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How to publish a bestseller: faculty and students weigh in

By Britnee Meiser / Staff Writer

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Before a book can fly off the shelves, it usually has a long, methodical process to get there.

Every year, thousands of writers try their luck in the world of freelance by sending out manuscripts to publishers with hopes that they’ll land a writing gig. The ugly truth at the end of the paper trail is that it’s really hard to get a work of fiction published — and even harder to publish something that will gain a large following and become a bestseller.

As a writer in college, the initial hump of publishing can be pretty discouraging. Yet starting small and starting early when it comes to fiction writing often promises more uplifting results.

Aubrey Hirsch, author of the short story collection “Why We Never Talk About Sugar,” says it’s possible to sell short stories in college — speaking from experience.

“It’s a much easier path to master the short form [before trying to sell a novel] and gain an audience,” Hirsch, a visiting lecturer in Pitt’s writing department, said. “[Later], when you’re selling your manuscript, it’s helpful to say you already have a following. You’re much more likely to get an agent.”

An agent isn’t necessary to publish your work on a smaller press — Hirsch didn’t have one when she published her collection with Braddock Avenue Books. But, if you’re trying to submit to a larger publishing house, Seema Mahanian, editorial assistant at Pamela Dorman Books/Viking,  a branch of Penguin Random House, almost guarantees that a publisher won’t even consider work without an agent.

“[To get published by a large press], be very realistic about what it is you’re writing,” Mahanian said in an email. “Know what it is so you can pitch it to agents accurately. Do research, find the right kind of agent for your book and, before sending it out, have as many people as possible read it. It’s all about editing and listening to feedback.”

College writers are often so focused on the dream of signing with a large press that they overlook other options that are more practical for new writers. 

Freshman Rebecca Tasker took the DIY route with her collection of short stories and poems, “A Small Town Heart,” by self-publishing through Lulu.com. Lulu, along with other self-publishing sites such as Siminars and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, have contributed to the boost in self-published works — the figure reached 391,000 in 2012, according to the book data company Bowker.

“I liked the flexibility of self-publishing and that I didn’t have to pay for an editor,” Tasker said. “I know that a small [press] could do basically the same [quality publishing work] I could — and I’d pay more.”

As much as Tasker recognizes the merit of self-publishing, though, she knows that doing so makes it harder to advertise and have success with her book.

Some writers might need the backing of a publishing house to get off the ground.

“It’s a combination of both luck and talent — and strong support in-house,” Mahanian said in an email. “No matter how talented the author is, there always is a little bit of luck involved in making a book a bestseller. There can be so many factors at play, [such as] timing and, of course, marketing.”

To succeed, Hirsch said to recognize the importance of timing with  writing something that’s still culturally relevant.

“Keep an eye on the market — know what’s selling,” Hirsch said. “If you’re writing a book that hit its peak years ago, like [a plot that focuses on] zombies, you’re going to have a hard time selling to a publisher.”

For most college writers looking to make a name for themselves, selling books to publishers isn’t a primary focus — it’s selling their first short story to magazines and journals to gain exposure. 

Jeff Martin, winner of the Scott Turow Award for Fiction and author of the story “Children, Go Where I Send You,” stressed the importance of venue.

“Read the journal [that you’re submitting to] and get an idea of the journal’s sensibility,” Martin said. “Don’t send your punk record to a rap label. Journals have different requirements.”

But when publishers are considering a manuscript, Mahanian said the ultimate questions are “Is there an audience for this?” and “Will it sell?”

“For fiction, [we look for] the ability to tell a good story, the strength and quality of the author’s voice and, importantly, can it hold your attention for 80,000 words or more?” Mahanian said in an email. “It’s actually quite surprising how many manuscripts can’t do that. But when there’s something there, it’s easy to spot, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be reading a manuscript and know … it will end up being an incredible book one day.”

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How to publish a bestseller: faculty and students weigh in