Becoming a published writer isn’t complicated. The writer writes a brilliant manuscript. He sends it to a literary agent he has researched carefully, following all the guidelines that agent requires. The agent loves the manuscript, and starts shopping it to all the editors she knows. One of those editors sees the brilliance in the manuscript and makes an offer. See? Published!
Okay, settle down all of you. I didn’t say it was easy – I said it wasn’t complicated. There’s a difference. Most of the time publishers and agents make their guidelines easy to find and simple to follow. The difficulty comes when writers decide the rules just do not apply to them. Susie handwrites her manuscript on pink scented paper, even though it clearly says “typed, double-spaced on white paper.” Jarod sends his 980 page novel to an editor who prefers lengths of 110K to 120K words. Maria mails a paper copy to an agent who only takes emailed submissions. Hubert sends the entire manuscript when the agent only asked for three chapters. Angela writes one draft, then refuses to listen to anyone’s suggestions for making it better. I attended a writing conference years ago, during which an agent was meeting with each writer individually for a manuscript critique. We’d been instructed to send the first thirty pages of our manuscript ahead of time. The first evening, a woman was railing to the group about the epidemic of agents stealing people’s work by doing these critiques. She, however, had worked out a way to foil the agent. She’d sent in thirty random, nonconsecutive pages from her book. Writers can sabotage themselves so effectively, it’s a bit of a surprise anything gets published at all.
If you’re sure I have no idea what I’m talking about, and that the rules truly do NOT apply to you, great. There are people who’re just dying to make money off of your dreams and desires. They dress themselves up as publishers, create websites that assure you your writing is fantastic and it’s just that good-old-boy mentality in New York that’s keeping you down, and for only $1295, they will make sure your book sees the light of day. Pink paper? Handwritten manuscript? It’s all good. They’ll accept whatever you send as long as a check is attached.
Money should always flow TOWARD the writer, never away. Paying someone to print your book is merely that – printing. It’s not publishing. The worst part is so many people have gone this route that it’s almost expected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Gosh, you must have paid a lot to get this done!” There’s nothing wrong with paying someone to print your book, if that’s all you want. Say you’ve written a family memoir that only 40 or 50 of your relatives will want. Pay the company and receive a nice product. But if you’ve written a fantasy blockbuster that you hope will put you in the same company with George R R Martin or Stephen King, paying someone to print it won’t get you very far. Distributors don’t usually carry those books, and bookstores don’t want to stock books they can’t return. You’ll be stuck selling your books from your garage. Not to mention the stigma such books acquire. They’re almost never properly edited. The covers are usually created with Photoshop, so they look amateurish. They’re priced ridiculously high because the print run is low and the company doesn’t expect to sell many copies (except to you.) What’s that? Christopher Paolini did it? Well, not exactly. What he did accomplish took an extraordinary amount of hard work combined with a stroke of pure luck, not to mention a lot of his parents’ money.
If you want to base your book’s success on luck, I wish you well. If you want to pay for a book so you can put it on your shelf and show it off to visitors, knock yourself out. Write the check and enjoy your shiny book. But if you want to tell stories to lots of people, sell books from coast to coast and maybe build yourself a career, then do it right. Write a brilliant story. Rewrite it. Make it the best you can make it, and accept criticism when it comes your way. Follow the rules.
It’s not complicated.