O Me of Little Faith

First of all, happy Leap Day! Did you know that there’s just a .068 percent chance of being born on Leap Day, compared to a .27 percent chance of being born any other day of the year? Around 200,000 leaplings live in the U.S., with up to four million worldwide. Bust out those facts at the office today and people will think you’re awesome. (No, I haven’t been carrying around that knowledge for the last four years, patiently waiting for this day to arrive. I got the Leap-Year facts here.)

Anyway, yesterday I got distracted in the process of answering this question: I’ve got a great idea for a book. How do I go about getting it published?

To keep tangents to a minimum, I’ll offer my overly simplified step-by-step:

1. Write an outline for the book if it’s fiction, or a proposal for the book if it’s nonfiction. There are plenty of webby places to look up suggested formats or templates for how to do this. Here’s one. Here’s another.

2. Write two or three sample chapters of the book.

3. Rewrite the sample chapters, just to make sure they’re as entertaining as possible, exemplary of your writing style and the direction of the book, and enticing enough to make the reader want more.

4. Find an agent or editor. Through personal contacts and networking, it is occasionally possible for unrepresented writers to get a manuscript into an editor’s hands, but most big publishers today use agents as the first round of gatekeeping. Editors get unsolicited manuscripts all the time. But they know manuscripts coming from agents have at least been vetted by that agent. The best way to get an agent is to (again) use personal contacts — if you have a personal relationship with a published writer, you might ask him or her for an introduction. (You won’t always get it, as writers can be protective of their agents and don’t want to waste their agent’s time by recommending a lame-o writer.) Or you can attend writer’s conferences where agents sometimes meet with prospective authors. Or you can blindly send out query letters or emails.

4.a. It can be pretty hard to get an agent. Especially a good one.

5. Let your agent do the equally difficult work of selling your book.

6. Pray. If there was ever a time to buy into the Prosperity Gospel, this is it.

7. Start writing.

It’s probably obvious that the most important step — other than coming up with a great idea — is getting a good agent. The best way to do this? Networking, networking, networking. Introduce yourself to writers. Introduce yourself to agents. Make connections. Be bold. This is a time when you need someone to give you a shot, so don’t be afraid to ask for a favor.

Can you get a book published without an agent? Yes. If you already know some editors. My first few books were published without an agent, but I knew the editors already through prior relationships or mutual friends (and the publishers were smaller). The books I’m working on now? Agented all the way.

P.S. I haven’t mentioned traditional self-publishing via a commercial printer, because that’s really expensive and often seen as proof that a book isn’t good enough to get published “for real.” Nor have I mentioned digital publishing-on-demand (like LuLu or iUniverse), because it’s still new and I’m personally not too familiar with it. To work toward a career as a writer of books, the best path (for now, at least) is still the traditional one. But the industry is always changing, so who knows?

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