I work with a number of writers at the beginning of their careers, maybe with their first novel, or the first novel they’re ready to shop around, and they often ask how they can get started with publishing. Many writers would like to get an agent and/or a traditional publishing deal within six months or a year, with the fallback position of self publishing and the hope that eventually one day a traditional publisher will be interested.
Whatever your goals are, I encourage you to be realistic with your expectations. I’ve been working professionally in the publishing industry for close to two decades, and in that time I’ve seen many careers start and grow and change, and there’s no accurate way to predict how quickly things happen, but I can only think of one novel coming out within six months or so of finishing it, and that was because the publisher had an unexpected hole in their schedule. Publishers tend to schedule out a year or more in advance, and it can take years to get an agent, and years to find a publisher ready to say yes. Knowing these things can help you hopefully avoid some burnout and frustration.
If you want to go the traditional route, treat it like a business. Polish your work, know your craft, and get to know your industry. Try querying agents through the slush pile, but also consider networking with agents, publishers, editors, and authors via your own personal network, by attending literary events, or through industry conventions. Read the industry trade magazines and find out which agents are selling what types of titles to which publishers. Look for a young and hungry agent who’s attached to a longstanding reputable agency, so you’ll have both the benefit of someone who’s eager to return your calls, and the benefit of the agency’s connections and experience. An agent is a business partner, you want someone whose judgment you can trust. Every traditionally published writer tends to have a story about how they first broke into print, often through a chance meeting or because they knew someone in the industry.
Self publishing these days is often a matter of choosing the platform you want to publish with, and perhaps finding professional help to package your book. Book packaging includes things like cover design, interior layout, and jacket copy, and can include distribution and marketing. It used to be common for writers to learn how to do everything themselves, but unless that appeals to you, consider seeking out professionals to help you package your book. Read any contracts you are asked to sign, and run them by a lawyer if you’re not sure. Make sure you feel confident that your book is at its finest, and have a plan for distribution and publicity.
Traditional publishing and self publishing are two ends of a spectrum, and there’s increasingly space in the middle for hybrid publishing careers. Most writers who succeed as hybrid authors have either built a following through traditional publishing, or have a consistent strategy with self publishing (doing market research, publishing new titles regularly with professionally edited content and professional quality covers). But there’s no hard and fast rules, especially in the hybrid arena.
The best thing you can do to get published is to create quality content, and the next best thing you can do is to understand the publishing industry, and the costs and benefits of your publishing options. And if you want help making decisions, consider working with a professional editor who can answer your questions and help you position your work to stand out in a competitive market.