Part 5: Finishing up and some thoughts on publishing

2.  About publishing
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“Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”

-- Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Getting published seems like the end of the line until you do it. Then you realize it’s the beginning of a whole new line: trying to get your publisher to promote your book, trying to contain the homicidal impulses that bubble up inside you when it’s not on the shelves of Borders or Barnes & Noble (the chains stock very few of the books that publishers release on the unsuspecting world), the absolute soul-rotting horror of a bad review. Sometimes it’s enough to make you wonder why you bother.

Still, if you really want to let yourself in for all that, here are some really basic pointers.

You need an agent. Publishers will not — will almost never — read a manuscript that comes in over the transom. So the first step is to get an agent.

Look for agents in the “writer’s market” books, such as Writer’s Digest. And maybe a better idea: Look at book dedications by writers whose work you like — many writers thank their agents. Get addresses by calling Manhattan information for the phone number and phoning the office directly. They’re almost all in Manhattan.

If you haven’t finished the book, send a proposal: an explanation (brief) of what kind of book it is, then a detailed plot outline and a strong sample chapter. This is not the time to send off work that you’re not completely satisfied with — it’ll not only get the proposal rejected, but it might also put your name on that agent’s “do not read” list. Everything should be typed and proof-read five or six times, and the sample chapter should be double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins, preferably in a simple font such as Times Roman, Helvetica, or Garamond.

If you send an entire manuscript, it must be typed, double-spaced, in 12-point type, with one-inch margins. Proof-read it as though your life depends on it. The pages should be numbered. The title page should include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address. Preferably the manuscript should be boxed. It's a good idea to make another copy of the title page and tape it to the top of the box. The person to whom you send it is going to have a lot of boxed manuscripts in his or her office.

Accompany the manuscript with a cover letter that frames your book — one page, single-spaced. What it is, why you think it is strong, commercial, timely, etc.

Make a good copy — if the toner in the printer or copier is low, replace it and start over. You want this book to be very easy to read.

Send to two or three agents at a time, at most. Odds are very strong you’ll be rejected, so have a bunch more in mind. If you get a thoughtful personal rejection letter — especially if the agent tells you what she/he thinks is wrong with the book, then (a) be open to the criticism, and (b) keep that agent on your list for future submissions. The vast majority of manuscripts are returned with a form letter. An agent who takes the time to tell you why she’s not accepting your book is a valuable potential ally.

▸ To keep things in proportion, hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and book proposals are submitted each year. A minuscule percentage of these will be published. 60 percent of those that are published will be nonfiction, self-help, travel, cookbooks, etc — so that leaves about an even smaller number of novels, most of which are not in your genre. Roughly 1600 of those will be reviewed in important publications. And some of those will be panned.

▸ Even the most avid reader buys (at most) one in fifty of the books he reads reviews of. So we do it not because it will make us rich and famous but because we love it. And because as long as the odds against publication are, they’re a hell of a lot longer if we never finish the book. Because writing a book is an emotional and spiritual exercise that completes and fulfills us in a way that nothing else does.


“The primary purpose of writing fiction, and then publishing what you have written, is not merely to show off . . . but to entertain the first and second reader, the first reader being you and the second reader being every other person who ever comes alone to what you have written.”

— George V. Higgins

Write because you love it, first, foremost, and always.