Frequently Asked Questions

I get quite a lot of questions from friends, readers, aspiring writers and the like about my journey into publishing. I always try to answer those questions as best I can, because I remember what it was like to feel like I was out there floating in the great writer void, with no idea what I was doing (spoiler alert: I still don’t know what I’m doing).

So I figured that maybe I could just write a blog about it and save everybody some time. It isn’t that I don’t like getting those inquiries or don’t want to answer them. I really, really do, BUT I don’t always have the time to get as detailed as I’d like.

Below, I’ve answered a few of the most frequent questions I get from aspiring writers. I’ve done my best to be as thorough as possible, and I’ve provided links for when even more explanation is needed.

  1. Do I need to have a finished book to sell one to a publisher?

Well, this question (like lots of questions) is a little bit tricky. I think the general consensus is that yes, you do need to have your book finished before you can sell it. If you’re hoping to publish with one of the Big 5 (we’ll get into that later), you’re going to need a literary agent (we’ll get into that later), and most lit agents aren’t going to touch an unknown writer with a 10 foot pole if they’ve got an unfinished manuscript they’re trying to shop around.

So the general answer is: YES.

However, there are some exceptions. For example: you might not have to have a finished manuscript if you’re writing non-fiction. You may need just an outline and proposal. Similarly, if you’ve got a large (and I mean LARGE) social media following, you might be able to procure an agent, because you’ve already got a platform, which translates to readers, which translates to sales.

Still, it’s never a bad idea to wait to approach anyone in the publishing world until you’ve got a polished (and finished) book in your hands.

2. Do I need a literary agent to find a publisher for my book?

Again, this is tricky. Personally, I think that the answer is yes. My answer is yes, because if you’re hoping to be traditionally published with a Big 5 publisher, you pretty much have to have an agent.

Now, at this point, some of you may be wondering what a literary agent even is. Well, a literary agent is the person who actually shops your book (and hopefully sells your book) to potential editors at the major publishing houses. They work for you and with you to get your book ready. They’re the ones who don’t get paid until you do, and they’re the ones who believe in you and tell you that you’re talented when your pathetic, little writer ego has been crushed yet again. If you’re lucky, like I am, your literary agent will become your friend and greatest ally.

Let’s go back to that part about how a literary agent doesn’t get paid until you do. This is important, because this tiny (actually really big) fact is what can distinguish the good literary agents from the bad literary agents, and unfortunately, as with all businesses, bad literary agents are out there. Actually, there are really 3 different types of literary agents: good agents, bad agents, and scam agents. Now that I’ve already waxed poetic about good agents, let’s start with bad agents.

Bad agents will try to sell your book, but they will be unsuccessful. Now, don’t stop reading and just assumed every literary agent who can’t sell every book they take on is a bad agent. That’s not true. But a bad agent will never sell your book, because they’ll never sell anybody’s book. Bad agents don’t have the connections or experience to make sales to the larger houses. Maybe they’ll have a sale or two to very small publishers or e-publishers (more on that later), but the truth of the matter is–you don’t really need an agent to get published with a small publisher or an e-publisher. The whole POINT of having a literary agent is to get your books into the hands of editors at publishing houses you couldn’t get to without an agent.

Say it with me: No agent at all is better than a bad agent.

Repeat this if necessary. It’s true, and it will save you so much heartache in the long run.

Now, a scam agent is a different animal altogether. A scam agent exists solely to prey on writers and their desperation to become published. A great many writers have fallen victim to a scam agent. A scam agent will charge “fees” for nearly everything they do while representing you. It might be a “reading fee” or a “processing fee” or even a yearly fee to continue agenting you. THIS IS NOT how legitimate agents do it.

Additionally, a legitimate agent won’t try to take more than the industry standard percentage from royalties and sales. The rule of thumb is 15% domestic and 20% foreign. If an agent asks for more than that, you should be very, very wary of them. If your agent is making money off of fees and/or non-standard percentages of sales, then that agent is probably not one you want representing you. It means they cannot support themselves with sales alone, or it means they’re simply out to take advantage of writers.

3. Okay, but…how do I get an agent?

You can always go to literary and writing conferences, hoping to make a connection with an agent, but the more traditional way is to query them. In order to do this, you’ll need to write a query letter. Most of the time this is done through email. Before you query an agent, you need to make sure a) the agent is taking new clients, b) the agent represent the kind of book you’ve written, and c) you know what else the agent requires for submission (some agents want a query letter and a sample of your writing). Learning how to appropriately query an agent takes some leg work, and I recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, How to Land and Keep a Literary Agent. It’s free on Amazon! I also recommend Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents. I suggest buying a paper copy of this book, so you can keep track of all the agents you’ve queried.

I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing what you’re doing when you query an agent. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. If you piss an agent off by not sending the right material or querying the wrong person, it could cost you representation.

4. Okay, so I’ve decided I don’t want an agent. How do I go about finding a publisher on my own?

First of all, I don’t recommend this, unless you’re a lawyer with a specialty in intellectual property law. And if this applies to you, then be my guest. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t want an agent or have exhausted the agent pool and are ready to go off on your own to find a publisher. There are lots of different publishers out there, and just like with literary agents–some of them are terrible. Additionally, I’m not here to tell you that there is only one way to publish. There are many different ways, and just because I think literary agents are an important step in the process, doesn’t mean you have to feel the same way.

Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the different types of publishers you’ll meet in the literary world.

The Big 5: These are the publishing giants. They’re the big dogs in the industry, and you nearly always need an agent to publish with them. The 5 major publishers are HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin/Random House, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon and Schuster. Now, don’t go thinking The Big 5 are a bunch of snobs–all of these publishers have imprints, and sometimes those imprints allow unagented submissions from authors. For example, you don’t need an agent to submit to some of the romance imprints of HarperCollins like Impulse (although they are currently closed to queries as of the publication of this blog).

After The Big 5, you have larger, independent publishers like Sourcebooks and Skyhorse. These are respected independent publishers who regularly publish quality writing. They regularly publish agented authors. However, unlike The Big 5, you don’t necessarily need a literary agent to submit.

Next, you’ve got smaller, independent publishers. Many of these publishers are reputable and respected, but because they’re small, won’t accept as many submissions and will publish even fewer books. You almost never need an agent to submit to a smaller publisher like this, and if you write literary fiction, poetry, or short story, you might have a better shot at being published if you shop your work to a smaller publisher, as this type of writing can be a hard sell with the bigger publishers.

Now this is where it gets a little dicey. After the smaller, independent publishers, you’re going to run into something called vanity publishing. Vanity publishers charge a fee to publish your work, and the reality is that they’ll pretty much publish anyone with the cash to spend. It’s called Pay to Play in the industry. I want to be clear that this is not the same thing as self-publishing, and if you’re going to pay to have your book published, I’d for sure recommend self-publishing. With a vanity press, you’re not going to get any of the promotion that you would get even with a smaller publisher. You won’t get a quality editor. You won’t get anything, really, except what you pay for.

After vanity presses, you’ve got scam publishers. Perhaps the most famous scam publisher is Publish America (also known as Ameristar Publishing). I won’t even give them the satisfaction of linking them in this post, they’re so lowdown and disgusting. Scam publishers are a lot like vanity presses, except that they take your money and usually don’t give you a product. If they DO give you a product, it’s shoddy, unedited, and essentially useless. Just like with scam agents, these “publishers” prey on writers’ desire to publish a book.

The only real advice I can give you is that you need to do your research when it comes to publishers. If you’re unsure about a publisher, look to see what kinds of books they publish. Have you heard of any of the authors? What do the book covers look like? (This can be a HUGE tell.) Trust your gut.

6. What about self-publishing?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about self-publishing, or what is commonly referred to as “indie publishing” (which I think is kind of confusing, since there are indie publishers, but whatever). I think self-publishing, when used the right way, can be a phenomenal tool for writers. Platforms like CreateSpace gives writers the ability to create work that might otherwise go unseen elsewhere. But here’s what I do know about self-publishing–you have to be dedicated. You have to work twice as hard. If you’re going to self-publish, you’ve got to do it right, and it’s going to cost money. You’ll need to pay a top notch editor. You’ll need to pay an artist for cover art. You’ll need to have funds set back for publicity. You’ll need to get out there, virtually or otherwise, every single day to promote your work. I personally know several successful self-published authors, and they work their asses off. Self-publishing is not for the weak.

7. How long did it take you to become published?

I mean, about 30 years. (LOLOLOLOL. I’m so funny.) Technically, I started writing my first novel in August of 2012, and the book was published in October of 2015. It took me 6 months to write the first draft of Sit! Stay! Speak! and about 3 more months of editing, before I felt like it was ready to be read by agents. Looking back, that wasn’t NEARLY enough time. I started querying agents in April of 2013 and finally found one in June of the same year. It took another year of rejections (and two rewrites), before my book finally found a home at HarperCollins in May of 2014. After that, there were more edits (much smaller ones), a couple rounds of copyediting, and a whole bunch of other stuff before the book was released in 2015. So far, I’ve sold 6 books to Harper, and 4 of them have been published. The process has been a little bit different every time.

The journey to publishing is different for every person and every book. The best advice I can give anyone is to be patient, understand that you’re going to get lots of “no’s” before you hear a “yes,” and don’t give up.

That not giving up bit is pretty important. Good luck!

PS–I used to blog a lot on WordPress before I got my first publishing contract. That blog was called Tales of Rejection, and it might also be a useful source for questions about publishing. I wrote a lot about being a frustrated writer, and I wrote even more about being rejected…which, you probably already figured out from the title.


The Journey Begins

The below interview is with Annie England Noblin, discussing her debut novel, SIT! STAY! SPEAK! (September 2015, William Morrow).

Please describe what the story/book is about.

SIT! STAY! SPEAK! is about a woman from Chicago who inherits a house in the Arkansas Delta. She intends to fix up and sell the house, but when she finds an abused puppy in a trash bag on the Mississippi River levee, her plans change. Ultimately, this story is about a woman who saves a dog and how the dog saves her right back.

Where do you write from? 

Physically? I usually write from underneath a snuggly blanket on my couch. My couch is my favorite place on earth.D

Briefly, what led up to this book? 

I spent a year teaching Developmental English for the University of Arkansas in a little town called Helena, which is in the Arkansas Delta. I fell in love with the people and the culture. This book is a product of my experiences there.

What was the time frame for writing this book? 

I wrote the first draft in about 6 months from August 2012 to January 2013. I did two major rewrites in December 2013 and March 2014. The book sold in May 2014.

How did you find your agent?

I read a press release online about Lotus Lane Literary, which was a new agency in 2013. Then I did some research on Priya Doraswamy, and after checking out her website, decided to submit.

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?

It amazed me (and continues to amaze me) how much work goes into one, little book. My agent, editor, publicist, and countless other people have been working with me for over a year to get SIT! STAY! SPEAK! to publication. They answer every stupid question. They’re involved in the process from start to finish. I know they all work this hard on every book, and I’m in awe of them on a daily basis.(

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I researched the publishing industry. I read about the market. I read entire books on the querying process. I bought the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and carried that sucker around with me everywhere. I had a system, complete with highlighters, and kept track of every agent and agency I queried. I didn’t send out a single query until I understood each step of the process.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

The first draft of my novel could have been better. I should have taken more time with it, but I was so excited to begin querying, that I didn’t make it the best it could be. I should have listened to that little voice inside my head that told me when a certain scene wasn’t right, and I would have gone back and fixed it. Now I listen to that voice, and I don’t worry so much about getting my work out there until I am satisfied with what I’ve created. (Which is probably why it took me nearly 2 years to finish my second novel.)

Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?

Be willing to take rejection and take it well. Use those rejections to make your writing better, but don’t let it discourage you from doing what you love. You are going to be told “no.” Over the years, I’ve gotten over 500 rejections, and some of them stung. I’ll likely be rejected again. But all it takes is one “yes.” Keep writing until someone says it.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

I have a big personality, and I think that most people would say that I’m an extrovert. The truth is, however, that I’m extremely nervous around most people. I get anxious and constantly worry that my awkwardness is going to eek out every time I speak. I would much rather be at home than out in public socializing.

Favorite movie?

Pretty in Pink

Website?

I don’t have an active website right now, but I do update my Facebook author page regularly.

What’s next?

I just finished my second novel, which is set in the Missouri Ozarks (where I live, and where I’m from). I’m currently working on the third, which is also set in Missouri.