I’ve only been asked this question a couple times, but I thought I’d get my thoughts down now. I’ll update and add as needed. (Disclaimer: There are as many paths to publication as there are writers. YMMV.)
How to Publish a Romance Novel
Step 1: Write a story.
And if you want to sell a romance, you should probably write a romance. You’d think they’d make Step 1 easier, since you’re just starting out. Honestly, I think Step 1 was/is/will ever be the hardest step.
Damn it, already we’re ahead of ourselves, because how do you write a book? (Disclaimer: In the following section, “you” means “this is how I did it.”)
Step 0: How to write a book
0.1 Read. Read a lot. You will need a lot of words in your well in order to pump them back out onto your blank pages. Read books similar to what you want to write—romance, in this case—and read books vastly dissimilar to what you want to write. Learn to recognize the flow of prose, the snap of dialogue, the variations of pacing, the expected —and excitingly unexpected—twists and turns of plot, the evolution of character.
0.2 Write. Write a lot. You are a writer when you write. And you have to write your WIP (Work In Progress). If you want to be published in romance fiction, writing rambling blog posts doesn’t count, nor does writing clever emails or tweets, not even retweeted tweets. Sadly.
0.3 Revise. Revise a lot. You can never revise enough. Eventually though, you will not be able to revise anymore. You should probably revise again anyway, but you and I both know you won’t. I didn’t. So prepare for rejection. Probably a lot of rejection.
— Do I need critique partners?
Not necessarily, though I found a critique group to be very helpful. I tend to get very wrapped up in my own head, and it was nice to have someone to pull me out when I needed a hand. I also learned a lot from watching them (and hopefully helping them) improve their stories. But the wrong people can damage your confidence (or inspire unjustified confidence) and ruin your voice. In the end, whether you have writing friends or not, you will need to learn to trust your writing instincts.
Along the same lines as critique groups, some people wonder whether they should join professional writing organizations. Again, not necessarily. But I can unequivocally say, I would not be published without the Romance Writers of America, the national organization for romance writers and my local chapter in Portland Oregon. I had to put in the effort to convert what I learned from RWA to words on the page, but the group helped me hone my craft and gave me a professional template to follow.
— Should I enter writing contests?
I sold my manuscript off the 2007 Rose City Romance Writers Golden Rose contest, so I have a soft spot in my head… I mean, heart for writing contests. However, many of my judges over the years hated me (me personally, you understand) and gave me terrible scores. If I’d listened to them… Writing contests can give you useful feedback and—when won in sufficient quantities—a certain amount of buzz. But ultimately, selling comes down to you and one other person: the editor. (Well, it also comes down to the editorial board, marketing, accounting, the fickle fates, and probably a bunch of other obscure forces utterly outside our realm of influence, but you know what I mean.)
— Does the story have to be complete before I submit it?
If you have no official writing credits to your name and unless you have some amazing hook no one else can claim (like you actually HAVE a werewolf lover, and even then, that’s probably only a hook for a non-fiction book) you will probably need to finish your story before you try to sell it. Editors and agents want to know if you can pull this off. Really, YOU should want to know if you can pull this off. Writing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end is a good way to do that.
— Does the story have to be perfect?
No. It just has to be compelling. Trust me, compelling is MUCH harder than perfect. But at least compelling is attainable; perfection isn’t.
Step 2: Submit your story
Before you submit to anyone, revise again. Did you? Probably not. Okay fine. But before you submit to anyone, do your agent/publisher research. You’ve actually done some of your research already if you’ve done Step 0.1 which was read. You know which stories are popular and who is representing and publishing what kind of story. Make a list of those publishers or agents you want to submit to. Make sure they are legit (review Preditors & Editors online for starters); there are a lot of scammers out there, ready to take advantage of eager new writers. Cyber stalk them in lurker mode to learn what you can about their likes, pet peeves, needs and wants, favorite tropes, preferred brand of chocolate, etc. Wield this information ruthlessly but don’t bother trying to bribe them (this from personal experience) with anything except an awesome story.
How to submit
— Gird your loins with steel, padlocked with titanium. If you’re imagining a kind of chastity belt—i.e. no one can touch you—you’re probably getting the picture. Submission is a fairly accurate word for the process—there’s a terrible vulnerability that goes with it. The girding protects at least a little piece of you.
— Craft your query/cover letter to exquisite perfection. Yes, this time perfection does matter. Go online and read all the free writing tips on crafting a query/cover letter. Make absolutely sure you have the right person’s name on it (again, this from personal experience) before you send it out.
— Follow directions. These days, most editors and agents post submission guidelines on their websites. Some want the first five pages; some request the first three chapters. Some just want a letter. Follow these guidelines. Consider it a test; what they are testing is whether you can follow directions.
— Send out small flights (maybe five to eight) queries at a time and consider your response. If you get nothing, you may want to spiff up the content. Or maybe not; maybe your query rocks and you just haven’t found the right person yet.
— Do I need an agent?
Not necessarily. I know many writers and authors who go it alone. I personally had better luck attracting the interest of editors than agents. But ultimately, I knew I wanted an agent, someone who could be my heavy when need demanded, someone who had access to the people I didn’t, someone to be a team partner in this crazy publishing life.
— How do I know if an agent is right for me?
You probably won’t until it’s too late. Long-time authors will tell you that it’s not unusual to change agents over the course of a career. Needs change. Take the opportunity at conferences to chat with agents. Read their blogs. At least you’ll have a sense of whether their business philosophy and personality compliments yours.
— Should I epublish first to catch the attention of New York? Should I publish straight to Amazon and forget New York?
There are many different publication options for writers these days. Only you can decide what you want from your writing career—a small press, epublishing with Amazon and Smashwords, a big New York house, eternal self-aggrandizing wankery, etc. Talk to other writers about their experiences and take their advice the same way you took the advice of your critique partners: with gratitude and a grain of salt.
Step 2½: Learn the business of writing
Get the story done first because the business doesn’t matter if you don’t have a story. But since you’re researching editors and agents in Step 2, you might as well be learning about the business of publishing. Professional writing organizations, publishing outlets, agent blogs, reader/author blogs, all these can offer insights into the business side. Some writers don’t bother with the business side of things. I think that must be nice. I don’t want to care about the business of writing—I’d rather lose myself in storyworld—but as an author I’m a small business owner and so I feel I need to have a working knowledge of (among other things):
— Promotion and marketing
— Business planning
— When and how should I start building my “author brand”?
There’s a lot of disagreement about the promotion and marketing of writers/authors and their stories/books. About whether it works. Who it works for. When it should start. What it should include. Sadly, I don’t think anybody has definitive answers.
Most people agree that a solid website is imperative. After that, opinion splinters. To blog or not to blog. Social networking via Facebook and Twitter and whatever the next thing will be. Whatever you do, it can’t get in the way of the writing. The writing comes first, last and always. But I think every single person who knows about your book is potentially a bunch more people who know about your book. And that can only be a good thing. As long as it’s a good book. See why the writing comes first?
— Why should I care about the business? I don’t even care if anyone ever reads my book. I just want to write.
That does make your writing career vastly simpler.
Step 3: Write another story
Like the military, the publishing world has a lot of scrambling and a lot of waiting. Don’t waste the waiting time. Write the next story. If you’re doing it right, each story is better than the one before it. Not easier, necessarily, because you’re probably pushing yourself, trying things you haven’t tried before, expanding your abilities, but better. Yay, you!
Step 4: Keep revising and submitting
Chances are you will be rejected at some point in your publishing career. Multi-published authors say they still face rejection—on proposals and in reviews—so you might as well get used to it. Rejection hurts because you care about the outcome, but it hurts way less when you have something else in the pipeline.
Step 5: Repeat Steps 3 and 4
Some lucky bastards get their first efforts published and go on to lead lives of six-figure advances and cascades of five-star reviews. If you knew beyond a doubt that you will not be that person, would you still write? If you are secretly rolling your eyes at me and thinking “I WILL be that person,” obviously your imagination has gotten the better of you. Which means you’re probably a writer. Welcome to the club.
— How do I stay motivated in the face of rejection or—worse yet—silence?
Every creative person is motivated by different forces. I am motivated (I think; I’m not very good at introspection—my motivations tend to be murkier than my characters’) by the impulse to share my stories. Only I know these stories and if I don’t tell them, they will go forever untold. So I persevered until I got the chance to share. Find your motivation and you’ll have something to back you up in the bad times.
Also, supportive friends with chocolate are good.
— When should I give up?
When people ask how long it took for me to sell, I say—short answer—”More than ten years, about a hundred rejections, and nearly a million final draft words.” So definitely don’t give up before then.
At one of the first RWA meetings I ever attended, a long-time member announced she was quitting writing. She said, “It’s too hard.” We all cried. Not entirely from grief. From relief. You mean we can quit? Yes, any time writing gets too hard, you can quit. And you can start again if you want. Or you can stay quit. If you can quit, you probably should. Writing IS too hard. If something else makes you happy, do that instead. Unless it’s writing poetry. Poetry is probably harder than novel writing, although at least it’s shorter.
If only novel writing—and especially novel writing with the intent of sharing your stories with a wide audience—makes you happy, then write, revise, submit, and hold onto the dream. That’s the secret handshake.