"I've been working on a book. How can I get it published?" This is a question I get asked a lot. After some discussion I usually learn that what the writer really wants to know is how she can finish the book, and whether there's any way to know if it's any good.
It happens that I'm teaching a course for the University of Cincinnati's Communiversity program starting next week, so I've been thinking about these matters a bit.
Rather than tackle how to write a book (certainly a subject for another posting), let's go to the main question: how does one get published? The short answer is that you write your (book, article, story) to completion, submit the manuscript to someone who might buy it (do your market research first), and if it's rejected send it out to another market. If it's returned with a note suggesting changes, by all means make those changes and resubmit.
In real life, it's not always that simple. Requests for changes will be rare. And rejections inspire questions, such as "How many rejections should I collect before I give up?" and "How do I know if my work needs changes?" Not to mention, "If I'm rejected does it mean my writing is poor?"
Let's examine each of those questions. (The answers I provide apply whether you're submitting a completed manuscript or a proposal. As for whether you should be submitting a proposal or completed manuscript, see my article in the November, 2006, issue of The Writer magazine.)
How many rejections should I collect before I give up?
Only you can answer this question. The first two short stories I published each went to seven magazines before they sold. My first book sold to the first publisher to whom I submitted it. The same thing happened with the first newspaper and magazine articles I wrote. My second book sold on its fourth submission. I have stories that I wrote and submitted eight or nine times, and never sold. And just today my newest book proposal was rejected. (I'll send it back out tomorrow.)
Obviously, persistence can be a good thing, but there is no set number of rejections. I know of an author who submitted his first novel 84 times before it sold. That's extreme, and I don't recommend that kind of persistence. It can be emotionally wearing, and an absolute waste of time. The time and effort you put into the 10th through 84th submissions might be better invested in writing a new novel, one that may have a good chance of selling because of what you learned writing the first book.
For my part, I figure five or six rejections mean that the manuscript needs work, or that it's hopeless. At that point I examine it to see what sorts of changes I might make.
How do I know if my work needs changes?
Most writers are not qualified to critique their own work--not immediately. Repeated rejection may be taken as an indication that the manuscript needs some changes, corrections, or improvements. But you can't be sure until you've been away from the manuscript for a while. Ideally, you will be working on another project while the manuscript is in circulation, and hence it will have been out of your thoughts for a while. At this point, when you have as objective a viewpoint as possible, you can judge whether the work needs changes, or if you should just keep submitting it. (Recognizing the changes you need to make is a subject for another posting.)
If you feel that you can't improve the manuscript, perhaps it's time to retire it for a while. A few months later you may find that the market has changed, or that your perspective with respect to that particular work has matured enough to enable you to see what might be wrong with it.
If I'm rejected does it mean my writing is poor?
This question, implied by the preceding one, is a tough one. Manuscripts are rejected for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with quality. There are almost as any reasons for a manuscript being rejected as there are for bad books getting into print. Here again, detailing those reasons is a subject for another post, but you should be aware that a rejection doesn't mean you should give up. It may hurt, and you may take it personally, but rejection is not necessarily a comment on the quality of your writing or the viability of your subject matter. Only repeated rejection, combined with the ability to critique your work after gaining some distance from it can tell you that.
If you have only one writing project going at a time, all the worry over rejection (not to mention the length of time it takes to get responses to submissions) can skew your judgment. Waiting six months to be rejected can shoot the hell out your confidence. So can going through several three-week waits followed by rejection.
To avoid this, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Work on more than one novel or story or poem or whatever at a time, and keep multiple manuscripts in circulation. When you do this, a given rejection will have far less impact. And when you hit writer's block, you will have an alternate project to tall back on, which means you won't compound the block with frustration over not getting any writing done.
Do I Need an Agent?
Looking back over this post, I see that I haven't said anything about agents. To answer the obvious question, you can sell a book without an agent. But it can help to have one--in terms of getting your manuscript in front of the right editors, getting a good contract, and in other ways.
(Do I have an agent? Right now, no. But I've agented for other writers.)
For lots of useful info on the book publishing business in general, read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, by Michael Korda. Want to learn about agents and marketing? Read How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, by Richard Curtis.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks