The Big, Bad Publishing Article
Many writers harbor aspirations of being published and paid for their hard work. Plain and simple. The competition for getting traditionally published is stiff, and it only gets harder when your book becomes one of many swimming in the vast, open literary marketplace. There could be 150 million unique books in the world, and it’s estimated that over 2 million are published each year. Finding success among such an exorbitant supply requires beating some tall odds.
Just getting to be a drop in the figurative literary sea is becoming both easier and more difficult. That seems like a paradox on the surface, but it’s not. On the one hand, it’s never been easier to self-publish a book (I’ll get into whether that’s good or bad later). On the other hand, there have likely never been more writers trying to attract an agent or publisher. There are more fish than ever but there isn’t more food to go around.
Thanks to the internet, there is an abundance of information about everything having to do with agenting, publishing, and self-publishing. And while information at our fingertips is a blessing, it can also become a nuisance. By sheer volume it’s becoming overwhelming to sift through and make sense of, and so much “advice” out there serves to tug writers in different directions. Information overload also sparks a special kind of anxiety; what if you’re reading the wrong resources, what if there are better resources out there, and how can you possibly digest it all and still have time to—you know—write?
This article represents a compilation of all the information I’ve gathered about acquiring a literary agent, publishing, self-publishing, and generally making it in the literary world. Together we can weather the storm and come out on the other side in one piece. That’s the goal. A centralized, exhaustive compilation of everything literary that happens after you finish writing and editing that manuscript.
First thing’s first. How does all this work? You finish writing your manuscript, slave over it until you feel that it’s perfect, and then what?
Ideally, the steps that come next will play out as follows:
1. You’ll compile a list of literary agents who represent books similar to the one you’ve written.
2. You’ll contact these agents with a query letter (think of this as a pitch letter or cover letter) along with a sample from your manuscript and sometimes a synopsis.
3. Agents will get back to you and let you know they would like to read your full manuscript.
4. Multiple agents will fall in love with your story and request changes or edits to be incorporated.
5. You’ll make the requested changes (or not), send your manuscript back to the interested agents, and then sign with one of them.
6. Your agent will shop your manuscript to various publishers, ultimately resulting in a book deal that your agent negotiates and you sign.
7. The publisher will request rounds of edits and changes to your manuscript. Then it will be accepted and published anywhere from a year to two years after you sign your deal.
The flip side of this is that it’s possible to pitch your manuscript to dozens of independent or small publishers without a literary agent. We’ll come to that in more detail later but know that it’s a possibility.
That’s the bare bones outline and, honestly, if things work out how I’ve described above consider yourself either one of the best or one of the luckiest writers alive. Or both.
ACQUIRING AN AGENT
Is literary representation (a literary agent) important? Like many of the answers in today’s world, it depends. There are two roads you can go down: self-publishing and traditional publishing. Practically anyone can self-publish a book, and an agent isn’t required for doing so. In the world of traditional publishing there are a handful of big, mainstream publishing houses and a small sea of independent publishers and micro publishers.
Some indie/micro publishers allow you to query (pitch) them without an agent. Virtually none of the big boys and their imprints accept unsolicited submissions. To be clear, I’m not advocating any of these paths over the others. All have their benefits and drawbacks. And at the end of the day it’s about what you, the writer, want. Do you care about having more creative control? Do you want a more personalized experience? Or are you focused on making as much money as possible? Any outcome can happen with any route you choose, but there are certain built-in advantages and disadvantages when comparing publishing options.
If your goal is a shot at the big publishing houses and their imprints, you need an agent. If testing the indie waters or choosing to self-publish aligns with your goals, you can go it alone without an agent.
This doesn’t have to be a lifetime choice. Unagented authors get picked up by agents and vice versa all the time. It’s all about your needs, and we’ll get into more of what those may be further on in the article.
Note: A typical agent isn’t going to charge you upfront but will take 15% of any earnings you make from your book. That percentage does fluctuate in some cases and can also vary for foreign earnings.
Before we can dive into how to gain literary representation, we first must establish what agents are looking for and what makes them reject a manuscript.
The best place to start is word count. Yes, word count varies within genres and book to book. Yes, established authors get away with word counts that fall well outside their genre’s norms. Yes, the rules are somewhat different for debut authors and those who don’t have instantly recognizable names when you walk into a Barnes & Noble.
There is no exact word count you must adhere to for each genre. But there is a word count range you’re expected to fall within. Blowing past the upper limit of that range is considered a red flag or that your manuscript needs considerable editing. Not hitting the lower limit is equally bad.
The whole point is that knowing your genre’s range and what’s expected shows the agent right off the bat that you’re a professional and have done your homework. It’s a good first impression.
So, what are these word count ranges?
1. Excluding middle grade fiction, if you don’t hit 50,000 words you don’t really have a novel on your hands. It’s a novella. That’s fine, but you need to accurately represent this in your pitch. The worst querying mistake you can make is not being forthright about what you’re pitching. Don’t pitch a novella to an agent that is only interested in novels.
2. I’m sure there are exceptions, but if your word count surpasses 120,000, you aren’t getting published as a debut author unless you wrote the greatest book of all time. This is a generalization but it’s a good mindset to have. The odds of signing with an agent are already low. Why do anything to make them plummet even further?
*If you think you wrote the best novel of all time and are eager to prove me wrong, send a sample HERE. If it lives up to the hype, I’ll help you get it published (for free).
· Young Adult: 70,000-85,000 words
· Mystery/Thriller: 80,000-100,000 words. There are lots of subgenres in this category and word count varies for some, but this is a safe range.
· Crime Fiction: A subgenre of the mystery category unless it’s True Crime. Generally between 90,000-100,000 words.
· Horror: 80,000-90,000 words. Some run much longer.
· Literary Fiction: 80,000-100,000 words
· Science Fiction/Fantasy: 95,000-120,000 words
· Romance: 65,000-85,000 words. Often this genre is stricter than others depending on the imprint and subgenre.
· Historical Fiction: 100,000-120,000 words. I’ve seen sources suggest up to 150,000 words depending on the topic. Going that high is a risk but do what the story demands.
· Memoir: 70,000-90,000 words
· Mainstream/Upmarket Fiction: 80,000-95,000 words
Again, these are guidelines. They’re broken all the time. The story you’re telling will dictate the word count. But by staying within the guidelines, as a new author, you give a literary agent one less reason to reject you. And that’s important.
Know Your Genre
This is crucial, and not as cut and dry as it may seem. I equate writing to any other business, because for serious writers that’s exactly what it is. Two tenets were drilled into my head over and over in entrepreneurial classes while in college: Know your product. Know your target market.
Truly knowing either of these things is difficult. Sure, if you’re manufacturing Transformers action figures it’s easy. What’s your product? A toy based on a TV show. Who’s your target market? Children, typically boys, ages four to ten. But selling a book, regardless of genre, becomes a lot more difficult. Readers are not so easily pigeonholed. The best way to figure out your target market is to use market research, and there isn’t much market research available in publishing. Plenty of adults love young adult novels and plenty of kids read literary fiction.
Just like the many genres and subgenres of the literary world, things become muddied and are prone to crossover.
What are the different genres and who (generally) reads them?
To start, as of 2019 around 72% of adults in the United States claim to have read a book in the past year. Physical books are still nearly three times as popular as eBooks. U.S. bookstores sales in 2020 amounted to 8.84 billion dollars. The average consumer spends $92 a year on reading and spends 16.2 minutes a day reading.
There are a few different ways to categorize fiction.
· Middle Grade: Target readers ages 8-12
· Young Adult: ages 13-18
· New Adult: roughly ages 18-30
· Adult: ages 18 and up
· Literary Fiction: Simply, fiction that doesn’t fit into a genre. More about understanding reality than escaping it. Often considered higher quality writing (though not always the case). Evokes an emotional journey.
· Genre Fiction: Fiction that fits in a specific genre (fantasy, horror, mystery, etc.). Focused on entertainment and escaping reality. The best genre writing has great prose, but may not linger with the reader or evoke as much reflection to the extent great literary fiction does.
· Upmarket Fiction: A blend of literary and genre fiction. Appeals to both audiences. Sometimes referred to as “book club novels”. Addresses literary themes while remaining accessible to the general reading public.
· Mystery: Like the name implies, this genre fixates on a mystery or question that must be solved.
· Thriller: Similar to mystery, but characters are often in jeopardy, cliffhangers are typically employed, and good characters must fight and defeat something standing in their way. Like a mystery with heightened stakes.
· Horror: Could be considered a subset of science fiction or fantasy. Simply put, these are scary stories.
· Science Fiction: Any story set in a different time than our own or on a different planet. A frequent trope is technology and scientific concepts.
· Fantasy: Anything that couldn’t happen in real life. Usually deals with the imaginary rather than the scientific.
· Romance: The central theme is one (or more) romantic relationships.
· Historical Fiction: Fiction set in a factual historical setting. The subject matter could fall into any of the above genres.
Here I’ll break down the biggest subgenres for each genre category. There are many more, and there’s plenty of gray area and overlap. Subgenres are an imperfect science but it’s important to know the basic tenets of each so that you can place your own work with more accuracy.
Cozy: A relatively nonviolent crime, the reader never attaches to the victim, and the sleuth is usually an amateur. The crime is often in a small, tight knit community.
Example: Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters)
Hardboiled: Gritty and graphic with plenty of violence and sexual content. Think detectives in urban environments with slang phrases abounding.
Example: The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)
Paranormal: Traditional mystery tropes (one or more violent crimes) with a supernatural being involved. Overlap with cozy if there isn’t violence or gore, and supernatural aspect overlaps with fantasy.
Example: Strange Practice (Vivian Shaw)
Whodunit: Plot driven stories investigating a crime alongside the protagonist. The unlikely culprit is discovered at the end. Your traditional mystery.
Example: Red Dragon (Thomas Harris)
Legal: Plot focuses on legal dilemmas and courtroom drama. Protagonist is typically an attorney. Crime and danger are heavily involved.
Example: The Client (John Grisham)
Spy: Thrillers about spies and espionage (the art of spying). Often involve intelligence agencies, governments, enemy nations, and criminal organizations. Terrorism has become a major trope in this genre.
Example: Gabriel Allon series (Daniel Silva)
Action: Characterized by action. Protagonist must fight for survival or rescue another character. Military involvement is a trope, as is an antagonist plot that spans borders.
Example: Killing Floor (Lee Child)
Crime: Protagonist vs. a major criminal plot. Protagonist uses their special skills to solve the crime, with or without help of authorities. Overlaps with crime mysteries, just jack up the suspense.
Example: The Escape (David Baldacci)
Mystery: Mystery Thrillers are characterized by a mystery that must be solved before time runs out. More fast-paced than a mystery, and the protagonist is generally racing to solve a crime or find some solution.
Example: Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
Political: Protagonist is involved with the government and must solve a crime or international relations predicament. Political power struggles and geopolitical relationships. Corruption and warfare are common themes. Can overlap heavily with conspiracy thrillers and spy thrillers.
Example: The Manchurian Candidate (Robert Condon)
Gothic: Think the classics; Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Castles, ruins, and mysteries involving hauntings and death are all common. The decrepit settings are often symbolic of deeply flawed characters.
Example: Dracula (Bram Stoker) or The Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
Occult: Horror dealing with the supernatural or mystical. Less supernatural monsters and more secret societies, witchcraft, voodoo, and esoteric brotherhoods. A common theme is power or magic gained through supernatural means.
Example: A Discovery of Witches (Deborah Harkness) or Daemortis (Lainey Miller)
Paranormal: Any horror that involves ghosts or other supernatural creatures. Overlaps with paranormal fantasy and mystery.
Example: The Sun Down Motel (Simone St. James)
Psychological: The mind is the scary entity in this subgenre. Unreliable narrators and serial killers are common. Involves human fears, mental instability, and misinterpreting psychological horrors with something supernatural.
Example: The Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris)
Alien: Science fiction subgenre with humans encountering extraterrestrial beings. Encounters can range from benign to deadly, and communication issues, fear, and intergalactic war are common tropes.
Example: Hyperion (Dan Simmons) or Dune (Frank Herbert)
Dystopia: The world has become the opposite of a utopia (aka bad news). The protagonist must free herself and sometimes her whole community. Police states, social control, and fear of what we believe will happen to humanity are very common.
Example: The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) or The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
Post-Apocalyptic: A subgenre set in a world after a global disaster has occurred. These books are all about survival, human nature, and dystopian societies.
Example: I am Legend (Richard Matheson)
Space Opera: Think of an epic action novel set in space. Over the top and melodramatic with lots of adventure. Star Wars should come to mind.
Example: Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
Steampunk: Sci-Fi set in Victorian times with steam technology and retro-futuristic gadgets. Create alternate history with modern technology seen through a Victorian lens.
Example: Mortal Engines (Philip Reeve)
Time Travel: Pretty simple—characters travel through time. A common trope is characters traveling to parallel or alternate universes.
Example: The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
Dark: Dark fantasy is darker than other subgenres, with added components of horror, mystery, or general despair. A brooding tone and horror elements define the subgenre.
Example: The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
High: High fantasy is set in a fictional world full of grand characters and settings. Knights, castles, and dragons are high fantasy. The world in which the story is set is the distinction between high and low fantasy.
Example: A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin)
Low: Fantasy where magic and/or other traditional fantasy elements exist in a realistic world. Like fantasy kept on the down low.
Example: City of Bones (Cassandra Clare)
Magical Realism: A subgenre where magic exists in an otherwise mundane world without conflict.
Example: The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
Urban: Fantasy with magical elements in an urban setting. Set in the real world and often contain both mythological creatures and humans. Settings could be real or imagined, current or historical.
Example: The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)
Contemporary: Romance in a relatively modern setting. Plots focus on situations relevant to the time period. Largest romance subgenre and there is a lot of overlap with women’s fiction.
Example: The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
Fantasy: Relationship between interested parties occurs in a fantasy world. Magic is involved, and adventure is common.
Example: The Cruel Prince (Holly Black)
Gothic: A romance set in an old house or castle. Tropes include family secrets, incest, and secrets hidden in the home. Women in peril are prevalent.
Example: Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
Paranormal: Involves a relationship between a character and a supernatural being. Can include science fiction or fantasy settings, or a world with magic.
Example: The Twilight Saga (Stephenie Meyer)
NOTE: For a long time westerns were a staple fiction genre and while they are still being written and read, a region alone doesn’t feel like enough anymore to constitute including an entirely separate genre. It would be a difficult task to find a contemporary western that doesn’t fit into one of the genres above.
Who Reads What Genre?
This is where the lack of market research in publishing starts to become a bit of an issue. Not to say that there isn’t any, but there isn’t enough that’s accessible to writers and other interested parties outside the major publishing houses. ‘Who reads what?’ is an extremely relevant question.
Before we dive into some numbers, I’ll include a quick disclaimer. Some of the figures included below are a few years old and taken from various third-party surveys of American readers. Do not take these numbers as gospel!
· Women read more than men. Men are more likely than women to read between one and ten books a year, but women are more likely to read anywhere from eleven to fifty books a year.
· Roughly two thirds of Americans profiled “never” read books for pleasure. Men are less likely to read for pleasure than women. 22% of those profiled (men and women) read for pleasure between two and seven days a week.
· Men surveyed read more of every genre than women except romance. Below is a table where the percentage indicates the number of respondents who regularly read the corresponding genre.
Female Male Total (out of 200)
Crime & Thriller 58% 62% 120
Romance 49% 19% 68
Classics 44% 47% 91
Adventure 42% 62% 104
Historic 40% 51% 91
Fantasy 39% 56% 95
Literature 38% 46% 84
Science Fiction 34% 69% 103
Horror 24% 32% 56
Erotica 11% 16% 27
Other 9% 5% 14
· The genres with the largest gender gaps are (in order) Science Fiction, Romance, Adventure, and Fantasy.
· This is inexact, but we can deduce that from the above survey that the most popular genres are (in order) Crime & Thriller, Adventure, Science Fiction, and Fantasy. Of course, this somewhat contradicts our next bit of data.
The most profitable genres on Amazon are:
o Romance/Erotica ($1.44 billion)
o Crime/Mystery ($728.2 million)
o Religious/Inspiration ($720 million)
o Sci-Fi/Fantasy ($590.2 million)
o Horror ($79.6 million)
· Crime/Thriller/Mystery is such a broad genre grouping that most fiction that isn’t strictly Sci-Fi or Fantasy can fall under its umbrella. It’s the most mainstream mega-genre there is and almost certainly the most popular.
· Hashing out which age groups read which genres becomes much more difficult. For starters, we know that Americans are less likely to read a book per year as they age. 81% of the 18-29 age group claimed to have read a book in the past year. Only 68% of respondents age 65+ made the same claim.
· Reading has become more popular, especially among Millennials, in the past decade.
· Readers are more likely to have a college degree or at least some college education.
· Crime/Mystery fiction has the largest popularity among readers that are 65 and older.
· The best source for demographic statistics related to different fiction genres is www.statista.com.
Things That Ruin Queries
To acquire a literary agent you must approach them with a pitch letter, known as a query. Agents are usually clear about what they want in their query. While specifics sometimes differ (certain agents can be very particular, down to what they expect in each paragraph, while others leave things quite vague) the gist is always the same: Tell the agent about your work; give some information about yourself; and sell them on that winning combination. That’s it.
You’ll probably be asked to include anywhere between five and fifty sample pages, and sometimes a synopsis. Synopses can be anywhere from a page long to three pages and are meant to concisely explain what happens in your manuscript. No cliffhangers.
Winning over an agent with your query is a combination of a great pitch, timing, finding the perfect fit, and a little luck. But what can mess all that up and earn an instant rejection?
· Not Being Concise: Keep your query letter to a page in length. If you ramble in your pitch an agent can assume that you probably ramble in your manuscript. And that isn’t good.
· Begging: Sell the agent on your merits, don’t beg for representation. A literary agency is not a charity. It exists to make money for all parties involved. Show the agent that you want to be part of that money-making equation.
· Self-Deprecation: Don’t make fun of yourself or put yourself down. It sounds like common sense but be confident in your work. An agent isn’t going to pity you, they’re going to pass on you.
· Overconfidence: I realize this is creating a fine line to walk. Being conceited or overconfident in your abilities is off-putting, especially if you’re unpublished. Odds are none of us is the next Ernest Hemingway. Be confident in what you’ve written (while being willing to ingest some constructive feedback along the way) but stay humble.
· Grammar and Spelling Mistakes: Your query is an agent’s first look into what you’re all about. If you can’t take the time to make sure it’s nearly perfect, what can they expect to find in your manuscript? Also, watch the clichés in your writing. It’s hard to be fresh and interesting when you use a bunch of clichés.
· Blatantly Ripping off Other Works: Look, it’s hard to write a book that isn’t derivative of anything. Stories have been following the same basic patterns for thousands of years. But there’s a huge difference between using other books for ideas or inspiration and copying a plot in order to pass it off as your own. There’s a saying in screenwriting: Do the same thing but make it different. The ‘make it different’ part is what makes your work original.
· Being Offensive: Don’t be openly hostile or offensive unless you want your query deleted. If that’s the case, why even bother?
FOUR PARTS of a Successful Query
1. Sell: This is the hook, the thing that grabs the agent’s attention and refuses to let it go. What makes your manuscript stand out? What makes it interesting and special? What makes it something that people will want to read?
Creating a compelling hook is difficult. It needs to get in the agent’s head and make them want, no, need, to read the rest of your manuscript ASAP. Boiling down the essence of a story into a few sentences is something that many writers really struggle with. But it’s extremely important. And you don’t have to include everything. Agents are looking for a few things right away; strong voice, characters they can attach to, suspense or conflict, and clarity.
Here’s an example of a great hook for a crime manuscript: Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than murder. In one sentence it gives a sense of the protagonist and what the story is all about. It teases you with a macabre declaration and makes you want to read more. Whether your hook is a sentence or a small paragraph, let your voice stand out and tease your manuscript’s heart.
2. Describe: After the sell comes the meat of your query. While it’s important to stay concise, a good query includes pertinent information about what the agent can expect when they read your work. What is the gist of the plot? What are the main themes? Introducing the protagonist is key, and maybe one or two other vital characters.
This is where suspense and conflict are key. A book without conflict, no matter the genre, isn’t any fun to read. Give a concise sense of the conflicts and stakes in your manuscript and how they affect the protagonist.
Embedded in this section should be who your manuscript is intended for and any comparable works that can give agents a better idea of what they can expect. Most agents are very interested in this. It shines more light on your work without taking up much real estate and will be important for pitching your manuscript to publishers.
3. Give Personal Background: Newer authors often feel like they don’t have much to include in this section. That’s okay for the most part. Include things like higher education and work experience that pertains to the topic of your manuscript, any previous publishing credits (fiction or nonfiction), writing groups, critique groups, or writers associations you participate in, and any hobbies or interests relevant to your manuscript.
Above all, keep things concise and relevant. Are you a sailing enthusiast who wrote a mystery that takes place entirely at sea? Please include this. You wrote a crime novel about characters that are rich and famous and you enjoy reading tabloids? Maybe leave this out. If you used to write for a tabloid, that’s different, but simply enjoying tabloids isn’t acceptable for a query letter.
Also, make sure you let the agent know if your query is following up from a writers conference, a pitching event on social media, or a referral. Things like this separate you from the masses and can give you a leg up. Meeting agents at conferences is probably the number one way to connect, so make sure you reiterate your already established bond if there is one.
4. Thank and Get Out: This is the query’s final step. Keep it short and sweet. Don’t grovel. Trust me, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Thank the agent for their time, mention that you’ve included any other requested materials in the appropriate location, and then sign off. Don’t forget to include an email address and phone number.
The primary job of a literary agent is to submit your manuscript to publishing houses and hopefully negotiate a publishing deal. The number of agencies in the United States is fluid, but there are over a thousand, which makes sorting through all of them challenging. It also means there are plenty of options when it comes to finding an agent and deciding what kind of agency you want to represent your work. While attracting literary representation is hard, finding a good fit between author and agent is very important.
Are there different kinds of literary agencies?
Yes. Agencies vary by size and objective. There are boutique agencies that only have a few representatives or focus on a specialized niche of the publishing industry. Some boutique agencies only have one agent. Then there are bigger agencies with sometimes dozens of agents that might represent hundreds of authors. Larger agencies often have more in the way of a foreign rights department, legal staff, and departments focused on television and film. But they may also have less time to spend on you because of the demand of representing so many clients.
There’s also the possibility of landing with a large talent agency like UTA or ICM. These agencies represent entertainers of all kinds, probably including some of your favorite actors and musicians. The names of the “Big Four” (CAA, UTA, WME, and ICM Partners) carry prestige, but being represented by one is on par with a large agency that deals exclusively with publishing.
It’s all about finding a good fit and an agent who believes in your work. Smaller agencies may be able to devote more time to their authors, and larger agencies may have more in terms of support, influence, and connections. Either way, agents are all going to be pitching your work to the same publishing houses.
Here’s a list of twenty literary agencies you should be at least somewhat familiar with. With over a thousand agencies out there it’s impossible to know them all. The purpose of this list IS NOT ranking the best agencies. It’s more like a collection of some of the most well-known names in the business. And it will segue into our next section: How to Locate Potential Agents.
· Trident Media Group
· Writers House
· Sanford J. Greenburger Associates
· William Morris Endeavor
· Janklow & Nesbit
· Jane Rotrosen Agency
· Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
· Victoria Sanders & Associates
· Donald Maass Literary Agency
· Curtis Brown Literary Agency
· Harvey Klinger Literary Agency
· Folio Literary Management
· The Bent Agency
· Foundry Literary + Media
· Andrea Brown Literary Agency
· Liza Dawson Associates
· New Leaf Literary & Media
· DeFiore and Company
· Aaron Priest Literary Agency
HOW TO LOCATE POTENTIAL AGENTS
You have a completed and polished manuscript. You have a good idea of your genre, your target audience, and a few books comparable to your own. You have a sharp and compelling query letter (that you’re ready to amend on an agent by agent basis).
How do you find the agents?
Luckily, in this corner of the publishing arena there are plenty of resources at your disposal. I recommend bookmarking a few of these.
There are a few different ways to go about this:
1. Use one of the resources above and compile a list of agencies. Typically, an agency will only want you to submit your query to one agent at a time. If that agent passes on your work, you can try another. Some agencies will have you pitch the whole agency at once or will work on their end to route your query to the agent who is the best fit. In these instances you get one shot.
For the bulk of agencies, you’ll visit their website and read about each representative. Pick the one that seems like the best fit for your work and query them, being sure to carefully follow their personal instructions.
2. You’ve already compiled a list of books that are similar to your manuscript. Broaden that to books that aren’t necessarily similar but fall within the same genre. Now, go through these titles and find out who represents each author. If you have a physical copy of the book the author often mentions his/her agent in the acknowledgements. If not, look up who represents the author online.
Following this formula, you can compile a list of agents who successfully represent your genre and books comparable to your own. You might find there’s some overlap, or several of the books you used are represented by only a handful of agents. That’s pretty normal.
3. A combination of the first two methods. In addition to finding out who represents your comps, search in one or more literary agent databases for agents that represent your genre. Chances are there will be hundreds of them if it’s something mainstream. Then search Google for the best literary agents accepting submissions in your genre. Use these avenues to compile a list of potential agents.
HOW MANY AGENTS SHOULD YOU QUERY?
There really isn’t a right answer to this. As many as it takes? The consensus is that it’s bad to send queries out one at a time. Ideally you want multiple agents interested in your work, and that’s hard to do if you wait for each to respond before you send a new query.
Here’s my advice. Send between a dozen and twenty queries. See if you get any nibbles, or any feedback at all. If possible, let some non-agents read your query to see if you’re getting your point across and if it makes sense. Then modify your query accordingly and send out another batch.
The tricky aspect of querying is that it’s hard to know if your pitch is deficient or you just haven’t come across the right agent yet. There are consultants like Gold Quill Consulting that specialize in perfecting query letters for a very reasonable fee.
If you send out fifty queries and see nothing but rejection or silence it could be that your pitch needs a little work. Or maybe the premise of your manuscript isn’t quite hitting home. Or maybe you’re pitching a subgenre that’s a really tough sell to publishers. It could be any of these, and it’s hard to know for sure. Take any feedback you get in rejection letters and try to implement it if you’re able.
I would place the upper limit at around one hundred queries. By then you could be starting to run out of agents. By all means, query more than a hundred agents if you want to. You never know who could be out there waiting to represent you. But I personally would think long and hard about my pitch and my manuscript, particularly the first fifty pages. If either are deficient or just not getting the job done professional help could make a huge difference.
Writers conferences and live workshops aren’t a cheat code for finding an agent, but they help. Attend one (or more) if you can. You’ll get to meet with an agent face to face and pitch yourself as well as your work. If they like what you’re all about it can go a long way when that query letter rolls into their inbox. Whether they represent your work or not, they’ve established a personal connection with you and are likely giving your pitch more attention than queries from strangers. Don’t forget to gently remind the agent when and where you met.
At the end of the day, we’re all human, and personal connections matter. Forge as many as you can.
Here’s the thing; in today’s world you don’t need an agent to get published. Yes, certain types of publishing will be off limits without representation. But agents and publishing houses aren’t the gatekeepers they once were.
The agent talk is done. This section is all about the different types of publishing.
The term “Big Five” refers to the five largest English-language publishing houses. However, as of late 2020 the Big Five are actually four. Simon & Schuster was acquired by Penguin Random House. For the purposes of this article we’ll keep S&S as its own separate entity, but just know that they’ve been absorbed by PRH.
While thinking about a meager five major publishing houses is a bit terrifying, don’t freak out just yet. Each publisher has dozens or even hundreds of imprints. Think of imprints as subsidiaries within the company that only deal with certain genres or types of books. Publishers can funnel projects to the appropriate imprint, which often has much more brand recognition within its genre than simply using the name of the parent publisher.
Who are the Big Five?
· Hachette Book Group
· MacMillan Publishers
· Penguin Random House
· Simon & Schuster
You can do more research on the history and formation of each publisher if you wish. I don’t really think it’s necessary, with the caveat that you know that each one is owned by another, even larger, corporation, and that all of them are headquartered in New York City. In the publishing world New York is king.
There are hundreds of different imprints, but you’ve probably heard of plenty of them if you’re an avid reader. A good exercise is to check out the spines of books you enjoy or similar books to your manuscript and see who published them.
Here are some notable imprints:
· Hachette Book Group
o Grand Central Publishing
o Little, Brown and Company
o Mulholland Books (an imprint within an imprint of Little, Brown and Company)
o Avon Books
o William Morrow
· MacMillan Publishers
o Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
o Thomas Dunne Books
· Penguin Random House
o Knopf Doubleday
o Crown Publishing
o Viking Press
· Simon & Schuster
o Howard Books
Is it possible to pitch the Big Five (four) and their imprints without an agent?
Generally speaking, no. Out of all the Big Five imprints out there you’ll find a handful that accept unsolicited submissions from time to time. In my experience the most opportunities for unsolicited manuscripts come in the romance genre, followed by mystery. So, there’s a sliver of hope, but the odds will never be anywhere approaching good. You would be far better off attempting to network with an editor at one of the major publishing houses, pitching your project, and using their interest to leverage literary representation.
Anything is possible, but without a literary agent a publishing deal with the Big Five and their imprints probably isn’t in the cards. And even if you have an agent it isn’t guaranteed. Just know that there are many other amazing publishing options. These may be the top dogs who (sometimes) pay the largest advances, but they may not be the best fit for your work.
Independent “indie” publishers are smaller publishing houses that aren’t part of the Big Five corporate giants and often represent one genre or a niche market. Not to get confusing, Indie Publishing refers to any form of publishing that doesn’t involve the Big Five and can include self-publishing.
Is there a difference in prestige between the Big Five and independent publishers? Maybe to some people. Are the advances paid by the Big Five generally higher than advances from smaller publishers? Yes. But most debut authors aren’t getting paid six-figure advances regardless of who they publish with. (And, no, you don’t have to pay back the advance if your book doesn’t generate enough in royalties to earn out the amount.)
Choosing between the Big Five and a smaller publisher (if you’re one of the lucky ones who even get the option) comes down to who you are, what you’ve written, and fit. The Big Five tend to pay larger advances, but smaller publishers tend to offer better royalty percentages, so if your book does well you have the potential to earn more. It’s easier to get lost in the shuffle of a major publishing house. If you or your book aren’t high profile they may not dedicate much in the way of resources to promotion and helping your book become a success.
Likewise, a smaller publisher may devote more personalized attention to publication and promotion of your book. With less books in their catalogue, and less fiscal leeway, smaller publishers tend to be more committed to each one’s success. That’s definitely a good thing.
Let’s get into specifics.
· Can independent publishers be queried without an agent? Some can, some can at certain times of the year, and some can’t.
· Does having an agent help in dealing with indie publishers? Yes. It’s your agent’s job to find the best fit for your work. You pay for this service via commission, but whether it’s the Big Five or an indie publisher an agent should help with the process.
· How many independent publishers are out there? Hundreds. At least.
· Can indie publishers get your book into bookstores? It’s not as easy, but in short, yes. Amazon and Kindle are a big chunk of the bookselling game, but physical bookstores are still important. Smaller publishers can get your book to stores via wholesale distributors just like the major publishers. Even self-published books can make it to bookstore shelves.
· What is a micro publisher? A really small independent publisher, probably focused on one genre or only putting out a few books a year.
· What are University Presses? Publishers associated with universities. There are university presses all around the world. The United States has over a hundred. Not all of them publish fiction and poetry, but some do. Expect them to be selective and less focused on commercial works than academic or artistic value.
WHO ARE THE TOP INDIE PUBLISHERS?
Here’s a list of the most well-known and successful indie publishers (in alphabetical order).
· Akashic Books
o Best Known: Mystery, Crime, Literary Fiction
· Bellevue Literary Press
o Biographies, Literary Fiction
· BOA Editions
· C&R Press
o Poetry, Literary Fiction
· Catapult Books
o Literary Fiction
· City Lights Publishers
o Essays, Poetry, Memoirs
· Coffee House Press
o Literary Fiction, Memoirs, Poetry
· Enchanted Lion Books
o Children’s Books
· Europa Editions
o Literary Fiction
· Featherproof Books
o Literary Fiction, Sci-Fi, Fantasy
· Forest Avenue Press
o Literary Fiction
· Future Tense Books
o Literary Fiction, Memoirs
· George Braziller
o History, Literary Fiction
· Graywolf Press
o Literary Fiction, Memoirs
o Biography, Film, Journalism
· House of Anansi Press
o Literary Fiction
· Ig Publishing
o Literary Fiction
· Kensington Publishing Corp
o Literary Fiction, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Thriller
· McSweeney’s Books
o Humor, Memoir
· Melville House
o Journalism, Literary Fiction
· Milkweed Editions
· New Directions Publishing
o Literary Fiction, Poetry
· Noemi Press
o Literary Fiction, Memoir
· Press 53
o Literary Fiction
· Quirk Books
o Sci-Fi, Fantasy, YA
· Rare Bird Books
o Mystery, Sci-Fi, Fantasy
· Soho Press
o Literary Fiction, Mystery, YA
· Tachyon Publications
o Sci-Fi, Fantasy, YA
· The Feminist Press
o Biography, Literary Fiction
· The Permanent Press
· Tin House Books
o Literary Fiction, Memoirs
· Tupelo Press
· Unnamed Press
o Literary Fiction
· Verso Books
o Biography, History, Journalism
· Workman Publishing Company
o Fiction, Nonfiction
PAY TO PUBLISH
There is no rule that publishers must foot the bill for publishing your work. The Big Five will, and it’s the norm for smaller publishers to do this as well. In turn they take a lion’s share of your book’s sales to recoup their costs and turn a profit. But there are indie publishers that may push some or all of the publishing costs to the author in exchange for a greater share of the book’s sales revenue.
This sounds like a vanity press, but it’s not. These publishers are still selective, still turn out a professional product on par with industry standards, and still help their authors promote and sell their books. The only difference lies in who’s footing the bill upfront. Some authors would gladly pay to publish in return for close to one hundred percent of royalties. If your book sells really well that could even be the smarter way to go.
As the owner of one of these publishers once told me, who foots the bill is really nobody’s business. All that matters at the end of the day is that the deal between publisher and author is fair to both sides. As an author, getting a fair deal is extremely important. If you don’t have a literary agent have a proper legal advisor examine any and all contracts if possible.
A vanity press isn’t a scam in the sense that they won’t publish your book. They will. The scam part comes in when they promise to market your book, get it in bookstores, and essentially do all the things a Big Five publisher would do to ensure your book is a success. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it too. If getting the perks of a Big Five publisher without having to go through their selection process sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. Go into Barnes and Noble and check how many titles were published by, say, Dorrance Publishing. It’s highly likely you won’t find any.
Peel back the false advertising and see a vanity press for what it is: an expensive way to self-publish. They may do a little editing, they may print your book and give you some marketing tools, but there are tons of cheaper options out there (that we’re about to get into). Vanity presses don’t give authors the leg up that they promise, and do you really want to do business with a company that misleads you right off the bat?
My advice is to stay away unless you don’t mind spending more money than necessary for a mediocre product.
Times have changed. Much of publishing history found writers at the whim of the gatekeepers. Agents and publishers controlled the flow of books into the marketplace. In recent years the power balance has shifted mightily.
Thanks to the wonders of self-publishing—as the name entails—practically anyone can publish a book. This section will go over everything from how to self-publish, resources for self-publishing, and what to do with your book once it’s published.
HOW TO SELF PUBLISH
To lead off, you can self-publish entirely by yourself, or you can hire freelancers or outside professionals to help. The most common uses of professionals are for editing, proofreading, cover design, and formatting your book for both physical and digital editions. I highly recommend hiring professionals to edit and proofread your manuscript so that minimal mistakes slip through the cracks. Depending on the kind of cover you desire and your skills with design software, a professional may or may not be necessary.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
· Edited and proofread manuscript. As perfect as it can be and ready to go.
· Formatting, typesetting, style, and font selection.
· Cover and back cover design
· Any images or graphics that go with body of the text.
· ISBN # and copyright page
· Any reviews or blurbs for cover
Most self-publishing decisions are cosmetic. Should your book be hardcover, paperback, or mass market paperback? Hardcover will be the most expensive to produce. Should you publish your book in a digital format? Almost definitely, yes. The digital market hasn’t overtaken the physical book market and doesn’t look to do so any time in the near future, but it still has plenty of value. While an eBook is harder to format, once that’s done there is virtually no labor or cost involved and it can be profitable at a lower price point. With so many books out there, authors need to attract readers in any way they can. Being able to rent or purchase a digital copy of your book is extremely important in that aim.
What trim size should your book be? Trim size can be thought of as the book’s dimensions. It’s important when first considering trim size and type of book (hardcover vs. paperback) that you land on a selection that will allow your book to be profitable. If most books in your genre sell new for around $10, pick a size and style that will allow a couple dollars of profit margin. There’s no point in publishing a book that costs more to make than it sells for.
And on that note, your pricing strategy matters. It’s common for self-published authors to undercut the price of their competition by pricing their paperback and eBooks for anywhere from .99 cents to 2.99. Doing this can help attract readers looking for a bargain, but it can also make your book seem less than professional. Walk in a bookstore and you’ll never see a new book for sale that cheap. Even the sale books at Barnes & Noble are five or six dollars. A .99 cent new paperback isn’t what readers expect, and I think it can actually do more damage than good when it comes to your book’s credibility.
The solution is to utilize a “sale period” when your book is priced cheaper than it normally would be. You’ll take a loss on each book you sell, but hopefully the discount will entice readers to buy. Then you can return the price to something more on par with the competition (and that will net a profit) and maintain your work’s credibility.
The next requirement is to make choices that fall in line with what readers expect from professional publishing houses. There should be nothing that sets your book apart in a negative way. Publishing houses provide legitimacy, and self-published books can have just as much legitimacy if they are done right.
Certain self-publishing resources don’t print hardcover books. But there are plenty that do. The standard trim size for a hardcover novel is either 5.5” by 8.5” or 6” by 9”. Your hardcover book can be smaller (don’t go larger than 6” by 9” unless you’re doing a picture book or coffee table book), but those are the general sizes to expect.
Trade paperbacks have more leeway in terms of sizes. These are standard paperback books that haven’t been shrunken down to fit the “mass market” category. The two most common trim sizes are still 5.5” by 8.5” and 6” by 9”. But you can also easily get away with a 5” by 8” paperback or even 5.25” by 8”.
A mass market paperback’s trim size is under 5” by 8”. It’s worth noting that the smaller the trim size the smaller and more cramped your text will be. Mass market paperbacks are those paperbacks that feel like they can almost fit in your pocket and are often as thick as they are wide and have miniscule print. Easy to cram on bookshelves or throw in a purse but not quite as easy to read.
The most common trim size for mass market paperbacks is 4.25” by 6.87”. You can call it 4” by 7” to make things more standardized. The point is these are the smallest paperback books out there.
Should you choose mass market trim size over trade paperback? In traditional publishing, mass market editions usually come out several months after the hardcover or trade paperback release. But this is more of a guideline than a rule.
It’s important to note that mass market paperbacks are becoming less popular. They’re hard to read and while they may be cheaper to print than trade paperbacks (not by much), you’re more likely to get your book in a bookstore if it’s a trade paperback.
According to Publishers Weekly, mass market paperbacks accounted for only 9% of all physical book sales in 2014. The largest seller of mass market editions is Walmart.
The next decision is what font to use. The most common font for professionally published books depends on the genre. Baskerville, Garamond, and Caslon are generally the three most-used fonts that you’ll see in print books. Sabon is the most common font for romance novels.
Basically, if you’re reading any kind of thriller or genre fiction outside of romance you’re probably seeing Garamond, or more specifically Adobe Garamond Pro. There are other similar sans serif fonts out there. Check some out here. The point is finding a font that’s easy on the eyes and conforms with what readers expect to see.
The paper your book is printed on can have an outsized influence on the reading experience. Paper is measured in weights, not thicknesses, and comes in various colors. Weights reference how much a ream of the given paper weighs. Printers usually offer a choice between cream paper and offset white. 60 lb. cream paper is by far the most common for novels. 50 lb. cream paper is the second most common.
Paper for printing can also be measured in pages per inch (PPI). 60 lb. cream clocks in at roughly 430 PPI. 50 lb. cream will get roughly 520 PPI.
If the interior of your book includes color or photographs it’s important to use a gloss-coated paper or matte paper with increased weight. 80 lb. matte or gloss-coated white is a common option.
For a novel you really can’t go wrong with 60 lb. cream paper.
The paper the cover is printed on will differ from the paper used in the interior. 10-pt. C1S (coated one side) cover stock with either a gloss or matte lamination is the most popular material for paperback book covers. 12-pt. cover stock is also an option but remember the heavier the paper the more expensive. 10-pt. holds up just fine.
Should you choose gloss or matte for your cover? Matte covers are more popular, but if you think a gloss cover will be eye catching and make your book look professional than go for it. Gloss covers tend to reflect light while matte covers don’t. There are scores of successful gloss covers out there and it really boils down to personal preference.
There are two acceptable ways for a self-published book to be bound if you want it to blend with its peers from big publishing houses and indie publishers. As I’ve stressed throughout this article—looks matter.
Perfect binding is used for essentially all paperback books or softcover books. The spine can be printed on, the cover is either coated or laminated cardstock, and the pages are held to the spine with a strong adhesive. If you are self-publishing a softcover book, regardless of size, this is the binding method you want to use.
Likewise, case binding is used for virtually all hardcover books and is known for its durability. Hardcover books are bound differently than softcover books and use different paper (and are often larger), but the choice in binding technique is almost just as straightforward. Some printers will offer a choice of spine variation: rounded spine, flat backed, or soft spine. Flat backed is the most common but pick the choice you find most appealing if given the option.
The interior layout of a book is often overlooked but very important. Everything we’ve discussed up to this point is incorporated in the book’s design. The layout is the final step in creating a book that looks professional and timeless, or, in other words, exactly like what readers expect when they pick up a book in Barnes & Noble or open a package from Amazon.
Your book’s text should always be centered on the page. This is achieved by making the margin on the inside of the page—the gutter—larger than the other margins. Running heads and feet are text placed in the top and bottom margins and dictate the size of those margins. It’s typical for the running head to include the book’s title on the left-hand page and either the chapter title or author’s name on the right-hand page. The running foot is most often filled by page numbers. Don’t show the page number on the first page of text but pick up the sequence on the following page.
Some minimalist interior designs showcase pages numbers in the upper margin and nothing else. This is perfectly acceptable, and it’s important to consider how the blank spaces of your margins compliment the block of text that takes up most of the page. When it comes to layouts sometimes less can be more.
Printing costs are important to keep in mind when designing an interior layout. The key contributor to cost is number of pages. It’s common for self-published books to attempt to cram as much text on each page as possible by cutting margins and line spacing. This effort to reduce the number of pages (and cost) can lead to the interior of your book looking unprofessional and hard to read.
Words per page and lines per page will vary depending on the book’s size and whether it’s a hardcover, trade paperback, or mass market paperback, but following the norms of your genre and book size is always the best piece of advice. Cutting into profits by printing a book with more pages could be a better strategy if it results in a more professional book that more readers buy. Don’t underestimate subliminal things like how professional your layout is and readability when it comes to readers purchasing your work.
The standard 6” by 9” hardcover book is going to have about forty lines of print on a normal page. Expect a mass market paperback to have somewhere around thirty.
Don’t forget about line width as well. The ideal characters per line is right around sixty-five, but this can vary depending on the size of your book and the font used. Just know that longer line widths become harder for the reader to follow.
Widows and orphans are another anomaly to keep an eye out for. Widows occur when a single line of text moves onto the next page. An orphan is a single line of text from a paragraph isolated at the bottom of a page. Neither of these is a good look for a book’s layout. They can be alleviated by adjusting your text layout with tracking and kerning options. Tracking modifies the spacing between letters, words, or whole paragraphs. Kerning adjusts the space between two characters. Work with these tools to make sure there aren’t lonely lines of text at the top and bottom of your pages.
There are plenty of free resources out there to help you design a professional and striking eBook. Designing an eBook is a lot like using software to design a physical book.
Like physical books, the cover of an eBook is extremely important. It’s the first thing a reader sees, and often times the cover plays an outsized role in convincing readers to choose a given book. Creating a cover that sends the right message about your book and catches the eye of readers should always be top priority. If you can convey your book’s genre through the cover, even better.
eBooks should be simple to read and easy to navigate. It’s hard enough to get readers to buy a book and actually read it; you should be doing everything in your power to help them to this end. Use free tools like Draft2Digital or Reedsy to format your text file, organize chapters, and choose perfect fonts for your work.
The final and most important part of producing an eBook is to convert it to a downloadable file that you can sell from your website, social media, or anywhere else. Publishdrive is a great resource for converting written content into an eBook file format. TXT (.txt) is the file format that’s compatible with all platforms but has less formatting options than other file formats.
Here’s a list of great resources to help with self-publishing.
· Designing a Book Cover
o Adobe Spark
· Interior Layout
· eBook File Conversion
We’ve gone over how to create a self-published book in physical and digital formats. But what do you do with it?
Luckily, there are plenty of effective avenues for getting your brand-new book to readers all over the world. Several different platforms exist for the sole purpose of distributing self-published books. We’ll go over all of them, but the first thing we need to discuss are aggregators.
Aggregators are designed to streamline the process of book distribution. They allow you to upload your book to a single dashboard and from there it is distributed to other platforms on your behalf. They save time by allowing you to not have to approach each distribution channel independently. As is almost always the case with a money-saving strategy, using an aggregator will cut into your royalties.
Some of the most highly recommended aggregators are Smashwords, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, and Publishdrive. IngramSpark allows a single upload for both eBook and print formats.
There are a handful of distribution channels that are recommended for individual approach.
· ACX: ACX is a marketplace where authors can hire talent to turn their physical or digital book into an audiobook. Transforming your book to audio format costs money, and the audio market is not nearly as big as the print market, but offering your book in as many formats as possible can help sales and growing your brand.
· KDP: Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is the best-known distribution channel in the self-publishing world. If you weren’t aware, Amazon owns Kindle and is the largest seller of physical and digital books. Put simply, self-published books rarely have success without Amazon.
KDP is Amazon’s book publishing platform. It allows you to publish your book in eBook and print-on-demand versions. When an order is placed it will print and ship your book directly to the buyer. Be warned: it only prints paperback books. No hardcovers.
Simply put, the author uploads their books files and KDP does the publishing legwork. Publishing costs are deducted from royalties when each book is sold. Once a book is published to the KDP platform readers will be able to find it on Amazon. KDP is vital for success in self-publishing as well as easy to use and cost-effective. And royalties can be as high as 60%.
It’s important to note that if you enroll your book in KDP Select it can’t be uploaded to any other platform for three months, which is the length of the KDP Select enrollment session. KDP Select is free and gives access to promotional tools, the ability to earn higher royalties, and lists your book on Kindle Unlimited.
Authors using KDP also can’t sell their book for less on other platforms than its listing price on Amazon.
· Kobo: Kobo is a direct market for connecting eBooks and readers. It also offers audiobooks and sells tablets and eReaders. Like the other platforms it’s simply a way to get your digital book in front of more readers. It’s easy for authors to use and can potentially boost sales.
· IngramSpark: KDP is to Amazon what IngramSpark is to the rest of the online and physical publishing world. Since Ingram competes with Amazon it’s an attractive choice for independent bookstores and libraries who don’t necessarily want to contribute to Amazon’s growing empire.
IngramSpark will distribute and promote your book, and you have the options to offer wholesalers a discount (which makes your book more attractive for them to buy). If you use a printer other than IngramSpark you’ll be charged a middleman fee to access Ingram’s distribution network. Currently Ingram charges a $49 setup fee for their publishing services, but their printing costs are comparable to KDP and Draft2Digital.
Ingram is a powerful tool for accessing and distributing to the non-Amazon book world. They are the largest book distributor and wholesaler in the US.
· NOOK: This is Barnes & Noble’s version of Kindle. As a popular eReader, NOOK is a valuable avenue for getting your self-published book in front of readers’ eyes. Self-published books can be uploaded to NOOK. In addition, Barnes & Noble Press (B&N Press) is another way for authors to self-publish their work.
Self-publishing with B&N Press is easy. Pick your format (they offer eBook and physical books), upload your files, and after you’ve become a vendor and published your book it will appear on Barnes & Noble’s website.
Every book needs an International Standard Book Number. This thirteen-digit number is essentially the book’s identifier. An ISBN is required for books sold in bookstores, library books, and books sold by wholesalers. They aren’t required for eBooks.
Acquiring an ISBN isn’t difficult. Many self-publishing platforms offer a free ISBN along with their services. If they don’t, you can purchase an ISBN through Bowker. Amazon’s KDP will provide an ISBN for free, as will SmashWords and Draft2Digital if you upload to either of those platforms.
Make sure your ISBN is the same if you are uploading your book to multiple platforms. Any given book should only have one ISBN. You can verify this by entering your book’s title or author name at ISBN Search.
Here are a handful of other platforms that can and will be useful for pushing your self-published book to a wider audience. Some of them are also great for publishing and printing your book at a reasonable cost.
· Google Play: It’s easy and free to upload your eBook to the Google Play Store where it has the potential to reach millions of readers. You’ll need an ISBN, but the eBook file can be uploaded directly from your computer.
· Apple Books: Apple Books is another great resource for publishing your book and getting it in front of readers. They offer print and EPUB versions and allow you to work with a distribution partner for additional support. You’ll need an iTunes account, but this is an easy and cheap way to get your book out there.
· BookBub: A free eBook platform that helps readers discover books they’ll love via deals and handpicked recommendations. BookBub has a large listing of free and deeply discounted eBooks in all genres. If you are considering discounting your eBook to attract readers BookBub is a great resource to take advantage of.
· OverDrive: This is the number one eBook and audiobook platform used by libraries. Don’t underestimate libraries as a great source to find readers and grow your base. You can and should upload your eBook to OverDrive.
· CreateSpace: If you’ve heard of the On-Demand publishing service CreateSpace or are interested in using it to publish your book, know that it merged with KDP Print in 2020.
· BookBaby: BookBaby’s mission is to help independent authors get published on all the latest and most popular eReading devices. They also offer print-on-demand services. While BookBaby is more expensive than some of its competitors (there’s a $399 set-up fee) it offers a few marketing services to help you sell your book. Their packages range from $890 to $2,290. That may seem like a lot, but you’ll get more support from BookBaby than from other print-on-demand and EPUB services.
Professional reviews are important for all books regardless of their publishing origins. Yes, they cost money. But the impact they can have on readers who aren’t sure what they want to read can often far outweigh their initial cost. Reviews get plopped on book covers all the time for this very reason. They’re another selling device, a poignant pitch to a potential purchaser. And by getting your book reviewed before you send it out into the world you get some insight on if what you wrote has what it takes to have literary success.
Below are three reputable and well-known review services. Any of these can boost the professionalism and “clout” surrounding your book, as well as giving readers one more reason to give it a shot.
Midwest Book Review
It’s important to get your self-published book on as many platforms as possible to drive traffic. Aggregators are great for conveniently getting your book listed on several platforms at once, but will cut into your royalties. If you’re willing to take the time to get your book uploaded to the most important platforms individually you stand to make more money while forsaking convenience.
Getting a self-published book into physical bookstores is difficult, but not impossible.
Amazon will inevitably be your best friend as far as online sales go. But if you’re serious about getting into physical stores your first priority should be making sure your book is in either paperback or hardcover at trim dimensions that professional publishers use. Don’t print a mass market paperback and expect Books-A-Million to be interested.
Understand that most self-published books are print-on-demand, and if you want your book in big box retailers you will need to have many printed copies available upfront. Like all inventory-based businesses, the supplier foots the bill and then the retailer pays later for what they sell. Books that go unsold or get damaged can be returned with you on the hook for the expenses. Most bookstores won’t accept books that aren’t returnable.
The best way to get a self-published book into a big box retailer is to contact their corporate offices and present a pitch detailing your book, your sales, and how you plan to drive interest. If they’re interested they might place your book in a local store to see how it performs. If regional interest is high that could lead to better things.
There are also distributors that can potentially get your book picked up by big box retailers. You will have to go through the same process trying to convince them to take you on. Subject matter and salability are king.
HOW TO MAKE SELF-PUBLISHING PROFESSIONAL
How do you self-publish a professional book?
· Perfect your manuscript. Limit spelling and grammar errors, make sure your plot is cohesive and free of flaws, and let an editor and proofreader examine and comb your prose before you hit publish.
· Check out professionally published books in your genre (print and digital) and format your book to look like them.
· Don’t be cheap and cut corners. Use line spacing and line width norms for the size and genre you’re publishing and don’t try to mush too much text onto each page to save money. Blank spaces are important.
· You can always publish under your own “press”. So what if your book is the only title in your brand new press’s catalogue. Odds are not a single reader is going to bother checking. But that little publisher name and emblem on the spine is a detail that adds to your book’s credibility.
FINAL AUTHOR CHECKLIST
Here are some important things for writers to do regardless of your publishing route and experience level.
· Author Website and Social Media
o Both are incredibly important. So much commerce is done online nowadays, and books are no different. Readers need an easy and convenient way to find your work and what you’re all about in the overwhelming thicket of information that is the world wide web. Your website is your base of operations, your headquarters in a vast world. Interacting with readers and other writers on social media can help grow your following and increase awareness about who you are and what you’re trying to do. In a very saturated literary world this can be a gamechanger.
· Goodreads Author Page
o Goodreads is an amazing resource for both readers and writers. The Goodreads Author Program allows authors to claim their profile page to promote their work and engage with readers. Readers can follow authors on Goodreads and keep up with their latest releases.
· Facebook Author Page
o Facebook is the world’s largest social media platform. It’s a great way to connect with family and friends and in turn raise awareness among their friend circles about your work and upcoming publications.
· Various Writers Associations
o There are dozens of organizations out there dedicated to writers. As they worth it? Yes, for a number of reasons. Belonging to one or more writers associations shows that you’re professional and serious about your work. The best associations can help you find an agent, offer editing resources and workshops to perfect your craft, and offer great networking opportunities with other writers and industry professionals.
· Writers Conferences
o Conferences are probably the best and sometimes the only way to land a face-to-face conversation with literary agents. They’re also great for networking in person with other writers and industry professionals as well as selling your books and promotional materials. They can be pricey, but if you’re serious about writing professionally you should really consider attending one or multiple conferences a year.
· Team with Gold Quill Consulting
o Gold Quill Consulting is an amazing resource offering writers every service they could possibly need under the roof of one business. It can be overwhelming to find an editor, proofreader, cover designer and all the other things an author needs to be successful. As a Gold Quill client you’ll never have to search for reputable and qualified people to perform these services ever again. They offer discounts to their clients and top of the line professional services plus years of experience in helping writers pair with the best agents and publishers.
Going from writing a book to searching for an agent, publisher, or starting your self-publishing journey can, quite frankly, be overwhelming. I sincerely hope that this compilation of information, resources, and advice can help writers develop a plan for success and achieve their dreams. It won’t be easy and the journey could take months or years, but in the end it will be worth it.
Comment below, subscribe, and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any additional questions about publishing and finding an agent. Thanks for reading!