Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published


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How to get your book published

Scripta manent by Jano De Cesare / Flickr

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.

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 Five 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.

I also offer hourly phone consultations and personalized assistance. Find out more.