The Secret to Getting Published

There is, of course, no secret way to get published. No hidden key, no insider information, no shortcut. There is no way to skip over these mandatory steps: First learn to write, then go out and sell it. However, there are a few secrets to avoid short-circuiting your efforts. Learn what they are in this excerpt from How I Got Published.
Publish date:

The Publication Blues

I’ve queried and networked, til blue in the face
Submitted, submitted all over the place
Read my rejections (and some made me cuss)
“Great concept,” “well written”—“just not right for us”

Then what, I would ask, does it take to succeed?
If “great concept,” “well written” won’t get me a read
Persistence, it seems, in the face of rejection
Is the only sure path that leads to selection.

The odds are quite simple—you will or you won’t
Those who will, do—and those who don’t, won’t

—Ray White

There is, of course, no secret way to get published. No hidden key, no insider information, no shortcut. There is no way to skip over these mandatory steps: First learn to write; then go out and sell it.

Certainly you can short-circuit the system by self-publishing. You won’t have to study the market, write tedious query letters, or get rejected by agents and editors. You won’t even have to be any good at writing.

But self-published means you have to do everything yourself. Choose the printer, design the cover, sell the book, store the printed copies…and pay for it all yourself.

Self-publishing is when you pay for the books. Getting published is when someone else pays.

If you want to get published you have to be good, you have to be determined, and you have to attract the attention of an agent or an editor at a publishing house. To do that you need only two things: luck and persistence.

Persistence is sending letters again and again, ignoring the rejections, sending more letters, and so on, until somebody caves and takes your book.

Luck is buying a lottery ticket. Luck is your Uncle Phil being the manager of a large publishing house, or your cousin’s babysitter being the daughter of a top literary agent.

The Pros and Cons of Luck
The plus side of luck is that it does happen. You could send out a single query letter and get an immediate response: “Loved your book. Want to publish it. Where do I send the money?” Your manuscript might be just what they’re looking for that day. If they turn down books because it’s not what they’re seeking, then sometimes they have to take a book because it is exactly what they need.

After all, somebody always wins the pot in a poker game. As a buddy of mine, who plays poker professionally, said, “Over the course of an evening, skill will determine the winner. But on any particular hand luck can beat skill.” And despite Hollywood insanity, movies do get made. New authors do get published every year. Lottery tickets always pay off for someone.

The problem with the luck strategy is that your lottery number isn’t likely to come up, which leads us to…

The Pros and Cons of Persistence
The plus side of persistence is that persistence is as close to a sure thing as possible in this business.

Persistence is sending out a new query every time you get a rejection. And while you’re doing it you can think, “Take that!” There’s no guarantee you’re going to win, it costs some time and money and hope and faith. But it feels great when an agent says yes. Euphoria.

Two sides of the same coin:
Persistence is doing the same thing over and over until it works.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Persistence is like door-to-door sales or telemarketing; a game of numbers. You can improve your odds by doing it a lot. In sales there’s a rule of thumb: it takes one hundred nos to get a single yes. Any time a telemarketer or a door-to-door salesman gets a phone or door slammed in their face they are expected to feel a bit closer to success.

Call—slam!—“Oh, goody; I’m one step closer to my goal.” A motivational speaker once said, after being told about a writer who received another three rejection letters, “Congratulations! You are now three steps closer to your goal!”

Which is Better, Persistence or Luck?
Neither. Persistence is the king. Luck has to happen. The secret to success—in anything—is both. Read the stories throughout this book of how other writers made it. You’ll find that there are many more instances of people who wouldn’t give up than there are of happy coincidence. Many more. But all of the writers had to have that moment of being in the right place at the right time.

If luck were all, we’d just wait by the phone for it to ring. If persistence were all, the nags would rule the world.

In both cases, luck and persistence, you have to actually go out and do something. Nobody is likely to come to your door and ask politely, “Excuse me, I’m a literary agent. Is there a writer here?” Even Publisher’s Clearing House won’t send Ed McMahon and the Dream Team out to your house unless you stick the envelope in the mail.

All lottery winners had to buy a ticket. All gamblers had to go to the casino. All published writers had to write something—and send it out!

You have to send query letters or go to conferences and talk to people and keep doing these things even when you’d rather just go home and write another book. Since you have to go out and do something, the question becomes what? Writers conferences? Query letters? A compelling Web site?

The plan is the answer to the question, “What am I going to do when I get up tomorrow?”

Are you going to send query letters? How many? To whom? Are you going to send directly to editors that accept unagented writers, or will you target agents?

Whatever your plan, it’s time to get busy and get on with making things happen.

Your Goal: To Get an Agent or Publisher
Right? You’re not reading this book to learn how to write, you’re doing so to get published. To do that you have to meet, and get accepted by, an agent or an editor. So here’s what you do.

1. Write something.

2. Edit it, get critiques, and re-edit it.

3. Create a “How to Get Published Plan.”
a. Query letters to agents
1. Find contact information
a. Writer’s Market
b. Online
b. Direct to publishers
1. Research who to send to
a. Writer’s Market
b. Online
c. Meet agents in person
1. At conventions
2. If they ask for sample chapters/synopsis, go to step 6.b.1

4. Write a query letter, including
a. A terrific title
b. A one-sentence hook
c. Author bio
d. A one-paragraph synopsis
e. The SASE

5. Mail campaign
a. Who do you mail to?
1. Find agents in print market guides
2. Search online
b. Multiple submissions—how many are you sending out?
1. Mail or e-mail (their choice)
2. Keep track through a log

6. Results
a. Receive a “Dear Author” letter or the dreaded no response at all.
1. Rewrite your query letter and send it out again.
b. The agent sends a personal note
1. Keep sending
c. The agent requests three sample chapters and a brief synopsis
1. Write a terrific 2–3 page synopsis
. 2. Send the chapters and synopsis
3. Log them in and wait
4. And wait. And wait
a. Get another rejection and go back to step 6.b.1 or
b. The agent requests complete manuscript
1. Follow the rules for sending a manuscript
2. Get a phone call from the agent/editor saying “Yes!”

That’s the entire plan. Certainly there are other ways. We used a very effective query letter and sent it to every agent we could find and that led to this book being published. But overall, the tried and true method of getting an agent who will represent you and get your book in the door of a publisher seems to be the best route.

Image placeholder title

Excerpted from How I Got Published by Ray White and Duane Lindsay (Writer's Digest Books, 2007). Visit the authors' site at

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

5 Ways to Add a Refrain to Your Picture Books (and Why You Should)

Children's author Christine Evans shares how repetition is good for growing readers and gives you the tools to write your story's perfect refrain.

From Our Readers

Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World: From Our Readers (Comment for a Chance at Publication)

This post announces our latest From Our Readers ask: Describe the First Time a Book Transported You to Another/Magical World. Comment for a chance at publication in a future issue of Writer's Digest.

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

About Us: How to Handle Your Story That Involves Other People

Your story belongs to you but will involve other people. Where do your rights end and theirs begin?

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Identifying Your Book's Target Audience

Editor-in-chief Amy Jones navigates how to know your target audience, and how knowing will make your writing stronger.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 575

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a safe poem.


I Spy

Every writer needs a little inspiration once and a while. For today's prompt, someone is watching your narrator ... but there's a twist.

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

Brian Freeman: On "Rebooting" Another Writer's Legacy

In this article, Brian Freeman, author of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Treachery, discusses how he took up the mantle of a great series and made it his own.

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Sole vs. Soul (Grammar Rules)

Learn how to distinguish the sole from the soul with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

How to Make the Most of a Virtual Writing Workshop or Conference

In this brave new world of virtual learning and social distance, Kristy Stevenson helps us make the most of the virtual conference.