Q&A: How do You Get Published?

I, rather often, have people contact me because they want to get into writing and would love to know my experiences.

Invariably, when this happens, I feel hesitant to respond.  The messages usually involve some version of “Hi, I’ve started writing a book and want to know how you go about getting published.”  Sometimes they’re more specific in their questions than that, sometimes less.  But the bottom line of the questions that come to me is basically, “how do I get people to buy my books?”

And my knee jerk reaction is always to say, “They won’t!”

Officially, I don’t actually give them that answer, but that’s what I want to say.

And I know it’s a rather pessimistic response, especially considering I have people reading my books all around the world.  I’m not a runaway success or anything though.  Amazon just told me yesterday that they didn’t like that I had best seller as one of the keywords for one of my books because it’s not accurate.

But people do read AND buy my books.  Pretty regularly.  And they generally seem to enjoy them and come back for more.

So why is the response I want to give so immediately negative?

For the answer to that, I feel like I need to take you back. Way back.  To five and a half years ago when I finished the first draft of my first novel, The Legend of Buddy Hero (buy it now!).  After a decade of conceptualizing the novel, I had finally gotten to a point in my life where I just needed to force myself to sit down and write it.  The writing process took me two years.  So, you can imagine that when I finally put those last words to the page, I had this feeling of being done.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine it.  I began this blog that same week and began outlining everything I went through from that point forward.

However, instead of making you trudge through years of terrible blog posts, I’ll take you through the highlights of the first few years I had as a writer with a “completed” novel.

When I finished the first draft of The Legend of Buddy Hero, I knew it needed some editing and dived right back in nearly immediately.  But at the same time, I began seeking representation.

This is mistake number one.

Getting yourself published through traditional means is an uphill battle.  Just convincing an agent or publisher to actually take a look at your book is nearly impossible, so, if you send them something that isn’t absolutely pristine, you may as well consider yourself blackballed.  I’m not saying that the industry has some list of names of annoying authors who sent them first drafts somewhere so they know to avoid them, but I haven’t proven they don’t.

But seriously, the response rates from agents just saying they’ll give your book a read is in the single digit percentage points.  How terrible would it be that they get to the first page and see that you can’t even keep the main character’s name spelled the same way in the same paragraph?

As should be expected, although I was very positive going in that *someone* would find my book interesting and choose to put some money behind it, I got shut down time and time again.

I did manage to get three agents to actually read at least a part of the book, but they came back pretty quickly with responses on how it just didn’t seem finished.

My response to this, at first, was rather pathetic. I decided that I must not have had a trendy enough book and made some modifications, such as (at one point) turning the whole thing into a young adult novel (which, for the record, goes completely against the mid-life crisis message I built it off of).  I thought my issue was marketability.

I was wrong.

I finally decided that agents and publishers had it out for me and I decided then and there that I would venture out on my own with self publishing.

This happened a mere five months after I had completed the first draft.

The first draft of the book took me two years, yet over the course of five months, I went through 6 edits, some of which involved changing the entire tone of the book, sat around waiting for responses from agents, which would take upwards of a month (during which I was completely incapable of doing any sort of writing/editing), before finally doing the type-setting and cover design that led to me releasing the book to the wild.

This was another bad mistake.

And I wouldn’t realize it until three months later, when at a Thanksgiving party with the in-laws, I overheard someone reading the book out-loud, unaware that it was written by me, and I realized that it was absolutely terrible (teachable moment here: during at least one of your edits, read the whole book out loud.  I cannot stress this enough).

I took it down from Amazon before the day ended.

And then broke down completely.

For months I felt absolutely worthless about the whole thing.  I came to the determination that I could never be a writer.  That I was a fraud as well as a failure.

But when I was able to face the daylight again, I put myself back to work.  On a completely different book.  The one you’ll know as The Agora Files.  And this time, I was on a mission.  I finished the first draft in thirty days.  I had become so incredibly inspired by what I was working on, and had learned so many tricks from the two years of writing the first book, that I flew through that first draft.

But then I did something.

I set it aside. (well, to be completely honest, I again made the mistake of attempting to sell this first draft book to agents and publishers, as I hadn’t learned my lesson quite yet, but I did this concurrently with the following)

And I returned to The Legend of Buddy Hero.

And I ripped it to shreds.

The basic concept and plot and characters are all there, although some of the characters (especially Kid Zero) are completely unrecognizable from their originally released version, but I took every single page of that book and made it new.  Fresh.  A completely different book.

The original release was this dark emotional saga.  The final version still has its emotional backdrop, but brought back the comic satire which was the original inspiration.

And a year later, I finally felt like I had really done something amazing with this book.  I determined that I had really made it to a point where this thing shined like a diamond.

Over the course of the six months following my completion of the first draft of The Agora Files, I poured every ounce of myself into making this book something special.  Something new.

But I still hadn’t really learned my lesson.  As I immediately went right back to my old standard and began shipping out emails to everybody I could find in the industry and attempted to convince them to read my book.

And again, rejections abounded.  I don’t have the numbers anymore, but I’m going to say that I may have had 2 people respond with any sort of interest out of the 200+ people I sent emails to.  Those two didn’t even care to ask for the whole manuscript.

I felt rather lost at this point.  And so I sought out advice.  And I found a now-defunct website for author collaboration.  It promised the possibility of having your book read by someone in power at Harper-Collins, but that wasn’t why I was there.  I was there to try and find out if my book had any merit.  I wanted to know if there was some way to make it better.  To make it sellable.

Ultimately, I wanted to know why I couldn’t get anyone in the industry to read my books.

And I came across an amazing group of authors who were all struggling with the exact same thing.  And I learned that many of them found my writing to be solid.  Engaging.  Funny.  And more than worthwhile to read.

And I gained my confidence back.

And, more importantly, I learned a little something about myself.

You see, I had used my unhappiness in my career as a motivational tool to write, but the reason I needed to write was because I needed the creative outlet.  Because I had stories to tell.  My motivation became my reason.  I had become so focused on changing my career, that at too many points in the process, I had forgotten about the artistry.  I had overlooked how writing had actually made my career bearable.

It would take me another six months before I finally felt comfortable releasing the book into the wild again.  This time without looking for representation, without thinking about the money, just looking to have people read my books.  And the immediate response was overwhelmingly positive.  Easily one of the best weeks of my life.

And this, all of this above, which is an incredibly abridged version of the full story, is what goes through my head the second someone asks me how to get published when they don’t even have a book written.  And, to be fair, even when they do have a book written.

Success stories for authors are the exception.  Most authors today live out their days in relative obscurity, writing in the wee hours of the night obsessively, instead of writing as an actual bill-paying career.  But there are more books written today than at any other point in history.  Many, I’m sure, are written for the same reason so many people quit school and move to Hollywood, or start garage bands, or start filming themselves and putting it up on youtube.  They want to get famous.  They don’t have anything to say, they just want validation.  Love.  Fame.

But so many more, like myself (although I got distracted by the idea of money), write because they have something they want to say.

I can’t suggest writing for the purposes of getting published.  You may find success, but the path to get there will be a painful one.

Instead, I suggest writing because you have a story to tell.  When you finish it.  And edit it.  And then edit it again.  And then find complete strangers you can convince to read it and have them tear it apart.  And then edit it again.  And then set it aside for a month or so.  And then read it out loud.  Take notes.  Edit it again.  And then probably a few more times after that.

And once you get there…then you can consider your options for publication.  The options are far wider than I ever allowed myself during my time of trying to find representation.  I hunted after the biggest and best agents and publishers.  But there are so many smaller groups.

Or…if you want to have a true adventure, self-publish.

This is the basic response I give when I’m asked how to get published.  To perfect the writing first.  To write until you can’t write anymore.  And then write more.  And to take risks with your writing.  But just keep writing until your fingers and heart are literally raw with the effort.

Art shouldn’t be about money.  Whenever it is, it ultimately falls short.  Art should be about expression.  It needs to be an act of love.  It needs to be art.

So, the question you really should be asking is not how do I get published, but how do I get better as a writer.  And there are really only two steps: 1. Write constantly.  2. Get all the negative feedback you can and use it to make you stronger.

And there’s a third, also important, thing which you need to be able to do as an author.  Be patient.  If you give your 800 page fantasy tome to someone to read, the likelihood is that they won’t finish it by the end of the week.  Or the end of the month.  It could be years in some cases.  Waiting for my children to be born was nothing compared to waiting to see if someone liked one of my books.

I have no clue if you’ll get published.  I have many author friends who have been published.  Only one of them, when talked to directly about their experiences, appears to have much more success than I do as a self-published author.  And they put a lot more effort into selling their books than I do.  I don’t think it’s because my books are any better, or that their publishers are all that bad.  I believe it’s simply due to book sales being a crap shoot.

But I would never talk someone out of writing.  It is one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done, hovering near being a father and husband.

I only hope to keep people from thinking, like I naively did 5.5 years ago, that the first draft is the hard part.  The first draft is the fun part.  If I could, I’d just write first drafts over and over again.

(and I have…)

Enjoy the outlet.  Enjoy the creativity.  You can worry about what to do with the book when you’ve finished it.  For now, just write!


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