There are undoubtedly a number of authors who never intend to publish what they write beyond circles of close family and friends or even the pages of a diary. For such people, what follows is utterly irrelevant. But for every professional (or even semi-professional) writer, the ultimate goal is publication, ideally in a big-time literary journal or book put out by one of the ‘Big Five’ publishing houses. Given how many submissions such publishers receive in a single day, though, the question remains as to how a single author in that sea of names could possibly grab their attention. There are several answers to that, but first and foremost (besides top quality writing, of course) is to have a backlog of previously published work.
The best way to impress potential publishers is, naturally enough, to show that you have been published in the past. While this doesn’t make you a shoe-in by any means, it can make you stand out from a good deal of the competition. It goes without saying, the larger and more prestigious the publication, the more seriously you will be taken. But how do you get noticed by a big publisher so you can be noticed by a bigger one?
Starting small is advisable. This doesn’t mean you have to go seeking out the tiniest, seediest publications you can find just to get something accepted–on the contrary, aim as high as you can–but do be realistic: The odds of acceptance only go down the bigger the publisher, and eventually they become so astronomical that you may as well make your day job full time. Think of it as a pyramid: Lots of smalltime opportunities at the bottom with increasingly larger but less abundant opportunities as you climb, culminating in a tiny number of gold mines at the top.
As an example, let’s say you are an absolute unknown never published before. Depending on what kind of work you’re trying to publish, you might begin by approaching a small, local publisher first. If you’re a college student, you might look to see whether your school has a press and whether it’s looking for the kind of stuff you write. The bigger the school, the greater the prestige. Otherwise, if you’re not averse to writing shorter works, you might try a locally based magazine. Markets that pay, even just a nominal amount, tend to have more weight as references than those that do not, but they also tend to have more competition (and can therefore be more discerning in what they accept). Once you’ve established yourself as capable of local acceptance, you might be ready to move on to bigger publishers with wider distribution.
Building publishing credentials can be time-consuming (or at least seem that way!), but unless you are an incredible writer who happens to be incredibly lucky, they are pretty much a necessity to ever reaching the heights of being a professional writer. And even then, many never score a contract with the big-name houses and agents. Of those who do, many still have to write for lesser magazines, anthologies, etc. just to supplement an often inconsistent source of income–no one I know of has ever claimed the life of a professional author was easy.
For some, of course, there is no need to progress to higher levels of publication: If you can become a regular contributor to a couple small to medium-sized publications, you can potentially make a fair living at it. The decision, as always, rests with the author, but I would personally advise one to keep writing and keep trying: You’ll never know how far up the ladder you can get unless you give it a try!