5 Secrets To Publishing Your Debut Novel

34d4f71fc9ac164fd6af6bc5770ca7e4Lots of people can write. Lots of people can (and do!) query their writing. But what does that group of people who get published do differently? Other than persistence, here are my FIVE SECRETS to set you apart from the pack–and join your peers getting published!


Notice I didn’t say “develop a platform” which is a plus, but isn’t going to score you a book deal by itself. By network I mean:

  • Join a critique group
  • Join a writing association (ITW, RWA, WFWA etc.)
  • Spend time on one social media site that suits your interests and personality (choose one! you don’t have to do it all) and build a community
  • Engage with other writers who have agents and if you become friends and have similar writing style ask for a referral to their agent


I get it, I do; you writers are creative people whose minds wander between genres and age categories. However, that isn’t going to help you focus when you’re trying to determine what your brand is. You need to start with the genre that you feel most passionately about. You can’t do it all as a debut. So think about your brand early on.

Genre (what category are you writing in?) + Voice (how is your style different than other writers out there?) + Online Presence (click that link, learn what kind of influencer you are) + Online Aesthetic/Style (how do you present yourself online visually or tonally? Twitter headers and color combinations count as does the style of things you post) = Author Brand

So what’s your plan? How many books a year are you going to write? How long is your series going to be? Whose career footsteps do you want to follow? How do you want to be different? What extra mile are you going to put in?


If you don’t know how to market, publicize, write, and network at the same time…start learning. Debut authors have it tough. Not only do they have to write a great novel, they have to be the champion of their own work. They have to spread the energy around and keep up enthusiasm (with the help of their agent and editor but it all starts with the writer). If you aren’t willing to pitch in with marketing and publicity your publishing team will think this is a hobby when in reality this should be a job. Because it’s our job and we take it seriously. We’re looking for writers that understand this is a career and not a hobby. At a 9-5 job you wouldn’t think that showing up is the only thing you have to do, right? So in publishing, writing the novel is showing up (I’m not trying to be glib, I’m trying to show you how this business works)–the WORK starts when marketing and publicity ramps up.


If you can’t handle jealousy or failure you’re in the wrong business. (Everyone says this but we truly mean it. Writers write because they can’t not. As the saying goes “if you can quit writing…you should.”) Learn how to interpret your emotions and not let them get the best of you. Because jealousy can (and will) eat you alive if you let it. Get competitive with yourself, not others. Failure will happen so you have to decide what your definition of success is. Do you stress under deadline? Plan to deliver your manuscript early. Give yourself a blueprint for emotional success, because this is a personal business.


Enough with the soft skills, let’s talk hard facts. Your breakout book will be the one that takes off. (If you haven’t read WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass, go get it!) Often, it’s not the first one you write. So understand and accept that and work towards your best writing ever. Agents are talent spotting the best writing of their slush pile, plus agents are dealing with current clients). You are in competition with their client list AND the slush pile. We’re always looking for the best writing we’ve ever seen. Yes, we’re willing to develop talent, but we have to see the spark in people and that starts with the writing. We can teach branding and marketing, but we can’t teach writers how to write better. (That isn’t our job; we don’t get paid for that. If you need help with writing you need a workshop and an editor, not an agent. Don’t waste your time or ours.) You have to come to us with those skills in hand. Yes, we reject writers whose writing is really good, but not for us–but more often we’re rejection people that simply aren’t ready. You can’t rush the breakout process. Getting published isn’t an overnight endeavor. It’s the years of development and getting up at 5am to get the words from your head to the page. We’re looking for special, and you could be it. Keep at it.

If you want more behind-the-scenes advice like this: sign up for my 5/26 webinar PUBLISHING YOUR FIRST NOVEL IN THE 21st CENTURY! It includes a 1 hour webinar (recorded so if you can’t attend live you will have the video sent to you), 30min of Q&A and a 5 page critique of your novel by me.

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

23 thoughts on “5 Secrets To Publishing Your Debut Novel

  1. Carly, as someone who is about a week out from finalizing a novel manuscript, I found this post particularly timely and helpful. It occurred to me, as I read the five secrets, that I managed to find one source for all of five by attending the ten-day Bread Loaf Writers Conference and being on its administrative staff for seven years. I continue to cultivate a network of writers, agents, and editors that began at Bread Loaf (I also attended Sewanee Writers Conference for a year). Listening to the diversity in the readings helped me clarify the kind of writing that most interested me. Attending seminars helped me try on those different hats you mentioned. And ten days in the same small-group workshop really helped me master Secret #4, especially how to receive criticism. Poet Yusef Komunyakaa, with whom I studied one year, had a great approach to critique. He would preface his suggestions with “I wonder what it would be like if you…” This rhetorical approach made it feel much less prescriptive and much more collaborative. Finally, I couldn’t agree more about the Breakout Novel idea. I’ve completed three novel manuscripts now, each one a little better than the one before, and then I returned to that first manuscript with a radically different narrative strategy which has resulted, readers have told me, in my best writing ever.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love you Carly! I must say that I am ready…sort of. I am now on my third novel. I think your last piece of advice is not always said. YOUR FIRST NOVEL MAY NOT BE THE ONE THAT GETS YOU A DEAL. Agents and Editors have liked my two novels: intriguing concepts, relatable characters, tone, voice, etc. But the novels may not be the one they want to go out of the gate with. Maybe it will be the third one that is “the one.” This is a reality that seems to not quite be verbalized. Maybe it is because an agent can’t quite define the perfect debut. So, I continue on with my third, and have three more in the queue to write. I write. It is what I do. I can’t stop, don’t want to stop, will not stop. So, I push forward, following through on the above and keep developing until that “right” novel hits someone’s sweet spot! It will….you forgot confidence, a must in this business.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As usual, great post. If a writer doesn’t know everything you just highlighted above, it’s time to retrench, regroup, rethink the process. Maybe even find another dream. For me? Write on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this post, my dear. I found it highly enlightening.Carly, I’ve heard that it is harder than ever to debut a horror novel. Any thoughts?


  5. A great list – but the “ask for a referral” is problematic. Authors get asked all the time and it’s an uncomfortable burden. A better suggestion would be to make your work known in the event an author likes what you’ve done and offers to make a referral for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can put writers in a situation but it should only be done in the right circumstances. I honestly look carefully at every referral that’s mentioned to me–so it can be worth it.


What do you think? I love hearing from you!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: