Publish or Perish

A Short Guide for the Long Haul

I’d love to pock­et a dol­lar every time some­one asks me for the secret to get­ting pub­lished. Well, the secret is—there is none. Hard work and perserver­ance are the only keys to the kingdom.

If you’re seri­ous about get­ting pub­lished, read on …

First of all, think broad­ly. Author­ing a book is not the only way to get pub­lished. There are mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers, lit­er­ary jour­nals. There are online col­lec­tions, and more. Talk to your local librar­i­an for ideas of where to start. Librar­i­ans are valu­able, under-used resources. Use them! If your focus is poet­ry for chil­dren and/or young adults, talk specif­i­cal­ly to a chil­dren’s librar­i­an. You’d be amazed at how much help they can offer!

girl writing
Pho­to 223609069 | Girl Writ­ing © Pro­s­tock­stu­dio |

Hard Work

The hard work starts with the writ­ing itself. No slap-dash man­u­script, scrib­bled off the top of your head, is going to make it to the book­store shelves. The work must be care­ful­ly thought out and fine­ly honed. The idea, or its treat­ment, needs to be unique.


How can you know your idea is unique? By research­ing the sub­ject to see what’s already been writ­ten, and how. There’s no sub­sti­tute for research. Hit the library, vis­it the book­store, go online. See what’s out there. More impor­tant­ly, read what’s out there. Once you have, you’ll be equipped to shape your man­u­script into some­thing unique, original.

What’s Next?

You have two choices.

1.   Find an agent.

2.   Research the book mar­ket. (There’s that dread “R” word again!)

Find an Agent

This may sound like an easy choice. Not nec­es­sar­i­ly. It can take years to find an agent who’s a good match for you. I’ve worked with four agents over the course of my career, and that career spans 28 years. Not all agents are equal, and it can take time for you to find one who knows the busi­ness, believes in your tal­ent, and can rep­re­sent you in a way you’re com­fort­able with.

Some agents are can­tan­ker­ous, or pushy. Oth­ers are aggres­sive, but sub­tle. Some are ruth­less, while oth­ers are more eth­i­cal­ly inclined. Some accept what­ev­er a pub­lish­er offers, while oth­ers rou­tine­ly ask for more. You must keep in mind that your agent rep­re­sents you in the mar­ket­place. How they han­dle your busi­ness reflects on you. You need to be com­fort­able with that reflection.

There is some­thing else you should con­sid­er. Is the agent a writer himself?Does he/she have a back­ground in edit­ing, or is mar­ket­ing his only strength?Publishers rely on agents to weed out weak man­u­scripts, and help their clients pre­pare stronger ones. Hav­ing an agent with strong edit­ing skills, or a good back­ground in lit­er­a­ture in gen­er­al, can be very use­ful in this regard.

Where to Look

Lit­er­ary Mar­ket­place, a hefty vol­ume you can find at your local library, lists agents. If you’re hop­ing to spe­cial­ize in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, con­tact your region­al Soci­ety of Chil­dren’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors (SCBWI). They’ll have a list of agents they can rec­om­mend. Con­tact sev­er­al. Ask for the list of authors each rep­re­sents. Then, con­tact a few to get a sense of how that agent works. This will help you deter­mine whether an agent is right for you. Whether the agent of your choice choos­es to work with you is anoth­er mat­ter alto­geth­er. They will ask to see your work for con­sid­er­a­tion. That part of the process is out of your hands. But your job is to be pre­pared to ask for what you need when the right agent comes along. You might, for instance, want to know how often you can expect to hear from them, what per­cent­age they charge, and pre­cise­ly what they intend to do to earn it. Think of this process as a two-way inter­view. Remem­ber, this is a mar­riage of sorts. Choose your part­ner carefully!

Researching the Market

Devel­op­ing some savvy about the book mar­ket is not so much eas­i­er or hard­er than choos­ing an agent. It’s sim­ply different.

For starters, you hit the lit­er­ary bricks by study­ing which pub­lish­ers are pro­duc­ing books sim­i­lar in kind to the man­u­script you wish to sell. Com­pile a list of like­ly sus­pects, then tar­get them for your sub­mis­sions. First, though, check Writer’s Mar­ket to learn which of those pub­lish­ers accept unso­licit­ed man­u­scripts. (The SCBWI newslet­ter offers the lat­est mar­ket updates in this regard for chil­dren’s book specialists.)

WhenI decid­ed I want­ed to explore chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture for pos­si­ble pub­li­ca­tion, I spent two-and-one-half years review­ing books for a cou­ple of book review ser­vices. In the process, Ide­vel­oped a feel for who was pub­lish­ing what. By the time I was ready to sub­mit my own man­u­script, I was able to do tar­get­ed sub­mis­sions, and that’s what led to my first con­tract. No mag­ic there!

Note:I’d refrain from sub­mit­ting your work to more than one pub­lish­er at a time. Few pub­lish­ers like mul­ti­ple sub­mis­sions. They want to feel that you have cho­sen them, just as you hope they will choose you!

Researching the Market

You will meet with rejec­tion, so get used to the idea. No writer has ever avoid­ed rejec­tion, and nei­ther will you. That said, you need to devel­op a thick skin. When (not if) your man­u­script is sent back to you, turn right around and send it back out to the next pub­lish­er. Have an enve­lope already addressed and ready to go.


You will meet with rejec­tion, so get used to the idea. No writer has ever avoid­ed rejec­tion, and nei­ther will you. That said, you need to devel­op a thick skin. When (not if) your man­u­script is sent back to you, turn right around and send it back out to the next pub­lish­er. Have an enve­lope already addressed and ready to go.

If at First You Don’t Succeed …

Get­ting pub­lished is a job. Treat it like one. Make sure your writ­ing is up to par, pack­age it pro­fes­sion­al­ly, and keep send­ing your work out until you get the “yes“you’re hop­ing for.

Your Life Story

Every­one I meet is anx­ious to share their life sto­ry. We all have one, after all. If you’re itch­ing to share yours on the print­ed page, here’s a tip. Check your local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. Many, like River­side Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, in my gen­er­al area, offer how-to writ­ing cours­es on the sub­ject of per­son­al his­to­ry. River­side’s is called “Writ­ing Your Life Sto­ry,” and it is offered free of charge. Even if the course in your town charges a fee, chances are, it’s min­i­mal. Besides, if you’re seri­ous, you should be will­ing to make an invest­ment to devel­op the skills you’ll need to set your sto­ry down on paper.

Once you’ve got your sto­ry down on paper, think about desk-top pub­lish­ing it to share with your fam­i­ly and friends. What a spe­cial birth­day, anniver­sary, or hol­i­day gift that would be! It would also be a trea­sure to leave for the next gen­er­a­tion of your family.

Can I Get a Witness: a Special Note to Christians

If you are a Chris­t­ian with a pow­er­ful per­son­al sto­ry to tell, but don’t know where to start, here’s my advice. First, get a copy of Sal­ly Stu­ar­t’s Chris­t­ian Writer’s Mar­ket Guide. Pub­lished by Water­brook Press, it is a great ref­er­ence tool, espe­cial­ly for new, or first-time writ­ers. Sec­ond, vis­it, the web­site of Writ­ers Infor­ma­tion Net­work, an inter­na­tion­al Chris­t­ian writ­ers group based in Seat­tle, WA. They offer pro­fes­sion­al help, con­fer­ences, and mar­ket­ing infor­ma­tion use­ful to begin­ning writers.

Elaine Wright Colvin, WIN’s founder and direc­tor, was hap­py to pass on the link to their site. Feel free to use them as the won­der­ful resource they are!