A Question I’m Often Asked: “How Do I Become a Published Author?”

People often write to ask me, “How can I write my book and get it published?” A big question!

Here’s my response — but note that I’m writing from my experience in non-fiction. Fiction, children’s literature, cookbooks, picture books, journals, etc. work differently.

Of course, the first requirement is that you do write. In my observation, many people have ideas for books (blogs, TV shows, movies) swirling around in their heads, but those ideas never actually make it onto the page.

If you’re having trouble with a consistent practice of writing, check out my book Better Than Before! Being a stuck writer is one of the most common habit complaints, so I thought a lot about tackling that problem as I was writing about habit change.

For me, at least, ideas come through writing. You may need to take a lot of notes, make a lot of false starts, make multiple outlines, before you find your way into your subject.

If you haven’t yet identified a subject and started writing, focus on that. It’s not time yet to worry about the publishing process.

Keys to the publishing process

If you have written a book, or are in the process of writing it, here’s what you need to know:

If you want to be published by a traditional publisher, you need an agent. You don’t send a manuscript to a publisher; your agent sends your manuscript to a publisher.  There are very few exceptions to this rule. True, I’ve known people who have had books published without an agent — and in many cases, they’ve regretted it. The system is set up to work this way, and unless you’re an insider, it’s very hard successfully to do things differently.

Getting an agent is a big, difficult step. If you have connections, use them. Also, look in the Acknowledgements of the books you admire that are similar to the book you’re writing, and see if an agent’s name recurs — that means the agent is interested in your kind of book. There are lots of online resources.

If you want to self-publish, you don’t need an agent. You do need to understand the logistics of self-publishing.  I’ve only self-published one book, my  The Best of the Happiness Project Blog. It was a very fun experience, but I am no expert in that process.

This overview is very cursory, and again, there are a ton of online resources. For an excellent, detailed outline of the process, check out the treasure trove of information at Jane Friedman’s blog, in “Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published.”

My own story? I was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I had an idea for a book that I wanted to write, and had done a ton of research, when I bought a book from the bookstore called something like “How to Write and Sell Your Non-Fiction Book Proposal.” (That’s not an actual book; I don’t remember the real title.) I read that book, followed the directions, got an agent, sold the proposal — and it became my first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide. What a joy it was to write that book!

Of course, that makes the process sound easy, and it wasn’t.

A few lessons I’ve learned along the way

If you’re saying “My book is unlike any other book,” that’s probably not a good thing. If this book is unlike any other book, it will be hard for people to imagine why they’d want to read it. Along those lines…

It’s helpful to be able to say, “My book is in the spirit of…” or “If readers loved XYZ, they’ll love my book.” This comparison helps people understand what kind of book they’re dealing with. For instance, the flap copy for my book The Happiness Project included this sentence: “Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such as Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat Pray Love.” Obviously, you want these comparison books to be well-known and successful.

A book gets put into a category. If it’s in a physical bookstore, it gets shelved in one particular place. Where would your book go? Have an answer. (Saying “on a table in the front of the store” isn’t an answer.) This categorization will happen.  Writers, including me, complain about this slotting process all the time, but it happens. Online, books can fit into many categories, but figuring out a book’s categories still a useful exercise. It brings clarity.

In a letter or proposal, it’s not useful to spend a lot of words emphasizing how passionately you want to write, or how deeply you feel about the subject of your book.  An agent or editor wants to know that you’ll write an excellent book that will appeal to many readers. Your personal satisfaction isn’t really relevant to their jobs.

Unless you have data to back it up, talking about what you plan to do isn’t very persuasive. If you say, “To support my book, I plan to build a popular, active blog that will attract thousands of readers to a discussion of my subject,” the agent/publisher will think, “Well, if this writer hasn’t done that yet, why do I believe that they’ll be able to do it in the next year?”

If you think, “I’m dying to write a book, but I don’t know what I want to write about,” that’s a problem. In my view, the most important part of writing is having something to say. Whenever I’m stuck, I stop and think, “What do I want to say?” and everything gets easier. My poor daughter is working on her college essays now, and I keep saying, “Figure out you really want to say, then the writing begins to flow.”

Solutions for a writer who’s an Obliger

If you’re thinking, “I really want to write, but I put other people’s needs in front of my own/I can’t take time for myself/I need to work on my self-esteem,” you’re probably an Obliger. Take the Four Tendencies quiz to confirm (whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.) Similarly…

If you’re thinking, “I’ve never had trouble being productive at work, but when I sit down to write on my own, I get writer’s block,” you’re probably an Obliger. Again, take the Quiz here.

So what’s an Obliger to do, to get the writing done? If you are an Obliger, the answer is always external accountability. Join a writing group, hire a writing coach, get a client, start an accountability group,  tell people to expect your book, think of your duty to be a good role model, whatever it takes.

Again, for an outstanding introduction to getting your book published, check out Jane Friedman’s “Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published.”

I’m planning to do a Facebook Live video about this topic, so I’d love to hear what other questions you have on the subject. Let me know in the comments.

  • statmam

    Good idea for a post because some of the folks who regularly contribute lively comments here SHOULD be writing professionally. I scan the comment section for their names the same way I scan bookshelves for my favorite authors.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s so great to hear! Yes, the quality of comments is SO GOOD.

  • RK

    Fantastic article! Loved these tips.

  • Carla

    Patricia Wrede (author of the Enchanted Forest Chronicles) also has a lot of blog posts about getting published on her blog. I am not a writer, but I find it fascinating to learn about.

  • Christine

    I would love to hear about your research process when you get an idea for a new book. What resources/methods are your go-to first steps?

    • gretchenrubin

      I just head to the library!

  • Jennifer

    For my fellow obligers a great resource is 750words.com, a private online journal that helps build a daily writing habit. You can earn badges for consecutive days, speed, etc. All that said, I’m recognizing I will need some real human accountability (a writing group) to get me writing regularly. I’m planning to do Nanowrmo this year and hope to meet some local writers that way.

  • Jessie

    Thanks a lot for sharing your story! As a new mother, I’m curious about how you juggled your career with raising your kids? Do you find being a happy writer at home make your life easier as a mother? I look forward to any future posts on that. 🙂