When a writer recently asked me about the path to publishing a debut novel, I asked the brilliant Sarah Arthur for advice. Sarah, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, serves as the preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards. She’s also an all-around smart cookie. I thought her wisdom was so valuable, I wanted to share it with you. You're welcome.
Sarah, I’m wanting to offer good guidance to a first-time writer who wants to publish his completed fiction manuscript with a traditional publisher. What are the most important things he needs to know?
Has he completed a novel, novella, collection of short stories, or what? Because all of those are very different forms with potentially different answers to your question. I, for one, cannot write short stories, don't generally read short stories, and find them as baffling as mathematical equations. They are also incredibly difficult to get published unless you are an established writer—whether in fiction or nonfiction.
Thanks, that’s helpful. Does he need to build a big platform?
Yes and no. Does he need 100 thousand followers? Not if his story is strong enough and he at least demonstrates an active interest in connecting with his tribe. He needs to show an aptitude for social media, an active presence online
What does that look like?
An author website, a social media following, reposting other authors, industry news, etc. He also needs to have an interest in networking with other authors and industry professionals through conferences, guilds, etc., and building relationships with his local bookstores & libraries by things like volunteering to lead book groups, etc. If he is a recluse with no aptitude or interest in this kind of networking...then he doesn't have much chance of getting a publisher's attention.
Does he need to be publishing stories now?
If he is writing short stories then yes, absolutely, he should be publishing in various journals. If he is a novelist and that's all he is, then he might try building his byline by writing lit-related essays or articles, novel reviews, author interviews, etc. Anything to show he is adept at engaging the publishing world in his genre.
What does he need to have to approach an agent?
To approach an agent he needs a proposal and full manuscript—preferably one that’s been workshopped with peers for readability, plausibility, blatant awfulness, etc.. He needs a website (he does not need to be blogging, although a place where he briefly reflects on his approach to the craft would be good). He should also put together a CV that includes his education, work history, publishing background, any writing guilds he's in or conferences he's attended, etc.
Can you suggest what proposal template a writer should use?
Sure, I'm happy to share this fiction proposal template that was shared with me by friends at a major Christian publisher.
And can you suggest a good author website that does what an author website should do?
One I love is Ashlee Cowles' site.
Thank you, Sarah!
Sarah Arthur is a fifteen-year publishing veteran and the author/editor of over eleven books, including several anthologies of poetry and fiction. She regularly serves as the preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards and coaches aspiring authors via conferences like the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop and the Writing For Your Life webinars and events. Find her on Twitter (@HolyDreaming), where she dishes out the daily kick-in-the-pants known as #todayswritinggoal. www.saraharthur.com