Step 5: Make some decisions.An important step on the road to getting published is to make some decisions about why you want to get published and how you want to be published. You may have already made these decisions, but if you haven't, now's the time. For me, these aren't even decisions I make consciously most of the time, but there's something to be said for being aware of the options so that you don't rule any of them out through ignorance.
Do you want to self-publish, or do you want to be traditionally published?
There are loads of ways to self-publish. My friend Jeffrey Gardner self-publishes poetry on his blog Scribbling Truth with Crayons. I self-publish about food, culture, lifestyle and travel on my blogs (links on the right, under My Other Blogs). There's HubPages and Amazon and Book Baby and more. You could self-publish on your website too.
If you want to be traditionally published, how you go about it will depend on what it is you've written. Is it a book? Get thee an agent. Is it a short story, poem, or article? Start researching publications. In all cases you will need to craft a compelling cover letter so that people will actually take the time to read what you send them.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both routes. The most obvious advantage to self-publishing is that you don't need anyone else's buy-in to put your work out there. On the down side, if you want your writing to be read, you'll have to do some work to draw readers.
Dick Lutz, an author and publisher, has an article on the Willamette Writers website that poses some good questions to think about when deciding whether to self-publish or go the traditional route. His article also contains links to some good resources.
Part of your decision about whether to self-publish or traditionally publish may rest on your answer to the next question.
Do you want or need to make money?
Let's just be honest about this: it's rare that somebody gets to make a living off of writing. Most of the people who try live very inexpensively or are partially supported by someone who actually makes decent money. I'm not saying you can't make money writing; I'm just saying I wouldn't (and don't) expect to make a lot of money writing.
There are ways to make money from self-publishing, but you're probably not going to get rich quick this way. Fifty Shades of Grey is the exception, not the rule. (Darn it!) That said, it is possible to make what's called "passive income" from self-published writing, which usually means small amounts of money (emphasis on small) on a regular basis over a long period of time. (In the interest of not having this post become a novel in itself, I'll talk about the myriad of ways one can self-publish, both for passive income and not, in a few future posts.)
To be honest, though, you're probably not going to get rich off of being traditionally published, either. Unless you enter a contest, which costs money, it's rare for literary magazines to pay for poetry or stories, and when they do pay it isn't much. [9/16/12 Update: Since being turned on to DuoTrope I have discovered that there are far more publications than I thought that offer some money for poetry and stories, so I retract my statement that it's "rare."] And while you may get an advance for a book, my understanding is that the amount offered in advance by publishers today is a fraction of what it used to be.
For another perspective on this question, check out this blog post by genre fiction writer J. A. Konrath about the financial implications of self-publishing vs. traditional. I found his view exciting; I need all the hope I can get.
How do you want to spend your time and energy?
If for you it's not about making money, maybe your decision will be based more on what your skills are and how you want to spend your time. Because whichever route you choose, it does take time and energy to publish.
From my perspective, the single most compelling reason to go for traditional publishing is also the most frightening and time-consuming part of self-publishing: the marketing. I know next-to-nothing about marketing. When you publish traditionally, they take care of the marketing. They also take care of the cover design, which is bad in that the author often doesn't have much of a choice about what their book looks like but good in that the author doesn't have to deal with hiring an artist, which can be a stress-inducing time-sucker.
Another reason people choose traditional publishing is because having one's book manuscript, poem, article, or story chosen by someone else is validating. It's not you saying, "Hey, I think my stuff is good so I'm going to put it out there for all to enjoy"; it's someone else saying, "Hey, I think [insert your name here]'s stuff is good and I want to get it in front of people." Cool! Actually, they're both cool, but the second, in my opinion, entails a bit more of an ego-boost than the first.
The time- and energy-consuming part to getting published traditionally is the phase where you're sending out queries and getting rejected. Sure, there's a possibility you will get accepted on your first query, but that's not the experience of most writers I've spoken to or read. There's a lot of rejection, and staying positive takes a heck of a lot of energy.
So what's it going to be?
Previous posts in this series:
Step 1: Write
Step 2: Share it
Step 3: Revise
Step 4: Edit and proofread