BY LISA MARIE BASILE
Wild Words is an everyday, accessible, friendly series of how-tos around publishing, writing, and creating. It’s a response to the many inbox queries we get around writing (a lot of our readers come here for the literature, and also want to write!). There is no way these entries can be totally comprehensive, but it’s aimed to provide a general overview of any given topic. Feel free to leave questions (and additional advice!) in the comments below or tweet us at @lunalunamag.
Discussions around the publishing industry can feel somewhat elusive, like a secret society to which you’ll never get an invite. And sometimes, even when you’re in the club, you feel invisible. And that’s partially because writers generally keep quiet about their deals, advances, and agents. It may also come down to internalized elitism; some people protect their knowledge as if hoarding it will ensure they stay successful.
I think the more we help one another out, the better the book industry does as a whole. (One piece I really liked about one writer’s book publishing experience is “In Praise of the Starter Book,” by Alex DiFrancesco.
So, here’s what I’ve learned before and during the process of publishing my first nonfiction collection. Know that I offer up this information not as gospel but as my experience, in the hopes of breaking down some of the mystery.
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Thank you to @window.syl for this dreamy delectable shot of my little babe, Light Magic for Dark Times! I have good and bad news about the book. The bad: it’s basically out of stock at Amazon (which means the price is a bit higher there and if you get it there, it’ll take a month or so to deliver). The good news? The book was so successful it’s going into its second printing! If you would like to get your hands on the book I suggest getting it in local stores (check indiebound.org to see where by you), or going to or ordering from @barnesandnoble, hitting up @urbanoutfitters in NYC or ordering it online. You can also get the ebook! UK, Canada, NZ, and Australia; your major retailers has it for purchase online! You can always DM me for help finding her 🖤🙏🏽 thank you endlessly. Love you.
Indie or Commercial publisher? It’s your choice, and yours alone
There are pros and cons to both! People like to say that you don’t have creative liberty with a big press or that small presses won’t support you as much. But these are generalizations. These are also reductive ideas. There are lots of commercial publishers who give authors a great deal of say in the creative design while there are tons of small presses that work their asses off to support their authors and book lists.
I published my first non-fiction on September 11, 2018, although I’d published several books of poetry with indie presses before then. My nonfiction book was published with a global publisher. It was distributed in several countries, and stocked in just about every store you can think of — from a Barnes and Noble in Florida to an indie shop in North Dakota to an esoteric shop in Scotland. Funnily enough, Australia seems to love the book (thanks, Australia!).
The process was entirely different from what I’d experienced in poetry. For one, I was given an advance (which is rare in poetry) and worked with a large team of people — from designers and copy-editors to marketing managers and sales managers. And because the book would have a global release, the publishing process focused heavily on the business elements: There was an expectation to get hundreds of preorders, attain media coverage, and push the book after its release.
I’m so happy that the book has done well; it’s already in its second printing, and I'm working on a follow-up with my publisher. That said, poetry and indie publishing is where my heart is at, and I will never leave it behind. With indie presses, you really get to collaborate at an intimate, beautiful level; plus, there is a different kind of pressure when you don’t have global distribution. It becomes more about the art and less about the numbers. That’s always, always a win.
You don’t need an agent for every book deal
I found out through a good number of friends —and I’m talking about nonfiction here — that they didn’t pitch their books to agents or publishers/editors. In fact, it was their body of already-published work that resonated with the acquiring editor, publisher, or agent, leading them to being contacted about writing a book.
I didn’t have an agent when negotiating my first book. How did it work? I wrote a few articles for Luna Luna that an editor ended up reading and liking. She then reached out to me about writing what would become Light Magic for Dark Times, as she was seeking someone with a dedicated background in the wellness and magic areas. We went back and forth for a few weeks ensuring we were aligned on our visions.
It’s important to note that I had a website with a clear ‘contact me’ page, and that I was running Luna Luna, which is pretty visible in certain niche communities. In short, get out there: Edit a blog others submit to. Or keep a blog for yourself. And create a path of least resistance for opportunities to come your way.
Do your publishing research and read your contract line by line
During the contract process I learned that it’s extremely important to validate whether or not an opportunity is legitimate and fair and transparent. Ask questions, see if anyone you know has worked with the person or the publishing house, and make sure that other books published by the press are ones you’d want to read. Is the press about to go under? How are its sales? Are its other books any good?
My publisher had worked on great books, and my editor was very transparent the whole time. Of course there were some contractual things I wish I could have changed, like escalating royalty amounts (your royalty may change after a certain # of books are sold) or keeping certain rights (and perhaps would have with an agent) but overall my experience was good.
I was able to negotiate my deal myself, and I did a lot of research in order to do this — both through asking people things and using the Internet. I researched advances, royalties, payment schedule, and other details. My advice would be to do your research if you do get a contract, and to consult with an agent if possible — even if it’s not your agent.
Getting a literary agent or editor
There’s no hard or fast rule here. You can email an agent or editor when you’re done with your work (most want to see finished work) or even if you don’t have a book ready. Maybe you just want to introduce yourself. Maybe you meet at a literary conference. Maybe you ask friends who have agents to send you contacts. Maybe you cold-tweet an agent or editor and tell them you love their work and that you’re working on a proposal for them. In today’s world, you’re ultra-connected. Take of advantage of that but know your boundaries. And don’t expect responses. (Sorry, but it’s true).
There are a lot of agents out there, just as there are a lot of publishing houses and editors. You’ll find agents soliciting new writers’ work via Twitter, but you’ll also see agencies listing specific calls for types of queries (here’s an example of a literary agency call for submissions.) And here’s a customizable list of literary agents you can reach out to.
You’re going to want to personalize your queries enough to speak to why you’d like to work with that agent or agency. Most agents want to see finished work, along with a synopsis (here’s a checklist for novelists, although much of this applies to any writer).
When it comes to editors, many will only accept agented work, which means you can’t just send them a submission. However, there are plenty of presses that do accept unsolicited or unagented work. Look for independent presses, many of whom are very open.
The most important piece of advice I have is to be respectful and authentic when contacting agents and editors. You need to be able to explain the core root of your work, along with its relevancy, immediately. Show that you know something about the editor or agent; you wouldn’t believe the amount of bland “Please consider my book for publication” emails these people get. Show a little color. Be personable but professional. Why do you love that editor, that agent, or that publishing house? Ultimately, your talent and voice is what gets the deal, but your personality can help you get in the door.
Here’s an examination of the pros and cons of working with an agent.
Do you need an agent for poetry?
I’ve published several books of poetry. All of them have been with small presses or literary organizations. I simply submitted directly, without an agent — and this is the case for 99% of poetry. Poets usually quite simply submit their work directly to a press for publication. For some larger institutions or major presses, this may not be the case, but for any poet who wants to publish a book, there are thousands of great independent presses that will publish you without an agent.
My advice would be to get single poems published first, and then consider submitting your work for book publication. This helps book editors get a sense for who you and what you’ve done, and it lets them know you have an audience. I’m sure there are other poets who have not done it this way, though, and that’s fine, too.
When working with an editor, find a balance between respectful deference & self-advocacy
As a new author, you will find that it's harder to ask for what you want. For one, you might feel as though you have no right to ask for more money, to demand your book's cover color, or to argue against the publisher's title ideas.
In general, the publishing process is a collaborative one — which is something that will prove illuminating. I'm grateful for that collaborative spirit. However, when you are a new writer, you have to learn to read the room a little. This means learning when to defer to the editor, who likely knows the market and the business side of things better than you do, and it means standing up for your vision when appropriate. You know your work, your voice, your market, and your vision. The book is yours. The book is literally your creation.
Use your voice when you have a gut reaction to your publisher's choices. If you hate the cover color or font, make a stand. I cannot understate this more. My book was late to the printer because I refused to sign-off on the cover, which was designed three times.
When we'd finally settled on a general cover, my editors fought for a dark blue cover. In my mind, I saw my book in a light shade, like pink or ivory. Thus began a slightly uncomfortable back-and-forth, but I stood firm, un-moving — all while being respectful. Luckily, my editor went to bat for me in tremendous ways. In the end, I think the book’s color greatly contributed to its success. It stands out amongst a sea of darker covers, and the marbled pink communicates my vision, that the book is friendly, caring, and kind.
Don’t let a book deal change your relationship to writing
The issue with getting a book deal is that you feel somewhat like you’ve reached literary heaven, and in many ways you have. That same passion that you felt about your work can easily be lost to the editing, promotion and the worry-anxiety-imposter syndrome fest that inevitably follows suit. Be mindful to keep your relationship with writing. When I am not, it’s like I train my brain to say "publishing is the end goal," when really, it's about the writing. Writing is always there for you; she is your original home. She is beautiful and generative even when everything else feels still, heavy, or scary.
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Some (maybe useful!?) #writingadvice: One of the things I consistently am messaged about here on Instagram and also on Facebook is how someone can become a poet (& a published poet). I believe there is an element of mystery, a sort of occult silence, surrounding a poem and the poet’s work. I love that, and I’m in love with that as well—but there are many who feel frightened by this, or feel put off by it. Lean into that, embrace that strangeness. Poetry is a shadow state, but it’s not exclusive to anyone. You can write poetry too. . I also believe that poetry can be a tool for wellness, intentional living, and ritual. Poetry has long been used in all sorts of magic and its musicality and rhythm is meditative, transformative. It can be confessional. It can be bilingual. It can tell the story that ordinary language cannot. Poetry is what happens when you are both looking at and looking away from something. For many, it’s about sharing or expressing some truth, some in-between, some intangible which cannot be otherwise expressed. . I suggest starting by reading poetry as much and as often as you can. Don’t just read the people everyone suggests you read, go to a poetry bookstore and browse until your heart falls into something authentically. Note what you like and what you don’t. Write and write and write. Don’t give into cliché. Right honestly and don’t pay attention to bestsellers or popular voices. Emerge of your own. Find a few literary journals online—@lunalunamag is one!—and send them your poetry. Make sure you format each poem to a single page and follow closely the journal’s instructions. You will be rejected many times. You will also be published. Focus on your craft and not rushing yourself. Focus on your voice and what truth you want to tell. Don’t listen to any rules about what makes or does not make poetry. When you finally do share it, share it because you want to. Not because you think it will give you accolade or fame or money. It likely will not. But it will become a holiness. . 📷 This picture is my newest baby, “Nympholepsy” sitting there being beautiful. 🖤
Imposter syndrome is natural and potentially inevitable
I’ve talked with so many writers about imposter syndrome. This little beast is natural, and there’s almost no way past it but through. You will feel you don’t deserve a book, your voice doesn’t matter, that you cheated someone or something, that no one will like your work, that you’re not nearly as good as your peers, and every little thing in between. The reality is that there’s no solid advice here; you simply must accept that these thoughts are normal, most people have them, and that they will pass. All that said…
Take note of your hard work
You are a writer for a reason. Your passion, your drive, your vision, and your dedication is what brought you to this very point. That’s enough. That’s more than enough. The rest is just politics and bullshit you internalize about yourself and success, and the disease of elitism teaching you that you’re not enough.
I like to create a gratitude board where I pin photos or arrange words that celebrate my successes and projects. (Remember success looks very different for each of us; sometimes it’s finishing a paragraph or a chapter, and sometimes it’s finishing your book).
Be ready to promote your work
This is the best advice I can give you: Be ready to promote your work. I don’t mean post about it once a month on Facebook. I mean make spreadsheets of people you want to reach out, reviewers you’d like your work to be reviewed by, magazines you want to be interviewed by, and stores who might want to stock your book. Even if you work with [insert-fancy-name-press-here], you will be the one generating book sales. Your publishing company can help, yes, but there’s nothing like an author’s touch. Don’t be afraid to promote. It’s literally your job.
Quadruple the output if you’re on an indie press. Yes, this might sound scary — but if you want the book to reach readers, it’s a necessity.
You will lose people when you succeed, but you will gain so much more
In artistic communities, there is always a small percentage of people who let ego and jealousy run rampant. This makes it hard for them to congratulate you, support you, or even recognize you. Sometimes, silence speaks loudly. Don’t be surprised if your peers, colleagues, and even friends act differently toward you.
We’ve all been working toward a goal of being seen and validated; many people aren’t given the opportunity to bloom — whether it be because of a lack of access, a lack of money, a lack of time or childcare, illness, or a lack of drive.
What we can do is continue sending the elevator back down. Continue supporting people by sharing their work. Continue sharing our knowledge. Continue creating a space where other voices can shine. But what we can’t do is change the way people feel about our success. And, you know, it’s not really about you; it’s about them. Take comfort in that.
When you publish your first book, it can leave you with all that imposter syndrome, yes — but it also gives you a dose of confidence, a sense of accomplishment, a new set of skills, and insight as to how this all works. You will likely meet new friends, join new communities, and even be offered new opportunities. Revel in that.
I asked Luna Luna readers what they’d like me to answer in this column, so here are their questions:
Q: What is one piece of advice that is passed on less of the time that helped you break through to being published?
I think there’s this idea that you need to spend money on expensive residencies, get published only in the big journals (like Tin House, Paris Review) or attend the best MFA programs. I did attend an MFA program, and I can say that while it gave me the credentials to teach, all of my opportunities came from sending my work to indie journals, connecting with writers in digital spaces and at free literary readings, and working hard to hone my craft. With a full-time job, medical bills and other necessities, you do what you can. Do your best work, and don’t let elitist or reductive ideas and opinions get to you. The literati is a small contingent.
There is not one path to publication.
Q: Does it matter if you write into a genre or ideology that happens to be trendy or popular? Like I feel like nonfiction memoirs are coming out all the time now, should we all be writing memoirs? (No shade I read and love them).
Definitely not, but hey — you do you. I know someone who made very good money writing paranormal erotic ebooks when Amazon ebooks were booming. But look, you probably want to write what feels right to you. If it doesn’t feel authentic or natural, the writing probably won’t be very good — and the message won’t resonate. I’m aware that others might disagree, but that’s definitely my stance.
Light Magic for Dark Times came out during a boom in mind/body/spirit titles — and while the genre was trendy, it’s never really been not trendy. People are always interested in self-development and magic and personal power. Not to mention, it gave me a chance to create something new in the genre. I am in love with it.
Q: Where can I find information about publishing?
There are some super helpful resources out there (here, here, here, here, and here, for example), including Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to opportunities and writers supporting writers. Some of my personal favorites include Entropy’s Where to Submit column and Poets & Writers Magazine.
Lisa Marie Basile is the founder of Luna Luna. She is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times (Quarto, 2018), a modern grimoire of inspired rituals and daily practices. She's also the author of a few poetry collections, including Nympholepsy (Inside the Castle, 2018) and Andalucia. Her work encounters the intersection of ritual and wellness, chronic illness, magic, overcoming trauma, and creativity, and she has written for The New York Times, Narratively, Grimoire Magazine, Sabat Magazine, The Establishment, Refinery 29, Bust, Hello Giggles, and more. Her forthcoming work can be seen in Catapult, the Burn It Down anthology, and Best American Experimental Writing. Lisa Marie earned a Masters degree in Writing from The New School and studied literature and psychology as an undergraduate at Pace University.