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. 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.
In this post, we’re going to walk you through the traditional publishing route, which is what most writers will think of when they talk about "getting published." If self-publishing sounds more up your alley, click here to read our guide to self-publishing. (We’re also not going to discuss vanity presses in this article, for reasons explained here.) So without further ado, let’s break down what it takes to get a publisher!
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.
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.
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.
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.
In addition, 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 worth their commission.
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?
It's important to remember 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.
Do you need publishing experience or personal connections to land an agent?
A 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.”
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!
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.
How do you get a publishing deal with 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 want 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.
And there you have it. Remember: if you have a strong manuscript and a desire to put in the work, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to secure a publishing deal of your very own. We can't wait to see your name on the shelves!
Want to know all the details of what really goes on behind the scenes at a big publishing house? Check out our free course: Inside a Traditional "Big 5" Publisher!