Find a Publisher for Your First Book: The Ultimate Guide

Abi Wurdeman
July 5, 2023

You’ve done it. After months—maybe even years—of plotting, drafting, revising, and polishing, you finally hold a finished manuscript in your hands.

Now the next adventure begins. It’s time to find a publisher.

For many authors, this feels like a daunting task. You’ve probably been told approximately 4,700 different times in 4,700 different ways that the publishing industry is crazy competitive. 

Meanwhile, you’re trying to give your book the best chance at success. You poured your entire being into this book, not to mention the long hours, countless rewrites, and all your dreams. You can’t just settle for just any publisher.  

So how do you find the publisher who’ll care about this project as much as you do? And how do you get their attention when they’re probably drowning in submissions?

Rest assured, there are answers to these questions. In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • How the publishing industry works
  • What your different publishing options are
  • How to zero in on the best publishers for your book
  • Different strategies for finding a traditional publisher
  • How to self-publish… and how to decide if you might be your own best publisher 

Let’s start with the big picture.

Understanding the Book Publishing Industry

Five people sit in front of laptops at a conference room table and look at the camera.

You are your book’s best advocate and the captain of your career.

It’s easy to forget both of those things when you’re trying to get your first book published. The competitive nature of the industry often makes us feel like we’ll be lucky to just get our masterpiece out there, whatever it takes.

These days, there are so many paths you can take to get from finished manuscript to printed book. With several options available to you, it pays to take a beat, step back, and consider which publishing journey gives you and your book more opportunities to thrive.

So let’s explore what this industry has to offer you, how it’s evolving, and who your support system will be as you bring your novel to market.

Overview of the Book Publishing Industry

Three railroad tracks forking off of one.
Pick your track.

There are three different paths you can take to get your book published:

  1. Traditional publishing
  2. Self-publishing
  3. Hybrid publishing

We’ll dive into two of these options more as we go along, but for now, let’s start with the basics. 

Traditional Publishing

In traditional publishing, an established publishing house handles the production, promotion, and distribution of your book. You don’t have to invest money in any of these steps. The publisher covers all of it.

They also pay you an advance upfront and royalties over time (more on that later).


In self-publishing, you do it all yourself. You’ll probably want to hire editors and a cover designer to ensure you create a professional product, but you oversee every step.

This is a great option if you love creative freedom, have an entrepreneurial spirit, and don’t want to deal with gatekeepers. You can also make a lot more money per book as a self-published author.

The downsides are that you have to bear all expenses, there’s no upfront payment, it’s time-consuming, and you don’t have the marketing power of a major publishing house.

Hybrid Publishing

In this model, you pay someone else to handle production. With most hybrid publishers, you also have the option to pay for marketing and distribution services.

This is the only publishing process we’re not going to explore in great detail in this article. For one thing, it’s the least popular of the three options. For another, it’s a publishing model that opens you up to scams.

That’s not to say that all enterprises who bear the label of “hybrid publisher” are predators. But plenty are. You can find more information about the pros and cons of hybrid publishing in this article.

Key Players in the Industry

A person in a turtleneck and jacket looks at a book intently.

Regardless which path you take, you’ll likely encounter many of the same key players along the way. Here’s a quick breakdown of the publishing roles you should understand before you begin your journey to publication:


Oh, hey! It’s you! You probably don’t need me to explain the role of authors in great detail, but I would like to make one clarification:

While authors are the artistic masterminds behind published books, they’re not the only people making creative contributions to the process.

As you’ll soon see, there are a lot of other professionals whose jobs involve weighing in on your vision. That’s why it’s so important to find a publisher you trust. You want to be able to remain open to other people’s ideas without feeling like you’re being forced to turn your book into something you no longer recognize. 

Literary Agents

Your literary agent shops your finished manuscript to publishing houses and negotiates the book deal on your behalf. They do this in exchange for a commission—a percentage of your earnings.

As you may have guessed, you only need an agent if you plan to work with a traditional publisher.


The publisher oversees the production, marketing, and distribution of your book. If you go the traditional publishing route, this could be anything from a small independent publisher to a major publishing house.

If you choose to self-publish, you are the publisher. 


An editor helps you revise your manuscript, ultimately giving your book the best chance of success.

There are several types of editors, each one examining a different aspect of your manuscript, from the overall story to the nitty-gritty details like grammar and punctuation.

Traditional publishing houses provide editors. If you plan to self-publish, you’ll need to hire your own.  

Designers and Illustrators

Designers are crucial to the publishing process, as readers will definitely judge your book by its cover. Traditional publishers provide a cover designer. If you’re self-published, you’ll either have to design the cover yourself or hire a pro. (Unless you have a background in graphic design and have done extensive market research, hiring a designer is almost always the smarter choice.)

If you’re writing a children’s book that requires illustrations, be aware most traditional publishers prefer to select the illustrator. This might not be the case if you also happen to be an artist with a strong following, but be prepared for the possibility. 

Book Sellers

This is exactly who you think it is. Physical bookstores, online shops… anyone who stocks your book and sells it to readers. 

If you publish traditionally, the publishing house pitches your novel to book sellers. If you go the DIY route, it’s up to you to decide which self-publishing platforms you’ll use to sell your book. It’s also your job to get your book into physical bookstores, if that’s something you want.

Recent Trends and Developments

A hand points a pen at a bar graph.

As you decide how you want to go about getting your book published, keep an eye on how the industry is evolving. 

When you look at recent trends, you might find that certain avenues provide unique opportunities for your particular novel. You might also discover new and exciting ways to focus your career.

I recommend doing your own research to make sure you’re super up-to-date on the trends. But here are some notable recent developments as of this writing.

The Self-Publishing Explosion

Self-publishing has seriously taken off over the last several years. Print-on-demand (POD) publishing has made it possible for anyone to sell their book on major platforms like Amazon without having to invest in production costs upfront. It’s even become easier than ever to create your own audiobooks.

This publishing option also gives authors higher royalties than they’d get with a traditional publisher. Depending on the author’s skill for entrepreneurship, those higher royalties might make up for not having a big publisher’s marketing and distribution power.

In fact, the average income for self-published authors is now higher than that of traditionally published authors.

New and Unconventional Publishing Channels

There are more ways than ever to publish your work and connect with readers. This includes serialized publishing platforms like Vella and Yonder. In these models, readers pay to access your story in serialized episodes. 

Authors can also use platforms like Substack and Patreon to share and monetize supplemental materials like short stories, deleted scenes, video content, and more. This helps you connect more deeply with your fans while mining a little more gold from the fictional world you’ve already created.

The Rise of BookTok

At the time of this writing, TikTok’s BookTok community has become a powerful social media platform for authors.

That doesn’t mean you have to use TikTok to succeed as an author. Your best bet is to build a following on a platform you enjoy using. But you should at least be aware of where other authors are finding success and why those tactics resonate with readers. 

Artificial Intelligence

AI is progressing swiftly and there’s no denying it’s destined to transform the publishing industry. We’re already seeing its influence in AI-driven editing software like ProWritingAid and the AI artwork used in marketing.

Now with the rise of ChatGTP and the existence of AI-written books on Amazon, we’re having to ask big questions about what it will mean to be a human writer in the coming decade. 

Whether these questions thrill you or terrify you, it’s in your best interest to stay informed. You can start with Robert’s fairly calming explanation of ChatGTP and how you can use it as a force for good.

Finding the Right Publisher

A person with a life preserver over their shoulder stands on a beach and shades their eyes with their hand as they look into the distance.

Now that you’ve gotten the wide-angle view of the industry, let’s talk about how to decide which path and publisher are right for you.

If you’re still torn between traditional publishing and self-publishing, we explore both those processes in depth later on in the article. Feel free to skip ahead for more insight on what each of those journeys would look like for you. 

You can also check out Doug’s article, Is Self-Publishing a Good Idea?, for a thorough examination of the pros and cons. 

If you already know you want to work with a traditional publishing house, let’s start searching and sorting through your options.

Researching Potential Publishers: Where to Look and What to Look For

Person types on a laptop.

Most authors who plan to publish traditionally find their publisher with the help of a literary agent. Not only will your agent get your book in front of publishers, they’ll also have more insight as to which publisher will be your perfect fit.

Even with that guidance, you’d be smart to create your own publisher wish list. You can use this list to guide your submissions if you decide to go without an agent. If you choose to work with an agent, your list will empower you to have an informed conversation about your vision for your novel with them.

So how does one even go about researching publishing houses? 

Start by asking yourself a few key questions.

Do You Want to Work With a Major Publishing House?

Many writers dream of landing a book deal with a Big Five publishing house. The Big Five, by the way, are:

  • Penguin Random House
  • Simon and Schuster
  • HarperCollins
  • Hachette Book Group
  • Macmillan Publishers

The benefits of working with a major publishing house are probably pretty clear. They have more clout, wider reach, bigger budgets, and are more likely to pay a decent advance. (An advance is an upfront payment against royalties. More on that later.) 

Meanwhile, small presses have fewer resources and may not even pay an advance at all. That said, the little guys tend to take bigger creative risks. They’re also more likely to give you personal attention and involve you in creative decisions.

You have a much better shot at working with the big publishing houses if you write genre or commercial fiction (romance, thriller, fantasy, etc.) or if you write nonfiction and already have a sizable following in your area of expertise.

If you’ve got your eye on a Big Five house or one of their imprints, by all means, add it to your wishlist. But also make an effort to discover smaller but promising options. You can do this by:

Learn about the books each publisher releases and the authors they work with. Does your book seem to align with their enthusiasm and priorities? If so, add them to your list.

You can also reverse engineer this process by asking:

Who’s Publishing Books Like Yours?

What existing books remind you of your own? Find out who published them. Then look into that publishing house or imprint and see what else they’ve released. Does it seem like your book would be at home on their list?

It’s best to do this exercise with books that have been released recently. 

Do You Plan to Work With a Literary Agent?

If you plan to submit your manuscript to publishing houses without the help of a literary agent, you’ll have to narrow your search to publishers who accept unagented submissions.

The Big Five almost never consider manuscripts that come directly from authors, though some of their imprints do. If you’re going to go it alone, you’ll largely be looking at small presses, independent publishers, digital-only publishers, and university presses.

But how do you know who accepts what?

Submission Guidelines: Why They Matter

As you research publishers, pay attention to submission guidelines. They’ll often be listed in the directories on or the publishing house website.

This is where you’ll learn whether or not the publisher accepts submissions without a literary agent. If they do, they’ll explain what those submissions should look like.

Do they want a query letter with a synopsis? A book proposal? The first chapter?

Provide exactly what they ask for. This is your first chance to demonstrate that you’re easy to work with and respectful of their time. Ignore the guidelines and they’ll ignore your submission in return. 

Now that you have a sense of which publishing houses you’d love to work with and what they’re looking for, let’s talk about the process of securing a publisher for your book.

Traditional Publishing

A person sits in a chair reading a book at the end of a bookshop self.

As you know, one big advantage of traditional publishing is that someone else puts up the money for production and marketing. But that creates one significant downside:

You’ve got to convince a ton of other people that your book is worth their investment. 

We’re about to go deep on who you have to convince and how to get it done. First, let's make sure this is the path you want to take.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Traditional Publishing

No path to publication is without its joys and pitfalls. Here’s the great and not-so-great of traditional publishing:


  • You don’t have to pay anything to get your book published.
  • The publishing house covers marketing costs.
  • They’re likely to get a much wider distribution than you could get on your own.
  • Depending on the publishing house, you’ll probably get an advance. This means you don’t have to wait until your book is released to start making money.


  • You have to go through a lot of gatekeepers to get your book published. 
  • From finding an agent to actually printing the book, the traditional publishing process takes a long time. We’re talking years. You have very little control over the timeline.
  • Your royalties are much smaller than they would be if you self-published.
  • You’ll most likely have to pay a percentage of your royalties to an agent.
  • The publisher typically has the final say in creative decisions. A major house may not even involve you in decisions like cover and interior design.

If you love these pros and can roll with the cons, let’s get this party started. 

Your first mission: find a literary agent.

Literary Agents: What They Are and How They Can Help

A person stands at a desk talking on the phone and reviewing a contract.

As I mentioned before, some traditional publishers will accept submissions directly from authors. That said, it’s almost always in your best interest to work with an agent.

See, literary agents don’t just sell your work to publishing houses. They also:

  • Help you revise your finished manuscript to be more appealing to publishers
  • Provide professional guidance as you navigate the publishing industry as a new author
  • Identify the publishers who are most likely to be positively gaga for your book
  • Negotiate the terms of your contract so you get the most money possible for the least amount of sacrifice
  • Help you build a wider network by connecting you with like-minded industry professionals

It’s also worth noting that to literary agents, publishers aren’t just listings in an online directory. They’re human beings that agents actually know. They meet for coffee and run into each other at industry events. 

When an agent submits your manuscript to a publisher, they’re not a submission in a slush pile. They’re a trusted colleague with a hot tip. 

So how do you go about finding a literary agent?

It all begins with a query letter.

Book Query Letter: What It Is and How to Write One

A person sits on a couch typing on a laptop.

A query letter is a letter (go figure) in which you introduce yourself and your novel to a prospective agent.

The goal of a query letter is to get the agent to request the finished manuscript or sample chapters. You do not send your manuscript with a query letter unless the agent requests it in their submission guidelines. (They won’t.)

An agent might ask for a sample or synopsis with the query letter. Just as you would with a publisher, make sure you’re clear on their submission guidelines before you send anything.

But you can pretty much always count on a literary agent wanting to see a query letter. So let’s make it a good one.

Query Letter Ingredients

This letter should be a shortie—400 words maximum. A solid query letter contains:

  • A compelling book pitch with a wicked hook (200-300 words)
  • An explanation of why you’re reaching out to this agent with this particular book
  • The teeny-tiniest bio about yourself

For a comprehensive look at how to write a great query letter, check out this guide. In the meantime, here are some quick tips:

Tips for Writing a Successful Query Letter

  • Just like you researched publishers, be deliberate in your search for agents so you can identify the ones who are most likely to love your book. Then personalize each query letter to show that you choose this agent for a reason.
  • Keep it compelling but brief.
  • Let the story sell itself. Don’t reassure the agent that this novel is brilliant or will be an instant bestseller.
  • Sell yourself, but be honest about your background. Don’t fabricate accomplishments or try to make your high school literary magazine sound like a nationally revered publication. It’s okay to be a promising new voice!
  • Don’t beg for an opportunity or apologize for taking up their time. 
  • Workshop the heck out of your query letter with your writing community. 

If the agent is interested, they’ll request your manuscript or sample chapters. If they like that, they’ll talk to you about the possibility of working together. Once you reach an agreement, your shiny new literary agent will help you get your manuscript in shape for publishers.

That’s the short version. For the longer version, you can check out our ultimate guide to literary agents.

Oh! There’s one more document you should know about before we get into the publisher end of this equation.

Book Proposal: What It Is and How to Write One

If you write nonfiction, you’ll also need to have a book proposal on hand. This is the document you use to pitch your nonfiction book idea to both literary agents and publishers. In fact, you’d typically use a proposal to sell your book before writing it, unless it’s a memoir. (That’s because writing style plays a much more significant role in a memoir’s success.)

Fiction writers are much less likely to get a request for a proposal. Sometimes an agent or publisher will request one, however, so it’s worth it to at least know what this thing is.

Book Proposal Ingredients

Your main objective is to demonstrate that there’s a demand for this book in this market and you’re the right person to write it. You’re not here to prove that your book is masterfully crafted. You’re answering the question, “Will this sell well enough to be worth it?”

To do that, you’ll need:

  • An overview or brief synopsis
  • Competitive title analysis - Identify competing books in your genre and explain what sets yours apart.
  • A specific target audience - It’s a good move to address how your reader’s needs have been neglected by competing titles.
  • Your marketing plan - Yes, the publisher will do some marketing, too, but how are you building a following to help push books? 
  • Author bio - Why are you the best person to write this book?
  • Chapter outline
  • Sample chapters - Depending on the project and submission requirements. An agent or publisher may or may not request sample chapters for standard nonfiction. If the proposal is for fiction or narrative nonfiction, definitely plan to include them.

Sounds quite a bit longer than a query letter, doesn’t it? It is. Most proposals come out somewhere between 10 and 25 pages. They can be as long as 50 pages.

Tips for Writing a Successful Book Proposal

  • Make the hook immediately obvious. Why is this book different from every other book on the same subject?
  • Be as specific as you can with everything. Statistics regarding your target audience, the size of your platform, your marketing goals… all of it.
  • Make sure competitive titles are current and relevant.
  • Emphasize your expertise and credentials over personal experience.
  • Build a platform so you can brag about it. A lot of nonfiction authors get rejected because their following is too small. 

Now, if you’re trying to get a nonfiction book published, the proposal is the moment of truth. 

For fiction authors, it all comes down to getting your manuscript in a publisher’s hands.

And how do you do that?

Manuscript Submission: How to Submit Your Manuscript to Publishers

A person sits at a desk holding a manuscript.

As previously discussed, you can either submit your manuscript to a publishing house through an agent or on your own. Each process looks a little different.

Submitting With an Agent

If your agent is the one doing the submitting, your job is to focus on the next project. While they’re out wheeling and dealing, you should be plotting and drafting so they have another book to sell once this one is all squared away.

That said, your agent should be giving you updates along the way. When they have a book deal to show you, they should be able to explain what they pushed for and what benefits they were able to secure for you in negotiations. 

Submitting Without an Agent

If you’re submitting a manuscript yourself, you’ve got a lot more work to do. 

First, since you don’t have an agent to help polish your final manuscript, it might be a good idea to hire a professional editor to help you get it in top condition. 

Then refer to the submission guidelines you found during the publisher research process.

Many publishers will want a query letter, and you’ll tackle this the same way you would if you were querying an agent. They might also request a synopsis or sample chapters, just as an agent would. Once again, your goal is to get them to ask for the manuscript.

Hopefully, a publisher you love will eventually read your manuscript, love it, and offer you a book deal. When and if this happens, consider finding an agent to handle negotiations for you. Yes, you’ll still have to pay them, but you might be able to pay a flat fee rather than a percentage of all your earnings going forward.

Speaking of earnings, let’s talk royalties.

Royalties: Understanding How They Work and What to Expect

A hand puts coins in a black piggy bank one by one.

All authors make royalties on their books. A royalty is a percentage of the book’s retail price, minus production costs. The average royalty rate for a hardback is around 10%, though it can be up to 5% more or less depending on the publishing house, author, and the book’s potential in the market. 

You also receive different royalty percentages for different book formats. And your rate might increase once you reach certain sales benchmarks. There are a lot of possibilities here, which is why it’s often worth it to have an agent manage your negotiations.

Speaking of which, the standard commission for a literary agent is 15% of your earnings. 

Now, book deals often include an advance. That’s a larger payment against future royalties. Let’s say your publisher agrees to an advance of $10,000. They’ll probably pay that in four increments throughout the publishing process. You’ll get $2,500 when you sign the contract, $2,500 when you deliver your revisions, and so on. 

Then, when the book releases, you won’t collect any royalties until you earn back that $10,000 advance.

The big publishing houses almost always pay an advance. Smaller publishers might offer a more modest amount. Some might not pay one at all. But in that case, you’ll start accruing royalties as soon as your book starts selling. Most publishers pay out royalties either quarterly or twice a year.  


A person looks at a laptop screen while sipping a cup of coffee and petting a dog.

As this is an article on finding a publisher, we won’t linger on this section for too long. But it’s worth discussing, because more and more authors are finding that they are their own ideal publisher.

Of course, while self-publishing comes with sizable perks, it also includes significant challenges. Let’s take a look at both.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

Here’s what you should know when deciding whether or not self-publishing is for you:


  • There are no gatekeepers. You publish what you want, when you want, how you want.
  • You have total creative control.
  • You can put your book on the market much faster.
  • The royalties are much higher: 35-70% versus 10% in traditional publishing.
  • No one takes a cut of your royalties unless you strike a revenue share deal with a designer or audiobook narrator. 


  • There’s no upfront payment.
  • You don’t have the benefit of a big publishing house’s marketing budget.
  • If you want professional editing, design, and advertising, you have to pay for it.
  • It’s a ton of work.

Also, when you’re a self-published author, you become half author, half entrepreneur. Some writers consider this a pro. For others it’s a con. It all depends on the career you envision.

Author Platform: Why It Matters and How to Build One

A spotlight shines on a red stage curtain.
Find your light.

Now, we already have articles explaining how to self-publish a book. So let’s just focus on what it takes to succeed in this publishing path.

You need an author platform.

Honestly, building a platform is key no matter which publishing path you choose. But for self-published authors, it’s absolutely crucial.

There are thousands of authors out there all competing for attention. As an indie author, you’re already at a significant disadvantage. You don’t have a big publishing house pushing to get your book on the new releases table at Barnes and Noble or score you an interview on Good Morning America.

It’s up to you to create your own visibility. And you need to start yesterday.

Create a website. Start an email newsletter. Set up social media accounts that are specifically for you the author, not you the person. Establish your voice, find your people, and build your following now. It’ll pay off big when it’s time to start marketing your book.

Book Marketing: Tips for Promoting Your Book

A person sits at a desk looking at their smartphone.

You want to start pushing your book before it launches. Build some buzz and start racking up those pre-orders.

There are a lot of ways to do this, like:

  • Doing a cover reveal on social media and your newsletter
  • Announcing new phases of the publishing process 
  • Sharing excerpts in your newsletter and on your blog
  • Creating a video trailer or BookTok teasers
  • Paying for advertising on platforms like social media and Amazon

Then, once your book is out there, keep doing stuff like that.

Another smart move is to find ways to promote your book on other people’s platforms. 

Book Publicity: How to Get Your Book Noticed

A crowd watches an on-camera interview.

Marketing is when you try to get people all jazzed about your book. Publicity is when you try to get people to share your book with their own audiences. 

You can do that by:

  • Creating a media kit includes book images, author photos, a book blurb, endorsements, and a PDF of the book. You can use this when you reach out to media platforms or reviewers. 
  • Pitching yourself as a guest or interviewee on relevant podcasts or publications.
  • Reaching out to reviewers and influencers.
  • Pitching yourself as a guest blogger on a relevant website.
  • Doing cross-promotion with another author.
  • Reaching out to professional associations who might have an interest in sharing your book with their community or inviting you to guest speak at events. (This is typically easier to pull off if you’re a nonfiction writer with a specific type of expertise.)

Be bold, put yourself out there, and see what happens. After all, there’s no point in having a published book if you’re going to keep it hidden in the darkest, dustiest corners of Amazon.

Your Best Shot at Publishing Success

Clearly, there’s a lot of work involved in getting a book published. There’s no way to make this process easy, but there is one thing you can do to give yourself the best opportunity for success.

Write an exceptional book.

Now, just like finding your publisher, writing a slam-bang novel is a long process that involves a lot of research, learning, and dogged determination. But the Dabble writing tool can help you stay organized and on track.

Have you seen this thing? There’s a Plot Grid to help you structure an airtight story, autofocus to keep you in the zone, co-authoring, editing tools, and more.

Screenshot of a worldbuilding bible in Dabble.

Plus, you can try every feature for free for fourteen days, no credit card required. Just click this link and get Dabblin’.

However you choose to tackle this big, ambitious goal, remember to be patient with yourself and the process. It might take a minute to get where you want to go, but every step forward is one step closer to a published book.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.