How to Get Your Book Published Traditionally
So you’ve decided to keep it traditional when it comes to your publishing journey.
Maybe it’s because the entrepreneurial aspects of self-publishing aren’t your jam. Maybe you always dreamed of working with a Big Five publishing house. Perhaps you suspect your particular book might sell better through traditional channels.
There are approximately 437 possible reasons you might opt to get a book published traditionally. But no matter what led you to this path, one thing is certain:
You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Fortunately, you’re more than capable of getting the job done. All you need is a little guidance and a lot of patience.
We can help with the first part. You’re about to learn:
- How the publishing industry works
- How to find literary representation (and why you should)
- The process for submitting a manuscript
- What’s involved in book contract negotiations
Let’s start with the big picture.
Understanding the Publishing Industry
You probably already know that one of the biggest challenges to landing a traditional publishing deal is getting past the gatekeepers. It’s not an easy feat. The competition is steep and the stakes are high for both agents and publishers.
So how do you prove that your book is worthy of everybody’s time, attention, and resources?
First, you write a ridiculously good book. I assume you’ve already nailed that part. If you’re still working on it, we have a free ebook that might help.
Unfortunately, a well-written novel isn’t enough. You’ve got to understand the world of traditional publishing. You also need to start creeping your way into the industry by building an author platform and (I’m so sorry) networking.
If you’re getting a little overwhelmed, hang in there. We’ll tackle this together.
The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing
Even if you’ve already made the decision to pursue a traditional publisher instead of self-publishing, it’s a good idea to know both the advantages and disadvantages of your chosen publishing process.
That way you’re ready for the stuff that sucks and prepared to make the most of things that can benefit your career.
Here’s the snapshot:
- You don’t have to put up the money to produce and distribute your book.
- In most cases, you’ll at least get some marketing support from your publisher.
- Due to your publisher’s status and connections, you’re likely to get wider distribution and more visibility than you would on your own.
- Speaking of which, it’s much easier to get a traditionally published book into brick-and-mortar bookstores.
- You’ll probably get an advance, which means you get paid even before your books start selling.
- Your book will be eligible for certain honors that a self-published book wouldn’t be, like major awards and inclusion on The New York Times Best Seller List.
- Literary fiction and nonfiction tend to do better in traditional publishing than self-publishing. Just in case that applies to you.
- The traditional publishing process is long and you don’t have much control over the timeline.
- You have to impress a lot of gatekeepers before you can get anything done.
- The bigger the publishing house, the less say you’ll have in final creative decisions.
- You earn lower royalties as a traditionally published author than you would if you self-published. (In other words, you make less money per book sold. More on royalties later.)
- As a first-time author, you’ll probably be a small fish in a big pond, especially if you have a big publisher. You and your book will get less attention and marketing dollars than a bigger author at the same publishing company.
Still up for this adventure? Great! Let’s explore some strategies that could make the wild and reckless publishing process at least a little easier.
The Importance of Genre in Traditional Publishing
If you frequently haunt the halls of DabbleU, you know we’re constantly preaching the importance of knowing your genre. It’s absolutely key to writing excellent books that resonate with your audience. It’s also essential for snagging the attention of agents and publishers.
What you might not know is that your genre can affect your odds of landing a deal with a major traditional publisher like one of the Big Five. The publishing houses known as “the Big Five” include:
- Simon and Schuster
- Penguin Random House
These heavy hitters are more likely to take a chance on your debut novel if you write in a genre that tends to sell well. That’s typically going to be commercial fiction like romance, suspense, fantasy, mystery, and science fiction.
These major houses also like nonfiction (especially self-help) from any author who already has a huge platform and is a respected authority in the subject they’re writing about.
If you write literary fiction, poetry, or anything bold and experimental, go ahead and pursue the Big Five if you want to. But keep your heart open to mid-sized and small presses, too. They’ll likely be an easier sell (and are probably more excited about it).
The Benefits of Attending Writing Conferences
You get a book published by wowing the right people with a great read. But first you have to know who the right people are. It also helps if you know someone who can introduce you to those people personally. Bonus points if you’re capable of carrying on a smart, publishing-centered conversation with them.
And you know what helps you make all of those things happen? Writing conferences, baby.
These events present excellent opportunities to:
- Build relationships with other authors
- Get to know the traditional publishing industry better and stay on top of shifting trends
- Meet publishing professionals like literary agents, acquiring editors, and more
- Schedule consultations with agents or publishers who can help you get your book pitch ready to rock the industry
And what do you do with all these new connections you’re making?
How to Build Relationships with Literary Agents and Publishers
If you’re wondering why you can’t just sit in the cozy cave of your home office and make connections via query letters and book proposals, you can. But an agent or publisher is more likely to take your pitch seriously when they already know you or you’ve been referred to them by someone they respect.
In addition to writing conferences, you can meet publishing industry folks in places like:
- Workshops and seminars
- Book launches
- Literary festivals
- Social media
The tips for schmoozing with these people are the same as in any other industry. Express an interest in their work. Congratulate them for recent success or tell them what you got out of their speech/course/tweet.
Have your elevator pitch ready to go but don’t open with it or force it into the conversation. Also resist the temptation to ask them if they’d read your manuscript or give you feedback on your book proposal. Remember that you’re building a relationship, and no good relationship begins with someone asking for immediate favors.
Finally, don’t get tunnel vision. If you’re at an industry event and there’s someone specific you want to talk to, make it happen! But remember that you’re setting up a career, not just a book deal. There are major long-term benefits to befriending your peers and brand new agents, not to mention short-term benefits for connecting with an intern at a big agency.
So don’t blow off the little people because you’re lookin’ to rub the fanciest elbows in the room.
Giving Yourself a Leg Up With an Author Platform
I know it seems like an author platform is something that happens after you get a book published. After all, the book is how you build a following, right?
Nope! I mean, yes, but also nope. To give yourself the best possible odds, build your platform now. Write a blog, start a YouTube channel, crush it on TikTok, start a newsletter, whatever. Find fans who love your literary voice.
If you’re able to build a following that’s in the thousands—particularly the tens or hundreds of thousands—traditional publishers will care. They’ll know you didn’t just write a marketable book; you also have a waiting market to sell it to.
Finding a Literary Agent
Now that you know all the extra little tricks for getting the attention of a publishing company, what’s the official process for getting your manuscript in their hands?
First, you need to find an agent.
What is a Literary Agent?
An agent pitches your book to publishing houses and negotiates the terms of the book deal on your behalf.
That’s the short version. The longer version includes the part where they give you feedback on your manuscript, help guide your career, and connect you with all kinds of publishing industry pros. For the extra-long version, you can check out our guide to literary agents.
The Role of a Literary Agent in Traditional Publishing
When you learn that you have to pay an agent (Did I mention they take 15% of your earnings?), you might suddenly have a few questions about why you even need this person to introduce you to publishers.
In some cases, you don’t. Some small presses and imprints accept unagented submissions. But you’re usually better off with literary representation.
For one thing, a good agent will know what’s selling and why. That means they have invaluable insight as to what it’ll take to make your novel irresistible to traditional publishers. They also have pre-existing relationships with acquiring editors, which means their pitch carries a lot more weight than your query letter.
Finally—and this is huge—literary agents are writers’ advocates in the publishing industry. They make sure you get what’s owed to you in your publishing deal. You’ll learn later on why it’s so tough to advocate for yourself.
How to Find Your Perfect Literary Agent
In a minute, we’ll go over the process for pitching your book to agents. (“Querying” agents, if you want to be all industry-lingo about it.)
First, you need to determine which agents you’d like to work with. Different agents work in different genres and have unique priorities. Sending a ton of queries out to everybody in the hopes that someone will pick you is a waste of your time and a great way to get ignored by everyone.
Even worse, you could end up with an agent who’s a terrible fit. Or, you know, a scam artist.
So let’s do a little research.
Where to Look
I suggest looking in a lot of different places, including:
- Manuscript Wish List
- Query Tracker
- Publisher’s Marketplace
- The acknowledgements section of books like yours (where authors usually give their agent a shoutout)
You can also follow publications like Publisher’s Weekly and Writer’s Digest to make sure you catch articles spotlighting agents or announcing new book deals. And keep an eye out for agents on social media where they talk about everything from dream projects to pet peeves.
What to Look For
As you continue your literary agent quest, you’ll need more than a name and phone number. Look for details like:
- Which genres they represent
- Which authors they represent
- What they’re looking for right now
- Recent deals they’ve made
- Their reputation in the industry
Ultimately, you want to land an agent who’s likely to be enthusiastic about your book and a true expert in your market. It also helps if they’re at least a little established with solid connections and a few years in the industry.
Make a list of your top 10-20 choices. These are the people you’re going to query first.
How to Write a Query Letter
You first reach out to an agent through a query letter. Some agents want something in addition to the query, like a short synopsis or sample chapters. Make sure you find each agent’s current submission guidelines before querying them so you can give them exactly what they ask for.
The query letter itself is short—no more than 400 words. You can find a detailed guide to writing a query letter here.
The short version is that you need to snag them with your story’s hook, throw down a short and compelling book pitch, tell them in one or two sentences why you want to work with them, and share a tiny bit about yourself.
Workshop the crap out of this letter before you send it. And keep these tips in mind as you do:
Query Letter Dos and Don’ts
- Tailor the letter for each agent. All it takes is changing one sentence to explain why you’re reaching out to them specifically.
- Be engaging but brief.
- Give them a sense of the character, world, themes, and conflict.
- Infuse the letter with your style and voice.
- Fabricate or inflate your writing accomplishments.
- Be braggadocious or excessively humble.
- Promise them a bestseller. Let the story sell itself.
- Threaten that they’ll regret it if they let this one get away.
The objective of a query letter is to get them interested enough in your story to request the manuscript.
How to Submit Your Manuscript to Literary Agents
If a literary agent asks to see your manuscript, that’s huge. All you have to do now is give them exactly what they ask for. If they give you guidelines in terms of format, follow those guidelines to the letter. If they don’t, here’s a formatting guide you can use to ensure it looks professional.
Plan to wait about four to six weeks before following up, unless they give you their own timeframe. When they get back to you, they’ll probably either pass or set up a meeting. (A meeting means they’re interested.)
About the Book Proposal…
If you write narrative nonfiction, your querying process will likely look like everything I just described above. But if you write non-narrative nonfiction, you’ll probably submit a book proposal rather than a manuscript.
The process for writing a book proposal is way beyond the scope of this article. Basically, this is a document you use to pitch your book before writing it. The proposal includes an overview, information about your target audience, your marketing plan, and a lot of details about you and why you’re the right person to write this book.
In other words, a book proposal isn’t as concerned with the literary quality of the book as it is with its marketability.
Submitting a Manuscript to a Publisher
Once you’ve managed to snag an agent (or once an agent has managed to snag you), it’s time to start the search for a traditional publisher and get this book published.
I don’t know about you, but I’m stoked.
What Publishers Look for in a Manuscript
Your agent will be your best source of information on exactly what publishing companies are looking for in novels like yours at the exact time that you’re ready to start pitching. But I can at least give you a broad sense of what a publisher wants to see in your manuscript.
They want to see money.
By that, I mean:
- Content that’s easy to market to a sizable audience
- Excellent writing and engaging content that will inspire tons of book recs
- Enough similarities to other successful books that yours feels like it’s not a major risk
- But also enough uniqueness to make it stand out beside competing titles
If this list stresses you out, you might be reassured to know that your agent’s first order of business will be to suggest revisions to help your book look like money in the eyes of a big publishing house.
It’s also important to note that a potential publisher won’t just look at your manuscript. They’ll also look at you. Now, they won’t necessarily reject an amazing novel because you don’t have enough of a following, But a solid platform could really give you a boost in the submissions phase.
And if you write nonfiction, a platform is mandatory.
How to Submit Your Manuscript to Publishing Companies
So how do you get your manuscript in the hands of a traditional publisher?
If you have an agent, they do it. After you take their feedback and deliver a revised manuscript, they’re “on submission.” This means they pitch your book to acquiring editors at the publishing houses they believe are a great fit for you.
Your only job at this point is to focus on writing the next book until your agent comes back to you with a potential publishing deal.
Now, let’s say you decided not to get an agent and you’re personally submitting your manuscript to publishing companies.We have an article that looks at this process in-depth, but it’s honestly a lot like querying agents.
You’ll start by researching publishers that accept unagented submissions. You’ll narrow down to your top choices and make sure you know their submission guidelines. In many cases, they’ll want to see a query letter. They may also request a book synopsis, sample chapters, or, in rare cases, the entire manuscript.
If they ultimately ask to see the manuscript, you’ll do just as you would for an agent: make sure you abide by any formatting requests they make and send that puppy off. Then sit back and give them time to read your masterpiece.
Negotiating a Publishing Contract
So what happens when a publisher comes back with a publishing deal? It depends on whether or not you have an agent.
If you don’t have an agent but you don’t know how to negotiate a publishing contract without Googling it, do not handle negotiations yourself. Find an agent. You might be able to pay a flat fee for this one-time service and avoid giving them a cut of your royalties, if that’s your preference.
Whatever you do, don’t sign the first contract a traditional publisher sends you. They’re assuming you’ll negotiate, which means they won’t start with the best deal they’re willing to give you.
If you have an agent—or when you get one—ask for details on the negotiation process. You deserve to know what’s being discussed and what your rep is pushing for.
What to Look for in a Publishing Contract
Discussing negotiations with your agent is easier when you know a few key topics that come up in book deals. Here are some you should get familiar with.
Delivery deadlines - At the start of the publishing process, your editor will give you an editorial letter—a manuscript evaluation in which they request revisions. How quickly do they want you to turn those revisions around? Are their expectations reasonable?
Royalties - You get a percentage of all sales of your book. What percentages are they proposing?
Advance - This is the amount you get paid upfront. It’s a payment against future royalties, and you typically receive it in four installations between signing the deal and the publication date. What is the amount and when will they distribute payments?
Intellectual Property Rights - This refers to the rights you hold to your own creation. It’s complex enough for its own section.
The Importance of Intellectual Property Rights in Traditional Publishing
You’re probably already aware of the term “copyright.” When you hold the copyright for your book (which you do the moment you start writing it), you have the right to copy, distribute, and adapt that work.
Don’t worry about registering for a copyright in your country (or your publisher’s country). The publisher will handle registration for you.
When they present you with a contract, however, pay close attention to the IP rights presented in the agreement. Who holds the license to distribute your work in foreign markets? Who profits if Netflix wants to turn your novel into a series?
These are the details that could mean big money in the long term, and you want to make sure you’re not giving too much away.
Understanding Royalty Rates
You already know you get a pre-established percentage of your book sales. For a first-time author, 10% is about average for hardback royalties, though it could be more or less than that.
But it actually gets a bit more complicated than that. Make sure you and your literary agent discuss:
- Whether you’re getting a percentage of gross sales or net sales
- How and if you’re affected when your publisher offers your books for a discount
- What the royalties are for different formats
- If your royalties increase when you reach certain sales benchmarks
Your agent should be way ahead of you on all this stuff, but if they don’t mention it, be sure to ask.
Negotiating Key Contract Terms
Again, you don’t really want to handle your own contract negotiations and I don’t want to be your primary source for negotiation tips.
So this information is just to give you a baseline understanding of what you and your agent might choose to push for. Some of the topics that have the biggest impact on your earning power as a traditionally published author include:
Territory - In what territories does your publisher hold the license to distribute your books? Make sure they only hold rights they might actually use. If they’re unlikely to sell your book in Japan, retain those rights so your agent can hook you up with the Japanese market.
Subsidiary Rights - Keep an eye out for phrasing that suggests the publisher has exclusive dramatic rights. If you see it, discuss with your agent whether you’d prefer to make it nonexclusive. That way whoever secures the movie deal gets to share in the profits.
Royalties - As we discussed, take a thorough look at royalty rates to make sure you understand all the fine print and which numbers will actually be used to determine how much your percentage is worth in dollars and cents.
Advance - In addition to seeing how much you get paid, also note when you can expect those payments and what your publisher requires from you before they’ll send an installment.
Now Go Get Your Book Published!
It’s a long journey, and you’ll need more than a great manuscript to make it to your final destination. You’ll also need loads of patience, a ton of grit, and either a thick skin or a few tricks for taking care of a thin one.
Oh! And you know what also helps?
A supportive writing community. Surround yourself with people who understand how tough it is to get a book published. Get close and cozy with other writers who can give you feedback on your query letter, connect you with publishing professionals, and share their own tips for landing a deal with a traditional publisher.
You can find a community like that in Dabble’s Story Craft Café. Membership is free and you don’t have to be a Dabble user to join. (Little tip, though: you can pose as a Dabble user for free for 14 days if you want to explore this killer writing tool. Start your free trial here.)
Meet your people, join challenges, jump into word sprints, and more! Click here to join the party.
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