Traditional Publishing: Is It Still Possible?

Kyle, a 19-year-old writer enrolled in a BA creative writing program at a local university, posed the following query on Facebook:

Alright, so my ultimate goal is to make a living and career out of writing and publishing books. I want to do it the traditional way of going through a literary agent who will establish a contract with a respective publishing company. The tricky part is getting a foot in the door. Agents receive query letters every day from hundreds of people trying to get themselves out there. The agent needs to see something that separates a writer from the rest, someone they know has credentials and can market. This is usually done through building some sort of resume and getting published in minor places like magazines and online sites, contests and whatnot. I am working on my BA in Creative Writing which I will receive from Salisbury. I’m hoping to get published somewhere somehow along the way, so by the time I have my degree, my resume will speak for itself in the query letter. At the same time, I’m toying with the idea of somehow getting an agent sooner, though it is a very long shot. I have a 4 book series I would be presenting, something I’ve been working on for 2 1/2 years, recently turning 19. The original novel, which was just supposed to be a linear story, is now a complete universe with a working prequel, sequel, and a bridge between the original and sequel following a new character and his overlap with the main plot. In addition to this, I’m working on a complete summary of the series, starting with all relevant background information of the universe, following into the prequel and going from there.

Kyle, the good news is that you are doing all the right things, and I believe you have a bright future ahead of you. Let’s break this down and see why.

Traditional publishing is getting harder to crack every day. You would think just the opposite would be true, as so many people are turning to Print-On-Demand (POD) and digital (eBook) publishing. Surely the traditional publishers would be searching far and wide for writers to stick with the “old way” of publishing books, wouldn’t they?

Well, it all comes down to numbers — dollar signs, to be exact. The increase in digital publishing also means a decrease in readers actually buying print books. The Go Green movement has made it fashionably correct to stick to the digital downloads and avoid the bulky books that get tossed on a stack of other used books somewhere in the corner of your bedroom.

Therefore, traditional publishers are being very choosy about what and who they publish. Here’s why Kyle is doing all the right things.

First, he is young. At 19, Kyle is seen as a long-term investment for an agent who wants to establish a relationship with an author. The younger the talented writer, the more opportunities for multi-book deals, which leads us to the next advantage.

Second, Kyle has a four-book plan to pitch. In fiction, agents want to see a polished manuscript of at least one book in a series, with detailed outlines of subsequent books in a trilogy or series. The outlines must demonstrate to the agent that the writer understands the bigger picture of a four-book deal, where he can see a greater story spanning four books, yet each book has its own self-contained story. The multi-book deal shows the agent and the publisher that this is an investment. Think of the hottest books on the market in the last ten years; most of them are part of a series, and serial books mean big money in merchandising, film, and (of course) digital downloads.

Third, Kyle understands the game. He knows that he has to stuff a folder with “clips” of published stories to demonstrate two things: 1) validation from other reputable publications and 2) continuity and consistency. Kyle should be sending out shorter works of fiction at least every other month, if not more frequently. He needs to demonstrate that he can manage the business side of writing as well as the creative side. This is where most writers fail. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to see that this is a business. There is no such thing as “Writer’s Block” to a professional writer. As David Simon once wrote about his own father, I have no more right to say that I have writer’s block than my father has to say, I have milkman’s block. He would never get away with skipping a delivery because he couldn’t find his creative muse; not delivering means not working; not working means not getting paid. If you want to be a writer, you have to work hard and deliver the product. Consistently.

Fourth, Kyle has created a universe that opens up endless possibilities with spinoffs, sequels, fan fiction — you name it. Agents and publishers love it when the author makes it this easy for them. Kyle and his writing have dollar signs written all over them.

Of course, without saying, the writing has to be very, very good. Not great, but very very good. Clear, crisp, and concise writing sells books. Tell a good, clean story, and demonstrate the ability to do it again and again, is the golden ticket to success in the traditional market.

Now, Kyle would be wise to consider both traditional and digital markets for getting published now. Many reputable traditionals publish additional works online, and many more reputable journals have gone all digital. It does not mean that their criteria for publishing have changed; it just means that they have the opportunity to, perhaps, publish a few more works than they might have had the money to publish traditionally.

Also, Kyle needs to begin networking at local and regional conferences, where agents are sitting on panels, serving as keynotes, or leading strategic workshops. He needs to pitch his ideas concisely and convincingly. He should have business cards printed with his contact information, and the card should pop, but in a professional way (in addition– Kyle needs to make sure that all of his contact info is simple and as close to his name as possible; abandon creative email addresses that have nothing to do with you [and thus won’t ever be associated with your name]).

As Kyle gains momentum in getting his work published and finds an agent, his works will logically flow into a hybrid stream of publishing opportunities in both traditional and digital platforms.

Good luck to you, Kyle, and all others who still believe in traditional publishing. It’s still possible to make it as a full-time writer; it just takes a lot of work and a good amount of talent.

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