Publishing: Submitting Your Work
When you've completed a short piece of prose or a small number of poems, you send this to a literary or other magazine for consideration, or an anthology — a book made up of a collection of literary works. When an anthology is being published, they put out a call for submissions.
If it's a book-length piece you've completed, you write a query letter or a proposal, and submit this to a publishing house (or else you have a literary agent do this for you, if you can find representation).
An editor reads your work, considers whether it is right for the magazine or publishing house, and decides either to reject it (leaving the author free to offer it to another publisher) or to publish it. If the publisher decides to publish the work, they buy your rights to reprint the work (print rights and electronic rights if an e-book is planned). The publisher puts up the money to design and package a book or to print a magazine (or to release an issue online), and will print as many copies as it thinks will sell. Then the publisher takes care of marketing and distributing to the public.
For many authors, the work that publishers do is invaluable. John Green made a very passionate support of the traditional publisher in 2013.
Never pay a publisher to publish your work. You may pay services (like editing, or production service to lay out your book, or cover art) if you are publishing your work yourself — but if you're going the traditional route, a publisher will always pay you. (Some small magazines will pay in copies only, and some will accept work for publication but cannot afford to pay the writer for copyright — but they will never charge a fee.)
Vanity press publishers will accept your work without consideration, and charge you a fee to print it. They don't take a risk based on belief that your book will sell copies. Your book does not go through an approval or editorial process. If you submit to a vanity press, you may receive a nicely bound volume of your work, and you might have copies to distribute — since the vanity press makes its money from the authors who pay to be published there, they have already made their money from you, so they will not do promotion — having no interest in the sales of your printed work.
If a literary agent, magazine or publisher requires that you pay to have your work considered, this is not a legitimate publisher or agent.
More About Publishing: Some words of wisdom from Julie Paul
Once you've made something you like, you want to show it to others. This began when you were a child, didn't it? For most of us, we were proud when we first drew a flower that looked like a flower, when we could walk the balance beam without help. Now you've got some poems, and maybe you're pleased with how they look and sound. What next?
There is a wide world out there of publishing opportunity. Some people never venture into it, because they're afraid of the judgement — of rejection, of exposure — of success, even. They put their work into a drawer or a closet and ignore it, try to forget that they're a writer, try to go on living as they once did, without paying any more attention to this creative act.
Why not give it a try, though? You might say, sure, easy for you to say, to tell you to face the fears. It's not you sending out my work. But believe me, I'm a writer who's been there, and I am still there, sending things out. It doesn't change. I get rejections, I get the odd acceptance, I keep going. Because I identify with being a writer, and this is all part of it. I get back on the horse, as they say, when I've fallen off, been kicked around, etc. A friend of mine used to cheer whenever I told her I'd gotten a rejection. Hurray! she'd say. You sent something out. Because she was a writer, too, and she never sent a thing out. It was a safer way to be, but she wished she could get rejection letters, too, wished she'd had the nerve to put her work into an envelope and send it on its way.
And I won't lie; it's a very good feeling to get an acceptance. Someone else, not your mother or sister or boyfriend or teacher, has chosen your work as something they like. Something they want to share with even more people.
It isn't about the money. We need to get that out there. Most literary magazines publishing poetry now do not pay much, if at all; sometimes you'll get a copy of the journal or a few dollars. But what you do get is a publishing credit: like a charm on a charm bracelet, it's a thing to collect. And one day, perhaps, you will have a number of these charms…and then you might think about creating a book. Then trying to get that published, in more or less the same manner. Sending it out, waiting, seeing.
Celebrate every success; then, keep writing, sending more out, getting rejections, revise, send more…sooner or later, the ones who persevere, who are both passionate and determined to become better writers, they will get published.