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The Writers’ Guide to Traditional Publishing

You’ve spent months or even years working on your manuscript and it’s finally finished! Now what do you do? For many writers, the next step would be to get their work published, but how do we go about this? Finding a traditional publisher to offer a contract is a lifelong goal for many, and its what most think of when they hear the word, “publishing.” In traditional publishing, the publisher buys the right to publish your work and assumes all costs associated with doing that. You are paid an advance and in royalties from the book sales. The key is to have an effective pitch in order to convince a publisher to publish your work.

The Steps to Getting Published

There are several steps involved in the path to publication.

 1. Determine your genre
 2. Build an online presence
 3. Research and find a literary agent who is appropriate for your manuscript
 4. Prepare your submission materials
 5. Submit your query letter
 6. Get a contract! (Woo-hoo!)

Determine Your Genre

What kind of book have you written, are currently writing, or planning to write? Also, think about other books that your story is similar to. It may be that your book doesn’t fit into an obvious genre, such as romance, mystery, science fiction or thriller. If that is the case, then your story may simply be considered literary or mainstream fiction. This genre includes anything from the classics you were taught in school, to contemporary fiction. Your book could also be a combination of genres, such as romantic comedy or paranormal mystery.

If writing fiction or a memoir piece, the process to publication will be slightly different for you than if you are writing nonfiction.

Novels and Memoirs

Your manuscript must be completed prior to contacting an editor or agent. I know how it feels to be excited about an idea or partially completed project, but its rarely a good idea to pitch your work at such an early stage. First, complete your project and make it the best manuscript you can. It will help if you found a mentor or writing group where you will receive constructive criticism, then revise your manuscript accordingly. When you’re ready to approach an agent, know that you’re submitting your best work. It is a common mistake for new writers to rush to get published, and this usually hinders the process.


Unlike fiction, where you would have a completed manuscript, nonfiction only requires a book proposal. This is pretty much a business plan for your book and will be used to persuade a publisher to offer you a contract. Before writing your proposal, research the market for your idea. Make sure that your story is unique, but not so much that it breaks the rules of its genre. One way to do this is to find other books that are comparable to your own.

The Importance of Having Comparable Books

Thinking about the other books (or even movies) that your story is similar to will help when pitching your book. It quickly communicates what your book is like without it having been read. This is important to not only agents and publishers, but also to your potential readers.

• When reaching out to publishers, Agents want to say something like, “this book is like X meets Y.”
Publishers want an intriguing hook. In order to convince a publisher to publish your book, an agent may use the sales of similar titles. Publishers will use these figures when speaking with booksellers about your work, reassuring them that your work could do just as well because its comparable in style.
Readers want to know that they will enjoy your book because they enjoyed another one similar to it. Think of Amazon’s algorithm, “people who bought X also bought Y.”

None of this translates to copying someone else’s book. Having a unique story and voice is what agents, publishers, and readers are seeking. Publishers want a similar title because it reassures them based on the success of previous books, but the story needs to be fresh and marketable.tiera writes big 5

Most Common Fiction Genres

• Young Adult
• Romance
• Erotica
• Women’s Fiction
• Historical Fiction
• Mystery
• Crime
• Thriller
• Science Fiction
• Fantasy

Most Popular Nonfiction Genres

• Business
• Self-Help
• Health and Fitness
• Memoirs

Nonfiction is generally divided into two categories: prescriptive (educational, how-to, or informative) and narrative (creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoirs).

Some books are more suitable for the Big 5 traditional publishing companies, while others work best for mid-size and small presses. Keep in mind that not every book is fit to be represented by an agent or published by one of the Big 5. It is important to research what does well and to be honest with yourself about your story’s potential.

Type of Books Usually Published by the Big 5

• Commercial (genre) fiction: science fiction, romance, fantasy, young adult, erotica, thriller, mystery, crime
• Nonfiction books that you wish to be shelved at major booksellers or indie stores require a strong concept and an author platform. Typically, a Big 5 publisher won’t contract a nonfiction book unless they anticipate selling anywhere from 10,000 – 20,000 copies.

Usually Difficult to Sell

• Books exceeding 120,000 words
• Poetry, short stories or essay collections
• Nonfiction books by authors with no authority or platform to target their audience
• Memoirs with common themes, such as death or mental illness, and no unique angle
• Experimental fiction

If you’re looking to write a fiction novel or memoir and have a goal of being traditionally published, then the quality of writing is most important. Continually read in your genre and practice writing in that genre.

If you’re considering writing a nonfiction piece, the marketability and your visibility matter just as much, if not more, than the writing itself.

Sometimes your work may not be the best fit for one of the Big 5, but don’t let that deter you. There are other publishing opportunities with indie publishers, small presses, mid-size publishers, university or regional presses.

Build an Online Presence

Before seeking out an agent or publisher, it is important to build a platform for yourself. Nowadays, agents and publishers want to know that you have the ability to reach your audience. Start right now, no matter if you have a completed manuscript or have just started writing. Here are some ideas for increasing your visibility:

Start a Blogtiera writes online presence

Creating a well-written blog can not only attract an agent’s attention, but also proves that you know how to write for a target audience. Depending on your topic, your blog could become a book as well. (An example is Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York: Stories).

Blogs are especially beneficial for those of you writing in nonfiction genres because you’ll build an audience in your niche. If you blog regularly, it could become the starting point for your nonfiction book.

Have a Wattpad Profile

With Wattpad, you can upload your stories and read tons of others for free. You can post pieces that you’ve already written. Better yet, upload as you go along, posting a chapter at a time. Focus on the readers’ comments and adapt your work as you see fit. Be mindful that readers aren’t the only ones using this platform: agents and publishers use Wattpad as well. If your quality of writing is there and you have a large following, that will make you stand out and maybe even land you a deal!

Consider Self-Publishing First

Being a successful self-published author can lead you to traditional publishing. If your book sells a lot of copies and is successful on its own, then you have an increased chance of being able to get it traditionally published.

Write Short Stories

Consider writing shorts for magazines and similar publications. You won’t get rich, but you’ll develop your writing and build your publication credential (and résumé). Enter your short stories in competitions…and win! Any of your short stories that are published (especially if they win an award) will look great to an agent or publisher and should definitely be listed in your query letter.

Research and Find an Appropriate Literary Agent

In today’s market, most of the books published by the Big 5 were represented by an agent. Agents are experts in the publishing world and know which publishers are likely to contract a specific piece of work. Other benefits to having an agent include:

• Knowing the market
• Having inside contacts and connections
• Getting the best deal for you
• Negotiating contracts on your behalf
• Managing your rights. (You will retain certain rights, such as film, that can be sold separately).
• Handling media requests for you
• Charging a fee of about 15% of your earnings (advance and royalties). This doesn’t sound like a benefit at first, but think about it. There is an incentive for them to get you the best deals because their fee is based on your earnings.

Avoid agents who charge upfront fees for their services.

There are some agents who offer editorial support. You will receive critiques and criticism that will help get your final draft ready to submit to a publisher. Find an agent who offers this service if this is important to you, but don’t automatically expect it.

Research the agents or publishers that will be a good fit for you and your book. Here is a list of quality resources to get you started:

Agentquery.com – A free resource that allows you to look up agent listings by genre. This is a great resource for those of you going through the query process.
Publishersmarketplace.com – Best for researching literary agents. A subscription is required, but worth it. You can look through the agents’ member pages and pinpoint the best one for you by searching the publishing deals database.
Writersmarket.com – This is the best place to research publishers. There is a monthly fee in order to access their database, otherwise you can purchase their most recent print edition.
Duotrope.com – A subscription is required, though they do offer a free trial period. This is a very useful resource if your work is poetry, short story, or essay based.
Querytracker.net – The basic service is free. You can look through a little more than 1000 agent listings and about 200 publisher listings.

Before approaching anyone, make sure you prepare you materials!

Prepare Your Submission Materials

Here, research is key because every agent and publisher has their own requirements for submission. The most common materials that are requested are:

Query Letter: A 1-page pitch giving a brief description of your work.
Novel Synopsis: A 1-2 page summary of your story from beginning to end. Be sure to reveal the ending.
Nonfiction Book Proposal: This is extensive, usually 20-30+ pages. For more info on nonfiction book proposals, check this post.
Fiction Book Proposal: This usually consists of your query letter, synopsis, and maybe the first chapter.
Sample Chapters: For fiction or memoirs, start from the beginning of your manuscript. Any chapter is usually acceptable for nonfiction work.

Although you won’t be submitting all these materials at once, it is a good idea to have them prepared just in case you are asked to provide further material.

The query letter is essential for writers seeking publication. Its your chance to persuade an agent to request your full manuscript or book proposal.

Submit Your Query Letter

Make sure you research the submission guidelines for every agent or publisher you wish to contact. Don’t expect any agent to accept your full manuscript at first contact; this is considered to be “unsolicited materials” and will immediately be rejected. However, unless otherwise stated, almost every agent will accept a 1-page query letter.

Can I send a query letter to multiple agents?

You most certainly can! It could take several months to get a reply from an agent and you don’t want to wait around that long for a reply that may not come. Compile a list of agents that you want to submit to and send query letters to about 5 of them. This will give you a range of the type of responses your story is receiving.

I’ve sent my query letters, now what?

There are a few responses that you’re likely to receive:

• A rejection
• No response (usually means a rejection)
• A request for a partial manuscript or synopsis
• A request for the full manuscript

The last two responses may also result in a rejection, but don’t get discouraged; the agent may not feel that your book is one they can sell to publishers. You may get feedback, but more often than not, you’ll just receive a standard rejection.

If you get no requests for your manuscript or proposal, then your query letter may need some adjustments.

If you’re successful in getting your material requested, but then get rejected, your manuscript or proposal may need some touching up. Consider joining a writing group for more critiques, then revising your work before re-submitting.

Some authors are rejected many, many, many times before finally getting an acceptance. Again, don’t get discouraged. Instead, look at your rejections as lesson for improving your writing. Most authors don’t sell their first manuscript, but are successful with their subsequent ones.

With all that being said, if an agent expresses interest in you and your book, the next step would be setting up a meeting to discuss.

I got an offer for representation!

That’s fantastic news! To succeed in obtaining an agent is an amazing accomplishment for an aspiring author. However, don’t get too carried away in your excitement and accept just any offer. Don’t underestimate your worth. Weigh the pros and cons of each offer, if you’ve received more than one. Ask questions and go with what feels like the best option for you and your book.

Meet your prospective agent. Get to know him/her, but keep it professional. Be prepared to discuss your writing, but also ask questions. Ask about their terms. How do they work with clients? Which books have they been successful with? Occasionally, you might pitch to an agent who wants you to write something completely different. They like your style, but in their eyes, a different type of story is more marketable. There are some agents who have a project in mind and are just looking for someone to write it.

Be careful of being pushed in an entirely different direction. This is your book and you must write the story you want.

The best agents will think about your long-term potential. They not only get you published, but will also manage your career and help your development as a writer. Ideally, you want this to be a long-term relationship, so definitely choose an agent that you connect with. Once you’ve accepted an offer for representation, the next step is to sign an agreement with him/her. Then, they will set out working for you!

Get a Contract

You will quickly get used to legal paperwork as a newly agent-represented writer. Although you’ll encounter other contracts along the way, such as an option agreement, the two main ones to focus on right now are:

Agency Agreement: The contract between you and your agent. It outlines their terms and fees associated with representation (about 15% of your earnings).
Publishing Contract: This is where your agent comes into play. S/he will negotiate the best deal for you.

Now that you have representation, it is your agent’s job to get you a publishing contract. In this process, your agent will try to “sell” your book to a publisher. This will include your submission materials and a pitch from your agent, which will discuss the market and selling potential of your book.

This process can be very lengthy.

Once a publisher makes an offer, it is up to your agent to negotiate your contract. You could find yourself in a bidding war if more than one publisher offers you a deal. Oh boy! Your agent will make recommendations and can advise you of the pros and cons of each offer. Be sure to consider what editorial support the publisher provides, the marketing they will do (including what they expect you to do), and how successful the book is likely to become based on previous works. You could be offered a multiple-book deal which will tie you to that publisher for years.

How does payment work?

Keep in mind that it is difficult to earn a living as a full-time writer, but not impossible. There is a wide-range for publishing advances, you could earn 4 figures for a publication with a small publisher, and up to 6 figures from a big publisher who feels that your book will sell extremely well.tiera writes getting paid

Remember that an advance is one on royalties—it is an advance payment against money that your book hopefully earns once its published. You will receive a royalty statement 1 – 2 times per year from your publisher, which your agent will be able to explain to you. Only when your book has earned more than your advance will you begin earning additional income from royalties.

Royalties are a set percentage (i.e. 15%) of either:

Net Receipts: The net income that publishers receive from booksellers who bought stock at a discount.
Published Price: A percentage of the book’s retail price.

When do I get paid?

You will usually receive payments in stages. For example: you may get 1/3 of the payment upon contract signing, the second 1/3 upon delivery and acceptance of your final manuscript, and the final 1/3 upon publication.

Last but not least, I leave you with this: if you have goals of becoming a published author, learn as much as you can about the industry. Take opportunities to meet those within the industry by going to conferences, courses, or other events. Once you’ve landed your first deal, enjoy it! As soon as your book is published, the pressure with be on to publish the next one.

Good luck and get to work!

I would love to hear about your experience with publishing in the comments below.

(Feature photo credit: Tuur Tisseghem via pexels.com, Photo 1 credit: Pixabay via pexels.com, Photo 2 credit: Startup Stock Photos via pexels.com, Photo 3 credit: Pixabay via pexels.com)

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