So, you want to publish a book. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not impossible. But it does take some time.
First off, you’ve got to write a really great book. Then, you query and sign with a literary agent—or reach out to a small publisher directly.
Then, presto, your book is in stores!
Well, not exactly.
Traditional publishing moves at a snail’s pace. In fact, for most writers, the process from writing your book to seeing it in an actual bookstore takes years.
But is it worth it in the end? Definitely.
If you’re looking to learn how to get your book published, here’s everything you need to know.
Hundreds of thousands of writers have followed the same process for publishing their books. Tested and true, writing, querying, and submitting is the traditional way to see your book published. Learn more about each step in the process below.
Step 1: Write a Great Book
You likely know this already, but top publishing houses can be extremely discerning. So you’ll want to make sure your book is good before trying to get it published.
We’ve broken down the steps on how to write a book in any genre here, but to sum up:
- Choose your genre (thriller, romance, memoir, etc.), and familiarize yourself with its word counts, tropes, and conventions by reading in it widely.
- Set a writing goal and schedule for yourself.
- Prepare: outline, do your research, and set out a plan.
- Write your first draft.
- Edit, edit again, edit again, proofread, and polish your work.
Step 2: Query Your Book
Querying means sending your book to literary agents.
But let’s back up: Why do you need a literary agent? If you’re submitting to a small press (more on that below), chances are, you don’t.
If you want your book to be considered by a larger publishing house, though, know that they almost never accept unagented manuscripts. So you need a literary agent to represent you and get your book in front of the big publishers.
Literary agents are more than just your ticket to getting your book in front of the Big 4. They’re also seasoned veterans of the publishing industry (or, if they’re newer, they’ll have a seasoned mentor). They can help you negotiate contracts, advise you on your next projects, and potentially even help you edit your book.
So, how do you query?
Once your manuscript is edited, proofread, and polished, you write a query letter. Typically no more than 400 words, a query letter pitches your book succinctly and in a way that will entice agents to want to read it.
There are tons of resources online for writing query letters, like this blog post or Query Shark. There are also mentorship programs like Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match, which you can enter in the hopes of getting a more seasoned writer to help you write a query.
No matter what, spend time on your query letter; it’s the agent’s introduction to you and your writing, and some agents don’t read anything beyond it.
To determine which agents to query, do your research. You’ll want an agent from a reputable agency (there are a lot of what’s known as “schmagencies” out there—Writer Beware is a trustworthy site for weeding them out) who represents what you write. For example, some represent largely romance, while others are strictly nonfiction. Some are children’s literature only, while others are open to all age categories.
Many list their #MSWLs, or manuscript wishlists, either on the literary agencies’ websites or on Twitter, where they’ll share more specific preferences, such as that they’re looking primarily for queer stories, or they love historical fiction set in Asia. You can also take a look at the kind of books they’ve recently signed—if a certain agent has recently signed a few YA rom-coms, chances are they’re looking for more.
Search for the right agents for your work, then start to query. Be sure to follow each agents’ preferences. Some agents accept query over email; many now use QueryTracker, an online form. Some want only your query, while others request your first pages, which can be a range of anywhere from three to 50.
Then… you wait. Sometimes, for a long time.
Publishing is an incredibly slow industry, and querying is no exception. Many agents will take months to get back to you. (Though some won’t—so make sure your entire manuscript is ready before you begin querying.) If they’re interested in seeing more of your work, they’ll let you know, and you’ll then send them the full manuscript.
In the best case scenario, an agent will offer representation. They’ll usually give you time to notify any other agents who still have your query, at which point other offers may come in, and you’ll have a choice to make. Or, you may only get one offer, and that’s okay, too. Do your research to ensure this is an agent you really want to work with.
And then—sign your contract!
Typically, your contract will include terms like the scope of representation, the agent’s commission, terms of termination, as well as some other legalese. It can help to have a lawyer review, but generally reputable agencies have reputable contacts.
Step 3: Submit Your Book to a Publisher
After you’ve signed with your agent, that’s when the real fun begins.
Many agents are editorial, meaning they’ll want you to edit your manuscript before sending it out to publishers. They’ll send you an edit letter with their comments on what they think might be improved. Others will accept your manuscript as is, and you’ll begin the submission process right away.
While you don’t have to make every change your agent suggests, keep in mind that they have a lot of experience, have sold books before, and know what publishers are looking for.
Once you and your agent have agreed that your manuscript is the best it can be, it’s time to submit it to editors at publishing houses.
Don’t worry about how to submit a book to a publisher—this is your agent’s job. This process is in some ways similar to querying; your agent will identify editors, take into account their preferences, and write them a pitch email.
And then… you wait some more.
Similar to agents, editors have a backlog of reading to do, so it often takes them time to respond. And it’s not just up to one editor—if they like a project, they need to take it to their team. You’ll hear the term “acquisitions” a lot—if a book makes it through acquisitions, it’s likely a go!
That’s when you’ll get a publishing date (likely at least a year into the future, more likely two years), and you’ll start talking about promotion, cover designs, and all that fun stuff.
And then you’re on your way to becoming a traditionally published author!
But that’s not the only way to get your book published.
You don’t necessarily need to go with a top publishing house to see your work out in the world. Whether you’d rather go the smaller publisher route or go entirely independent, there are still options for you.
Why might you choose a small publisher over a larger one?
For one, you don’t need an agent, so if that’s one step you’d rather skip, perhaps a small press would work for you. Secondly, small publishers tend to be slightly less discerning when it comes to debut authors; without a huge advance on the line, they might be more willing to take a chance on a more niche book. Thirdly, you may get more individual attention because you’re not competing with John Grisham’s latest novel within the publishing house.
Do your research to make sure the publisher is legitimate. If you come across an agent or publisher who asks you for money to publish your book—run as fast as you can in the other direction. These people or companies are not legitimate agents or publishers, and they are preying on unsuspecting newbie writers. When in doubt, check out Writer Beware.
Similar to finding an agent, when it comes to pitching a small publisher, you’ll have to write a query letter. Follow each publisher’s guidelines in terms of how much to submit at once.
Often with small publishers, your advance will be smaller (if you get an advance at all). You may not get any marketing budget, which means you’ll have to market your book yourself, and it may take more work to get into bookstores. But legitimate small publishers are a valid and appealing option for many writers.
Of course, traditional publishing isn’t the only route you can take. There’s also self-publishing.
Self-publishing has no gatekeepers, so there’s no one to reject you or tell you your book isn’t commercial enough. It can also be as fast or slow as you like—no waiting on publisher timelines! You’ll also have complete control over every aspect of your work, from the cover design to the editing—not to mention, there’s no publisher or agent commission to pay out, so you get to keep the profits from your sales.
But self-publishing is a whole other ballgame, which we’ve covered in detail right here.
Getting your book traditionally published is an incredible feat that is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work, patience—and a decent amount of luck, too. But there’s nothing like walking into a bookstore and seeing your own novel on a shelf. And if you persevere, that just might be your future.
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How to Get Published: A Step-by-Step Guide to Submitting Your Writing