Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Just Might Get You Published and What Probably Won't

What Just Might Get You Published. What Probably Won’t.

A few tough truths for the new and truly committed.

The following presumes you’ve actually written a publishable story. A manuscript that stands ready to compete against proven professionals and talented first-timers with a story that’s every bit as compelling as yours.

How to write such a story and how to publish one are very different tutorials. Today’s post is a high-altitude slice of the latter. And yet, it demands that you wrap your head around the former… and own it.

Before you can fly, you must successfully complete ground school. Nobody survives their first solo without it.

You must focus on both. Maybe not simultaneously, but at least with overlapping concentrations.

Craft without art, and art without craft, will not get you published.

Getting published is very much like becoming a professional athlete, a dancer, a musician or a fine artist. Even a pilot. It requires solid craft lurking beneath all your abundant art.

You can’t reinvent the game you’re playing. There are rules and boundaries in play, with subtle differences between genres. And nobody’s invented a new genre in decades.

Getting published is always a bit of a paradox.

You must be the same, but different.

You must be better than good, though once you’re in, once you’ve made it, you need only to be good.

And if you’re not, there are bunch of recent grad editorial types sitting in cubicles who will rescue you. Not so with the first-time novelist.

And even then, if you don’t sell well enough – which may or may not have anything at all to do with how good you are – you’ll soon find yourself under a bus thinking about what pseudonym you’ll adopt for your literary resurrection.

You must write for yourself first.

And you must respect yourself enough to write well, in accordance with established principles and expectations.

No finger painting allowed. This isn’t kindergarten, this is the major leagues.

And yet, while you’re at it you must write with the intention of publishing if you want to elevate your story to that point. Which, from one point of view, means you are no longer writing for just yourself.

Four words to remain sane within this paradox: Read. Study. Practice. Repeat.

Find your voice. Find your passion. Summon the discipline required.

Writing a story any damn way you please isn’t a disciplined approach. Nobody with their name on a book cover writes that way.

Your niche awaits.

And when you get there, know that you will not have invented it.

Just might.
Given that your manuscript is already good enough (by whatever measure you care to apply), you just might sell it if you have an agent. The vast, overwhelming majority of first-time novels are sold to New York-based houses through an agent.

Overwhelming, as in, unless you’re related to the Senior Editor, you need an agent for your manuscript to make it out of the mailroom. That’s just the way it is, fair or not.

And yes, while you hear of the occasional exception to that, you also hear of someone winning the lottery once a week. Read the fine print on the latter: “should not be played for investment purposes. Should be played for entertainment only.”

So which are you – writing as a career investment, as an intended profession, or are you writing to entertain yourself? (If it’s the latter, then may I suggest you begin a diary.)

Or are you doing one in the mistaken belief you’re doing the other?

Perhaps the most naïve and frankly ridiculous comment/question I’ve ever heard from an unpublished writer was this: “Why should I give ten percent of my take to an agent, when I can sell it directly myself? Or simply publish it myself?”

Because that ten percent is the best money a writer can possibly spend. And even the smallest of advances gained through an agent who takes ten percent of it will vastly exceed anything you can expect to make by publishing it yourself.

If you have an agent, your odds are – literally – 10,000 times greater than trying to sell to a major publishing house without one. And infinitely more viable than publishing it yourself.

The most dismal failure of a published book exceeds the sales volume of the highest reasonable expectation of a self-published book by a factor of about ten.

How do you get an agent? First, by writing a publishable story. Back to square one. The endless circle of the publishing paradox. Hop on, or not, but you can’t beat this system.

Probably won’t.

If, in reading that guy’s question a moment ago, you actually consider it – even for a nanosecond – as a viable, reasonable inquiry, then I submit to you that you probably won’t be published. At least until you wise up.

Unless, of course, you are shooting low. There are small publishers out there that buy manuscripts from first-time authors all the time.

Getting published, and really getting published (in a way that can launch your career) are vastly different things. You can get your private pilot’s license, which is a respectable achievement, or you can become an airline pilot. Same difference.

Nothing wrong with small publishers, by the way (my latest book was published by a great one). It’s just that, if you’re already thinking about the money and you aren’t also thinking about an agent in that context… odds are you don’t get it.

And if you don’t get that, chances are you don’t get professional-level storytelling, either.

Just might.

Your story is the same, but different.

By that I mean, your story fits neatly into a niche, a genre, and fulfills all the expectations of agents, publishers and readers. It’s solid and it’s ready.

But… there’s something new and fresh about it. Might be your writing voice, might be the conceptual heart of the story.

Probably won’t.
It’s as good as Grisham. As bad-ass as Baldacci. As rockin’ as Roberts and Rowling and as delightful as Demille.

Hear this clearly: the brand name, A-list authors you read have a different standard and a different process than unpublished authors looking to break in. If you’re playing their game, you’ll lose.

You have to be better than they are. In some cases, that’s a high bar. In others… very doable.

What will make your story better?

A stronger, more original concept. A cleaner, more compelling writing voice. A strong, unforgettable character. A theme that alters perceptions and changes readers.

Or simply, the integration of six core storytelling competencies that exceeds the sum of those parts.

Just might.
You have a vision for your story.

Your writing process isn’t a search for the story, or even an exploration of it. Rather, it’s a passionate execution of it.

The “it,” in that case, being a completely fleshed-out, realized story plan – however you get to that point – that leaves nothing to chance and no storytelling stone unturned.

Probably won’t.
You have the core of an idea in your brain, and because it’s so compelling to you, you allow it to write itself. To just open a valve and let the words pour out of your head.

To listen for, and then follow, characters who seem to be talking to you.

For professional level writers, this is the stuff of first drafts and story planning. The means to an end.

For less than professional writers, this is the end instead of the means. And thus, it becomes the stuff of frustration and fodder for naivety.

If you don’t recognize, or believe, that there are expectations, principles and paradigms into which your story must fall into compliance, then you aren’t ready to write it at a professional level.

The journey, then – at least when it works – becomes the pursuit of that understanding, every bit as much as the pursuit of the next great story idea.

The published writer knows the difference.

Just might.
Your ending is astounding. Something that blows readers off their easy chair.

Notice how many times your favorite A-list author, while spinning a great tale with witty narrative and a slick hero, fall short of this standard.

Earlier I said you have to be better than they are. This is one way to get there.

Probably won’t.
When you settle for less than that. When you think your idea, your writing voice and your likeable character is enough.

It isn’t.
The pile is full of manuscripts with just those descriptors. Unless your ending drops jaws and demands a re-read, chances are it won’t sell.

Just might.
You won’t quit. Ever.
These stories are everywhere, and they illustrate a prerequisite more than a fluke. In a recent post I talked about a writer who had a story that was rejected 400 times. Rather than quit, she self-published and promoted her novel via Kindle. Sales ensued, gaining the attention of a major house, and now she has a three-book contract.

The road is long and dark. You have to become your own light along the way. The burning flame of your passion to learn — not just to write — is the best way to see and sidestep the multitude of potholes in that road.

Probably won’t.
If you’re doing this for any other reason than the inherent joy of the story itself, and the process of parenting it into existence.

If you’re doing it for the money, do the math.
If you can ignore that answer, if you realize that you’re writing your story for yourself and for publication at the same time – a critical difference, one you need to comprehend on both sides of the coin – then you have a shot.

Writing for yourself, without regard to the expectations of the publishing world, wont’ get you published.

Writing stories that seem to be just like what everybody with a book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble is writing probably won’t, either.

You must defy the logic and the odds of showing up big at both.

Going too far out on either end of that continuum puts you in a crowded place. And hardly anybody sitting next to you there will either know how they got there or why they’re stuck there.

Reprinted from Larry Brooks post on

Larry’s new book, “Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” comes out next February (2011) from Writers Digest Books.


  1. Sooz, I'm committed to getting published. For real. The traditional route. And I'm finding it to be the most challenging, humiliating, hard work, slogging, learning, trying, more slogging, more learning thing I've ever done including raising a son with special needs and putting myself through 12 years of college while working. Finishing my first novel was a big deal, it too a year and half and it was a marathon. Getting it ultramarathon. But I never consider quitting because I see myself getting BETTER AND BETTER, and everything I do now will affect the books to come. It's a long term investment in my career to come (see the hubris! I think you gotta have that)
    Still, it's a good thing I have a day job, becuase did I mention how difficult this is?

  2. All of the above it true. I've always written; all my life. However, I never really thought about getting published (even though I've had loads of stuff snapped up in the past by magazines and newspapers). I've been very lucky and been picked up by an ebook publisher for a truly crappy novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo last year. I am not expecting to earn a fortune out of it -- in fact, I'm not really expecting to earn anything out of it if I'm honest.

    For those like me who write just because -- well ... because they can and they enjoy it and have nothing better to do, being published is probably not something they think about all that much. For myself, this new 'self-publishing' lark is pretty cool. You can rattle out your words, edit it all up yourself, turn it into a pdf and the next thing you know, you're holding your own book in your hand. Very satisfying in its own way. Mine just gets shoved on the bookshelf. I'm far too busy writing more and more crap to sit and read any of my own stuff!

    All I can say is 'good luck' to any soul who is trying to get published. It IS hard work and can be soul-destroying. You need a thick skin but the ability to take constructive criticism and act upon it as well as an iron will to keep going despite impossible odds.

    Good luck to you, Toby. I really hope you make it. If you do, I'll add you to my reading list! :)

  3. This statement jumped out at me,
    "The most dismal failure of a published book exceeds the sales volume of the highest reasonable expectation of a self-published book by a factor of about ten."
    That might have been the case even a few years ago, but not at present, when e-book sales are taken into consideration.
    'The most dismal failure' might be any of several recent books which garnered hundreds of thousands as advances, and sold from 1,000 to 2,000 copies. Never mind the less prominent failures, where advances and expectations were less.
    Some 70% (at an optimistic estimate)
    of conventionally published books fail to reach their break-even point.
    I know, from authors on Amazon Kindle discussion boards, that self-published authors are making good sales, with 500 to 1,000 copies a month readily attainable. E-book sales make up the majority of those sales; many have print & e-books available. Several well-known authors - eg J. Konrath) have self-published on Amazon recently, and seen their incomes rise.
    Notice that conventional publishing relies on a narrow time frame to sell any given book, perhaps six months or so, after which it is remaindered. With e-books the time frame is greatly extended, so that 500 sales a month may continue for several years, as opposed to the old model which aims to sell perhaps 5,000 in six months and then drop out of sight.
    Even more telling is the income of self-published authors as compared to others with equal sales numbers -instead of the median income of around $6,000 per year for authors in the UK at a probable 10% royalty on sales, the same income can come from far fewer sales at the higher royalties of self-publishers. Obviously if the sales numbers are close, a higher royalty is going to put you way ahead.
    So then, 'by a factor of ten'. No, false.


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