How to get painlessly published

It’s never been easier to publish your writing; it’s never been harder to make a living from it.

I ran a workshop at Western New Mexico University on Feb 18th, 2016 about how to get published. My home town, Silver City, has plenty of budding and talented writers who understand their craft but know little about submitting their work and what their options are. This workshop was my attempt to shed some light on the process. The key points:


*With the rise of online journals, there are more places to publish poetry than ever before.

*Agents hardly ever take on new poets. There’s no money in it.

*Getting your debut poetry collection accepted is almost impossible if you aren’t already published in reputable magazines and journals. You need a track record. So start by submitting individual poems to …

*… which journals? Do your research. Read Writer’s Market. Subscribe to poetry journals or read them in the library to find out who publishes in your style. Make a list to submit to and send them your best work.

*Many journals operate on a geological time scale. If you haven’t heard back after 4-6 weeks, send a (very) polite reminder.

*Most debut collections of poetry contain 40-60 poems. Ideally, between a quarter and a third of these are already published in journals.

*Self-publishing a chapbook is a commonly taken route for poets. You’ll make no money from it. You might sell a few locally and to friends. The advantage is that you have something to show, a collection which you wrote and organized into book form.

Short Stories

*Agents and publishers rarely take on short story writers. They want novelists. Novels make more money.

*As with poetry, you need a track record to get a collection published. Your work must appear in reputable journals first. Read Writer’s Market and “Poets & Writers” magazine to find suitable outlets.

*Read as many literary journals as you can. Look for the ones that publish in your genre. Submit your stories in the format requested. Check whether simultaneous submissions are acceptable.

*Many journals ask for a submission fee – usually around $3. Consider whether you’re willing to pay to have your work read.

*Expect rejection. Expect to get no editorial advice. Editors don’t have time to help you out if they don’t like your work.


*Agents and publishers are always looking for the next bestseller.

*It’s extremely hard to break in. Unless you have an agent, your novel will land on the “slush pile” – manuscripts that a junior editor at the publishing house will eventually glance at.

*Some publishers say they only read work sent by agents. (In many cases this isn’t true. They say it to discourage amateurish work. ALL publishers want to find the next big thing, so they probably look briefly at all the work that comes their way.) So …

*Do you need an agent? Plus points of agents: they have contacts in the industry and they search for the right publisher for your book; they make deals and understand contracts; they may give you editorial advice; they secure bigger advances; they help with things like translation rights and film deals, which most authors know nothing about; they guide your career.

*Do you need an agent? Negatives: They take 15-20% of your royalties; they’re another gatekeeper (it’s almost as hard to get an agent as it is to find a publisher). Bad agents might ‘sit on’ your work for years, barely sending it anywhere. All agents become bad agents the minute they lose interest in your work. They don’t answer your calls or respond to your emails. Better to have no agent than a bad one.

*Which agent? Look at novels in your genre. Often the agent is thanked on the Acknowledgments page. Look for agent listings online. Buy Guide to Literary Agents. Follow their guidelines for submitting your work.

*Can’t get an agent? You have two main options:

(1) Send directly to the publisher. Which? Big, medium, independent? It depends on the book. How broad is its appeal? Does it have a regional theme (try a university press). What’s the niche? If it’s a genre novel (e.g. romance, westerns, sci-fi), target a genre publisher. Do your research by seeing who publishes what.

(2) Self-publish.

Self Publishing

*Decide on your budget. Will it be an ebook (cheaper, faster)? Will you use POD (print on demand) to avoid having hundreds of unsold books gathering dust under your bed? Then choose from four options:

(1) DIY: you do everything yourself – typesetting, cover design, getting an ISBN number, marketing, distribution, etc.

(2) Self-pub providers (assisted services): a company helps you with some aspects: e.g., typesetting, cover design, etc.

(3) Self-pub providers (full service): the company does everything for you, including some marketing.

(4) Piecemeal: you hire people or companies to do component parts: e.g. a cover designer, a copy-editor, a publicist.

*Advantages of self-pub: you bypass the gatekeepers and get your name on a book. It’s relatively quick and can be cheap.

*Negatives: self-pub providers don’t care about quality. They don’t usually edit and they don’t usually help with marketing. They sell services, not books. Self-pub books have a mixed reputation. Because of this, they are never reviewed in influential places and hardly ever stocked in bookstores.

*Marketing and publicity are the most difficult aspects of the book business. Hundreds of books are published every day, so it’s hard to get noticed as a self-published author without a publicity machine behind you.

*The bottom line of self-publishing: (1) Do masses of research. Do not get caught up with a cowboy outfit that takes your money and does a shoddy job. (2) Set realistic expectations. You probably won’t sell more than a couple of hundred books, and you won’t get reviewed widely, if at all. (3) Focus as much effort on marketing and publicity as you did on writing the book.


*Start local with a press release, a book launch, a media pack, readings, book group appearances, and local radio and TV.

*Use your website/blog as your shop window. Don’t just talk about your book. Be part of the literary community and, above all, be generous to other authors.

*Network as much as possible and be available for festivals and conferences.






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