Being a Better Writer: The Path to Publication

Welcome back readers! In lieu of news, let’s just dive right into things! Over the weekend I ran into quite a few people who had writing questions for me, but one that kept coming up from a wide range of people (after the usual “What have you written”) was “What’s the process of publication like?”

In a nutshell. The questions were pretty varied from “How do you get a book ready for publication?” to “What’s the best avenue for publishing right now?”

Later, as I was thinking ahead to this week’s topic for Being a Better Writer, it occurred to me that I’ve not really talked too much about the process of making that happen after we’ve written our draft. I’ve talked about it with my own work, but usually in the context of “Here’s the part of the process I’m at now.” And not with regards to other options for getting one’s book published. After all, I’m indie, but that’s hardly the only venue available out there to up-and-coming authors (though it is an extremely attractive one … if difficult).

So, you’ve reached the end of your draft. The story is done. Let’s talk getting that book ready for the public.

All right, so you’ve finished the first draft. It’s written. You sit back with a sigh of relief.

What now? Well, you could dive into editing it right away. You could start shopping it around right away, sending it to agents or publishers.

But honestly? If you’re in a stable place, I’d recommend what Stephen King suggested.

Wait. Take your draft and, now that you’re done, stick it in a folder and wait. Set aside your notepad with any “as you wrote it” edits you wanted to make with it. You’re done. So clear your head.

Start a new project. A sequel, another book, whatever. The point is, get your mind off of the first project you’ve just completed for a little while. Maybe three months, maybe a year. But let your mind settle.

I know, it sounds odd. But the reason King (and I) recommend this is exactly why it sounds odd: This is your draft you just finished. Your baby. Your darling. When you’ve just finished it, it’s pretty hard to stay objective. You need to unplug.

Let me give you an example. Jungle, which just released? I finished the draft of that in early 2018. Then I set it aside and went to work on other projects. I also set aside a slip of paper that had a whole bunch of little notes on areas I thought would need fixing when I came back to it.

A year later, getting it ready for release this year (came out two weeks ago, here’s the link nudge nudge) I got the draft out again, got out that slip of paper, and read through it, making changes and edits as I went.

Guess how much of that slip of paper ending up applying. About a quarter of it. The other three-quarters of things that I thought were issues in the moment? They weren’t issues when I came back with a clear head. They worked fine. The problem wasn’t the draft, but me. I was so invested into it that I was looking too deep, making problems out of elements that weren’t really problems. Had I gone ahead and started editing it right after I’d finished it? I’d have attempted to “fix” elements of the book that really didn’t need fixing.

Step away and clear your head. Start another project, whatever it takes to disconnect your mind so that when you come back and look at your own list, you’re looking at it with fresh eyes. You’ll likely find that elements you’d expected to change or be a problem aren’t at all.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t make changes. But they’ll be things you might not have noticed, distracted by what earlier you would have thought were the real issues.

Okay, so you’ve disconnected and now you’re back. What’s the next step of taking this manuscript to publication? Well, I’d recommend giving it a general cleaning. I call this the “pre-alpha” but other writers may have their own terms for it. But it’s pretty simple: You read through that early draft, and you make any needed changes that stand out to you. This can vary, being as simple as rewording paragraphs to as complex as moving entire chapters around or shoring up subplots.

What it won’t be is a lot of grammar editing, unless your draft is extremely full of it to the degree that basic readability suffers. You’ll want to do grammar editing, don’t get me wrong, but there’s little point to be spent tracking down a single error in a paragraph that five minutes later you delete anyway.

I know, this sounds a lot like a post on editing. But trust me, you’ll do a lot of that in publication. So truck onward, keep reading through this “pre-alpha” you’ve set up for yourself, and reach the end. Are you happy with it? Does it work?

Good! That’s not to say it’s set in stone, but if you can get through that draft and be happy with it, that’s a good sign. Now, it’s time to start looking at publishing options.

This is where things get messy. Twenty years ago (which would have put us right in the middle of the dot-com bubble bursting, so you probably wouldn’t be reading this online, or for free) publishing was a much simpler place. You finished a book manuscript, and you sent it off to publishers. If no one got back to you in a year or two you did it again. And you’d repeat this either until A) You gave up B) Got rejected and gave up C) Got rejected but went through and changed things in response to an actual human looking at it or D) Got picked up.

This was not a good process, honestly. People defend it with “Well, it worked didn’t it?” but it’s sort of like saying “Yes, burning coal does produce energy.” It’s neither the best nor honestly the most effective anymore, but it was what the book world had for a long time,

And it was infuriatingly random. The odds of someone even looking at a draft or manuscript from the slush pile were stated by many editors to be one-in-ten or even one-in-twenty. As in they would pick a single manuscript from the pile and, reject or approve it for a further look, automatically trash the next nine to nineteen without ever looking at them. There wasn’t time to look at every submission, so what was effectively a lottery system developed.

And this was how publishing with the big houses was. You submitted a manuscript, and then two, and then three, resubmitting them every year, without end for years in the hope that someone, anyone, would look at it. Stephen King? Rejected almost forty times over a period of years, so much so that at after about thirty rejections over several years he threw his manuscript for Carrie into the garbage and declared he was done writing. His wife had to dig it out and urge him to send it back in.

This was pretty much the only way to get published; Play the lottery. Catch an editor on a bad day? The trash for you. On a good day, and the dice are in your favor? You might have a publishing deal.

Of course, that was assuming said publishers believed there was a market for it. Which, with astonishingly mistaken regularity, they didn’t. Ever heard of a little title named Dune? Book was rejected so many times that it was eventually published in pieces as short stories in Analog before being championed by a company that made automotive manuals because an editor there believed that it would make a fantastic book.

So yeah, prior to the turbulent era of today, this was pretty much your only hope. The only alternative to this was to either be rich enough to start your own publishing company (which some have done) or go to a “vanity press,” a company that would publish anything by anyone and give you the potential to end up on store shelves … as long as you paid for every penny of it and they kept the lion’s share of the royalties.

But that was twenty years ago. What about now?

Well, you have more options. It’s not just limited to giant publishers anymore. Oh, they still exist. And they still work pretty much the same way (and in a minute I’ll give you a breakdown of some ways to at least increase your odds of having your manuscript looked at, if nothing else).

But there are also, smaller, more independent publishers. They change all the time, as big pubs snap them up and then shut them down (Hachette boasts of buying and then closing about forty-eighty of these a year). Some persist, being able to turn down buyout offers (or smart enough to) and still sell enough books to stay around. There are actually a lot more of these then there used to be on account of falling costs associated with publishing a book. I’ve spoken with small indie publishing outlets that are run by just two or three people (where a decade ago it would have been a dozen or more) thanks to how technology has caught up with the industry. These are places where you’ll want to do your research, but they can be a very valid avenue for publication if you want to offload some of the responsibility of getting a book published.

Vanity presses, on the other hand, still exist but are thankfully on their way out. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of “indie publishers” that are really just vanity presses in another guise, but they are, as near as I can tell, far less common than they used to be, as there are now a lot of legitimate indie pubs to see your work through with. I don’t feel I need to say much here aside from “watch out that the ‘indie press’ you’ve found that offers a good deal isn’t a hidden vanity press.

Your options don’t end there, either. Because nowadays you can be fully indie, through a variety of sources. There’s no need to go through a publisher: You can write, edit, print, and publish a book entirely on your own. You can make a book that, with the right attention, can become a national sensation and get you a movie deal without anyone else save a good lawyer being involved. You know, like The Martian did.

Emphasis on can. It’s hard to make it work all on your own. You’re responsible for everything, and the push you need the most (word of mouth plus millions of dollars in advertising) you probably won’t have for a long time, and can be entirely random.

We’re still not done examining options, though. There are also agents. Literary agents are like acting agents: You find one and you hire them to pitch your book on your behalf to a publisher. They’re basically a middle-man between a writer and a publishing company. These days if you’re going to get published at a big publisher, they’re also pretty much a requirement if you want to try and get ahead of the lottery process of a straight blind submission.

In return? Well, they don’t work for nothing. They’ll take payment of some kind, usually a chunk of the advance money or royalty. So acknowledge that they’re going to be making the tiny royalty you receive smaller again if you get a deal. That said, skipping to the front of the line … Well, that’s why having an agent in publishing has become a necessity. Agents being agent, well … Be aware that if you’ve heard it about an acting agent or any other form of agent, the same applies here: You’re putting a lot of power in their hands, and it’s definitely worth a moment to pause and have an independent party (like a lawyer, perhaps) check over that power. If you agent balks at that, they’ve either got a spotless reputation enough that it’s insulting you checked (but a good one won’t mind) … or they’re trying to hide something.

Okay. So these are the options available to you at this point:

  • Traditional Publishing – Blind Submission
  • Traditional Publishing – Editor Submission
  • Traditional Publishing – Agent
  • Independent Publisher – Small Pub
  • Independent Publishing – Self-Pub
  • Vanity Press – It’s only on the list for completeness, don’t do it

So, you have five options, four of which are valid. Each one comes with pros and cons, and you’ll need to decide which one you want to pursue, because you can’t just do all of them.

Though some have certainly tried. I recall a legal case from a few years ago where two publishers went to court with one another over plagiarism, each professing that the other had “stolen” the manuscript they’d bought and paid for … only to find once they submitted evidence that they’d both bought the same manuscript from the same person, who had “sold the rights” to any interested party.

Oops. Yeah, they’re not in the industry anymore. But point is, some publishers have standards. For example, some places have a requirement that if you submit a manuscript to them that you not submit it anywhere else until they’ve rejected it or a year has passed, whichever comes first. If they hear otherwise and were interested in your submission, well … you’d better believe that past tense was there on purpose.

But other places don’t have such stipulations. Sands, some places don’t even care about genre. Just send it!

Point being, even if you send out blind submissions to every publisher you can find, it can be to your benefit to at least see what their submission requirements are and make sure you’re doing it properly.

The upside? You can pretty much just send these out constantly. Fire and forget, wait a few months, and fire again.

The downside? This gets expensive fast. A lot of publishers, being stuck in the coal age, still haven’t modernized. E-mail? That’s not a thing. They want a hard copy. Yeah, so we’re talking printing a manuscript out a dozen times over and mailing it to a dozen publishers at around $10 a pop, every six months to a year … this adds up. And you might be doing this for a decade before anyone looks at it.


Which is why an editor submission is a much better idea, if a bit more work. Some places make it really tricky to find out who their editors are, but here’s a neat trick: Pick up a book published by the company you want to submit to in the same genre as what you’ve written. A new book. Check the inside cover pages, that one you usually skip over with all the legal info on it? Very often it’ll name an editor. Then rather than sending you submission to a blind slush pile, send it to them. Include a politely-worded cover letter specifically for them, rather than what you would send with a slush-submission, and a courtesy summary one-sheet (some blind submission slushes don’t care for this, but when sending directly to an editor …).

Again, this takes more work, but it significantly increases the chance of getting someone’s eyes on your work. Whether or not they’ll pick it up? That’s up to the editor. But at least you’ll have tried.

But again, do your research. There are a few places that don’t like getting contacted in this manner, but still take blind submissions (starting to see how publishing can be a little like coal power?). Break the rules, and they’ll never look at you twice.

So then, what about agents? Well, agents are a way to circumvent that lottery even further. Agents are, well, like agents anywhere else. They’re on the inside, an their reputation with publishers is in bringing them books that will make them money.

So how do you get your book published with an agent? Well, you “don’t.” Your agent does. You get an agent for your manuscript, and they go around sending it to various places, right to the editors they know and work with. Which means in turn you shop your manuscript to an agent. Which is a lot like sending a manuscript to an editor, but to an agent instead, with hopes that they’ll know an editor interested in it. Even if they don’t, their job will be to hunt around and find an editor that does.

Again, there are upsides to this, as well as downsides. It’s very hands-off for you, at least until your work gets picked up, and if you’re lucky, your agent may even be a bit of an editor themselves, or a former editor, who’ll help you polish your work further to make it a better sell. It’s polish you’d need to make anyway, so why not?

On the other hand, however, you’re handing them a chunk of the already low paycheck you’d get for selling a book, and maybe more than that. Some authors let their agents have full control over their schedule and even what books they’ll write, which is a lot of power. You’ll have to go over your contract with your agent yourself and make a call.

Now, I’m going to add a bit of a disclaimer here: I’m on the fence about agents. To me, agents seem like a solution to a problem the big traditional publishers created that authors have to pay for, which never sat right with me. Nothing against them, but the system as is does feel … lopsided against the creators of the content everyone is so invested in selling. Especially with regards to a lot of traditional publishing, the rise of agents (to the degree that a lot of authors just say ‘get an agent and don’t bother with anything else’), and the way the whole “traditional” publishing system runs.

But if you to have reservations about it, there are other options that weren’t quite so common a few decades ago. Such as small publishing houses.

Small publishers are indie places. They’re running only a dozen or so books, maybe, for a few authors. They’re determined. They’re, well, small.

But they exist. Maybe they cater to a specific subgenre, like American West Horror novels. Or maybe they’re looking at a specific market.

Whatever it is, these smaller pubs will take your submission like a larger, more traditional publisher, but being smaller, you may have better luck getting a response. In many ways they’re just like a traditional publisher, save that they’re a bit more niche. And again, smaller, which may impact any advance. So keep that in mind.

Plus, a small independent publisher might not survive. Earlier where I mentioned Hachette buying up and shutting down indie places yearly? Yeah, that’s a thing. And if your contract wasn’t in your favor, you might find you book owned partially by a big publisher with no interest in publishing it but holding your leash just to keep you out of competition (not that they’d probably say as much, you’d just be “in limbo” for forever).

On that note, it is important to note that no matter what, any contract you are handed should see a professional lawyer.

Repeat: If you get a contract from anyone, find a lawyer to take a look at it to make sure there’s not something in there you don’t like. And if someone suggests that “you don’t need a lawyer to look over it,” all the more reason to.

Okay, the last option is full independent self-pub. This is a very popular option right now. You keep all the rights (as long as you do it right) but at the same time, all responsibility is yours. Cover? You. Editing? You. Marketing? YOU. Everything that a publisher would do in exchange for the lion’s share of the profits? You now do in exchange for that share.

This is a risky option. It’s akin to opting to remain your own ship in the middle of a storm surrounded by larger ships. Many of which would think nothing of trying to crush you by “accident” to keep the waters free for them.

But you’ll be small an maneuverable. You’ll be able to see channels and currents the larger ships only blunder into. And you’ll have full control over what you do. Full responsibility as well.

This is probably one of the hardest options on the list. But it is an option. There are plenty of places that sell independent authors’ works. Amazon, for example. Local stores may take Printed-on-Demand copies. Print on Demand means you don’t need to print a garage of books with a massive investment anymore; you can just print copies as needed.

But everything, from advertising to legal to the cover to the blurb, is on you. And that’s a lot of work (and skills) for one person to carry.

Worse, you’ll find a lot of the market against you from the start. Despite the number of hits indie-writers have produced, the book industry is the only industry where “indie” is synonymous with “bad” and you can find yourself up against a mountain of disinterest before you even start. You have your freedom, but you face the world for it.

Okay, so with all of that said … there’s one more option I didn’t mention yet, which is new and the most untested on this list: Hybrid-Publishing. Basically, this is living a dual life publishing: Some books go to a publisher, the others you sell independently. The goal is that a publisher will sell the occasional book which will advertise you as an author, while you’ll sell books on your own benefiting from that base and the work the publisher has done to make the majority of your money.

Like I said, this is new. Some publishers may not play ball (especially the ones that want your soul). Eventually, contracts may lock people out of doing the hybrid option. Or maybe it’ll grow to be the new industry standard. Only time will tell.

Okay, so what you’ll need to do, getting back to that manuscript, is pick one of these options and go for it. Send it out, find the agent, whichever. And if it’s one where you wait six months for a reply, do you wait and sit?

No. You start the next book. And the next, and the next. And you keep writing. If the manuscript isn’t getting any bites, you look over it again and patch it up. Clean it more. Do another pass. Then send it out again.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

Now, looking back at this … this almost does sound a bit depressing. Well, yeah … publishing a book is hard. Extremely hard. And the book industry right now … It’s complicated, reeling from a dozen technological shifts when it really wasn’t even prepared for one.

So yeah, those open waters I discussed above? They’re in the middle of a huge storm. Some ships just want to weather it, others want to sink their competitors while they can, others still want to launch their big new ship and try to make waves.

The storm? No one caused it. The internet did. The digital age arrived and upended everything.

Long story short: While you have more options than ever for being published, the road may be a bit stormier as a result.

Don’t give up. I know this article is a bit of a downer for pointing out how hard it is to get anything out there. Publishing and making money at it is probably one of the hardest paths you can take on.

But … it can be worth it. Like climbing a mountain and finally reaching the peak, seeing your story out there … it’s kind of magical.

Whatever path you pick, I wish you good luck. So get writing, and start.

But before you go, please consider supporting this site and the creator so that he can keep producing content. You can purchase a book, which has the added effect of getting you a fun novel to read, or you can become a Patreon Supporter and donate monthly! Either one helps keep the site ad-free and in existence, so please support!

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