First, a proviso.
I AM a published author, but I am not an expert on this subject. I have published one book so far, plus several of my essays, one short story, and two poems have seen the light of the printed page. I also keep several blogs, including this one. I work as a free-lance writer and editor, so most of my work is in that context, where trying to get published isn’t really the issue (free-lancing means finding other people to hire you as an independent contractor to write whatever they want written–usually web content).
However, one of the main things I do as a writer is collect information and organize it for readers. Whether the topic is biodegradable plastics or skinny jeans, I can gather the information and present it to you clearly.
Someone recently asked, in a Facebook writer’s group, “How do I get published?” and I decided to answer the question. So, what follows is a condensation of what I have read and heard from various sources over the years, salted with my own experience as a writer. Here we go.
What Do You Want to Write?
How to get published depends largely on what you want to write. There are a couple of broad categories:
- Short fiction or short non-fiction
- Book-length fiction
- Book-length non-fiction
There are other categories—journalism, screenplays, music lyrics, and academic or scholarly work, for example—that have very different rules. I’m going to skip them here, but if you’re interested in any of them, know that you’ll have to start asking questions all over again, because this does not apply to that.
Short Fiction or Short Non-Fiction
We’re mostly talking magazine content, here, although short work can be anthologized (published in a book with other short pieces). Traditionally, at least, writing for periodicals was the way to get into professional writing, though the rise of the internet and print-on-demand may be changing that, I am not certain. I am aware that most magazines no longer publish short fiction, a real shame, since the short story is one of my favorite forms to read, and some of my favorite authors (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Ernest Hemingway) did some of their best work writing short fiction for magazines in order to pay the rent. You can’t pay the rent that way, anymore, a loss for readers.
But some short fiction is still published, and there are a lot of venues for essays and articles. The key is to figure out where you want to get published BEFORE you write the piece, though, because every periodical has its own requirements as far as length, subject, and style, and it is much easier to adjust your writing to a magazine then to find a magazine that happens to want what you already wrote.
Begin the process by finding a magazine that includes material similar in subject and style to what you want to do. Look up its “submission guidelines,” which will usually be on their website. If not, the editor’s contact information will be in the magazine and on its website, and you can ask. Some periodicals are mostly or entirely staff-written, meaning you are out of luck unless you can get a job there, but many welcome outside submissions. Check to see if the deal they’re offering is a good one, as far as what rights they buy and how much they pay (if you’re not sure what that means yet, do some research, it’s very important). If it looks good to you, get a stylesheet (if it’s not on the website, ask for one).
A stylesheet lists rules for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage on matters where these can vary. For example, should you use Oxford commas? Should you use a space before and after a dash, or not? Is slang or cursing ok? Check the stylesheet. Submission guidelines tell you how to format your piece and how to send the document and to whom (all of this is done online these days. You won’t need a self-addressed stamped envelope). Follow all of these rules to the letter. Also, read several issues of the magazine, both so you know what they publish and because it shows respect to the editors to be familiar with their magazine. Research how to write a good cover letter. Write your piece. Hope.
Books are probably what most people have in mind when they decide they want to be writers. Books also have the advantage of more cultural staying power—when writers remain famous after their deaths, it is disproportionately as book authors, even if the books in question are collections of short stories or essays originally published in magazines.
Books also offer special challenges to publication in that they are expensive to produce and must be marketed on their own merit. A magazine article has a ready-made audience of regular readers, and new readers might be attracted by a well-known featured author, and then read you because they already have the magazine. With a book, though, it’s just you, and you’re starting from scratch. Chances are therefore excellent that the book will flop and that they whole thing will be a giant waste of somebody’s money. The publication world will make a lot more sense if you keep track of whose money is at risk in any given situation.
(Note; while the odds are against your success, the people who do succeed are those who write and try to publish, anyway. Neither J.K. Rowling nor Stephen King had any better reason than you do to believe they’d make it, and look at them now. Somebody is going to beat the odds, and an absolute job requirement is to remain convinced that it will be you)
If you take the financial risk, if you pay for the publication process, then you are self-published, even if you hired someone else to format and print and so forth, and even if the “someone else” calls themselves a publisher and puts their name on your book. At the end of the process, you’ll have a box of books and how to sell them is your problem. Marketing a book is a whole separate question. But at least if you self-publish, all the proceeds from the sales you make are yours.
Traditional publishing means someone else pays for the publishing process and then takes a cut from each sale. You get whatever money is left over. Publishers will not take on a book they don’t believe will sell, so if you can’t get someone to believe in you, you’ll be out of luck. Getting an agent to represent your book to prospective publishers is a huge help, but in that case you must convince an agent to believe in you. The advantage to this system is that, in theory, once you get a publisher, they’ll take care of marketing for you. It’s in their best interests to give your book its best chance of success.
Unfortunately, in practice, cheap, print-on-demand technology has shifted the balance of power. The good news is that self-publishers no longer have to invest in a big print run, so your risk is much lower, your entrance price much smaller. The bad news is that traditional publishers can now afford to make marketing your problem, and many do. So not only must you jump through hoops to get accepted for publication and share your profits, but you also have to figure out how to market your book on your own (or nearly on your own–there is a bit of a gradient here). This is a VERY bad system for writers–and readers–and I really hope that we as a culture come up with something else, soon.
In any case, traditional publishing still has some advantages, and if you want to do it you can do more research on the specifics of how to pick a good publisher (or agent) to pitch to, and how to make your pitch. Be aware that while the process for fiction begins after the book is finished (though the publisher may ask for a few rewrites), non-fiction books are typically accepted for publication based on only an outline and the first few chapters.
The kind of publication to avoid is a vanity press. These are scams. Some people will tell you that a vanity press is one where you pay publication costs. That’s not true, for although a vanity press may well have you pay up front, so will a reputable self-publishing service. Also, there are vanity presses that do pay up-front costs, but then sell copies mostly to authors, not to readers, and at retail (not wholesale) prices. The whole idea is you are paying for the ego boost of seeing you name in print.
Because no one ever admits to being a vanity press, they can be hard to spot, and the line between vanity presses and self-publishing services can be thin (the line between traditional and self-publishing is growing thin, too, as self-publishing services offer more services and publishers offer fewer). The bottom line is going to be whether the financial and legal deal is fair–can you make money? The hallmark of a vanity press is that you will get nothing out of it except your vanity.
Free-lancing means you write (or edit, or both) for hire. You are self-employed, and will likely have multiple clients to juggle at once. Much of your work will be published either anonymously or under other people’s names, and much of it will be embarrassing. Think of all the text you encounter every day, from advertising copy to clickbait—all of it was written by somebody, probably a free-lancer, probably an underpaid free-lancer. Just think, that underpaid free-lancer could be you!
Me, I like free-lancing. I always wanted to be a free-lancer, as well as a novelist. It pays the bills, and there is nothing like it for forcing you to develop your craft as a professional. You can’t have writers’ block. You can’t limit yourself to just one topic or one style. You have to communicate well, often with people who communicate badly (that’s why they hired you—so you can communicate for them). You need a thick skin, a true service ethic, a commitment to professionalism, and if you want to work in your pajamas, you can go right ahead.
And, honestly, most of my clients are awesome. I end up writing about things I never would have gotten involved with otherwise (sports, life insurance, skinny jeans, brake pads) and I learn a lot. And I get to be involved with a lot of awesome projects, knowing that whether I get a byline or not (byline = a line that says who the work is by), I know thousands, maybe millions, of people see my work.
Getting published isn’t the issue for free-lancers—finding clients is. A simple way to start is to sign up for a service like Upwork, which help you find work in exchange for a cut of your pay. Talk to other free-lancers about the details of the business and how to find work independently.
Blogs vary a lot. Essentially, any online periodical is a blog, from well-funded, professional-quality titles that may be associated with large organizations (like PBS or The Weather Channel), to personal musings or rants written by people with no commitment to craft. ALL are blogs.
(Pet peeve; some people call a blog post “a blog.” Please don’t do that. It’s a post or an article. The blog is the entire periodical)
Blogs can be unpaid labors of love. They can also be monetized, usually by running ads or asking for donations. Some blogs are part of larger projects—for example, a blog might be part of a company’s marketing strategy—in which case the owner may pay a staffer or free-lancer to write the blog. Some blogs have a single author, others are written by teams. Some accept submissions, like magazines.
It’s easy to start your own blog by using a free service like WordPress or Blogger. And you can blog about anything—many are about the author’s personal life, but you can use a blog to conduct real journalism, provide serious commentary, offer information and advice, or even for fiction. One of my blogs is a serialized novel.
Whether anyone reads your blog is another question. The good news is you don’t need anyone’s permission to blog, you can just start. The bad news is you might well become the tree that falls in the forest—if no one reads you, are you really writing? There are various ways to publicize blogs, depending on how much time you want to put into it and how much you care about getting readers. Some people don’t care. They’re more or less writing for themselves, or as a form of practice or play, and that’s ok.
Just remember people CAN read your blog, so don’t write anything you don’t want the world to see. After all, you are published now.