Writing Your Book Is Just The First Step

It takes more than prose to get your book published.

First, there is the competition, other writers who have written books they want to sell. For example, more than 5,000 students graduate every year from creative writing programs. Most, if not all of them, have collections of stories or a novels ready to be sent to an agent. Any agent. On top of that you have all those would-be writers who attend literary festivals and conferences all summer long. Plus, and let’s not forget, those silent novelists steadily (we might add cunningly, too) writing away in  backrooms of homes somewhere in the world, churning out stories while living in garrets, hovels, or Third World countries.

You can’t stop anyone who wants to write.

Writing a book, however, is the easy part. You write your book on your own, at your own pace, enjoying (for the most part) the process of creating on paper, or on the computer, something that never existed before. A fictional story, a remembrance of a time past, all of it comes alive for you and stands alone, like another human being, or a place in time. It lives, and not in vague day dreams or imagination. That’s the fun part.

Once written your novel or memoir has to be sold. And once sold, your novel or memoir has to be promoted. Besides creating your story you have to tweet and blog and tell others about your book on Facebook. You have to appear on television and radio (if you’re lucky enough to get on); you have to market your book any which way you can.

Why? Because it is impossible to get anyone (even with a Kindle) to read a book. Most publishers think that there are (roughly) 4,000 to 5,000 serious readers in America. (So if you are writing a serious book, you’re really in trouble.)

But even crappy books can’t get published. Can’t get an agent. Most agents receive on average 30 to 50 e-mails a day from would-be writers. What they (most agents do) is hit “delete” without reading, unless they have some connection to the person. Agents don’t have the time to read what you have to say, even if it is just an email.

So what do you do?

First you write your book. All of your book! Not half, not a proposal, not a summary of chapters. You write the book. You get it out of your system. Then having written it, you leave it alone. You let it ferment. (Or better yet, you let yourself ferment).

Then you rewrite it, line by line. Next, you read it out loud. You listen to what you have written and you rewrite what sounds awkward, stilted or harsh to your ear.

You might rewrite a page a dozen times; you cut out words; you cut out chapters.

Next, you hire an editor. A book editor. A first rate editor can cost you as much as $150 an hour. It is worth the money. (If you want the names of a good editor, drop me a note. I have a short list of names and email addresses.)

This editor is not going to get your book published. However, this book editor will make your book look presentable, and he or she will remove and improve the grammar, spelling, syntax, all of which will stop any book editor from reading further.

After these steps are done, you need to find any agent. I have on this blog a list of agents. With their names I have also included the types of books they represent, from first-novel to religious topics. There are agents ‘out there’ who represent whatever you have written.

Study the list and make a selection of agents you will query.

Now go to a large book store and to the section where your book would be shelved, i.e., mystery, science fiction, historical romance, sports. Look at the books that are most like yours and read the acknowledgements, find the names of the agents that are thanked by the writers, and jot down those names. Add them to your list of agents.

Write a short email to these agents, one at a time. In this email you only say:

The title of the book, the type of book, and give a brief summary of the plot, all in less than 50 words. If you can give the book a hook, something that sums up the nature of the novel or memoir, catch the agents interest in the subject matter, say it up front.

Next write a short paragraph about yourself. If you are writing a novel about the PGA Tour, mention that you played for ten years on the tour and now you are a country club professorial. Or if you are writing a memoir about saving children after the Haiti earthquake, that you are a doctor and you spent three months in Haiti, before an after the quake. If there is a personal connection to this agent, says so.  Try to stand out in some way from all the other emails that this agent has received that day.

Don’t send your email to the agents on Monday. Don’t send it on Friday. And don’t expect to hear back in a week or two.

And good luck.


Leave a comment
  • Bravo John! thanks for telling it like it REALLY is! For those of us who choose not to play this pathetic game, and just do the fun part, well, we gonna be some rich and interesting SOBs in the grave. SO BE IT!

  • John…you have done it again, giving us advise that we are not smart enough to ask. The real “how to” stuff. Almost every RPCV feels they have a story to tell, but no idea where or how to begin…I plan to share your ideas with the Volunteers here in Panama…let’s see if the Volunteer Newsletter will carry this. Thanks again John! Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Panama 2009-2010

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