Book Publishing 101: What Publishers are Looking For
Everyone—and I mean everyone—is working on a book. For some, it’s just a spark of an idea that hasn’t quite made it to paper; for others, it’s thousands of words socked away in a drawer or saved on an old laptop. Either way, the same question is bound to come up eventually: What does it take to get this thing published?
After years of reading submissions for a literary agency and a Big Six publisher (including everything from amazing books that bombed to titles I hated but everyone else in the world loved), I can safely say: There is no easy way to get published and become a successful author. It’s a weird, long haul, but—thankfully!—there are a few things you can do to help you on your journey. Here’s the advice that I give every aspiring author.
Read. A Lot.
More specifically, read in your genre. You need to know what good books look like, so you can take note of what makes them so successful and incorporate those things into your writing. But don’t limit yourself to the best-sellers—reading mediocre and even bad books can be just as helpful by showing you where authors miss the mark and what common missteps to avoid.
Also, all genres—from romance to self-help to literary fiction—have certain conventions that you should be aware of as an author. By reading published books in your genre, you’ll be able to make some useful comparisons: Is your YA character too young? Your New Adult novel too chaste? Your literary fiction too low on 20-something male angst?
If you’re not somewhat on par with the standards of your genre (e.g., if your 25-five year old protagonist reads like a 12-year-old or your plot twists are clones of the only book you’ve read), it doesn’t matter how good your writing is—publishers will notice and reject you immediately. Editors buy books because they love them, but they also need to be able to sell them to readers—and if the saucy chambermaid in your romance novel dies of consumption instead of marrying the Duke, we’ve all got a problem.
Write the Whole Book
Don’t hope to sell a publisher on an idea alone—agents won’t pick up new clients without a complete manuscript, and most publishing houses don’t take un-agented submissions. (And honestly, if an editor agrees to take your book without an agent, then you have to worry about the possibility of a predatory contract—so I always advise authors to go through an agent to have an expert on their side.) At the low end, books for teens and adults usually range between 80,000 and 100,000 words, although some make it up to a couple hundred thousand (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter).
The only exception to the “write it first” rule is non-fiction—with this genre, you can query an agent with just an outline and some sample chapters. (Memoirs don’t count as non-fiction in this regard—sorry.)
That said, non-fiction authors aren’t usually picked up solely for their writing, but also because of their existing personal platform and connections. As in, it doesn’t matter how much great advice you have for women in business if you don’t have Sheryl Sandberg’s platform to sell it from. And big sweeping histories are usually written by journalists and professors—people who’ve spent years proving their expertise and writing chops. So if you plan on going that route, be aware that building that kind of audience can take even longer than writing an entire novel.
Accept that Publishing is Slow
Typically, editors buy books a year or more before they’re actually published. So, if you sold your book tomorrow, you could have a finished copy in your hands in 18 months—if you’re lucky. Publishers have to allow for multiple rewrites and ample time to line up publicity, sales, and marketing. In short, it could take a long time for your book to see the light of the bookstore.
Now, if you’re writing a second or third book, you could have a shorter window—in certain genres, your publisher might want to put out a few books in quick succession or could have agreed to a number of titles in a series while you’re still writing them, shortening the window between manuscript submission and publication. Or, if a current event suddenly makes demand for your book skyrocket—if you’re an astrobiologist, say, and SETI finds proof of alien life—your on-sale date will probably get pushed up pretty fast. Otherwise, you have to embrace the pace of the publishing world: Things happen. Eventually.
Don't Chase Trends
With that lengthy timeframe in mind, realize that even if your book idea was completely unique when you first started writing, by the time you actually get it on the shelves, your dystopian love triangle or vampire love triangle or zombie love triangle is going to be way, way out of date. (Have I mentioned publishing is slow?) This isn’t to say a great story won’t blow up anyway, but there are only so many sexy mermaid novels an agent or editor—or the public, for that matter—can read without their eyes glazing over.
If you really have a passion for something popular and have a unique story to tell, go for it. But be wary of writing a cookie cutter, fill-in-the-blank fad novel for the sole purpose of writing something trendy. By the time you get it out into the world, it will be so overdone that no one will want to read it—and you’ll have spent a year of your life writing something you don’t really like.
Don't Do it For the Money
I can’t tell you how many times, after a few drinks at happy hour, I’ve heard someone say, “I’m just going to write a YA novel and make a ton of cash.” That’s my cue to whip out a pen, a napkin, and my basic math skills and crush some dreams. (This may also be why no one wants to go out to drinks with me.)
With a traditional publishing deal, you’ll get an advance against royalties when you sell your book to a publisher. Book advances can vary widely depending on the publisher, your genre, the breadth of your existing network and audience, and a number of other factors. You can get as little as $2,000 or as much as $2 million (guess which is more likely), but either way, you’ll pay 15% of that to your agent, and the remainder will be paid in thirds or quarters over the next couple years. So even a $200,000 advance won’t end up being the windfall that you imagined.
After the advance, you’ll earn a royalty on every copy sold, but you first need to “earn out” the advance—so if you got a $2,000 advance and you earn a dollar in royalties for every copy sold, you won’t see another check until you’ve sold 2,000 copies. Like advances, royalty rates can vary widely, and many authors never see another dollar after their advance.
If you decide to self-publish, it’s possible to get a better royalty rate than you’d get from most traditional publishers, but you’ll forgo an advance and have to focus on a lot more than just writing: You’ll have to handle your own copyediting, cover creation, marketing, publicity, and sales. While Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, and of course E L James have shown it’s possible to move a ton of copies on your own, that level of success is by no means the norm. In fact, half of all self-published authors made less than $500 in 2011—so you’ll have to decide if the opportunity cost is worth it.
This is all to say: Publishing is the slowest possible get-rich-quick scheme (in which you probably won’t get rich). Breaking into big money publishing is like becoming an A-list actor—being talented definitely helps, but luck plays a big role and the odds aren’t in your favor.
But, if you love to write, and if you’re willing to put in the time and energy to do it well, go for it. A good story about great characters, told well, will sell every time.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of any publishing house.