Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Publish Your Book: First Steps

Getting your book published is like walking through a jungle filled with quicksand and wild beasts. Every step of the way, lurking in the shadows, you will encounter unscrupulous beings who are eager to feed your ego and separate you from your money.

If you cannot find a publisher, do not be discouraged: some of the world's greatest authors had the same problem. In 1855, Walt Whitman set type at his friend's printing company, then paid for the printing of the first edition of his unappreciated book of poems, the masterpiece titled Leaves of Grass. When the book reached the hands of ignorant book reviewers, one of these men who failed to understand Whitman's genius, optimism, and innovations, called Whitman "a pig rooting among garbage."

With the help of his wife, William Blake -- considered by his contemporaries to be a madman, and now regarded as one of the world's great poets -- handcrafted all his books in his own workshop at home. Some other once-ignored now-famous writers who have published independently (without a big publishing company) include Benjamin Franklin; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Carl Sandburg; Rudyard Kipling; William Strunk, Jr. (The Elements of Style); D.H. Lawrence; Gertrude Stein; Beatrix Potter; the Bronte Sisters; John Galsworthy; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Browning; George Bernard Shaw; Samuel Butler; William E.B. Du Bois; James Joyce (Ulysses); Percy Shelley; John Ruskin (Unto This Last); Anais Nin; and Virginia Woolf.

Do not become discouraged; do not give up. Here is a plan for finding a publisher, a plan that will keep you safe from predators.

1. The first step is to try to get a reliable literary agent. The vast majority of books published by "big" publishers are submitted to them by agents.
But you must be very careful, because there are many unethical persons in the publishing business. So you must find an honest agent.

2. Find an agent that is a member of the AAR. ... These agents must abide by a strict code of ethics and business practices. Here is their website:

There is some useful information on their website: read it carefully. The agent should not charge you any money unless they sell your book.(Unethical agents will take money from you beforehand; they will take your money for being your agent; and for "editing" your manuscript. Beware of this scam!) What the agent will (try to) do for you is to get your book to the right editor at a large publishing house; and then -- if the publisher wants your book -- the agent will get the best deal for you.

About the complications that can arise in the process ... Keep in mind that -- in addition to being a work of art -- when you offer your book to publishers, the book becomes a business project. And with any business arrangement, things can go wrong in many ways. The best way to prevent this is to:

a) Get an agent from the AAR only: do not trust agents who are not members of the AAR;
b) make sure that you like your agent and trust her or him;
c) educate yourself about book contracts: there are books about this subject that explain the typical book contract and what all the legal terms mean. (A good website for this information is the SFWA: -- it's a group for Science Fiction writers, but the information about book contracts is valuable for all writers.)

As a new writer, the biggest challenge you will face is to get an AAR agent interested in your work. ... Look at the AAR website, and pick out some agents who interest you. Read about their interests and needs, and see how they want to be contacted by you. Follow their instructions exactly. If they say, "send us the first 50 pages of your novel" in the mail -- then do that. Don't try to "beat the system" like a doctor I know: he thought that his novel was so great that he wanted the agent to read ALL of it, not just the first 50 pages. So he made type size very very small, and he fit 60,000 words onto the 50 pages. ... Of course, the agent could not read the manuscript, and it was rejected promptly.

Agents get hundreds of inquiries every week: somehow you will need to find a way to interest them. Make sure that your book is ready -- all complete -- and well edited, before you contact the agent. ... Then make sure you send a professional-looking presentation: a nice manuscript, and a nice letter. Spend a lot of time revising the 1-page letter that most agents ask for: this is your chance to impress them with your sincerity and style.

Lastly: keep writing! and keep reading. ... Do not be discouraged if the process of finding an agent takes a long time. Some of our greatest writers could not find one: Walt Whitman, Henry Thoreau, William Blake, and dozens others -- after many rejections, each of these great writers self-published his own book.