Becoming an author is a bit like becoming an acrobat. Few people know how to go about either; fewer bother to attempt, and fewer still succeed.
There is no single "correct" path to getting a book published. Every author, every book and every career is different. I've worked with and without agents; I've published with a small academic press and with a big trade one; I've worked with good editors and bad ones; I've followed some standard industry guidelines, and I've broken plenty of others.
If I've learned anything for sure, it's that nothing is for sure. There are no hard and fast rules here. Still, I receive questions almost daily from prospective first-time authors who want know the "secret" to getting published. While I know of no such secret, this is what I tell them:
- Write well. Given how many people talk about writing a book when they have the time or after they retire, it's easy to forget that writing is a real job. But it is. To do it well, you need time, practice and talent. Then again, plenty of people write horribly and still get published and go on to become bestselling authors, so no need to lose heart too soon.
Read, read, read, and then read some more. Invariably, the best writers are readers.
Have a good (and ideally, novel) idea and be able to communicate it concisely.
Research. Get the most recent edition of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. It's worth getting the latest edition given how fast things change in publishing.
If you're writing nonfiction, then review a few guidebooks on writing book proposals. I am partial to How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. Nonfiction books tend to be sold on a proposal that includes some sample chapters, while fiction tends to be sold on an entire book.
Remember that there are many ways to publish these days. No single route is inherently or necessarily better than another. Whether you self-publish or go with a trade or independent or academic press doesn't necessarily mean much. It's more important to find the best fit for your specific topic and circumstances.
Expect rejection, but don't be disheartened by it. Most writers, myself included, experience more rejection in a year than others receive in a lifetime. Don't let it get to you.
Know that while having a good literary agent is ideal, it's not always necessary, and having a bad agent can be worse than having none at all. Most trade presses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, but that's not necessarily the case for other types of publishers.
Recognize that the best literary agents agree to represent only a minuscule percentage of the authors who submit to them. Also, having a great agent doesn't guarantee that your book will be sold, and selling your book doesn't guarantee that it will be published.
Never accept an initial offer without first attempting to negotiate and allow for other offers with which you can compare it. And never accept any offer out of desperation. Sure, it's tough to get an agent, but remember, you don't want just any agent--or just any publisher or editor for that matter. You want the right fit for you. Admittedly, this may take some time, but it's worth the wait.
Above all, whatever happens, never compromise your moral or artistic integrity for anyone. And don't take my--or any other individual's--advice alone on anything, especially when it comes to the arts. Do your research; consult books, organizations, and individuals; compare suggestions, but in the end, decide for yourself.
Writing is not an easy or practical profession. I don't recommend it for most people. But for those of us who can't imagine doing anything else, who are a bit mad and a bit masochistic to begin with, writing can be exhilarating. Not every day and not all the time, but enough to withstand the whims and woes of the publishing world at least.