I get quite a lot of questions from friends, readers, aspiring writers and the like about my journey into publishing. I always try to answer those questions as best I can, because I remember what it was like to feel like I was out there floating in the great writer void, with no idea what I was doing (spoiler alert: I still don’t know what I’m doing).
So I figured that maybe I could just write a blog about it and save everybody some time. It isn’t that I don’t like getting those inquiries or don’t want to answer them. I really, really do, BUT I don’t always have the time to get as detailed as I’d like.
Below, I’ve answered a few of the most frequent questions I get from aspiring writers. I’ve done my best to be as thorough as possible, and I’ve provided links for when even more explanation is needed.
- Do I need to have a finished book to sell one to a publisher?
Well, this question (like lots of questions) is a little bit tricky. I think the general consensus is that yes, you do need to have your book finished before you can sell it. If you’re hoping to publish with one of the Big 5 (we’ll get into that later), you’re going to need a literary agent (we’ll get into that later), and most lit agents aren’t going to touch an unknown writer with a 10 foot pole if they’ve got an unfinished manuscript they’re trying to shop around.
So the general answer is: YES.
However, there are some exceptions. For example: you might not have to have a finished manuscript if you’re writing non-fiction. You may need just an outline and proposal. Similarly, if you’ve got a large (and I mean LARGE) social media following, you might be able to procure an agent, because you’ve already got a platform, which translates to readers, which translates to sales.
Still, it’s never a bad idea to wait to approach anyone in the publishing world until you’ve got a polished (and finished) book in your hands.
2. Do I need a literary agent to find a publisher for my book?
Again, this is tricky. Personally, I think that the answer is yes. My answer is yes, because if you’re hoping to be traditionally published with a Big 5 publisher, you pretty much have to have an agent.
Now, at this point, some of you may be wondering what a literary agent even is. Well, a literary agent is the person who actually shops your book (and hopefully sells your book) to potential editors at the major publishing houses. They work for you and with you to get your book ready. They’re the ones who don’t get paid until you do, and they’re the ones who believe in you and tell you that you’re talented when your pathetic, little writer ego has been crushed yet again. If you’re lucky, like I am, your literary agent will become your friend and greatest ally.
Bad agents will try to sell your book, but they will be unsuccessful. Now, don’t stop reading and just assumed every literary agent who can’t sell every book they take on is a bad agent. That’s not true. But a bad agent will never sell your book, because they’ll never sell anybody’s book. Bad agents don’t have the connections or experience to make sales to the larger houses. Maybe they’ll have a sale or two to very small publishers or e-publishers (more on that later), but the truth of the matter is–you don’t really need an agent to get published with a small publisher or an e-publisher. The whole POINT of having a literary agent is to get your books into the hands of editors at publishing houses you couldn’t get to without an agent.
Say it with me: No agent at all is better than a bad agent.
Repeat this if necessary. It’s true, and it will save you so much heartache in the long run.
Now, a scam agent is a different animal altogether. A scam agent exists solely to prey on writers and their desperation to become published. A great many writers have fallen victim to a scam agent. A scam agent will charge “fees” for nearly everything they do while representing you. It might be a “reading fee” or a “processing fee” or even a yearly fee to continue agenting you. THIS IS NOT how legitimate agents do it.
Additionally, a legitimate agent won’t try to take more than the industry standard percentage from royalties and sales. The rule of thumb is 15% domestic and 20% foreign. If an agent asks for more than that, you should be very, very wary of them. If your agent is making money off of fees and/or non-standard percentages of sales, then that agent is probably not one you want representing you. It means they cannot support themselves with sales alone, or it means they’re simply out to take advantage of writers.
3. Okay, but…how do I get an agent?
You can always go to literary and writing conferences, hoping to make a connection with an agent, but the more traditional way is to query them. In order to do this, you’ll need to write a query letter. Most of the time this is done through email. Before you query an agent, you need to make sure a) the agent is taking new clients, b) the agent represent the kind of book you’ve written, and c) you know what else the agent requires for submission (some agents want a query letter and a sample of your writing). Learning how to appropriately query an agent takes some leg work, and I recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, How to Land and Keep a Literary Agent. It’s free on Amazon! I also recommend Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents. I suggest buying a paper copy of this book, so you can keep track of all the agents you’ve queried.
I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing what you’re doing when you query an agent. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. If you piss an agent off by not sending the right material or querying the wrong person, it could cost you representation.
4. Okay, so I’ve decided I don’t want an agent. How do I go about finding a publisher on my own?
First of all, I don’t recommend this, unless you’re a lawyer with a specialty in intellectual property law. And if this applies to you, then be my guest. But for the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t want an agent or have exhausted the agent pool and are ready to go off on your own to find a publisher. There are lots of different publishers out there, and just like with literary agents–some of them are terrible. Additionally, I’m not here to tell you that there is only one way to publish. There are many different ways, and just because I think literary agents are an important step in the process, doesn’t mean you have to feel the same way.
Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the different types of publishers you’ll meet in the literary world.
The Big 5: These are the publishing giants. They’re the big dogs in the industry, and you nearly always need an agent to publish with them. The 5 major publishers are HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin/Random House, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon and Schuster. Now, don’t go thinking The Big 5 are a bunch of snobs–all of these publishers have imprints, and sometimes those imprints allow unagented submissions from authors. For example, you don’t need an agent to submit to some of the romance imprints of HarperCollins like Impulse (although they are currently closed to queries as of the publication of this blog).
After The Big 5, you have larger, independent publishers like Sourcebooks and Skyhorse. These are respected independent publishers who regularly publish quality writing. They regularly publish agented authors. However, unlike The Big 5, you don’t necessarily need a literary agent to submit.
Next, you’ve got smaller, independent publishers. Many of these publishers are reputable and respected, but because they’re small, won’t accept as many submissions and will publish even fewer books. You almost never need an agent to submit to a smaller publisher like this, and if you write literary fiction, poetry, or short story, you might have a better shot at being published if you shop your work to a smaller publisher, as this type of writing can be a hard sell with the bigger publishers.
Now this is where it gets a little dicey. After the smaller, independent publishers, you’re going to run into something called vanity publishing. Vanity publishers charge a fee to publish your work, and the reality is that they’ll pretty much publish anyone with the cash to spend. It’s called Pay to Play in the industry. I want to be clear that this is not the same thing as self-publishing, and if you’re going to pay to have your book published, I’d for sure recommend self-publishing. With a vanity press, you’re not going to get any of the promotion that you would get even with a smaller publisher. You won’t get a quality editor. You won’t get anything, really, except what you pay for.
After vanity presses, you’ve got scam publishers. Perhaps the most famous scam publisher is Publish America (also known as Ameristar Publishing). I won’t even give them the satisfaction of linking them in this post, they’re so lowdown and disgusting. Scam publishers are a lot like vanity presses, except that they take your money and usually don’t give you a product. If they DO give you a product, it’s shoddy, unedited, and essentially useless. Just like with scam agents, these “publishers” prey on writers’ desire to publish a book.
The only real advice I can give you is that you need to do your research when it comes to publishers. If you’re unsure about a publisher, look to see what kinds of books they publish. Have you heard of any of the authors? What do the book covers look like? (This can be a HUGE tell.) Trust your gut.
6. What about self-publishing?
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a whole lot about self-publishing, or what is commonly referred to as “indie publishing” (which I think is kind of confusing, since there are indie publishers, but whatever). I think self-publishing, when used the right way, can be a phenomenal tool for writers. Platforms like CreateSpace gives writers the ability to create work that might otherwise go unseen elsewhere. But here’s what I do know about self-publishing–you have to be dedicated. You have to work twice as hard. If you’re going to self-publish, you’ve got to do it right, and it’s going to cost money. You’ll need to pay a top notch editor. You’ll need to pay an artist for cover art. You’ll need to have funds set back for publicity. You’ll need to get out there, virtually or otherwise, every single day to promote your work. I personally know several successful self-published authors, and they work their asses off. Self-publishing is not for the weak.
7. How long did it take you to become published?
I mean, about 30 years. (LOLOLOLOL. I’m so funny.) Technically, I started writing my first novel in August of 2012, and the book was published in October of 2015. It took me 6 months to write the first draft of Sit! Stay! Speak! and about 3 more months of editing, before I felt like it was ready to be read by agents. Looking back, that wasn’t NEARLY enough time. I started querying agents in April of 2013 and finally found one in June of the same year. It took another year of rejections (and two rewrites), before my book finally found a home at HarperCollins in May of 2014. After that, there were more edits (much smaller ones), a couple rounds of copyediting, and a whole bunch of other stuff before the book was released in 2015. So far, I’ve sold 6 books to Harper, and 4 of them have been published. The process has been a little bit different every time.
The journey to publishing is different for every person and every book. The best advice I can give anyone is to be patient, understand that you’re going to get lots of “no’s” before you hear a “yes,” and don’t give up.
That not giving up bit is pretty important. Good luck!
PS–I used to blog a lot on WordPress before I got my first publishing contract. That blog was called Tales of Rejection, and it might also be a useful source for questions about publishing. I wrote a lot about being a frustrated writer, and I wrote even more about being rejected…which, you probably already figured out from the title.