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How I Worked the Publishing System (And You Can, Too!)

This past weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at the Hay House Writer’s Workshop in Chicago with Reid Tracy and Nancy Levin. The headliner for the weekend was Mike Dooley, creator of “Notes from the Universe,” a daily email I’ve been loyally reading for several years. It was pure entertainment to hear him recount his twisty path from being a Price Waterhouse CPA to becoming a motivational speaker who inspires hundreds of thousands of readers every day.

I especially loved how he claimed he did it. In his words, he “followed the breadcrumbs.”

My own career as a book editor began by following that same sort of breadcrumb trail.

As I was graduating from college, I went to see a favorite professor to ask him what I should do with my life. I was expecting him to tell me to go get a job in media, since he was my communications prof. But he surprised me.

“You’re a great writer,” he said. “An obvious path for you would be to write books.”

Write books? I thought. I was flattered, but I was also pretty certain that writing books entailed, um, writing WHOLE ENTIRE books. Who has the patience? The stamina? The ideas?

“Not yet, of course,” he went on, as my panic subsided. “You don’t have anything to write about yet. But later in your career.”

Whew! I had some time. Because I couldn’t deny it: the idea of writing books definitely lit a little light in my soul. But executing such a monumental task? It was the kind of thing I was quite happy to put off for, say, 10 or 20 or 30 years.

Later that same week, on a kinda-sorta blind date with my sister’s boyfriend’s best friend’s little brother, I got my next crumb. I asked him what he did for a living, and he told me he was an editorial assistant at a book publishing company.

Holy smokes. You can be that?

I’d been working in a bookstore (shout out to the erstwhile Cleveland Park Book Shop in Washington, DC—RIP, independent local bookseller) and I figured I would never have such an awesome job again. But if I couldn’t work in a bookstore for the rest of my life, what about actually editing books?

I was in. Not just because it sounded both glamorous and challenging—a combo I cannot resist—but also because it would confer upon me the ancient secrets of the literati: how a book gets published.

After all, I’m an overachiever. If I’m going to do something, I want to know I’m going to rock it out. And I was pretty certain getting a book published was something lots of people failed at every day.

Not me, I thought. If I was meant to be writing books, as my professor seemed to think, then working in the publishing biz was the perfect gig. It would pay the bills (barely, as it turned out) while I gathered enough life experience to give Hemingway a run for his money. And at the same time, I’d be learning insider secrets that would ensure I could get my own book(s) published when the time was right.

I thought I was pretty much a genius. Thank you, thank you.

So I took a long hard look at my bookshelf, and jotted down the familiar names I saw. Simon & Schuster. HarperPerennial. Plume. I hopped on the brand-spanking-new World Wide Web and tracked down job opportunities at all of these companies. In the end, I moved to New York and took a job as an editorial assistant at Avon Books. The rest is history.

Many breadcrumbs have followed—beckoning me out of New York and into a job at Sounds True in Boulder, CO; pointing me toward my first ghostwriting gig; leading me to set up a little website and call it “KN Literary arts.” And each of those crumbs has been the seed of a new adventure.

If only to make my communications professor proud, someday I plan to write a book about my breadcrumb trail. Hemingway I’m not, but I’ve got a few stories to tell. For today, I’m content to share with you some of the insider info I learned by following those first few crumbs into the world of books. I can’t promise it’s all good news, but at least now we know!


Agents are the doorway in

With a handful of notable exceptions, most book publishing companies no longer accept submissions “over the transom”—a.k.a., direct from the authors. When you’re getting scores of manuscripts and proposals every week, it’s both a legal risk and a time suck to be the first line of defense on submissions. Agents provide a filter, getting to know all the acquiring editors and sending them only the submissions they are likely to connect with. So in short, these days ya gotta have an agent.


Connections, connections, connections

The easiest path to finding that agent—and sometimes the publisher too—is through a personal connection. You’re probably just a few degrees of separation from someone who has a literary agent or has published a book—ask around and see who you know who knows someone. Then take that person out to lunch and pick their brain, pitch your idea, and ask for an introduction.


Don’t quit your day job

After reviewing hundreds of royalty reports over the years, I can attest that—unless you’re a hardworking ghostwriter—making a living from writing books is exceedingly rare. Even for those authors who’ve gotten published numerous times! If you want to live the dream and quit your job to write books, make sure you have another stream of income available to you for the first few years at least.


Persistence pays

Many published authors have sent 25, 50 or even 100 query letters to agents before finally getting representation. While lightning sometimes strikes early, be prepared for a long haul.


They’re dying to love you

Agents and book editors want to fall in love with your book. I’m serious. Bringing in great submissions and getting them published is the lifeblood of our careers! You send us something great, we’re going to jump right on it. (Now “great” is, of course, a subjective term. See next point.)


Show them the money

To an agent or editor, the definition of “great” necessarily includes “going to make lots and lots of money.” Love it or not, an agent or editor won’t take your book on unless they think it’s going to sell. Your #1 job when pitching nonfiction to these folks is to explain the need in the marketplace for a book just like yours. If you’re writing fiction, your #1 job is to give them a 3-sentence pitch that makes the hair on the back of their neck stand on end. (That kind of somatic response comes with a cha-ching! in the world of books.)


Always put your best foot forward

Most of the time, you have one chance with agent—and then with a publisher. I’ve heard many would-be authors over the years decide to “get some reverb” on their idea by sending out a query letter or shooting their prime contact an email when their idea is half-baked. Doing so is like putting coins in a slot machine before you turn it on—it’s a wasted opportunity. Start by crafting a rocking proposal with amazing sample chapter(s) and/or writing a fantastic novel before putting your baby there in the world. You’ve got one shot! Use it wisely.


Dreams do come true 

Books get published every single day. While on paper the statistics can be dismal, we live in a magical universe. A KN Literary client just had her book snapped up by her dream publisher, before we’d even finished the proposal! It could happen for you, too. Just keep going, and don’t forget to enjoy the journey—it’s all any of us really have anyway.

I’m dying to know where your breadcrumb book trail is leading you today! Come on over and chat with me on Facebook. And don’t forget to register for our free Q+A call, where I can answer your questions in person! You can do that right here.