So you like reading “Harry Potter”, “The Hunger Games”, or maybe “Twilight” — the authors of these books really know how to draw you into a story, and you loved it! After reading some of these, you probably peeked into the lives of your favorite authors and inadvertently stumbled onto their net worth. George R. Martin, author of the “Song of Ice and Fire” (Game of Thrones), is worth 50 million. Stephen King? 150 million. Then there’s J.K Rowling; her fortune totals around 1 billion. Needless to say, you might have fantasized about living a writer’s life— easy work and fame for great pay.
Now kill that fantasy before you seriously want to consider writing.
Despite what you may think, the life of an author is often controlled by the “Big 5”. Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin-Random House, Simon & Schuster, the 5 major publishing houses, are all based in NYC, the publishing capital of the world. They control what everyone reads, what people write about, and how much you get paid. And unless you are a literary genius (or a fetishist like that can write the next “50 Shades of Grey”), you won’t get paid a lot.
Suppose that you have a finished manuscript after slaving away at your keyboard for months. Congratulations! Put it away and take it out when you are emotionally distanced enough so that you can objectively look at and edit it. When your manuscript is 100% complete, which is vital if you actually want it published, you can now review your options.
If you want your book to have a wide circulation, then you have to go through publishers. Unfortunately for you, publishers often will not deal directly with authors themselves. They receive upwards of hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts each day from people like you, even if they state that such submissions will be trashed. Don’t fret, however! For authors, there exists a go-between that brings your work to the attention of publishers everywhere— this person is a literary agent.
Literary agents exist to help authors get published. It is their job to effectively market your novel to publishers as an attractive product that will sell and make lots of money. They also help to further refine and polish your work to achieve this end. You essentially enter a partnership with them, and should you choose to go through one, they are normally entitled to roughly 15% of a book’s profits. You do not have to pay an agent for the initial submission; you just have to get them to agree to represent you.
Literary agents are people. Like people, they have different tastes and ways of doing things and so it is important to research and court agents accordingly. A literary agent that specializes in women’s lit will most likely outright reject a sci-fi dystopian novel. Similarly, submission guidelines for literary agents vary. Some literary agents accept unsolicited materials with a self-addressed stamped envelope to read through a synopsis and the first three chapters or 50 pages of the manuscript. Others choose to deal with virtual clutter only and correspond via email. Most agents —the vast majority— require you to submit a query letter first.
A query letter is literally a resume for your book. It contains a synopsis of your book, page count, genre and proposed audience. It should not contain your life story. The most of what you can write about yourself are about your prior writing experience and any awards you may have received for your writing. Lastly, don’t write anything extraneous of the book; they do not care if you think you are the next Hemingway, and it will reflect badly on you.
Should an agent choose to accept you, they will notify you if a publisher has purchased your work. Publishers can and will make changes to your work to better suit a market, but after revisions you’ll receive a nice little copy of your book, along with a check. Authors often receive around $2,500-$10,000 as an advance for their first novel, so rejoice! (Advances count against your royalties; you won’t receive more checks until the royalties are more than the advance).
A slightly easier route is self-publishing. There are several self-publishing services that allow you to achieve total creative control, such as Lulu, iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and so on, but it is up to you to sell copies. Be warned! Poor sales of a self-published title can reflect badly on your career; as a writer should you choose to publish under the Big 5.
If you want to find further information about publishing a novel, I highly recommend you reading through the up to date versions of the “Writer’s Market” and “Guide to Literary Agents”. The latter is a comprehensive list of literary agents and both teach publishing techniques that will help you get your work noticed. There is another version titled “Self-Publishing Market” that deals with the self-publishing world as well. These books were created to help, and are available in virtually every library’s reference section.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Writing, should it be your passion, should be pursued through the trials. It makes reading your work after eventual success so much sweeter.