These articles usually start with something like, You’ve written a book! Now what?
But in truth, lines like that are a bit out of whack. There was a time in which authors wrote first, then tried to sell later, but that time is gone. These days, the publishing world is much different than it used to be. These days, smart writers roll their publishing plans into their writing plans, and consider both from the beginning.
So if you haven’t already written your book, great! You’ll be able to learn all about the publishing options that await you now, so you can set your plans accordingly.
But if you have already written your book? That’s also great, because … well … because the book is already written! You didn’t have to wait until now to research publishing, but it surely won’t hurt that you have.
Either way, I’ll give you a step-by-step process to getting your book published in just a little bit. But first, we should discuss one important fact you might not have considered:
The meaning of “how to get published” has changed.
If it’s okay to have your book already written but also okay not to have started, you may be wondering why I’m splitting hairs in the first place.
The answer is that the entire notion of “getting published” used to mean one thing but now means something else. Authors once needed permission to publish their books, but now most can publish themselves. You don’t have to get published anymore, in other words. Now, all by yourself, you can just publish.
I wrote my first book in 2008. I published my first book in 2011. I didn’t publish in 2008 because back then, pre-Kindle, doing so on your own wasn’t really possible. Oh, sure — you could go to a vanity publishing company and pay a whole lot of money to have paperback books printed, stack boxes upon boxes of them in your garage, then go about trying to sell them one at a time … but doing that was almost always a waste of time and cash. Legit, viable options for publishing without the help of the big boys were few and far between.
The only real option back then was to try and publish through an established publishing house. They were the ones with the printing presses. They were the ones with connections to buyers in bookstores. They had the sales reps, the design teams to create your book’s cover and format it correctly, and the network to make it all happen.
The only problem was that in order for those folks to publish your book, you had to convince them it was worth publishing. An acquisitions editor had to read your book and feel pretty confident that it’d sell — which, by the way, was such an inexact science that they might as well have used crystal balls. Convincing editors was very hard, because they got (and still get) piles upon piles of submissions, and they can’t publish them all. You had to catch an editor on a good day, providing exactly the kind of story she’d usually already decided she was looking for, and promise enough of a readership that it’s guaranteed at least a small dependable audience would want to read what they’re being asked to publish.
Because editors are so swamped, they usually have assistants. Assistants get the job of combing through mountains of submissions, passing on only the books that interest them within the first few pages. But most editors don’t even accept submissions they haven’t asked for, and therefore rely on literary agents to bring them books. The agents have assistants, too.
If you’re following along, your book had to immediately pique the interest of an agent’s assistant, then the agent, then the editor’s assistant, then the editor. You could do it, of course, but it was in no way a meritocracy. The best books didn’t win. Sometimes they did, but often amazing books never made it past the first slush pile.
That’s why people talk about “getting published.” Getting means receiving, and in the example above you can’t just get it for yourself. Back in the day, people who asked How can I get my book published? really were asking how to beg and plead and bamboozle all of those gatekeepers effectively.
Today, you have choices. Self-publishing (now increasingly called “indie publishing”) is no longer for suckers, and can easily earn a hard-working author more money with less hassle than going the agents-and-editors route. Both are viable, the choice is yours.
Option #1: Publish the traditional way, through agents and editors
I could pretend to be fair and balanced on this issue, but I’m just not. I have more than a hundred published books under various pen names. All but four have been indie published, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. And I wouldn’t accept a traditional deal unless it came with a huge advance or guaranteed placement in airports, or something equally compelling — unless there was a very good reason, in other words.
Indie publishing gives authors so much more freedom and flexibility (which translates to “new and different ways to make money from the same old books”), it’s hard to imaging giving it up. It’s also worth noting that indie authors usually keep 70% of what their books sell for in digital form, whereas traditionally published authors are lucky to get 15%.
That said, traditional publishing is absolutely the right choice for some authors — namely those who want only to write drafts and/or those who don’t care that their book stops being theirs and becomes the publisher’s the second the contract is signed.
I’ll set my prejudices aside for the next few sections, and give you the step-by-step.
Step 1: Write the right book
When you publish through a publishing house, you as the author aren’t really planning to sell your book to readers. You’re actually selling (and this should look familiar):
- A literary agent’s assistant
- A literary agent
- An acquisitions editor’s assistant
- The editor herself
The list continues from there, because after the book is published, the publisher’s sales team will need to sell your book to buyers for the stores that will sell it: Barnes & Noble, airport stores, Wal-Mart and Costco, etc.
At the very end, your book will (if you’re lucky) end up in a reader’s hands, and the decisions the publisher’s marketing folks made about your cover and description will hopefully convince that potential reader to buy.
But look how far your reader is down the chain! She won’t even get a chance to buy until you sell all the people ahead of her.
As precious as your story might be to you, it’s a product to the publisher. Products can’t simply be “new” or “intriguing” or “clever” if they’re to sell. They must also match what the market is looking for.
“The market,” in this case, isn’t readers. It’s all those buyers farther up the chain. That means you have to know what they want. If Costco is looking for thrillers and you wrote sci-fi, you’ll have a much harder time. Agents are also looking for certain books at different times. Part of your job in getting published is writing the exact book that your chosen agents, editors, and ultimately store buyers want at the time you pitch them.
And sorry, but nobody is looking for your literary novel. Nobody is looking for your coming-of-age novel. Nobody at all is looking for your memoir, unless you’re already famous. Those books can get published, but you’ll have to get at least a little lucky to pull it off.
Step 2: Find readers and generate interest about your book
If you think this step feels a little cart-before-the-horse, I don’t blame you. How can I get readers and generate interest, you might be thinking, when that’s the publisher’s job?
Yeah, you’d think it’d be the publisher’s job, and the fact that it’s not is one of the many reasons I choose to independently publish my books.
But you’re not selling readers, remember. Your first job is to sell agents and editors on buying your book, and in order to do that, you must maximize the upsides for them and eliminate as many of the downsides that you can.
The “upside” for them is sales: the more copies of your book that sell to readers, the better. The “downside” is the money and time it will cost the publisher to publish your book.
There’s always a chance that your book will cost them more to make than they’ll earn from selling it, so your job in this step is to convince them that your book is a safe bet. Do this by showing them that you have people already lined up to buy your book. If you can prove that you already have readers, the whole thing will look less risky to publishers, and you’ll be that much closer to “selling them” on the idea of buying it.
There are a few good ways to drum up interest for a book at this stage. It takes time and is not easy, but the difficulty isn’t really the question. The question is whether it makes sense to do all the work of drumming up interest … then hand the book over to someone else to sell for you. (But we’ll get to that later.)
The traditional way to find readers is to write short stories, then try to sell those stories to literary magazines. But you need to have an interest in writing short stories, and the patience to deal with the long process of trying to get published in literary magazines, which is just as annoying as trying to find a literary agent. Lastly, literary agents are increasingly scarce these days, and they’re read mostly by people very different from the people who will buy your novel.
More modern ways to find readers include blogging (that’s how Andy Weir first published The Martian) or publishing on a free-to-read story site like Wattpad. Publish in those venues for long enough and you’ll garner a fan base, which you can then announce to publishers when it’s time.
The best way to find readers, though, is to cut right to the chase and (you guessed it) publish the book yourself. If you indie-publish your book and do some of what we’ll talk about in that section, readers will find you.
If you’re wondering why anyone would do all the work of indie publishing and finding their own readers only to turn around and hand everything over to another company, I’m wondering that too in most cases.
Step 3: Find a literary agent
Literary agents are, in most cases, necessary middlemen. They’ll do a little of the grunt work and a lot of the legwork in exchange for a 10-15% cut, but in my opinion the best reason for a low or mid-level author to have an agent is simply because editors usually won’t talk to anyone else. If you want to publish with a big traditional publisher, you’ll probably need an agent.
The process of finding an agent is a little like pulling out your fingernails, so I’ll provide the short version. There’s a massive book called the Writer’s Market, and it’s updated every year. It lists just about any agent you’d care to work with, along with some vitals: what kinds of books they represent, how to contact them, what they’re looking to find, and more. You’ll write these folks a one-page letter called a “query letter” (increasingly done via email), in which you’ll describe your book in the most hook-forward, interesting way possible. A query letter should also tell the agent a bit about yourself, plus anything they should know about your track record (if you have one), your previous publishing credits (if you have any) and all about your readership, which is basically everything from #2 above.
If the agent likes what you sent, she’ll probably ask for some sample chapters and a synopsis. If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll eventually need a full outline and book proposal package.
Step 4: Get a publishing contract
This step obviously isn’t a given. You’ll only make it this far if you sign with an agent who believes in you, but there is at least some good news: Getting an agent is the hard part. Assuming your agent is reputable (one sign she’s not: requesting money for any reason at all), it’s likely only a matter of time until your book finds a home with a publishing house. It might be a long time, and it’s also possible that it’ll be your second book the agent sells. But at least you’ll have an advocate, and won’t be alone.
What follows is a whole lot of negotiation, which your agent will help you navigate. You’ll be offered an advance (probably a small one) and a royalty (probably 15% of publishing profits after you’ve earned back the amount of your advance). You won’t really have any creative control at that point, which means they’ll handle your cover, description, and marketing materials without your input. This might be good news … unless they botch it. (Traditional publishers have botched the marketing for us and our friends, but also won’t usually listen to suggestions of how to fix it.)
After that, you wait. It’ll take a long time for your book to finally hit the bookstore shelves, but when it does, congratulations! Now to publicity and helping that book sell … but that stuff is a little beyond the question of how to get published, which is what we’re covering here.
So. What’s the alternative, if you don’t publish the traditional way?
Option #2: Skip the gatekeepers and do it yourself as an indie author
Obviously, this is what I prefer. It’s what all of us do here at Sterling & Stone. We value freedom and the ability to stay nimble too much for a traditional deal. Plus, we like to go a lot faster, which we can do by publishing ourselves. So. What are the steps?
Step 1: Write the right book
Yes, you still have to consider this one, but the outlook is much better than #1 for the trad crowd above. Above, you needed to craft a book that appealed to agents, editors, and book distributors. When you indie publish, you’re skipping all those middlemen and selling directly to readers. If you want your book to sell as well as possible, you need to appeal to the largest number of readers as possible. That, here, is what I mean by “the right book.”
But the cool thing is, you get to decide what “right book” means. You could write a sci-fi blockbuster that sells thousands or tens of thousands of ebook copies directly to readers, or you could write a highly personal memoir that likely won’t sell to more than a hundred people — most of whom already know you.
The right book is up to you. As long as you know what you’re doing and what the result is likely to be (i.e., more sales of a more commercial book or fewer sales of a less commercial book), the choice is yours and yours alone. A trad publisher would never give your memoir a chance, but if you want to give it a chance, have at it.
We use a process called Genre Therapy to help narrow our focus. We have other articles on Genre Therapy on this site, but the short version is this: With a bit of introspection — either with a back-and-forth partner or on your own, writing in a journal or talking to yourself — you’ll find the intersection of what you’re great at writing and what the market is looking for.
In Genre Therapy, “what you’re great at writing” is seldom what you think it is if you only consider the question from far above. Delve into the weeds and you’ll start to ask yourself new questions that go a bit deeper: Why XYZ is your favorite book or TV show, rather than just What your favorite books and TV shows are.
Once you uncover that root “why,” you’ll start to see the elements of those favorites that go into your unique “best style.” Writing that stuff (as opposed to obeying a more simplistic “I like sci-fi because it’s fun and sells well”) will result in better books, written faster, and with more joy.
Step 2: Get your book in order and your marketing materials together
All things being equal, the book you turn in to traditional publishers or your agent is probably a bit sloppier than the one you should publish if you’re doing things yourself. Because publishers have editors and proofreaders, it’s okay, within reason, to send them a draft that might not be 100% perfect, though it should be close.
But as an indie, the only editors are the ones you hire. This means you may want to run through your book one extra time on your own to catch obvious errors, then find yourself a good freelance line editor (through referrals or job sites) to take a pass once you’re done. Ideally, after the editor has marked up your draft and you’ve decided which changes to accept and which to reject, you should hire a proofreader to take one final pass. Your proofreader will catch things that your readers would otherwise catch. It’s a lot less embarrassing to catch typos before the book is published, so don’t skip this step if you can help it.
(Pro tip: Although you should hire real editors instead of relying on family to do the job, proofreaders can come from just about anywhere. If someone you know is a careful reader, feel free to barter for free proofing all you’d like.)
As to marketing materials? Don’t worry. It sounds more daunting than it is. Your most important marketing materials are your book cover and description, so for now focus on getting those and going from there. We’ve written and podcasted enormous volumes of information on both of these things, so don’t be shy about looking around for all of that more in-depth info.
Once you have a polished, professionally edited book, a cover, and a description, you’re off to the races … and all that’s left it to sell the thing direct to readers.
Step 3: Publish your book as an ebook (by yourself)
This part daunts newbies, but it’s actually no big deal. Go to kdp.amazon.com and sign up for a publisher account. If you’d like, you can also sign up at an aggregator site like Draft2Digital or PublishDrive, which will distribute your book to most of the other online bookstores (outside of Amazon) in one fell swoop, from a single consolidated dashboard. Choose this option and you’ll lose some of the advantages that come with Amazon exclusivity but gain wider exposure. The choice is up to you … but right now, for most new authors, publishing only on Amazon (and gaining those exclusivity benefits) is probably a good idea.
Regardless of whether you sign up for just an Amazon publisher account or open accounts in several places, the process is the same. The dashboards are all a little different, but each one will include a place to upload your ebook file (in .epub or .mobi format, both of which can be directly outputted by writing programs like Scrivener or compiling programs like Vellum), a place to upload your cover, a place to copy and paste a description of your book, a place to enter your book’s title, and fields from which you’ll choose your book’s genre.
When choosing genre, be sure to drill down to as specific a sub-genre as you can. So don’t just choose “Mystery and Thrillers” as the genre for your police procedural if “Mystery and Thrillers > Psychological Thrillers > Procedurals” is an option.
Once you’ve uploaded everything, set a price and hit publish. After an hour or many, your book will show up on the site, available for sale.
Congratulations! You’re a published author!
Step 3B (optional): Publish as a paperback, hardback, and/or audiobook
Since you’re reading a “how to get published” article, chances are you’re new to this … and if so, we suggest keeping things simple and not bothering with other formats at the start of your publishing journey. Almost all indie sales come from ebooks, with paperbacks being minor and hardback sales being almost nonexistent. Audiobooks can do well, but the process is labor intensive, costly, or both. It’s definitely worth doing once you’re established, but maybe take mercy on yourself and wait to try it later.
Step 4: Find readers and generate interest about your book
This was the second step for our list of how to get published traditionally, but it’s the final step for indies. Our job is pretty simple: Write the book, make the book look as awesome and compelling as possible using a great cover, description, title, and more, and then find readers. It’s literally 1-2-3. Simple, even if not always easy.
You’ll find readers for your books in the same way you would as a trad author, which is why I wonder what exactly trad publishers claim they’re doing to merit taking a huge slice of earnings on a book you wrote.
Just so we’re clear, the James Pattersons and Sue Graftons of the world are an anomaly. Most authors are much, much smaller … and hence don’t get much of their publisher’s attention. Few authors even earn back their initial advances through royalties, and that means the advance is all those authors ever receive for their book.
Most small-fry traditionally published authors have to do this step on their own. Indies, too. In some cases, a publisher’s marketing efforts will help earn royalties for the author, but in most cases the author is really earning those royalties all by themselves — by going on book tours, being out there on social media, blogging, shaking hands and doing signings. If you’re doing it all regardless, why not keep 70% instead of 15%? Why not have more control over your intellectual property as an indie?
Either way, finding readers is the name of the game. And for indies and trad authors alike, if they’re smart, that task extends from finding readers for this current book all the way to finding readers for me as an author.
You shouldn’t just be building your book’s career; you should be building your own! That’s how you future-proof yourself. That’s how you open up more options in the future … because if readers like and know you, you’ll be able to write whatever you want, and distribute it however you’d like.
Good luck and happy writing — now get out there and change the world with your story!
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