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Getting Published (FAQ)

There is no guaranteed formula for getting published—that if you just do x, y, and z you’ll wind up with a lucrative publishing contract. I wish! So while I can’t give you a foolproof step-by-step guide, I can give you some tips and guidelines in this FAQ to point you in the right direction.

There is also no one path to getting published—there are many possible routes, depending in part on what your goals are. There are so many different possibilities for writers, not least of which is whether you want to publish with a traditional publisher or if you want to self-publish. For example, are you a fantastic marketer? If you are, self-publishing might be a good path for you.

I like to remind people who are researching publishing to focus on the writing first—don’t get too far ahead of yourself in learning all about the business before you have developed your skills as a writer. First, focus on writing, and editing, and improving. Get honest feedback (from people who aren’t your friends and family). Many writers have found writing groups to be an invaluable resource—not just for critique, but also sharing information about publishing. Write. Read in the genre that you’re working in. (For that matter, read in other genres too.) If you’re working on a novel, look at other fiction and memoir to see how the authors structured their stories. If you want to write a business book, read current business books to get a sense of what publishers are looking for in that genre these days. Write. Revise. Write some more.

We’ll come back to some specific questions of how to get published in different genres.

You want to find a publisher who is the right fit for you and your book. A guidebook publisher might not publish poetry; a science fiction publisher might not publish cozy mysteries. So when you’re researching publishers, you want to find a publisher who actively publishes in your genre and will be a good fit for your work.

To find publishers who could be a good fit, you could go to the bookstore or library and look for books that are somewhat like yours—maybe they have a similar subject matter or style. Your librarian will help you. Find out who published those books, and then go online and research that publisher. The Resource Links page also has links to some online publisher databases.

If you think a publisher looks like a good possibility, try to get your hands on a few of their recent books (or ebooks, of course) so you can see them for yourself and get a sense of their professionalism. If you find a book riddled in typos, that might be a red flag, for example.

Every publisher accepting submissions will have detailed submission guidelines, usually on their website. Every set of guidelines will be different: some might want full manuscripts emailed, others will accept mailed query letters only. I can’t emphasize this part enough: read each set of guidelines carefully and follow them carefully.

Yes, it is time-consuming, and kind of a pain, to tailor each submission for a particular publisher. But it’s a waste of time to send a publisher something that they won’t read.

Not all publishers accept unsolicited submissions from authors. Many don’t, so you won’t be able to find their submissions guidelines. They might only accept manuscripts from an agent who they already have a relationship with.

Here are some dos and don’ts when submitting to a book publisher:

  • Do not send an email that says “Dear Publisher” and leave 20 (or 100!) email addresses visible in the To: field. Even if you are submitting to multiple publishers, make sure each one submission is personalized. Everyone likes to feel like they’ve been singled out as special, even publishers.
  • Do follow each publisher’s submission guidelines exactly.
  • Do not say in your cover letter that you don’t like any of the other books that the publisher has published, but that you hope that they’ll publish yours. If you don’t like what they do, why would you want them to publish your book? And why should they consider your manuscript?
  • Do include your name and contact information on the manuscript (unless the submission guidelines specify blind submissions). You want to make sure that you can be contacted even if your manuscript gets separated from your cover letter. Also make sure that you have page numbers on your manuscript. If an editor drops it onto the floor, she’ll really appreciate those page numbers in putting it back in the right order. (Not that this has happened to me…)
  • Do not use a weird font to try to differentiate yourself. Keep it simple and legible.
  • Do make sure that your submission is edited and polished before submitting it. Publishers are looking for clean, fully developed manuscripts (or proposals). You don’t want to send it out too early, before it’s ready.

That depends. Some authors benefit greatly from the guidance and assistance of an agent—and as I mentioned above, some publishers only accept submissions through agents. Other writers find that they don’t need an agent for what they are doing.

Agents can also be invaluable in things like negotiating foreign and subsidiary rights. But that’s not to say that you must have an agent—again, there are so many different roads that writers can take. Many smaller publishers are happy to work with writers who don’t have agents. Some writers start off their publishing career without an agent, and later get an agent as they build a profile and the business side of their writing becomes more complex. Other writers try to get an agent first. And other writers never work with an agent and find that works really well for them (plus, they save the 15% commission that an agent would take).

If you do decide to try to get an agent, the process is somewhat similar to submitting to publishers. Research agents’ lists—who do they represent? Do they represent authors who have works that are similar to yours in some way? Are they accepting submissions? In what genres? And then make sure to follow their submission guidelines exactly. The Resource Links page has some resources for finding agents.

Also, having a bad agent is definitely worse than not having an agent at all. Research any potential agents completely. Most importantly, do they have a track record of successfully selling manuscripts to reputable publishers?

Once again, research is your friend. Often a magazine or journal will have submission or pitch guidelines posted on their website. If so, follow them. If not, I think that a quick, polite email asking if they have submission guidelines is appropriate.

It’s a very good idea to read a couple of back issues of the magazine or journal that you’re thinking of submitting to. That’s the best way to find out what type of writing they publish. It might seem time-consuming to do all of this research, but really, it saves you time in the long run—making sure that you’re sending your writing or pitches to the most appropriate, suitable publications, and doing it in the way they prefer.

Many agents and publishers request that you send a query letter, instead of your manuscript. You want to make them so interested in your query letter that they’ll request to see your manuscript.

Definitely keep your query letter to one page (or the equivalent thereof if you’re sending it by email). You want to give a brief synopsis that will hook the reader, and include a few lines about yourself.

Writing a synopsis—summarizing a manuscript in just a paragraph or two—is tough, tough work. It seems to be even more difficult when you have to write about your own work—how to possibly do justice to your brilliant and complex ideas or plot or characters in just a few lines? It’s a skill that you have to learn, and the best way to learn is by practice.

Here’s an example of a query that grabbed my attention:

[It’s] a coming-of-age story with a hint of the absurd for fans of the writing style of Ray Robertson, the novels Lucky Jim and Mean Boy, and the films ElectionHigh Fidelity, and The Breakfast Club.

It’s the beginning of a new school year at SFU: new classes, new living arrangements, new love interests. But for the editors at The Peak, SFU’s student newspaper, things are far from okay.

Alex is staring down graduation and the need to apply his humanities degree in the real world. Tracy’s infuriating relationship with Dave comes to an end and she is left floating untethered in a world she thought she had organized. But these two curmudgeons are about to face their greatest challenge when a new rival newspaper invades SFU and threatens the very survival of The Peak.

In this battle of wits, morals, and ideals, the staff at The Peak will have to find a way to defeat their enemy or risk losing the status quo forever.

In this example, I liked the way that I was introduced to the main characters and to the setting of the novel. The references to films and other books also gave me a good idea of what the tone of the book would be like, and that tone was something that appealed to me personally. (I don’t think that referring to other books or movies is necessary at all, but when it works, it’s not a bad idea.) Keep in mind how subjective this process is, though—the tone here appealed to me, but a different editor who had hated those books and novels would likely have a different response to the exact same query letter.

A suggestion for when you’re trying to succinctly summarize your book: look at the back covers of some of your favourite books. Back cover copy generally has to wrap up the main themes and conflicts of a book into a paragraph or two. That’s more or less the same tone that you’re going for here.

After you’ve written your mini-synopsis, include a paragraph about yourself. Keep it brief and relevant. Include any interesting biographical details that tie into your book—for example, if you’ve written a book about a swim race, mention the fact that you are a competitive swimmer. Now is the time to mention any previous publications or writing awards or nominations—don’t be so modest that you forget to mention them!

Keep tweaking your query letter. If you’re met with several “thanks but no thanks” responses, instead of continuing to send out the exact same query letter, try a new angle on your synopsis. Try framing it in a different way. Query letters aren’t easy—keep at it!

Some publishers might ask for a longer synopsis with a query, perhaps up to a page long, depending on the genre. In that case, you can get a bit more detailed about the plot and characters.

For non-fiction books, often a publisher will make a decision on whether or not to offer a contract to publish based not on the finished book, but on a book proposal that outlines the book. Essentially: a publisher will sign a non-fiction book before the book is actually finished being written. (This almost never happens with fiction, unless you’re a writer with a long and proven track record. For fiction, the publisher wants to see the fully completed manuscript.)

A book proposal outlines what the book will be about, a list and description of chapters, and usually a few sample chapters. Those sample chapters are important, because the publisher will want to see not just what you’re planning to write about, but how well you write it.

Another extremely important element of a non-fiction book proposal is your platform—that is, why are you the best possible person to write this particular book? It’s a combination of your biography and why you are an expert on the topic.

There are some good books and online resources on the topic, so if you’re thinking about a non-fiction project, definitely read up further on assembling a compelling book proposal. Visit the Resource Links page for some starting points.

It totally depends on the publisher. Sometimes they will say in their submission guidelines when you can expect to hear back from them—so if they say they will get back to you in three to six months, expect that it will be within three to six months. (Probably closer to six months, to be honest—the submission process can move slowly.)

If you’re outside the timeframe they’ve given you (if they said four months, and it’s been more than four months), I think that it’s definitely fine to send a quick email asking how the process is going and when they might be able to get back to you. Don’t be too aggressive or accusing here (I’d avoid, “You said it would be four months AND IT’S BEEN FOUR MONTHS AND ONE DAY WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”), just check in politely—let them know what month you sent in your submission and ask where things are at.

If they haven’t given any sort of timeline for when they expect to get back to you, it’s harder to know. I would wait at least a month (or longer) after submitting, and then send a quick note asking when you might hear back from them.

Sometimes, unfortunately, no response is your response. If it’s been months since you submitted a manuscript and if your polite check-ins have gone unanswered, you can probably consider that publisher a no.

But remember—things do get lost in the mail, emails get accidentally deleted, and sometimes your manuscript just gets pushed under an editor’s bed and misplaced. That’s why I think politely checking in with the publisher is a good idea. (But please, do not ask the day after you’ve sent something in if they’ve read it yet. They haven’t, I promise you.)

Simultaneous (or multiple) submissions means submitting to several publishers or agents at the same time. Some publishers and agents frown upon this practice, even saying in their submission guidelines that they do not accept simultaneous submissions. The opposite of this would be an exclusive submission, where you send your manuscript to one publisher or agent alone and wait to hear back from them before sending it to someone else.

My opinion is that life is too short for exclusive submissions—you often have to wait several months or maybe even a year (or more!) to hear back from a traditional publisher, which is a very long time if you’re doing one single submission at a time.

But there is a way to do simultaneous submissions in a way that is polite, reasonable, and fair. If the publisher or agent has said in their submission guidelines that they’re fine with multiple submissions (or they haven’t mentioned it at all), then let them know in your letter that this is part of a multiple submission.

Keep the publisher or agent updated on any developments. (Make sure to keep a good record of where you have submitted things and when, so that you’re not trying to just remember off the top of your head. A simple spreadsheet works for me, but there are a number of other methods that work well.) If you sign a deal with Publisher A, make sure to immediately let Publishers B and C know that that manuscript is no longer available and that you’re withdrawing it from consideration. Publisher B will not be happy if they read your manuscript, completely love it, offer you a contract to publish, and only then learn that you’ve signed with someone else. Just make sure to keep everyone informed.

You may also want to do some exclusive submissions, or submit in batches to a small number of agents or publishers at a time, rather than simultaneously submit to everyone who you think might possibly be interested. Why? Because if Publisher A says no but gives you some feedback on what they think you could do differently, then you might want to incorporate their feedback before sending it along to the next publisher (or round of publishers).

A word about rejections: every writer gets them. They are not fun. They are part of the business of being a writer, though. Remember that so much of every decision to accept something or not accept something comes down to personal taste: if you are not the right fit for one publisher, that does not mean that you’re not right for any publisher—it just means that you don’t fit with that single publisher’s plans right now. It also comes down to luck and timing: you can have a very good manuscript and a publisher can like it—but maybe they can’t publish it because they just put out a book that’s too similar or because they know they’re not in the best position to market it.

If you get any sort of personalized feedback in your rejection, take that as a good sign, a sign that you’re probably on the right track. And even if a publisher makes suggestions that you vehemently disagree with and you know are totally wrong, please don’t write them back telling them so. Why would you want to burn a bridge by making a publisher sorry that they took the time to make some suggestions? After all, maybe they would have wanted to see your next work. The publishing business is small and close-knit, and in general burning bridges and relationships is a bad idea. If you receive feedback (from a publisher, or agent, or editor, or friend) that you think is off-base, set it aside for a few weeks or months and come back to it later. Maybe the feedback is truly off-base, or maybe you’ll be able to see it a bit more objectively and a useful kernel in it later.

It’s always a good idea to have your manuscript as completely edited and polished as possible before submitting to a publisher. And it’s also always a good idea to have someone else take a look at your manuscript as well—others spot things that you wouldn’t have noticed yourself.

Sometimes it can be a very good idea to work with a professional editor before submitting to a publisher. Publishers in general have less time and resources to devote to editing than they used to. I work for a small publisher, and we have to be really aware that we can’t afford to sign manuscripts if they need too much editorial work, even if they are promising and we love them. So working with an editor before you get to a submissions stage can really help you.

Not all editors are the same: a substantive edit is very different from a copyedit, for example. (A substantive edit includes “big picture” things like plot, character, structure, whereas a copyedit includes grammar, spelling, and punctuation.) The Editors’ Association of Canada has an overview of different types of editing. So if you do hire an editor, make sure both you and your editor know what your goal is with this edit.

It’s a great idea to get feedback on your manuscript and incorporate it before sending to publishers. This will take a different shape for every writer. One writer I know worked on developing and improving her manuscript through the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Mentorship Program, and afterwards hired an editor to help her get the manuscript to the next level. Only after that did she submit it to a publisher, where she was successful.

Another way to get feedback on your writing is through one of the many writer-in-residence programs. Many universities and libraries in the province offer the opportunity to meet with a writer for free and get feedback on a writing sample.

A contract specifies what you are giving the publisher, what they are giving you, and what the terms of the agreement are. The exact wording of contracts varies considerably, but below I’ve listed some of the most important things that I think you should watch for. Standard disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and none of this constitutes legal advice. Also, I’m a publisher, and sometimes authors and publishers disagree about what is reasonable and what can be expected in a publishing contract. Have a look at the Intellectual Property FAQ for a lawyer’s perspective.

    1. What you’re granting the publisher: the exclusive right to publish and sell your book (in what territories? Canada? North America? The world? And for what period of time? A set period of time, or for the full term of copyright?).
    2. Timelines: the contract should specify when the final manuscript is due to the publisher, and when publication is scheduled to take place.
    3. Who will hold copyright on the book? Most often it will be in the author’s name—if not, find out why.
    4. Royalties and advances: the contract should specify if you are getting an advance, and if so, when. It should also specify what percentage of each sale you’ll receive—that’s your royalty. Make sure to pay attention to whether it’s a percentage based on gross or net sales: the gross sale of one book would be what the customer paid for it, while the net sale to the publisher of one book would be what the publisher actually receives (around 60% of the cover price). A royalty of 10% for print books is usually standard. For ebooks, the royalty percentage is typically between 25 and 50%. Make sure the contract says when you will receive royalties and royalty statements, too.
    5. Subsidiary rights: who controls things like film rights? Foreign edition rights? The right to license excerpts? Translation rights? Your contract should say. If you are granting these licenses to your publisher, then the contract should also say what sort of split you get if they sublicense those rights. (For example, if your publisher gets a movie deal for you, what sort of cut do they get to keep? 40%? 10%?)
    6. Author copies: do you get any complimentary author copies? Or do you have to pay for every single copy you receive, even the first few?
    7. Reversion of rights: I think that contracts should specify under what terms the author can regain control over the rights to their work—for example, if the book goes out of print and the publisher declines to reprint it, I think it’s only fair that the contract allow for the rights to revert back to the author. Also, what if the publisher goes bankrupt? What happens to the rights in that case?

There are many, many other important details in a standard, boilerplate publishing contract. So make sure to read everything carefully before signing. If there’s something that you don’t understand or are unsure about, ask for clarification or if it’s possible to negotiate terms. You can also get a lawyer to take a look at your contract before you sign it to make sure that your interests are being taken care of.

An advance is technically an “advance against royalties.” So when you receive an advance, you’re being paid your royalties in advance. Then you have to “earn out” your advance before you receive any more royalties.

Here’s an example: say you receive a $1000 advance. Your book sells for $20 and you receive 10% of the cover price for each copy sold (so, $2). $1000/$2 = 500. That means that you’ve already received your royalties in advance for the first 500 copies of the book sold. After 500 copies of the book have sold, you’ve earned out your advance and will start being paid royalties again for each copy sold after that.

How much can you expect from an advance? It depends—I don’t think there’s a standard or average that I can give you. Some small publishers don’t give any advances at all. Some celebrities get seven-figure advances. Everyone else ends up somewhere in (the usually much lower end of) the middle.

Writers usually receive a certain percentage of each sale of a book—that’s called royalties. Make sure your contract specifies whether your royalties are calculated based on gross or net sales. Gross is the full cover price, what the customer actually pays for the book; net is what the publisher actually receives (for example, less the bookstore’s percentage).

10% of the cover price is typically a standard royalty for print books. For ebooks, the “standard” is still in development, but about 25-50% is currently within normal range.

Unfortunately, there are people out there who prey on writers, or who at least aren’t acting in your best interest. They might be an “agent” with exorbitant reading fees (who, by the way, can’t provide you with a list of books that they’ve sold), or a writing contest that charges an excessive entry fee, or a publisher offering you an unreasonable deal. A writing contest that selects the majority of entrants as “winners,” then publishes them all in an expensive book that it requires winners to buy? Probably a scam.

How do you know which opportunities are bad? The website Writer Beware (run by SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) provides an excellent service for writers everywhere. They investigate possible scams, and keep a list of “thumbs down” publishers and agencies. There is also a wealth of information on their website—things to consider before signing with a publisher, for example, and advice on spotting a fake contest. I highly suggest spending some time—or a lot of time—reading through their website.

If you’re considering a publisher, get in touch with some of their other authors. Ask them what publishing with their company was like, if they’ve been happy with the experience, if there was anything that they wish had been different.

It’s certainly very exciting to receive interest from an agent or publisher. But don’t let your excitement get the best of you—make sure to take the time to research an opportunity fully before you sign on the dotted line.

Traditional publishing means that money is flowing from the publisher to the writer, not the other way around. The writer is not paying to get published, and the publisher is assuming the financial risk of publishing the book (printing, etc).

Here are a few of the advantages of this route:

  • you don’t have to pay out of pocket for things like design and printing
  • you earn a royalty on every copy sold (and most often an advance up front as well)
  • your publisher will have distribution channels set up (to bookstores, libraries, online retailers, etc)
  • you don’t have to go at everything completely alone and will have the support and expertise of your publisher behind you

With all that said, I certainly don’t think that self-publishing is a bad thing. I think it can be a great thing! Like any part of publishing, though, make sure to do your research before making any decisions. There are too many writers who have decided to self-publish, then ended up with a garage full of boxes of books that they don’t know what to do with. You’ll want to make a detailed plan in advance. And today, with ebooks and digital publishing, a digital-only self-publishing strategy can make a lot of sense.

Many authors are adopting a hybrid model—certain works they publish traditionally with a publisher, others they self-publish. It all depends on what your goals are, and who you think can do a better job of getting your work out there. There are advantages (and disadvantages) both ways.

There are some great guides to self-publishing out there. See the Resource Links page for a few starting points. Remember that self-publishing (and publishing in general) has changed a lot in the last few years, with so many new digital sales channels, so look for recent resources.

It depends on the publisher. Even big-name writers say that publishers are doing less marketing today than they used to. Writers are being asked to be great self-promoters—that might include using social media, setting up their own events, and finding new and innovative ways to get their books into the hands of readers.

I don’t see this as a sign that publishers are lazy or incompetent (although others will surely disagree with me), but as a reflection of how advertising and marketing has changed. As readers, we want a personal connection to an author, and social media has made that possible in new ways. Does it mean that writers need to develop skills other than writing—marketing, self-promotion, public speaking? Almost certainly. The days of the reclusive writer who refuses to do anything but write are all but gone, I’m afraid.

So, how much marketing can you expect a publisher to do for you? Ask them. Ask what their marketing strategy is and what they do, and what they expect you to do. Will they send out review copies? To whom? Will they set up events for you? Will they do any advertising? Will they do any contests or giveaways? Will they work with you if you have a particular idea about marketing that you want to try?

And check out how a publisher has marketed previous books. That’s often a sign of what you can expect them to do for your book.

You’ve worked tirelessly on developing your skills as a writer. You’ve worked with an editor or your writing group, and you have a finished, polished manuscript. You’re ready to try to get published. Where to start?

a) How do I publish a novel?

What genre is your novel? These can get quite specific—is it a literary thriller? urban fantasy? coming-of-age mystery? (I don’t know if that last one is technically a genre—but it could be a good description, couldn’t it?) Research other books in that genre and who published them (and/or who agented them—agents are often thanked in a book’s acknowledgements). Research those publishers or agents. Find out if those publishers or agents are accepting submissions. Then follow the submission guidelines to the letter. As we discussed above, make sure to keep track of where you send your manuscript, and let people know if it’s a simultaneous submission.

Publishers often read just the first few pages of a submission, and then set it aside if it fails to grab them, so make sure your novel starts well. If things don’t get really interesting until page 50, you can’t take for granted that a reader will stick around that long.

b) How do I publish a non-fiction book?

Non-fiction books are often accepted on the basis of a book proposal, rather than a finished manuscript. So find a good guide to preparing a book proposal and put one together carefully.

For non-fiction, your platform as a writer is really important. Why are you an expert on this topic? Why are you the person to write this book? If you’ve written elsewhere on the topic (say, a magazine article), that can be a step in establishing your platform and your expertise. Plus, any research that you do for an article could be helpful for your book.

c) How do I publish poetry?

Literary journals and magazines often accept poetry submissions. Visit the Resource Links page for some lists and databases. You should investigate each magazine’s submission guidelines and timelines (some only accept submissions at certain times of the year, for example).

It’s a good idea to read some back issues of a publication before submitting—would your work be a good fit with what you see in the back issues?

It can be helpful to build up a publication history in journals and magazines before trying to get a book-length poetry collection published. But if you are looking for a poetry book publisher, find out who is publishing poetry. Go to the bookstore and find the poetry section, and write down the names of some of the poetry publishers to research later. And buy one or two of those poetry collections as well—it doesn’t hurt to support your fellow poets.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that many of the publishing scams I’ve come across deal with poetry (for instance, poetry contests). So check out Writer Beware if you’re unsure.

d) How do I publish a children’s or YA book?

Of course, there are different types of children’s books, including picture books, middle grade, and YA (young adult)—and other subcategories.

For all categories, you’ll want to do your research and find out publishers who publish books in that area (or agents who specialize in that area). And remember that not every publisher who puts out children’s literature publishes all types of children’s literature: one might publish picture books but not books for older children, or books for reluctant readers in elementary school but not YA, or contemporary YA but not fantasy YA.

If you are submitting a picture book manuscript, keep in mind that publishers will want to select an illustrator themselves. So except in extremely rare cases, you should not submit your manuscript with completed illustrations.

Writing for children and young adults is a special skill—an authentic voice is so important. If you’re working in this area, it’s especially important to read current children’s and YA books: you’ll get a sense of what is currently selling, how current writers are writing for children. Also check out organizations specifically for children’s writers on the Resource Links page.   

e) How do I publish short stories?

A lot of the same principles apply to publishing short stories as for publishing poetry (see above). Look to literary journals and magazines: they often accept short story submissions. Many also have a short story contest. (When deciding whether it’s worthwhile to enter a contest, look at the entry fee and whether the amount makes sense, how it is judged, what the prize is, and what sort of terms you’re agreeing to by entering the contest.)

As for publishing short story manuscripts in a book collection: I work in literary publishing, and I think the most frequent type of manuscript that we get is short story manuscripts. We can only publish a teeny number of them, though. So a short story manuscript needs to really, really stand out. What makes it stand out? Publication credits in journals or magazines definitely help—it shows that others have given their stamp of approval to the writing. Another thing that can help is if there is some sort of theme running through the collection: something that justifies it being a collection of stories and not just a group of stories written by the same person.

I hope that these comments about publishing are helpful. As I said at the beginning, there is no one path to publishing, and there are exceptions to every rule! But I hope that these comments will act as guidelines or a place to start. First, focus on the writing! Good luck in your writing and publishing journey.

© 2014 Kelsey Attard

Kelsey Attard is the managing editor of Freehand Books, a literary publisher in Calgary.

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