Note: This is a long post but if you’ve ever wondered how to get published with no industry contacts, MFA or creative writing degree, this should answer almost every question.
My first two novels(HarperCollins India: 2008, 2010) sold 150,000 copies in India so my writing trajectory seemed clear enough. I’d keep writing for my growing audience in India, bask in the minor glory of giving commencement speeches and speaking at literary festivals, and win a couple of more Crossword and Indiaplaza awards, all decent for a self-taught, average writer. But as I got more and more immersed in meditation, I truly started believing in the idea of man’s infinite potential. If I strove for excellence in any sphere, I could become the best in the world at it. So I committed to myself that my 3rd book would be exceptional and the marker for that would be getting a novel published from a top publishing house.
What happened next?
Sixty US literary agents rejected THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT (published in India as The Seeker), my 3rd novel, after I finished writing it. I re-wrote and re-wrote again after each rejection, eventually getting book deals from three of the top five US publishing houses and signed a worldwide book deal with Penguin Random House’s Riverhead imprint. Through this eighteen-month journey of rejection and dejection, I learnt exactly how to get published with no publishing industry contacts, MFA, or writing pedigree at all. You may argue my prior writing success in India helped me but being a bestselling writer from India is like being the #1 Australian rock band trying to break into the global music industry. It’s great but well…who cares? You’re in the slush-pile like everyone else.
Just one thing before you read further.
The below approach is predicated on the fact that you’re writing your Mona Lisa, that one book you feel your whole existence is propelling you to write and if you don’t write it now, you won’t be able to breathe any more. Without that life-or-death urgency, you’ll find it hard to have the resilience to stick through the gut-wrenching work and re-work that’s inevitable in the pursuit of excellence.
So first off, let’s de-bunk these three common myths on how to get published:
1. You need publishing industry contacts to get a book deal.
I’ve seen debut writers waste endless time hanging out at writers’ conferences and minor book readings hoping to schmooze with a literary agent and “get discovered”. No one I know has cracked a top publishing deal that way. You’re more likely to be picked up from the slush-pile if your query and manuscript just jump off the page than have weak referrals from known authors or mention your five-second meeting with the agent at a random conference. I approached top US agents cold with my query and had a 40% request for a full manuscript, about 4x higher on average than writers who’ve actually met the agents they were querying.
2. You need a “platform” to get published.
Another huge time killer. Posting random tweets and Facebook updates and obsessively counting the number of likes for each post doesn’t take you even one step closer to a publishing deal. Every agent and editor will tell you that debut fiction sells first and foremost, on the quality of the idea and writing. I advocate a completely different approach for writing your first couple of drafts. Become a monk and switch off all technology and distraction, even take an extreme sabbatical if you can. Once you’re finished writing, start building an authentic platform. A platform that publishers’ notice truly touches hundreds of readers’ lives and requires thought and work and can’t be a slap-dash tweet here, status update there, kind of an affair.
3. You need to write the great American novel to get published in the US.
Almost all of the ten agents and publishers I surveyed for this post prefer novels that immediately open windows to new worlds for them. In my case, for instance, 90% of THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT is set in hidden ashrams, Himalayan caves, and the dark underbelly of India, and that part was much better received than the 10% which was set in New York. You should write the story you want to write, the more unique the better.
Now, here are the six lessons I’ve learnt on how to get published that will help you come from nowhere and land a six-figure worldwide book deal:
Writing Lessons for getting a novel published
1. Your book should crack a combination of ENTERTAINMENT and MEANING.
A top US literary agent like Mollie Glick, my literary agent, gets 100 queries in one day. Her assistants sieve through them to draw her attention to say, one out of those 100 manuscripts, then she makes one or two representation offers every month. That’s a success rate of <0.05%. Then, publishers reject at similar rates. How do you stand out with odds lower than winning a Powerball lottery? Your novel has to jump out of the pages by both entertaining at an epic level and leaving a lingering effect on the reader. If you only entertain, you’ll likely be rejected because there are one thousand novelists with existing audiences that are writing about blood sucking vampires and serial killers. On the other hand, the earlier drafts of THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT were rejected again and again because I was trying too hard to communicate yoga and meditation philosophy. The moment I stopped treating my book as a PHD thesis and played up the adventure aspect with the hidden underbelly and secret ashrams of India, the book was flooded with agent offers.
2. For ENTERTAINMENT, reveal a “secret world” or a hidden society in your book.
Are you revealing a hidden new world about which the reader knows nothing? Think of The Da Vinci Code’s secret world of holy-grail seekers. Or Born to Run with it hidden ultra runners. Or Harry Potter and the school of wizards. Your book will jump out among the hundreds of others about dealing with the death of a loved one or the post-modern angst of living in a big city or falling in love in college if you open windows into a new world for your reader instantaneously. You can explore any secret world you are passionate about. I did it with secret yoga ashrams in India. Your story could be set among the Silicon Valley elite or slumlords playing Russian Roulette in Caracas, anything that gives you a shiver of anticipation just hearing about it and makes you want to research deep into it so that you create an elaborate alternate reality, a fictive dream that your reader can’t help but enter.
3. For MEANING, give your protagonist a big, lofty, all-consuming goal.
At its best, fiction helps you experience a moment of divinity by dissolving your sense of self completely as you’re immersed in the new fictive dream. You’re experiencing that dream through the story’s protagonist so the protagonist’s goal should be so big and all-important for them that they—and the reader—are consumed completely by it. Like Ahab chasing Moby Dick. Or Gone Girl’s protagonist trying to outdo her husband. Most debut novelists get rejected because their protagonists’ goals are either too common or lack urgency. In my earlier drafts, for instance, Max, my protagonist was tired of the emptiness of his life in New York and sought a deeper meaning for his existence. Just read my last sentence: how commonplace and vague it is. Result: massive rejection. In subsequent drafts, I brought Max’s violent past in the Bronx housing projects to life in the pages, giving depth and urgency of his meaning-of-life questions. Your protagonist should have such an all-consuming, urgent goal that the possibility of not getting it NOW slashes her insides.
Marketing Lessons for getting a novel published
4. Use Professional editors to edit your book before submission-the “2,2,2” rule.
You’re competing with one hundred manuscripts per day so your book needs to be completely polished before it reaches the desk of a top literary agent. As such, I highly recommend professional editors to lift your writing from debut-quality to expert-quality. This is the “2,2,2” rule that worked for me:- Write two full drafts on your own.
-Then, send it to a developmental editor for strategic comments (story, structure, character trajectory and other fundamental macro issues not copy edits). Cost= $700.
-Revise two more times based on the development editor’s comments.
-Then, send it to a line editor for a full sentence-by-sentence copy edit. Cost= $2300.
-Revise two more times based on the line editor’s comments and submit your final manuscript to literary agents.With this approach, I got a book deal=$95,000 in US, Europe, and India (with more foreign rights still being negotiated), an incredible ROI on the $3,000 investment in editors.
5. Create your own hype
This is the exact query letter that got me a 40% response for a full manuscript from agents, a very healthy response rate when I compare it to the 10% or so average I’ve heard from other writers who’ve had much more publishing experience than me.
Email Subject: Query from #1 Bestselling Indian Novelist: THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT
I was a #1 bestselling novelist in India in 2008 (Keep off the Grass, HarperCollins India) and 2010 (Johnny Gone down, HarperCollins India) with 150,000+ copies of my novels in print. Both novels have been optioned into films, currently in different stages of development. I seek representation for my 3rd novel, THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT (70,000 words, mainstream fiction), my first novel targeted for a US audience.
About the novel: A violent encounter forces Maximus Pzoras, a Harvard economist and Wall Street banker, to confront questions about suffering and mortality that have dogged him since his mother’s death. His search for a mentor takes him from Manhattan to the dark underbelly of India to a near-fatal hike up the Himalayas and finally, a small drought stricken village in South India where strange things begin to happen to him: he remembers past lives, he can levitate and walk on water, do impossible Yoga poses and glimpse future events. Max struggles to overcome his rational skepticism and the love of his family pulling him back home. In a final bid for answers, he embarks on dangerous solitary meditation in a freezing Himalayan cave. Will Max, Wall Street banker turned Himalayan sage, penetrate the truth of human suffering? Is enlightenment just a new age illusion or an accessible truth?
The YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT is a pulsating, contemporary take on the classic human quest for transcendence, a Siddhartha for our generation. I could think of no better agent to represent my US debut given your stated passion for culture-defining books that make a difference in the world-exactly what I strove for in my story, which is both a page-turning journey through India and a journey of tremendous inner transformation. I would be deeply obliged if you could consider my query.
Note the first paragraph. I didn’t say “I’m a published author in India.” I gave very specific, compelling statistics that made my query and subject line pop. You may argue that mine was a unique case but look closely at your own background—you’ll find specific, tangible achievements you can use. For example, if you had one short story published in the New Delhi Literary journal, don’t do what 99% of authors do and say:
“I’m a published writer with several short stories.”
Instead, try this harder hitting copy option:
“My most recent short story, published in the New Delhi Literary Journal, was voted as the #1 short story in a reader survey and was reviewed as “X’s voice explodes with narrative force” by a prominent critic.”
Immediately, perception shifts. And to enable a claim like this, all you need to do is to conduct your own reader survey testing story descriptions from other stories in the New Delhi literary journal on Survey Monkey for free. Be inventive. Create your own hype. No one else will do it for you as a debut novelist.
Build Scarcity into your pitch.
This is the follow-up letter I’d send to every agent within ten days of sending my original query.
Email Subject: FW: Query from #1 Bestselling Indian Novelist: THE YOGA OF MAX’S DISCONTENT
No intention to hurry you whatsoever as I know it takes more time to evaluate a query and I fully respect your process.
I just wanted to keep you in the loop that two of the agents I sent my first set of queries to responded with a request for a full, somewhat surprisingly for my understanding of the longer timelines in the US publishing process.
Since you were at the top of my desired list because of your confluence of interests in commercial fiction and religion/ spirituality, I was really eager for your response. If at all your time allows, I would be very grateful if you could tell me of your interest.
I’d send this letter out to every agent the moment I heard a vaguely positive response from another agent. Note, the feeling of scarcity in this pitch. Almost always, the agent I sent it to would review the manuscript immediately, an exception in an industry where it can take upto three months for an agent to review a manuscript.
After I received an agent offer, I’d be even more straightforward in my outreach to other agents.
I wanted to let you know that things moved rather quickly and I have received an agent representation offer. I have requested a week ending Monday, Aug 26, to make my decision.
As I stated in my very heartfelt query below, I’m very interested in hearing from you so if your time/interest permits, it would be great for me to know your interest in reviewing the manuscript this week.
Without this urgency, the agent has no motivation to give you a priority over the hundreds of queries in the slush-pile. Use similar scarcity triggers anywhere you can in the process to speed up a notoriously slow industry.
Use the above approach, first to write a great novel, then to get a top US literary agent because a top agent is the difference between your manuscript languishing for months with an intern at a publishing house vs. being sent to the senior commissioning editor who has the discretion to make an immediate offer (Mollie Glick, my agent, got me multiple offers within nine days of submitting my manuscript for perspective). And you’re on your way to get a worldwide book deal!