Blog in Progress: Publishing Your First Book
One of the first questions beginning and emerging writers often ask is how they can get their first book published. I understand the complicated emotions that lie behind this question: the writer has been working alone, for months or years, hoping to have a book to hold as a measure of success at the end of a long road. I was that writer, once. When I received my acceptance to my MA in Creative Writing program in 1988, I was 25 years old. I wrote out a timeline for the beginning of my career:
Acceptance to creative writing program: 1988
First book published: 1991
I actually thought I was giving myself leeway in allowing that extra year, for my graduate thesis, I surmised, would be so riveting, so original, so clearly mark me as the next big thing, that really, I thought it entirely possible my first book would be published in 1990. These were private fantasies; I never admitted them to anyone. But I was certain I’d at least have a book out before I turned 30.
Here’s how it really worked out:
Acceptance to creative writing program: 1988
First book published: 2002
My story is not unusual. It’s actually quite common for it to take ten – or in my case, fourteen – years of practice in an art form to master it enough to achieve any measure of success. My first novel came out three months before I turned 40, and by then, it felt like a fine age for a first book. I was even grateful that I hadn’t put out a mediocre collection of short stories when I was younger – and the short stories I was writing in my twenties are, to my current standards, decidedly mediocre.
So when folks who’ve only just started to hone their craft eagerly ask about how to get a first book published, in my answer I often try to redirect them to the question I feel they should be asking first: how can I be sure my book is ready to be published?
As such, I have developed a step-by-step guide with answers to both questions.
1. Write a draft. Revise that draft until you can’t figure out, on your own, any other edits you could make.
2. Get one or more trusted opinions on that draft. (Family members, significant others and close friends don’t count as trusted opinions.) Show it to a writing group made up of dedicated writers with knowledge of craft; take a writing workshop; or hire a manuscript consultant to give you a professional critique.
3. Take to heart the advice you’ve gathered, and revise again. And again.
4. Polish the manuscript on the sentence level after all other craft elements are in place. If you can, find one or two more readers who haven’t seen the book before to get a sense of whether or not it’s ready to send out. When you get the green light, proceed to step #5.
5. Develop a professional agent query. Put time into crafting this letter as you’d craft an essay or short story. There are lots of books on the market, as well as tips online – I love the sample queries in this Writer’s Digest post – that can help you learn how to write a professional query letter.
6. Query agents. If you have any connections – if you met an agent at a writing conference, or have a friend willing to recommend you to her agent – query those agents first. For cold queries, do some research to be sure the agent handles the kind of book you’ve written; then send your queries out in batches of five. If more than one agent in a batch requests to read the manuscript, do the second agent the courtesy of letting her know that someone else is reading the book. In my experience, agent #2 will still want to read it as well, though she may ask you to let her know if interest becomes keen with the first agent.
7. If you have truly exhausted the agent queries and come up short – bestselling author Jenna Blum landed her agent with the 43rd query she sent out, so it’s important not to quit too early – search for small/independent press contests, as well as indie presses that take unagented submissions.
8. If you strike out with the indie presses, and you’re tempted to self-publish, do two things. First, have one more writer friend, editor or manuscript consultant read it, and give you an opinion on whether this draft of the book is ready to be published. If in that person’s opinion it’s not, then you have to make a decision: do you put it in a drawer and start the next book, or do you work on it some more? This step illustrates why it’s so important to get ample feedback before you send a book out into the world.
9. If the reader thinks your book is great and you decide you really want to self-publish, recognize that, unless you want this to simply be a fun gift for friends and family, you will have to sink significant time and money into self-promotion. The self-publishing success stories are inspiring – but they are rare. Those successes happened not through luck, but because the author had a strong marketing platform and worked tirelessly – often with the help of a hired publicist – to find her book an audience.
Of course, my opinion that an author should try for an agent, and then an independent press before considering self-publishing is just that – my opinion. I believe this sequence of steps is the most likely one to help you build a writing career. Whichever route you choose, may your book be published – when it’s ready. Even if that means you’ll be 40 (or 50, or 60) instead of 30.
Lisa Borders’ second novel, The Fifty-First State, was published by Engine Books in 2013. Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards. Lisa has published humor in McSweeney’s, essays in The Rumpus and several anthologies, and short stories in Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals. She has taught creative writing since 1997, shifting her focus to the novel when she developed GrubStreet’s Novel in Progress courses in 2005. She also co-developed and co-taught GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator from 2011 – 2013, and developed and led the Novel Generator from 2014-2017. She now teaches in the University of Arkansas at Monticello’s online MFA program. For more information on Lisa and her work, visit lisaborders.com.See other articles by Lisa Borders