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Do you want to publish a book? For many, the question is more daunting than the writing itself. Take experienced authors Dave Eggers, A. Van Jordan, Gish Jen and Chris Baker: not one of them started out with a crystal clear vision of how to get published and build a readership. Instead, each took a circuitous route. And it’s no wonder: even nationally respected MFA programs are infamous for neglecting to map out the path to literary industry success.

How to Prepare Your Writing for Publishing

Write. Yeah, it sounds simple — but of the many authors I know, none has published a book without completing a manuscript first. Conversely, I’ve got friends and former students who write with uncontestable brilliance, yet remain unpublished as they lack the faith, time or wherewithal to write a book. No work = nothing to publish. To get started, try this simple writing exercise I created for Glimmer Train long ago. Then write on the train; during your lunch break; in the wee hours. Write wherever, and whenever, you can manage it.

Revise. Send your work to four people: two whose writing you admire, one who reads everything you read and one whose literary tastes diverge sharply from yours. Let them know you’d be honored to read any comments they can provide. And when the feedback comes, honor it. Pay especially close attention to comments that make you bristle: a defensive reaction means you may be too close to, too invested in, some aspect of the piece.

5 Tips for Writers (Who Actually Write) on How to Publish a Book

  1. So you’ve stacked up some poems, with no idea how to publish a volume of poetry, or you’ve got a hard-hitting story or two stashed away on your desktop: great! That’s all you need. Now, copy edit and proofread your piece to death. Your four readers may have missed a thing or two. And in today’s literary industry, agents, editors and publishers are strapped for time. They simply can’t consider work unless it’s mechanically sound; close to publish-ready. (Remember to double-check your formatting. I’ve found William Shunn’s blog entries on proper manuscript format invaluable.)
  2. Time to boot your baby out into the world. Once you’ve taken your manuscript as far as you can, check out Poets & Writers, an “inside baseball” writers’ resource. In addition to listing small presses and literary agents, P&W provides the deets on 1,118 (count ‘em) literary magazines. Identify a few that appeal to you, and follow their guidelines closely to submit your work. Bear in mind that editors who publish writing you like are more likely to like your writing — given that you’re appealing to someone of like mind. (Dang: that last sentence has more “Likes” than a celebrity’s Twitter feed.)
  3. Create a publishing pipeline. Once your work starts getting picked up — and it will, if you persist — you’ll need to track which pieces have been accepted or declined, and which remain under consideration. I use a simple Excel sheet with the following column headers: Contest/Publication, Piece Submitted, Submission Date, Reply/Status, Notes.
  4. Get to work on the book, while shopping shorter pieces around. Several agents have complimented my two prose chapbooks as impressive “literary calling cards” — so if you’re not quite ready to attempt a longer book (or if, like mine, yours is developing slowly) consider going for a chapbook or novella first. You’ll grow your visibility and experience, and agents won’t be put off by the fact that you’ve published something short with a small/mid-size press. (Some agents still hold firm on the fact that selling a longer, book-length work through a small press renders you a less-appealing client, as it’s unlikely the press will sell tens of thousands of copies — making your book sales less impressive.)
  5. Book done? Revised? Proofread? Hook up with an agent. Anyone who’s tried to sell a house solo understands why real estate agents exist. The same goes for publishing a book: an agent understands, and has full access to, literary industry networks, resources and laws — written and unwritten — that would confuse the hell out of most of us. And we can’t have that, can we? If history is to be trusted, writers need a bit of hell in us, to write well.

Now that you’ve published shorter work, it’s possible that agents will start contacting you — but if not, no sweat. Simply do your research (visit P&W; ask around; scour the internet) and identify a reputable agent who publishes books like yours. Check out this Writer’s Digest article on how to write the perfect query letter, by author/editor Brian Klems — and reach out.

Voilà. You’ll be well on your way on publishing your first book.