Publication and writing success are not the same thing.
Many people equate getting their work published with instant success. It is a barrier that takes dedication and a lot of effort to break. However, more published writers drift into oblivion than reach the pinnacle of the profession. A novel, a short story, or even poetry may make it into print and quickly become forgotten. Your next work should be in progress before the first hits the market, because at some point you must decide what your writing focus is. If you desire to become a full time writer, then you must learn it is a professional business like any other. If you simply wish to write for your self as an expression of the artist within, then publication is not for you. Publication does not make you a writer, ability does. Publication makes you a "professional writer."
The standardized advice given by writer's groups and publications such as Writer's Market will give you the basics about approaching editors, publishers and agents with professionalism. This is important, but it is only the skin of the potato. Manuscript formatting, cover letter ingredients and proper mailing procedures are readily available at any website geared towards writers. Organizations specializing in "helping aspiring writers get published" are everywhere. Most of them regurgitate information that has been known for years and serve as a way for the leaders of the organization (usually a writer or writers) to augment his or her income by charging writers a membership fee to listen to them prattle on about how to go about things. What you need to know is how to get past this mutual masturbation and how to get your delightful and beautifully written work onto the shelf at your local bookstore.
Today's publishing market is tougher than it ever has been for first time writers. Why? Years ago one had to undergo the painstaking effort of sitting behind a typewriter and putting together a first draft of a novel or story, editing with the old red pen and typing a new draft. You continued to draft until you had something you felt worthy of submission. Not everyone had the patience or stamina for that. These days, anyone with a computer who knows how to spell and thinks they have a good idea fancies themselves a writer. As a result, publishers are flooded with manuscripts and the slush pile has grown to impossible proportions. Adhering to professional guidelines becomes more important, as nothing will reach an editor's desk unless all submission criteria has been met. Information about submission guidelines is so easily available and well known that many aspiring writers are now able to get past that first gate. What is someone with legitimate talent and ability to do?
The best work may often go unread or read only by a moody editor's assistant. Unsolicited submission is a roll of the dice. For a writer looking to get their first published piece, small markets, especially non-paying ones are the best bet. If you foolishly cling to the idea that your first novel is an instant best seller, go back to the drawing board. Instant glamour, fame and huge paychecks are not hanging from a tree waiting to be picked. If you think writing is an easy road to millions, here is a bit of advice, winning the lottery is much easier.
Learn to promote yourself.
Like most fields in the entertainment industry, self-promotion and networking is a key to success. Writing has become part of the entertainment industry and much less an issue of literary perfection. Small publications, literary markets and other avenues still exist, but they are financially strapped. You may be able to get your work in print through these avenues, but if becoming a full time writer is your goal, or if you want to start earning an income from your writing, you will have to face a difficult realization. As good as your work might be, if there is no market for it, no one will publish it. Therefore, you have to aim your work for a market even though the market may change by the time your work is ready for publication. Frustration is normal. Enjoy it.
In the industry they will ask you (1) What market is this work aimed towards? (2) What successful published works is it comparable to? (3) Why should we publish this and how is publishing it going to benefit us?
These are the questions you will be asked, in one form or another, by an agent or editor. Be ready to answer all questions to their satisfaction. The important thing to remember is that you must sell both yourself and your work. This is a package deal, and it is foolish to believe you can present a manuscript that is tuned to perfection and then go home and hide in the refrigerator. Develop a thick skin. Accept rejection and criticism as a way of life and a way to learn. Whiners, nags and defensive people are hated in the publishing industry and no matter how good their work might be, their work may go unpublished or unpromoted because no one wants to deal with them.
Shouldn't my work speak for itself?
The simple answer is "yes." The more honest answer is, "don't count on it."
How do you find someone willing to publish or promote your work?
- By demonstrating that you are easy to work with and are very able and eager to produce what they are looking for.
- Expose your work as much as possible in every available venue. Be incredibly prolific. Don't cling to one manuscript or one style. Write constantly and write about everything.
- Find ways to meet and relate to people in the industry and casually mention that you have something you are working on. Enter contests, attend conventions, show up at book signings, meet and network through every imaginable venue. You never know who you might meet so get yourself out there. When your work comes across someone's desk, make sure it stands above a standard blind unsolicited submission.
- Carefully select times to name drop. "Yes, I was talking to Lois Christiansen the other day and she mentioned your name." Be honest when you do it. They will see through your bullshitting, even though they expect a certain percentage of bullshit.
- Establish a strong rapport so that they become interested and they tell you that they would like to take a look at your manuscript or samples of your work sometime.
- Learn everything you can about the clients an agent represents or the writers who are the cash cows of a publisher. Look for trends in the material and gear your promotion towards those trends. Does their catalog seem to have a large proportion of strong female lead characters? Steer talk about your work towards the strong female lead in your work, and if there isn't one, rework your novel so there is. This is not selling out, this is adapting your work for publication.
- Most importantly: Be willing to change your work to meet their needs. If you are unwilling to change your work to meet the wants and needs of the editors there is no debate, just a simple "We're sorry, this does not meet our needs at this time." If your work is too sacred to change, keep it in a desk drawer for yourself where you can enjoy it always. If you are looking to get published, learn to accept that what eventually comes out in print will be much different than what you originally typed out on paper. The problem most writers have when it comes to publication is an inability to change and adapt. By showing that you are willing to take direction and work with agents, editors and publishers on their own turf you will have taken the biggest step towards the world of publication.