Every so often a not-yet-emerging writer hears that I’m a published author and asks me how to publish their book.
They often have no idea what they’re getting themselves into by asking me. Actively trying to publish a book has been a major occupation of mine for around half my life; I’ve been seeking an agent since I was 15 years old, I’ve self-published, and I’ve been published by a small press. My experience of the pursuit of publication is long and fairly varied.
So, to save myself some time next time someone asks, I’m writing this post for writers who have completed a manuscript and are trying to figure out what to do next.
First things first:
I once wrote to author Naomi Ragen to ask for advice on publishing a recently finished manuscript. The first thing she said was, “Congratulations! Writing a book is a major accomplishment.”
That was probably the most useful bit of advice anyone has ever given me: to step back and appreciate that I’d come that far. It was easy for me to take it for granted, since I’d been writing novels since I was a teen and the one in question was my sixth completed manuscript, but the fact is, writing a book requires a great deal of commitment and perseverance. You deserve to celebrate it. GO YOU!!!
Okay, so now that you’ve celebrated, I’m afraid I have some sobering news.
Publishing a book, however you choose to do so, can be a really hard, really long haul.
The industry is insanely competitive, and even the major publishing houses are struggling these days. Depending on your goals, that may not be an issue for you; if all you want is to have a printed book you can hold in your hands and sell to a few friends, that’s easy–just skip to the section on self-publishing. But if you dream of seeing your book on the shelves of major bookstores or reviewed in major publications, you are likely going to endure a lot of rejection and disappointment. I’m not telling you this to discourage you; this entire blog is for helping brave people like you navigate the grueling submission process! YOU GOT THIS, FRIEND. I BELIEVE IN YOU.
It’s important to enter this arena with realistic expectations.
Clarifying Your Goals
The first step to deciding how to proceed is to figure out what goals are most important to you. So I want you to do a little exercise. Take a piece of paper and a pen (or word processor, I’m not picky), and answer this question: when you daydream about becoming an author, what is the concrete, tangible outcome you’re imagining? Your name on the NYT bestseller list? Walking into a bookstore and seeing your book on the shelf? Seeing your author page on Amazon? Having a stranger send you a fan letter after reading your book? Getting a six-figure royalty check? Make it a list. Go nuts. Write down all your wildest dreams.
Once this list is complete, go through it, and choose two goals that are the most important to you. Yes, just two! Underline them.
Now, with those top two goals in mind, let’s take a look at the options available.
Please note: in this post I’m focusing on the US book industry, which is by far the largest in the world. Book industries in other countries work differently–usually in the direction of being less competitive and more old-fashioned, for better or for worse. At least that’s my impression of the industry in Israel, where I live. But my experience is mostly with the US market.
The Big Five & Literary Agents
Most of the books you see in an American bookstore were published by one of what we call the Big Five. The Big Five are the five major publishing houses in the United States: HarperCollins, Penguin-Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. These publishing companies either own or partner with more than 100 different publishers and imprints. Generally speaking, publishing with the Big Five is a more reliable (but by no means surefire) way to get your book noticed and into all the major bookstores.
With a few exceptions, the only way to get published through a Big Five publisher is to have a literary agent.
Literary agents are the go-betweens who pitch your book to the editors at various publishing houses, negotiate your contract when you get an offer, and manage the sale of your other rights (foreign rights, movie rights, etc.). Most editors at big publishing houses won’t look at a manuscript unless it’s been submitted to them by an agent. Agents make their living by taking a commission–that is, a percentage of your earnings–which gives them an incentive to help your book succeed. On your part, the commission is worth it because if you publish with a Big Five imprint, you’re likely to earn significantly more than with a small press.
Sounds like an excellent service, says you, how do I hire one? Yeah, so, that’s the thing: you can’t. You have to pitch your work to them, and only if they select you from among many, many other candidates will they offer you a contract. It varies from agent to agent, but I’ve read that 1% is a typical acceptance rate. That means that you’re facing a ~99% chance of getting rejected.
But hey! Chin up! That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. This is the Rejection Survival Guide you’re reading here. WE EAT REJECTIONS FOR BREAKFAST.
To submit to a literary agent, you need to send a query letter. A query letter is a short (one-page, two max) letter describing your project and introducing yourself to the agent. It should include a punchy summary of your book that is engaging, conveys the tone, and–if your book is fiction–introduces the characters and their main conflicts. You can find more information about how to put together a good query letter by Googling it; this guide is pretty good. Sometimes, agents ask for a sample of the manuscript and/or a synopsis to be included with your query letter. A synopsis is a summary of the entire plot of your book that gives the agent an idea of the structure of the plot. Here’s one method for crafting a synopsis, and here are another two.
Before submitting your manuscript, make sure it’s in the best shape it can be. Polish and proofread it to the best of your ability. No matter how brilliant the concept, agents have little patience for a manuscript that’s full of typos and grammar mistakes. It’s also a good idea to have another pair of eyes (or two, or three) going over the manuscript and pointing out any room for improvement. (You might find my post on taking constructive criticism and turning it into growth helpful at this stage.)
Once you have your submission materials ready (and don’t forget to make sure your manuscript is formatted according to the standard), it’s time to research agents in your genre. I’ve made excellent use of QueryTracker.net to help me keep track of who I have and haven’t queried, and you can use it to search for agents by genre. Research each agent carefully before submitting: look at the types of books they generally represent, what kinds of sales they’ve made, who their clients have been, and any other information you can find. Remember that a legitimate agent never asks for a fee of any kind. Then, if the agent seems like a good match, check their submission guidelines and submit your query accordingly.
Agents typically take four to eight weeks to respond to a query letter, but many never respond at all, and some can take months. The longest time an agent took to reject me was around nine months. (!) The wait can be excruciating, but hey, I’ve got your back–check out my post on how to survive the wait for a response to your submission.If the agent is interested, she’ll respond to your query with a request to see more material (what we call a partial manuscript request or a full manuscript request). If this happens, it’s a very good sign and a step closer to getting an offer! But alas, doesn’t guarantee anything. The likelihood that she’ll turn down your manuscript is still pretty high. There are three possibilities after she’s read the book: 1) she’ll decline; 2) she’ll ask you to revise it and resubmit; 3) she’ll offer representation!
Keep in mind that agents only take on manuscripts that they’re confident will sell well–and there is a difference between manuscripts that are good, and manuscripts that will sell. Even more infuriating, no one actually knows what will sell! Even for the most experienced agent, it’s a completely subjective and imprecise educated guess. They have to fall head-over-heels in love with your manuscript to offer representation–and sometimes, even if they do love your manuscript and think you’re awesome, they still won’t be able to offer rep, because they don’t have quite the right connections in the industry. (Ask me how I know this.)
There’s no magic number for how many queries you should send before moving to Plan B, but I’ve seen the number 100 tossed around–just so you get a sense of how common it is to send dozens and dozens of queries before getting an offer. It can take years just to find an agent, and then months or years until the agent finds it a home, and then another year or two until the thing is published. So this process requires a ton of patience. Don’t give up until you decide that’s what’s right for you. (More on deciding when to move on here.)
Also called independent presses, these are publishers who are not part of the multinational corporations and major publishers in the industry. They publish fewer books per year and work on a smaller budget. Everything about them is smaller scale–and books published with a small press are less likely to “make it big” or get translated into other languages and sold in other countries, though it does happen! Having a publisher behind you gives you street cred and opportunities you may not have if you self-publish, such as submitting to certain review platforms or contests. Small presses are also sometimes a better fit for niche books that are harder to place in the mainstream market.
The smaller scale is both their disadvantage and their advantage. You usually don’t need an agent to sign with a small press–you submit to them directly, though honestly, I don’t get the impression that it’s any easier to get accepted by one. A small press is more likely to give you personal attention and be open to your input on the final product, such as cover design, marketing strategies, etc. But again, this really depends on the press, and just like with agents, it’s important to research carefully, check references, and ask a lot of questions before signing with one.
I’m going to define self-publishing as any kind of publishing where you are financially responsible for the production of the book. This, then, includes “author-invested” publishing houses–companies that require their authors to pay for the production of the book, and then pay them high royalties. I prefer to call this “glorified self-publishing,” and by “glorified,” I mean “crazy expensive.” (To be fair, some of these publishers have decent distribution, but frankly, in most cases, you can do much better on your own and for less than half of what they charge.)
Self-publishing used to carry a stigma: companies that printed self-published books were called “vanity presses,” and the books were often very poor quality. This is no longer true, as Kindle Direct Publishing and print-on-demand technology made it very easy and relatively inexpensive for individuals to print and sell their own books–not to mention eBooks, which are more economical and easier to produce.
The biggest advantage of self-publishing, of course, is that you’re the boss. No submissions, no rejections, nobody telling you what to do–you have full control over the entire process. This also means that it will happen on your schedule, depending on the professionals you hire, and can take mere weeks or months to bring to publication. You can decide to release your book as an eBook only, or both eBook and print, or print-only. It’s all up to you. What’s more, the rights all belong to you, so if you later find a publisher who wants to republish the book under their imprint, you can do that. (That’s what’s happening with my originally self-published book, Letters to Josep.) Keep in mind, though, that most publishers won’t bother taking on a book that’s already published unless they think it hasn’t met its distribution potential and they believe they can help get it there.
The disadvantage is… also that you’re the boss. You have to do everything and pay for everything yourself, including marketing and distribution. To produce a high-quality book, you’ll have to hire an editor at minimum, and probably also a designer to design your cover and do the layout for the book’s interior and/or format the eBook file. And if you want a return on your investment, you’re going to have to invest in some solid marketing. There are lots of companies that offer these services individually or in publication packages, but again–be careful, check references, read the fine print. Unfortunately, there have been no few incidents of people taking advantage of authors’ eagerness to see their work in print.
If you’re a creative and industrious type, you can try to learn the ropes and do some of these things yourself; I designed my own cover and interior and formatted the eBook. But there is a definite learning curve.
I wrote a post a while ago about self-publishing versus publishing with a small press, and it includes more details about my self-publishing experience. You can check that out here.
A Comparison Chart
For the more visual among you:
|Need to submit||Initial investment||Chances of major sales||Average time to publication||Control over process|
|Literary agent||Yes||$0||Good||Several years||Low to|
|Small press||Yes||$0||Low to fair||A year to several years||Fair|
$2500+ (~$10K for glorified self-pub)
|Low, but depends on you||Months||High|
Very important note: none of these paths guarantee you anything. You might snag a hotshot agent, only to give up after two years of submissions to editors and no bites. (See Savvy Thorne’s Rejection Survivor Interview, for example.) You might sell to a major publisher, but their lack of attention and investment in your book (in favor of other, more guaranteed bestsellers) makes your sales flop. Or, you might sign with a humble small press that works with a great publicist and manages to rocket your book to the bestseller lists. Or you might self-publish, find your niche, figure out a marketing strategy that works for you, and make a six-figure profit. Self-published books have made it into the NYT bestseller lists, and countless Big-Five-published books have not. You just never know.
Take a look at the top two goals you underlined in the exercise at the beginning of this post. Which one of these options aligns best with those goals?
Obviously, some goals are much harder than others to attain. You may need to be flexible and adjust your expectations as you go. In my post announcing my first book deal with a small press, I wrote:
This is the “yes” I’ve been dreaming of for almost 15 years.
Well… sort of.
Technically my fantasy was a “yes” from a literary agent. I dreamed of getting published by a major publishing company–without any prior credentials or platform–and then sitting with my feet up waiting for the rave reviews, fan mail, and royalties to come pouring in.
I may as well have imagined using a unicorn as a footrest.
When I asked myself, after so many years of failing to get published, what tangible, concrete outcome I really wanted to achieve as an author, I found that I had only two, simple answers:
- I wanted to walk into a bookstore, see a book on display, pick it up, and be able to say: “I wrote this.”
- I wanted someone to feel or think differently about something as a result of reading something I wrote.
That was it. And I immediately realized didn’t have to have a fancy publisher or even sell more than 10 copies to accomplish these things.
So, no, I still don’t have a unicorn footrest. But I’ve had some pretty darn sweet moments. Such as this one:
And this one:
And this one:
And most definitely this one:
And so, my dear not-yet-published author… I hope that no matter how you choose to proceed, you will find your own sweet moments. That no matter where this journey takes you, you will find satisfaction and joy. That when you finally do arrive at that magical moment when you hold your book in your hands for the first time, it will be at least as wonderful as you dreamed.
And hey–when you run into those inevitable ruts along the way, the rejections, the failures, the nasty reviews, the stinging criticism… you know where to find me. 😉
If you have any further questions about any of this, feel free to ask in the comments, or email me through the contact form!