Image: Matthew Loffhagen
‘How do I publish my book?’ This is the number one question posed by new authors and one to which there are many answers.
Publication is complex, but like any process it can be broken down into smaller steps. Understanding these steps is the key to progressing through them, one by one, until you’re a published author.
In this article, I’ll be breaking down the publication process into the general stages every author should understand and then into the specific steps you need to take within each stage. Having a book published isn’t easy and it isn’t quick. You may find yourself trapped at the same stage for a long time before you finally break out, but when you do, it is very satisfying.
Above all, it is possible.
Assembling your tools
Step 1 – Complete the book
Fiction writers only
There is a huge difference between ‘finishing’ and ‘completing’ a book. A finished book is one which contains all the text needed for a reader to progress from the beginning to the end. A completed book is a work crafted to a professional standard which, if it hit the shelves tomorrow, wouldn’t seem out of place.
While it is important to set achievable targets (and stick to them), it is also important to appreciate that completing a book takes a significant amount of work. You need to edit out any grammatical, spelling or plot errors, and then give it to someone else to review with a fresh pair of eyes. It is surprising how many small errors can be missed. You should write and rewrite, seek out (objective) beta readers, consider and incorporate their feedback, and repeat the process.
Agents and publishers deal with a constant deluge of incomplete work and at the first sign of errors, your own work may be thrown onto a reject pile. As authors, we want our work to be finished and we’re elated when we think we have all the elements in place, often to the point of ignoring the fact that some improvements require to be made.
An agent or publisher may edit your work, but you should never depend on them to do this.
For non-fiction writers, you should not begin your work until a publisher has shown interest in it. Instead you should write a book proposal (I’ll return to this in step three).
Step 2 – Research agents
Different agents deal with different genres and types of writing. This is often a mix of personal taste, personal knowledge, and the contacts they have with publishers. Agents are very open about the type of work in which they specialize, and often about the kind they won’t accept. Submitting your work to an agent who has demonstrated no interest in its type or genre shows you have not completed adequate research. It is a rare agent who will bother getting back in contact in this situation.
With this list in hand, it’s time to start scouring the web for other writers’ experiences. As with all professions, some agents are simply better than others, so part of researching is finding out about your potential agent’s reputation.
You are going to be submitting to more than one agent at a time, so don’t stop at the first one you like. An initial submission to five to ten agents is normal, so try and find agents with whom you would be genuinely happy to work. Also, ensure that they will accept a query email – some agents don’t. If this is the case, there will probably be a prominent statement to this effect, alongside their details.
Practically speaking, it’s a good idea to have the next ten potential agents ready to hand. Most authors submit to a number of agents before they are accepted and the rejections will sting less if you have an alternative to contact.
If you are now armed with a completed book and a list of agents, it’s time to move on.
Step 3 – Write a query letter, including a synopsis / proposal
Your query letter will be your initial point of contact with your agent and is incredibly important. It needs to provide some information about yourself, some about the audience you expect for your book, and some about the book itself.
The way to interest an agent in your book is to provide a synopsis (fiction writers) or a book proposal (non-fiction writers). What’s expected is a little different depending on the kind of writer you are:
Fiction writers – A synopsis is a short explanation of the theme(s) and plot of the book. Usually, this is not much longer than a paragraph or two. This is meant to intrigue the agent and make them want to read the first few chapters of your book to see if it has potential. In actual fact, the synopsis is an advertisement, demonstrating to the agent that this is a book people will want to read. Don’t over-explain, don’t include details that aren’t relevant and don’t worry about giving away the plot. Remember, the agent doesn’t want to buy the book – he/she wants to know it will sell.
Non-fiction writers – A book proposal is an outline of your book content. It describes why you are the person to write it and why it will sell. If it is about a specialist or niche subject then you must convince the agent there is a market – ideally by mentioning similar works which have sold well. A book proposal is more formal than a fiction synopsis and may include a short breakdown of your intended structure. This should just be a few paragraphs but will give a better idea about the finished product and show that you have a concrete idea of what you’re going to produce. You can download a useful template here.
In both cases, it’s important to understand that the agent is going to have to pitch your book to a publisher. Agents will use your description partly to decide if the book is worth their attention but largely they are trying to decide how their own description would resonate with a publisher. If they don’t see the ingredients for a pitch then they’ll pass.
Some agents request a few chapters from fiction writers or an example chapter from non-fiction writers and some don’t. Again, their preferences will usually be provided on their websites or alongside their contact information. Currently, many agents expect an initial query letter, and will request a few chapters if they want to see more. Make sure to pay attention to their exact specifications before you send anything.
Similarly to your work, a query letter needs to be given serious consideration before you send it. Don’t treat it like an ordinary email. Treat it as a pitch to someone who doesn’t yet have a reason to take you seriously. Be professional, succinct, and error-free. Back any statement you make with facts. Stating that your genre is popular will carry no weight unless you can provide examples. Likewise, a declaration that you are a ‘brilliant writer’ will not give a professional impression.
Submitting to agents
Step 4 – Submit to multiple agents
Agents may take months to get back to you and many never will. You may submit to dozens of agents before you are accepted, so submitting one at a time could take years (if not decades!)
That doesn’t mean you can send the same generic email to every agent. Success takes effort and time and it is essential that an agent has the impression you are contacting him/her specifically. Agents aren’t stupid, they know you’re contacting several of them at once but tailoring your email shows professionalism, attention to detail, and the potential for a constructive relationship. Make sure you spell the name correctly, adhere to submission specifications, and mention details from their websites (such as the genre in which they specialize.)
Step 5 – Process rejections and keep submitting
It’s a rare author who doesn’t experience any rejections. Keep submitting to agents, and keep those submissions top-quality until one gets back to you. As I mentioned previously, this is the work of months and occasionally years. You may be stuck on steps four and five for a long time but try not to be disheartened.
If, however, you reach a stage where you genuinely feel no agent is interested, it may be time to put your work in a drawer and start the next project. There are many authors who have not been published until their second or third attempt. In this situation, it is sensible to look at your work synopsis/proposal and query letter to make sure there’s nothing which requires amendment. It may even be worth having a professional service give you feedback, just in case there’s a specific reason no-one is interested.
Working with an agent
Step 6 – Choose the agent who’s right for you
This one is pretty simple. If an offer comes in and it’s one you’re happy with, then take it. If you’re lucky enough to have two offers then pick whichever one seems best. This can be in terms of contacts and the percentage of profits expected but may also be on the basis of whom you think will provide the best working relationship.
In respect of agents, it is usually not a good idea to try and generate an ‘auction’. You can politely inform an agent that someone else has shown interest and ask if there’s anything he/she can offer in particular but actively trying to reduce the offered rate isn’t advisable. Like authors, agents do a lot of work with no guarantee of publication. If you’re difficult to deal with from the start then many will simply move on to the next opportunity.
Step 7 – Discuss and implement edits
Agents have specific knowledge about the publishing industry, so they may be able to give you constructive feedback about what would make your work easier to pitch and sell.
Of course you will have your own artistic vision and it’s a case of balancing the content of your book with what the expert tells you will sell. Try not to approach suggestions with hostility Remember that you and your agent are concerned with different aspects of the finished work and you should each be passionate but sensible advocates for your own perspective.
Agents work with and understand authors, and they’re busy people. It is therefore unlikely they’ll take your book on if they think it needs to be completely altered to sell.
Edit with an agent until he/she is happy to pitch the book to publishers.
Submitting to publishers
Step 8 – Be patient
Describing every stage a book goes through with a publisher warrants an article of its own. Suffice to say there are a lot of people who will read your work before being in a position to reply to your agent and each one of those people deals with thousands of submissions. In short, it will take a long time for your agent to get back to you.
Your agent will likely submit to multiple publishers at once. At this point, one of two things can happen. Either the publishers will reject your work, in which case your agent will start submitting to more publishers, or they’ll be interested.
Working with a publisher
Step 9 – Choose the publisher that’s right for you
As with an agent, if you get an offer you like, then take it. Contrary to the situation with an agent however, if you find you have two or more offers, then it is acceptable to utilize the situation to your advantage. Publishers are in competition for great books, and one publisher’s interest will instantly increase your cachet with another. You may negotiate for things like upfront payments, or percentage of sales.
The actual negotiating is the agent’s job and you can be assured he/she will handle the situation professionally. Again, remember that relationships play a big part in publication.
Even if you only attract one publisher, it is still the agent’s job to negotiate the best possible contract for you. Trust them to do so, but make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to before signing anything.
Publishing companies are generally large and sometimes structures and personnel will change and you will find yourself out of favor. This is unfortunate and unfair but until you’ve signed a contract with a publisher it is always possible you may have to return to step eight.
Step 10 – Discuss and implement edits
Publishers have their own ideas about what the market wants and their own inside knowledge to support their views. As with your agent, you must find a balance between what an expert requests you change and the degree to which you are prepared to alter your work.
For non-fiction writers this is a process which will occur both before and after you complete your work. Publishers will want to be involved both in the planned structure of your work and the finished product.
There may be a lot of edits. It is important to be as flexible as possible but also to have definite ideas about the way your work should turn out. You can’t decide as you go because, like a frog in a boiling pan of water, things can change by small degrees until it’s too late.
Decide what points are non-negotiable and which are open to discussion. Be polite, firm, and professional in sticking to those decisions. Take heart! Like your agent, a publisher won’t have taken on your book unless they thought it showed promise.
Hopefully you’ll reach this point without reaching an impasse with your publisher. It is rare to find a point of contention that cannot be resolved but it is possible. It is also possible that the publishers may lose interest in your book due to changes in staff or changes in the market. If that occurs, then it’s time to repeat step eight, but with the added confidence that your book clearly has the right potential.
If not it’s on to publication.
Step 11 – Prepare for publication
Books must be printed, distributed, and sold. Even after final acceptance it can take months for your work to be published. In that time you should be strengthening your social media platform and engaging in solo advertising alongside anything the publisher has organized.
Step 12 – Hold your book
Publication is a long and arduous journey but once you’re holding your own published work in your hands it will have been worth every minute. Continue to engage in any publicity and marketing you can get your hands on, and make sure to engage with your readers as their numbers begin to grow.
Publication is truly difficult. Completing your book and having it published are incredible moments, but between them there will probably be a lot of waiting and most likely some disappointment. Because of this, it is important that you don’t solely concentrate on publication to the exclusion of everything else.
You shouldn’t stop writing just because you’re also pursuing publication. If you start a new book at the point at which your current book has been accepted by an agent, it’s likely you’ll be able to finish the new book by the time you are published. Continuing writing will not only give you a whole new book but the creative outlet to cope with the exhilarating highs and grueling lows of the publication process. Having something else to work on stops publication becoming the be all and end all. The more you can view it as just one part of the continuum of your life as a writer, the better.
If you take one thing away from this article, it should be that publication is a long march of endurance rather than a sprint. Those authors who succeed are the ones who prepare before setting off and who understand the length of the journey ahead of them. Many authors will spend a long time stuck within one stage of publication and it is those writers who are tenacious and resilient who will one day hold their own published work in their hands.
For more information on literary agents, check out what literary agents do (and don’t do) for authors or if you’re interested in publishing shorter fiction, try 10 things you must do to get a short story published.
Are you an author currently working your way through the publishing process or one who has come out the other side? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.