How to Get a Book Published: Your Guide to Success in 2020
If you’re a first-time author, we'd completely understand you not knowing how to get a book published. After all, there are now more publishing options than ever! Traditional publishing, for example, requires an agent and actual publisher — which may take a long time to acquire but can be a big advantage in terms of industry connections. On the other hand, you can self-publish and have your book up on Amazon tomorrow (with higher royalties!), but you might struggle to market it yourself.
Every author has to decide for themselves how to publish, taking into account the relative benefits and what they really want from of the experience — fame and fortune, literary repute, or simply being able to say they've done it. But how can authors make this decision without trying both firsthand?
Answer: by reading this post — for which we’ve consulted knowledgeable veterans of the publishing world, with the aim of explaining your publishing options in an easy-to-digest way. We’ll also offer frank advice to set you on the best possible path to publishing your book, whatever that may be. Ready to get started?
Three ways to get published
There are countless ways to skin a literary cat, but all of them fit into one of these categories:
- Traditional Publishing, in which a company "buys," edits, and produces your book, before selling it to bookstores, online retailers, supermarkets, and anywhere else you can expect to buy a book.
- Self-Publishing, in which the author takes on the responsibilities of the publisher, including financing and marketing the book.
- Vanity Publishing, which is where the author pays a company to handle all of the above. We won't discuss vanity presses in this article, for reasons explained here.
The bulk of our post here will focus on the traditional route (self-publishing is another matter entirely), which is what most writers will think of when they talk about "getting published." Your approach to getting a book deal will largely depend on whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, so let’s tackle traditional publishing in that order. (Skip ahead if you’re a non-fiction author).
Wondering which path is the best fit for your skills, ambitions, and book? Take this 1-minute quiz to find out whether you're better-suited for self-publishing or traditional publishing.
How to Get a Book Published (Novel)
So, you’ve written a great novel, and you can’t wait to share it with as large an audience as possible. This is a perfectly solid reason to seek a book deal! However, at this point, it’s crucial to bear in mind that a publishing company exists for one reason: to make money. Some imprints might prioritize acquiring novels with prize potential — but that’s mostly so they can make more money from the publicity and prestige.
You might be the second coming of Salinger, but if you don’t help agents and publishers see that your book has the potential to sell, you’ll struggle to get the results you want. So in brief, here's how to get published in five steps:
- Research your genre
- Ask for feedback on your manuscript and make sure it's tight
- Research suitable agents
- Send a personalized query letter to agents
- Work with your agent to find a publisher
Easier said than done, right? Let's take a closer look.
Step 1: Research your genre
Ask a hundred writing coaches, authors, and editors for advice on getting published, and 95 of them will tell you to read widely in your genre. The other five will probably assume that you’re already doing it.
As an author, you should not only be learning from your contemporaries (and the all-time greats), but you should also know what kinds of books people are buying. That will give you an idea of the books that publishers are looking to acquire and how YOUR book will fit into that space.
A note on trends: it might sound like a good idea to write a book that capitalizes on a current trend (sexy vampires, hardened female heroines, etc.). But by the time that your book finally hits the shelves (it can take years, even after you sign a deal), that trend might be over — something that acquiring editors are acutely aware of.
That said, there are definitely certain genres for which readers seem to have endless appetites. These are the trends to be aware of, rather than trends related to specific subject matter or character types. (We'll talk more about these genre trends, and about why Big 5 publishers love them, below in step 5.)
Step 2: Ask for feedback on your manuscript and edit
This entire article relies on your book actually being good. It doesn’t need to be the finest novel ever written, but it must be something its target audience will enjoy. For that reason, it’s important that an agent isn’t the first person (other than you) to read your manuscript.
Before you start looking for representation, consider working with beta readers: people with an interest in your genre who can offer you feedback from a third party perspective. And try to get someone professional! Your cousin or college roommate might be happy to help, but they may not be your best choice, for two reasons:
- As your friend, they’re inherently biased; and
- They might not belong to your target readership.
Pay attention to what they say, and self-edit based on their feedback. You might also consider working with professional developmental and copy editors. A pro edit can be a crucial step in ensuring your manuscript reads well, for when an agent finally requests it.
Additional resources: What to Expect From Beta Readers (and Where to Find Them) (blog), What are Sensitivity Readers (and Should Authors Use Them?), How to Find the Right Nonfiction Editor (to Take Your Book to the Next Level) (blog), and How to Edit a Book (blog)
Step 3: Research suitable agents
At this point, your manuscript is looking sharp, and you have a keen understanding of whom it’s aimed at. With that in your back pocket, it’s time to get yourself an agent.
Do you need an agent?
While some small and medium-sized presses accept “unagented submissions,” you’ll find that your best bet to scoring a traditional publishing deal will be to first secure an agent. Not only do they have the right connections at publishing companies, but they will also know how best to sell it to acquiring editors.
What are you looking for in an agent?
First of all, you are not just looking for any agent who’s willing take you on. You want one that’s right for you and your manuscript. They should be passionate about your book, as they’ll be the one responsible for selling it! For that reason, you need to do your research and draw up a shortlist of suitable candidates who represent books and authors within your specific genre.
Additional resource: How to Find and Research Literary Agents (guide)
What do agents look for in an author?
If we return to our first principles, we’ll remember that everyone’s goal in this business is to make money. Agents work purely on commission, so they’re looking for books that they have a high chance of selling to a Big 5 publisher (Big 6, if you're including the Amazon Publishing imprint) — and that will go on to sell enough copies to justify their investment of time.
Agents are also looking for long-term working relationships. This means they'll put more stock in writers who not only have the potential to write lots of great books, but who also seem like nice people to work with. No matter how awesome your manuscript, if you come across like a delusional nightmare, people will think twice about signing you.
Step 4: Prepare your submission and send out queries
Unless you get a personal introduction, this is the usual procedure for successfully landing an agent for the first time:
- You send the agent a "query letter" that quickly pitches yourself and your novel.
- The agent is intrigued. They request and read your manuscript.
- They love your manuscript and you enter discussions re: your book and career.
- You sign an agreement that allows the agent to represent your book.
Of course, this is the best-case scenario. Most writers find themselves querying multiple agents. It’s a common myth that you should only speak to one agent at a time: nobody, especially the agent, expects this to be the case.
Additional resource: How to Write a Query Letter (guide and checklist)
Bear in mind that most agents get a mountain of queries every month. The good news is that most of the queries they get are terrible, boilerplate messages that are copied-and-pasted indiscriminately for each agent.
Yes, each agency will have their own submission guidelines (which you should follow to the letter) — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go the extra mile by further personalizing the query. Make sure you:
- Address it directly to a specific agent;
- Get their name right (a common pitfall); and
- Let them know why you want them, specifically, to represent your book.
Sometimes, just showing an agent that you’ve done your research will give them confidence that you’re a hard-working writer — someone who understands how the game works and doesn't cut corners.
Additional resource: Personalizing Your Query Letter (webinar and transcript)
Step 5: Work with your agent to find a publisher
You can expect to work with your agent to further develop your manuscript. In many cases, they’ll see potential in your book and will act as your first editor of sorts. Ideally, you will discuss how to make your book more sellable before signing with them.
Now, some writers might not love this idea. Why did they sign my book if all they want to do is change it? However, it’s wise to listen to their suggestions. They’ve been in the game longer than you, and if they’re good at their job, then their recommendations will help you reach more of your desired audience.
And once you’re both happy with the state of your manuscript, it’s then up to your agent to go out in the wilderness, pitch your book to publishers, and negotiate the best possible deal! Of course, "best possible deal" means something different for everyone — but if you want to get published by a super-major publisher, our next section provides some helpful tips.
How to get published by the Big 5
If you’re an author currently trying to get traditionally published, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the Big 5 Publishers: Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster. All of these publishers have been around for decades, and getting your book published by one of them is a golden ticket to prestige and recognition.
However, keep in mind that these publishers are pretty selective, especially when it comes to novels. If you’re determined to vie for one of them, you’ll have better luck if you write in certain genres. As you can probably surmise from the current market, the biggest genre trends in fiction lately are:
- Thrillers and suspense novels (e.g. Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window)
- Retellings and/or novels based on actual events (e.g. Circe and Room)
- “Own voices” novels (e.g. The Hate U Give and There There)
That said, you still need to have some kind of original take or twist in order to capture a Big 5 publisher’s attention. Your book can't just be a poor man’s Gone Girl; you have to take the most innovative and intriguing elements of your chosen genre, and make them even better. You have to truly make the story your own.
Of course, if you want to experiment a bit before going after a huge traditional publisher, you can always self-publish your book first. Then if your debut novel performs well, you might have the opportunity to later re-release it under a Big 5 or other major publisher (more on this later).
Well, now that we’ve (hypothetically) secured an advance for our debut novel, would you like to see how it all works in the fact-based world?
How to Get a Book Published (Non-fiction)
The non-fiction publishing process has a lot in common with its fiction counterpart — which is why this section is a lot shorter. The key differences are that you usually don’t (or shouldn’t) write the book before a publisher acquires it, and you don’t always need to go through an agent.
With that in mind, let’s look at how to get a non-fiction book published:
- Research your category and validate your idea
- Plan a book with commercial potential
- Write a book proposal
- Query an agent or submit directly to publishers
Again, easier said than done — so let's dig into some details.
Step 1: Research your category and validate your idea
When considering non-fiction authors, the gatekeepers are always on the lookout for people who understand their category. They not only want you to know which books are doing well in your area, but they want you to tell them about the marketing potential.
By the time you pitch your book to somebody, you want to know exactly what you’re up against, and that you have an actual opportunity to sell books in your category.
To start your research:
- Head to Amazon and find out if similar books have already been published.
- Get an estimate of those books’ daily sales by running their Amazon ranks through an Amazon calculator.
- Go into big-box and local bookstores and see how well your category "represents" on the shelves.
If you’re struggling to find similar books, it could mean that you’ve struck gold with an original idea. More often than not, though, it probably means that there’s no market for it (at least not yet).
Additional resource: How to Validate Your Book Idea (free course)
Step 2: Plan a book with commercial potential
Fiction fans read for pleasure and often seek books that are similar to the ones they already love. For that reason, the market can handle "more of the same" when it comes to novels. Non-fiction, on the other hand, can be a lot more competitive.
Non-fiction readers commonly look to books to "solve a problem" they might have. How can they get better at playing the guitar? How can they learn to code Python? If there’s already a seminal book out there that offers the exact same thing as yours, you might be in trouble.
So once again, put yourself into the shoes of an industrious publisher who wants to shift some copies: what would compel them to buy your book? Here are a few ways to answer that question:
- “There’s an interest in the topic I’m writing about.” Are there already books in the same ballpark as yours that are selling well?
- “My book has a unique selling point.” There must be something compelling about your idea that separates it from the current successful titles on the market.
- “I’m uniquely qualified to write about this.” Unlike in fiction, where it really doesn’t matter who the author is, you need to justify why you are the person that’s best to write this book. A book about air disasters written by an accountant is not as compelling as one written by a 30-year veteran of the FAA.
Step 3: Write a book proposal
Non-fiction authors, as we’ve already mentioned, usually don't write books before they’ve sold them. Instead, they need to start by creating a book proposal — which is more of a business proposal than an artistic document.
If you’ve seen Shark Tank (or Dragon’s Den, or any of its international variants), you know that all investors want to know certain things before they partner with you. Your proposal should answer the main questions an agent or publisher will have — namely, the ones listed in Step 2 and a couple more.
The proposal will almost always touch on:
- your book’s target audience,
- your bona fides in the topic,
- a potential marketing plan, and
- competitive titles.
Your proposal should also include a detailed chapter outline and a few sample chapters.
Additional resource: How to Write a Book Proposal (guide and template)
So why you shouldn’t you just pre-write the book and pitch that? The answer: because non-fiction publishers are typically a lot more involved in the content of their books. Where fiction might be more of an art, writing non-fiction is more of a science. You don't want to just start throwing chemicals around the lab without the other scientists' permission — there are procedures in place for a reason.
Step 4: Query an agent or submit directly to publishers
With your proposal (and pitch) in hand, you're ready to sell your book. As a rule, if you’re writing general non-fiction (think history books and biographies) or if you want to pitch to a major publisher, then you will probably need an agent. For educational books, and with small- and medium-sized presses, you might be able to get away without one.
If you do choose to submit your proposal directly, take a lead from our tips about querying agents when you research your publishers. Ask:
- Does this publisher have a history and interest in my topic?
- Does my book complement what’s already on their backlist?
- Do they accept unsolicited manuscripts?
Additional resource: How to Submit a Book Proposal (guide)
Hopefully you’ll get a response from an interested party and — before you know it — you’ll write your book and await its release date!
Self-Publishing Your Book
For a long time, self-publishing was seen as an alternative for authors who struggled to publish traditionally. To some extent, that’s still the case — but it’s not always down to quality. Some authors might find that their book is too niche for HarperCollins, but that they can easily find a devoted audience as an independent author.
If you’re willing to put in the hours and teach yourself how to do a bit of basic online marketing, you might find that self-publishing is the perfect fit for you. The royalties are much higher, you get complete creative control, and you don’t have to wait years to see your book on shelves.
To learn what it takes to self-publish, start with this in-depth guide.
While self-publishing has plenty of benefits, the biggest downside is that you’ll be responsible for financing production (editing services and cover design) and marketing. The good news, though, is that it might not be as expensive as you’d think.
Additional resource: How Much Does it Cost to Self-Publish a Book? (guide)
Frequently Asked Questions: Getting Published
Do you need publishing experience or personal connections to land an agent?
Another common misconception is that unsolicited queries are almost never successful. This, however, is largely untrue. Former agent Rachel Stout polled over twenty New York-based agents from a range of backgrounds and found that almost all of them are open to unsolicited queries (or “slush,” as they call it).
“I know that authors don't think that most agents read their queries. Almost everybody reads them,” Stout suggests. “35% of the agents I asked — some with two decades of experience and others with two years — said that more than half of their current list comes directly from the slush pile.
If I can submit directly to publishers, why do I need an agent?
Pitching your book is just one of the many tasks that falls to an agent. They are also advisors and editors, who will give you objective advice on your manuscript and act as a buffer between you and the publisher. They’ll handle a lot of the business side of things, leaving you free to write. Most importantly, they are deeply familiar with the industry and should know how to negotiate the best price for your book (and avoid potential scams). For that reason alone, they are probably worth their commission.
Can you query/submit a book that you’ve already self-published?
There are some cases, like with Andy Weir’s The Martian and 50 Shades of Grey, where a publisher has reissued a self-published book. But these cases are pretty rare. Most of the time, if your book has already been on the market, industry folks will wonder if it's already exhausted its market. After all, the 10,000 people who bought your self-pub book usually won’t buy it again just because Simon & Schuster has it now.
However, if you’ve self-published a book that has sold very well, you can bet that agents will be lining up to request your next manuscript.
Should you go to writers conferences?
Not all authors are lucky enough to live near cities with writers conferences. But if you can afford to attend one, then you definitely should. It’s a great way to watch panels by published authors and industry insiders (editor and agents). In most cases, there will even be a chance to network directly with those people at the conference’s social events.
It’s also pretty common for there to be sessions where you can practice your pitch and get one-on-one feedback from attending agents or editors and (if you really, really hit it off) you might find that they’ll refer you to suitable agents.
An inexpensive alternative to writing conferences are online writing communities, where you can get great advice, feedback, and case studies from people who have written and published books. Though you're unlikely to find any former Big 5 acquisition editors casually trolling the forums, these communities are a great place to start for first-time authors, and may even lead to you becoming a lifelong member.
If you’ve made it this far, you hopefully have a better idea of how to get published! With both traditional and self-publishing routes now clearly before you, you should know what you have to do. Remember: if you have a great idea for a book, and you're willing to work harder and smarter than most, you can almost guarantee that you’ll be able to get it in front of your adoring fans — wherever they are.
If you have any thoughts or questions about getting published, leave us a message in the comments below.