There is only one road to quick publication – become a heralded sports hero, a popular celebrity in the world of entertainment, an acerbic television pundit, or a scandalous politician – then editors will come after you. Otherwise you will have to follow the advice given by Jane Yolen, prolific author of fiction, fantasy, and poetry, who said that to get published a person must be able to “write, rewrite, and tell more than one story.” I would add a person must be able to write and rewrite very well.

Years ago, individual editors occasionally took on fledgling fiction writers, nurturing and mentoring them, critiquing their stories until their work was ready for publication. The majority of editors no longer have the time to take an active interest in a developing writer. Today, fiction writers who desire publication must work diligently to raise the quality of their writing to a “publishable” level. Writers also need to understand that publishing is a business. Writers must know the publishing market if they want to sell their work. Publishing companies and literary agencies receive thousands of manuscripts annually. Only a handful of those unsolicited manuscripts will be accepted for publication.

I tell my writing students that every writer needs two people in his or her life – a nurturer who thinks everything they write is wonderful and a trusted and knowledgeable critic who will tell them the truth. The nurturer is easy to find; trusted critics are a far more limited commodity. Find a trusted critic by taking a writing class with a reputable writing teacher or join a writers’ critique group. Your local university or local public library will help you locate great writing classes and writers’ critique groups in your area. You can also connect with critique groups through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Writers also need to be their own best critic, to develop objectivity about the quality of their work. A visual artist must develop a discerning eye; a fiction writer must develop an ear for language and story. The best way to do this, and possibly the only way, is to read everything you can get your hands on – novels, poetry, short stories, essays, biographies, newspapers – everything. You should also read extensively in the genre of books in which you are writing. For example: if you want to write a picture book for children, you should familiarize yourself with current picture books and you should read classic picture books as well. I ask my writing students to go to the library and borrow five to twenty books a week in their chosen writing genre to read and study.

Presuming your writing has evolved to a professional level, how do you get it published? If you have written a novel for adults you will need to find a literary agent. If you have written a picture book or novel for teens, you can submit your work directly to a company that publishes books for young people if they accept unsolicited manuscripts.

Finding an Agent

To publish in the adult market it is necessary to find an agent. I recommend the following:

  • Network! Ask trusted colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and teachers to recommend a reputable literary agent. Attend established writing workshops and seminars in your area; they offer great opportunities to meet fellow writers, agents, and editors.
  • If you do not have networking resources, obtain a copy of The Literary Market Place, an annual reference guide that contains a list of agents. You can find it in bookstores and most public libraries. Other reference books that may be helpful include: Guide to Literary Agents; Writer’s Market; and Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (find current editions).
  • Do your homework and investigate your list of agents and literary agencies. Make sure they represent fiction writers. Also go to the Association of Author Representatives (AAR) website at AAR agents follow a stated code of ethics. Through the website you can receive a list of agents who are AAR members; information about what agents can and can’t do for authors; a sample questionnaire to ask agents when considering working with them; and the canon of AAR ethics.
  • Agents will want to see and read your work before they meet you in person. For fiction submissions, most agents will want to see a copy of your completed manuscript; others will only require the first three chapters. Call the agency first and double check. Send a copy of your manuscript to a specific agent or the submissions department of a literary agency. Your package of materials should include: a short cover letter; a brief story synopsis; and your manuscript. In your cover letter list any previous professional publishing experience. Your name and contact information should appear on everything you submit. Your manuscript should be on regular 8 by 11 inch white paper, in double-spaced type, printed on one side of the paper. Do not bind or staple your work. Number every page of your manuscript. For shorter stories, insert in a folder. Longer stories should be submitted in a simple box with a lid. Label the folder or box with your name and contact information. Never send your original manuscript. Include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) for the return of your work. If you do not hear back from the literary agency, feel free to call them four weeks from the date of your submission.

Organizations you may find helpful on your journey toward publication

  • Academy of American Poets
  • American Society of Journalists and Authors
  • The Authors Guild
  • Mystery Writers of America
  • PEN American Center
  • PEN Center USA West
  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc.
  • Romance Writers of America

If You Want to Write and Publish for Children and Teens

I highly recommend the following:

  • Visit the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website at: Become a member of SCBWI. Their membership fees are very reasonable and you do not need to be a published author to join. SCBWI not only helps you become a better writer, it also gives you valuable marketing advice. It provides a wide range of resources including lists of publishers and agents. SCBWI also hosts a number of writer’s conferences nationwide that offer unique opportunities to network with aspiring writers and to meet editors and agents.
  • Visit Harold Underdown’s website, The Purple Crayon at: Underdown, an editor, has created a terrific site that gives you good advice on how to get published and provides essential information about the children’s publishing community.
  • Spend a day in a bookstore that has a great children’s book department and familiarize yourself with the styles of different children’s publishers. Decide which books most attract you and which authors’ stories are kindred spirits to your own work. Those observations help you decide which publishers you should contact first.
  • If you plan to submit your work without an agent, thoroughly research publishing companies and find out if they publish children’s fiction, as well as the percentage of fiction that they publish. Make sure that they accept unsolicited manuscripts. Do not send a work of children’s fiction to a publisher that only publishes adult fiction or a publisher that specializes in information books. Also, as an unpublished writer your work will have a better chance of getting noticed if you submit it to smaller publishing companies instead of the large conglomerates. If a publishing company does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, you must find an agent to represent your work.
  • If you want to submit a picture book manuscript for publication, do not include illustrations unless you are a professional illustrator. If your manuscript is accepted for publication, your editor will choose an illustrator for your book.
  • You can find publishing companies’ addresses in The Writer’s Market or The Literary Market Place. Follow the same general submission directives listed above for literary agency submissions when submitting your work to children’s publishers.

© 2015 The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance