It's a sad fact but true. The sale of literature has less to do with the ability to write well than it has with the ability to market well. This is not much different today than it was when I began writing some four decades ago (has it been that long?), although today the marketing dictum seems to be taken to the absurd.
Back then, as an eager young writer of nearly 14, I was crushed when I learned, in a face-to-face confrontation with seasoned editor Louis Zara, then heading up a major U.S. publishing house, the bitter truth: writing the book is easy; getting it published (i.e., selling it) is damned hard.
Today, successful writing revolves around what I call pre-sales. Whereas in the past, when you could walk into a publisher's office and sell yourself and your project on the spot and maybe end up getting a reading or even a publishing contract, today you can't even get in the front door. You can't, at least, unless you pre-sell yourself.
Sound too Orwellian for you? Don't turn me off yet. It's not so difficult as it sounds. Here's how to do it.
1.) Get a precis. I like the word and use it because it sounds professional, yet artsy. You may feel more comfortable calling it a resume or a list of credits. Don't have any credits to include? Oh, hell, that's easy enough to correct. If you're lacking writing credits (that is, by-lines), list auxiliary credits. Did you volunteer for the local library? Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, write something that was turned down by a major magazine? List them. (You needn't go into the fact that you didn't get your article published, only that you wrote it.) Any other media connections? In television, film, photography? If so, list them. Any media-related courses in high school or college? Any awards? Did you write your school's valedictorian speech? Address the local Y.M.C.A.? Teach tots to read? Receive honorable mention in writing- or journalism-related courses? Study the history of great writers throughout the world? If so, list them. I'm betting that, by the time you finish working up your first piece of pre-sales ammunition, you'll find you're a lot more impressive looking to a future publisher than you thought you were.
2.) Get more writing credits. If you think, "Well, that's easier said than done," I'm here to tell you otherwise. In these days of I-net publishing, it's actually very easy to do. You can write for the Web site of your local chamber of commerce, write reviews of products for hundreds of Web sites actively soliciting them, write movie reviews, set up your own Web site and self-publish your writings, or even write for your various writing organization e-sites (such as this one). So far as the print media goes, you can nearly always write "think" pieces for your local paper. Write travel pieces for small magazines that pay in contributor's copies. In short, do whatever it takes to get published and get by-lines, even if you're not getting rich. Those credits will look well on your professional precis.
3.) Get in touch. Decide where your writing heart is, where you're strongest (romantic novels, investigative reports, non-fiction children's books, sci-fi) and find a few good, professional publishers in that area. Then contact them with queries--regularly. Once a week ... once a month ... whatever. The point is to contact them often enough so that they come to know you're a writer, you are real, and you'renot going to go away. Let them know you're the kind of writer who writes the kinds of things they publish. That's not to say that you might not decide from time to time to wander into different genres and have to deal with different publishers. But for the most part, find those publishers who publish the kinds of things you want to write and make yourself known.
4.) Become affiliated. It makes editors at major publishing houses comfortable to know that you're a professional. That means they're not likely to give you a go-ahead to write a book on, say, identifying wild mushrooms, give you an advance, give you a deadline ... only to find months down the road that you failed to live up to your contract. As a former editor, myself, I can state without question that the writers at whom I looked most closely were those whom I thought were in it for the long haul. Writers who were members of the same societies as I, writers who were members of societies I hadn't yet managed to crash, writers with a long track record, or writers who showed through their very activism that they were serious about being writers always got my attention first. No editor wants to connect with a one-time wonder. It takes just as much money to publish a first novel by a writer who will deliver 14 more over the next decade as it does to promote a novelist who will produce one book and then disappear from the scene forever. See what I mean?
5.) Get an agent. This is the really tough part. Agents are so few and far between in comparison to writers that there are very few who are willing to sign on a new or unproven writer (unless the agent is also new and unproven). There are exceptions, of course, and you need to search them out. The value of having an agent is that the agent spends his time selling, while you get to spend your time writing. Agents, however, very much like publishers, look for quality writers ... but beyond that, they seek quality writers who are dedicated to their craft and guaranteed to be around for years to come. If you can do all of the above, I guarantee you, you'll find a good agent.
And the rest, as they say, is history.