Short answer: look for publishers, keep on looking, then look some more.
Longer answer: Though I’m no expert on getting published, I hope recounting my recent experience might be helpful to aspiring writers. My debut novella, Wheatyard, was recently accepted for publication by Kuboa Press, and is scheduled for release on April 30, 2013. I started writing the book in November 2005, and after many stops and starts, it was finally completed in April 2011. But despite the many years it took, the writing actually turned out to be the easy part – much easier than finding a publisher. At least with the writing, I was totally in control, and only had to convince myself that the book was brilliant, or at least worthwhile. Now I had to convince a publisher.
In writing circles I’m mostly an outsider, with personal connections to only a handful of small publishers, and no connections to any of the big houses. So while I did have a few friendly publishers to slip my manuscript to, for the most part I approached presses as a complete stranger. For research I diligently, almost obsessively, scoured the ads in Poets & Writers and online book reviews, looking for the name of any publisher I wasn’t aware of or hadn’t yet explored.
The first publisher I contacted was found in a P&W ad, and after seeing from their website that they had an open submissions policy, I emailed my manuscript, and was delighted to get an answer that same day, even though it wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. The publisher said no, but in a surprise twist he said that if I had something like the novel-within-a-novel which my protagonist Wheatyard had written, he would have been interested in publishing it. Unfortunately, Wheatyard’s writing style is very different than mine, and I doubted I could ever write that kind of book, so I humbly thanked the publisher for his consideration, and continued on with my search.
The next submission was to an indie press with a huge back catalog (which I hoped boded well for me, in the numbers-game sense) which had published a novella by a good friend of mine; however, I didn’t try to exploit that personal connection, and the rejection came quickly. (Talking with my friend later, I’m not sure playing up the connection would have helped anyway; he didn’t have a very good experience with the publisher overall.) Then a newer but fast-rising indie drew my attention, and per their instructions I submitted just the first two chapters; they liked that sample well enough to request the entire manuscript, which gave me very high hopes. Ultimately, though, they took a pass.
I’ll refrain from describing each and every submission and subsequent rejection, most of which have already blurred together in my mind anyway. Suffice it to say that every time I saw an intriguing ad or online review, I immediately checked out the publisher’s website to see what kind of books they were looking for and, most importantly, if they were currently accepting submissions. Then, if they took online submissions, I would promptly send them my manuscript or query letter. While this got Wheatyard extensive dissemination, it also brought a steady stream of rejections, most of them depressingly prompt and boilerplate in tone. So, while I will gloss over most of the submissions and rejections, there are two more situations worth mentioning.
First, there was the industry behemoth known as AWP, the short name for the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, a nearly weeklong gathering of writers, publishers and writing programs, which includes countless panel discussions, offsite readings, book selling, deal making and socializing (yes, including heavy drinking). In 2012, AWP was held in Chicago, and though the panels didn’t interest me much and the evening readings and socializing seemed better left to those younger and closer to home (I live an hour away from the city), the book fair was open to the general public, free, on Saturday. I knew this was a good opportunity to browse tons of great small press books that I would never see anywhere else, but, more importantly, to meet and talk to publishers who might be interested in Wheatyard.
Unfortunately, I am not at all a salesman. I’m not good at small talk or meeting strangers, and the thought of pushing my book on someone else, while fairly easy via the detached medium of email, is very intimidating in person. But on Saturday there I was, armed with a stack of sample chapters, making the rounds of the four big conference rooms, mostly browsing books but only rarely chatting up publishers. After a few hours of circling the rooms, I made good contacts with just three publishers. Ultimately, all three prospects fell through; one publisher said the writing was good but that she really didn’t care for novels about writers. (Oddly enough, I feel the same way, even though I spent several years writing a novel about a writer.) So AWP was unsuccesful for me in terms of publication, but at least I got out there and gave it a try, which bolstered my confidence to continue on.
All of which brought me, finally, to Kuboa Press. Several years ago, I read Mel Bosworth’s novella Grease Stains, Kismet and Maternal Wisdom, enjoyed it, and started following the author on his blog and Facebook. Sometime in 2011 Bosworth announced that his book was being republished by Kuboa Press, which of course I immediately checked out online. Several things intrigued me about the press: first, all of their physical books are published in mass market paperback format (think pulp fiction, or romance novels) instead of the larger trade paperback format which is typical of indie presses; their print books are sold for only $2.95 (plus shipping) while the ebooks are free; and the striking, abstract cover art which is all obviously created by the same artist, giving the books a unified aesthetic feel. And there was something about that name, Kuboa. When I further considered that Bosworth’s book is, like Wheatyard, a novella (many presses shy away from novellas and only take full-length novels) which has a straightforward, thoughtful narrative that is blessedly free of sylistic pyrotechnics and gratuitous violence (all general qualities shared by Wheatyard), Kuboa seemed particularly promising.
After keeping the press in mind for several months, I finally sent off an email, inquiring if Kuboa was actively taking submissions, and almost immediately got a reply from Pablo D’Stair, its publisher (and a prolific writer in his own right). He said yes, he had one more slot to fill in Kuboa’s 2013 lineup, and that he’d be glad to look at my manuscript. A few months later I followed up, and Pablo said he loved the book, that it was exactly the sort of thing he was into and he would like to publish it. After some hesitation (most of which was nothing more than my fear of the unknown – I had, somewhat strangely, gotten to the point of being almost comfortable with the idea that Wheatyard would never be published), I very gratefully accepted.
Shortly after, I happened to ask Pablo about the name of the press, and he replied that “kuboa” was a invented word in Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger, and that with Hamsun being his greatest artistic inspiration he thought it would be a fitting tribute to Hamsun to name the press in his honor. Which is what I had wondered since the very first time I saw the name of the press, but never dreamed could really be the case. You see, Hunger happens to be my favorite novel ever, and Hamsun’s early novels are great inspiration to me as well. When I discovered that connection, I realized that getting published by Kuboa Press was something that was just meant to be. Wheatyard has finally found a home after an odyssey of more than seven years, and I couldn’t be happier.
So, back to the original question. How to get published? Do your research, talk to as many writers and publishers as you can, send out your query letter and/or manuscript to as many places as you can, realize that rejections are the norm (I got thirteen official rejections, plus another four or five de facto rejections from publishers who never responded), immediately follow a rejection by sending out a new submission to another publisher, and work much harder than I did when attending mass gatherings like AWP.
And, most of all, don’t stop believing in your book, and yourself.