(Update** I was asked, very nicely, by the original author not to republish her posts in their entirety, so the following is a condensed version of the original. If you wish to read all her tricks and secrets visit her page by clicking any of the links below)
The following post was written by literary agent and author Jane Friedman. I snagged this post from her website because it’s definitely worth the read for any author seeking traditional publication.
I haven’t included all of her links, but if you need them all you have to do, is visit her site and click.
If you wish to publish a book, you have more choices than ever to accomplish your goal, and the path can be confusing when you’re new to the publishing industry. This post lays out the process in the simplest terms possible.
There are three primary paths to getting published:
Land a traditional publisher who will offer you a book contract…
Hire a publishing service to help you publish your book…
This post focuses on getting a traditional book deal.
In a traditional publishing arrangement, the publisher pays you for the right to publish your work. Traditional publishers assume all costs and pay you an advance and royalties. You must persuade them to accept your work by delivering an effective pitch or manuscript.
If you’re not sure if you should traditionally publish or self-publish, here’s how to make a decision.
4 steps to getting a book published:
Getting your book traditionally published is a step-by-step process of:
Determining your genre or category of work.
Finding appropriate agents or publishers for your work.
Preparing your submission materials (a query letter, usually).
Submitting your materials to agents or editors.
1. Determine your work’s genre or category.
Are you writing fiction or nonfiction? Novelists (fiction writers) follow a different path to publication than nonfiction authors.
…You must finish your manuscript before approaching editors/agents. …Seek out a writing critique group or mentor who can offer you constructive feedback, then revise your story.
…Some books are “big” books suitable for New York traditional publishers (e.g., Penguin Random House, HarperCollins), while others are “quiet” books, suitable for mid-size and small presses. The most important thing to remember is that not every book is cut out to be published by a New York house, or represented by an agent, but most writers have a difficult time being honest with themselves about their work’s potential.
Here are some rules of thumb about what types of books are suitable for a large, traditional publisher:
Genre or commercial fiction: romance, erotica, mystery, crime, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, young adult
Nonfiction books that would get shelved in your average Barnes & Noble or indie bookstore—which requires a strong hook or concept and author platform. Usually a New York publisher won’t sign a nonfiction book unless they anticipate selling 10,000–20,000 copies.
Works that can be difficult to sell:
Books that exceed 120,000 words, depending on genre
Poetry, short story, or essay collections–unless you’re a known writer, or have a platform
Nonfiction books by authors without expertise, authority, or visibility to the target audience
Memoirs with common story lines—such as the death of a loved one, mental illness, caring for aging parents—but no unique angle into the story (you haven’t sufficiently distinguished your experience—no hook)
Literary and experimental fiction…
If your work isn’t a good candidate for a New York house, don’t despair. There are many mid-size houses, independent publishers, small presses, university presses, regional presses, and digital-only publishers who might be thrilled to have your work. You just need to find them. (See the next step.)
Deciding If You Need 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. Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your work, and receive a 15% commission on everything you get paid (your advance and royalties). Avoid agents who charge fees.
So … do you need an agent?
It depends on what you’re selling. If you want to be published by one of the major New York houses (e.g., Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, etc), probably.
2. Find publishers and agents.
Once you know what you’re selling, it’s time to research which publishers or agents accept the type of work you’ve written.
AgentQuery.com. About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process. Free.
QueryTracker.net. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings. Basic service is free.
Duotrope.com. Geared toward the literary market; very useful if you’re shopping around poetry, short stories, essays, or literary novels. Subscription required.
3. Prepare your submission materials.
Every agent and publisher has unique requirements for submitting your materials. The most common materials you’ll be asked for:
Query letter. This is a 1-page pitch letter that gives a brief description of your work. (More on this below.)
Novel synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than 1-2 pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending. Here’s how to write a novel synopsis.
Nonfiction book proposal. These are complex documents, usually 20-30 pages in length, if not double that. For more explanation, see my comprehensive post.
Novel proposal. This usually refers to your query letter, a synopsis, and perhaps the first chapter. There is not an industry standard definition of what a “novel proposal” is.
Sample chapters. When sending sample chapters from your novel or memoir, start from the beginning of the manuscript. (Don’t select a middle chapter, even if you think it’s your best.) For nonfiction, usually any chapter is acceptable.
The All-Important 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.
4. Submit your materials.
After you send out queries, you’ll get a mix of responses, including:
No response at all, which is usually a rejection.
A request for a partial manuscript and possibly a synopsis.
A request for the full manuscript.
If you receive no requests for the manuscript or book proposal, then there might be something wrong with your query. Here is how to improve your query letter.
If you succeed in getting your material requested, but then get rejected, there may be a weakness in the manuscript or proposal.
How Long Should You Keep Querying?
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 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!).
Protecting your rights
You have nothing to fear in submitting your query or manuscript to an agent or publisher. If you’re worried about protecting your ideas, well, you’re out of luck—ideas can’t be protected under copyright, and no publisher or agent will sign a nondisclosure agreement or agree to talk with a paranoid writer who doesn’t trust them. (Just being blunt here.)
The self-publishing option
…Self-publishing requires significant and persistent effort into marketing and promotion, not to mention an entrepreneurial mindset. It usually takes a few books out on the market before you can really gain momentum, and most first-time authors don’t like to hear that—they’re not that committed to writing without an immediate payoff or some greater validation.
Finally, most self-published authors find that selling their book is just as hard—if not harder than—finding a publisher or agent…
…Posting your work online
Many writers wonder if they’ll ruin their chances at traditional publication if they self-publish an ebook, use Wattpad, or put chapters on their website. In brief, no, you are not ruining your chances. Read more about this issue here.
The query and submission process takes enormous dedication and persistence.
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.
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 high-maintenance artiste.
You’ll be far more attractive to a publisher if they believe you’ll 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…