I’ve been thinking of adding this article to my blog for some time and finally got around to it.
Three years ago, a Faith, Hope & Love member posted the following: Like many of you, my goal and hope [for next year] is to get a contract and be published. Of course that brings a whole bunch of scary thoughts with it. I would really like to hear from those recently published and those who have many books out there about how you accomplished this! Is there anyway we could hear via the loop or the newsletter or the writing tips…or all three!? This could include many things, ie., what publishers to start with, how do you really know what is going on in the market and who wants what, do you need an agent or not, how far can a contest take you, etc. I’ve read a lot and researched the market to an extent, but it seems tougher than ever. Please share your thoughts about this when you have time.
Here is my response, updated for this blog:
Perseverance has much more to do with getting published than talent does, so that’s where I always begin. As with anything of value, getting published takes sacrifice and commitment. Are you willing to give years without seeing any visible results? Sometimes (many times) that’s what it takes. I have two friends who both wrote 10 novels over about 10 years before they made their first sales. Would you continue to write even if you never get published?
For Christians, of course, there’s the faith element about their writing. Are you seeking God’s face? Did He call you to write? Are you willing to follow Him no matter what, even if the road He takes you on diverges from the one you want to be on or takes longer than you planned?
I have often seen quoted a line that goes something like: “God wouldn’t have given you the talent if He didn’t want you to use it” or “God wouldn’t have given you the desire to write if He didn’t want you to be published.” I don’t agree. If you study your Bible, it’s clear that God often uses people where we are the weakest and need to rely on Him the most (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). As for the desire to write, Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the LORD; And He will give you the desires of your heart.” (NASB) This verse is often misinterpreted as, when you delight in the Lord, you’ll get what you want. But the true meaning is, when you delight in the Lord and love Him above everything else, He will change the things you want into the things He wants.
Remember, there’s a danger in wanting to be published so much that you make it an idol. Want Jesus more, and then be amazed by the blessings. Follow what He has called you to do, and you won’t go wrong. If He has called you to write, then write. Pursue excellence with everything you have; don’t give God second best. Write for Him and not for an editor or a critique group or even with the goal of getting published. Write to please the Lord. It’s so easy to pursue success. I know. I did it. I compromised, and the regret is always with me.
What publisher do you start with? You must know your market. What sort of books do you most like to read? What published books are most like the one you’re writing? See who that publisher is and start there. Go to your Christian bookstore and see who all the publishers are. Get a copy of The Writers Market and The Christian Writers Market Guide. Study your RWR (the magazine of Romance Writers of America) Market Updates.
On-line lists are excellent sources to know what’s happening in the markets and who wants what. Visit the publishers’ web sites frequently. Go to conferences where editors will be attending. The best source is the horse’s mouth. If you can talk one-on-one with an editor, that is definitely a step up. The Romance Writers of America conference is definitely a great one, but I may be prejudiced. It is certainly the best if you are interested in Steeple Hill because so many of the Harlequin/Silhouette editors attend. American Christian Fiction Writers puts on a great conference in September. Other great Christian writers conferences include but are not limited to: Mount Herman, Sandy Cove, Glorietta. Invest in your writing by attending one of these conferences, particularly if your main goal is to publish with a CBA publisher.
“Do I need an agent?” This is the great, forever-asked question, I think. The answer is, it depends. It’s often harder to get an agent than to get a publisher. And getting the wrong agent can be worse for you than no agent. I firmly believe that you should start marketing to publishers yourself and be looking for an agent at the same time. But don’t sign with the first agent who says he likes your stuff. Take your time. Meet agents in person. Talk to him several times on the phone. Ask for client references, then call the authors and ask serious questions: How long does it take for the agent to return phone calls? How long to release checks? Does she read everything before it goes to the editor? Is she hands on (like a first reader) or is her primary role negotiating contracts? What do you like most about him? What do you like least about him?
You also must know what you want from an agent. You discover this again by getting with other authors and finding out what they want from their agents. I have friends who need/want their agents to be their first editor. I don’t want that. I want a champion and someone who will help me plan my career steps.
A good agent will know who is looking for what. She will have a solid relationship with certain publishers and will often be able to get your manuscript before the right person at the right time. A bad agent will submit anywhere to anybody or let your manuscript linger on her desk for a year. (I have heard horror stories that could turn your hair white.)
I negotiated contracts for my first seven books myself. Then I hired my first agent, which only lasted for one contract. I have been with my current (second) agent for over 15 years and it’s been a very positive relationship.
Contests? I’m not sure a contest can take you anywhere, not even RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart for unpublished manuscripts, but it can give you an edge. It can get you read when otherwise your manuscript might linger in a slush pile or not be seen by the senior editor with buying power. My advice is to enter only those contests where the final round and/or the winner is read by an editor. Contests wins on your resume may look nice, but editors don’t give them a lot of weight, although the Golden Heart definitely has some clout. But being read by an editor in the contest itself just might get you a contract.
Is the market tougher than ever? No, I don’t think so. I’ve been in this business for 23 years. It’s always been tough. There are growth spurts in certain markets/genres, ebbs and flows. Not all that long ago historicals were king and a writer couldn’t give away a single title contemporary. But historicals have been hurting for a several years and the romantic comedy, chick lit, and the suspense novels are ruling the shelves. I’ve seen this cycle several times in the past two decades.
One statistic has remained fairly steady in my 21+ years as a member of RWA: About 1% of RWA’s membership make first sales each year. That was true when RWA had only 2000 members and it’s held true as the organization grew to over 8000 members. That matches the statistic that says over 100,000 novels are written every year and less than 1% get published. (This is every type of novel, not just romance.)
Now, I’m going to return to the very first question of, How did I personally get published? This is the quickie answer: I wrote my first novel in 1981. I sent queries and partials to 21 publishers. All rejected it without reading more than those three chapters, except for two who requested to see it. The first publisher to read the manuscript bought it. I signed the contract and the publisher went bankrupt two or three months later, before I ever saw a penny. I kept writing on the sequel, and in 1983, I sold both books. They were published in 1984. In addition to the 19 rejections received on that first book, I’ve been rejected by agents after I was multi-published and by other publishers when I was seeking to sell elsewhere. I’ve had proposals rejected many times. So every time a rejection comes my way, I nurse my wounded ego for 24 hours, then I get back to work.
And that’s my advice on Getting Published 101.
Now I’d better get back to work on book #47.