From the outset of your book project, you should decide whether you’re going for self-publishing or traditional publishing. That will completely shape how you approach your workflow and focus for your book. If you haven’t decided yet, read my posts on self-publishing versus traditional publishing - each option has its own merits and your choice will depend on what role the book is going to play in your business. If you’re going for traditional publishing (ie not self-publishing), this is for you.
What you get and what you don’t
Before you launch into traditional publishing, you need to be clear what you’re choosing. A good publisher will proofread your book, organise the layout and type-setting, commission the cover, write or help you write the back cover text, sort out the printing, ISBN, and distribution, and do some of the marketing. You’ll also get an advance: a sum of money (amounts vary wildly) paid in advance, which you’ll pay back with your royalties. The average royalty rate is 6% of the cover price: once your advance has been paid off, your book has “earned out” and you start receiving the royalties, usually paid twice a year. (If the book never earns out, you don’t have to pay back the advance. That’s their risk, along with all the other costs of producing the book.) Traditional publishing also comes with that stamp of quality, of course.
But this is what you don’t get. You don’t necessarily get editing: some publishers might edit, others might not, but you’re expected to submit your book in good shape. You get some marketing, but you still need to market your own book as hard as you would if you were self-publishing. Marketing budgets are limited and an author who can self-promote is crucial. You don’t get piles of author copies – you’ll get a few (to send reviewers), but if you want more, you’ll need to buy them and your author discount is not the same as cost price. If you were planning to give many copies away, this is not the publishing route for you. You don’t get a high percentage of royalties: as I said, the average rate is 6% of cover price. Once Amazon has demanded its massive discount (Random House gives it a 53% discount, smaller houses pay up to 60%), that’s not a lot of cover price. On a book selling at £7.99, the author’s royalty works out about £0.19. You also don’t get speed. From the publisher’s acceptance, a book can easily take a year to come out, sometimes longer.
So: caveat emptor! (Or caveat scriptor, in this case.) Do you still want to go with a traditional publisher? If you’re not sure, have another look at the self-publishing versus traditional publishing blog posts. If you’re still gunning for it, let’s go! Here’s your pathway.
How do I find a publisher?
The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook gives a fairly comprehensive list of publishers, but that’s starting in the deep end of info. Take a shortcut: make a list of the books most like yours. (You should already have this list, as part of your competition research.) Who publishes them? Get yourself a good list of potentials.
Those aren’t actually names of publishing houses, by the way. We say “publisher”, but actually, we mostly mean “imprint”. Smaller publishing houses have been nommed up by the big ones, so almost all publishing is in the hands of five or six giant publishing houses, each owning dozens of imprints. For instance, Penguin Random House (how we wish they’d called it Random Penguin House!) has 250 imprints, including Chatto & Windus, Ebury, Everyman, Jonathan Cape, and Vintage. An imprint usually has its own editor, so you’ll approach that imprint.
Most of the time, though, you’ll find that the publishing house or imprint says “No unsolicited submissions”: in other words, “You can’t send us stuff.” Very very few publishing houses still run a “slush heap” (ie accept submissions straight from authors), so that means you need an agent.
How do I find an agent?
To find an agent, use the same approach as for a publisher. Make a list of your closest competition / similar books, and see who represents them. The author’s website will usually give their agent in the contact details. Again, get yourself a good list of potentials.
How do I approach a publisher or agent?
Every publisher or agent will have their own submission guidelines clearly posted on the website. Read these and follow them to the letter. Agents get a terrifying volume of submissions (5000 a week is normal), so give them the stuff they ask for exactly as they ask for it. That said, most guidelines ask for more or less the same thing, so you’ll put together a master submission pack, and then cherry-pick from it for each submission.
Your submission pack should include…
- An annotated Table of Contents: a chapter outline of your book, with 1-2 paragraphs describing the contents of each chapter (2-3 pages max)
- 3 sample chapters (usually about 10,000 words)
- A submission letter, with a short pitch for your book
- An author bio (a paragraph to half a page)
- A book proposal, including an executive overview, a marketing analysis, and a competition analysis, plus the above stuff
The submission guidelines will also tell you exactly how to send them your stuff: by email only, by post only, by email but not attachments, a submission letter only first, by pigeon post on the night of the full moon, or whatever. Again, treat their specifications as the word of the Lord, the Lore, and the Law.
Submit to batches of agents. Batches of 5-10 is usually a convenient amount to do each week, but absolutely don’t wait to hear from one before you try the next. If you need to approach 12 agents to get signed, and you wait 3 months for each one to reply, that’s three years gone. Keep a record of who you’ve submitted to and what their response is, as well as their usual wait-time.
By the way: a good agent never asks for money. If any agent asks you for money, cross them off the list.
Once you’ve found your agent or publisher
Hurrah! Throw back a glass of champagne / celebratory elderflower tea / drink of choice: they’re going to guide you the rest of the way. Your publishing journey has just begun! (Everything so far was the bit of the quest before you volunteer to deliver the ring to Mordor yourself. Also, they are now the Sam to your Frodo.)
Want some help?
If you’d like feedback and guidance in identifying publishers / agents and creating your submission pack, you can book a month or two of coaching. If you’re just starting out with your book, the Springboard programme gives you three months of coaching to get you from “I want to write a book” to your complete first draft, following the publishing route best suited to you. Email me for more details or have a look at the coaching options. I’ll be Gandalf.