So you’ve finished writing your book—perhaps a lifelong dream—and now you want to get it published.
Where do you go from here?
You poured your heart and soul into the writing, and I hope you also spent countless hours editing and revising.
Any seasoned expert will tell you: All writing is rewriting.
Certainly the writing alone took months, maybe years. But you did something few people ever do: You finished writing your book.
Maybe you’ve done your homework on the do’s and don’ts of publishing a book, but you’ve found so much conflicting advice that you’re overwhelmed.
How do you decide your next step?
In simple terms, you have two options:
Which is best for you?
As one who has written and had published nearly 200 books since the 1970s, let me try to help you decide.
I’ll start with definitions so you know what you’re actually choosing.
Traditional publishers take all the risks.
They pay for everything from editing, proofreading, typesetting, printing, binding, cover art and design, promotion, advertising, warehousing, shipping, billing, and paying author royalties.
If a “publisher” requires any money from you—even a minimum number of copies purchased—they are not a traditional publisher.
They might refer to themself as a co-op or a hybrid publisher, and they might even insist that they accept some manuscripts and reject others, but they are not traditional publishers.
Regardless what services or suppliers you use to have your book printed, this option is rightly referred to as self-publishing.
Why? Because everything is on you. You are the publisher, the financier, the decision-maker.
Everything listed above under Traditional publishing falls to you. You decide who does it, you approve or reject it, and you pay for it.
The term self-publishing is a bit of a misnomer, however, because what you’re paying for is not publishing, but printing.
So, the question becomes, why pay to be printed if you could be paid to be published?
Let’s Get Real About How to Publish a Book
Some say writers can make a lot more money by self-publishing. They argue that rather than settling for just a 15% or so royalty of the sales by a traditional publisher, they enjoy all the profits.
The problem with this logic is that it too often underestimates what it costs to self-publish.
The likelihood is that the “profit” per sold book, often at best, equals about the same as a traditional royalty.
The drawback then is that as a self-publisher, you have vastly less experience promoting, advertising, marketing, selling, delivering, and billing than traditional publishers do.
Besides the fact that this is a full-time job that will likely rule out your having the time to write another book, with rare exceptions, traditional publishers sell many more copies than self-publishers do.
That said, self-publishing may be your choice under certain circumstances. Such as:
- You’ve exhausted your efforts to land a traditional deal. That doesn’t always indicate that your writing is inferior. It could merely mean that your audience is limited, making your book a less viable business proposition for the publisher.
- Your book is of interest to hundreds of people, as opposed to thousands. I self-published a couple of volumes of my father’s poetry, because it was of interest to several hundred friends and relatives but not to a mass market audience of thousands required by a traditional publisher.
- You’re a college professor or in some similar occupation where you must “publish or perish,” but your area of expertise is so esoteric that your books would not likely be commercial successes on a mass scale.
In truth, there are many reasons you might opt to self-publish, so the issue becomes whom you can trust as a supplier for all the services you’ll be paying for.
That’s where you need to do your homework. Talk to others who have self-published to see whether they felt ripped off, over-promised, over-charged, etc.
Many vanity or subsidy or hybrid self-publishing suppliers have beautiful websites, rave reviews, and examples of beautifully produced books that will make your mouth water.
They’ll use terms like, “If we accept your manuscript…” when the truth is, many such firms would print anything you sent them as long as your check was attached.
They’ll offer all the services I listed above, but if you decide not to take advantage of those, you’ll pay less but also wind up with an inferior final product.
That’s why too many self-published books look self-published:
- Amateur art on the cover.
- No editing or proofreading.
- Little thought to interior design or even typeface (many use sans serif type, while traditionally published books mostly use serif type).
- Many use the word “by” before the author’s name on the cover, which you rarely see with traditionally published books.
- Some self-published books don’t even spell Foreword correctly, but rather spell it Forward or Forword or even Foreward. And many use the British spelling of Acknowledgments, adding another E for Acknowledgements.
But those are the least of the potential issues.
With careful planning, studying, and comparing, you should be able to self-publish your book for much less than the $10,000 or more that many of these companies charge for their “premium” packages.
Are the Odds Against Traditional Publishing too Great?
Few traditional publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t consider new writers and their work.
They accept submissions from agents or from writers recommended to them by one of their current authors.
I’ve been coaching writers for decades, so I’m well aware of the confusion, the desperation, and the frustration you may be feeling.
Which is why I wrote this roadmap to the publishing process.
By the end, I want you confident and clear about which route to choose when publishing your book—and you’ll know the steps to take.
We’re in the busiest and noisiest era in publishing history. It has never been easier to get printed, and never harder to be traditionally published.
But don’t let that discourage you.
Getting a literary agent or a publisher to take a chance on you or your manuscript does not happen by accident. It requires time, focus, and excellence.
Begin by considering:
- What genre or category is your book? The genre you choose determines your target audience, your potential agent, and even which publishers to pursue.
- Who is your target reader and why will your book sell? And resist the temptation to say it’s for everybody. Naturally, we put that much effort into writing something and we wonder who wouldn’t want to read it? Truth is, that kind of thinking waves a red flag of amateurism to agents and publishers. Successful, even mega-bestselling, books don’t appeal to everyone. They are written to specific audiences, and if they cross over to other markets (as, for instance, the Harry Potter Young Adult titles—which have become vastly popular to adults as well), that’s a bonus.
- Do you have a platform? If that’s a new term to you, it simply means the extent of your influence—how many people are interested in what you do. This is one of the first questions an agent or publisher asks. With the variety of social media and blogging vehicles available today, building a following and interacting with potential readers has never been easier.
How to Pitch to Traditional Publishers
A first time fiction writer is expected to submit a complete manuscript for consideration.
The Pros of Traditional Publishing
- No out-of-pocket expenses if your manuscript is accepted.
- Greater exposure.
- Advance royalties. Most publishers offer an advance payment against royalties (which are yours to keep, regardless of sales), though amounts widely vary.
- A team of professionals undertakes the editing, proofreading, and designing of your book.
- Another team spearheads the marketing and promotion.
The Cons of Traditional Publishing
- I won’t sugarcoat it—landing a book deal is rare. Thousands of wannabe writers flood agents and publishers with proposals every day.
- It can be a slow process—from nine months to two or more years from signing a deal to actually releasing the book.
- You may have creative input but little control over the process. Traditional publishers take all the financial risks, so they reserve the right to final decisions on everything from the cover and interior design to the title, pricing, and promotion. While many of these things are negotiable, your only recourse in a stalemate is to withdraw the book. They want to keep you happy, of course, but they get the final say. On everything.
- Too many writers overestimate the potential income. While you read about seven-figure deals and multi-million dollar bestsellers, these are as rare as lottery winners. The vast majority of books don’t make up the royalty advance and thus never pay more.
How to Publish a Book: The Process of Getting Traditionally Published
1. Edit Like Your Writing Life Depends On It, Because It Does
The most important step as you begin is to become a ferocious self-editor. Even if you choose to self-publish, the quality of your writing is determined by this.
Acquisition editors (first readers at publishing houses who decide whether your manuscript is worth showing to their bosses) and literary agents tell me they know within two minutes or as few as two pages whether your manuscript is worth pursuing.
That may not sound fair, but it’s the hard truth. If you wished they would have stuck with it till you got to the good part, next time start with the good part. 😊
All writing is rewriting. Put your best foot forward by learning to aggressively self-edit until you’re happy with every word.
If an agent decides to take you on and/or your manuscript is accepted by a publishing house, it will still go through editing there.
But your goal is to make it the best you know how so it will get past those first readers—potential agents or acquisition editors.
2. Find An Agent
Landing an agent can be just as difficult as landing a publishing deal, because they are every bit as discerning regarding a manuscript’s (or an author’s) potential.
The advantage of an agent (which makes them worth their 15% of whatever you make) is that they serve as your manuscript’s cheerleader.
Agents know the business, the industry, the players—who’s publishing what and who might like what you’ve written.
They shop your manuscript to publishers and advocate on your behalf. Having landed an agent is a credit in itself.
It shows that you and your writing have already survived serious vetting.
Some (but not many) traditional publishers consider unsolicited or unagented manuscripts, but if you can land an agent, that’s your best bet.
Having an agent can make your life a lot easier. They can:
- Coach you on refashioning your proposal
- Help you understand the publishing process
- Handle the business side so you can stay in your creative lane
Once you’ve researched and compiled a list of agents who seem to be a good fit, follow their submission guidelines to a T. (Google literary agents.)
3. Write A Query Letter
A query (question) letter is designed to determine whether an agent or publisher might be interested in your manuscript. It’s your first impression—your initial sales call.
Make it stimulating and intriguing.
You’re not selling your writing just yet; you’re merely asking to get in the door.
Position yourself as a colleague, not a fan. Make it short and to the point, preferably one page, and send electronically.
- Your elevator pitch: a one-sentence summary of your book’s premise, called this because it’s what you should imagine saying to publishing professionals between the time you meet them on an elevator and when they get off.
- Your synopsis: a one-paragraph summary that goes beyond the elevator pitch and tells what happens and how things turn out. For nonfiction books, explain what the book is about and what you hope to accomplish with it. For fiction, explain the basics of your plot.
- Your target audience and why they’ll buy your book. Don’t oversell.
- Your personal information—what qualifies you to write this book. The kind of platform you’ve built. The address of your blog. Your contact information.
Before you hit Send, proofread your letter. Then proofread it again.
While up to a half dozen typos in a 300-400-page manuscript are of little consequence, any typo in such a short document will make you look like an amateur.
Have a friend or relative proofread it with fresh eyes.
4. Write Your Proposal
This is the document agents want. For some, it’s the only document they require before asking to see your manuscript.
Every word should pique an agent’s interest—your goal is an invitation to send your entire manuscript.
Briefly but completely describe the details of your manuscript. Leave nothing out.
For nonfiction, include every issue you cover and the basics of what you’ve said about each.
For fiction, synopsize every chapter.
Proposals can contain any number of components, including:
- Elevator pitch
- Target audience
- Chapter synopses
- Marketing ideas
- Your analysis of competing books, and where yours fits
- Up to three sample chapters
The average proposal can range from between 10 to 25 pages. Keep it as tight as you can without leaving out anything crucial.
Which is best, a query or a proposal?
As a rule, a query letter precedes sending a proposal. But check potential agents’ submissions guidelines on their websites.
Some want to start with your proposal. Show them you’re thorough and willing to work.
The Pros of Self-Publishing
- Anyone can do it. Your end product can now look much more professional, and your price per book is much more reasonable than it once was. Print-on-demand technology now allows for low-cost printing, so you can order as few as two or three books at a time for the same cost per book as you would pay if you were buying hundreds.
- You determine the publishing timeline. It’s possible to publish almost instantly online.
- You control the editing process.
- You have creative control over the cover and interior design.
- You set the price.
- After expenses, the profit is 100% yours.
The Cons of Self Publishing
- Anyone can do it. The market is glutted, as literally thousands self-publish daily.
- Everything falls to you, from page numbers to fulfilling orders. If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
- Lower visibility and exposure. Though local bookstores might display your book on consignment, few others will—regardless what distribution companies promise. They may expose it to thousands of stores in an online calendar, but they’re not handselling it into those. Some experts say only 5% of all published books actually reach bookstore shelves.
- Self-publishing predators promise the world and often deliver very little. Do your homework. Get recommendations. Ask questions.
How to Publish a Book: The Process of Getting Self-Published
The best way to set yourself apart, besides ferociously self-editing your book, is paying for a professional editor.
The biggest mistake many self-published authors make is spending more on design and marketing than on professional editing and proofreading.
A great looking book with a terrific cover and lots of promotion will die a quick death in the market unless the editing and proofreading are also evident.
(Resist the urge to hire a relative who majored in English or even teaches English; book editing is a unique discipline.)
The last thing you want is a handsome product that reads like the manuscript made the rounds of the traditional publishing houses, was rejected, and had to be self-published.
Writing quality sets you apart in a saturated marketplace.
Engaging a Self-Publishing Company vs. Doing It Yourself
Many companies offer all the services you need to self-publish, but some are more trustworthy than others. It takes a lot of success—and sales—to recoup the costs of such services.
You may run across the term “hybrid publishing,” referring to different pay-to-publish methods, but the bottom line is that it’s still self-publishing.
As I’ve said, you are the publisher. You pay the bills.
My friend Jane Friedman’s helpful article, What is a Hybrid Publisher?, explains this in detail.
In short, hybrid publishing companies claim to combine the best of a traditional publishing house with a self-publishing model. But beware.
Many of these are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Again, do your homework, get references, compare pricing.
The more popular platforms to “publish” online:
- Amazon Createspace: a print-on-demand option also prints paperback copies ordered on Amazon.
- Kindle Direct Publishing: you can publish an ebook online available for purchase on Kindle and Kindle Apps worldwide via Amazon.com.
- iBooks: you can publish a book to the Apple iBooks store and distribute it anywhere on the internet.
Other considerations for self-published titles (unless you’ve hired someone to navigate this process):
- Create an author website.
- Format and upload your manuscript for the internet.
- Purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number, a 13-digit unique identifier).
But hear me:
Please exhaust all efforts to be traditionally published before resorting to self-publishing.
If you are fortunate enough to have your manuscript accepted by a traditional publishing house, they assume all the financial risk, so it costs you nothing.
Should you choose self-publishing, the cost varies greatly. You can “publish” virtually free online if you don’t engage an editor, proofreader, or designer.
Self-publishing actual books can range from between $1,500 and more than $10,000, depending on how many services you require or which company you hire.
My Opinion on How to Publish a Book
I’ve made it my life’s work to coach writers to get their work to a level where they can market it to traditional publishers. Even if you choose self-publishing, you want your writing up to that standard.
A great starting point? My 21 Ferocious Self-Editing Tips Checklist can turn you into an aggressive self-editor and give your writing the best chance to impress industry gatekeepers.
Regardless whether you choose to compete for a traditional publishing deal or self-publish, give everything you have to your writing.
Hone your skills. Read everything you can get your hands on about the craft.
Your reader deserves it.
And so do you.