On Becoming a Published Writer/Author

I receive many emails asking for advice on how to get published. Several years ago I put together a document that I often send to folks who ask: now here it is online. Enjoy!

Important terms to know:

Freelance = Work for which you are your own boss. You choose which projects you’ll take and which you won’t. This is opposed to “in-house” staff (writers and editors who work for publishers).

Writer = One who contracts with a publishing company to complete assignments that the company needs done. Such assignments are called “work-for-hire” and the company usually retains the copyright(s). Sometimes the writer can “pitch” an idea to an editor, just to see what happens.

  • Example: A boating magazine wants to do a feature story on Shackleton’s polar expedition for an anniversary edition. Step 1: The editor contacts you and asks if you’ll write it. Step 2: The two of you agree upon the terms of the contract (when the article is due, how much you’ll get paid, etc.). Step 3: The company sends the contract (or they should). Step 4: You sign it and send it back. Step 5: You research, write a great article, and send it in on time. Step 6: The company sends you a check and possibly a free copy or two of the magazine.

Author = One who contracts with a publishing company for that company to publish his or her unique work. The author retains the copyright(s) and earns royalties from the sale of the books.

  • Example: An author has the idea for a devotional book on The Lord of the Rings. Step 1: She types up a one-page proposal outlining the title, format, key themes, marketing high points, and her qualifications for writing the work (and maybe a short table of contents). Step 2: She contacts (by email) the acquisitions editor at an appropriate publishing house to see if the editor is interested.* Meanwhile, the author also writes a few chapters. Step 3: The editor replies asking to see the proposal. Step 4: The author sends the proposal and two or three sample chapters. Step 5: The editor presents the proposal to the company’s executive board, which gives the editor permission to offer a contract. Step 6: The editor calls the author to offer the contract; the terms are negotiated. Step 7: The author screams, does a Happy Dance, calls all of her relatives, and treats herself to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Step 8: The company sends the contract; the author signs it and sends it back. Step 9: The company sends a check for the first half of the agreed-upon advance. Step 10: The author plants her fanny in front of the computer and types forever and ever and ever, amen, periodically pausing to sleep – for roughly 2 to 9 months. Step 11: The author submits the completed manuscript. Step 12: The company sends a check for the second half of the advance. Step 13: The editor and author spend several weeks going through major edits. Step 14: The copy editor and author spend several weeks going through nit-picky edits that drive the author crazy. Step 15: Meanwhile, the marketing arm of the company begins advertising the book and taking advance orders. Step 16: Based on pre-order sales, the book goes to a first printing for a certain number of copies. Step 17: The book is released (appears in bookstores) on a particular date. Step 18: Every six months until the book goes out of print, the author receives a royalty check from the company—assuming the book has sold enough copies to make up the advance, and continues to sell.

* Note: The author knows the acquisitions editor from having attended a writer’s conference where the editor was available to meet one-on-one.

Requirements and Skills:

If you’re going to be really serious about publishing, here are a couple of good things to pursue:

  1. Write. Get a journal, create a blog: cram it full of thoughts, essays, poems, quotes, etc.
  2. Read other people’s stuff. Mimic what they do.
  3. Take classes on writing or join an online writer’s forum. Then take more classes.
  4. Intern with a local newspaper or other publishing company (paid or unpaid).
  5. Attend writer’s workshops or conferences. One I recommend is the Write-to-Publish Conference held every June in the Chicago area: http://www.writetopublish.com/. It gives you great access to reps from different publishing companies, and offers really good seminars. That was my experience, anyway. Other conferences are listed below.
  6. Join a writer’s group in your area. Learn the art of healthy critique.
  7. Read books about how to get published.
  8. Subscribe to a writer’s magazine such as Writer’s Digest or The Writer.
  9. Talk to published authors; find out how they did what they did.
  10. Understand the publishing industry. Get a copy of a Writer’s Market Guide for the genre you’re interested in, and read what the different companies are looking for.
  11. Write a novel. Then cut the first three chapters. (These are usually full of back-story and throat-clearing. The throat-clearing is unnecessary and annoying. The back-story should be woven in as the story progresses.) Novels should be finished and edited in multiple rounds before you even think about submitting them to agents, much less publishing houses. Also, be prepared to write several novels—often it’s the third or fourth one that actually gets published. Or so I’ve heard.
  12. Have a lot of ideas and projects up your sleeve. Publishers don’t want a one-hit wonder.
  13. Be creative. Offer to do projects that don’t really interest you, just for the experience. It’s amazing how interesting a project can be when you’re getting paid.
  14. Get your own website and promotional materials: this shows you are serious.
  15. Become an expert in something. I’ve read that an expert is someone who has been doing something fairly intensively for more than three years (e.g., parenting, boating, youth ministry). Most writers get their start by knowing what they’re talking about on a topic that is of interest to a particular niche market. John Grisham was a lawyer before he started writing novels.
  16. Never give up.

Books/Resources:

  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • IMAGE Journal of Art & Religion
  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobes Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia O’Conner
  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writer’s Digest magazine or The Writer magazine
  • Writer’s Market Guides of any genre (Christian, children’s, etc.)

Education & Events:

  • The Write-to-Publish Conference held annually in June in the Chicago area: http://www.writetopublish.com/
  • Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing held biannually in Grand Rapids, MI http://festival.calvin.edu/
  • Various MFA in Creative Writing programs around the country, including the low-residency program at Seattle Pacific University (founded & run by Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE Journal of Art & Religion, which also hosts the Glen Writing Workshop): http://www.spu.edu/prospects/grad/Academics/MFA/
  • http://imagejournal.org/
  • There’s lots of stuff online if you hunt around. Just make sure it looks legit.

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