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What Does It Really Take to Get Published?

What’s the secret to getting published in today’s tough market? Is there ONE secret for unpublished writers seeking traditional publication? Or do we need to rely on a combination of a lot of different factors?

What about hard work? I love what James Scott Bell says in The Art of War for Writers. “Writing genius, like any other kind, is 99 percent perspiration.” (p. 81) Yes, anyone who’s been around the writing industry long enough can agree—writing a book takes dogged-determination, investing in the craft, and incredible amounts of writing itself. But can sweat and elbow-grease alone lead to publication?

What about talent? Some people can tell a story, but then there are those who make you feel like you’re part of the story. Sure, we can learn techniques on how to deepen character and plot, and we can develop our writer’s voice. And sure, practice makes perfect. Yet, some writers seem to have a penchant for stringing words together with natural beauty. But is talent alone enough to lead to publication?

What about persevering long enough? We all hear the stories of writers who wrote 100 books in twenty years, got 1000 rejections, but eventually went on to get published. Those types of scenarios give us hope that if we too just keep plugging away, then someday we’ll get there. But can trudging forward day after day, year after year, really lead to publication?

What about knowing the right people? We hear things like, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” We’re told to start to making connections with agents, editors, and published authors, that those relationships could help open the publishing door for us. But is having the right connection necessary for publication?

What about platform? Non-fiction writers in particular are striving to increase visibility and popularity. This push has seeped over into the fiction-writing realm too. But can having 500 blog followers or 5000 twitter followers really give writers an advantage when it comes to getting published?

What about Providence? Some people might call it luck or coincidence, or being in the right place at the right time. I believe that God orchestrates happenings according to his providential plan. But is that all there is to publication? God’s will and timing or finally getting lucky?

So, back to my original question: Is there one secret to traditional publication? Or is it a combination of all of the above?

On the one hand, I think we need an assortment of the above factors. It definitely takes hard work, talent, and perseverance. Sometimes connections and platform can help. And I believe Providence plays a vital role.

But. . . for the unpublished author, I also think there is another “secret” ingredient. And it’s this: We have to write a saleable book—a book that a publishing house can get behind, one they think has appeal to today’s reader, one that can ultimately bring in the money necessary for a business to survive and thrive.

When I went to visit my publishing house in January, I realized they’re studying the market very closely and are striving to predict what readers want. If they decide to take on a project, they do so only after careful consideration of the saleability of that book.

All of the other factors I listed above may or may not come into consideration. Maybe the writer doesn’t have much talent. Maybe she doesn't have the slightest platform. Perhaps it’s the first book she's ever written. None of that really matters—if the book is saleable.

The hard thing about saleability is that it’s subjective. How can the average writer really predict what publishing houses think will sell?

I don’t know that there’s an easy formula for writing a saleable book, except to be a student of the market and the craft, and to write voraciously. The more we grow and the more books we write, the greater our chances of making the sale . . . eventually.

What do YOU think it really takes to get published? Do you agree that saleabiltiy is the one key ingredient? Or do you think it’s more complicated than that, involving a lot of the other factors I mentioned?

60 comments:

  1. Jody, I think the factors you mention play a vital role, but I think that ultimately, you need to have the knack to immerse reader inside the book. Make them lose sleep over it becasue they can't possibly put it down at night. No matter what publishers have determined makes a book saleable, if you can make your reader suffer when they have to put it down, I think you've got a pretty good chance of getting published. Of course, that does ultimately come down to talent, doesn't it?

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  2. I think they all play a role. Somehow, they all get rolled together - and in God's perfect timing - it happens.

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  3. I believe it's perseverance. Hard work. Many, many writers I meet speak about not wanting to change a word of their manuscripts, not wanting to edit, to take suggestions, to change. I believe our writing needs to flex. It needs to breath and grow and change, over and over. Until it reaches the highest level of perfection. Very few of us are Amadeus.
    Hard work, for sure.

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  4. All those things play a role, but so does being at the right place at the right time.

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  5. I agree, it is one big fat combo of the above.
    ~ Wendy

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  6. I think it's 10% all the factors you mentioned and 90% saleability and having an incredible manuscript.

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  7. Definitely a combination! BUT the one ingredient you MUST have, in my opinion, is a fantastic story.

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  8. I used to think it was hard work (I blogged on the 10,000 hour rule more than once), making the right connections, etc. But I have come to realize that while all those elements play a role--and you can't get far without them--God's plan will always trump whatever I had in mind. What does that mean for my writing? If only I knew!

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  9. I think they all play a part, but I'm guessing saleability is the biggest factor.

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  10. I haven't a clue, but I think everything you mentioned here is part of the picture. And a little bit of luck, as well.
    Karen

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  11. I agree with you; There is no easy formula. It's different for different people at different times. But having a great, salable, well-written book while also knowing "someone" definitely couldn't hurt to have handy when you try to get published!!

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  12. I believe that ultimately -- it's artistry and craftsmanship. This carries the day over the long haul. There are no shortcuts. Hard work and perseverance are part of the process that leads us to these essential elements and lets us find a space where others can enjoy our work.

    Yes, we can find books that aren't well-crafted which have been published because someone thought they would sell. The dirty little secret of publishing is that most of them don't sell enough to make a good profit. (here, I refer you to Michael Hyatt)

    So we can't let all the books that finally make it into a bookstore tell us what we should write. That won't guide us properly.

    Then, just to give a wider and wilder perspective, there are many great writers who instruct us to ignore what we think readers will want. They claim that writing what we think others will want is the best way to write something that is ultimately not worth reading.

    Here's one:

    "Don’t try to guess what sort of thing editors want to publish or what you think the country is in a mood to read. Editors and readers don’t know what they want to read until they read it. Besides, they’re always looking for something new." WILLIAM ZINSSER

    Maddening, isn't it?

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  13. I think all of the above and then it's a little luck, which is when talent meets opportunity.

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  14. All of these are part of the equation. We have the gift of God, and are responsible to exercise it. I believe when He recognizes that we have been faithful, and grown in ways that will procure His blessings on others- God will open the necessary doors.

    At least that is what the Spirit has spoken into my heart.

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  15. I've always held hope that perseverance is the single largest determining factor in achieving publication, but reading your post, I realize that I'm already making the assumption that a lot of the other factors (hard work, talent, a saleable book) are in place.

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  16. Perseverance can be a giant umbrella over all the factors listed here. I think any one of these goals can be accomplished with hard work and dedication. After that, you just have to hope for a little luck.

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  17. Ugh. I was thinking about you this morning! You were published three months after getting your agent (yes, I actually dug back through your archives and counted!). I've had an agent five months. I know, I shouldn't compare, but it's not like there's a guideline anywhere as to how long it should take from landing an agent to publication. I've been writing since I was 24, but I took a few years off when I went through my divorce. I was still writing, just not pursuing publication. I think I've paid my dues, darn it, but it doesn't quite work that way. I do know this...perseverance is the ONLY way to get published. Those who give up, never see their dreams become reality. For me, there's no choice. I just have to keep trying.

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  18. A very considered and thought-provoking post, Jody. And your conclusion is a perceptive one - that all of the ingredients are important, but if the book is saleable then none of them matter. You're in a more knowledgable place than me on this, but I really don't believe a writer can try and predict the market and write an appropriate book for it. I think they just have to write what they want to write, with a weather-eye on the market, but still writing from their own hearts. Writing a novel is hard enough without trying to second-guess the market.

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  19. It's going to be a hearty combination of all of the above. I feel like perhaps providence is the one I rely most heavily on. After all I'm only in this for His glory. I want Him to use me and fulfill his purpose in me.

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  20. A note to Stephanie--

    Don't give up! It took me EIGHTEEN months to get a contract after signing with my agent. But it was worth it, because I found a phenomenal publisher for my debut series.

    Another author I know did not succeed in getting a contract while working with her first agent. Only when she signed with Rachelle Gardner (the agent Jody and I share) did she sell that series. For her, perseverance and timing were crucial. It must have been terribly discouraging for her at times, but she didn't lose faith.

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  21. As a pubbed author, I can say it's all of the above. And you know what? To KEEP ON being a pubbed author, it's STILL all of the above.

    Stephanie, don't give up hope. When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on tight!

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  22. I think all the factors you mentioned are involved, but the most crucial is writing a stellar story, one that stands out, grabs the attention of agents and editors, and that a publishing house believes is marketable. I also think, based on personal experience, that willingness to revise that story as many times as it takes under the guidance of the publishing professionals is vital.

    Jody, I'd like to know how many times you've revised The Preacher's Bride. How many those revisions were before and how many after the contract?

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  23. For publication? I tend to think that for some it's one of those factors, and for others it may me a combination or all of the factors orchestrated just the right way and at the right time. It's a mystery I hope no one ever figures out or sadly we may have some aweful fiction getting published.

    The one thing that came clear to me through this article of yours, Jody, is that writing should come from a passion for it and we should learn and grow as we write, not just do it for publication. So much can be lost in being so fixed on one agenda I think, like what God is trying to teach us through the stories He gives us to transfer onto the page.

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  24. I believe all of these factors work together to make a whole successful package. Each person has a different story to tell about what they think the key ingredient is, but the bottom line for me is listening to the Holy Spirit and following Him. The more I listen to others and look at the market, the quieter His voice becomes.

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  25. Great list! I am confused as to how "they" know what I want to read. Hmmmmm. :O)

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  26. Jody,

    I think saleability is the primary ingredient. And we have a perfect recipe from the current NCAA tourney. You have two perennials (Michigan State and Duke) in the Final Four. And while a great story (Butler and WVU) may contribute to a great game, you need the perennial to make it work nationwide.

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  27. Jody, thanks for your great post. I agree it takes more than craft to get published or only creative writing teachers would get published. It takes a great story that people want to read about. I think it also takes buzz to get people to anticipate your book and ultimately want to buy it.

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  28. Being an unpublished writer just starting out, I can't answer your questions. In fact, until I recently started pursuing my writing career, I had no idea how many factors were at work to get published. People see movies like "Julie and Julia" and think that she simply started a blog, and voila, she was offered a book deal. I agree that it starts out with the hard work of writing a saleable piece but continues with the hard work of convincing someone that your piece is worth publishing. It all seems very daunting but hopefully I'll figure it out!

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  29. Keli Gywn asked: Jody, I'd like to know how many times you've revised The Preacher's Bride. How many those revisions were before and how many after the contract?

    My answer: Hi Keli! Great question! Let's see. . .I think I line-edited The Preacher's Bride approximately three times before Rachelle and contract. Two of those were on my own, and one was after having a freelance edit.

    After contract, I've done one MAJOR rewrite, and one smaller rewrite. I'm waiting now, on my in-house editor who will soon be starting her line edits.

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  30. I may have deleted my comment...if I did, then I'll repeat...in order for a book to sell, you need to write something that people will want to read. Thought provoking post as always Jody...thanks.

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  31. I think it is all you mention and what the market is does really matter when trying to get your book published. But in the end I think determination will get you there...not giving up!

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  32. As an unpublished writer, I'd like to think it's a combination of all the above, but probably with a little more weight to working hard- and hard work usually begets something great. And with any luck and if it reaches the right person who shares your vision, that something great will be a marketable manuscript.

    Great post, Jody!

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  33. I thought you were going to teach us the secret handshake!

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  34. Great list of ingredients. I think saleability plays a big role, and getting that saleable manuscript inot the right hands at the right time and in the right way.

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  35. Yes, I agree with you. It's not easy to know what is marketable, but we can study the current offerings of the publishers we like and attempt to write what they're looking for.

    I also am convinced each author will have a different deciding factor on why she gets published.

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  36. Good question. I've had about 10 books published, and I was in the rare situation of getting offered my writing contracts. That's a whole different deal, but I've been "inside" now long enough to give you what I think is definitive, and agree with "saleability" for non-fiction. That includes your reputation on the subject, ability to self-market, connections and reach (eg. if you have a hugely popular website on the topic).

    In terms of ongoing publishing opps. professionalism is a huge thing, since editors and acquisition folks deal with some very unprofessional people and prospective authors. Do what you say you will do when you say you'll do it. Most authors are replaceable, and if you screw up, there's another 1000 who can take your place.

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  37. I have no facts on which to base my opinion, but I think "all of the above" is the right answer, but maybe with stronger emphasis on different points for different people.

    If saleability means writing to fit with what publisher are currently offering, I'd be doomed to failure. By the time a novel is written, bought and published the market will have moved on to something else. IMO, the best advice has to be to write from a passionate heart and make it the best it can be. Then be prepared to persevere in its promotion and trust in God's timing.

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  38. If you have talent, if you know your craft, if you are willing to sacrifice, if your voice is strong and honest, then I believe that serendipity will often find you. But I also believe great writers understand that their work is bigger than themselves. It's not about writing a best selling book or even a series of best selling books. It's about sharing your story long after you're gone, and long after the latest celebrity train wreck's book is gathering dust at the resale shop.

    My 2 cents, anyway.

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  39. Probably all of those things you mentioned, combined into God's perfect plan.

    If everyone knew there wouldn't be surprise best-sellers every year...

    Great post!
    Patti

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  40. If we try to write what we think the readers want we can often deny the thing that most needs to be written from deep down inside us. Ultimately we have to be true to what we are called to write - whether it's likely to get published or not. Such is the lot of a true artist.

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  41. Hi Jody -

    I think saleability is a strong factor, but every editor rejected the blockbuster book, "The Shack." If predictions are made on past sales alone, they're going to miss the boat on some good opportunities.

    Writing for the market sends shivers down my spine. Now, if I can find a new slant on a popular theme, that's intriguing. I don't want to write a "me too" book.

    Blessings,
    Susan :)

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  42. Hi Jody,
    Great post. And I heartily agree with everyone who said all of the above. I'd have to say that perseverance is at the very top of my list though. I've been studying the craft forever and writing and networking and submitting and praying and attending conferences and the list goes on and on.

    Oh and Rossalyn don't shoot me, but I think 18 months is fantastic! I had to smile. I sold my series by myself and then got Rachelle to come on board and help me with the contract and represent me. It took me a mere 20 years! Don't give up is right. :)
    The process is different for everyone.

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  43. Butt In Chair, Eye on the Prize, etc. Keep working at your craft, making contacts, and becoming a better writer. Don't give up and trust your instincts. Confidence combined with talent and the willingness to work hard will take you far.

    Oh, yeah - and a sense of humor!

    Great post, Jody!

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  44. Look, when coffee is left out of the equation, there is just little hope left. I mean, my productivity level drops, my saleability level plummits, and my spelling ability becomes non-existent. And, i'm not talking Folgers, people ... I'm talking REAL from the bean COFFEE.

    Seriously, though ... I think a lot of it is a book that immerses the reader and really truly the right market at the right time ...

    can't wait to get my awesome book cover someday ... :) maybe there'll be coffee on it! :)

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  45. This was really great. I think you're absolutely right that it takes a little of everything - and a little of the right thing in writing a sale-able book. You're spot-on today!

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  46. Good post.

    All of the above! Lots of published authors have a mountain of rejections, but I'm many who never get published have their own giant piles. There are writers who write the right book at the right time and have enough talent to get it right the first time.

    Then people (like me) create the perspiration, think they have talent, don't know if they'll need the connections, build a platform, and so on. Then comes the hoping part...

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  47. As the others have said, it takes a combination of all you've said, and a market that can find a place for your story.

    Though I don't think that writers should write what they think the market wants. Especially if it's not in a familiar genre.

    We just need to keep on writing the best possible book we can.

    Thanks for this post.

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  48. Jody, I think you explained it pretty well. It's takes a combination of the factors you mentioned and of course, the book has to be salable. The question is, how does a writer know if the idea and the delivery's going to sale the book. Since we don't know, that's when perservence needs to keep us moving forward.

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  49. such a difficult question to answer. if we knew what worked--if we could pinpoint it down to a formula--we would only write saleable books. Everything we write would be published.

    Or would it? Maybe then it would be choosing the saleable books with the best platform, etc. etc.

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  50. I think all of those count toward the pot of soup that is publishing. Persistence, improvement, knowing people, knowing the business, it's all part of the journey. And yes, you have to have a product. It has to be good. No, great. And it has to be in demand. Otherwise, no one's going to get behind it. It's just like any other product.

    Oh, and I think you need luck. Timing is huge in the publishing industry and one project that failed 5 years ago might succeed now. Timing is a crucial ingredient.

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  51. I think you are absolutely right. Your book needs to sell. Your conbination of other things is important as well. It's a good idea to keep some of these in mind before you write the book.

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  52. This is a fantastic post! You really nailed it on the head.

    They only thing I could add would be to always stay true to the spirit of your story. I've read too many blogs from people who throw themselves into the mix and completely forget the reason they started writing in the first place.

    I know nothing of publishing other than what I've read but I can spot a desperate writer from a mile away.

    You are not your book. Have faith and be true to your vision. Please.

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  53. It's a pinch of this, a teaspoon of that... What one agent considers unsaleable might be gold to another. Of course, a good story is a must. Good writing is another. The stars must be in alignment...

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  54. they all play a role. Somehow, they all get rolled together - and in God's perfect timing - it happens.
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  55. I liked the way you wrote. Excellent Post. Thanks a lot.
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  56. As for non fiction, speaking only for myself, it was passion for the subject. Years, months, days, hours,of editing, deleting, adding, weeping and wondering what the hey I was doing. I wasn't writing a book. I was delivered to it. Journal entries became a way to survive the most devastating loss. Afraid to say what I was feeling out loud led me to others who felt the same way. It became more than chronicals about a life and death. It became a path back to life.

    Great Blog Jody! Very generous of you to pass it forward. You are amazing!

    Sincerely,
    Jo
    http://whywhisper.net

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