How to publish a book #1: How to publish a Book Either Traditionally or by Yourself.
There is one dream every writer would shout out to the mountain tops, and that is the dream of publishing a book. In fact, some writers don’t even feel like writers until they eventually publish a novel. The truth is, if you’re writing, you’re a writer, regardless of how many best-selling books you have—whether it’s a million or none. The difference between published and wannabe authors is simply luck. However, you can’t just write novels and sit idly by, waiting for luck to find you. You need to take the publishing journey into your own hands, under your control, and start doing the work you really need to do to get published. Today, there are two paths one could take to achieve that goal: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Within the first path–traditional publishing, ideally, the publisher assumes all the publishing tasks, which could be many. In the second, all publishing tasks will be at your expense. While 95% of books that are submitted to publishers are rejected, more than 20 of the 100 top selling books on Kindle are self-published books without the need of a publishing house.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the basics for both traditional and self-publishing. We hope this beginner’s guide to publishing a book will help you fulfill your dream of publishing your novel, no matter which path you choose.
Part 1: Traditional Publishing: Traditional publishing is the dream of the vast majority of writers. They don’t really know how and when their book will be published, they just know that they have to wait for a publisher to pick up their novel and place it in bookstores around the world. Traditional publishing has recently gained even more weight because we live in a digital age and everyone who has a bit of computer skills and an MS Word can, for example, publish a book on Amazon. Having a publisher pick your book is the dream—what more proof do you need to know your book is worth reading? However, all is not as it seems in traditional publishing, and there are many things you need to know before taking that route.
What is traditional publishing?
In essence, traditional publishing seems very easy. You send a query letter to an agent, and then that agent tries to get a publishing house to publish your book. With traditional publishing, the deal goes this way, find a good agent and get the book onto the pages.
What that really means is that, agent or no agent, a publisher reader will read your manuscript. While having an agent means that your manuscript will receive direct attention from the editor, some publishers accept manuscript submissions without an agent. These are commonly called “unsolicited manuscripts”, and they can go on to accumulate with many other unsolicited manuscripts. So, a reader passes by this stack of manuscripts; and this reader may or may not like your novel. Sometimes, if the publisher doesn’t agree to pick your book for publication, you may not even get a rejection letter at all. However, if the reader liked the novel, they would almost certainly pass it on to a publisher, who might or might not reject the manuscript. Including, if possible, that they contact you to inform you about the changes that you must make in order to publish it. However, until you get an offer for the rights, with a contract in hand, nothing is really certain or concrete.
Pros and cons of traditional publishing.
Traditional publishing has many pros and cons, and both should be taken into account when making a decision on which way to go whether through traditional publishing or self-publishing.
The pros include:
- You get a contract and a down payment: After your book is published, you get royalties after the advance is paid in full. Royalties are money paid to the author, a certain percentage of commission from the sales of the author’s book.
- It has a professional editor to help you turn your draft into a publishable book.
- It has a professional team to handle marketing, publicity, and production design: like designing a cover that doesn’t look like a kid playing Photoshop.
- You may be hired to publish multiple books, especially if you’re writing a series.
- Your novel gains instant credibility because nowadays, anyone can self-publish a novel.
- Your publisher may want you to make significant changes to the story, so many that it barely resembles what your book is about.
- Your publisher may have bought the rights to your characters, your series, your novels, and then may fire you from writing your own novels and have a ghost writer continue.
- You may accidentally come across a publishing house that publishes at the expense of the author, masquerading as a traditional publishing house (more on this later).
- Your novel may not have enough sales, threatening everything from your livelihood to your confidence as a writer.
- Your publisher may have bought too many rights to your work, not only print rights, but also audio rights, film rights, foreign publication rights, etc. In other words, your publisher may end up with the power to bid on any film without even consulting you, because you have legally granted them the rights to do so by signing the contract.
What to expect from a traditional publication?
We have already covered some of the things that are expected from a traditional publication. Essentially, a publisher must take care of the entire publishing process. When the publisher buys the intellectual rights to your book, they offer you a contract. Be sure to read that contract from cover to cover. In fact, try to have an intellectual property rights attorney review the contract with you. It’s always good to get legal advice when signing a contract with a publisher, because you may end up legally obligated to do things you really didn’t want.
If the publisher gets the printing rights to your book, they can decide how long it will stay in print, which can range from several months to a year or more, depending on sales. For example, if you pick up a book and it says fifth or seventh edition on the cover, it means that the publisher has printed a certain number of books (hundreds, thousands), at five (or seven) different times over the years. After the publisher decides to stop printing your book, ideally, after a period of time, the rights should return to you, which means that even if your publisher no longer wishes to print your books, you can find another publisher or publish the book yourself. Each publisher works differently, and they are the ones who eventually decide what rights they want to buy from you. What you should expect, and should be spelled out in a contract, includes:
- The type of rights the publisher is buying from you: print, audio, foreign publishing, even movies.
- The type of rights over the rest of your intellectual property: titles, characters, series names, novels, content, etc.
- Intended publication formats: hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, electronic, audio, and more. Print run, royalties, and an advance. We will detail on these three, because of their connection. Let’s say you get a contract for your book. Your book will have a circulation of 1,000 copies. Printing type is trade paperback. Trade paperbacks go for about $13–$14 in price. You have been offered 10% royalties. This means that for every book sold at $14, you will receive $1.4, and if all the copies sell, you will be earning a total of $1400. The advance you get from publishers is usually 10% of that, so you receive a payment of $140 as an advance. (Note: the numbers used in the example are for explanatory purposes only and your personal experience is bound to differ. We put a run of 1000 copies for ease of calculations, not because 1000 is an average number of print runs.
How do you find a book publisher?
Once you know what to expect from a publisher, it’s time to begin the difficult task of finding the right publisher for your book. Keep in mind that even if you find what you think is the perfect match, you could still get a rejection letter. Make sure to keep the following in mind:
- Make sure the publisher or publisher actually publishes books in your genre, whether you’re writing fiction or writing non-fiction: Some publishers publish exclusively fiction or non-fiction, others specialize in different genres: literary, science fiction, poetry, drama, romance, paranormal romance, etc. Make sure the publisher is interested in the manuscript you provide, in terms of placement and scope. For example, do not submit a manuscript unsolicited (without an agent), if the publisher does not accept unsolicited manuscripts in the first place. Or, if the publisher is focused on a local reach, don’t send them a manuscript if it’s not within that local reach. Third, and most importantly, don’t get lost when looking for a publisher. There are numerous online resources and yellow pages that list different publishers.
Some of these online resources are free, some are premium, and some only include local New York publishers, for example. In other words, if you live in Europe, write in English, and have your eyes on a New York publishing house that is only interested in manuscripts requested within the US, don’t waste your time or yours by sending them a non-US manuscript. Also, when it comes to online resources, don’t waste your time on a resource that focuses only on science fiction publications, for example when you want to publish a romance novel.
Some of the online resources include QueryTracker, Ralan (which, by the way, focuses on science fiction, for example), then Poets & Writers (if you’re writing poetry and literary fiction). There are many more, both online and at the library and in your local yellow pages (depending on where you live, of course). Don’t be discouraged: it can be difficult to find the right mix, and as we mentioned earlier, you can get a rejection letter, even if the publisher is interested in publishing books in your genre or niche. The only option you have here is to not give up.
Keep writing and have as many eyes as possible on your writing and your stories, listen, try to get some constructive criticism, improve and try again.
Tips for submitting manuscripts directly to a publisher.
We’ll talk about literary agents later in this section, but before that, let’s talk about sending unsolicited manuscripts directly to the publisher of your choice. It is important that the publisher accept unsolicited manuscripts, first of all. Second, be sure to follow their guidelines on how to submit your manuscript. We live in a digital age, they may request an electronic summary and some chapters, or they may request the full manuscript. If you don’t follow the guidelines, it will give them the impression that you didn’t really read them, and as such, your book may not even be looked at, albeit a hidden gem. It’s like sending a cover letter for a job you covet—make sure you know what you need to send and what they want to hear from you (manuscript, abstract, synopsis, just a few chapters, etc.). Familiarize yourself with current standards for formatting, word count, etc. In case the publisher you are submitting the manuscript to does not have official guidelines, you should be familiar with the standards, because that will make you look more professional. So, do some research on fonts, word counts, and other details about submitting manuscripts to publishers—in your specific genre. Please remember to search specifically for your gender. The rules for romance are different than the rules for fantasy, science fiction, and so on.
When and why might you need a literary agent?
There are two circumstances in which you may need a literary agent. The first is when you want to approach a publisher that does not accept unsolicited manuscripts. The second is when you want to have a literary agent pitch you even while you are still writing your book. The second case can be useful for nonfiction, although it can also work for fiction. Getting a good agent on board increases the chances of your book being published traditionally, however just because your chances increase doesn’t mean your success is guaranteed. In the meantime, you have already added to the task of finding a good agent.
A good agent: Based on your query letter, he will ask you to read your book. He will offer you a contract to represent you—in other words, he will sign with you. It will put you in touch with other authors you have successfully represented without breaking your heart. However, before you send a query letter to an agent, do your research. And even after that, a good agent DOES NOT: They will not ask you for a fee to read your manuscript. Won’t ask you for a fee to “read your manuscript before others because they have a huge pile of unsolicited manuscripts”, he won’t ask you for money before you’ve been hired by a publisher. He will not refuse to put you in touch with other authors that he represents or has represented in the past. They will not offer you a contract where you are set to get more than 15% of your domestic sales and 20% of your foreign sales (if the contract goes up to 50%, that is a very clear red flag). He will not refuse to offer you a representative contract unless you pay him for his time. Literary agents make money after they have sold the rights to your book to a publisher. Therefore, do your research well. Some of the sources we listed above for editorials can also serve as resources for agents. However, there are other resources online where you can find your agent. Please make sure that even before you send them a query letter that you have found the best person for the job. The agent must be interested in your genre, in your novel and in your work. If at any point, the agent doesn’t show enough interest, you’d be wasting your time signing a contract with him.
Therefore, do your research well. Some of the sources we listed above for editorials can also serve as resources for agents. However, there are other resources online where you can find your agent. Please make sure that even before you send them a query letter that you have found the best person for the job. The agent must be interested in your genre, in your novel and in your work. If at any point, the agent doesn’t show enough interest, you’d be wasting your time signing a contract with him. On the other hand, once you’ve found what you think is a good fit, feel free to send them a letter of inquiry.
What a good literary agent should and should not do.
Based on your query letter, he will ask you to read your book. He will offer you a contract to represent you—in other words, he will sign with you. It will put you in touch with other authors you have successfully represented without breaking your heart. However, before you send an inquiry letter to an agent, do your research. And even after that, a good agent DOES NOT: They will not ask you for a fee to read your manuscript. Won’t ask you for a fee to “read your manuscript before others because they have a huge pile of unsolicited manuscripts” He won’t ask you for money before you’ve been hired by a publisher. He will not refuse to put you in touch with other authors that he represents or has represented in the past. They will not offer you a contract where you are set to get more than 15% of your domestic sales and 20% of your foreign sales (if the contract goes up to 50%, that is a very clear red flag). He will not refuse to offer you a representative contract unless you pay him for his time. Literary agents make money after they have sold the rights of your book to a publisher. Therefore, do your research well. Some of the sources we listed above for editorials can also serve as resources for agents. However, there are other resources online where you can find your agent. Please make sure that even before you send them a query letter that you have found the best person for the job. The agent must be interested in your genre, in your novel and in your work. If at any point, the agent doesn’t show enough interest, you’d be wasting your time signing a contract with him. On the other hand, once you’ve found what you think is a good fit, feel free to send them a letter of inquiry.
Methods of sending query letters to literary agents:
Do your research first. The agent may only accept query letters, or may also accept advertisements, outlines, a summary, or sample chapters. Proceed to write your query letter, during which make sure you follow the correct guidelines for writing one. In the first paragraph, start with a brief review of your book, and make sure it’s interesting and engaging. Specify the genre and themes of your novel, the word count, and emphasize the fact that you did your research and choose them because you know of their publishing history. In the second paragraph, focus on your book. Write a short synopsis that focuses on the plot and characters. In the third paragraph, briefly introduce yourself, but don’t forget to list your official experience: previous posts, awards, and more. In the last paragraph, let the agent know that it is a detailed summary and some sample chapters (and even the entire manuscript, if necessary), will be made available to them upon request. At the end, thank the agent for their time and for considering representing you as an author and your book. One piece of advice: never settle for just one agent or one publisher. Try to find as many options as possible (in terms of gender) and, after careful weeding, send your query letters to at least a few different agents. Then there is nothing you can do but play the waiting game. Agents don’t like to be bothered for feedback or a response—and neither do publishers, regardless of whether or not they accept unsolicited manuscripts.
Beware of publishers that publish at the expense of the author and associated publishers that pose as traditional publishers. What can a publishing house that publishes by charging the author do for you? In essence, and at first glance, it seems that using a publishing house that publishes at the author’s expense is just another form of self-publishing, or even traditional publishing. A publisher that publishes at the author’s expense will offer you the same services as a traditional publisher—with the difference that you pay them instead of being paid an advance and then royalties. However, when you dig deeper, you’ll discover the following:
- You pay a publishing house by charging the author’s expenses to publish your book and you get your rights to their intellectual property.
- They will offer you a deal that includes publishing, cover design, ISBN paperwork and even distribution to booksellers through different channels. However, the problem here is that the publishing house charging the author will own the ISBN of your book and also the rights, so you may not even get one penny from the actual sales of your book.
The same applies to associated publishers. You’ll be offered a contract in which these facts are cleverly concealed—and you probably won’t spot these minute differences in wording that will mislead you without a publishing and intellectual property attorney. In other words, if you really want to publish your book, but can’t find a publisher or agent, then take the self-publishing route and stay as far away from the author-charging publishers and associated publishers as possible.
How to know the difference between a publishing house that publishes by charging the author’s expenses and a traditional publishing house?
If you are asked for money up front for anything related to the publication of your book, and if you don’t get a contract that specifies and goes ahead and pays royalties, know that you are dealing with a publisher that publishes at an expense to the author and don’t sign any type of contract with them.