Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published

How to Get Your Book Published

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:

  1. Land a traditional publisher who will offer you a book contract. This is “the dream”—what most writers imagine when they think about getting published.
  2. Hire a publishing service to help you publish your book. There are many types of publishing services out there, some cheap and some expensive. But the main thing they have in common is that they charge you to publish.
  3. Self-publish. This is where you act as the publisher, and hire the help you need to publish and sell your work, generally through Amazon and other major retailers.

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:

  1. Determining your genre or category of work.
  2. Finding appropriate agents or publishers for your work.
  3. Preparing your submission materials (a query letter, usually).
  4. 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.

  • Novels and memoirs: You must finish your manuscript before approaching editors/agents. You may be very excited about your story idea, or about having a partial manuscript, but it’s almost never a good idea to pitch your work to a publishing professional at such an early stage. Finish the work first—make it the best manuscript you possibly can. Seek out a writing critique group or mentor who can offer you constructive feedback, then revise your story. Be confident that you’re submitting your best work. One of the biggest mistakes new writers make is rushing to get published. In 99% of cases, there’s no reason to rush.
  • For most nonfiction: Rather than completing a manuscript, you should write a book proposal—like a business plan for your book—that will convince a publisher to contract and pay you to write the book. Find out more information on book proposals and how to write one. You need to methodically research the market for your idea before you begin to write the proposal. Find other titles that are competitive or comparable to your own; make sure that your book is unique, but also doesn’t break all the rules of the category it’s meant to succeed in.

Some of the most common novel genres are: young adult, romance, erotica, women’s fiction, historical, mystery, crime, thriller, and science fiction & fantasy. Work that doesn’t fall into a clear-cut genre is sometimes called “mainstream fiction.” Literary fiction encompasses the classics you were taught in English literature, as well as contemporary fiction (e.g., Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, or Hillary Mantel).

Some of the most popular nonfiction categories are: business, self-help, health, and memoir. Within the publishing industry, nonfiction is often discussed as falling under two major, broad categories: prescriptive (how-to, informational, or educational) and narrative (memoir, narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction). You can get a sense of what nonfiction categories exist by browsing Amazon’s categories (see their lefthand navigation) or simply visiting a bookstore.

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 you write fiction or memoir, the writing quality usually matters above all else if you want to be traditionally published. Read in your genre, practice your craft, and polish your work. Repeat this cycle endlessly. It’s not likely your first attempt will get published. Your writing gets better with practice and time. You mature and develop.

If you write nonfiction, the marketability of your idea (and your platform) often matter as much as the writing, if not more so. The quality of the writing may only need to be serviceable, depending on the category we’re talking about.

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. They have inside contacts with specific editors and know better than writers what editor or publisher would be most likely to buy a particular work.

Perhaps most important, agents negotiate the best deal for you, ensure you are paid accurately and fairly, and run interference when necessary between you and the publisher. The best agents are career advisers and managers.

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.

If you’re writing for a niche market (e.g., vintage automobiles), or have an academic or literary work, then you might not need one. Agents are motivated to represent clients based on the size of the advance they think they can get. If your project doesn’t command a sizable advance (at least 5 figures), then you may not be worth an agent’s time, and you’ll have to sell the project on your own.

Here’s how to find literary agents and how to evaluate them.

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. Again, be aware that most New York publishers do not accept unagented submissions—so this list includes where to find both publishers and agents. This is not an exhaustive list of where you can find listings, but a curated list assuming you want to focus on the highest-quality sources.

  • WritersMarket.com. Thousands of listings can be found here—it’s by far the best place to research book publishers. You’ll have to pay a modest monthly fee to access their database. You can also purchase the print edition, which comes with free access to the online database.
  • PublishersMarketplace.com. This is the best place to research literary agents; not only do many have member pages here, but you can search the publishing deals database by genre, category, and/or keyword to pinpoint the best agents for your work. Subscription required.
  • 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.

Some writers really dislike conducting this research. While I think writers should undertake this task for themselves, if you prefer to hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you to submit to, try Grad Student Freelancers.

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.

Almost no agent or editor accepts full manuscripts on first contact. This is what “No unsolicited materials” means when you read submission guidelines. However, almost every agent or publisher will accept a one-page query letter unless their guidelines state otherwise. (If they do not accept queries, that means they are a completely closed market.)

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.)

If you’re worried about protecting your copyright, then I have good news: your work, under law, is protected from the moment you put it in tangible form. You can find out more about protecting your rights here.

Do you have to “know someone”?

No, but referrals, connections or communities can certainly help! See the related question below about conferences.

The self-publishing option

Typically, writers who get frustrated by the endless process of submission and rejection often look to self-publishing for satisfaction. Why waste countless months or years trying to please this or that picky agent/editor when you can easily get your book available on Kindle (or as print-on-demand) at almost no cost to you?

Such options may afford you the ability to hold your book in your hands, but it rarely leads to your physical book reaching bookstore shelves—which ends up surprising authors who’ve been led to believe otherwise.

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.

That said, independent authors are fiercely passionate about their work and their process, and some are much happier and satisfied going it alone. But those who succeed and profit often devote years of their life, if not their entire lives, to marketing and promoting their work. In short: It’s a ton of work, like starting a small business (if you do it right).

So, you can self-publish, but it all depends on your goals and what will satisfy you. To learn more: Start Here: How to Self-Publish Your Book.

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.

Navigating the publishing industry

  • Publishing is a business, just like Hollywood or Broadway. Publishers, editors, and agents support authors or projects that will make money and provide a good return on investment. It used to be that this return on investment could happen over a period of years or several books. Now, it needs to happen with one book and in less than one year.
  • Professionalism and politeness go a long way toward covering up any amateur mistakes you might make along the way.
  • Unless you live under a lucky star, you will get rejected again and again and again. The query and submission process takes enormous dedication and persistence. We’re talking about years of work. Novelists and memoirists often face the biggest battle—there’s enormous competition.
  • 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. You’ll mess it up.
  • Agents and editors do not want you (a non-client or author) to visit them at their offices. 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.
  • For nonfiction authors: Don’t go looking for a publishing deal because you need the authority or platform that a book can give you. Rather, you must already have the platform and authority, and thus be qualified to write a book. YOU bring the audience to the publisher, not the reverse.

Why you should attend writing conferences

Your education and insight into the industry will advance exponentially. You’ll gain an understanding that’s often impossible from just reading about it. You will meet agents and editors, and start to see them as real people. If you have an appointment or consultation with a publishing professional, it will shorten your path to publication. You can get the reasons, immediately, that an agent or editor may not be responding favorably to your work.

Many writers are familiar with the reasons to attend conferences, but not all understand how to get more out of them. Here are 3 ways you can get the most out of your experience.

  • Select a conference where you can meet with a specific author, editor or agent who is absolutely ideal for your work (after lengthy and intensive research). Get a critique session or an appointment—but only if you feel like you’ve taken your work as far as you possibly can on your own. This is important.
  • During any formal appointments or critiques, plan to talk about 10-20% of the time. Before meeting, develop a specific list of questions that, if you had the answers, you would know specifically what your next steps are (for your project or your career) when you leave. Do not attend any appointment expecting to be offered a deal or representation. Go for the learning experience and the opportunity to have a professional consultation. That’s what it is.
  • Closely study the backgrounds/bios of every speaker, agent, and editor who is attending. Be knowledgeable for any chance conversations you have; having this knowledge will also spark questions you could ask during panels or social hours. Don’t be the person who asks the obvious question you could’ve figured out by paying attention to the program. Delve deeper. Make your questions count.

When to hire professional help

Should you hire a freelance editor to help improve your manuscript before submitting? There’s no one right answer for everyone, but I discuss considerations and guidelines here.

Reasons you might fail to get published

  • You rush to submit your work before it’s ready. This is particularly true of writers who are dizzy with excitement after having just completed their very first book-length manuscript. But if you’ve just spent months (or years!) writing a manuscript, why rush it to an agent or editor, and why rush it to just ANY agent or editor? And why rush it if you’re new to the publishing business?
  • It’s tough to achieve objectivity. When you finish a significant manuscript or proposal that took a long time to complete, you need time away and distance to assess it without feeling attached. And especially if you’re trying to identify, from a market or commercial standpoint, why your work is appealing to agents or editors, a great amount of distance is required. This is my theory on why so many queries and proposals fail. The work itself may be outstanding, but the writer hasn’t achieved the necessary distance to either evaluate or communicate the commercial merit of her own work.
  • It’s tough to make progress without a mentor. A good critique partner can be invaluable to your growth as a writer. When you don’t have the time or willingness to take enough steps back from your work, or see its flaws, others can offer a really hard push.
  • It’s easy to take validation from family and friends as a sign you ought to write and publish. Has your family encouraged you? Have your friends told you that you’re a brilliant writer? Do your children love your stories? While you need support, you also need to ignore what these people are telling you. They’re not publishing professionals. You need to write because you can’t do anything else. Because you would suffer if you didn’t. Your motivation to write has to come from within. Don’t write (only) because you were given validation or permission by someone close to you. What you really need (require) is your own inner conviction.

Publishing 101Also consider: What is your motivation for trying to get published? A little self-reflection might be in order before you chase after an agent or publisher. Read my post 3 Questions Every Creative Person Must Ask.

Mostly what this game boils down to is patience. If you don’t have it, you will get frustrated and give up.

If you’d like an in-depth guide on getting published:

Posted in Getting Published and tagged , , , , , , , .
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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263 Comments on "Start Here: How to Get Your Book Published"

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[…] Jane Friedman’s incredible, comprehensive article, How to Get Your Book Published, provides invaluable insight into how the publishing business works. Two of the best tidbits of […]

Vlad

I am a teenage boy from Romania that’s writing a book in English. I really am into fiction, and I’m not worried about how good I am at writing in English, but mostly that I’m using Microsoft Word to do it, and I’m concerned that publishers in USA won’t want to publish my book because I live overseas and not because it’s not good. Any advice?

joseph

hi Jane, i have taken a lot of your important tips, and placed them under a saved Microsoft word file, and also have printed me some copies to keep around for a little tip and advice. thanks a bunch. i wish u well into the future.

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Jay

Hello Jane,
I have finished 3 novels and one advanced young readers story that I am ready to explore becoming published.
When approaching these professionals, would I identify with my legal name or my registered pen name?
Thank you.
Jay

Jay

Hello again,
I forgot you ask you, would you recommend focusing on getting representation on one of the works specifically or all of them at the same time?
Thank you for all the awesome advice above and your straight forward method of driving home a point!
😉
Jay

Nick Lyerly

Jane,

I am working on my first book and have just completed Chapter 1. My book (Finding My Way Back Home) will be about my call to the ministry, going to seminary at age 41 (Duke Divinity School) and growing up in rural South Carolina. I came from a very humble background and we experienced many hardships, the death of my sister and my dad being one. Any suggestions you can give I would greatly appreciate? I have been in contact with Westbow Press regarding publishing.

Nick

Nick

Thanks Jane

Jasmine

Hi I’m sixteen, I’ve written a book and it’s a fiction book and I’ve read that you need to write a manual script but I’m not sure what to put in the manual script because of so many websites all saying different things. Can you tell me what to put in the manual script?

Jasmine

Thank you, I was going to give up because I wasn’t sure what to so thank you so much

Nancy

When submitting a query letter and manuscript (part of one), should I send it to several agents and publishers or just one at a time?

Camden

Hello!

I’m 14, and I just finished writing a memoir about some depression stuff that ended up putting me in the hospital, and I was wondering if there is even a market for something like that. I would also like to know if any publishers will take a piece from a 14 year old. Thanks for the amazing article!

Elizabeth

Thank you for your excellent advice! I was looking into publishing a novel I am writing, and after reading this website, I realized I had all the wrong ideas. This was very helpful. Would it be helpful for me to create a Wattpad account and post my novel there? From there, I could see how much interest it attracted, and go off of that to see if it would be succesful when it came to publishing it. Do you have any advice for me?

Tom
Well first of all I would like to say thanks for the extremely helpful article. I was curious however as to the marketability of certain genres. Would my best option simply be to pay attention to what is popular in the media, or are there websites showing profitability or marketability of certain genres? Any help you could offer would be wonderful, and I would greatly appreciate the time you took to reply. To be more specific I was curious about the demand for an alternate history book, or the competition for a book of this type. I apologize for asking… Read more »
Elizabeth
Hi… I am a first time novelist, and this is all pretty new to me, so I apologize if there are seemingly obvious answers to the questions I might ask (and some people do tell me I bombard them with too many questions with obvious answers). Thanks to the link you posted on an earlier comment, I have a manuscript for my novel typed out, but I was wondering if there is a way to find out precisely how many words are in my entire manuscript. And I have come across multiple fonts that can be used in a muanuscript…… Read more »
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[…] want to do thorough research to find a publisher who’s a good match for your writing. As with finding an agent, one of the best ways to do […]

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[…] Friedman provides a variety of resources for beginning authors. Her post Start Here How to Get Your Book Published is a great start and provides links to other great writing […]

Autumn Burleson

Hello, I’m Autumn 15 years old I don’t know if you got my email, but I wanted to talk about the story I’m writing right now. I’m working on just the rough draft now but I’d like to know what I need in the story and what I do not need. Please help 🙁

Barbara Schaedel

Do you offer any graduate level courses at UVA that teach this process?

Maxine Camacho

Hi, Jane
I was always told that my life would make a great book, I want to get started. So, my question is can you make it simple for someone to get started. References that can help me, before I even consider publishing.

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[…] but if you want to see one of the bigger publishing house’s name attached to your project, an agent is a must. Writers Market keeps a current listing of legitimate agents and the genres they represent. A query […]

Tanya Siejhi Gershon
Hi Jane! I got the link to this article from Laura Miller who praised your expertise. My Instagram blog with yoga poses and “Find The Lines” has been tagged “genius” by many of my followers. Some have written personally encouraging me to compile my knowledge into a book. The target market is: – advanced yoga practitioners, – yoga teachers looking to enhance their knowledge of Yoga Anatomy and “Functional Alignment,” and – Doctors, Physical Therapists, Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Fitness Instructors, Personal Trainers, etc. looking to get into the practice and teaching of yoga from a technical and anatomical perspective. I… Read more »
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Steven E. Browne

This blog is full of excellent information. Today’s publishing environment is brutal. Look what happened to Border’s Bookstore. More and more the author must be involved in all aspects of preparing, selling and marketing their book. Jane knows what she is talking about.
Steven E. Browne Author: Rick, Renee and the Fat Man, The 3by3 Writing Method, Protecting the Source, High Definition Post Production

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[…] is an interesting article by Jane Friedman on how to get your book […]

Susan Redmond
Thank you Jane, I have been writing for years as a stress reliever. I love it. I takes me away from everyday reality. Years ago I had a friend that was in the publishing industry tell me that I really should take it to the next step and proceed to getting published. At the time, I had no interest in doing so. I only wrote for my own personal use. In the past few years I started writing again. This time I have decided, when I have something complete that I am satisfied with I will proceed. However, I had… Read more »
Chris

Hi jane, I was curious about what differences in the process I should be aware of if I’m writing a book that is mostly photos with small descriptions and stories that go with the photos? Also, how does this change the materials required? Thanks, Chris

Carl Eddington III

I can’t even begin to describe how helpful this post was.

heather whitelocl

Jane, I wrote a story two years ago, a literacy agent saw it and loved it, it was sent to an editor who also loved it, but they just seem to have vanished, thanks to a friend of min ( she was the one who told me to go for it) now I have a story and no where to go. Oh, I have also written a follow up, what can I do?

Reba Buhr

Incredible post. Thanks so much for the time and honesty in this.

Tabby

Hello Jane,
I am working on a trilogy, do you think it is a bad idea to write a trilogy as my first work or should I turn it into a novel?

Zena
Hello Jane, I am currently writing a novel and I had a few questions. I am 16 years old and have been trying to write a book since i was about ten. I have finally settled on a beginning and have a few chapters done but i have writers block. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how or where I could find someone who would want to be my partner in writing this book with me. Also as you mentioned in your post, just to clarify things up, in order to get my book published i must… Read more »
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[…] hope this is enough to get you started! You should also check out this blog post by former editor of Writer’s Digest Magazine, Jane […]

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[…] This detail determines a lot about how you will move forward once you’ve finished your manuscript. If  you’re looking for a publishing house, either Big 5 or independent, you’ll need to start sending out queries and submissions to houses and agents currently accepting. You can find out more information about that route here. […]

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