A reader wrote to me this morning:
My question is, is it possible to get something published if you have never been published before and you don't KNOW anyone in the business? I know my work is good, but I am completely bewildered by all the rules and guidelines for submitting material to publishers. I send query letters to publishers who, in the current Writer's Market, say they are looking for my genre and I get back a letter saying they are not looking for that right now. It doesn't even seem possible to get far enough in the process for an editor to read anything I've written.
I know what you're talking about. My last published novel appeared in 1995, and thereafter I began to feel like a novice all over again, trying to figure out a market that had changed completely since the 1970s.
Damon Runyan once observed, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet it." From most publishers' point of view, an unknown writer is statistically likely to be a big money-loser. No, a small money-loser, because publishers don't invest much in most new authors.
When they do pay a big advance to an unknown writer, the advance itself becomes a marketing tool: Look at how much we're paying this 22-year-old! If she's worth a million bucks, she must be good!
In these cases, bizarrely, it's the author's lack of a sales record that makes the big advance possible. The old pros are known quantities. You can predict their sales, and you can also predict they won't suddenly triple or quadruple those sales. (You can also predict that the 22-year-old will fail to earn out her huge advance, and won't be heard from again.)
Aspiring writers tend to put their trust in resources like Writer's Market, but I've given up on them. Writer's Market is at least partially obsolete on the day it's published, and becomes increasingly so as the year progresses. Then you have to buy the next year's edition, and you repeat the cycle. Better to surf the publishers' websites for reasonably current information (though it's often discouraging news).
One possibility to explore: writers' conferences where apprentices can meet real live editors, publishers, and agents. This is not only a good source of information, but you may be able to meet someone face to face who will take an interest in you and your project.
Self-publication is another possibility. If most writers wanted to be publishers, they'd work for a publishing house. But if you've got a reasonable head for business, and some persistence, you can arrange for the publication of a few hundred copies of your book—whether through one of the electronic self-publishers like iUniverse and Xlibris, or by making a deal with a local freelance editor, a book designer, and a printer.
In either case, the point is not to provide yourself with a lifetime supply of Christmas presents for relatives, but to give yourself something to take into bookstores, if only on consignment. If the book sells at all, you may then be able to interest a publisher in distributing it for you...and maybe even bringing out a new edition. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.
Persistence seems to be the key. Dalton Trumbo, one of my mentors when I was a boy, spent most of the Depression working the night shift in a Los Angeles bakery while writing. He produced six novels and 84 short stories before finally selling something—a short story to the Saturday Evening Post. He went on to write several more novels, including the classic Johnny Got His Gun, not to mention many screenplays.
"Crof," he once told, "all you need to be a writer is ego and energy." He was right, but the energy isn't just for cranking out text—it's for cranking out still more text, learning from your own work, and pushing it until finally some editor is desperate enough to take a chance on you.