As a publisher and writer, and especially as a volunteer expert on the Allexperts.com Network, I am often asked "How do I become a published writer?" What follows is my answer to that question and several other frequently asked expert questions. Keep in mind that this is just my personal advice, based on my experience and research on the subject. Take any advice with a grain of salt.
How do I get published? Answer
Should I copyright my manuscript? Answer
How do I choose a publisher/e-publisher? Answer
Why should I use an e-publisher instead of self-publishing on the web? Answer
Many have asked me about how to publish a novel. After doing extensive research and reading numerous advice pieces from published authors, I have found that most advice novice authors NOT to start with a novel. Most writers need lots of practice to develop their voice and writing skills. In addition, if you have not yet written a novel, you may do better to write many short stories, which require less committment and a shorter time span to finish. Once you've written many short stories, you've written enough pages to fill a novel. If your short stories tie together, you may have even written a novel already. Also, even if you've written a novel, short stories can be slightly easier to publish. The short story market is more open than the traditional book market. You will also be able to develop a readership and name recognition. This may also be true if you publish magazine articles.
That said, there are several steps previous to submitting your book to publishers. These include:
Step 1: Finish your book
Step 2: Get feedback from readers and other authors
Step 3: Buy a copy of Writer's Market, which lists hundreds of potential publishers.
You can buy it here. It is also now available as a cd-rom or online, which should help in searching for your specific type of magazine or book publisher.
Another resource is Literary Market Place- and you may find that at your local library as a reference book. These books both list a lot of information about the markets, so you can make an informed decision about who is likely to accept your book and who you might want to submit it to, and they also list information about what type of query the company requires (i.e. chapter samples, query letter or entire manuscript.)
Step 4: Run your manuscript through a grammar and spell checker.
Step 5: Print the manuscript out and checking it over yourself to edit it. Make sure you have formatted it properly (again, information is found in Writers' Market.)
This is also a good time to check for common errors (for example, repetition)- you can find information about these on some of the writers' sites.
Step 6: Have a professional editor check your work so it will be "perfect." This step is optional.
Note all these steps that involve proofreading. Publishers/editors do notice if your work has grammatical and other errors. You want them to notice only your impressive writing skills. Since not all authors are proofreaders/editors too, it is up to the author to determine whether they need a professional editor to look at their work. You can find numerous services by looking in Writer's Market, Writer's Digest and in search engines. It may help to have an 'objective' third party proofread your novel, but some novels do need professional editing.
Step 7: Seek an agent (optional) and/or submit your book to publishers/e-publishers.
An agent will help with those major publishers. You can find information about agents and listings in the book mentioned above and the links below. Keep in mind that an agent is NOT an editor, and will expect your book to be free of errors and typos.
Step 8: Keep sending your book and don't be discouraged by rejection.
Keep in mind that the major publishers do have high rejection rates, and it is currently very hard to break into print through them. However, it is not unheard of. In addition, as an online publisher I would be lax if I did not ask you to consider e-publishing and print on demand as an option. Your acceptance rates may be higher, and if your books sell well you can tell publishers this and use it to your advantage. Again, it may be helpful to start out with magazines and other publications rather than trying to get a novel published. More information on this can be found at the Writers' Exchange (the url is below.)
Probably two of the most important things to remember when trying to get your work published: keep writing (and writing what pleases you) and don't be discouraged by rejection. Of course, if each editor or agent is telling you the same problem with your article, you may want to consider revising it before submitting it again. But don't give up. Remember even now famous authors have been rejected numerous times.
J.H. asks: When sending manuscripts to companies I learned about on the internet, should my story be copyrighted? Just to protect me? Can I trust that the publishing company won't steal my work?
As far as copyright goes, your work is copyrighted by you once you have written it, but it never hurts to get it copyrighted officially as well. However, that does cost money, currently $30 if you perform the process yourself. Authors need to protect themselves and their work as much as possible.
Although there is no way to be sure the publisher will not steal your work, there are some measures you can take to protect it. There are also ways to check up on companies before sending your work to them. Writing-world.com provides an extensive resource on rights. Here are a few further tips:
If you post your work online, you may want to put a copyright notice in a noticeable place. Unfortunately, some people with Internet access can't seem to understand that they cannot reprint or post other people's material without permission (or perhaps they just don't care.)
A clear notice of copyright may help. Place the notice on the front page (or in the beginning) of your manuscript only. Use this format:
Copyright 2001 by [Your name]. You may not copy or post this material in any form without written permission from the author.
Keep in mind that it's probably better not to use this notice when submitting to publishers, because many editors consider it a sign that you are a novice. Publishers and editors, online and off, know that works are copyrighted as soon as the author pens them.
Some writers' groups have measures to protect their authors, such as registering at the site before joining the discussion (for example, Author-author.net does this) and posting clear notices about the work on their pages. Also, any author who publishes or posts online should occasionally do searches using their name, article/book title, and/or keywords from their document.
Things to Watch out for:
I would watch out for vanity presses or subsidy presses. If you want to self-publish, you may want to use them, but keep in mind that you will be doing most of the work, including editing. Research any subsidy press carefully to make sure they are legitimate.
Make sure you know what promotion will be done, especially if it is a subsidy press. Many authors do not understand that they are expected to do a major amount of publicizing themselves (yes, even if a traditional publisher such as Simon & Schuster is publishing your book.) It's important to know and have in writing what you will be required to do and what the publishers will do.
Questions to ask yourself and your publisher:
Is the publisher asking for money up front? (such as $300 to publish the book. If so, they are probably one you want to avoid.)
Does the publisher publish the sort of books you write?
Does the contract look fair, when you review it?
Do they outline what steps they will take to promote your book?
Can you communicate with the publisher?
Do they answer your questions?
Will you feel proud of the finished product?
For E-publishers specifically:
Does the publisher have a good website?
Did you learn about the publisher from publicity from outside sources, or stumble across the site by chance?
Did someone recommend the publisher to you?
Does the contract look fair?
Does the publisher have a plan to move with the times, offering new and varied formats (such as print-on-demand or Palm Reader)?
Does the publisher have staying power? Because of the prejudice many people have against e-books, it is a slow but steady process -- so avoid a publisher with a "get rich quick" mentality.
Additional questions to ask an e-publisher:
Where are your titles reviewed?
How much experience do your editors have in book editing (or in a relevant area of editing)?
Where do you place advertising -- and what type of advertising do you use?
What other steps will you take to promote my book?
Have your books (or site) won any awards or achieved particularly favorable reviews or publicity?
Is the publisher a member of the Association of Electronic Publishers (AEP) or The Electronically Published Internet Connection (EPIC)?
Can you provide a list of references of authors you've worked with?
Do you offer advance review copies to professional reviewers and review publications? (Many e-publishers will provide bound galley proofs -- e.g., physical books -- to reviewers who are reluctant to read an electronic text.)
How many free copies will you receive, and what is your author discount on disks or downloads?
Do you feel that the publisher is being honest with you about your book's potential in this medium?
Will you feel proud of the finished product?
Source for E-publisher questions: Moira Allen's E-Publishing FAQ.
L.S. asks: I am thinking of publishing a novel on the web. I have found sites which do a nice presentation but I'm wondering why I should pay over half the earnings to someone else when with a little expertise I could do the whole thing myself. It does seem strange that web publishers take the same commission percentage as do "old fashioned" publishers who have to deal with ink and tons of paper and drunken typesetters not to mention taking authors on round-the-world promos. I'm not up on the stats for downloads/income from web publishing. I heard even Stephen King got ripped off by his fans. What can you tell me?
First of all, check out the inkspot guide to e-publishing. There is a ton of information there that should be very helpful in researching the option of e-publishing.
I cannot confirm nor discredit what you heard about Stephen King getting ripped off. As I understand it, some publishers offered his book for two dollars, others offered it for free for a limited time. Someone offered it as a download, and then it was up to the person who had downloaded it to pay (the honor system.) Many feel that was asking for trouble-- in these days and times, the honor system is an invitation to thievery. It probably attracted thieves and dishonest people (and people who want something for nothing, easy.) It was not hard for these people to avoid paying for the book download.
However, I do know that there are many reputable e-publishers out there, and many do not take a huge percentage of your profits.
Compared to traditional publishing, a 50/50 split on profits is excellent (and that is what my company, Sirius Publications offers in several of our contracts- 50% or greater for the author.)
If you research royalties offered by traditional publishers, you will find that they usually offer 15-20% royalties to the author, and they take the rest. Of course, they do often offer advances, which most e-publishers do not. This is something you need to research and consider.
In addition, many authors don't realize that publishers, even traditional publishers, do not always arrange all the promotions. Many authors go to great lengths to promote their own books, and those who fly all over the country often do so on their own rather than at the expense of publishers.
What online publishers give you for the percentage they take varies greatly. The kind you want will probably be those that format and edit your work professionally (this can be very valuable as you try to get your work published) rather than taking it 'as is', typos, grammatical mistakes and all.
As you also mentioned, online publishers are purporting to offer their secure ordering process, as well as the companies' expertise at marketing the site, presenting your work in an attractive manner, and web site development. If you have all those resources and skills and the time to polish them, handle customer service, and update a site frequently, you might consider making your book available through your own web site. As you can see, there is a lot more to this.
A good web publisher also lends credence to your book (readers can see that someone thought it was worth publishing) and provides visibility for your book, similar to the way a traditional bookstore does. Your book may appear more professional if published by an e-publisher.
If you publish your book and sell it from your web site, there are online book stores and sites that list self-published books (often for a fee.)
In the end, you will need to decide for yourself how you wish to publish your book. My main suggestion is to do lots of research and to know your publisher, if you should choose to partner with one.
More writers' links can be found on our links page.