So I've technically been an author for five years now; I've been an editor for eight years; and my first novel just got picked up. I figure it's about time to start getting delusions of grandeur and giving unsolicited advice to my fellow writers and friends. ;)
Plus my friend Christy asked me today to tell her how I got my novel published or what the process was like, and I realized that the story might be of interest to others out there too.
I actually do know a lot about the publishing process and what goes on inside those ivory towers that can be so intimidating to first-time authors.
Keep in mind that most of my personal experience comes from outside New York City, so if you're hoping to become the next J.K. Rowling, I may not be your best resource. But if your goal is less lofty and you really just want to get published—which is probably where J.K. was at some point, too—I can totally help with that.
Here's my main mantra as an author: take yourself seriously but not too seriously.
Just make sure you care about the things you should care about and have patience with yourself and the process when it comes to things that aren't as important. Vague enough?
Here's an example: About five years ago, I wrote this book that I thought was going to be the first in a phenomenal bestselling YA series a la Twilight. I stopped just short of casting people in the movie version. But mostly because I retained enough sense to realize that movies take a long time to come out, so probably everyone I casted would be too old for the parts by the time the film went into production.
Here's what happened with that book . . . nothing.
But the thing is, I actually could've published it. I had a contract in hand. I just didn't know enough yet.
I actually don't regret it because I learned a lot from the process and I wrote the book wanting to experience that process. Plus, turns out I didn't care enough about that book to keep writing the series. I may recycle some of the characters because I still like them, but the overall plot was flawed to begin with.
The point is, I learned a lot about what was really important to me as an author, especially in terms of my long-term writing career. Most of the successful authors I know have things in common, and one of those things is that they are in it for the long haul. Of course your first book is supremely important, but it's still just your first book. And if you never finish working on it or you don't know what you want from it, it will likely be your only book. And that's really a shame because there are so many more inspiring, entertaining, exciting words that could come from you if you'd only push through the tough parts, get published, and keep writing.
Okay, enough with the big picture stuff. Let's talk about the nitty gritty.
Here are the basic steps in the publishing process. For the sake of this exercise, I'm going to assume you're writing fiction. (Nonfiction is a little different because you can get a book accepted based on only a proposal, but you kind of have to be an expert in something first.)
1. You write a book.
2. You edit and revise (please don't leave this out, but don't get stuck here either).
3a. You write a query letter, synopsis, and all the extra stuff that talks about your book.
3b. You submit the book or query letter (depending on what they ask for) to agents and publishers.
4. Your book gets rejected. A LOT. (Don't worry. This always happens.)
5. You re-evaluate. (Maybe you tweak your book. Maybe you reconsider who you're sending it to. Maybe both.)
6. You resubmit. Then you go back through steps 4-6 until...
7. Your book gets accepted!
8. You sign a contract.
9. You go through more editing, this time with help from your agent and/or publisher
10. Your book gets published! You hold it in your hands, and it's awesome.
11. You celebrate with all your friends! (This step is very important. Don't skip it.)
12. You do everything you can to spread the word and make sure your book keeps selling so that when you want to publish your next book, your publisher wants to publish it too.
The only way step 4 doesn't happen is if you've been through the process before so you go into it this time having already re-evaluated (per step 5).
I know because that's what just happened with me.
It's also important to be realistic about your timing. All of these steps together never take less than two years and can take up to an entire lifetime. So... that's encouraging, right? Plus, just as a heads up, the chances of you ever making enough money to quit your job and write full time are... I don't want to say nonexistent, but...
I could talk a lot more about any of these steps, but for simplicity's sake let's leave it at that for now.
For those who only want to know about publishing in general, you can stop reading now. But for those who want to know my personal story about how I got my first novel accepted, here it is:
I started working as an editor when I was still an undergrad. It was educational material, so not exactly book publishing, but at the time I was also taking editing classes and writing and editing fan fiction. It sounds dorky, but it actually helped me a lot as a writer. I had never really considered writing a book because I got annoyed by the "writer types" in my English classes who were always talking about their manuscripts and grand literary dreams. I'm a much more private person. It's weird for me even now to talk about my books and some of them have been on shelves for years.
Anyway, that was when I really started to write. But I was still much more interested in becoming an editor than an author.
Fast forward a few years to me graduating and being offered a job as a book editor. Not in New York, where I'd always dreamed of going, but in Springville Utah. I almost didn't take it. But I'm so glad I did.
This is Springville. Not New York. I know you might be confused because they look so similar, but...
Fast forward again to when I realized, after working as an editor for awhile, that I could write better than some of the authors I was editing. So I tried to write a book. And I failed. Writing an entire book is hard and it takes way longer than you think it will. So I tried again.
In the meantime, there was this book series that we published at work. A little, nonfiction book called Tiny Talks that came out each year. The author who was writing it at the time was no longer interested. And because I happened to be in the right place at the right time, I volunteered and suddenly I was on my way to becoming a published author. I realize not everyone gets that chance, and I hope you don't discount my story because I got lucky. Honestly, when it comes to getting published, it's really similar to getting a job. There's always a little bit of luck involved. But only a very little bit and your odds go way, way, way up when you're being persistent and doing your homework so that you're ready when the chance comes your way.
Fast forward again to last October, which is when I started writing the book that's going to become my first novel. I'll call it The Jane Journals because even though I'm hoping the title will change before it gets published, that's the title I've been using until I came up with a better one. (By the way, I skipped right over what was almost my first novel and the novel I only half finished and several other projects that never even made it close to novel form.)
Anyway, last October, I began drafting this book. At the time, I wasn't sure it would become anything, but I did know that if it did, I wanted to submit it to my Tiny Talks publisher, Cedar Fort, who at that point, I was no longer working for. I knew enough about Cedar Fort to know that they would probably accept this book because of the kind of book it is and who their audience is. So I had done my homework. In fact, I had actually been looking for an idea that I thought would fit Cedar Fort because I'd decided that I wanted them to publish my first novel. I could go into my reasoning behind this decision, but it would take too long and we need to continue with the story. But if you're interested, let me know. I'm happy to talk about Cedar Fort and why I like being one of their authors and now their production manager.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote. And then revised and revised and revised. And finally, I was ready to submit it. I skipped the querying process because Cedar Fort prefers to have authors submit a full manuscript. And I didn't feel the need to get an agent, so I just submitted it.
Actually, because I was working here again, I mentioned it in passing to the fiction acquirer just to confirm with her that it would be something Cedar Fort was interested in. She was excited about it. So then I was even more excited about it.
But still the process took a long time. There were a few weeks when I felt like I was living in limbo because I had no idea which way the pendulum would swing and I wasn't sure what I would do if it wasn't accepted. I was considering self-publishing, which I've never done before. I may still do that someday if I write something I love but no one else seems to care about. We'll see. Anyway, I thought it was a good sign that I cared enough about this book to want it published, even if it meant self-publishing.
Then it got accepted! Yay!
After that I had to review a contract, which I'll confess I didn't really read closely because it's basically the same as my Tiny Talks one. Then I signed the contract and sent in some more paperwork and now I wait. In about January I'll start some rewriting per my editor's suggestions. Then in March the editing will stop and we'll send the book to a printer. Then in May it will be an actual physical thing with a cover and a spine and all that good stuff. And that's when you'll probably all get sick of me begging you to buy my book or share it with your friends.
Don't worry, I'll do my best to keep my appeals of the non-annoying variety. And I solemnly swear not to spam everyone who has ever emailed me. That's not how I roll.
In the meantime, I'm going to keep writing. Because I guess, now that all of this has happened, I really am an author. I know. It surprises me too.
Especially because I still sometimes get annoyed by those "writer types" and their grand literary aspirations.
PS—Christy, I hope this answered your question even if it was probably a much longer explanation than you wanted.