If you’ve ever thought of writing a book and trying to get it published, here’s a quick tutorial on how the publishing business works with steps on how to proceed from blank page to published book:
STEP ONE: Write the book. Edit the book.
If you’re writing a novel (fiction), and you’ve never been published before, you have to have a complete, finished manuscript before you approach agents and editors. Nonfiction can be sold to publishers with a proposal only (synopsis, sample chapters, outline), but fiction writers usually have to finish the whole darn thing. That means writing between 50,000 and 100,000 words of story. If you’re not up for that, you’ve chosen the wrong field. 🙂
Writing a book is a huge task, and while you don’t need a degree in literature or creative writing to do it, you should think about storytelling, about what keeps you engaged in your favorite stories (fiction or nonfiction) and how the author tells the tale. There are no storytelling “rules” (there are grammar and usage ones, though), but you should give some thought to how to wrestle your creativity into a shape that makes sense to readers and will keep them turning pages.
Once you finish writing, it’s time to edit. Look for a critique partner or beta readers who can look at the manuscript with fresh eyes to catch inconsistencies and embarrassing mistakes and offer frank opinions. Even consider hiring a professional editor to look over your work — this is particularly important if you decide to self-publish. Don’t neglect this step.
STEP TWO: Decide on the publishing path — traditional or self-publishing.
Writers today are fortunate to have available different ways of getting their books into readers’ hands. The stigma of self-publishing as “vanity publishing” has all but been erased with the advent of e-books and the ease with which one can make stories available in these formats. Here’s a quick summary of the definition of both kinds of publishing and advantages and disadvantages to each:
Traditional publishing: This is when a reputable press buys your book, edits it, contracts for cover art, prints the book, sends it out for reviews, and distributes it to retailers. In the traditional publishing model, money flows one way: from publisher to author. The author gets an advance, (usually paid in installments — one when the contract is signed, and another when the revised/polished manuscript is ultimately accepted by the editor) and if sales are brisk, the author receives royalties (a percentage of each book sale) for as long as the book is available.
Advantages: The money in the advance comes to you before a single book is sold to the public. You only need to write the book and do some promotion, while everything else is handled by the publisher. The money you receive from traditional publishers is usually much more than you make self-publishing as an unknown author.
Disadvantages:Getting a book contract is difficult and often requires first landing a literary agent (more on this later), advances for books are decent from one of the “Big Five” publishers (Penguin Random, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper) but small from small presses, and writers often have little control over cover art, distribution, and promotion, and sometimes see no royalties whatsoever.
Self-publishing: This is when you, the author, handle all the book-related tasks, from writing to editing to layout to cover art to printing to distributing to promoting. Phew! Those are a lot of tasks. Many authors will subcontract with self-publishing businesses to handle most of these activities, but it’s possible, with persistence and some skill, to control them yourself. A good place to start (after the book is written and edited) is with the Amazon self-publishing platform, but there are reputable firms (such as Draft2Digital) that will handle, for a percentage of royalties, layout and distribution, etc. While you don’t earn advances in self-publishing, if you handle the entire process yourself, you get all the royalties. You will end up paying subcontractors, however, for tasks you don’t handle on your own.
Advantages: You control the whole process. You can write the book you want without pesky editors telling you to change this or that. You can choose your own cover art (paying a subcontractor for it or using the free services of platforms such as Amazon to construct your own). You decide how and where to promote. You also keep a much larger share of royalties, only giving up a small percentage of each book sale to distribution platforms such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Disadvantages: It’s a heckuva lot of work (see above) and not for the faint-hearted. You don’t earn any advances. Sales are hard. Brick and mortar bookstores usually won’t take self-published books except on a consignment basis. It’s hard to get reviewed (though Publishers Weekly has a good program, through its BookLife portal, for self-published authors). Without the distribution paths of a major publisher, you will find it extremely difficult to get attention for your book and to make a lot of sales.
A Few Words About Literary Agents
Above, I mentioned that you need to land a literary agent before you can sell to a traditional publisher. This is because almost all traditional publishers are closed to submissions except through agents.
Literary agents perform the following tasks:
- they help you polish your book if they think some tweaking will make it more marketable;
- they identify and submit to appropriate editors who might be interested in the type of story you have told;
- they negotiate a contract once a sale to a publisher is made;
- they work with subagents to sell ancillary rights (film/TV/foreign, etc.)
As with traditional publishers, the money flows one way in an agent/author relationship: from agent to author. Reputable agents do not charge fees. They are paid when you are paid. They take a commission, 15 percent, of your sale. If they manage to sell ancillary rights, they usually get 20 percent, which they split with the subagent involved.
Landing a good literary agent is difficult. They don’t take on any client. They look for clients who are marketable, who have stories they think they can sell. They have personal likes and dislikes, and they often specialize in certain genres (fiction, nonfiction, romance, YA, sci-fi/fantasy, etc.).
You need to do a bunch of research before querying agents, to determine if they are right for you. A simple way to start is to go to a bookstore, look at books similar to yours and glance at the “acknowledgments” page. Authors often thank their agents there. Make a list of these agents as the start of your search.
Once you identify agents who might be right for you, go to their agency websites to find out how they prefer to be queried. Some want email queries only. Some want email queries with the first chapters and a synopsis attached. Some use submission portal sites.
STEP THREE: Promote your book.
Whichever publishing route you take, promoting your book will be one of your responsibilities. Yes, traditional publishers will help if you are published through them. Their marketing teams will get your book reviewed, and they will try to get you featured in publications, on blogs, and on television and radio, but most authors only get book reviews out of these efforts and little else (unless you have a “platform” – a job or topic that gives you a higher profile). In fact, I’ve often thought that the best promotion a traditional publisher can do for you as an author is to get your book in as many stores as possible, and to get it placed cover out (not spine out) on shelves or on “new releases” tables. Those efforts cost money, by the way. The publisher pays for that “real estate” in stores.
The promotion you can do on your own includes the following:
Construct a website. Readers like to look up information on authors, so consider putting together a website. Some authors use free services (like this wordpress blog!). Some contract with web designers to put up attractive pages that include info on the author, his/her book(s) and more. This doesn’t have to be extravagant, though. The goal is to provide readers with some quick info about you and the book(s). Keeping it simple — and possibly free — is fine.
Construct an Amazon author page. Amazon allows authors to post biographies and links to their books. Take advantage of this service. It’s free.
Contact local media. Traditional publishers won’t be familiar with your local, small-town newspaper or local talk radio, so you should either suggest to your publisher they send your book to those media outlets or simply do it yourself, with a nice cover letter asking if they’d consider reviewing it or having you on-air as a guest, with a press release announcing its publication (with a headline promoting your local connection: Ourtown Resident Publishes Fantasy Novel).
Seek reviews from family and friends. Once your book is on e-tailer sites like Amazon, ask family and friends if they’d read it and post a review there. Be aware, however, that Amazon doesn’t like to post reviews from people with obvious connections to the author. So if all your reviewers in the family have your same last name…their reviews might not make it onto the site.
Identify book review blogs and respectfully request a read and review, as well. Sometimes, book blogs will also feature author interviews or have authors as “guests” for a day. You can offer a free copy to the bloggers to give away to a lucky reader in some sort of contest the day the review or blog post appears.
Do book signings. Look at signings as a way to get more publicity. Send a press release out to regional media about the signing. It gets your name in the paper and possibly online, on air, with the title of your book. Sometimes, a signing will be the “hook” upon which a local paper hangs a story about you and your tome.
Book signings aren’t likely to generate a ton of sales at the stores involved, though, so the publicity (getting your name and book title further into the public eye) is a better goal than actual sales at the signing. A Barnes & Noble staffer once told me that the average number of books an unknown author sells at signings is…three. So don’t think of book signings as a way to sell huge numbers.
Look for speaking opportunities. If you’ve written nonfiction or a novel with a current event/special topic focus, look for organizations at which you could talk. Local clubs are often on the lookout for speakers, and they might even let you sign and sell some of your books after your presentation.
There are lots of other little things you can do (I’ve been known to take copies of my books on vacation to leave in rented condos!), but the overall goal is creating that elusive “book buzz.” To me, book buzz means that enough people have heard of you and your book that they start thinking they better buy it! It takes an enormous amount of promotion to get to that sweet spot, though, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t quite reach it.
STEP FOUR: Enjoy being an author
Few writers become best-sellers. The vast majority of books in stores today are written by authors who have “day jobs,” who don’t support themselves by writing books. Becoming a best-seller is part skill and part luck. It can hinge on many things outside your control. So, don’t think you’re a failure if you don’t hit those “top ten” lists.
You’ve told your story, written a book. You’ve accomplished something big and difficult. If your audience is small, you still can be proud and happy to be sharing your tale with those who are interested.
And who knows? Maybe that next story you’re so eager to tell will be the one…that propels your book to the top of the charts!
Libby Malin Sternberg is a novelist who has sold to traditional publishers (Harlequin, Dorchester, Bancroft, Five Star/Cengage, Sourcebooks) and who has self-published. Her books have been reviewed by Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post and more, and one of her novels, Fire Me!, was bought for film by Fox Studios. She was an Edgar finalist for her first novel, a YA mystery.