Success can be defined any number of ways. For the purposes of this section, let success be whatever “your” version of it is, with one caveat: you want to be able to write novels and earn enough to make a living. If you only want to get a book published simply for the sake of finding it in a store for a few months (it won’t stay in the store forever unless it sells), keep your day job and consider publishing the novel yourself. (As for non-fiction, I don’t have much experience in that side of publishing, so I can’t comment on it.)
Most unpublished authors who write to me requesting help focus on the first issue, and I fully understand the Catch-22 with getting an agent: agents want someone who’s published before, but how can a person get published without an agent? As hard as it is, it happens all the time. All successful writers were once in the same boat you are, but they found a way to do it. Believe me when I tell you that agents sign new authors all the time. It is tough to get an agent, but it’s important to understand that of the three steps listed above, the first step is the easiest.
Agents act as a “filtering” system for publishers these days. For every manuscript sent to a publishing house, there were thousands of manuscripts and query letters examined by agents. Agents are always looking for well-written manuscripts. If you can’t find representation for your manuscript, don’t blame the agents. It might be the query letter or the genre or even the manuscript (egad!) that resulted in rejection by the agent, and it might mean you should try something new, either by editing your novel and improving it, or by writing a new manuscript. Remember, I had two unpublished, unrepresented novels and another book under my belt before I wrote The Notebook. Stephen King, I believe, had five.
I’ll admit that it’s not easy to get an agent, but becoming successful in anything requires perseverance. If you can’t persevere on the first step, the easiest step, how will you react to the harder steps when they come? Do you think you’ll be any happier if you have an agent but the agent can’t sell the novel to a publisher? Or if it gets published and no one buys it?
As for getting the right publisher, many times, you don’t end up with much choice in the matter. If there is, it’s important to not only to like the editor with whom you’ll be working, but to find one who is passionate about your work. Sometimes, that means taking less money than you were offered by another publishing house. Tough choice, but often it’s the right one, since passion is contagious and it just might mean the publisher will take a greater chance on promoting your work.
Having the book sell out of stores is far and away the most difficult step of all. Walk into a bookstore these days and scan the shelves. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of books, are competing with yours and the front of the store is dominated by brand-name authors. Though I’ve said it before in this website, the following bears repeating. These days, it seems there are only three ways for an author to hit the best-seller list with a first novel: (1) have the novel recommended by Oprah (most if not all of the books she’s chosen for Oprah’s Book Club have become best-sellers, first time author or not, like Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard); (2) have the novel receive wide and lavish critical acclaim, thereby triggering the interest of the major media, like Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; or (3) write a novel that has good word-of-mouth, i.e., a well-written book that people read and enjoy and feel compelled to recommend to others, like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells.
This doesn’t mean you can’t become a success with a later novel. Over time, quality work will lead to an audience for your work. In the end, readers always choose.