Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published


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How to get your book published

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It’s the most frequently asked question I receive: How do I get my book published?

Unfortunately, when I hear this question, I know I’m dealing with someone who is at such a beginning stage that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

With this post, I hope to offer the most critical information and address the most pressing questions, as well as provide a starting point for more fully exploring what it means for you to try and get meaningfully published. And I’ve created an Amazon list of the best resources on this topic.

In partnership with Google Hangouts, I also offer 15-minute private consultations if this post doesn’t answer your questions.

Have you just recently completed your book?

If so, honestly answer these three questions.

  • Is your book really done? Is it really the best you can make it? And have professionals (whether editors, agents, or published authors) encouraged you, because they see and know you are ready? Do you feel confident that it’s ready to submit?
  • Are you informed enough about the publishing business to understand where to submit the work, how to submit the work, and what obstacles you might face? Does your work break the rules of the industry? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then you need to study up on the industry before submitting your work.
  • What is your motivation for trying to get published? A little self-reflection might be in order before you chase after an agent or publisher. Read my post 3 Questions Every Creative Person Must Ask.

Are you writing fiction or nonfiction?

Novelists follow a different path to publication than nonfiction authors.

  • Novels and memoirs: You must have a finished and polished manuscript before you even think about how to get published.
  • Most nonfiction: You must write a book proposal (basically like a business plan for your book) that will convince a publisher to contract and pay you to write the book. For more information on book proposals and what they entail, click here.

If you’re writing a hybrid work (personal vignettes mixed with instruction, or a multi-genre work that includes essays, stories, and poetry), then you will have a difficult time getting a publisher to accept it.

Getting published is a step-by-step process of:

  • Researching the appropriate agents or publishers for your work. (Here’s a list of free resources.)
  • Reading submission guidelines of agents and publishers.
  • Sending a query, proposal, or submission package.

What is a query letter?

The query letter is the time-honored tool for writers seeking publication. It’s essentially a sales letter that attempts to persuade an editor or agent to request a full manuscript or proposal.

Important: Almost no agent or editor accepts full manuscripts on first contact. This is what “No unsolicited materials” means when you read submission guidelines.

However, almost every agent or publisher will accept a one-page query letter unless their guidelines state otherwise. (If they do not accept queries, that means they are a completely closed market, closed to new writers or submissions.)

Also important: Most major publishers will not accept unagented work. This means many writers should query agents rather than publishers.

How do you find an agent?

In today’s market, probably 80 percent of books that the New York publishing houses acquire are sold to them by agents. Agents are experts in the publishing industry. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work.

Perhaps most important, agents negotiate the best deal for you, ensure you are paid accurately and fairly, and run interference when necessary between you and the publisher.

Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your work, and receive a 15% commission on everything you get paid (your advance and royalties). It is best to avoid agents who charge fees, though standards are changing.

So … do you need an agent?

It depends on what you’re selling. If you want to be published by one of the major Big Six houses (e.g., Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc), probably.

If you’re writing for a niche market (e.g., vintage automobiles), or have an academic or literary work, then you might not need one. Agents are motivated to take on clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If your project doesn’t command a sizable advance (at least 5 figures), then you may not be worth an agent’s time, and you’ll have to sell the project on your own.

Do you have to “know someone” to get published?

No, but referrals, connections or communities can certainly help! See the related question below about conferences.

Isn’t traditional publishing dead? What about self-publishing and e-publishing?

Typically, writers who get frustrated by the endless process of submission and rejection often look to self-publishing for satisfaction. Why waste countless months or years trying to please this or that picky agent/editor when you can easily get your book available on Kindle (or as print-on-demand) at almost no cost to you?

Such options may afford you the ability to hold your book in your hands, but it will not get your physical book into stores or lead to many sales unless you’re willing to put significant and persistent effort into marketing and promotion. Most self-published authors find that selling their book is just as hard—if not harder than—finding a publisher or agent.

To the credit of many who self-publish, independent authors can be fiercely passionate about their work and their process, and much happier and satisfied going it alone. But those who succeed and profit often devote years of their life, if not their entire lives, to marketing and promoting their work, and have a flair for entrepreneurship. In short: It’s a ton of work, like starting a small business (if you do it right).

So, you can self-publish, but it all depends on your goals and what will satisfy you. To learn more about self-publishing, check out these posts:

What are the most important things to understand about the publishing industry?

  • Publishing is a business, just like Hollywood or Broadway. Publishers, editors, and agents support authors or projects that will make money and provide a good return on investment. It used to be that this return on investment could happen over a period of years or several books. Now, it needs to happen with one book and in less than one year.
  • Professionalism and politeness go a long way toward covering up any amateur mistakes you might make along the way.
  • Unless you live under a lucky star, you will get rejected again and again and again. The query and submission process takes enormous dedication and persistence. We’re talking about years of work. Novelists and memoirists often face the biggest battle—there’s enormous competition.
  • Never call an agent or editor to query or ask questions (or just chat) if you are not a client or author. Never query by telephone—and I wouldn’t do it even if the guidelines recommend it. You’ll mess it up.
  • Agents and editors do not want you (a non-client or author) to visit them at their offices. Do not plan a visit to New York and go knocking on doors, and don’t ask an agent/editor for a lunch or coffee appointment if you don’t have a relationship already. If you’d like to interact with an agent or editor, attend a writers conference.
  • When working with a traditional publisher, you have to give up a lot of power and control. The publisher gets to decide the cover, the title, the design, the format, the price, etc. You have to go through rounds of revisions and will likely have to change things you don’t want to change. But you must approach the process like a professional, not a creative artist.
  • You must be an active marketer and promoter of your book. If you come to the table with media savvy or an established platform (audience or readership), you’ll have an easier time getting that first deal.
  • For nonfiction authors: Don’t go looking for a publishing deal because you’re looking for the authority or platform that a book can give you. Rather, you must already have the platform and authority, and thus be qualified to write a book. YOU bring the audience to the publisher, not the reverse.
  • If you write fiction or memoir, the writing quality matters above all else. Read, practice, and polish. Repeat this cycle endlessly. It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. It will likely be your second, third, or fourth attempt. Your writing gets better with practice and time. You mature and develop. If you write nonfiction, the marketability of your idea (and your platform) matter above all else. The quality of the writing may only need to be serviceable, depending on the category we’re talking about. (Certainly there are higher demands for narrative nonfiction than prescriptive.)
  • Think beyond the book. A lot of writers have dreams of publishing a book because it’s a dream that’s embedded in our DNA from an early age. We are trained to believe that authors have some higher authority or credibility, and that we’ve really “arrived” once we deliver that book into the world. But there are ways to be more successful, and spread a message to even more people, that have nothing to do with authoring a book. Make sure that your goals are best served by the book format. Increasingly, in our digital age, a book is a poor option (or the final format) for your message or service.

Should you attend writing conferences? Which ones should you attend?

Yes, you should, and here’s why.

  • Your education and insight into the industry will advance exponentially. You’ll gain an understanding that’s often impossible from just reading about it.
  • You will meet agents and editors, and start to see them as real people.
  • You may have an appointment or consultation with a publishing professional, and if so, it will shorten your path to publication. You can get the reasons, immediately, that an agent or editor may not be responding favorably to your work.
  • You need to connect with a peer group, and find people who can be mentors for you, and/or trusted critiquers.
  • You need time away from daily life to reflect on your writing goals and next steps.

Many writers are familiar with the reasons to attend conferences, but not all understand how to get more out of them. Here are 3 ways you can superpower your experience.

  • Select a conference where you can meet with a specific author, editor or agent who is absolutely ideal for your work (after lengthy and intensive research). Get a critique session or an appointment—but only if you feel like you’ve taken your work as far as you possibly can on your own. This is important.
  • During any formal appointments or critiques, plan to talk about 10-20% of the time. Before meeting, develop a specific list of questions that, if you had the answers, you would know specifically what your next steps are (for your project or your career) when you leave. Do not attend any appointment expecting to be offered a deal or representation. Go for the learning experience and the opportunity to have a professional consultation. That’s what it is.
  • Closely study the backgrounds/bios of every speaker, agent, and editor who is attending. Be knowledgeable for any chance conversations you have; having this knowledge will also spark questions you could ask during panels or social hours. Don’t be the person who asks the obvious question you could’ve figured out by paying attention to the program. Delve deeper. Make your questions count.

Should you hire professional help?

There’s no one right answer for everyone, but I discuss considerations and guidelines here.

Reasons you might fail in your quest to get published

  • You rush to submit your work before it’s ready. This is particularly true of writers who are fresh with the excitement of having just completed their very first book-length manuscript. If you’ve just spent months (or years!) writing a manuscript, why rush it to an agent or editor, and why rush it to just ANY agent or editor? And why rush it if you’re new to the publishing business?
  • It’s tough to achieve objectivity. When you finish a significant manuscript or proposal that took a long time to complete, you need time away and distance to assess it without feeling attached. And especially if you’re trying to identify, from a market or commercial standpoint, why your work is appealing to agents or editors, a great amount of distance is required. This is my theory on why so many queries and proposals fail. The work itself may be outstanding, but the writer hasn’t achieved the necessary distance to either evaluate or communicate the commercial merit of her own work.
  • It’s tough to make progress without a mentor. You’ll find a good critique partner is invaluable to your growth as a writer. When you don’t have the time or willingness to take enough steps back from your work, or see its flaws, others can offer a really hard push.
  • It’s easy to take validation from family and friends as a sign you ought to write and publish. Has your family encouraged you? Have your friends told you that you’re a brilliant writer? Do your children love your stories? While you need support, you also need to ignore what these people are telling you. They’re not publishing professionals. You need to write because you can’t do anything else. Because you would suffer if you didn’t. Your motivation to write has to come from within. Don’t write (only) because you were given validation or permission by someone close to you. What you really need (require) is your own inner conviction.

How long should you keep trying? After how many rejections should you stop?

Some authors are rejected hundreds of times (over a period of years) before they finally get an acceptance. If you put years of time and effort into a project, don’t abandon it too quickly. Look at the rejection slips for patterns or a direction about what’s not working. Rejections can be lessons to improve your writing.

Ultimately, though, some manuscripts have to be put in the drawer because there is no market, or there isn’t a way to revise the work successfully. Most authors don’t sell their first manuscript, but their second or third (or fourth!).

Is it OK to post or publish my work online? What if I put out an e-book on my own? Am I ruining my chances at a traditional publishing deal?

No, you are not ruining your chances. Read more about this issue here.

Final note

I’ve met thousands of writers over the years, and I often encounter attitudes that are ultimately harmful to one’s publishing goals. Read my post about 5 attitudes toward publishing you should avoid. Mostly what this game boils down to is patience. If you don’t have it, you will get frustrated and give up.

Do you still have questions I haven’t addressed here? Try my resource list on Amazon of the best books on how to get published.

Or, in partnership with Google Helpouts, I also offer 15-minute private consultations if this post doesn’t answer your questions.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    You mention the marketing aspect involved in self-publishing and the expectation of the same with a traditional publisher. What do you see as the difference between marketing a self-pub and a traditionally published book? In reading other people’s thoughts, the author’s involvement appears to be key in either situation.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    The author’s involvement is necessary/critical either way, yes. 

    When working independently, you often need to build credibility for yourself and your book because you don’t have a traditional publisher backing you. This means getting people of authority/importance to help vouch for your book (via blurbs, reviews, etc). 

    You also don’t have the automatic ability to get reviews and mainstream media attention for a self-published work, and unless you have friends in high places, you’ll have to hire a professional publicist to work with you—someone who DOES have connections to the media and can help pitch your work. This is nearly impossible to do effectively on your own.

    Of course, these activities assume your book is appropriate for mainstream media coverage. If you’re appealing to a niche market, and you’re known as an authority in your niche, these things matter very little.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    So either way, an author needs to go into the process expecting to be involved in the marketing. There is no magic pill like in weight loss or easy money-making process like in the lottery.

    Along with publishing expertise and marketing avenues, the primary value in traditional publishing then is the weight of authority.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Yes, authority/credibility is one value. 

    Also: physical distribution is next to impossible without a traditional publisher. 

    Also: experience and savvy in putting together a marketable package in book form that is competitive.

    Also (hopefully): editorial excellence.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Yes, authority/credibility is one value. 

    Also: physical distribution is next to impossible without a traditional publisher. 

    Also: experience and savvy in putting together a marketable package in book form that is competitive.

    Also (hopefully): editorial excellence.

  • Bri

    I’ve decided with this amazing post ( bookmarked) I will create an online quiz. It will be multiple choice with questions like ” Do you have to earn your advance before drawing royalty checks?” and “Do you have to do any marketing or will your pub do it all?” so when I’m asked this they can just refer to the quiz and post.

    Great one Jane.

  • NAP

    Great info, Jane!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Jane. I passed your link to a few likely folks who need to know what reality looks like. One point I’d like to make is that publishing houses rarely offer book editing and normally not for new authors at all. That is to be accomplished on the author’s own dime prior to submitting. The in-house editor is more like the manuscript’s champion, not the partner in publication. It is also true that the book doctors and editors sometime make more $$ from a book than the author! 

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  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    I don’t know that I’d say publishers offer editing “rarely.” But I agree that mileage may vary, and it remains a contentious issue how much time editors do now spend on actual editing.

    I think the editor (and publisher) still serve as partners (otherwise what’s the point?), in varying ways, and the best editors/publishing houses ensure editorial excellence without the author having to find outside help.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Thank you!

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    LOL! Terrific idea.

  • Patricia Gligor

    Great post, Jane!
    There are two things I’d like to mention on the subject.
    First, finding a critique group of like minded writers is invaluable because, as you wrote, “it’s tough to achieve objectivity” about your own writing.
    Secondly, small press publishers bridge the gap between the large publishing houses who require you to have an agent and the other option: self-publishing.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Great points! Completely agree.

  • http://www.rosiepovapicturebooks.weebly.com/ Rosie Pova

    Hey Jane, bookmarking this doesn’t seem enough. I’ve said this before about your articles and I’ll say it again for this post: I just want to make wallpaper out of it and use it. What you offer here is thorough, detailed and informative insight and it feels like it’s coming from a friend. The advice is genuine and objective. Thank you.

    Rosie Pova

  • http://www.rosiepovapicturebooks.weebly.com/ Rosie Pova

    Hey Jane, let me ask you this. Is it true that a great query letter can sell a mediocre manuscript and a bad query can kill a good one?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Many thanks for your kind comments!

    A bad query can definitely kill a good manuscript—and based on some of the poor queries I see, it’s not uncommon.

    A great query letter can get a mediocre manuscript read or requested, but not represented or sold.

  • Cgblake55

    Jane,
    Outstanding post. This really covers everything an aspiriring writer needs to know. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    A pleasure to help! Thanks for reading.

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  • http://www.beverlywillett.com/ Beverly Willett

    Excellent piece, Jane.  You  have ended on what (through years and years of work) I consider the most important advice of all — patience.

  • Antoinettelaforce

    Thank you, Jane Friedman !… Much appreciated !… 

  • Carissa101

    Im writing a book and im very young  how can i get it published at a young age?

  • AB

    Thanks for the great info. I don’t want to be too cynical, but how can I best protect my work if a mentor or trusted advisor tries to rip off my ideas?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    The process remains the same.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    I get that question so often, I’ve addressed it separately, here:
    http://janefriedman.com/2011/10/19/idea-theft/

    In short, you should stop worrying, unless you’re a screenwriter.

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  • Valerie Nieman

    A great summary! I’m sending the link to my students.

  • skfigler

    I found this thorough and enlightening post two months after publication, but better late…  It reinforces my decision to drop my pursuit of traditional publishing in favor of self-pub primarily because I reject being at their mercy on virtually everything.  (Experience: three non-fiction books.)  Also, how about this for a stalled-on-the-tracks-with-with-trains-coming-from-both-directions dilemma?:  One of the big 6 publishers said she loved the characters but couldn’t believe the conflict, while another said she loved the conflict but the characters were not real enough.  I’m happy to have a viable alternative to the old way.

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  • Bdscott67

    Thanks, I really appreciate this.  I am in the process of writing a book, and I have found your info. to be extremely helpful.

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  • Shearlygiftedbygod

    The advice you gave Jane was great. I am a 31 yr old single parent. No college experience just a hair stylist and writing is a great hobby of mine. I have hand written my first book which is front and back I must day sadly but its a start.its not your tradional love story nor is it blood and murder but its really great. Just need it read by someonr who knows something! Laughing at myself… thanks Jane

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  • Zipperhead2011

    This may be a dumb question, but can I expect to spend a large amount of money trying to get published? Not counting gas for tripps, etc. I mean, should I be expecting to pay anyone up front for anything? This is very important as I am on a very fixed income but writing is my life and have decided to give it a go. Very beginning stages here.Where can I find a list of agents or writers conferences? 

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    No, you should not pay anyone upfront to get published. That’s a characteristic of self-publishing services such as AuthorHouse.

    Resources on finding agents: http://janefriedman.com/2011/09/26/free-market-listings/

    Resources on conferences: http://writing.shawguides.com/

  • Slj812000

    Jane, your information is wonderful. Thank you for sharing it! I do have a question for you. Beyond going to writing conferences to find peer groups, mentors and critiquers, where else may these be found? You mention that using family and friends may not be the best option because they may inadvertently cause a kind of ‘big-head’ syndrome. Where might I find objective mentors/critiquers if I do not have the ability to attend conferences?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Online writing communities and critique groups are another good options. Some of the well-known ones are mentioned in this blog post: http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2012/05/vetting-independent-editor.html

  • Leah0971

    I have a question. I’m young almost 13. Would I still be able to go to writing conferences to help me with my possible book?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    Yes—just be aware you’ll be surrounded by adults! You may want to research writing conferences that focus on teens/young adults, especially those in your community or region.

  • Leah0971

    Also, this may not be the smartest question, but even if the book isn’t finished would it help to get a head start on the publish and finding a trustworthy agent

  • Leah0971

    sorry for another question but when in the process of the book is it a good idea to get a professional editor?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman
  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4X4SKJCRUXVG25O6ZFJYTW34MU ZIPPERHEAD2011

    Thank you very much :)

  • Ben9615

    Do you, personally, think that a book about children with special abilities would do well?

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    There’s no reason it couldn’t, if executed well.

  • Abelair57

    Jane,
    Thanks for such an informative post. I am a first-time novel writer and am getting so confused by the plethora of information via the web on book publishing. It’s almost enough to make me think of giving up ever getting published! But I have stories to tell, and I know enough to expect rejection. Still, most of these posts seem to discourage new writers. Any views or ideas that may be encouraging to me?  

  • http://www.janefriedman.com Jane Friedman

    I might be so bold to say: If you’re discouraged, then that’s a good thing. Maybe you ought to stop writing.

    But that’s not a very nice thing for a new writer to hear!

    I recommend you run—not walk—to buy THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield.

    Alternatively, check out my writing advice archive and read some posts from the very top of the list (under “Getting Started”):

    http://janefriedman.com/free-advice-for-writers/writing-advice-archive/

  • Abelair57

    I said I ws getting discouraged, but that doesn’t mean I will stop. I NEED to write, do you understand the feeling?  Anyway, thanks for the advice. I’ll get The War Of Art.
    thanks!

  • Ashley

    jane, your words were helpful for me..but i write all kinds of stories..the problem is i dont really know what i should consider them as..like nonfiction,fiction,novel. some would say im dumb for not knowing but most my stories are true..just changed names. but to me most novels sound like a mistery or nonfiction or fiction put together.

  • http://www.janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    If what you’ve written are true stories about yourself, then you have a memoir (if it’s book-length) or personal essays. In the case of true stories, whether you change the names or not has no relevance to the genre.

  • Heather Warren

    Your post has encouraged me. I am a writer, its what I do. Ive always gone to writing when times are tough, or even good in my life and I feel that I am good at it. I have been told my friends and family that I am good; however, i’ve always had praise from english teachers as well. I am finally turning my writing into a book instead of short stories and poems. I am ready for rejection and ready to be patient. You have defenitly given me a lot of information and I plan to do more research on the business before i venture out. I just wanted to say thank you. :)

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