We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of entrepreneurs writing and publishing books. We’ve covered the pros and cons of traditional publishing vs. self-publishing and covered what you need to do in self-publishing to increase your chances of bookstore placement. But if you’ve been reading along wondering “I get it, but how do I do it the traditional way?” Here are your first steps towards traditional publishing.
STEP ONE: Have something to present.
What you’re presenting, must be high-quality. And when I say high-quality, I don’t mean good, but you expect someone else to clean it up and package it for you. I mean something that (as far as you can see) is absolutely perfect. Obviously, that means pristine spelling and punctuation, but it also means quality content that make people want to read your book. Not just your friends and family, but people who’ve never met you. Strangers would read the blurb on the back and say “OMG. I need this in my life.” That takes time. Don’t get so excited about the publishing journey that you rush this step.
But perhaps before you dive in to create your content, you need to get really clear on WHAT you need to present. Because depending on the type of book you’re writing, what you’ll be required to submit will be very different.
Fiction: You write the whole book. It’s not the first thing you’ll present, but the manuscript must be complete and ready to submit before you even think of moving to the next step.
Memoir: For the most part, it’s same as fiction, you must have a completed manuscript. Occasionally publishers will go the book proposal route, but more often than not, a completed manuscript is expected. Remember, your manuscript must have a hook that makes you stand out. The market is flooded with rags to riches stories, stories of life-threatening illnesses, divorce, travel, etc. What makes your angle fresh even if the heart of it is similar to books that are already out there?
Nonfiction: You must have a compelling book proposal. A book proposal, not a finished book. You may think: “well, I’ve already finished my book, so if I submit a completed book, I’ll be ahead of the competition.” No. Please, do not do this. For one thing, agents don’t pitch completed manuscripts for non-fiction, and publishers don’t buy them. Secondly, if there’s anything that makes people in publishing crazy, it’s not following submission guidelines. The ability to persuade someone to represent and publish your non-fiction book depends on your proposal.
We’ll talk about how to write a quality book proposal in the future, but for the sake of time (and the title of this blog), we’ll move on for now.
STEP TWO: Decide which literary agents you want to pitch to.
Research and brainstorm where you fit into the publishing world. What’s your genre? Your hook? You must know what you bring to the table to be successful in querying the right agent. You want an agent who is looking for the kind of book you’re pitching. Google is your friend. It’s easy to find which agents represent which authors, and they’re usually very transparent about the kinds of books they are (and are not) looking for. Make sure the agents you query are actively seeking books like the one you’re pitching, represent other authors in your genre, and have successfully sold their books to publishers.
But do I really need an agent? For traditional publishing, YES. You do need an agent. It’s not optional. Major publishers do not accept unrepresented submissions. If you send a publisher your book, it will go in the bin. Your agent is the one who has relationships with publishers, pitches you to them, and negotiates on your behalf. Know what you are looking for in an agent, and what is expected of an agent. A quality established agent will never ask you for money. Let me repeat, NEVER WORK WITH A LITERARY AGENT WHO ASKS YOU FOR MONEY UP FRONT. Reputable literary agents DO NOT ask for money up front. Every industry is different, but when it comes to traditional publishing, this is a hard line. If you work with a book coach or an independent editor, that’s different. But literary agents? Agents get paid when you get paid. When you sign with an agent, you give them the right to represent you, pitch your book to publishers, and negotiate payment, rights, etc. While there may be some exceptions, literary agents generally get 15% commission. There may be some up-charging/higher commissions for services when it comes to selling your book in other markets or working with another company on film rights, but general representation most commonly works off a 15% commission structure.
STEP THREE: It’s time to write a query letter.
A query letter is basically a cover letter asking an agent to read your work and consider representing you. A good query letter should include:
An opening that is personalized to the agent.
The basic details of your book, i.e.: title, word count (always word count, never page count), and genre.
The hook. A brief, but compelling description of your book and what makes it unique.
Who you are, your profession, any credentials, self-published titles, accolades, etc.
There are experts you can pay to write a good query letter for you, it’s not a guarantee, but still a good resource. There are also tons of sample query letters online to read and learn from.
STEP FOUR: Verify submission/query guidelines.
Agents get thousands of queries a year and are therefore very precise on how they receive submissions and what is included. Not paying attention to those details is a quick way to get deleted. Some just want a query letter, some want a query letter and a synopsis, some want a query letter and three sample pages- only send what they’ve asked for. Do not send them things they haven’t outlined in their submission guidelines, and never send your whole manuscript unless it’s been specifically requested.
STEP FIVE: Be patient.
Going through submissions takes time. Most agents are transparent about when and how to expect a response and how long to wait before following up.
And if you get rejected, SHAKE IT OFF. Hey, it happens! Have you ever seen a movie trailer and thought “UGH, that looks awful” then watched the movie years later and loved it? Sometimes people don’t see a good thing straight away, and that’s okay.
Gone with the Wind? Rejected 38 times. Chicken Soup for the Soul? Rejected 140 times.
Sometimes experts make mistakes. Don’t give up. Maintain a positive attitude and keep trying. It’s very unlikely to hit the bullseye the first time you throw a dart. And if you receive a rejection with constructive feedback, take it to heart and give it some consideration. Getting constructive feedback from an expert is a great opportunity to learn and grow.
Getting an agent is the first hurdle in the journey of traditional publishing, but it’s also the one you have the most control over. Once you land an agent, the real fun begins, and you now have a valuable partner to champion your work and expert to guide you through the remainder of your traditional publishing journey.