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April 3, 2009

The Wild World of Publishing

This Extra Ink was written by Teen Ink Blogger Megan M.

The publishing industry is the business equivalent of a hydra: as soon as you think you have one facet of it figured out, two new questions appear to fill the void. But if you are a writer with dreams of one day sharing your work with the public, it's important to learn as much about this dynamic world as possible. After last week's post, I thought I would share with you some of the basics of what I've learned over the last few months, then direct you to some blogs and websites that can give you a more detailed insight.

Let's start at the beginning. You've just finished writing a masterpiece of a novel, something that can captivate readers and hold their interest for three hundred pages. You think it has a good shot at getting published, and you're ready to send it off. Well - hold on. Have you edited it two or three times, checked for spelling and grammar errors, plot holes, and character inconsistencies, and given it to someone else for a second opinion? While it can be tempting to believe that everything we write is perfect the first time we write it, that's almost never the case. If you are the only one who has read the manuscript (the publishing term for an unpublished novel), see if you can find a beta reader to look it over.

Beta readers, like beta game testers, go through your manuscript and give your feedback on what you do well (that battle with the vampires in chapter 13 had me on the edge of my seat!) and what you need to work on (do we really need to read the entire 15 page text of the main character's love poem to his cat?). Book clubs or writing groups at your school can be good sources of beta readers, as can friends who like to read the genre in which you write (but resist the urge to give your novel to someone who will tell you it is great no matter what). Make sure to listen to your beta readers' suggestions, but use your own judgment when making changes to your manuscript. This is your novel, and you want to use their advice to improve it, not change it into something completely different.

Okay, so you've edited and polished your manuscript until it shines. Now you're ready to send it off to a publishing house, right? Well, maybe. The truth is, very few large publishing houses (think Penguin, HarperCollins, etc.) accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from authors. In order to get your foot in the door, you'll have to work with a literary agent. These are the unsung heroes of the literary world, who work with you to polish your manuscript to an even higher sheen, identify editors at publishing houses who would love your work and get it into their hands, negotiate the complex terms of your publishing contract, and advocate for you if any misunderstandings arise between you and your editor.

So how do you find a literary agent? There are several good books out there that list the names of literary agents and what genres they represent (such as the somewhat obviously titled "2009 Guide to Literary Agents"), but the more important question is how you go about contacting agents. In most cases, you won't be sending them your novel right away. Instead, you will send a one page "query letter" describing your book (in the style of the blurbs you see on the back of published novels) and any writing credits you may have. Since contacting an agent is a complex art, I will direct you to two blogs written by agents who share information about query letters, an agent's job, and much more: http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/ and http://pubrants.blogspot.com/.

After you've sent out your queries, you wait. Some agents may respond with requests to read part or all of your novel, while many (most) will send you polite rejection letters. You wait some more (we're talking weeks and months here, not days - agents are busy people!), and eventually, if an agent likes your book, he or she will call or email you to offer to "represent" your book to publishers. Before accepting (actually, before you query), you should do as much research as possible to make sure the agent is reputable and a good fit for you. To learn more about how to tell a reputable agent from an unscrupulous one, check out this website: http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html.

I hope this was helpful for some of you - if you have questions, leave a comment and I will do my best to answer them (or direct you to a website that can). Even if you aren't pursuing publication, I think it's important to understand a little of how the books your read and love found their way onto the shelves.

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