How Do I Get My Book Published?

Yes indeed, that is a link-bait title: How do I get my book published? is the webbernet’s third most googled inquiry, after How do I get vomit out of my shoe? and HOW DO I TURN OFF CAPSLOCK? So, following on from our somewhat unhelpful “Should I Get an MFA?”, we present a guide to getting that creepy manuscript of yours into the hands of unsuspecting shoppers.

First up, ask yourself if you have written a good book. You probably haven’t; most books aren’t good. Of course, some books that are not good still get published.

Bad Book

But unless you are recounting that one time you were shot in the face by your husband’s frolicsome teenage lover, you should probably assume your book needs to be good in order to be published. Here are some signs your book is not good:

  • It contains the sentence “As they were resting, Mariuccia prepared a delicious stew with the lukewarm placenta.”
  • Your book is called Peas: The Hidden Menace.
  • You find the whole you’re/your thing so darn confusing.
  • There is only one female character in your book, and her name is Antigone Bean. She wears smudgy blue eyeliner and a dirty denim jacket. She has a tragic past, but cannot speak about it. She draws willows in notebooks. She is irresponsible and irresistible!
  • You would describe your book as being about “finding” something—love; self; self-respect. (Unless that something is your keys, in which case I am very curious how those 80,000 words are going to play out, Nicholson Baker.)
  • You wept a lot while writing it.

So far, so maybe not not-good? Great! Show your book to several cruel and clever friends, and ask them to be brutal. Make sure one of them has a talent for proofreading, since almost any manuscript with a mistake on the first page will be rejected. Do not think “But it doesn’t have to be perfect! The publisher will fix it!” Most people who work in publishing love words, and endeavor to use them well; if you don’t demonstrate a similar love of language, they’re going to think you’re a clodpate. Also, please remember that publishers drink heavily from 11am onwards, and the drink makes them cruel. They are looking for reasons to laugh at you. Don’t give them the satisfaction!

Note that you will need to send this potentially not-utterly-shit book to an appropriate publisher. This is a tricky step for many people. I used to work for a company that published cookbooks—that was all we published: muffins; sausages; quick and easy meals for two—and yet we received many, many submissions from memoirists, children’s book authors, and poets. Dear Sir [my vagina has already condemned you to the dustbin, you dickwizzle!], I have written a children’s book entitled Lester The Giraffe Goes To The Crematorium. It is a confronting tale for children aged 3-5. Would you be interested in publishing it? No! No! Unless Lester the Giraffe can be turned into a nice casserole in twenty minutes and served with a side of blanched escarole, no! What is wrong with you? This step is not difficult. Here we go:

Identify the type of book you have written. Go to a bookstore. Find a book of the same type. Now take out a pen and write down the name of the company that published that book. Bingo!

Finally, the submission itself. Some publishers will only accept submissions that have been vetted by an agent, in which case you’ll need to find an agent. Good luck with that. Other publishers are happy to glance at any old tat that shows up in their slush pile. Some agents and publishers only want to see a query letter, while others prefer to receive the entire manuscript. It’s a crapshoot. If google won’t help you discover the particular requirements of your prospective agent or publisher, I’d just go for broke and send ’em the entire thing.

Your manuscript should be presented in the dullest font imaginable. If you insist on using a whimsical, curlicued font—it’s just so me!—let me save you some money on postage and tell you to promptly throw your manuscript into a pond. Also, do NOT bind your manuscript into some kind of book facsimile. Nothing makes a publisher laugh harder than evidence that you took a trip to the printing department at Kinkos. (Also, everyone knows that the printing department at Kinkos is situated in the midsection of Satan’s fiery rectum.) Here is a conversation that has taken place nowhere ever:

“So, Robert, shall we publish A Fiery Fondness or Make Mine a Mochachino?”
“I like the second one, Jemima. The manuscript has been thoughtfully bound to look quite like a book, and therefore I think it would be more suitable as a book. You see, because I possess no imagination, or indeed any basic cognitive abilities, I appreciate that the author has taken the time to show me that this manuscript could indeed be successfully formed into a book shape.”
“Great, Bobby! Me too!” [High fives.]

No sir, you will not fool anyone into thinking you have written a book just by making it look like a book.

You’ll need to include a cover letter. Don’t make it odd. Here is an example of an odd cover letter we once received:

Cover Letter

Don’t do that. In your cover letter, do not state that your chiropractor enjoyed the book, or that you once had a short story published in the online journal Sunny Summer Tuesdays. No one cares. Do not use fancy paper; you are not inviting the publisher to a garden party. Also, please be aware that writing “I retain all copyright to my work”—or drawing a little © on every page of your manuscript—will instantly reveal you to be nuts; writers who are paranoid about their ideas being stolen are the maddest of the mad. No one is going to steal your daft idea—and if they did, writing “I retain all copyright to my work” in your cover letter is not going to make a blind bit of legal difference in your awesome lawsuit against Bob’s Rectangular Books Inc. Do not mention the possibility of an advance, you gauche bastard. And do not mention that writing the book has healed you in any way. That’s just gross. (As Maya Angelou once said, “Your eczema? Your business!”)

You should also include a one-page synopsis of your book. Make it interesting. If you cannot write an interesting synopsis of your book, I’m afraid you will need to write another book.

I hope this has been helpful. And fear not—if you find you have no talent for writing, you can glue an empty Fresh Direct box to a fox carcass, title it Darling Hunter: Mind Waves III, and call yourself The Mighty Stan. The world of conceptual art will welcome you.

Should I Get an MFA?

James Joyce turns up at the writing workshop with the last sentence of “The Dead”:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

mfa1Nathan reckons the alliteration is way over the top, and tells James to tone it down a little. No, make that a lot. Everyone agrees, except for Mark, who likes alliteration, but no one ever listens to Mark because mostly he just talks about Kerouac. Beverly (hip, ironic Beverly; not your Aunt of the same name) asks if it isn’t a little popular fiction to talk of souls swooning? Claire S. agrees, and wants to know, what does it even mean, his soul swooned? Paul Merritt Jnr. says James is a slave to the rhythm—“You’re writing prose, man, not poetry”—and Meek Ruth (that’s what they all call her, behind her back) wonders, quietly, if she’s the only one who doesn’t really get the bit about the descent of their last end? Rebecca says she doesn’t really get it either, and that the word slowly is, like, totally redundant, because swooning already implies slowness. (Mark isn’t sure about that.) Paul Merritt Jnr. agrees with Rebecca, and adds that the repetition of falling and faintly is pretty uncalled for. “Why not just, snow fell in the churchyard?” he asks, and Meek Ruth bites her lip.

Ah yes, it’s workshop time! To Master the Fine Arts or not to Master the Fine Arts? Let’s pretend some lovely readers have asked Malvern Books questions about MFA programs, and we’ll all sit around with our cups of tea and our choccie biscuits and try to come up with some thoughts.

My name is Karl. I am a stockbroker. I would like to write a thriller in which a submarine is stolen by a despot! I get excited just thinking about it! But I need help with the words and would like to do an MFA. Is it true that MFA programs do not like books about submarines?

It’s not quite true that MFA programs utterly shun books about submarines. In every MFA program, there will be two or three students chosen to represent genre fiction. (And genre fiction will be said in rather the same way you say fecal smear.) There will also be one Republican, and one or two people who can barely form sentences but have had interesting life experiences (someone who was once a cheesemonger in a tiny French village; someone who was falsely imprisoned for cock fighting, etc.). All of these students will be treated politely in class, and people will workshop their stories with the usual rigor (i.e. rigor will vary). But Karl, please know that you will be ridiculed in the bars late at night. If you can handle this, by all means apply.

I asked my husband to lock me in the spare room so I’d be forced to write, but I just climbed out the window. And we live on the third floor! Will the demands of an MFA program make me more disciplined? Help me!

You poor thing. I sympathize. No, really: I’ve been there. Am there. Always. And does an MFA program help? Well, there are deadlines, it’s true. Every so often you’re supposed to hand something in to be workshopped. But if you don’t hand something in, nothing much happens. A man in a cardigan will frown at you and maybe one cantankerous fellow student will say I feel like you’re not, like, engaging with us in this process, and that’s about it. Nobody else will give a shit and nobody will stamp a red F on your front door. If you’re accepted into an MFA program, you will almost certainly leave with an MFA, even if you only write seventeen words (and assuming you set no fires). In other words, there are deadlines, yes, but the consequences for messing up are not very scary. It’s still going to be up to you to make yourself sit down and write, and if that is a problem for you, an MFA program is not necessarily a solution. However, you’ll be in a new place, surrounded by people you want to impress, and you’ll have a lot of time on your hands—and this might just be enough to force you to write. (Probably not, though, if I’m being honest. Probably not.)

I write really weird, experimental stuff. Like Ben Marcus on acid mixed with Ayn Rand mixed with the messiest jazz you ever heard in your life. Will an MFA program destroy my unique voice?

Golly, you sound awful. Anyway, yes, the horror of homogenization! There’s an assumption that MFA programs are snapping up experimental geniuses and forcing them to write careful little novels about ancestry and relationships and secrets from the past and whatnot. Take, for example, the particularly miffed Ruth Fowler, who insists that “the Creative Writing MFA is the singularly most devastating occurrence to hit literature in the 20th century, churning out writers of utterly indistinguishable competence.” Oh boy! If only a few creative writing classes had that much influence! Alas, Ms. Fowler credits the workshop process with far too much power to change a writer’s style: if an MFA program churns out dull-but-competent writers, it’s because most writers are dull to begin with. It’s not like you enter a workshop clutching a ream of experimental prose poetry about existential robot sex and leave with a tedious crapfest in which an aimless young woman cleans out her father’s attic after his suicide and discovers his journals and visits her unknown Latvian grandma for the first time and blah blah blah. There are thousands of people writing that same novel, god help us, and some of them attend writers’ workshops, where they continue to write that novel. The workshop removes the adverbs, changes Claire was angry to Claire crumpled the soiled antimacassar into a ball, and axes the first chapter. The writer then delivers the novel to an agent, who says, “Can we make the grandmother French? Latvia is so 2009…” and voilà, a new literary voice emerges! But the essential dullness of the novel has everything to do with the writer and very little to do with the MFA program.

And if you’re dull, I’m afraid no amount of have you thought about maybe deleting the third paragraph? is going to make you any less dull. You might produce several suitably odd and interesting sentences when forced to do one of those arbitrary creative writing exercises (“your story must feature a lemon, a cat, a passing sense of ennui, and a troop of dancing turds”), but the minute you finish stage-managing the dancing turds and return to your own manuscript, you will write When the car hit the telephone pole, time seemed to stand still. Of course, by the end of the workshop, the car’s chassis will crumple like a discarded candy wrapper and time will seem to uncoil like a shimmering band of ribbon— but it’s still the same old story. Sorry.

So… what are you saying? I’m confused!

If you’re a brilliant writer, a workshop won’t ruin you (James Joyce knows perfectly well to ignore the fools). If you’re a bad writer, it won’t do you much good. And if, like most of us, you’re a shows-promise-needs-work kind of writer, well, time spent writing, that’s the ticket! MFA programs can provide you with that time; so can a cabin in the woods, or a holiday from work, or the insane ability to get up at 5am and sit down at the dining room table with a pen and a piece of paper. Whatever works for you, my dear. Let’s not get ourselves so worked up about it.

Full disclosure: I have 1.5 MFAs—because I like to do things by one-and-a-halves, yo!—and I can’t say I regret the years spent muddling my way through them. I didn’t write all that much at the time (see: new town; new country; cheap beer; writing is scary; am colossal coward, etc.), but here’s the thing: if you do an MFA, you will meet your people. There will only be three or four of them. And you might have met them anyway, at a bookstore, or maybe waiting in line for antidepressants at the Rite Aid, but probably not. Certainly not all three or four of them. And your people, those lovely, clever people, will cheer you up when you’re moping and chastise you when you’re lazy and, when you finally get around to showing them a few pages, they will give you red pen marks you can trust and tell you things that are true. For those three or four people, certainly, it’s worth it.