It's a sad truth, I think, that published authors represent only a tiny, tiny minority of people who want to be published authors. Working as a writer is something more people can do - both my wife and I work as writers right now, in fact. I'm not trying to suggest that it's easier or somehow less of a profession. No, not at all. I mean that there are simply less chances to be an author. Less money in the profession, and less luck for some than others. Being an author also seems to have garnered a bit of a reputation as a non-job. Or, it can be perceived as an easy life, as if a writer just sat down, wrote a simple story, and gets to stay at home all day.
I'm not an author, in the published sense (and there's a good debate to have! I've written a book. Am I an author?) but I am trying to be - and this means work. For those who might not know, here's the industry standard for getting published!
1. Write your novel. Seriously. This means writing a first draft, editing it, revising it, leaving it cold for a couple of months (sometime), and revising it again. If you don't have a complete manuscript (ms) you can't get past this stage!
2. Query a literary agent. Literary agents represent promising works to publishers. While you can approach publishers directly (and many do, and are sometimes successful!) it's not common practice. A query letter is a trying thing to write. Again, there are industry standards here, and an accepted format (which differs between the US and UK, by the way...!). You have to research, and revise, and get it right.
Agents receive maybe 10,000 queries a year, and most take on maybe five new clients a year. In a good year. Wow!
If they like the query, they'll ask for what's called a 'partial' in the US, and in the UK just the first three chapters. They'll then read these, to decide if your style and voice is a match for them. If they like what they read, and your query (presumably) intrigued them, they'll request the full ms. This is a big thing for unpublished writers - an agent likes them enough to invest reading their book, and in theory you're only one step away from the hallowed, golden egg of wannabe authors; representation.
Many times (in fact, most times!) agents will pass on the full ms still. That's life. In the UK, around 3 months is the standard turn around for a full. In the US it's more varied, but that often means longer. Time consuming, eh?
3. If the agent takes you on, you celebrate! Only other writers who have ridden the query merry-go-round will really understand your joy. Friends and family probably won't, Just accept that.
The agent may accept you with revisions to be made, or as if often the case, maybe ask for the revisions first and only then decide if they will really take you on. Revise and Resubmit (R&Rs) requests are becoming more common from agents, and they are a generous thing even still. The agents sees promise, but flaws, and offers you pointers on how to fix those flaws. Still...
4. The agent, with your complete ms accepted, then pitches it to editors they think are a good fit. How long does this take? There's no answer. Some mss never get picked up by publishers. Some do so immediately, at an auction, for big money. You can't ever guess.
5. If an editor likes it, then they have to convince the house to invest in it. Now money is talked about. Can they reasonably expect it to sell? Will it need investment? How do marketing feel? It's rough, sometimes.
6. If it's a yes, then the deal is done, essentially. Terms are negotiated between the agent (a professional) and the publisher, and the author might finally be able to relax.
7. A year or more later, the book comes out in shops. Phew!
Let me sum up this post. Getting a book published is flippin' hard. So there!