For those English majors out there who, like me, expected the publishing industry to be made up of polite, slightly nerdy professionals who spend their time chatting with authors and perusing manuscripts, the NYU Bookstore’s “Secrets of Publishing” panel offered a realistic cross-section of the industry and an inside look at what it actually takes to get a piece to the press. Every month this semester, the NYU Bookstore hosted a “Secrets of…” event in which a panel of writers, literary agents, editors, and professors met to discuss tips and tricks for making it as a writer. There I found tough, business-minded New Yorkers who sounded like they’d seen their fair share of outlandish manifestos and were glad to give insight on what they think makes a piece fit for publication. Though a few other backpack- and notepad-equipped undergrads popped up throughout the crowd, authors of all ages and walks of life surrounded us. New York Times bestselling author Sue Shapiro moderated the September event, giving generous and brutally honest advice on how to get a work published. “While breaking in, it’s formulaic,” says Shapiro. According to the seasoned members of the panel, here’s what to write and how to write it:
- Do your research
Editors look for targeted pieces that match their particular publication’s criteria. The New York Times, for example, always looks for timely leads—openings that relate the article to current events. Try submitting a piece aimed at a specific category instead of just a general pitch. If you’re submitting directly to a publication, NYU Journalism professor and former editor Frank Flaherty suggested that the author imagine “sitting in my seat” and empathizing with the editor. Read what’s already been published, note the tone, and send what fits. For authors trying to submit through a literary agent, another panelist similarly stressed tailoring your proposal to the particular agent you’re writing your query to. Tiny things, like addressing your letter to the agent’s name or adding a line about the agent’s past work can mean a world of difference. A lot of submissions get filtered out right away simply because they don’t include the basics.
- Invest in your work
Take the time and investment to make sure it’s well written. A piece is never finished right after you’re done writing it. Use your resources to make the piece the best it can be—being a student here at NYU holds infinite opportunities to improve your creative writing. But if you find you’re out on your own, panelists suggest you find readers, attend a workshop, join an MFA program, or even just sit on a piece for a while. If you’re interested in YA books, Grace Kendall suggested looking into the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Shapiro’s hardball approach was to “spend money to make money.” As professed by the academics on the panel, an MFA in Creative Writing gives you two years’ worth of mentors, writer’s community, workshops, and a weekly motivation to keep writing, which might be something to consider for undergrads deciding their next step after graduation. Ghost editors are another powerful way to strengthen a piece—if a writer can afford them.
- Get an agent
For major publishing houses, all of the panelists agreed that getting a literary agent isn’t optional. Houses like Penguin, HarperCollins, and Random House rarely consider submissions without an agent to credit the author’s platform. On the other hand, major publishing houses aren’t for every kind of work. Be discerning with what your piece calls for, as not everything is fit for the mass market. Look for small literary magazines (Gulf Coast, Pool Poetry, Washington Square Review) and niche publishing houses, or consider self-publishing.
- “Know your craft”
Publication of fiction requires submitting a finished piece and a one-page query letter with your name, research, and pitch. Literary agent Ryan Haberge called this the “newspaper approach”—it has to include a who, what, where, when and why.
Non-fiction books and memoirs, on the other hand, should submit a comprehensive proposal instead of a completed work. For non-fiction, many editors appreciate a “back and forth” with the author—getting their input in the development of the book helps prevent problems after all the research has been tied up. Haberge recommends a proposal that is anywhere from 55–85 double-spaced pages long, and ideally includes an overview, writing sample, table of contents, and author biography.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in writing YA or children’s books, make sure your work is fully written and to sell the editor on your writing, rather than your platform. As Kendall cautioned at the panel, note that authors rarely get to choose their illustrators, and submitting a pair’s work together is no guarantee that it will stay together.
- Start small
If you’re a brand new writer, Sue Shapiro suggests you start with a column. When Kenan Trebincevic, author of The Bosnia List, first met Shapiro and told her the story of his war-torn childhood, she told him he needed to write it down. The length of a book originally intimidated Trebincevic. “Start with 3 pages,” she advised him, and that was how he began his 336-page memoir. Another of Shapiro’s peers created a book proposal from two previous Modern Love and Psychology Today columns, and now, at 25, ended up a Canadian bestselling author.
But above all else, any emerging writer should have a healthy drive for success. Shapiro admitted her own destructive writing process as a young adult (drink, write, pass out, wake up and panic about getting published) and shared a piece of advice she had gotten from her therapist back then. To succeed at anything, she revealed, you have to try your best to “hang out with the people you want to be” and then “ask good questions when you get there.”