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I started querying traditional publishers in my final year of high school, and I graduated fully expecting to receive tons of rejection letters.
Instead, a (legitimate) publishing contract showed up in my inbox on my first attempt ever, resulting in me graduating high school as a signed author, and from that point on I’ve gone on to be signed twice, work in publishing houses, and learn the ins and outs of the industry.
So if anybody can teach you how to traditionally publish, offer insights as to what Acquisitions Editors are looking for, and help you avoid spending 10+ years navigating rejections, it’s me.
In this post, I’m breaking down the very first steps to getting traditionally published, including how to find a publisher or agent, and how to go about querying your book to traditional publishers.
First thing’s first: let’s explore whether a publisher or agent is right for you:
What’s the difference between a publisher and an agent?
A publisher is a company dedicated to working with authors to publish their books. They take care of all the book production, distribution and some marketing tasks, at no upfront cost to you.
Some publishers require you to be represented by an agent before you can pitch your book to them, but the ones that don’t will accept any book that they think they can sell and fits with their audience and company vision.
An agent is a person with connections to the best publishing houses in the industry, who’s job is to represent and sell your book. They can help you negotiate better royalty rates, polish your manuscript for market, and oversee all the little details in your publishing contracts.
An agent is (in my experience) much harder to obtain because your book doesn’t just have to fit an ideal audience and market, it has to fit the agent’s personal tastes so that they can fully back and advocate for it in the sales process. But an agent can bring many perks to the table and land you better publishing opportunities.
So, now that we’re clear on that, let’s explore down the different routes to getting published:
Route #1: Querying Publishers Directly
Some publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but there are a lot of houses that will, and sometimes you can go straight to them and directly query your manuscript.
Now, there’s a lot of different things you’ll hear in the writing world about traditional publishing. Some people swear by it and look down on indie books as if they’re the spawn on the Earth (which, excuse me). Others will curse publishing companies for being too picky, too unfair, and not seeing the potential in brilliant works that get pitched to them.
But in reality, publishing houses have a lot of things to consider when they take on your work. It’s not always the fact that your writing is terrible and not ready for publication– in fact, this is rarely the case. It actually depends on the following things:
- What books are already signed for publication in the next two years— if your work is too similar to another book they’ve got, they can’t sign you.
- The kind of books they’re focusing on publishing— don’t pitch fantasy to a company that focuses on contemporary romance. For a start, they don’t even have the right readership to sell your book to, and it doesn’t make you look all that great either.
- The risk factor— sadly, if you have a book that is more difficult to sell, has a smaller or non-existent market, no sales data around it, etc. then it’s going to be harder to get it signed. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, but it would help if you can prove that there’s a market for it first.
As a writer, you have to be offering something that matches with their marketing plan. No matter how good your book is, they can only take on books that they know readers are going to want by the time it reaches the shelves. This is why it’s very important to read their submission guidelines and find out exactly what the company is after.
So how do you go about this?
1) Make a list of publishing houses
Go through a bunch of books that are similar to yours, and make a list of publishing companies to contact from their publication info page (in the front). Once you have that list, go online and look up each company individually, and find their submission guidelines page.
2) Read their submission guidelines
On that page, it will tell you the requirements you must meet to be able to submit an eligible book for consideration. For example, you may have to format it a certain way (e.g. 12 pt, Times New Roman). Or, you may need to submit the first three chapters before they request your full manuscript.
Reminder: publishers should never ask you for money or compensation to publish your book– these are vanity publishers or just straight out scammers. Only ever submit to companies that work with royalty payments or advances. Always do your research before submission or signing a contract.
3) Craft your query letter
Your query letter is your pitch to the publishing house (formally directed at the Acquisitions Editor) for your book.
Generally, you would start off by introducing yourself briefly, then dive into your book pitch. Some people might start off by quoting the tagline of their book, to hook the editor’s attention.
Follow up your introduction by providing a brief summary of the book and include anything they ask for, such as it’s word count, target audience, why you think it would sell well, which market it would sell best in (mention the genre) and any experience you may have as an author (hint: now’s the time to start listing all of your writing awards and those articles you wrote for the school newspaper).
End your letter by thanking the editor for their time, and tell them you look forward to hearing back from them. They might not be able to get back to you if they aren’t interested in your work, but they typically state whether they will respond and the time period which you must wait before following up.
Route #2: Finding An Agent
Many publishing companies (such as Bloomsbury) will only accept solicited manuscripts— these are manuscripts that are represented by a literary agent. This will narrow down your submission opportunities unless you can find an agent to take you on.
Having an agent is never a bad thing– especially if you’re a first-time author who knows very little about rights, contracts, and all the stuff that an agent would handle for you. It’s their job to represent you and your manuscript, and find a publishing house for it from their personal network of contacts, and then negotiate the deals on your behalf. They will take a small percentage of your royalty to compensate for their services.
So how do you find an agent?
1) Make a list of ideal agents
They operate in a similar fashion to publishers themselves– they have submission guidelines either on their personal blogs or through their literary house websites (agent Twitter profiles are a great place to find direct links to these). They will only represent books that they have the network or personal taste to sell, so it’s important to pitch an agent who is the right fit for your book.
2) Read their submission guidelines
Seeing a pattern here? Yes, it might seem obvious by now, but I will reiterate that you need to read the submission guidelines no matter who you’re pitching. An agent I follow typically receives up to 200 submissions each month, and you’d be surprised how many of those pitches don’t follow her guidelines. Doing this is a waste of time for both you, her, and all the other authors waiting on her. Plus, people in the industry talk, so you don’t want to be that person.
3) Craft your query letter
This is the exact same deal as above– just addressed to the agent, not the editor. It’s pretty standard stuff.
A final word of advice…
Finding publishers and agents isn’t the challenging part of publishing. It’s crafting a query that resonates strongly enough for an agent or editor to pause their workflow and to give your pitch the time and attention it deserves.
Out of every 100 queried books a publisher/agent receives, only ONE gets accepted… which means your query really has to count.
So how do you write an irresistible query letter that agents and publishers simply can’t ignore?
Well, as a reminder, I was signed by a publisher, fresh out of high school, on my first querying attempt ever. And then I was signed again by another publisher just 3 years later despite the low odds. I believe this had very little to do with luck, and almost EVERYTHING to do with how I went about the process.
My approach, query structure, and supporting beliefs around getting published are what I want to give you to help you put your best pitch forward with agents and publishers, and that’s why I created The Query Bundle.
If you want to put your best foot forward on your traditional publishing journey, learn all the ins and outs of publishing (including contracts, royalty rates, timeline expectations) and get access to the exact query letters and synopsis that have gotten me signed time and time again? Then this bundle is a must-have in your publishing toolkit. Learn more and grab the bundle here.
Pagan Malcolm is a bestselling fiction author, speaker, podcaster and business coach for authors. She helps aspiring authors finish their books, build the foundations for consistent book sales and establish a standout author brand that gets them KNOWN.
Pagan Malcolm is a business coach for authors helping writers to leverage the business side of publishing so that they can kickstart profitable writing careers and become established authors. She has been featured in various publications including Writer’s Digest and The Write Life Top 100 Websites For Writers.
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