I once received a message from a friend of a friend who wanted some publishing advice. Their question was this:
I finished writing an 85,000-word novel, and I am in the process of querying agents. I was just wondering if you have any tips or advice on how you got your agent or anything about the publishing world.
Thank you so much for your time.
I was flattered that this gentleman thought I had an agent. I thanked him for his email, congratulated him on finishing his novel, and walked him through my particular publishing knowledge and experience. I wanted to share this advice here (with a few modifications from the original email as things have changed a little bit over the years).
Most of what I write is in the novella range, and many of the stories I have published are through small press publishers that didn’t require agents to query. Some of my stories ended up in anthologies by submitting to themed writing contests or announced calls for submission, and some others came about by invitation from other authors I’ve networked with over the years who invited me to submit for consideration. I also greatly enjoy the process of publishing works independently, though others may find the prospect of self-publishing daunting.
Here are some general recommendations on how to find good publishers and agents to submit your work to, and how to distinguish them from vanity presses:
Go to the publisher’s website and read their submission guidelines. Check the genres they accept or are actively looking for, and follow instructions on what to send and how to format it (usually the first five to fifty pages of your book, plus a full-plot synopsis and a query letter).
A good publisher will not charge reading fees or make you pay for a publishing package.
Before querying to a small press, take a look at the book covers they produce for their authors. Some small presses do not have good book cover design, and this can reflect other challenges you might encounter with that publisher related to editing, marketing, and contract rights.
Reach out to other authors who have published with that publisher to get a feel for how the publisher treats their authors and what their editing, marketing, and contracts are like. An internet search for reviews about the publishing company may be helpful as well.
Looking for agents who can help you sell your manuscript to a bigger publisher is similar to looking for a small press publisher, in that you want to avoid anyone who wants to charge you reading fees or who wants to sell you a publishing package. The nice thing about reputable agents is they can help with navigating what’s reasonable in contracts, and they have an incentive to help you succeed (because they get paid when you get paid). When you enter into a contract with an agent (based on what other authors with agents, and what agents themselves have said), some agents will try to whip your manuscript into shape, and others will leave editing tasks largely to future editors at the publishing company–they have different styles. But they won’t follow up your query with a revise-and-resubmit or a contract offer if they don’t think they can represent you well and potentially sell your manuscript.
The Agent Query website is a great place to search for reputable agents: https://www.agentquery.com. Writer’s Digest (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-agency-alerts) often announces new agents at various reputable literary agencies who are looking for stories. Before querying an agent, you’ll want to check on what genres and types of stories they are looking for (and not looking for), see who else they have represented, and follow their query guidelines.
If you ever want to look into short story markets (professional and semi-professional magazines), I recommend having http://ralan.com bookmarked. I also recommend looking into the Writers of the Future contest (http://www.writersofthefuture.com/enter-writer-contest/).
I also recommend the Query Shark blog for examples on how to write and revise query letters: http://queryshark.blogspot.com/
Another website talks about Standard Manuscript Format, which some agents, publishers, magazines, writing contests, etc. may refer to in place of specifying exactly how they would like you to format your manuscript: https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html
If you decide to go the self-published route, I would recommend finding a freelance editor to help you polish your work for one or two rounds of editing, and a freelance cover artist. Before hiring the freelance editor, participating in a writing group may be a helpful and cost-effective way to get your story into it’s best shape before the final polish.
Smashwords has a really great handbook on how to format your book text for e-readers (called “Smashwords Style Guide” https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52), and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (e.g., for KDP USA: https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/help/topic/G202059560) has formatting templates you can download for formatting print books, as well as Kindle books. (I originally referenced CreateSpace in my email to that friend-of-a-friend, but CS merged with Kindle to put print and ebook tools together in the same place).
So, what is a vanity press? To quote the SFWA, a vanity press “…Charges a fee to produce a book, or requires the author to buy something as a condition of publication, such as finished books. Unlike assisted self-publishing services, which also charge fees for publishing packages, vanities present themselves as real publishers” (See more of their article here: https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/vanity/). They may offer poor editing, formatting, marketing, and cover design services while taking money out of your pocket and giving you less control of your work. You’re better off going independent than going with a vanity press.
I also recommend the SFWA’s Writers Beware for navigating the publishing world (they go into much more detail than I do here about things to be aware of and are a super helpful resource): https://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/
While not strictly vanity presses, I would generally steer you away from companies offering self publishing “packages” was well (I don’t recommend Xlibris packages, for example–finding freelance editors and artists is a much better way to go). Networking can help you find artists and freelance editors whom you pay for their time to assist you without signing part of your royalties or your publishing rights to them. It’s fine to contract royalties and publishing rights to an actual publisher who doesn’t charge fees for their editing, marketing, etc., and it’s fine for publishers or other companies to have separate editing services that aren’t tied to publishing contracts, etc. But in general, I don’t recommend signing publishing rights to people charging for editing services in the same contract–it can quickly create a conflict of interest with regard to value invested in your work.
In the pre-COVID era, going to writing conventions and networking in-person was a great way to meet with local small press publishers, and see what writing contests they might have or what kind of stories they might be looking for. Fyrecon, LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything), LDS Storymakers, Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, and many fan conventions (Comic Con, Steamfest) had dealers rooms with booths for publishers and individuals selling books. Dealers rooms presented a great opportunity to meet with authors or other representatives of publishing companies in person, and possibly even pitch your work to an editor if they ask for a verbal pitch. We’re slowly getting back to live gatherings in Utah, but this may not be a reality for another year or more elsewhere on the globe. You might look for virtual alternatives that are available for networking at local writing conventions where you live.
Independent authors selling books at conventions are often happy to offer you advice on self publishing and recommend resources they use as well.
Joining a writing community, such as the Horror Writers Association or the League of Utah Writers, is also a great way to network, join writing groups, and find more opportunities to publish and prep to query.
Here is some of the basic good information I can think of to get you started and help you explore your querying and publishing options (even with the publishers I recommended, take my biases into account and do your own research to find the best tools for your journey).
At the bottom of my home page I keep a list of general writing and publishing resources that I have found particularly helpful over the years. Do check them out if you’re looking for more information.
Keep writing, and best of luck in your publishing journey!