The all you need to know guide.
Getting a book published, even your first book – that sounds like it should be pretty do-able, right?
And so it is, but the publishing industry is (inevitably) pretty complex, and can generate massively different outcomes depending on the choices you are about to make.
In the same way, you might want to be a professional musician … but does that mean you do a paid gig in a local bar? Or get signed by a massive record label? In this blog post, we will weigh up the options and show you how you could get your book published. It’s possible to get published for free, and it’s also perfectly achievable even if you are a first time author.
It’s also true that the publishing industry has got way more complex since the rise of Amazon and all that went along with that. That complexity is confusing, for sure, but it’s also good. The fact is there are more routes to publication than ever before in history. You just need to pick the route that works for you.
And that’s what this post is all about. We’ll tell you:
- What your options are
- Which option is right for you
- What the pros and cons are, and
- How to access the particular publishing route of your choice
If you need extra info on any topic, we’ll direct you to a resource that gives you everything you need.
Oh – and you probably want to know about me. Well, I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve been traditionally published all over the world, with in the company of the world’s top #3 trade publishers. Furthermore, I’m the founder of Jericho Writers, so I’ve helped literally hundreds of writers just like you through to publication, so I know exactly what’s involved for a writer like you.
But I’m not just about traditional publishing. I’ve also self-published (and love it.) I’ve sold fiction and non-fiction. I’ve sold full-length manuscripts and skinny-as-you-like book proposals. I’ve also had experience of plenty of other publishing routes. And this post is going to tell you EVERYTHING.
How to get your book published in 2021:
- Traditional publication, via a literary agent
- Trad publication, but without an agent
- Trad publication, via a book proposal
- Trad publication, via a micro-publisher
- Self-publishing on Amazon
- Publishing via a digital-first publisher
- Publishing via APub, Amazon’s publishing arm
- Publication via a vanity publisher
- Publication via a print/design company
- Self-publishing leading to a trad deal
- Publishing via a social platform
That’s a lot to get through, so buckle up and read on …
Option 1: How To Publish A Book Via A Literary Agent And A Large Traditional Publisher
The “Big 5” traditional publishers (outfits like Penguin RandomHouse or HarperCollins) dominate the world of trade publishing. They have huge financial resources. They have huge marketing and sales reach. They already publish a stellar list of names.
And they reach right across the English-speaking world – so in that sense getting published in the US is much the same kind of process as getting published in the UK or Australia … and quite likely with the same group of firms involved as well.
Obviously, those big publishers need to acquire material to publish, so they go out and buy it. They buy manuscripts (ie: novels or non-fiction which haven’t yet been turned into actual books). They buy those manuscripts off authors in return for an upfront cash advance. That advance is highly variable – think anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000+ for a book – and will be supplemented by royalties if sales are sufficient to ‘earn out’ the advance.
And the publisher isn’t just there to write the checks. They are also there to sell your book, which they do by:
- Working on the manuscript editorially. That’ll normally involve a structural edit, a copy edit, and a proof read – layers of editing that in turn fix story, then typos/clarity, then a final check before printing. (More on types of editing.)
- Designing cover art and preparing the book for production. Books are normally produced in four formats (hard cover, paperback, e-book, audio)
- Selling the book to bricks & mortar retailers. Retailers – such as Barnes & Noble in the US or Waterstones in the UK don’t automatically stock all books that are printed. Far from it. So arguably the key part of a publisher’s job is to convince specialist retailers (basically bookstores) and generalist ones (notably supermarkets) to order and stock the book. Ideally, your book will be entered into promotions, that place your book in the most visible store locations and with an attractive price reduction.
- Selling the book via online retailers. Although Amazon pretty much does stock every book out there, publishers still have to persuade Amazon (and Apple, and Kobo, and so on) to promote your book as much as possible. That means your book will start popping up in “deal of the day” or “recommended for you” type promotions.
- Marketing the book. That will probably involve a mixture of traditional publicity (such as newspaper interviews and book signings) and digitally driven campaigns, probably involving social media, email marketing and perhaps some use of pay-per-click advertising.
To most writers, all that sounds pretty good, but – no surprise – there’s a catch.
The catch, quite simply, is that your book has to be pretty damn good, because there’s a hell of a lot of competition out there and publishers are only interested in buying the very best crime books / romances / diet books and whatever else.
So how to publishers find those amazing books in the first place? Well, the shortest answer is that they focus nearly all the efforts on the manuscripts that come to them via a literary agent.
Literary agents are basically salespeople who sell manuscripts from writers like you to the big publishers. They don’t charge any kind of upfront fee for that service; they take a commission on sales made, typically 15%.
Just to emphasise that point: agents cost nothing until they make you money. So (setting aside all your trouble and effort in writing the damn thing), with the agent/publisher route to publication you will get your book published for free. Not even free actually: you’ll be paid. You won’t be expected to buy your agent coffees or fund the cover illustration or anything like that. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t spend a single penny (other than for paper and ink and stamps – we used all those things in those days.) Next thing I knew: people were offering me six-figure sums for my work.
OK. So agents are good; they make sales; they work on commission. But it gets better.
In addition to that basic sales activity, literary agents also:
- Offer you editorial advice to help you get your manuscript in shape for sale
- Run the auction process
- Negotiate the resulting contract
- Supervise the publishing process, advise you on it, and act as your bull terrier if any conflicts arise
- Sell other rights, such as foreign language rights, audio (if not part of the original deal), and film and TV rights.
In short, a good literary agent will end up making you far, far more than the cost of that 15% commission, so you should have no hesitation in working with an agent, if you get the chance.
Because the Big 5 publishers publish all types of work – adult novels, children’s novels and plenty of non-fiction too – literary agents work with all these things too. Most agents aren’t that specialist either. Yes, a children’s literary agent may exclusively work with children’s books, but most literary agents for adult work will work with novels and non-fiction. In that sense, how your publish a novel (for example) works exactly the same as publishing any other type of book.
How Do You Get An Agent?
If you’re getting a book published for the first time, you need an agent. And the only really difficult step in getting an agent is the very first one: you have to write an absolutely superb book.
Remember that, as a rough guide, a literary agent is likely to take about 1 manuscript in every 1000 that they come across. If you’re writing a spy story, your work will be competing head-to-head against John Le Carre, Tom Clancy and every other great spy novelist out there. So your manuscript has to excel. It has to dazzle. It has to be wonderful.
But let’s assume you’ve already got a great manuscript, what then? The steps you need to follow are these:
- Generate a longlist of literary agents. You’re looking for agents who are taking on new clients and who are interested in work in your genre. You can find a full list of literary agents here for the US and here for the UK. If you sign up for AgentMatch (free trial here), you can use simple tools to filter by genre, client, and more.
- Whittle that down to a shortlist of 10-15 names. To generate your shortlist, just go through your longlist and look for possible points of contact. An agent represents one of your favourite authors? They’re a keen rider and your book is set in a racing stable? The agent has Irish ancestry and your book is about Irish emigrants in the 1920s? Any of those gives you a good reason to pop the agent onto your shortlist. (Oh, and why only 10-15 names? If you send your material out to about a dozen agents and don’t get a positive response, that’s a pretty damn good signal that your manuscript is not yet strong enough to get a book deal – in which case, getting third party editorial feedback probably needs to be your next step.)
- Write a query letter. That tells that agent why you’re writing (you’re seeking representation), what your book is and who you are. It’s easy to write a great query letter. Just follow the advice and look at a sample query letter here.
- Write a synopsis. A synopsis basically summarises your story, and it’s a quick way for an agent to get a handle over whether the basic structure of your story feels OK. A synopsis can be a nightmare to put together, but it doesn’t have to be that way. All the advice you need, plus a good example of a synopsis, can be found right here.
- Double-check your opening chapters. Most agents want you to send them some sample chapters along with the query letter and synopsis. Typically, those sample chapters will need to be the first 3 chapters of your book, or about 10,000 words. So make sure that opening chunk is looking great. Tips on presenting your manuscript right here. Tips on the commonest errors in first time novels can be found here.
- Send your submission pack out to your shortlisted agents. You need to allow about 8 weeks for agents to read and decide on your submission. And, sorry to say, but loads of agents don’t even have the courtesy to send out a “sorry, but no” email if they are rejecting a manuscript, which means that you have to work on the assumption that, after 8 weeks, no news is tantamount to rejection.
At this point, you have other won – you’ve been offered representation, in which case, congratulations. Your path to publication is now in the hands of a very experienced professional, and you should be fine from here. If there are problems en route to getting published (and, believe me, there will be), your agent should be able to guide you. (For what it’s worth, I’d guess that agency representation leads to a publishing deal in about two thirds of cases. Your mileage may very though – this number varies widely.)
Or you’ve lost – that is, you have no offers of representation, and not even any close misses. In that case, you really need to go back to your manuscript, figure out why agents aren’t getting excited by it, and then fix whatever needs fixing. The best way to do that is by getting pro editorial help, of the sort that we at Jericho Writers can offer.
But there’s a middle ground too, where you haven’t quite won but you haven’t quite lost either. That’s the ‘nice rejection’, often where an agent asks for your full manuscript but ends up, reluctantly declining. If you’re in that category, then it’s GOOD NEWS. The fact is, you’re in a zone where some editorial work really should ping you over the line. Again, we can help.
We have a whole bunch of resources available if you want to pursue these topics further. (Clue: yes, you definitely do.)
These resources are for Jericho members only. Not a member? Then join us.
Behind the scenes at a Big 5 publisher (feature length film)
Finally, we have a complete course on how to get your book published – and not just published, period, but published well, published successfully. That course (here) is costly to buy but it’s free to members. Do consider joining us if you need that further help.
What Kind Of Writer/book Is Right For This Publication Option?
The first question is whether or not you want to pursue traditional publication. Trad publication will suit you, if:
- You are writing literary fiction or one-off non-fiction (eg: memoir)
- You are writing genre fiction but aren’t super-prolific (eg: you don’t want to write more than a book or two a year)
- You want the kudos of traditional publication
- You want to be sold via physical bookstores, as well as via Amazon
- You want a shot at newspaper book reviews, book signings, radio and newspaper interviews etc
- You don’t want the hassle of self-publishing
If that sounds like you, then traditional publishing should certainly be your goal. The next question is whether you need an agent. You basically have to have an agent, if:
- You are writing fiction, for adults, young adults, or children
- You are writing mainstream non-fiction (of the sort that might sit on those front-of-store tables in a large bookstore)
- You are writing specialist non-fiction in a big, rich category (such as diet or cookery, for example)
If your book is very niche, your likely advice is small, which means an agent’s 15% won’t be especially tempting. In all those cases, you can forget about getting a literary agent and just proceed to option 2, which is traditional publication, but without a literary agent.
Pros And Cons
The advantages of trad publication are:
- You get an advance
- You get some experienced professionals handling the production, sale and marketing of your work
- You have a literary agent to guide your journey
- You have all the kudos and other pleasures of traditional publication: you will have become a published author and will have earned all the respect of your new role. I bow to thee.
The disadvantages are:
- You lose control over your intellectual property – you’ve sold it, remember? The book now belongs to the publisher, not to you.
- It’s harder to make a living as a trad author than it is as an indie one. Watch our YouTube video on author incomes here.
- Traditional publishing is a bit of a crap-shoot. Most bestsellers are made via huge supermarket sales, but there are many fewer supermarket slots than there are books, and the process by which supermarkets choose which books to stock is scarily random (for newbie authors, at least.)
- Traditional publishing isn’t so great at publishing on Amazon. You can see my thoughts on that (via Publishers Weekly) here.
Option 2: Get Published Via A Traditional Publisher, But Without A Literary Agent
The actual publication process is exactly the same as for Option 1 – so everything I’ve said above applies here too.
The big difference with this route is that you’re not going to send your work out to literary agents; you’re going to send it direct to publishers. Obviously, the publishers you choose will need to be carefully chosen. So if you are looking to sell a volume of military history or something on Early Colonial interiors, you’ll need to approach the publishers who work in that field.
Otherwise, the basic approach is the same. You locate your targets. You send a query letter. You include enough sample material that the publisher can make up their mind. And that’s that – you see what responses come back to you. (The big difference: agents are slow, with response times often around 6-8 weeks. But publishers are way slower: you need to allow 4-6 months to get a proper response. That’s crazy, I know, but …)
How Do You Find A Publisher?
Services like Jericho AgentMatch don’t really exist in the same way for publishers. Yes, you can trawl through the membership pages of the American Association of Publishers or (in the UK) the Publishers Association … but those guys have a lot of members, the vast majority of whom will be irrelevant to your needs.
So really the best way to find a publisher for your book is to find other titles in your niche. That should be easy for you, because it’s your niche. So if your book is about motor maintenance, look at the other engine-related books on your shelves. If you’re writing about bonsai growing, look at who publishes books about bonsais. How to find who publishes a book is simple – just look inside the front cover. That page with all the tiny, boring print about copyright and that kind of thing will also tell you who the publisher is. Note that publishers (eg: “PenguinRandomHouse”) generally operate through a multitude of imprints, eg, Bantam, Ballantine, Doubleday…). You need to identify both the publisher you want and, where relevant, the imprint in order to wriggle through to the right desk in the right office.
Make a list of those publishers – then approach them direct. They’ll welcome your submission and they won’t expect you to have a literary agent. (In fact, they’d be mildly frightened if you did have one.)
What Kind Of Writer/book Is Right For This Publication Option?
Assuming you definitely want traditional publication (and again, see Option 1 for more on this), you should only really avoid using a literary agent, if:
- Your work is in a small subject-led, but consumer-oriented niche (eg: “How to Maintain Your Motorbike” or “The Complete A-Z of Roses”)
- Your work is academic and destined for an academic publisher
- Your work is business or professional, and destined for the kind of publishers that handle that kind of thing
Agents don’t want those kind of books and they don’t add much value to the publication process either. For those reasons, direct submissions to publishers make the most sense.
Pros And Cons
The advantages of this route are that:
- You get the pluses of trad publication
- You get to publish work that’s too niche or specialist to warrant an agent’s involvement
The downsides are simply that:
- Bookstores don’t shift very many copies of niche books – they’re mostly sold via Amazon. But in that case, self-publishing looks like a particularly attractive option, because you can retain all the proceeds from sale for yourself.
If you have a mailing list or other platform – for example, you have a popular blog on rose growing, and your book is all about growing roses – then self-publishing should be very simple and immediately lucrative.
Option 3: How To Get Published Via A Book Proposal
When we talked above about trad publication and literary agents, it was kind of assumed that you’d already written your book. If you are looking to sell a novel, then you basically have to have written the book and edited it until it sparkles.
But that sounds like a hell of a lot of work for a project that might never sell, right? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just outline a project, see if anyone wants it, then complete it only if a sufficiently attractive deal is laid under your nose?
Well, luckily for you, that option certainly exists. It exists only for non-fiction, and not even for all types of non-fiction, but yes: you can offer literary agents a book proposal in place of an entire book. That book proposal might in total amount to only 10,000 words, and should include:
- A query letter
- A personal bio, including any platform or authority you bring
- An analysis of the market and audience
- An introduction to the book
- Approximately three sample chapters. Unlike with fiction, it isn’t always necessary that these chapters form the first three chapters of your work,
You can read much more about what’s needed right here.
What Kind Of Writer/Book Is Right For This Publication Option?
The book proposal approach will work, if:
- You are writing non-fiction
- That non-fiction is not narrative-led (in which case, an agent or publisher might need to read the whole book before making a decision)
- It will work especially well if you bring significant authority (“I’m a top physics professor”) or terrific platform (“I’m a teenager with 2,000,000 Youtube followers.”) Read more about author platforms here.