agency (and I'm not saying bigger agencies don't do this as well, this is just my experience). Michelle only takes projects that she's really, truly passionate about, because she spends a lot of time on them. And it shows. Even when we were out with Flash and nothing happened, I never doubted that she was invested not just in my books, but in me as a writer.
Step Six: Hit the Next Jackpot
Your awesome agent, after persevering and being all around wonderful, gets you a book deal. Seriously! This can happen any number of ways--auction, pre-empt, a great offer from your dream editor, etc. (Can I just say how much my agent rocked my deal? You should have heard her, it was so sad. She had a horrible sinus infection and could barely talk, but was on the phone ALL. DAY. For two days straight. For me. See what I said about finding an agent who is invested? I honestly feel like I could not have gotten a better deal, and it was all thanks to Michelle.)
This doesn't always happen the first time around. No one wanted poor, third-person Flash. But, once again, I had an agent who was invested in my career, so we reevaluated, went out with something else, and, well, if you're reading this you know what happened.
And what happens now? Besides lots of euphoria and blissful disbelief? I'm just waiting to get my edits, at which point I'll get back to work. And the work doesn't stop there. I'm making marketing plans, budgeting for publicity, and plotting out the next two books. My dream came true, and now I've got three years of very hard work (and lots of waiting) ahead of me. I'm just so glad I'm doing it with Agent Michelle and Editor Erica.
I couldn't be happier.
So there you have it. My long, long guide to how this stuff actually works. If you read it all, you deserve a cookie. And a book deal. But you should probably go for the cookie, first, because in my experience those are a little less work to get your hands on.