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September 22nd, 2022 donnahoke

How do I get published?

I get asked this question so often. It’s a close second to “how do I get an agent?” Both questions are frequently posed almost as a next step after finishing a play. Meaning too soon.

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Publishing is not an automatic next step.

The usual answer to the agent question is “When you’re ready for an agent, one will find you.” That’s also somewhat true when it comes to publishing, with one caveat: it’s likely they will only find you if you were produced in New York and had good reviews. There may be exceptions for playwrights with existing relationships with a company, but let’s assume this is not the person asking the question. Either way, the essence of both questions boils down to the same thing: an agent/publication will get me more productions, right?

Not as a rule.


For the most part, agents don’t peddle your work but, rather, field inquiries for it and handle the contracts. Publishers are much the same. A published play may be on a publisher’s website or in their catalog (or not–catalogs don’t include everything), but publishers exist—and make their money—by fielding requests to license your play and handling the contracts on your behalf. As such, they’re unlikely from a business perspective to publish plays that nobody is looking for or that don’t have a solid track record of good reviews at bigger theaters. In other words, just as with an agent, marketing, pushing, and promoting your work is still on you.


The difference is that while having an agent will never hurt your career, publishing too soon can hurt your bottom line and hamstring a play prematurely. How? Because once a play is published, you no longer control its licensing, and it also becomes ineligible for a lot of opportunities that might give it more of a resume. (To be clear, we’re talking about publishing houses that license; publishing in an anthology isn’t considered “published” in practical terms as the play is still unlicensed.)

Before a play is published, you decide how much to charge per performance, and you can negotiate that however you choose. You can decide to let a theater do the play for peanuts, just because you like the theater. Or because you want to see the play on its feet. Or you want reviews. Once a play is published, you lose this power; the licensing house sets the fee (some smaller houses may negotiate a bit, but they have limits.).

During the pandemic, I lost a production in Canada for this reason. Another in Florida this past year. I have countless stories of people who had NYC productions and were subsequently published by Samuel French, only to never see another production because their unknown play got lost in the company’s massive catalog. (If you want your play in a massive catalog, make sure it’s on New Play Exchange; there is zero to lose by doing that!)


For people who publish at smaller houses (many of which offer no advance), the odds of getting those subsequent productions are even less. And then all you’ve done is tie up your play so that you’re unable to submit it to opportunities for unpublished plays. Income and opportunity can be lost because of a rush to publication. (The youth market has long been a notable exception to this; see below.)


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Think about how many things are published and what the path to finding one volume might be.

Another important caveat is that NO play should be published until it’s been through at least one very strong production. The number of playwrights who want to publish before they’ve ever seen a play fully staged for multiple performances is astonishing. There’s a reason the biggest publishers don’t commit plays to print before they’ve been thoroughly worked, and that’s because there’s no way to see a play through production without making myriad changes! You wouldn’t print a novel without running it by several beta readers and making revisions based on their feedback; it’s the same thing. Seek productions, not publication. The play will be better for those efforts.

Hopefully it’s clear now that the question isn’t “How do I get published?” but “When should I try to get published?” There are several situations I’d advocate for:

*The play has had enough productions to create a track record so that people are either a) looking for it or b) will be impressed by the track record when you call their attention to it (which generally means you’ve got great reviews to share). Then it’s time to let someone else take over the licensing because the play has a fighting chance to sell itself.

*A publisher is offering a big enough advance that it makes good financial sense to allow publication.

*The play has been produced a bunch but rejected by all major publishers, and a small house wants to publish it. If you’ve moved on from this play, go for it.

*The play has been developed to the point of a workshop production, but years of submitting have gotten no more traction for it. Now a small house is willing to publish it. It might languish in a catalog, or you might get lucky. Go for it.

*The play hasn’t been produced, but you just want to see it in print! I’ll never disparage the fun and pride of holding your printed play in your hand. If that’s the goal, you can do it yourself on lulu or amazon. And if you’re good at marketing, this may make it easier to promote the play.


*Your play is for the youth market. This is a critical exception to all of the above. Producers of plays in this market, i.e. schools, places of worship, community theaters, camps, almost always go direct to publishers to choose plays and are more confident in choosing one with the imprimatur of publication vetting. While strong workshopping and/or production is still advisable and desirable for youth publishers, they’re more apt to recognize that it’s not always possible (though some youth publishers that print on demand can update if you do have a production after publication). Traditionally, youth publishers have been quicker to get something to print so it can be offered to their markets.

The bottom line is that when it comes to publishing: it’s about timing. If the big publishers come knocking with an advance, there’s no reason to say no—but this will usually mean the play is ready to be published. In other cases, ask yourself:
*Am I done with this play? Has it had enough development/production?
*Have I moved on from this play, i.e. I’m not even submitting it anymore, to anything.
*Am I okay if it languishes in a catalog just for the joy of having it published or is there more life left in it as an unpublished play?

There are no wrong answers, and the biggest takeaway is that publication should never be the first thing a playwright seeks for a play. Production should always be the goal.

I hope I’ve covered the questions sufficiently but, of course, if you have more, fire away!




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  1. 1 Don Zolidis said at 12:28 pm on September 22nd, 2022:

    Thank you for writing this!

    I think there are some other things to consider, though, that many playwrights don’t think about – and those things are markets.

    Your advice is very strong for anyone seeking to write for the professional or regional (or perhaps even small professional) market.

    There are, however, other markets to consider:

    1. The community theater market (which includes the dinner theater circuit)
    2. The university market
    3. The secondary education market
    4. children’s theater market

    With community theaters, and, to a lesser extent, dinner theaters, a publication is necessary before one of those theaters will take a bite. They will take a chance on an unknown play with no name recognition if it has a strong enough hook. They probably won’t look at a play like this unless it’s published, however. They simply don’t have the structure or time to look at queries or unpublished plays.

    A play like NANA’S NAUGHTY KNICKERS by Katy DiSavino is the perfect type of play for this circuit. It’s from a previously unknown writer, it’s a comedy, and it’s clearly aimed at the community theater scene (the show isn’t going to get done at Yale Rep just because of its name). It’s been produced hundreds of times from the Samuel French catalog – and let’s remember that dinner theaters can give you the longest, most lucrative runs of any theater – some of them do up to 100 performances of a show.

    A good strong comedy (the kind professional theaters and competitions love to ignore) can do very well in community theater, and it can do so even without a professional production. Getting a play like that to a publisher quickly is probably the best course of action.

    Same with plays aimed at universities. Again, very few college professors want to read through query letters or submissions from playwrights they don’t know – but they will look outside the standard New York fare for the simple reason that they need plays with larger casts – the kind of shows that are largely impossible in New York, Chicago, and LA.

    I could go on and on – (I’m sorry for this blog-length response!) and I could go further into how NPX changes the game a bit, though not drastically.

    But one more thing to consider, if you are seeking publication, and you don’t have name recognition – “How do I make my play stand out in a catalog with a thousand titles?”
    The first 3 plays I had published, when I had no name recognition, had the benefit of having bizarre titles that sparked interest. I think that helped, along with my strange last name, to help people remember me. Each of those first plays got between 15-20 productions in its first year of publication, even though I had no ability to push them through outreach. That wouldn’t have happened without publication, and I don’t think it would’ve happen had I not titled the plays in such a way that made them stand out.

  2. 2 donnahoke said at 12:30 pm on September 22nd, 2022:

    100%. Thank you for all this additional information from a voice with MUCH experience! There is so much more nuance the deeper you go.

  3. 3 Claudia Haas said at 1:47 pm on September 22nd, 2022:

    Interesting how the youth market has gotten fussier. “The sooner the better” is being replaced with “prefer plays that have had some development” (which can be competitive) and requiring 1-3 productions. Dramatic publishing also wants a letter of recommendation from the director of one of your productions.

    TYA prefers published these days unless you have a friend in the field. And are mainly producing adaptations of award winning picture books. They’re still viable for new plays and if there is a hook and a small cast, getting a tour is a great financial gift.
    Colleges and Universities have found me through my publishers BUT don’t discount New Play X. Last year 30% of my university productions came from New Play X.

  4. 4 donnahoke said at 1:50 pm on September 22nd, 2022:

    This is interesting, but not surprising. The market is glutted on all front and everybody is looking for ways to reduce the piles. NPX all the way; I’ve gotten several productions through it as well.

  5. 5 Joe Weintraub said at 12:47 am on September 23rd, 2022:


    There’s “publication” and there’s “publication”? In the first case, the rights are acquired by the publisher (such as Samuel French) to license the production of the play. In the second case, the play appears, say, in a literary review or an anthology of the year’s best plays, and in that case the rights to produce the play remain in the hands of the playwright. I’m assuming you’re only talking about the first case. Is that correct?

  6. 6 donnahoke said at 8:14 am on September 23rd, 2022:

    Absolutely. Thank you for making that distinction. Many opps at small companies that ask for unpublished plays really mean unlicensed play. Likely not familiar with the anthology world, they don’t use “unlicensed” language because they don’t necessarily know to make that distinction.

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