Even though every creative writer’s journey to publication is different, there are things you can do to increase your chances of publication. The most important step is to produce the best work you can, and the second is to learn how to promote your work, or sell it. If you want to be paid, it’s best to approach writing professionally, and think of yourself as a business. Hopefully at some point you will gain an agent, and they will take over some of the business duties, freeing you to write, write, write!
Most professional creative writers have an agent (although not all!). An agent will help you to find a publisher for your work, and then help you negotiate your contract and your pay. This may include things like advances, and the size of your royalty payments. Many publishers do not accept ‘unsolicited submissions.’ This means they only want to read work they have asked for, or that has been submitted to them by an agent. In reality, you have to be very lucky, or gifted at networking, to find a publisher without an agent. So how are you supposed to get one these agents? Often agency’s ‘books are closed’ which means they are not seeking new clients, and often agents will say that they are not receiving ‘unsolicited submissions’ either. Yes. Welcome to the suck! If it appears like all the doors are closed to you, that’s because they are. Agents get bombarded with clients seeking representation all the time, and often have trouble finding enough work for the clients that are already on their books. There’s no one way through this maze, but there are things you can do that help. Join their mailing lists, and follow them on public social media pages: they may open their books from time to time. Try to meet them personally (in a professional way): perhaps reach out with an email of introduction, and ask them if they would like to read your manuscript – this is one way to turn your unsolicited work into solicited work. Look out for events where agents will be present, and then be very brave and introduce yourself and talk to them about your work (they like bravery). Essentially, the task is to introduce yourself to them and present your work in the best possible light. This is where competitions and literary journals come into play.
The world is full of creative writing competitions for novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, poems and every other form of writing out there. Start by making a list of the ones that you are eligible for (and are excited by!). This will depend on which country you live in of course. Winning prizes, or getting longlisted and shortlisted, is a great way of making yourself more attractive to agents and publishers. Not every successful writer has competition wins on their CV, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Literary journals often publish short works like short stories, essays, creative non fiction, and poems. They frequently pride themselves on seeking out brave new voices in the literary wilderness, and seek to foster diversity and inclusiveness. This makes them a perfect place for newbie authors like you to seek your first publication! They are often regional, and try to promote local writers to a wider national audience. Some of the most famous ones are The New Yorker, and Granta. The journals often hold competitions of their own, but they will also accept submissions for publication outside the competition framework. Try identifying your favorite literary journals, and submitting your work there! Approaching the smaller and less prestigious journals comes with a higher chance of publication.
As mentioned above, you are likely to see the ‘no unsolicited’ submissions sign hung at the publishers door. However, sometimes they throw the doors open and do accept submissions, and sometimes they will open their doors for a week a year or something similar. Make a list of your ten favorite publishers and make sure to join their mailing lists, and follow them on social media. See what works they are publishing that are similar to yours. It’s completely fine to reach out to your favorite publishers and ask them if they would like to read your work (don’t send the work in the initial email – this is an unsolicited submission). One reason people don’t like receiving creative works without asking for them, is that if they are already working on something similar, they don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement on your project! Make sure that you research how to write a query letter, and craft one that represents you and your work in the best light possible.
Seek advice from mentors, industry professionals, friends, and readers
So you’ve made your work as good as you can, and now it’s ready to be sent around town, right? Yes and no. Now is the perfect time to seek feedback from some trusted advisers. Many writing societies offer mentorship programs (for a fee). Having a project mentor can mean you get high level industry feedback on your work, but beware: not all mentors are worth their weight in gold! Speaking of literary societies, look for your local government supported one. If you scratch below the surface, you will often discover that they have deep connections to the publishing industry, and promote the works of writers they believe show promise. If you have any friends that are involved in the publishing world, or that have expertise, now is the time to ask them for a favor! A surprising number of people will probably be willing to read your novel. There are also ‘beta reading’ services – I don’t use these myself but I hear about them all the time.
This is a bit of a chicken and egg scenario – but some authors receive grants to write works, whether it’s novel, plays, screenplays, and non fiction too. This is to recognise, in the way that publishers’ advances do, that writing a longer work takes a long time! And writers need financial support during this period. Keep an eye out for grants and support programs!
Sometimes authors have tremendous success overnight, but sometimes they also climb slowly up the slippery ladder of success, beginning for example with flash fiction, and moving on to short stories, and then perhaps novellas and novels. The most important thing is still the quality of the work itself, so don’t forget to do everything you can to make the work as good as possible before you take it out into the world!