The publishing landscape has changed drastically over the last decade or so. Digital books and print-on-demand services have made indie publishing a reality for thousands of aspiring writers.
But when authors ask about how to get their book published, they're usually talking about landing a deal with traditional publishing houses. Whether this means one of the “Big 5” New York houses, or one of the numerous others, there's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a trad publishing deal.
And while it's considerably more difficult to land a trad publishing deal than it is to self-publish your book, it's entirely possible.
That's what we'll focus on in this article, so read on to find out how to get your book published by a traditional publishing house.
- Things to Know About Trad Publishing
- How to Determine Your Genre
- Whether You Need a Literary Agent
- How to Write Query Letters
- What to Expect in Terms of Rejections
- Dos and Don’ts of Getting Your Book Published
Table of contents
- Things to Know About Traditional Publishing
- Determining Your Genre – And Your Audience
- All About Agents: Do You Need One?
- Writing Query Letters
- A Word About Rejections
- Dos and Don'ts Getting Your Book Published
Note: We will not talk about pay-to-play or “vanity” publishers. If you have to pay a company up front to publish your book, they're a vanity publisher. I’d advise you to stay away from companies like this. They're not worth it! (These companies are not to be confused with those that offer reasonably priced editing, formatting, and cover creation services.)
Things to Know About Traditional Publishing
Trad publishing is defined by several factors that it's important for aspiring authors to keep in mind. People think of Stephen King, Lee Child, or Nora Roberts, imagining the huge sums these writers are paid.
And to be sure, they're well-paid authors. But it's rare that new authors start out getting huge advances or royalty checks.
So, it's good to be clear on what a common traditional publishing deal entails for new authors.
(Listen to my short podcast episode on What Publishing Companies Are Really Like!)
Royalty Percentages and Advances
It's hard to predict the size of an advance for any given book. Big-name authors who sell tons of books are given huge advances because the publishers are confident that the new book will sell.
Publishing a book costs money, so each manuscript is looked at in terms of risk vs reward. So if you land a publishing deal, your advance could be anywhere from $5,000 to $75,000. It's usually broken up into multiple payments — with the last one coming once the book is published, which is usually a year after you submit the final manuscript.
Keep in mind that the advance is exactly what it sounds like: an advance on future royalties. The size of the advance is usually a good indicator of how well the publisher thinks the book will sell.
Once the book is published and copies are selling, you have the chance to earn royalties. But you only earn royalties once the book has “earned out,” meaning it has sold enough copies to pay for your advance at your negotiated royalty rate. A standard royalty percentage is 10% of the cover price.
So, let's say you get a $50,000 advance and the cover price of your book is (for the sake of simplicity) $20. For every book you sell, you'll get $2 (10%). That means you won't start earning royalties until your book has sold 25,000 copies.
Some books don't sell enough copies to earn the author royalties. On the other hand, many do.
While not standard practice except in the academic world, some publishers may want to hold the copyright in their name, rather than the author's. This is a red flag and one of many reasons why it's good to have an agent if you're going the traditional publishing route. More on agents later.
For now, keep in mind that US copyrights last the life of the author and an additional 70 years. So if you sign a book deal giving the publisher the copyright, your children's children can eventually enjoy full ownership of the work.
What is Hybrid Publishing?
Seeing the writing on the wall, some companies are shifting from traditional publishing to a hybrid model that includes aspects of both self publishing and the trad model.
Generally, hybrid publishing companies will offer authors higher royalty rates in exchange for an upfront investment from the author. Unlike trad publishing, in which the publisher pays for editing, book cover design, and most of the marketing, the hybrid model asks the author to pay a significant portion of these costs. The author gets a higher return on each sale, while the hybrid publisher assumes less risk.
This topic deserves its own blog post because there are some concerning similarities between hybrid publishers and vanity publishers. We won't be discussing this in detail in this article.
For now, I'll just say that hybrid publishing is an option for authors, but you should do extensive research to see if it's right for you. If you do go this route, make sure that the publisher has some kind of submission process and that they don't simply accept any author willing to pay, as this is a red flag that signals a vanity publisher.
Now, on to the steps for getting your book published by a traditional publisher.
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Determining Your Genre – And Your Audience
The first step in the publishing process is determining your genre, and, as a result, your audience. After all, without an audience that will be interested in the book, your chances of getting published are slim to none.
But if you write in a popular genre (or category) that you have taken the time to nail down, your odds are much better. Let's look at determining your genre in fiction and your category in nonfiction.
This will also help you determine what publishing company will be best for your particular book.
Determining your genre takes research, and it's best done before you write your manuscript. This is also often called “writing to market,” which makes good sense whether you're aiming to be successful in the trad world or the self-publishing world.
However, in order to get a book deal, you need to have a polished manuscript to show. Trying to determine your genre after you write the manuscript is not the best idea, but it can work occasionally.
The best ways to research your genre?
There are two:
- Read A LOT in the genre.
- Use keyword research tools like Publisher Rocket to determine how popular the genre is.
The most popular fiction genres include:
- Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Each of these genres encompasses a wide range of sub-genres. Some subgenres do better than others, so the more targeted you can get, the better off you'll be.
There are also the categories of literary fiction and contemporary fiction, which are a little harder to pin down. Literary fiction encompasses the classics still read in high schools and colleges around the world. Contemporary fiction usually focuses on exploring the human condition through realism.
If you have a nonfiction book idea, you should have a good grasp of what the category is before you pitch it to agents or publishers. The good news is that, with most nonfiction, it's possible to sell a book that hasn't been written yet though a good book proposal.
The most common types of nonfiction categories are:
- Relationships and Advice
- Self-Help & Personal Development
Note: It's difficult to sell a memoir unless you've already written it. This is the one nonfiction category where you're better off having written the manuscript before you pitch to the publishing industry. (Unless, of course, you're a famous public figure!)
Certain Genres and Categories Increase Your Chances
It's no secret that some genres are more popular than others. In self-publishing, writing for an extremely niche market can be an excellent thing. However, if you're looking to be a traditionally published author, your book will need broad appeal in a popular category.
Some books are hard to get published through traditional routes. These include:
- Books of poetry.
- Nonfiction books written by authors without expertise or name-recognition in their field.
- Long books in most categories (exceeding 150,000 words).
- Experimental fiction.
Once you've nailed down your genre and you have a polished manuscript (for fiction and memoirs) or a book proposal (for nonfiction), you can start shopping around — for agents.
Finding the Right Publishing Companies
One of the best ways to find successful publishing companies is to analyze the genre for your book and see what other companies are publishing books in that genre.
If you're doing this manually, this can take a very long time, and you'll end up finding a lot of other companies that aren't really great.
Thankfully, there's a tool that makes it easy to see all of the major publishers for the bestsellers of any genre.
That tool is Publisher Rocket.
With Rocket's category analysis tool, you can easily find a list of publishers for any genre by doing the following:
- Finding your desired category/genre through the Category Search
- Clicking on the “Insights” link
- Hover over the “i” icon under the Large Publisher tile
- Find a list of large publishers in that genre
A lot of these publishing companies will be traditional publishers, so you can reach out to them if you want a traditional publishing deal. Or you might find some hidden gems, like lesser known but successful small publishers.
All About Agents: Do You Need One?
A literary agent facilitates the vast majority of books published by traditional publishers. In fact, many of the big publishing houses don't accept manuscripts directly from authors — they only accept them through agents.
There are some publishers that accept manuscripts directly from authors, and you can learn about them here.
But for the most part, if you want to break into the traditional book publishing world, you'll need an agent. Of course, it's possible to get published without an agent, but it makes things much more difficult and much less likely. Agents are an integral part of the publishing industry, and they serve important functions other than getting your book into the hands of publishing house editors.
Here are a few things agents do to help authors:
- Provide their expertise in the industry.
- Help you pitch your book until it sells.
- Negotiate the book contract on your behalf.
- Help you avoid bad deals and/or scams.
- Deal with the publishing house so you can write the next book.
Agents are paid only when they make a deal for the author. They earn a percentage (usually 15%), which gives them a great incentive to sell your book. Remember that hypothetical $50,000 advance we talked about earlier? Your agent would get $7,500 (15%) of that at.
So, getting an agent is a good idea, and will provide you with the best chance of getting published. But how do you find an agent?
By using these online resources:
- Agent Query
- Writers Market
- Query Tracker
- Association of Authors' Representatives
- Publishers Marketplace
Make a list of several agents you think are a good fit and do a little research on them. A good working relationship is a key factor when searching for a literary agent, and while you're limited in what you can find out online, it's a start.
Once you have a short list of agents you wish to query, you can start writing and sending off letters.
Writing Query Letters
It can be tempting to send out your manuscript to an agent (or even a publishing house) with a letter that says “Read this! It's awesome!”
While your book is no doubt awesome, sending an unsolicited manuscript is never a good idea. It's simply not the way things are done. There are too many authors pitching agents and publishers for them to read all the manuscripts that are sent their way.
So, to narrow down the numbers, the trad publishing industry uses query letters. Essentially, a query letter is a short introduction to you and your manuscript. And you should send a personalized query letter to each agent on your list who you think will be a good fit.
Here’s what you should include in your one-page query letter:
- The title, genre (or category), title, subtitle (optional), and the word count.
- A brief (200- to 300-word) description of your story. This is often called the “hook,” and it needs to be compelling and polished.
- A bit about yourself. This should briefly include any expertise, writing success, or literary awards you’ve won. Keep this bio under 100 words.
- A courteous closing section. Thank the agent for their consideration. This is also a good place to personalize the letter.
Make sure to locate any submission guidelines that the agent or agency has in place and follow them to the letter. It's also important to personalize each letter, as opposed to copying and pasting one letter for all the agents.
Take the time to get the query letter right. Make sure you spell the agent's name correctly and that you start things off on the right foot. Think of the query letter as the first impression — the importance of which is hard to overstate.
If you're a published indie author who has an eBook or two out and decent sales, you can mention this in the letter. Any success you've had as a writer is relevant, but you don't want to spend too much time on this stuff. Keep it short and sweet.
What Happens Next?
If an agent you queried is interested in learning more about you and your book, you'll get a response back, usually asking you to send in your manuscript. Sadly, some of those who aren't interested probably won't contact you to let you know. There just aren't enough hours in the day to respond to each query.
If you get an agent who wants to help publish your book (and you think they're a good fit for your needs,) then you should celebrate! Your hard work has paid off. But, just because you have an agent doesn't mean that your book is as good as published. You will probably work with your agent to make some changes to the manuscript in order to make the book more attractive to publishers.
Your agent will then pitch your book to a traditional publisher or two (or ten).
A Word About Rejections
It's important to realize that the life of an aspiring author is filled with rejections. Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, received 30 rejections before it was finally accepted. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance received over 100 rejections. Kathryn Stockett's The Help was rejected 60 times before publication.
There are very few books that are published without first being rejected. Over and over again.
This is good to keep in mind if you're aiming to be the proud author of a traditionally published book. Expect rejections.
When is Enough Enough?
While rejection is a part of the publishing journey, it can wear down on you if it goes on for long enough. You have a book you believe in — that you've poured yourself into — and it keeps getting rejected. When do you decide to give up?
This is something each writer needs to decide for themselves. But there are some red flags you should keep in mind while attempting to get an agent or land a publishing deal.
- If you don't receive any manuscript requests from your list of agents, take a critical look at your query letter. Do some research and see if you can determine what may have turned the agents off.
- If you do get manuscript requests but continue getting rejected, take a critical look at your manuscript. Look at the rejection slips and pay close attention to the reasons for rejection — they can often tell you what needs work.
Sometimes it takes years to find the right agent and book publisher for your work. But if you've been trying and trying to no avail, you may want to consider the self publishing option.
The Self Publishing Option
As a self-published author, you have ultimate control over your book cover design, book launch, advertising, and promotion. Using the Amazon Kindle store and KDP Select, it's possible to get your self-published book in front of readers much quicker than you would if you were to get the book traditionally published. Besides the Kindle store, Amazon also offers print-on-demand options, making it easier than ever to offer both eBook and print book formats.
However, self publishing is highly competitive, and there's no magic bullet. But that doesn't mean you can't be wildly successful as a self publisher. You can grow your own email list of excited fans that will be happy to buy your work every time you have a book sale or a new release.
Plus, it has never been easier to advertise online to get your work in front of new readers!
We have everything you need to know about self publishing here. Check it out if it sounds like a good idea to you!
Dos and Don'ts Getting Your Book Published
Before we close out this article, I want to share with you some other tips that can help you find an agent and get published. First, we'll cover what to do. Then we'll look at what not to do.
- Take the time to ensure your manuscript is the best that it can be. This may mean hiring an editor and/or a proofreader.
- Research your genre extensively by reading a lot of books like yours.
- Look for names of agents in the acknowledgements of books that are like yours (and that you love).
- Research each agent you plan to send a query letter to. Let them know you care enough to learn a bit about them.
- Attend writing conferences and network with writers, agents, editors, and publishers.
- Prepare for meetings with potential editors, publishers, and agents by doing research on the individuals attending, preparing a list of thoughtful questions, and being ready to learn.
- Rework a bestselling book to try and capitalize on a trend.
- Submit your query letter, manuscript, or book proposal before you're absolutely sure they're ready. Rushing will only get you rejected faster. Take your time.
- Show up in person to a publisher's or an editor's office without first having an appointment. Do things through the proper channels. The same goes for cold calling — don't do it.
- Get down on yourself if it takes longer than you hoped for. Getting an agent and a publisher takes time.
- Have a bad attitude — no one wants to work with a rude or inconsiderate author, even if your work is fantastic (which I'm sure it is).
- Stop writing. Always be working on the next book, even when you're trying to sell the last one. Many authors don't get their first book published. More books means more chances for publication.
Whether you have a fiction book, a children's book, or a nonfiction book, you can get published with a trad publisher. There is no guarantee that you'll land an agent or a deal, but if you follow the steps outlined above, you'll increase your chances considerably.
Keep in mind that there are some positive and negative things about traditional publishing. You don't retain much control over your work, new authors rarely make much money for their first book, and navigating the murky waters of a publishing deal almost always requires a professional.
However, there's a lot of prestige in getting published in the traditional manner. You can always try both self publishing and traditional publishing for different books to enjoy the best of both worlds. Many authors find that the potential for more money and more control lie in the self publishing world.
No matter which route you choose, you've got options for becoming a published author!