How do you get a book published with a traditional publisher?
There are two ways. You can get a traditional publisher for your book or you can publish independently. Each route to publication has pros and cons, but authors can make lots of money with both methods.
Both methods require hard work. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. But both methods are doable.
In this article, I will walk you through the process of getting published with a traditional publishing house like Simon & Schuster or Random House. As a former literary agent, I will offer you tips and tricks to help you along the way.
Why should I get a traditional publisher for my book?
You can hear all about the pros and cons episode of Traditional Publishing on my other podcast, which focuses on traditional publishing. I also have an episode on the Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing. If you’re trying to decide whether to go indie or traditional, those episodes will help.
But here are a few quick pros:
The prestige associate with traditional publishing is particularly important if you’re writing Literary Fiction or Nonfiction. It’s less important for genres like SciFi and Romance.
Less Money Out of Pocket
Your traditional publisher will cover most, if not all, the expenses of publishing your book. You will still need to pay for your website and email, but the actual publishing will be covered by the publisher.
Access to the New York Times List
Most authors don’t realize the New York Times bestseller list isn’t really a bestseller list. The list is carefully curated by their selection board and features their recommendations. They take sales into account, but they also exclude books based on political opinions or publisher.
The New York Times has a strong bias against indie authors. If being on the New York Times list is important to you, traditional publishing is your only option.
Indie authors can hit the USA Today Bestseller list and occasionally the Wall Street Journal bestseller list.
Access to Prestigious Awards
Many awards only consider books published by traditional publishers to be eligible for the award.
Better Distribution into Brick-and-Mortar Retail
Traditional publishers make most of their money selling paper books, and indie publishers make most of the money selling ebooks. Most physical bookstores don’t even stock most indie books. More money is spent on paper books even though ebooks are growing. In certain genres, ebooks are dominant.
There are many more pros to traditional publishing, but there are also cons. Likewise, there are downsides to indie publishing. Both can be lucrative and rewarding.
If you’re seeking to get a traditional publisher for your book, follow these seven steps.
Step 1: Prove Yourself to Traditional Book Publishers
Large traditional publishers spend tens of thousands of dollars publishing your book. Editors, cover designers, print runs, sales teams who interact with bookstores, and marketing people all cost money. The largest houses are based in New York and have high overhead costs. It all adds up to a hefty price tag for publishing a book, and they cover the costs by selling books.
Most traditional publishers lose money on half the books they publish.
Of the remaining books, 40% break even, and 10% of the top books they publish make insane amounts of money. Traditional publishers make money to cover all those costs by selling millions of a few top-selling books.
Bestselling Books Pay the Bills at Traditional Publishing Houses
It may cost $1.50 to print a hardback copy of Harry Potter, but they sell millions of copies for $25 and make astronomical profits. But it only happens with the best sellers. The whole traditional publishing model is geared toward hitting home runs, not base hits.
As a result, publishers want to sign authors they know they can make money with. If an editor takes a risk on a debut author and the company loses money, the editor may lose her job. There is a reason why the turnover at publishing houses is so high. Often, the team you start with is not the team you finish with.
All of this to say, traditional publishers won’t sign unproven authors.
There are two ways to prove yourself, and how you do it depends on what you write.
Fiction Path – Write a Story They Can’t Put Down
- Write an entire novel.
- Save it to a flash drive and put it in your safe deposit box.
- Now write a second novel.
You must bring a completed novel to the publishing house. Publishing companies won’t sign a first-time author with an unfinished book because they don’t know if you can finish a book. The only way to prove yourself is to finish it.
Your story must be the best story at the conference, and that includes stories by the faculty. Remember, publishers are looking for a home run. They only want to sign the author who has told the best story and demonstrates excellence in the craft.
Our course, The Five Year Plan, is an intense program to help you improve your craft. The platform is important for novelists, and publishers will want to know about it, but excellent writing and a compelling story are crucial.
Nonfiction Path – Build a Platform
As a nonfiction writer, you prove yourself by building a following around your ideas. To demonstrate that your ideas have resonance, you must connect with the people who resonate with your idea and to gather them as a following.
For more on resonance, listen to episode Readers Are Changing What They Read (and what to do about it).
If your ideas resonate with many people, you will have a following, and that will be your platform.
There are many ways to build a following, but right now, publishers only look at one metric of your platform.
Can you guess what it is? I talk about it all the time.
That’s right. If you want to get a traditional publishers for your book, you’ll have to tell them about your email list.
I talked with an author who recently submitted her book for a distribution deal with a major distributor. The first question on the application asked about the number of email subscribers on her list. This is the first number a lot of people in publishing look for.
If your answer to this question ends in the word “hundred,” traditional publisher will stop listening to anything you say after that. You can talk about your popular radio show, but their only thought will be, “If your radio show was so popular, why do you only have 900 people on your email list? “
My upcoming course, Obscure No More, is all about how to build a platform. Look for my official announcement of the beta program soon.
You prove yourself by developing your craft, finishing a novel, or building a platform around your resonating idea.
Step 2: Write a Query Letter and Book Proposal for a Traditional Publisher
A book proposal is like a business plan for your traditionally published book. It’s where you make a case for why the publisher should acquire your book. They will use your proposal as the basis for an internal profit and loss statement. The acquisitions editor must make her case to spend $50,000 (the advance plus publishing expenses and overhead) in order to make $100,000. The information in your proposal should help the editor make a solid case.
Book proposals should include the following:
- Book Outline
- Book’s Target Audience
- Author’s Platform
- Book Marketing Plan
- Author’s Publishing History and Past Sales
- Sample Chapters
A query letter is a one-page executive summary of the book proposal. Many people use the first page of their proposal as a query letter because it normally includes all the relevant information in short form.
There are many resources and books that will guide you through the proposal-writing process.
I recommend How to Write a Book Proposal: The Insider’s Step-by-Step Guide to Proposals that Get You Published (Affiliate Link). I read the third edition and loved it. My paper copy is marked up, underlined, and filled with notes with ideas I had while reading. If you know anything about how I feel about paper books, you know what a big deal that is. The fifth edition is now available and is likely to be updated and improved.
I also have episodes about proposals on my other podcast:
Pro Tip: Split the Marketing and Platform Section
When I was an agent, I almost always split the Platform section from the Marketing Plan section on the proposals I submitted.
Platform is the following you already have. It is the number of people who subscribe to your email list or listen to your podcast. It also serves as a list of your past successes.
The Marketing Plan is a list of activities you plan to do in the future. Many authors believe a wish-list of marketing activities can compensate for a lack of platform. It can’t. Your future marketing wish-list will only prompt the publisher to wonder why you aren’t currently doing those things to build your platform.
You need a solid marketing plan, but it can’t compensate for a lack of platform.
Step 3: Get an Agent If You Want to Traditionally Publish Your Book
What is an agent?
A literary agent is someone who represents you to publishing companies. These days, most of the big houses only take agented submissions.
Once word processors became widely available, the number of books being written increased drastically, and publishers got swamped. If you send your book directly to a publishing house, they will throw it straight in the trash. They won’t look at it unless you have an agent.
Agents are equal parts lawyer, hype-man, coach, and sounding board. A good agent will guide you through the publishing process, and they are on your team. Legitimate agents only get paid when you get paid, and they receive 15%. That’s the industry standard.
Do you need an agent?
Publishing companies take advantage of naive authors who don’t have agents. Publishing houses don’t care about you or your book. They care about money, and they will pay you as little as they possibly can.
Authors with agents make more money than authors without agents.
But how can authors make more money when an agent takes 15%?
Because 85% of a watermelon is more fruit than 100% of a grape. The best thing that can happen to an author without an agent is that they are underpaid. The worst thing is that a publisher ruins your whole career.
An agent from an agency can also offer their collective bargaining power on your behalf to protect you from an unscrupulous publisher. When they represent hundreds of authors, it creates a counterweight of power to the publishing company.
I can’t think of a single large publishing company I would recommend to an unagented author. It is like asking what wolf I would trust to watch a sheep. Unagented authors get devoured.
What do I look for in an agent?
Anyone can call themselves an agent, but you must do your homework before signing with one. A good agent has relationships and contacts with publishing industry professionals.
You want an agent with:
- Connections to gatekeepers and decision-makers
- Enthusiasm about your book
- Understanding of the market
- Offerings that match your track record
When it comes to offerings, there are three tiers of agency.
Tier 1: Brand New Agent
This is the easiest agent to get. It is also the least useful agent. While new agents may give you a lot of time and enthusiasm, most of them run out of time and money before becoming successful in their business.
Making money as an agent is very back loaded. Agents work unpaid for months helping authors write proposals, queries, and pitches. They email and call multiple acquisitions editors. But the agent doesn’t get paid for any of that work until the contract is signed. Often it takes months or even a year to sell a book.
Agents need a long runway to get their businesses off the ground, and many run out of runway before their career takes off.
On the other hand, if you are their first client to have success, you’ll become their darling who receives white-glove service.
Tier 2: Mid-Tier Agency
You’ll find these agencies taking appointments at writer’s conferences. They have a solid roster of mid-list authors with a handful of bestsellers. Mid-tier agencies have solid connections and a foot-in-the-door with all the major houses. They don’t offer a lot of extra services but they are in it for the long haul and the agency will likely outlive the agents themselves.
Tier 3: Top Tier Agency
You must be invited to join a top-tier agent. They don’t go to conferences or take pitches. You don’t call them, they call you. At this level, every author they represent is a celebrity.
Since the agency expects a six-figure contract with every book, they offer a much wider range of free services for their authors. They may provide a virtual assistant, social media manager, marketing services, speech-booking services, and potentially much more.
In the publishing industry, the more books you sell, the more the rules change. Typically, you’ll trade up to this kind of agency after you have two bestselling books.
Don’t aim for the top-tier agents right away.
How do I get an agent?
The dirty little secret in publishing is that it is mostly about who you know. Most agents get most of their clients as referrals from their existing clients. I would guess that 70-80% of authors get signed after being referred by another author.
So, make friends with other authors, and have them introduce you to their agent. Once that introduction is made, the agent will want a query letter or proposal, which you will have handy.
It’s best to send your proposal and query letter as soon as you are introduced. Strike while the iron is hot. If you wait a week, the agent may have been introduced to several other authors and forget about you. It’s much easier to submit while you and your author friend are still fresh in the agent’s mind.
Prepare ahead of time, and when you have the opportunity, you’ll be ready.
There are other ways to get an agent.
- Send a proposal to their slush pile.
- Meet them at a conference.
- Win a contest.
We have several episodes on getting an agent:
- What is a Literary Agent Do You Still Need One
- How to Get an Agent
- How to Get an Agent With Rachelle Gardner
Step 4: Get a Traditional Publisher for Your Book
Once you have an agent, you are ready to get a publishing company.
Polish the Proposal
Good agents will help you tweak your proposal to make it pop.
Agents see thousands of proposals each year, and they know how to spruce up a proposal. Do your best work on the proposal you submit to your agent, and then let her show you how you can improve.
Listen to your agent here. She knows what she is talking about. She’s been staring at proposals her entire career. Talk it through, but remember that while you know your book, the agent knows the market.
Your agent will help you put together a pitching strategy. Different agents will have different plans based on the editors they know at certain houses. They know which publishers to pitch to first and how to do it.
Agents sometimes know when specific publishers are searching for a particular kind of book. They may know a publisher who is looking for a book on XYZ, and you have written a book on XYB. You may be able to tweak your proposal to meet their needs, and suddenly your book is exactly what that publisher is looking for.
Generally speaking, the bigger publishers get first dibs since they tend to spend more on the book advance and marketing. If you get an offer from a big publisher for $100,000, there is no reason to get a bid from a medium-sized publisher who never offers advances over $50,000.
You will receive the best offers if you can get multiple publishers bidding against each other.
The psychological trigger of social proof applies to publishers. Publishers want to sign authors that other publishers want. The more publishing houses you have interested, the more money you’ll be offered, and the more leverage you will have in the negotiation.
If you have proven yourself to be a great writer with a great platform, publishers will see you as a hot commodity.
Your agent will send the pitches to publishers and, therefore, will also receive the rejection letters. If you don’t want to read rejections, you don’t have to.
There is a high counsel at each traditional publisher that decides whether your book is worthy. This counsel is called the publishing board or pub board.
But before you face the pub board, you have to win over the acquisition editor. Acquisition editors act as gatekeepers for the pub board. They say “no” to most of the books, but they become advocates for the books they say “yes” to.
We have a whole episode on this process: Selling An Editor So She Can Sell to Pub Board with Allen Arnold.
Once the acquisitions editor is on your side, you need to convince the pub board. They hold a secret meeting, and you don’t get to know what is said there.
The editor will often report back to you and give you the reasons your book was rejected, but you won’t know if those are the real reasons or just safe ones. They may reject you because of your politics, but they’ll likely give a generic reason for their rejection. Your agent can help you parse the true reasons from the vague.
Neither you nor your agent can attend this meeting, but you can still exert your influence. We have a whole episode on How to Get A Publishing Board To Buy Your Book.
Once the pub board says “yes” to your book, you move to contract negotiation.
Publishing contracts are complicated, and everything is negotiable.
Talk to your agent about what’s important to you. Do you care about foreign rights? Film rights? Audio rights?
By default, your agent will be focused on the size of the advance because the advance is how agents get paid. They receive 15% of your advance, so they want it to be as big as possible.
Another advantage of having a large advance is that publishing houses tend to spend more to market those books.
As a rule of thumb, publishing houses spend about the same on the advance as they do on marketing. But this includes the salary of the sales and marketing people. A $5,000 advance will not result in much visible marketing activity. A $100,000 advance will likely result in a major marketing campaign that will create a lot of attention and noise about your book.
Publishers often have two boilerplate contracts they send to authors. One is a terrible contract they send to unagented authors. The other is a less terrible contract they send to agented authors.
This contract is a starting point for negotiations. Don’t sign it. Don’t automatically accept everything the publisher suggests. These contracts are mostly about protecting the publisher. But remember, everything is negotiable.
While the agent will handle the negotiation, you make the final call. Don’t let anyone rush you into signing anything.
Learn the basics of negotiation by reading great books on how to do it.
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It (Affiliate Link)
- Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Affiliate Link)
Step 5: Get Paid
In traditional publishing, authors get paid fast. Often you get your money before the book is published. Then they get paid slow.
How much do traditionally published authors get paid for their books?
On the low end, an author’s advance can be $10. The largest advance I know of was $65 million.
The size of your advance is an indication of your publisher’s confidence in your book. If they expect to sell a lot of copies, they’ll offer a big advance. If they’re just taking a shot on your book and they’re not expecting much, they’ll give you a small advance.
Be careful if you’re offered a small advance because that small advance and lack of commitment can lead to small sales. Each subsequent publisher will want your sales numbers. If your first book is a dud, it may tarnish the rest of your career.
The size of the advance also indicates how successful your publisher has been in the past. A publisher with no money is a publisher with no record of success. They make money selling copies to the author’s friends and families. They spend as little as possible, and they expect failure with every book.
Small publishers like this need you to make them successful. They bring nothing to the table to make you successful. In almost every case, small publishers who can’t afford big advances are the worst of both worlds. They don’t do any marketing for you, and they keep you from getting the sales data that would help you do the marketing yourself. It is the worst scenario.
I’ve received so many emails from authors who have horror stories of publishing with small publishers. Do yourself a favor and go with a publisher who can afford to bring something to the table besides knowing how to submit your book to Amazon.
When do authors get paid?
The money is paid ahead of book sales. That’s why it’s called an advance.
It is not uncommon for advances to be broken up into payments. You might receive your first installment on signing, the next after the rough draft is turned in, and a final installment once edits are finished.
Typically, the author receives the whole advance before the book releases.
This is an “advance on royalties,” so let’s talk about what royalties are and how they work.
How do book royalties work at traditional publishers?
The typical royalty for a traditionally published book is between $0.50 and $1.50 per copy.
You never hear industry people talk about royalties in this way, however. They don’t like talking in dollar amounts. Instead, they talk about “percentages.”
The percentage of your royalties depends on what’s in your contract. A royalty percentage on gross sales is different than royalties on net sales.
You must understand the fine print before signing the contract, and that’s just one more reason you need an agent. If you’re not careful, publishers pull fine-print tricks to make it look like you’re getting paid a lot. But your agent will be aware of the tricks and can help you avoid them.
Royalties are often paid on a sliding scale. An author might get a 10% royalty for the first 25,000 units sold, a 15% royalty on the next 50,000 units, and a 20% royalty on the next 100,000.
You’ll receive a different percentage on your ebook and audiobook. Your publisher may need to hire a narrator for the audiobook, and that narrator may receive a cut of the royalties. These details will be in your contract, and they are all negotiable.
Did I mention it’s important to have an agent if you want to traditionally publish your book?
There are so many ways an author can be bamboozled without even knowing it. My heart breaks for authors who believe their publisher is treating them well because they have no idea about the subtle ways the publisher has its hands in the author’s pockets.
Your agent can slap the publisher’s hand before they take your money. The very presence of an agent will prevent some of it.
How does brand value impact royalties for traditionally published books?
A publisher with a strong brand will tend to pay a lower royalty.
The royalty for Dummies books or Love Inspired Romances will be lower than the royalty from their brandless competitors.
The publisher of Dummies books pays a low royalty because readers know their brand. Consumers see that yellow cover, and they know it means a complicated subject will be explained in terms they can understand. Because of that powerful brand, the publisher can pay the author a lower royalty.
But very few publishers have strong brands. Most readers have no idea which traditional publisher their books come from.
Conversely, when the author has a strong brand, they will receive a higher royalty and a bigger advance. One of the most powerful phrases you can use in a negotiation with a publisher is, “I don’t need you.”
There are two to say, “I don’t need you.”
You can demonstrate that multiple publishers are interested and bidding against each other for your contract. One publisher may be a stickler on ebook royalties where another is more generous. Each detail becomes a bargaining chip for you.
You can also publish independently and launch your book to your large platform. In this case, you become your own publishing company and a legitimate buyer, so to speak, in the bidding war.
You tend to see this scenario with established authors who have a record of traditionally published books. When they become a hybrid author and publish some of their own books independently, they learn how much they can make with each title on their own.
How does the advance for a traditionally published book work?
Remember that your advance is an “advance on royalties.”
Let’s say your traditional publisher paid you an advance of $20,000 for your book. In the first year, you earned $15,000 in royalties. This does not mean you get another check for $15,000.
It means you get zero additional money because you still “owe” your publisher the remaining $5,000 in royalties.
Now let’s say the next year you earn another $5,000 in royalties. At that point, you will have “earned out” your advance. The royalties you earned have now coved your advance. In a sense, you have paid back your advance.
Once you earn out your advance, new royalties go to you instead of toward your advance debt. The frequency of royalty payments depends on the contract, but most publishers pay advances every three or six months.
Authors who write evergreen hits, like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, may continue to receive royalties on books they wrote decades ago.
“Earning out” is uncommon. Only about 10% of traditionally published books earn out. For 90% of authors, the only money received is from the advance. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the book is a failure.
Successful authors who receive large advances of $100,000 or more may only earn back $90,000. That’s not a failure, and those authors will continue to receive contracts because a book doesn’t have to earn out the advance to be profitable.
If your traditionally published book doesn’t earn out, you don’t generally have to pay back the advance. But always check the fine print of your contract! Your agent will keep an eye out for such details.
Step 6: Write (or Re-write) Your Book
Write the Nonfiction Book
That’s right. If you’re writing nonfiction, you haven’t even written your book yet.
Nonfiction authors don’t need a finished book to get a traditional publisher because they proved their abilities by creating a platform. If you’re pitching a nonfiction book, you only need a proposal and a few sample chapters. If your platform is big enough, the publisher may hire a ghostwriter to write the book with you.
You may not even want to write your book beforehand because the editor may make major changes to your idea. A traditional publisher will tweak your book’s outline and audience so it’s easier to sell. They may add or subtract chapters from your proposal, depending on the audience they choose.
It is not uncommon for nonfiction authors to take content that has already resonated with audiences and use it as the starting place for their books. Public speakers use transcripts, bloggers use blog posts, and podcasters use their show notes.
To learn how to create a book from your existing content, listen to episode 132 – How to Blog Your Book.
After you’ve caught up with the novelists and you’ve finished your rough draft, you’re ready for editing. Traditional publishers add a lot of value in the editing process.
Round 1: Developmental Edits
Traditional publishers will hire a developmental editor to handle the initial rounds of edits. They have a team of editors with proven histories, and they will match you with the editor who is best for your book.
He or she will edit the ideas in a nonfiction book. In a novel, they will edit the plot.
Think of it as an edit of chapters and paragraphs. It’s a big picture edit.
Development edits are responsible for the high quality usually associated with traditionally published books. If you want to compete with traditional books as an indie, you must be willing to pay for developmental edits, and good developmental editors are not cheap.
When indie authors skip developmental edits, the quality of their book suffers.
Round 2: Copy Edits
Copy edits are what most people envision when they think of editing. The copy editor edits the sentences and words. But it’s more than just fixing typos. A good editor will reduce the number of unnecessary words and make your writing sing.
Round 3: Proofreading
So far, you and your editors have been trading word documents. Once you’re done with the copy edit, your traditionally published book gets handed over to a typesetter who arranges the words on the page the way they will be displayed in the actual printed book.
You will typically receive a PDF of your entire book as it will look when it’s printed. Read through this final copy and look for errors. Making edits at this stage is a bit of a hassle, but it’s better than publishing a typo.
You wouldn’t think you’d find mistakes at this stage, but there are always errors. Sometimes errors are introduced in the typesetting process, but more often, just seeing the words in a new arrangement will bring missed typos and other errors to light. Sometimes you literally have to initial every page to “sign off” on the proofreading.
Step 7: Launch Your Traditionally Published Book
While indie authors make most of their money online selling ebooks, traditional publishers make most of their money selling paper books online and in brick-and-mortar stores.
Many bookstores sell books on consignment. They don’t buy from the publishers. They sell books for publishers. The traditional publisher owns the book until it’s sold, which means, if the book doesn’t sell, the bookstore can return it to the publisher. These books are called “returns.”
If a book is getting a lot of returns, the publisher may have the bookstores tear off the first page, return only that page, and then have them throw away the rest of the book!
Most bookstores only stock new books for 30 days. After the first month, a bookstore will either order more copies or return what they haven’t sold.
The first 30 days of a traditional book’s life are critical for the success of the book.
Book launches are so important because they help the book sell well right away. A poor launch means the books get returned. The publisher gets stuck with stock it can’t sell, and often gives up on the book and the author.
A strong launch, on the other hand, will prompt the bookstores to order more books. As more books are sold, the publisher spends more money on marketing, and a virtuous cycle develops.
Your publisher will soon offer you a contract on your next book, and your career will be off to a great start.
The book launch is primarily the author’s responsibility. This is why our course, The Book Launch Blueprint, is so important. If you’re traditionally published, you must have a strong launch because you have 30 days to prove your book is worth more of your publisher’s investment.
We plan to offer the Book Launch Blueprint course again early next year, so if a book launch is in your future, be sure and sign up to be notified when registration opens.
No matter which route to publication you take, you will work hard and learn a lot. If you decide to get a traditional publisher for your book, following these seven steps will put you light years ahead of most other writers.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. Rubart to be a step-by-step guide through the first five years of your writing career, and it’s designed for novelists. It’s about becoming the best writer at the conference. You’ll learn what to do in each quarter of each year to succeed and avoid the mistakes that hijack most authors’ success. Learn more at AuthorMedia.com/courses.
Learn how to kick your inner shame and hatred to the curb. Whatever your personal setback, Kate will help you find new opportunities to make yourself better and stronger than ever before.
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