Traditional Publishing: How Fiction Writers Nab Book Deals & Get Published
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Are you interested in traditional publishing?
Welcome to the second article in our publishing series here at Well-Storied. Today, we’re exploring the most common way authors get published: traditional book deals.
Originally, I’d intended this post to include a breakdown of how traditional publishing works, as well as its pros and cons. But when outlining, I quickly realized just how much info I needed to convey, so we're breaking things up. Expect to see a second article on the pros and cons of traditional publishing soon!
There are, of course, many ways in which an author can go about gaining an agent and landing a book deal with a traditional publishing house. Ask a slew of published authors about their experiences in the industry, and you'll get a slew of different answers.
But for simplicity’s sake, today I’m going to break down a debut author’s typical journey through the traditional publishing process. Ultimately, your own experiences may vary, but if you’re just beginning to broach the world of publishing, this article should give you a strong idea of how traditional publishing works. Sound good? Without any further ado, let’s dive in!
Step #1: Polish your manuscript.
First drafts should never be submitted for publication. You should always complete developmental and line edits on your manuscript (in other words, always revise both your story and your prose) before submitting.
You may also want to send your manuscript to a critique partner or a few beta readers before moving forward to gain valuable early feedback on your story.
Step #2: Assess your story’s marketability.
Publishing is a business, which means your book must have selling potential if you want to land a book deal.
To assess your book's chances on the market, first define its genre and age bracket. Then, consider if and how it will fall into an established market. An unusual story isn't impossible to sell, but it may make your publishing process more difficult.
Step #3: Research agents.
Typically, a writer submits their work to agents who will serve as their book’s champion, shopping the manuscript around to editors at publishing houses and fighting on behalf of your wishes as its author.
To find an agent, first begin researching. Compile a list of 25 - 50 agents you'd like to query, only adding them to your list after you've checked their track records and submission guide-lines. Make sure they're a good fit for your book, as well as your personal writing goals.
You can research agents at the following sites:
Step #4: Write your query letter and synopsis.
A query letter is the inquiry you send to potential agents, where you pitch both your manuscript as a marketable book and yourself as a business partner. (Authors and agents rely on one another for professional success.)
Write a standard query letter that you can then tailor to each individual agent you query.
Also, double-check agents’ submission guidelines. They may request that you also send a synopsis for your book (typically 2, 5, or 10 pages), as well as part of your manuscript (typically your first 1 to 5 chapters or 50 pages).
Step #5: Begin submitting queries.
From your list of 25 - 50 agents, begin by sending out 5 - 10 queries. If you receive rejections from all 5 - 10 submissions, this doesn’t necessarily mean your manuscript isn’t marketable. You may just need to revise your query. Make any necessary adjustments and continue querying.
Expect rejections. Sometimes, an agent will send a rejection notice with advice on your pitch or manuscript, other agents may simply send a rejection notice without further detail, while other agents may not respond at all. On a more positive note, an agent may show interest in your pitch and ask for a partial or full copy of your manuscript. After sending this along, they may still reject your manuscript, or you may receive an offer of representation.
If you’ve queried your book for more than 6 months without a positive response, you may need to revise your manuscript and/or overhaul your query. If after a year you’ve still received no interest, it may be time to shelve that novel and prepare to query a new manuscript.
This doesn’t necessarily mean your book isn’t good enough to publish. It may simply be that it's not the best time for it on the market. Remember, publishing doesn’t validate your skill as a writer and storyteller. It’s a fickle industry, not a threshold into the land of “real” writership.
Step #6: An agent(s) makes an offer.
At this point, you may begin receiving offers of representation from one or more agents. This is exciting news, but do refrain from accepting the first offer that comes your way. Take time to review each agent’s track record, and feel free to ask them any questions you might have.
If you’re still waiting to hear back from other agents, let the agent(s) who made an offer know that you’re interested but are waiting to hear back from others. Tell them you’ll make your final decision within 2 - 3 weeks and that you’ll get back to them within that time frame.
Step #7: Sign with your agent.
Once you’ve accepted an agent’s offer of representation, review the contract in-depth. Make sure the agent's previously worked with authors like yourself and that they've helped those authors achieve their career goals. Watch out for any warning signs and double-check that the agent has a positive track record and good standing in the industry.
Before signing, you and your agent should also begin an in-depth conversation about your goals for both your manuscript and your career. Your agent may also wish to make their own editorial comments concerning your manuscript.
Step #8: Your agent will begin shopping your manuscript.
Over the next months, your agent will submit your manuscript to editors at appropriate publishing houses. If, after 6 months, your manuscript has yet to receive an offer, you may wish to speak with your agent about how the manuscript has been shopped around thus far, as well as your agent's plans to continue shopping the manuscript in the coming months.
If after a year the manuscript hasn't received an offer, you and your agent will have a conversation about the future. Likely, your agent will express interest in seeing your other work and may want to represent another manuscript (which is why it’s so important to continue writing something new during the submission process). In other cases, your agent may wish to end the partnership.
On a more positive note, your manuscript may begin receiving requests from editors who wish to offer you a deal. Again, don’t jump at the first offer. Review the publishing houses’ track records with your agent.
Step #9: Sign your book deal.
When you’ve decided on the deal you’d like to accept, you and your agent will review the contract. In most cases, you and your agent will fight to maintain as many rights as possible while also negotiating royalties and advances. Then, it’s time to sign!
Step #10: Your book is assigned a launch date.
As a debut author, your book will be added to the end of your publishing house’s lineup, with a tentative launch date typically 1 to 2.5 years away. And thus, your publishing time-line kicks off.
Step #11: Edits begin.
Your editor will review your manuscript and make editorial comments on how the manuscript can be revised for a stronger story. You will make edits and you and your editor will continue a dialogue as you both work to polish the story to high shine.
When the story’s content is finalized, your editor will send the manuscript to a copy editor.
Step #12: Your editor makes important presentations.
Roughly 6 to 8 months before your launch date, your editor will begin presenting your manuscript to other departments within the publishing house, including design and formatting teams, marketers and publicists, etc.
Step #13: Copy-editing begins.
Over the past several weeks, your copy editor has worked through your manuscript line-by-line and drafted in-depth comments on your prose. It's your job to make necessary edits on deadline and begin a conversation with your copy editor on lines you may not wish to change. After several rounds of copy-edits, your manuscript is officially finalized.
Step #14: Pre-publication tasks pick up.
Roughly 4 to 6 months before publication, you’ll begin a slew of tasks including finalizing your book’s cover design, working with your new publicist and marketing team, seeking blurbs from authors, and sending out ARCs (advanced reader copies) for early review.
Then, roughly 2 to 4 months before publication, marketing plans will be finalized, early reviews will begin coming in, and you and your publicist/marketing team will begin working to market your book, which may include any number of events. As a debut author, however, your book may not receive much marketing assistance.
Step #15: Your book becomes real.
Roughly 6 to 8 weeks before publication, you’ll receive the first finalized copy of your book. Time to crack the champagne!
Step #16: Your book launches.
Launch day arrives, and your book officially lands on the market. With any luck, your book will sell reasonably well and your agent and editor will express interest in representing and publishing more of your work. Congratulations, you’re officially a published author!
And that’s the gist of traditional publishing!
Again, I want to repeat that this is just a general breakdown of a debut author’s typical path through the wild, wild west that is traditional publishing. Your own experience may end up varying greatly.
Hopefully, however, this breakdown helped you gain a much better understanding of how traditional publishing typically works. For more information, check out a few of my favorite articles I discovered while researching:
• How to Get Your Book Published: Jane Friedman
• After You Sign the Publishing Contract: Randy Susan Meyers
• What Happens After You Sign With a Literary Agent: Jackie Yeager
• What Really Happens When You Land a Traditional Book Deal: Stephanie Chandler