I Want to Publish My Book. Now What?

This post is for all those people out there who don’t know ANYTHING about the publishing industry.

This post is for people who write me and say:

  • I’ve been thinking of publishing a book. How do I do that?
  • I want to publish my book, but don’t know whether to go the traditional route or self-publishing route. Which is better?

This post is for everyone unable to form a more specific question than:
How do I get my book published?

(For an audio complement to this post, please listen to this Q&A panel I did at a bookstore in September 2010.)

1. Identify Your Genre or Category

Novelists and memoirists follow a different path to publication than nonfiction authors.
  • NOVELS & 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.

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 likely have an unmarketable book on your hands, and you should self-publish.

2. Understand the Technical Process

Getting published is a step-by-step process of:
  1. Researching the appropriate agents or publishers for your work. (Writer’s Market is a good starting resource for all genres.)
  2. Reading submission guidelines of agents and publishers.
  3. Sending a query, proposal, or submission package.

The query letter is the time-honored tool for writers seeking publication. A query letter is a sales letter that attempts to persuade an editor or agent to request a full manuscript or proposal. (See my favorite how-to post on novel queries by Marcus Sakey. And see this post on the basics of book proposals if you’re writing nonfiction.)

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.

3. Seek an Agent If Needed

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 …), probably.

If you’re writing for a niche/specialized market, or have an academic/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.

4. Can’t I bypass this whole query/submission process? Isn’t it all about knowing someone?

Sometimes connections or communities can help. See this post on the power of your network to help you get published.

5. Isn’t traditional publishing dead? Shouldn’t I self-publish?

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 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 (or finding distribution) 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. Read more of my advice here:

Also be sure to check this post on your responsibility as an artist to put out good work. Just because you CAN self-publish doesn’t mean you should.

10 Things Aspiring Authors Must Understand About the Publishing Industry

  1. 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.
  2. Professionalism and politeness go a long way toward covering up any amateur mistakes you might make along the way.
  3. 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.
  4. Never call an agent or editor to query or ask questions (or just ch
    at) 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.)
  10. 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.

For all you beginners out there: What other questions or issues would you like to see me cover?

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18 thoughts on “I Want to Publish My Book. Now What?

  1. Jonas

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    Book design, Interior layout, Photo editing & Retouching, e-book, and much more. We will create a hight quality design and offer you the product according to your needs and budget.

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  2. seanfigueroa

    I just finished a memoir and I am looking to get it published. I do not have a lot of money to self publish so I am trying to find someone who would be interested. If anyone knows what or where I can go for this please let me know.

  3. Jane Friedman

    @Zee – It’s not a problem if political issues are dealt with in a novel. Just keep in mind that no publisher is interested in thinly disguised propaganda, or in pedantic fiction. Hopefully you know where the line is.

  4. Zee

    A very informative article. I have just started writing my novel (biographical fiction) and I realised I knew nothing of the publishing system. This was a real eye-opener.

    Just one question. What do publisher’s think of novels that take political issues to hand? Does a certain stance or opinion affect the chances of a book being accepted by an agent/ publisher?

    I’d really appreciate it if someone could enlighten me on this issue.


  5. Jennifer

    I have a friend of mine who finished his book and started shopping it around. After several rejection letters, he got discouraged and put his manuscript on the shelf. Now he complains of having now "mojo" to write any more. I’m sending him this article. It encouraged me. I hope it does the same for him.

  6. Marcio Coelho

    Hi, Jane.

    I am following you on Twitter.

    I am a publisher in Brasil, and I appreciate your post. I am looking for good books to publish here in my publishing house. We can change some information about books sometimes.

    Keep in touch.

    Marcio Coelho

  7. Jane Friedman

    Thanks everyone for commenting!

    @Kris – Great question. Novelists don’t need to talk about platform/marketing in their query letter. All that matters at that early stage is the quality of the writing. Memoir tends to follow the same rule (but celebrity memoirs sell for a reason: built-in platform and audience). Nonfiction authors MUST talk about platform in their query (and proposal of course).

  8. Kris Dalpiaz

    Thanks Jane. I love reading your posts. One question I have is around point #7. If an unpublished writer has managed to create an established platform, at what point does he/she bring it up? Should it be mentioned in query letters to agents?

  9. Rima

    Wow, Jane. This is an awesome, awesome article! It covers everything with an amazing economy of words. And it is truthful. I love it! I have to go back now and read the articles this article linked to…

  10. Theresa Milstein

    I’m not a newbie to the publishing business, yet #’s 6 and 10 got me thinking.

    #6 – We give up in order to get.

    #10 – There’s more I do as a writer than write YA fantasy. I critique other people’s works and I’ve even received e-mails asking for advice. I like being part of the writing community. Even though my blog is a different kind of writing, it’s important to me and has opened up non fiction writing opportunities.