How to Get Published? Don’t Ask Me

There’s a lot of shockingly bad advice about how to get published online. Much of it comes from unpublished people who know nothing about the publishing industry and are bitter about their own inability to get published.1 But some of it is from actual published writers with careers, who have a bug up their arse about the evil of agents, or small presses, or big presses, or whatever, because of a particularly bad experience they’ve had. Or who are coming out of one genre and acting like their advice applies to all genres.2

Then I read this very sensible piece by Jay Lake, which solidified for me something I’ve been trying to say for awhile now, which basically goes like this: before you take someone’s advice pay careful attention to where that person is coming from. Are they qualified to be giving this particular advice?

Now, it’s pretty obvious that if you wish to be published taking advice from some who has never been published is usually not wise. But Jay’s bigger advice is that often taking the advice of someone with a thriving career is also not wise because too many times what they can tell you is how they broke into the field. Problem is that happened ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years ago and the field has changed since then.

So that when an established writer tells you that you don’t need an agent to get published they’re not lying. Back in the day when they were first published you didn’t. They’re also not lying when they say they continue to be published without an agent. But they’re neglecting to mention that that’s because they are known by those publishers. Someone looking to sell their first novel is not and given that so many of the big publishing houses are closed to submissions an agent is usually a first-time author’s best bet for getting published at a big house.

Any advice I give about getting published has to be taken with a large grain of salt by anyone who isn’t trying to break in to YA in the US. I have no idea how to get published in Australia—even though I’m Australian. I wasn’t published there until after I sold in the US. I still know far more about publishing in the US than I do about my own country. Nor do I know much about any market in the world except YA in the USA. If you’re trying to break into Romance or Crime or Literachure I’m useless to you.

That said, I’m probably not the most useful person to you for breaking into YA in the US either. I know about half a dozen agents well. There are way more reputable ones than that. I follow all the publishing news, far more than most YA writers, but I still don’t know that much about what goes on in those publishing houses and what all the editors are looking for. I know many editors, but I’ve only worked with a handful. You only really know an editor well when you’ve worked with them.

I know I said above that you shouldn’t be taking an unpublished person’s advice, but there are some great blogs by such writers detailing the process of trying to get published, which have very sensible things to say about query letters and the nuts and bolts of submitting to various different publishers when you don’t have an agent. All stuff that I know very little about. I have not written a query letter in a decade. Someone who’s actively trying to get published right now knows way more about query letters than I do.

I can talk about what it’s llike being a journeyman YA author. I can give you an author’s view on how you get published in more than one country and a variety of other topics that have to do with being a YA author with five novels under her belt. But take what I say about breaking into this field with a grain of salt. For that you’ll get better advice from agents and editors and brand new YA authors and from those on the verge of being published.

  1. Before you yell at me for this statement you should know that I spent twenty years trying to break into mainstream publishing. I know how it feels. Also very few of those unpublished writers are bitter about it and decide that the big publishers are evil. Most suck it up and keep trying. []
  2. No, the way to break into YA is not to publish short stories first. That may apply to science fiction (though not nearly as much as it used to) but there is no YA short story market except for anthologies that you don’t get invited to submit to you unless you’re already published. I got my first anthology invitation after having three novels published. []


  1. Meg on #

    Good advice, Justine.
    I’m in school for writing now and have been sending out my stories. I find this problem with a lot of my professors’ advice that was maybe very true 30 years ago before they were established authors, but is now less helpful.

  2. Diana Peterfreund on #

    Personally, I felt like I’d “made it” as a writer when I started getting invites to submit to anthologies. Which happened after I’d sold books.

    That being said, I do know a few children’s writers who published in one of a few children’s magazines short pieces before they published books. Cricket or Highlights or similar. But they usually write for audiences younger than YA.

  3. kidlitwriters on #

    Your point regarding the changing nature of the business is important. Many speakers at events talk about their own break-in into the industry, and it may not exactly be relevant anymore.

  4. Pam on #

    Thanks, JL, for writing about this topic. Even with 13 children’s books published, I find it very difficult to send new ms to publishers because of the ‘send through an agent’ business. I’ve tried to get an agent – and find this difficult also. The Australian agents I’ve contacted don’t seem to support YA; and the USA agents don’t reply to query emails except if you send multiple ones. Do you think it’s hard for an Australian writer living in Aust to break into the US market either via an agent or directly through a publisher? I’d love to hear your comments on this.

    PS I think your blog is the best I’ve come across for talking about the many issues related to YA literature, both reading it and writing it!

  5. Sarah Allen on #

    Well put, sensible advice. There is so much out there, which is generally a good thing, but as you say, we need to have a discerning eye in what advice we choose to follow. Thanks for this!

    Sarah Allen

  6. lily on #

    I think I’m backing up what you are saying – that there is no one route to getting published – when I say that I got my agent through having a short story accepted for a children’s anthology, before I had any children’s/YA novels published. That was in the UK though.

    I’m still a firm believer that, although of course all the nuts and bolts of getting published (how and what to submit, who to submit to) are important, the bottom line is whether you are a good enough writer. Seems to me that people do seem to forget that sometimes…

  7. Belongum on #

    Thanks for that Justine…

    I like that it’s just good honest advice offered, based on what you know about the industry you work in. You’re not claiming to be an ‘expert’, just sharing your experience and balancing it out with the actual results you so obviously have!

    I think what you’ve mentioned here applies in all walks of life. I think a person should always have a good look-see at the situation their facing – or preparing to face – and conduct a good appraisal of said scenario – based specifically on their particular point of view!

    It’s always important to have a good look at things from your own point of view… it depends where you are, what you’re doing, what your skills are, what you might want to do, it also depends on a true appraisal of your actual capabilities – we all like to think we can really do these things we say we can do. This isn’t always true.

    We also need to accept that in any particualr industry – there actually are others who might know best – given who they are and what they know.

    It all helps I think… and it certainly can’t hurt!


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