If you would like to be traditionally published then you need to find a publisher who is interested in publishing your book. Some publishers will allow you to submit your manuscript directly to them. However, most big publishers will only accept submissions via an agent.
Your first step is to research which publishers publish your genre of book. Make a list of potential publishers, taking note of key attributes like their market share, the quality of books they produce, how they treat their authors, etc. Also take note of whether or not they accept submissions directly or via an agent. Once you have your list, prioritise them according to the attributes that are most important to you. If you find you need an agent (which will most likely be the case), then you need to repeat the exercise above, making a list of suitable agents and then prioritising them so you know whom to contact first.
The submissions process
The process for submitting to both publishers and agents is pretty similar. In general, they want a short summary of your manuscript (covering the full story, including the ending), a short biography, including any published writing you might have such as newspaper articles or short stories, and a little about why you think they’re the right agent or publisher for you. They will also want a sample from your manuscript – anything from a few pages to the whole book.
Each agent and publisher has their own submission requirements and it is crucial that you follow their guidelines to the letter. Some will want a one-page summary, some will want a three-page summary. Some will want a 1,000-word sample. Some will want a 10,000-word sample. While I don’t recommend cutting yourself off in the middle of a sentence, be sure to submit exactly what they’ve asked for, give or take a few words. It’s like applying for a job – if you can’t follow their submission guidelines, you’re not selling yourself very well as a potential client. (It’s worth noting that while, technically, both the agent and publisher work for you, you are the little fish, so you need to work hard to get onto their rostrum!)
Carefully prepare the materials needed for each agent or publisher and submit according to your prioritised list. It is very important to note whether or not the agent or publisher requires exclusive submissions, meaning they don’t want you to send your work to anyone else while they are considering your manuscript. Given that they generally allow themselves three or four months to get back to you, submitting exclusively can seriously slow down your timeline, so make sure you really want these agents or publishers before you submit. If you do submit exclusively, make sure you honour your commitment to exclusivity. Agents and publishers talk to each other – a lot – so you could easily get caught out, in which case you would almost certainly lose that agent or publisher.
Once you have submitted, now comes the really hard part – waiting for the replies. As mentioned above, most allow themselves three months to come back to you. Most agents and publishers receive huge volumes of manuscripts each week, so many will only reply if they are interested in your work. This means you have to wait for the full three-month period to elapse before you can cross that agent or publisher off your list. Some will come back sooner, but my own experience is that more will not reply than will reply. Where you do get a reply, it’s likely to be a rejection. Generally, these will be form rejections and will tell you nothing about why they don’t want your book. Again, most agents and publishers just receive way too many manuscripts to give individual feedback. If you are lucky enough to receive feedback, positive or negative, be sure to take note of it and consider it, either for this work or for future works. Agenting and publishing are subjective, so just because one agent or publisher doesn’t like your book doesn’t mean you should run and change it. However, if you get a few similar comments, it might be worth considering them more thoroughly.
What do agents do?
Agents are the liaison between you and your publisher. When you sign with an agent, they become a champion for you and your book. They will approach publishers who would be best suited to publishing your work. If the publisher is interested, they will negotiate the contract on your behalf. Later, they will collect your royalties from the publisher for you. Agents typically charge 15-20% of your book royalties. Please note that good agents do not charge an upfront fee – avoid agents who offer to represent your book for a fee.
Do I need an agent?
Many publishers will accept submissions only via agents. This is to ensure they only get presented with quality material suitable for their catalogue. Agents help them to filter out sub-par manuscripts or books that are unlikely to sell in the current market. As such, in order to reach these publishers, you need an agent.
There are other publishers, particularly smaller publishers, who accept submissions directly from the author. If you have a publisher in mind, check their submissions policy first to see if you need an agent.
Even if the publisher does not require submissions via an agent, you might still want one, particularly if you feel your book is likely to attract a large royalty advance. Agents can negotiate better deals on your behalf and ensure all your monies get paid to you in a timely fashion. If, however, a publisher is offering a contract with a small advance it might not be worth the time and expense of engaging an agent.
Note that if you don’t have an agent and are offered a publishing contract directly from a publisher, you may wish to have a solicitor (lawyer) look over the contract for you.
What happens after I sign with an agent and/or publisher?
It is likely that your agent or publisher, or quite possibly both, will want to edit your book before taking it to market. Many agents take a very hands-on role in shaping your book and will give you detailed feedback, which they will expect you to incorporate into your manuscript before they present the book to any publishers. They might feel your book is too long or too short for the genre, that a particular plot element is not in line with current market trends, that the book is too edgy or not edgy enough, etc. While the process is collaborative, some agent contracts contain clauses giving the agent the option to back out of the contract if they are not satisfied with the final edit.
Publishers, too, can seriously reshape your book as part of their own editing process. On the plus side, they hire experienced editors who know the market well and the changes they suggest will most probably improve your sales. However, you may not like all of the suggestions, some of which could deviate significantly from your own original vision for the book. Unfortunately, in most cases you have limited editorial control. You are also likely to be given only a short turnaround time to complete your changes.
Once the edits are complete, the publisher will complete all other work to get the book ready for market – principally typesetting, cover design and marketing. The whole process could take up to a year, depending on how many other authors the publisher has waiting in line. They also might want to time the release of your book to coincide with a particular event, such as Valentine’s Day for romance novels or Halloween for horror novels. All you can do in that time is start work on your next book!
Finding an agent or publisher to take you on is extremely difficult, mostly because of the huge number of authors seeking representation. If you are unable to secure an agent or publisher or if being published traditionally doesn’t appeal to you, you can try self-publishing.
For more about this post series, see here.
I have now amalgamated all the posts from my “5 Steps to Publishing a Book” series into a short ebook, available from just 99c!