Here are a few things you need to know if you want to publish a book with a traditional publisher. While the process for publishing nonfiction and fiction is a bit different, some principles remain the same across genres.
1. Yes, you need an agent
If you want to publish with The Big 5, or many of the larger independent publishing houses like Algonquin, you have to have a literary agent. Most agents are based in New York City. No reputatable agent will charge you up front. The typical agent commission for domestic sales is 15%, and it’s worth every penny. Commission for foreign sales is higher, because your agent works with foreign agents, who also charge a commission. Also worth every penny. There are a whole slew of rights you need to keep, and a good agent knows how to negotiate those rights. Once you have an agent, don’t bother her every day. Let her do her job. Keep in touch, but don’t be a pill, and don’t be a squeaky wheel.
2. No, you don’t need an MFA.
If you have one, fine, but an MFA won’t get you published. Unless you have a great manuscript to go along with that degree, an MFA probably won’t even get you noticed. If you can mention an MFA in your query letter to an agent, it does show that you’ve been engaged in writing seriously (or at least steadily) for a couple of years, which is a good thing. If you studied somewhere particularly prestigious, it could get you a foot in the door. But a degree is no substitute for a good book. Whatever you do, don’t go into debt for an MFA. If you do choose to get one, try to go somewhere that is fully funded?—?meaning you don’t pay a dime, and you graduate with valuable teaching experience. Or, if you’re already a professional, choose a reputable low-residency program whose faculty you admire, which allows you to keep your day job while engaging in independent study with the faculty. You can also get your feet wet by studying privately with reputable writers. Many teach on the side through continuing studies programs, which don’t require you to change your life too much or enroll in a full-fledged writing program.
3. The publishing calendar is lengthy
It usually takes well over a year after you sign a book deal for your book to come out. Maybe two years or more. It’s frustrating, but, for the time being at least, it’s a part of the beast. In your contract, be sure there is language indicating that the publisher has a limited amount of time after acceptance of manuscript to publish the book?—?18 months seems to be standard. While you’re waiting for your book to come out, you should be writing your next book. Ideally, you’ll have a complete, solid draft by the time your first book comes out. Once you’ve signed a contract, you should always be thinking of your next book. Don’t forget that you’re in this for the long haul; keep writing.
4. Be Your Own Publicist.
Use the time between acceptance and publication to do your own groundwork. Build your email list. Connect with potential readers. Stay in touch with your in-house publicist (and your independent publicist if you hire one) to start setting up readings and events at least six months before pub date. Don’t drown your twitter followers with tweets about your book. Around book launch time, it’s okay and even necessary to devote a lot of your tweets to your events and to interviews and blog posts about your book. But you’re able to do so only if you’ve already earned your followers’ trust by posting interesting and engaging content that’s not all about you. You can market your book on social networks only if you also use your social networks to truly engage with people.
5. Love your independent bookstores.
Small bookstores are wonderful places to read. When you have an event at an independent store, it’s not all about how many people show up for the reading. The store will put your event in their newsletter, and the booksellers will handsell your book when customers walk in. The reach of your event extends before and after the actual reading date. Set up joint readings with other authors, which decreases the chance of staring out at a sea of empty seats. If only three or four people show up at your reading, treat them well. Don’t be a diva. Ever. Instead of standing behind the podium, sit down with your readers?—?they’ve come to see you, after all!?—?and have a conversation. They’ll go away feeling invested not just in the book you’re reading from, but in you as an author.
Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels and two award-winning story collections.