Insight: Publishing novels, short stories and essay collections

Jun 29, 2020

Hey Brighters, I saw many posts related to publishing essay collections, short stories and novels. This is my attempt to share some insight I gained from my modest endeavors.

1. Complete the manuscript

First things first, you have to have a completed manuscript. It's not an idea, it's not a draft; It should be a document of reviewed work that has been edited through and through, preferably by a professional. Unless you are already established as a presence on the web, appeal to a sizable group of people with disposable income, no one would be remotely interested in an idea, a proof of concept or a meager draft. Such people get approached for a book pretty quickly anyway.

2. Beta readers

Someone who can only tell you what they liked about your book is either unable to face you with the truth or not insightful enough in such matters

Before going on the publishing quest, look for beta readers, ones that will give you authentic and versatile feedback. Someone who can only tell you what they liked about your book is either unable to face you with the truth or not insightful enough in such matters. Follow the Copernic referential rule (In order to find the Copernic referential, you need three Galilean referentials that are different. In other words, look for three different points to determine a plane, and so look for at least three different people that don't mix together and get their opinions). Depending on your goals, you will most likely need to tweak things after getting their feedback. Don't forget to re-edit at this point. If you don't have readers among your friends and family, you can find beta reader groups online, also beta readers for hire, or authors that are looking to swap manuscripts. There is a whole practice and guidelines in this aspect so I'd urge you to check the mainstream beta readers groups on Goodreads and Facebook and look further into it. Perhaps there could be a group of this sort in this platform as well.

3. Self-publishing vs traditional publishing

The traditional publishing way is super competitive, demanding, hard [...] In comparison, self-publishing requires you to think of everything and shoulder all other aspects of getting a book to a consumer

You have to make the call, because each one of these will set you - at least for your first work - on a rather rigid course of action. Just know from the start that a book published online will generally not be picked by traditional publishers or lit. agents. They specify this plenty of times on their websites too. You have to achieve an exceptional sort of recognition to be beyond such course of actions. There are plenty of resources and testimonials online that could guide your choice, but essentially, know that the traditional publishing way is super competitive, demanding, hard and basically an international singing competition in a world filled with numerous talented singers. And if you don't have connections in this world, concrete recommendations and major marketing appeal, you are in for a lot of rejections. In comparison, self-publishing requires you to think of everything and shoulder all other aspects of getting a book to a consumer, so it could end up taking you much more time than actually writing and may require some financial investment depending on your means and goals.

4. Traditional publishing

If you go for traditional publishing: You will need to find a literary agent. No publishing house will take you in. They deal with the middle man, literary agents, because these guys know the laws and guidelines, they understand every detail of the trade and they are in the best position to advise, recommend and negotiate.

4a. Find a literary agent

A manuscript that doesn't resonate with one may resonate with the next

You will need to submit to literary agencies, specifically to one agent per agency (They will insist on that point on every website and know that if you approach more than one within the same agency, both will disregard your query). Every agency requires different things to submit in different formats, so no mass mailing. Read through what they got published, the genres they like, the books they love, the authors they represent, their requirements..etc then work on writing great query forms, introductory emails, synopsis with and without spoilers, samples of your manuscript...etc etc. Don't expect immediate answers. Again, think of it as a singing competition: These guys get flooded by hundreds of queries everyday. Even if you catch their eye, they will take anywhere between a week and two months to answer you. Don't expect an answer letting you know it's a No either. These are the easiest ones to send but they have no time. Some literary agents go through the trouble of sending you a "no, but..." and give you advice on where your manuscript is at editing or story wise and what they liked or didn't like. Make sure to thank them and make good use of their insight. Remember though, it's only one person's opinion; A manuscript that doesn't resonate with one may resonate with the next.

4b. Working with an agent

This period is where you would bond with a literary agent and they would decide whether or not you are someone they want to keep as a client

Whenever you get a literary agent, congratulations! Now, keep in mind that they negotiate on your behalf and do their own querying with the publishing houses, and it can take one week, and it can take six months to find one willing to put its investment on the line for your work. In the meantime, your literary agent may or may not help you polish your manuscript, and may or may not press you to work on the next thing and be there to structure it and make it more marketable and profitable. This goes without saying that it will take time and effort and it can be frustrating. So, you'll have to demonstrate no small amount of patience and consistency, and discipline. Keep in mind this period is where you would bond with a literary agent and they would decide whether or not you are someone they want to keep as a client, even if the first work is a flop. Don't expect too much from them at this point; they get paid by commission on what they already sell and until they have sold yours, they are per se doing pro-bono work (even though it's really not, they will take a slice of any slice of pie you end up getting after negotiations so...)

4c. Negotiations with the publishing house

Know your rights and understand beforehand what can and can't be negotiated with a publishing house: Do your own research then complement with your agent's knowledge and recommendations. You need to be able to commit to whatever compromises you are open to making, but you also need to know your boundaries and not get yourself in binding contracts that may sound great for the immediate check, but will ruin your work in the long run. Most importantly, be aware you would most likely be called to have a drive to do the marketing work and actively contribute through social media, so it would be optimal if you had already set up a social media presence and actively worked on nurturing a circle of fellow authors, readers, literary enthusiasts and whatnot.

5. Self-publishing

You are master of your destiny for better or worse

It may not come with physical books in Barnes and Noble, or the glamour of getting published the traditional way, but you are master of your destiny for better or worse. It's also the quickest and easiest way to get published, which explains the flood of material on Amazon KDP, and many are good and plenty have serious grammar and editing and formatting problems. So be mindful of these details and go neurotic over the editing and the formatting process. Creating an Amazon KDP account is very easy, but make sure to give all the necessary time to the process of submitting your book, choosing the appropriate subcategories, previewing your book under the different formats offered, making sure you have an appealing and not tacky cover (well depending on your audience). Be aware that Amazon will take royalties and can provide you with plenty of data to get the algorithm going for you, or to understand the demographics to which you actually appeal. So all the more to polish up all the side skills that come with self-publishing.


Needless to say, there is just so much to go through when it comes to publishing/self-publishing. Once you start doing active research, you will see that there is A LOT to take into consideration. I didn't touch on the marketing research to tailor writing to profitability, or the audience frame and the use of what appeals to the targeted demographic and whatnot.

So to add few points to assimilate and meditate, writing and publishing are radically different things.

Not every book is the optimal one to be published, not every book will get a chance even if it's a great one.

Not every book is the optimal one to be published, not every book will get a chance even if it's a great one.

By the end of the first manuscript, you have to take into consideration whether you will be writing again, writing more or much more, committed to a discipline of writing daily, able to answer deadlines if this becomes a thing..etc

Testimonials from authors can be grounding and inspiring so I'd urge you to read what your favorite authors have to say about the topic.

Keep in mind that literary agents are humans; Being polite is a given, you are emailing a human being not an algorithm. Research the person, know their taste, check whether you guys could be a good fit from your end first. Review your email and send the information they want and specifically asked for on their profile. Again, be polite! If you are getting rejected, deal with it on your own and don't dump it on the person rejecting your work. This line of tasks will get on your nerves, especially if you are not used to "no" and not having things your way. So either manage your queries to give yourself some time between mailing periods or learn to accept that No is part of the process.

Few things in that aspect:

  • Get your queries and emails ready during the evening or some other time, but save them as drafts. Send them first thing in the early morning time of your lit. agent's location. Do that preferably during the first three or four days of the week.
  • Send three queries or less per day on average. Sometimes, you can send A LOT, others you are not motivated to send even one. So make sure to use the overdrive when it happens and save some queries for drier days, give yourself the weekends off and don't look for new lit. agents or queries  or any sort of advice during that time.
  • Look for literary agents that are starting and building up their portfolio. Wiley doesn't need your work, they already get their clients from high profile authors.
  • Be wary of the possibility of having your manuscript on-hold because a more prominent author is writing something similar and they'd rather have that person publish that piece before you.
  • If you don't trust your literary agent from their profile or don't think you guys are a good fit, don't even bother. These guys will be trusted with your manuscript and more, so be wary.
  • Speaking of distrusting an agent, do not go for a fetishist one. The world is thankfully getting more aware of diversity and inclusion matters and people are looking to give minorities the opportunity to speak for themselves and write about themselves. But as with anything really, there is a rising group that is looking specifically for such people for who they are instead of what they are writing. That's the instant gratification vs long term one dilemma too; Many who would give you a pass for being a minority will bank more on your profile and center the marketing around it rather than truly examine what you are offering and defend your writing instead of you. Be very mindful of this point and aware of the extent of such choices.

Finally, scientific or nonfiction publishing is a whole different thing and I have written enough for today. But I am guessing you wouldn't need any advice looking for peer reviewed journals or specialized libraries and publishing collectives that deal with that side of things, if you are here.

I leave you with few links regarding resources I found along the way. Feel free to add to this thread any insight or recommendation you have!

  • Poets & Writers: General database of lit. agents.
  • Agent Query: General database of lit. agents (my favorite one, very detailed in the search features)
  • Literary Agents of Color: Literary agents of Color aims to improve the visibility of ownvoices and POC authors. They are pretty inclusive and diverse in the genre they cover.
  • Query tracker: Get yourself an account, it will help you also track the queries you sent and many literary agents are transitioning to this platform to manage the sent queries. It's much easier than dealing with emails piling up and sorting through them.
  • The Right Margin: Great writing organizer, and you can try it for free for 14 days.
  • Indie Helper Database: My favorite Indie database for everything related to Indie (Independent/self-published) authors

 


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