Saturday, March 25, 2006

On writing, agents, and publishers

I've read a lot of blogs and message board posts by writers who seem to believe that publishers and agents will not consider unpublished authors. That there is some sort of Grand Conspiracy against new authors preventing them from sharing future shelf space with the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Stephen King. That the only way to get noticed in the industry is to get printed by vanity presses like publishamerica or authorhouse.

What amazes me is that this logic suggests that no author has ever been unpublished. I mean, walk into any bookstore and look around. All those books were written by people who at one pont had never been published. But these authors didn't get their books in the store by magic. Most had worked for years perfecting their craft before they got published. And in many cases, the authors' first books were never published. The ones that made it into the bookstore were second, third, or even fourth attempts.

This is a reality that many first-time authors are afraid to face: that their first book may not ever get published.

The web has changed the way some aspiring authors view the publishing industry. It is common now for a writer who has just finished his masterpiece to jump onto google, type in "book publisher" and send his manuscript to the first one on the list. A year later he wonders why his books aren't stocked in stores like those of his favorite authors and why his royalty checks are less than $5. Soon he gives up, declaring himself a literary failure and never writes again.

Was his book something thousands of readers would have enjoyed? Nobody will ever know.

If you write a book and are serious about getting it published, educate yourself before you send it anywhere. Back in the "good ol' days" before there was an internet, I checked out books on writing and publishing from my high school library. I had already started writing at this point and I wanted to understand the mechanics of writing and how the publishing industry worked. I knew I was writing . . . crap . . . but I was also learning that the road to publishing was filled with potholes, and that authors had to work very hard to get published. I learned there were no shortcuts to getting a book into bookstores.

The first book I bought on writing was in 1991: How to Write and Sell Your First Novel by Oscar Collier. While this isn't a book on writing mechanics, it does give a great overview of the processes of writing a novel, dialog, story, plot, and characters; rewriting, editing, polishing; publishers, agents, and success stories of first-time novelists. This book provided a roadmap for me and helped me understand what I needed to do to get published. There are many other books on writing and publishing, just browse your library or bookstore for more. I also recommend Stephen King's On Writing which is part autobiographical and part how-to. It's a must-read for every author. And if you've finished a manuscript, you absolutely have to get Self Editing for Fiction Writers. It's required reading for all writers. Finally, use 2006 Writer's Market for a printed guide to finding publishers and agents.

But, as an author who just finished your manuscript, you may ask "Why? Why should I read all those things? I'm already an expert; I know how to write, my book is perfect."

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. As an author, though, you never stop learning how to perfect your craft. The best way to do this is to keep reading. Read the how-to books. Read new fiction. Observe how successful novelists write their books. Also interact with other authors on message boards like Absolute Write. Ask questions and share samples of your writing.

You will open up a whole new world for yourself if you reach out to other successful authors.

More about agents and publishers in my next post.

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