How to Publish a Novel
Many people dream of writing the Great American Novel and topping the charts as a #1 New York Times Bestseller. However, almost all of those people have no idea where to start or what options are available to them. A writing career is basically formed from good writing, knowledge of writing markets, professionalism, and persistence. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 6) There are basically three approaches to publishing a novel.
First, try to get signed by one of the “Big Five” publishers: Hachette SA, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster. Second, pursue smaller, “indie” publishing companies. Lastly, self-publish the book. Most authors try these publishing routes in that order. It is worthwhile to try them all.
The very first step in the process of publishing a book is editing, and lots of it. Most authors edit and revise dozens of times, calling on friends, writing partners, and hiring editors to help. (Dionne, 2012) Editing can be a tedious process, but it is one of the most important steps.
The next step – especially if an author is hoping to be published by one of the “Big Five” or a larger “indie” publishing house – is to find an agent. An agent will represent the book to publishing companies and try to get a publisher to contract your book. (So You Wanna) They suggest changes to the book which will make it more marketable. (Flanagan, 2012) They may also connect you to an editor. (Flanagan, 2012) “Having an agent greatly increases the likelihood that you will be published… Established agents can usually obtain rapid (and serious) consideration for their clients”. (Guide to Publishers, 2010, p. 812) When an author submits a manuscript to a publishing company without the help of an agent, the work usually rots in the infamous “slush pile”. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents 2010 defines the slush pile as “the morass of unsolicited manuscripts at a publishing house or literary agency, which may fester indefinitely awaiting…review. Some publishers do not maintain slush piles…. Unsolicited manuscripts…may be literally or figuratively pitched to the wind.” (p. 1051)
The process of getting an agent may seem long, tedious, and difficult. However, “it’s significantly easier to get an agent than it is to get a publisher”. (Guide to Publishers, 2010, p. 812) When looking for an agent, it’s important to look for reputable agents who deal in the right market. “Agents divide themselves into fiction and non-fiction camps.” (So You Wanna) They generally also take on projects of a specific genre and category. (Guide to Publishers, 2010, p. X) For example, the romance genre is often divided into smaller, more specific categories such as teen romance, historical fiction romance, etc. It is a good idea to find out the titles of books an agent has already gotten published and see how successful they were. This is a good indication of the possible success of future books that agent chooses to take on. (So You Wanna)
After finding some agents who work with a compatible genre, the second thing an author should do is compile a list of about twenty to query. (So You Wanna) First contact is usually made with a query letter. (So You Wanna) A query is “a brief, one-page letter used as a tool to hook an editor [or agent] and get him interested in your idea”. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 7) Staying within one page is crucial. (So You Wanna) Agents get hundreds of queries a day and they won’t waste precious time reading long queries.
A query letter has a standard format, it’s very important to follow it. First, address the agent by the name used in their listing. Then, grab their attention with a strong opening and throw a good teaser into the first paragraph. “What you really need is a nice fit between who you are and what the book you've written is about.” (So You Wanna) In the next paragraph, give a brief description of the structure and content of the book. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 7) Don’t give away too much – just give enough detail to whet the agent’s appetite. In the third paragraph of the query, the author should describe experiences, training, or expertise which makes them uniquely qualified to write that book. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 8) It’s important that the author demonstrate their connection to the book. (So You Wanna) “If you’ve been published before, mention it; if not, don’t.” (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 8) In the closer, mention to the agent the reason for sending the query to them – perhaps seeing their credentials in a directory, or their work with other books of a similar genre. (So You Wanna) Include contact information: phone numbers, emails, and addresses. (So You Wanna) Finally, thank them for their time. (Writer’s Market 2010, p. 15) If the query is not sent by email, a self-addressed stamped envelope – commonly referred to as a SASE – must be included. (Feete)
Simultaneous submissions are tricky business. “Many are reluctant to receive simultaneous submissions….In some cases, an [agent] may actually be more inclined to read your manuscript sooner if she knows it’s being considered by another.” (Pope, 2010) An author should only submit queries simultaneously if the agents’ listings report that they allow it. (Pope, 2010) If sending multiple simultaneous submissions, inform each agent being queried that the work is also being considered elsewhere. (Pope, 2010)
The Writer’s Market and literary agencies report the usual length of time it takes for an agent to respond to a query. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 15) If the usual time has passed and the author has received no response, he can send a polite email which describes the query, the date it was sent, and asks if the agent has received it and if they have made a decision. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 15)
If an agent is interested, the author should call and express his happiness that the agent showed interest in his query. (So You Wanna) Then, wait a few days to see if more agents respond. (So You Wanna) “If you do hear from more than one, repeat the flattering phone call, but then begin the appraisal process….After you've come to a decision, act quickly. Be sure to inform the agent of your choice that you are going to send her, and only her, the proposal.” (So You Wanna)
A book proposal usually contains five parts: a cover letter, an overview, an outline, an information sheet on the author, sample chapters, and marketing information. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) If the book is nonfiction, a competitive title analysis is also included. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9)
A cover letter is a short introduction to the proposal. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) An overview is a summary of the book, describing the subject and basic idea of development. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) The outline expounds upon the overview by detailing, chapter-by-chapter, the major plot points. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) An author information sheet helps the agent get to know the author better; it acquaints them with the author’s writing background and qualifications. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) Sample chapters give the agent a taste of the writing style and execution of plot points mentioned in the outline. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9) Marketing information is an important part of the proposal because it provides information on the target audience, gives marketing and advertising ideas, and proves that similar books have been successful. (Writer’s Market 2010, p. 9) For nonfiction books, a competitive title analysis offers a list of other titles about a similar topic and how the author’s new book is different or better. (Writer’s Market, 2010, p. 9)
If an agent decides she doesn’t want to work with the author, the process starts over. (So You Wanna) If the agent loves the proposal, she will send a contract, help hone the proposal, and put forth her best efforts to sell the book to a publisher. (So You Wanna)
Some people query hundreds of agents and never get a response. Ms. Feete explains in her article, A Few Notes about Agents: “Agents prefer to deal with writers who have already been published or, at the least, have an offer from a publishing house in hand. In fact, many will not even accept new clients who haven't been previously published. Publishing houses prefer to work with writers through an agent. They see getting an agent as a sort of litmus test for quality, and give top priority to agented works. The slush pile is the last place they want to look for new talent; in fact, many have done away with the slush entirely and will only accept submissions through an agent.”
This sticky predicament is why many new authors are beginning to publish through “Indie” publishing houses. Some are concerned by the term “Indie”. Indie does not mean “Do It Yourself” or “poor quality”. Jennifer Mattern, from AllIndiePublishing.com, defines Indie publishing as “a balance more than the antithesis of a traditional publishing contract. You don’t do everything entirely on your own. You choose the best professionals to help you bring your book to market… [And] you can do so with the same editorial standards that are the norm with traditional publishing companies.”
The route of Indie publishing has many benefits: there is no great need for an agent, the waiting process is shorter, the author retains creative control, and – perhaps even more appealing – the author earns more profit per book. (Mattern, 2011) Indie publishing also allows print flexibility; the author can issue a limited first print run to test the waters, or target a very small niche audience. (Mattern, 2011)
However, it is important to realize that Indie publishers fund much of the production themselves. (Mattern, 2011) To be successful through Indie publishing, an author must not only be creative, they must also be entrepreneurial and have good business sense. (Mattern, 2011) The Indie author needs to find and contract other professionals to work with them on their project. (Mattern, 2011) In order to achieve success, the Indie author must treat the publication process like the real business it is, and be willing to delegate responsibilities to other professionals. (Mattern, 2011)
For some authors, Indie publishing is the gateway into building a market and a reputation. In an interview, Aubrie Dionne wrote, “It took me four books to get an agent. During that time, I submitted to small, indie publishers…My fourth book, Paradise 21, finally got the attention of an agent, and she suggested Entangled Publishing, which has been a fantastic publisher for me. Not only do they publish in ebook and print, but they also have a distributer who works to get their books on shelves across the nation. They have professional editors and a three pass editing system which really improves each book.” Through Indie publishing, Mrs. Dionne has gone from dreaming about publishing a book, to building a reader base and having her books in stores across the nation.
Indie publishing is becoming much more popular and doesn’t have the negative stigma it used to. There are many blogs, websites, and books available – such as the Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s guide books – which offer assistance to the budding Indie author. The blogs of established Indie authors offer valuable insight.
The third route to publishing a book is self-publishing. Today, self-publishing is often looked at negatively, due in part because it is not the “traditional” publishing method. Also, many who self-publish aren’t professional about it and try to push un-edited and low-quality literature. Despite this, self-publishing is slowly earning a better reputation and more people are using this method. There are small companies which help people self-publish, such as CreateSpace and Lulu. More and more tools and resources are becoming available to authors who wish to self-publish. There have been many people who have been successful at self-publishing. For some, self-publishing has been their catapult to getting a contract with a large publishing company or topping bestseller lists. Christopher Paolini was one such author. He was only fifteen when he first wrote his first novel, Eragon, and his family self-published the novel. (“The Inheritance Cycle: About”) In 2003, only a few years later, he was offered a publishing contract by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers and Paolini’s books became a worldwide sensation. (“The Inheritance Cycle: About”)
No matter which approach an author takes to publishing a book, it’s necessary to take advantage of technology. Blogs are a valuable tool, as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. (Dionne, 2012) E-books, audio books, foreign-language editions, etc., broadens the audience that can be reached.
For a writer trying to publish a book, the most important things to remember are persistence and professionalism. In an interview, Mr. Flanagan, author of internationally bestselling series The Ranger’s Apprentice and developer of hit Australian sitcom, Hey Dad!, wrote, “People who want to be authors keep writing to me, [hoping] there's some magic shortcut I can tell them to take. There isn't. It's a long hard grind.” Mrs. Dionne adds, “I did have an idea that you write one book and then get rich and famous. But, that doesn't happen to most people. You have to write several books to establish yourself as an author and gain a following… I've written eight books total, and I still don't…make enough to pay any substantial bills… It's not a get rich quick scheme. It's a long journey with loads of hard work.”
Mr. Flanagan offers these words of encouragement and advice to hopeful authors: “…expect to be rejected. You probably will be. Keep trying and don't be depressed by it. It's only one person's opinion, after all.” For those who persevere, the Great American Novel may be right around the corner.