The Long and Winding Road to Publication

A funny thing happens when you write a book. People start asking you about it – friends, family, people at work, people whose restaurant you’ve been living in for the past 6 months, typing away. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Random person: “So, you’re writing a book?”
Me: “Yes.”
Random person: “Cool, do you have a publisher and everything?”
Me: “First I need to find an agent. And then–“
Random person: “An agent? Well, when will it be on the shelves?”
Me: *Blinks* *Stares* *Shrugs* *Feels wholly inadequate*

So for all of you loyal fans out there, I thought I’d put together a little publishing 101 outlining what happens from idea to bookshelf. Sort of (er, translation: my unprofessional inexperienced opinion).


Step 1: Finish manuscript
Sounds obvious, right? But some people actually start seeking representation before finishing their book (a little sidebar here: representation=agent. While you can certainly seek publication without an agent, it would be about as fun, advisable, and successful as representing yourself in court where they have a video of you actually committing the crime). It’s not impossible to land an agent this way, but it’s fairly unlikely – especially for first-time authors. If an agent is interested in your project, he or she probably wants to see the finished product now, when their curiosity is piqued and the potential market for your genre is hot – not six or even two months from now when you finish.

As you long-time readers know, I finished the manuscript last month and sent it off to my editor-slash-mentor-slash… well, I’ll just call her Jenny, for review.

Step 2: Revise manuscript
Not everyone revises her completed work, but I think it’s a must. Either through in-person or online critique groups or through an editor/writer like Jenny, authors should always get second or third or hundredth opinions on their work. I’ve used all of the above, and it’s helped me shape the final version as it stands today. After I received Jenny’s comments, I made revisions based on her suggestions and questions, and sent off the changes for her final stamp of approval.

Step 3: Compose query letter
The query letter is like a cover letter you’d send to apply for a job. It’s a one-page, professionally written pitch for your particular book and your qualifications as a writer. The intent is to hook the agent with your unique storyline, summarize your entire novel in about a paragraph, and let her know why you’re the best person to write this story. The query can be your main point of entry into the world of literary agents and needs to be as polished and professional as your final manuscript, so it pays to spend some time with it.

I’ve written my letter (after studying numerous online examples and tutorials) and sent it off to Jenny for review. We’re meeting on Friday to discuss my final manuscript changes and the query letter, which she’s already given some positive feedback on.

Step 4: Send query letters
The letter I sent to Jenny for review is directed to one specific agent I’m targeting, but the idea is to cast a wider net and target several (or many) agents that appeal to you. Each letter might feature the same pitch points and summary, but the introduction needs to be personalized to each individual agent I’m considering. There are plenty of online and print resources to search for agents, and I’m also targeting the agents of authors I’ve enjoyed in the same genre.

Step 5: Request partial
If an agent is intrigued by my query letter, he will request sample pages of the novel, usually the first 25-50, for additional review.

Step 6: Request full
If the reviewing agent likes the sample pages, she will request the full manuscript, fraying the poor author’s nerves with simultaneous elation over the initial interest in the novel and increased fear of rejection.

*Bites nails*
*Checks email and voice mail obsessively for the next 2 months*

Step 7: Offer representation.
If the reviewing agent likes the full manuscript, she may offer representation. Lots of factors contribute to whether an agent will offer representation, including whether the writing is good, the voice is strong, the storyline is interesting, the agent can identify potential editors who may be interested in the book, the current market for that genre is hot, the agent views the author as professional, and plain old subjective taste. Many projects are turned down at this stage regardless of the quality of writing or the initial interest.

Step 8: Shop around
After an author accepts an agent’s offer for representation, the agent will begin to shop the manuscript to different publishing houses. If the timing is perfect and the project is hot, and you’re in the words of Napolean Dynamite LUCKY, multiple publishers may simultaneously vie for your manuscript. When this happens, your project goes to auction and is typically sold to the publisher offering the best package.

Step 9: Sale!
Contracts are negotiated and finalized between the author and editor, facilitated and managed through the agent. Then… Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Time to break out the bubbly and call your mom to share the good news!

Step 10 (and beyond): Well…
Lots of other things happen before the book is published, including editorial changes or revisions, cover art, marketing plans, etc. It can take many months or even years for my purchased manuscript to end up on the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble, where you as loyal fans and readers will line up for blocks to get your hands on it!


Much to my utter despair, most agents advise writers NOT to quit their day jobs until they have a solid publication history (e.g., several books in print simultaneously) and strong potential for ongoing and future sales. So much for my dream of camping out in coffee shops all day, sipping soy lattes, and stalking published writers like Libba Bray while working diligently on my manuscripts.


So why write, you ask? Yes, it would seem the odds are stacked against us – opportunities for rejection at every step. Highly subjective agent and editor tastes. Market timing. But as I’ve said before, I can’t NOT write. I just can’t. Writing is such a part of who I am; I can’t imagine doing anything else!


I’ve completed steps 1, 2, and most of 3. Once I finalize my query letter with Jenny this Friday, I’ll send it out to a handful of agents I’m targeting.

On June 23, I’ll meet with an agent as part of Lighthouse Writer’s Summer Litfest. If it works like it did last year, Lighthouse will forward my query letter and sample pages to the agent in advance of our meeting, allowing me to skip some of the preliminary steps typically required to get my novel in front of her. There are no guarantees that she will like the sample or request the full manuscript, but it’s certainly a wonderful opportunity to pitch my work and try to land representation with a great agent.

In the mean time, I’m working on book #2. Which needs help. And a plot. Yeah a plot would be cool. So if you have any ideas… wait, maybe I shouldn’t put that in writing!


Many of you have asked me for copies of the manuscript. I definitely appreciate your support and excitement over this project and can’t wait to share it with you, but part of me is reluctant to release it too soon. I guess I’m just being superstitious – I don’t want to jinx anything! And, I certainly don’t want to cut into my future sales by giving all my friends and family advanced preview copies! You guys are my bread and butter! 😉 Ok, in all seriousness, I’m just a little nervous about spreading this thing around too far in advance of securing an agent and publisher. Perhaps I will release a few chapters to a select few. I need to think about that. Cash bribes might help me make the right decision.

In the mean time, thanks again for all of your ongoing support. I will keep you updated as I make my way down this long and winding road!

1 thought on “The Long and Winding Road to Publication

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Twenty Boy Summer! « sarah ockler :: author of TWENTY BOY SUMMER

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