First get good, then get lucky: One writer’s advice on getting published


If you’ve been a writer for any length of time you’ve no doubt read many books that tell you how to write bestselling fiction. You’ve also no doubt been assailed with at least as many marketing experts telling you the best way to market your novel so it will become a bestseller.

I’ve been writing all my life. My first attempt at fiction was e-published in 2010. For five years now I’ve been actively honing my fiction writing and marketing skills in pursuit of ever-elusive success. I’ve read a lot of books and investigated a lot of book marketing programs.

Here’s what I know for sure – nothing.

Most what I’ve learned is what doesn’t work. Here’s a few of them:

  • social media
  • giveaways
  • blogs
  • free books – as in zero price point
  • contests
  • email lists
  • social media – yes, I know I’ve already mentioned it, but social media deserves to be reinforced because not only does it not sell books, but for the delusional among us (myself included) it’s seductive, addictive, and a huge time waster – time that could be better spent actually writing something worthwhile instead of responding to virtual fans in the internet void.

So how do you become a bestselling author?

You get lucky.

According to Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliers, The Story of Success, success follows a predictable pattern. It’s not the brightest who succeed, nor is it the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.

Success is bestowed upon those who have been given opportunities – and have the strength and the presence of mind to seize them – plus accidents of time, birth and place matter greatly.

Let me repeat that; success is less about talent and more about opportunity plus it’s greatly influenced by accidents of time, birth and place.

In a word, luck.

There’s no master plan, no formula, it’s all a fluke, pure and simple serendipity.

So, is luck all it takes to be a success?

No, you also have to be prepared so if you do get lucky and get invited to the ball you actually know how to dance.

There’s this little thing about having to do 10,000 hours (ten years) of practice to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. According to neurologist Daniel Levitin,  “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, etc., this number comes up again and again.”

Excellence at performing a complex task, like writing a good novel, requires a critical minimum level of practice and that’s all there is to it.

You first must get good, then get lucky.

So if you’re an indie author about to self-publish your first novel and you haven’t logged 10,000 hours of practice your chance at success is negligible, nil, nada.

Worse yet, if by a fluke you do get lucky without being good you’ve likely blown your big chance.

Stay calm, be brave, watch for the signs

ROD RAGLIN is a writer and user. He can be found on twitter at @rodraglin. Check out his blog and his website for more ruminations and insights on writing and publishing.

Improved Communication Between Writer, Agent, and Publisher

When I was a boy I had two pen pals. One in Australia and one in New Zealand. We communicated by airmail with little self-contained envelopes/letters. Obviously, this was before the Internet and email. Nothing thrilled me more than when an airmail letter came to my house. Even though weeks or months had passed between sending and receiving, the thrill of getting that red, white and blue envelope was immeasurable.

Later in life I began submitting query letters to agents and publishers via snail mail, and similarly, the wait for a response was months at a time. Yet the thrill of receiving that response was equal in measure to my pen pals’ letters – even though I was getting rejection letters. Completing the cycle was important to me.

It’s a different world today. Everything is instant. I text with my two daughters overseas in a blink of an eye. I deliver mail with mind-numbing speed. So I asked myself, could there be better communication between writer, agent and publisher? Can the communication be moved closer to today’s real-time expectations?

Yes. It is how we built to be.

AUTHORS uses an activity notification system that lets the writer know what is happening to their query as it happens. Was my profile or project viewed? Did the agent see my manuscript? No more waiting by the mailbox. Even though querying an agent can be a lengthy process, the transfer of information no longer has to be that way.

An agent or publisher will want to know instantly if a writer updated their manuscript or information. Is there a new writer out there that matches my needs? What is the rest of my team of acquisitions editors doing? All these communiqués are real-time now.

Agents and publishers require a good bit of time to review and analyze what submissions will work for them. No one is trying to rush this part, nor is any application going to change the timing. Agents and publishers still follow their own rhythm. Some review incoming submissions and take a look at Discovery twice a week. Others save them up and review them all once a month. What AUTHORS does do is keep an open line between the two parties. The platform lets each other know when something is happening while still maintaining the professional separation agents and publishers require.

I realize the anticipation of an airmail letter is lost on people today. We think and communicate differently now. As a writer, I want to know how my baby is doing. AUTHORS is working to make this a modern-day experience with all the advantages technology gives us. Even if it means the rejection letter comes faster, that’s okay.

The Price of Submissions

This past weekend I did some calculating on what I spent back in the day when I tried to get published. I came up with some interesting results. Like many of you, I tried a lot of ways to get agents and publishers interested in my work. The first step was finding them and connecting. I bought Writers Digest ($32). Subscribed to several writing and screenwriting magazines ($80+/yr). Signed up on a couple of sites that charged me (less than $50) to get a list of agents and publishers, leaving the rest of the work up to me. Less than $200 a year. Not bad for something I was very passionate about.

Then came the hard work. I researched the lists. Painstakingly copied addresses from print and digital lists to a word file where I used merge mail to send out dozens of queries. I edited many of the queries manually to meet specific requirements. As best as I could tell, this was what every writer who wanted to get published had to do.

I shared my calculations with my wife. She asked a simple but telling question. “How much time did you spend on it; isn’t that worth something?” She was right. I didn’t factor ‘me’ into the equation. Although it was a guestimate, between the researching, query writing, reading on how to query, emailing, tracking, and follow ups, I must have spent 80 hours over the course of the year; but not writing. Just trying to find a home for my writing. Even if I used the national hourly wage hour of $15/hr, that’s $840. I earned considerably more than that at the time, but you get the point. If you asked me at the beginning of the year if I would pay $1,000 to get connected to agents and publishers, I might have said yes, but when I looked at the results of less than 20% responses and all the rejections, I might think that money/time could have been put to better use.

Fast-forward several years to my current passion of building, a connective network for writers, I am asking the same question, “What would you pay to get connected and read, and possibly published?” But there’s a difference. I am creating a means to reduce all the work and improve the connections so that writers can do what matters: write. In my September blog, I discussed how we are pricing our Discovery service. We set the price and then discounted it for the first few months. We are getting a good response, but I wonder if the writers know how good of a deal it really is?

I hated doing all those queries. I hated waiting forever to get (rare) responses. I was none too happy when the lists I bought turned out to be agents not taking submissions or out of business. Very frustrating.

So whether it’s $9, $10 or $20 a month, I feel it’s a far site better (as in website) to have the workload reduced, the accuracy of the matches increased and the format standardized. Easy and smart are worth the price of admission, or in this case, submission. We’ll chat more on services and prices in the weeks ahead. For now, keep writing. Keep believing. And we’ll keep working on getting you connected.

Award-Winning, Best-Selling Authors Who Were Rejected

Here is a challenge for you. Think of five writers that inspired you in your lifetime, and then look at the 23 writers below. How many of the ones you named—and think to this day are the most awesome literary geniuses ever—or at least the great reads of our day were rejected? Most were rejected not just multiple times, but dozens of times. Take heart in this fact – success won’t happen overnight, and rejection is a reflection of current market trends and publisher’s workloads as much as anything else. Stay true to your craft and be persistent! Envision the day you are at your own book signing with all this hard work and uncertainty behind you.


  • 1.  Chinua Achebe’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, was rejected by several London publishers on the argument that books from African writers wouldn’t sell. Heinemann took it on after some initial hesitation, and the novel has now sold more than 8 million copies in 50 languages.
  • 2.  Richard Adams’ Watership Down  received 17 rejections before it was picked up by a one-man publishing firm. “Do you think I’m mad?” Rex Collings wrote to a friend before taking a risk that paid off big for both him and Adams.
  • 3.  Judy Blume got nothing but rejections for the first two years of her writing career. She says the rejections from Highlights for Children were so embarrassing that the sight of a copy of Highlights still makes her wince.
  • 4.  John le Carré had published two novels before The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but the editor who rejected his latest manuscript believed the writer hadn’t “got any future.” The novel became a bestseller and one of his most famous works, along with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • 5.  E.E. Cummings not only had difficulty getting his first book published but also, after several publications, self-published six volumes of his work in the 1930s when he was unable to get them published any other way.
  • 6.  William Golding published his first novel, Lord of the Flies, after 21 rejections.
  • 7.  Zane Grey’s first experience getting paid for what he scribbled came when he sold a short story for ten dollars in 1902. His first novel, written the following winter, was not as successful, and when every publisher he submitted to rejected the work, his wife paid to have it published. The book did not turn a profit. If Grey was discouraged by this, he luckily got over the discouragement enough to become a prolific and widely-read author. The sales of his 90 or so books have exceeded 40 million copies.
  • 8.  Frank Herbert first published his seminal work Dune in installments in Analog magazine, but when he tried to sell it as a novel he received twenty or so rejections from major publishers. One editor wrote prophetically in his rejection, “I may be making the mistake of the decade, but…”
  • 9.  Tony Hillerman, an award-winning and bestselling author known for his Navajo Tribal Police series of mystery novels, was advised “to get rid of all that Indian stuff” by an editor who rejected The Blessing Way. That editor may have missed the point, but an editor at Harper & Row didn’t make the same mistake.
  • 10.  Jack Kerouac’s On The Road became the defining novel of the Beat generation, but an editor who rejected the manuscript wrote, “I don’t dig this one at all.”
  • 11.  Stephen King sounds downright proud of the number of times he was rejected as a young writer. In his On Writing, he says he pinned every rejection letter he received to his wall with a nail. “By the time I was fourteen,” he continues, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
  • 12.  Ursula K. Le Guin has preserved for posterity a rejection letter in which an editor calls The Left Hand of Darkness “unreadable.” Being kind, she has withheld the editor’s name, and presumably this unnamed editor was already pretty embarrassed when the novel went on to win a Nebula Award in 1969 and a Hugo in 1970.
  • 13.  Jack London, rather like Stephen King, kept his rejection letters impaled on a sort of spindle. The impaled letters eventually reached a height of four feet.
  • 14.  L.M. Montgomery was so discouraged by a string of rejections that she put the manuscript of Anne of Green Gables, her first novel, away in a hat box for two years. When she took it out again, she found a publisher within a year and a little later her novel was a bestseller.
  • 15.  George Orwell was rejected by no less than T.S. Eliot, then editorial director at Faber & Faber, who wrote in a letter in 1944 that Animal Farm could “keep one’s interest” but as political allegory it was “not convincing.”
  • 16.  Robert M. Pirsig weathered an amazing 121 rejections before selling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book now considered an American cultural icon.
  • 17.  Sylvia Plath was an established poet when she sent The Bell Jar out under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. An editor Knopf rejected it twice: once with no knowledge of who the author actually was, and once with the knowledge of her identity. The editor wrote that Plath’s name “added considerably to [The Bell Jar’s] interest,” but “it still is not much of a novel.”
  • 18.  Beatrix Potter decided to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit after rejection letters started to pile up. The original run was 250 copies; the book has now sold over 45 million copies.
  • 19.  J.K. Rowling, the great literary success story, failed to sell Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to 12 different publishers until the daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing took an interest in it. Harry Potter is now worth at least $15 billion.
  • 20.  Dr. Seuss suffered through 27 rejections when trying to sell his first story. He gave the credit for finally selling And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street to the sheer dumb luck of running into a friend who worked in publishing on the street.
  • 21.  Gertrude Stein’s poetry may be famously idiosyncratic, not to say esoteric, but it didn’t stop her from becoming a pioneering Modernist writer and a central figure of the “Lost Generation.” Neither was she apparently hindered by the editor who parodied her style in his rejection letter, telling her that “hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”
  • 22.  Kathryn Stockett was turned down by 60 literary agents before she found someone willing to represent The Help. “Three weeks later,” she says, “we sold the book.” The Help later spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • 23.  H.G. Wells received a note in which the editor predicted, “I think the verdict would be, ‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book.’” Nevertheless, The War of the Worlds was published in 1898 and has not since gone out of print.



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Get In and Get Going

I want to make sure all our writers know about this great opportunity (free!) on that will put your work in front of many agents and publishers!

Sign Up Here button

Many times when we’re looking for partner publishers, they request a trial run with the system. Kick the tires, so to speak. Totally understandable! At the beginning, we set up some demonstrations online where we would show the publishers the features of AUTHORS’ platform, but what they really want is to be able to use the system as if they were already subscribed.

In response to that request, we have created a fully-baked publisher account they can use as if it were their own. To make this work, we are inviting all our current writers to populate the site with their project submissions. Real writers. Real submissions. Real activity.

Real results.

We’ve already had a writer discovered through our demos, so we think expanding this could be a great opportunity for all. And the beauty of this process – it is at no cost to anyone. It’s also a great opportunity for new writers to test the service before subscribing.

As we continue to demonstrate and share, let me know if you have any questions. This is all about discovering great manuscripts and creating great books. So, I encourage you to submit your work here today and let’s see what happens!

How Long Will It Take to Get Published?

How long does it usually take to get published by a traditional publisher? The answer is two years – on average. Let me qualify that. This is not two years from when you begin your book. This is two years from when you have secured an agent and publisher. In the age of instant coffee and Instagram, one might ask, “Why does it take so long?”

Well, when you add up the time it takes to negotiate a deal, edit the book, work with the author, prepare a marketing plan, schedule promotions, place the book into production, and deliver it to distribution, your congressman is running for re-election; your eighth grader is now in high school; the summer Olympics have turned to winter; your car has had eight oil changes; and you are two years older still waiting to see your book in print. It’s just the reality of book publishing.

This may be the biggest reason why so many writers choose to self-publish. It was the reason I chose to do so. Self-publishing my book took one day to format (my manuscript) and just minutes to put it up on Amazon KDP. One day. Hmmmm, two years or one day? Hold on. Is the time to put a book into print a fair comparison for choosing a type of publishing?

Before we answer that, let’s compare the quick version of getting self-published and the two-year process of traditional publishing with other equally challenging endeavors.

Run a marathon.

I can run a marathon today if I wanted; after all, my daughter runs marathons throughout Europe. I happen to live in the country, fourteen miles from the nearest town. I’ll just lace up the sneaks and jog there and back. Maybe pick up some groceries along the way. Right? Wrong. Without the proper training – a process that normally takes two arduous years – I would die.

Be a Nurse.

My neighbor had his tractor hit a ditch and roll over top of him. Ouch. I could have attended to his injuries and recommended proper medical treatments, maybe even tried to reset his dislocated ankle and shoulder. Easy, right? Wrong. Without an associate’s degree in nursing and lots of training, another two-year venture, my would-be patient might have died. Okay, my patient would have died.

Play the piano with two hands.

I can sit at the piano and bang on the keys in an attempt to play Clare de Lune, but unless I train for around two years, the resulting sounds would, well, you get the picture. I would probably die with your hands around my throat.

A lot of dying going on in these examples, but I think you get my point.

When you consider what a self-publishing writer looking for a shortcut to publishing has to do after they put their book up on Amazon KDP to create sales, it is a scary, frustrating, sleepless-nights and lonely days, super expensive ordeal. The faint of heart need not apply. At least self-publishing won’t kill you. Will it?

In terms of generating income, the same outcome happens to nearly ever book that is self-published. They die on the vine because most writers, myself included, do not have the expertise, the clout, the network of connections, and the machine to have their book succeed in the marketplace. Quick fact: There are over 250,000 titles published by traditional publishers each year and 750,000 titles self-published. When the dollars are counted, 98% of the revenues generated go to the traditionally published titles. In other words, not much money in the DIY, quick, self-publishing route.

This is not said in order to dissuade someone from self-publishing. On the contrary, I champion their cause. But since 76% of writers polled would prefer to publish traditionally, I think the reality of the process needs to be understood from the onset.

Publishing a book to be profitable is a long shot at best. This is why publishers take their time preparing the book and the author. They may publish 100 titles a year with less than ten of them selling more than 30,000 copies. Publishers have to get it right to stay in business.

So when you do find an agent and publisher to move forward with your manuscript, be patient. Follow the expert’s lead. Do the work they ask. You may be able to trim a month or two off, but in reality, expect it to take the whole two years. During that time you may want to read all of Shakespeare’s works; get a pilot’s license; build your own house; or walk across America and back. Or better yet, write a couple more books. They each may take two years of your time just like getting published.

Why an Elevator

Often times we are told to condense a business proposal, a company service, a new product idea, and yes, your new novel into a short ‘elevator pitch’ and nothing more. Even marriage proposals should be elevator pitches. In the literary world, we know this abbreviated proposal as The Hook of your story.

Well, let’s look at the elevator pitch a little deeper than, or should that be higher?

I’ll begin with a fun factoid: The fastest elevator in the world is in the Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre skyscraper in Guangzhou, China. It climbs about 95 floors (1,443 feet) in 43 seconds at a speed of 45 miles per hour. It would take a person (in decent shape) 30 minutes to climb that height in steps. Unless you suffer from elevataphobia (my word for a mix of claustrophobia and agoraphobia), you would certainly prefer a 43 second ride to the dulcet sounds of Kenny G than a heart pounding 30-minute stairwell climb.

Let’s dial it back to the average elevator. Elevators today travel at around 10 miles per hour or 14 feet per second. A 20-story climb takes about 22 seconds. That is your typical time frame for the elevator pitch. Step into the elevator with me. “Okay, kid, you have twenty stories to tell me your idea.”

Let’s translate that into a literary Hook. 22 seconds is about 50 words. Yes, 50 words to convince someone you have a promising manuscript. Wait, my book is 410 pages. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Maybe I can help.

Unlike a business, product or service that needs to be sold, a literary Hook is not the time to ‘sell’ your idea. It is the time you are given to inspire, move and even seduce the listener/reader with your idea, your passion, and your enthusiasm. Convince them that you see the world in a most fabulous and different way that they need to know about. And you need to do this with beautifully written and captivating words. Well, that sounds easy. No, it sounds harder than climbing the Guangzhou CTF Finance Centre stairwell. If you want to learn anything from this blog, read this paragraph about six more times.

I’ve written television shows, cartoon strips, screenplays, novels and stage plays and every one of those projects required a short, very short synopsis, i.e., Hook, to convince the producer or publisher is was worthy. Here’s how I approach it.

I said that 410-page novel (about 102,000 words) needs to go down into 50 words? I say start by bringing it down to one word. Yes, one. Finish this phrase with just one word: My book is about __________________. Revenge. Lust. Quest. Pain. Companionship. War. Conquest. Protection. Redemption. Recovery. Let the essence of your manuscript birth the word. Then add to the one word the character(s) who execute that word and why. Next, add the counterparts to whom or for whom the character(s) are executing the word. Finish by adding the why and how (and the where if necessary) the word is executed. As you build this one word into 4, 8, 20 words and so forth, you’ll find yourself doing an act of addition or building instead of one of subtraction and attrition of your 410 pages. I find it to be a much easier process.

I wrote and produced a musical stage production (for puppets) called 7, 8, 9 and 10. It is a story about a child who cared only about how many presents he was getting for Christmas. When he discovers his parents had hidden away ten presents for his brother, but only 6 for himself, he embarks on an adventure to procure the ‘missing’ four presents. Here’s how I would build the hook.

My one word: Greed.

My character: Selfish 8-year old Petey Blankenship wants more.

Counterparts: Parents who mistakenly shortchanged their son of presents

Why the Greed: It’s only right that Petey should get his fair share.

How: Petey will beg, borrow and steal to make things right, risking soul and sanity.

The Hook: Petulant Petey Blankenship turns Christmas upside-down when he discovers his parents’ hideaway of pending presents with his name on four less gifts than his brother. The eight-year-old embarks on a madcap mission of mischief to right the imbalance, only to discover he didn’t know what the season is about.

50 words.

What was a two-hour musical production has been boiled down into 50 words. I probably only need 18 of those 20 floors to get this one out. Try it with your manuscript. Find the word. Read the aforementioned paragraph another few times and make it a quick trip to greater heights for your listener/reader.