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fThese days there are two major routes for getting your book into the hands of your readers: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
In this video, we’ll compare the pros and cons, and give a getting started guide for each route.
- Pros – validation by industry professionals, industry guidance and support, editing and marketing costs covered, marketing expertise and resources, access to markets, credibility.
- Cons – high barrier to entry, profits split with agent and publisher, loss of creative control, slow process.
- Pros – full control over product, lower barrier to entry, keep higher proportion of earnings.
- Cons – professional expertise must be paid for, significant marketing costs and efforts, limited access to market.
When deciding whether to go the traditional or self-publishing route with your book (and there’s no law saying you can’t go different routes for different books), you should think about what your ultimate goal is.
If critical acclaim, literary prizes and seeing your book on the shelves of Waterstones and Barnes and Noble is what you dream of, then traditional publishing is probably the way for you.
If you want to get your work into the hands of readers quickly, and retain creative control, then self-publishing will most likely work better.
Whichever you decide, below we give guidance on each of the routes.
In this section we will focus on getting an agent, rather than all the way to getting published, because once you’ve landed an agent, they will be the one to personally guide you through the rest of the publishing process.
We will cover:
- Finding the right agent
- Preparing your submission
- Dealing with rejections
Finding the Right Agent
Not that long ago, the way to get an agent was to buy the Writers and Artists Yearbook, open it at the literary agent section and go down the list, highlighting the agents that represented the right genres for you.
Then you would print out your manuscript, slide it lovingly into an envelope and send it on its way via the post.
These days (thank goodness) things have become a little more high tech. There are online databases where you can browse active agents and also get quite a lot of supporting information to help select the best agent for you. And of course, most agents prefer submissions via email.
One of the best-known agent databases is Query Tracker, where the core features are free. If you know of others you would like to recommend, please let us know.
Step One – create a longlist
Using a database, you can search for agents in your country, who represent your genres, to get an instant longlist.
You could also add agents to your longlist because you’ve met them in person at events, made contact with them via social media, or because they represent your favourite authors.
(There is some evidence to suggest that if you are able to go to writing events and introduce yourself to agents face to face, you increase your odds of getting representation from them. A high profile example is Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files), who explains that when he submitted his work to his preferred agent, it was rejected, but after he met her at a convention, she offered him representation. Read his full publication journey at his website.)
Step Two – create a shortlist
Once you have the list of all of the generally suitable agents, you can start to whittle them down to ones who you feel a stronger connection with.
Here are a few ways you can do that:
Read their official bio – this can usually be found on their agency website and is a basic first port of call. Does their bio appeal to you? What sub-genres do they mention, do they list any specific types of books they’re after? Do they say they love any books that you also love?
See what other authors they represent – Obviously it’s not possible to read the books of every client of every agent, but if you browse through their list of authors, you may find some of your favourites, which is a great hook. And if you do have time to read some of the work by their authors (and if you love it), that will give you an even better insight, as well as something to personalise your submission.
Read their twitter feed – this is a great way to get a sense of who they are and what’s important to them. If they have you in stitches and you find yourself agreeing with what they’re saying and sharing, that’s a good sign. If it leaves you cold, then they may not be someone you will click with so easily.
Check what their response / feedback record is like: On QueryTracker, you can view data on how good agents are at replying to submissions (even if it’s a no) and even where some of them give feedback.
A fast response, not to mention feedback, is incredibly valuable during the process of submitting. Feedback can be invaluable in helping you reach success, and a fast response means you’re not waiting around for months on end.
So, it makes sense to prioritise agents that make the effort to reply to all submissions, and especially those that reply fast.
Preparing your submission
Agents generally ask for:
- The extract (the beginning of the novel, usually around three chapters)
- A cover letter
- A single page synopsis
The extract is by far the most important part of your submission.
They are what most agents read first, and they are what you are ultimately trying to sell. This means that they have to be as perfect as you can make them.
Here are some of the things agents will be looking for in the first few chapters:
Please note that this is a very brief overview of what makes opening pages effective.
Basic competence – if the agent finds spelling errors, typos or poor grammar in the first few pages, it’s unlikely they’re going to read on. Knowing basic spelling and grammar is a fundamental building block of being a writer, so if the pages fail this test, the agent knows they’re not dealing with someone with a professional attitude.
A killer first line – writing an exceptional first line is exceptionally difficult. However, the first sentence is your first impression. If you make a good one, the following pages will be read more warmly. If you make a mediocre one, they will probably read on, but with less excitement. If your first line is terrible, the following sentences will probably not even be seen.
Characters – you want to quickly create characters that the agent is excited about spending a lot of time with. There are many ways to do this, but some rules of thumb are:
- Are they interesting – do they have something unusual and exciting about them?
- Do you feel empathy for them – this can often be achieved by putting the character in jeopardy or undeserved misfortune
A hook – can you pique the agent’s curiosity and leave them with a question I their mind that they just HAVE to know the answer to? If so, you’re on to a winner.
Breathtaking prose – most people who work in the publishing business are in love with words. That means that an elegant sentence can have them swooning. If you can demonstrate your mastery of language in a way that sweeps them off their feet in the first few pages, they will be putty in your hands.
The synopsis is the bit that most writers hate with a passion.
And it is difficult to boil down a whole novel into a single page.
The good news is that many agents report that they don’t even read the synopsis, and they certainly don’t read it first. The bad news is that you still have to write it.
Again, there is a far more detailed article on how to write the perfect synopsis here.
Understanding the purpose of a synopsis can help you write a more effective one.
One reason an agent will read a synopsis is to check the ending isn’t going to be a complete disaster. They want to be sure that if they read the entire manuscript it’s not going to end with ‘and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ or that a dreamy romance isn’t going to end with an alien invasion.
Another is to check that the structure of the novel is sound. The synopsis can demonstrate if the writer is aware of story structure theory and whether they have used it to good effect.
And a final important element is that they want you to prove that you can do ‘what’s asked of you’. Being a writer isn’t all about hiding away in your turret banging out words. You may have to do reviews, summaries, pitches and interviews. The agent wants to know that you’re able to rise to these different challenges, and that they aren’t going to have to deal with a turbulent artiste who refuses to work within set parameters.
The Query / Cover Letter
The cover letter usually includes a very short overview of the novel and some information about you as an author.
Note - Typically the overview of the novel is expected to be around two or three paragraphs in a US query, but only a few sentences in a UK query.
Several sources have stated that the main purpose of the cover letter is to prove that the author isn’t a lunatic.
Or to put it less dramatically, that they’re somebody with a professional attitude and realistic expectations, who the agent will be able to work with long term.
Here are a few pet peeves that have agents groaning:
- Misspelling agent name
- Addressing it to ‘agent’ instead of a specific name
- The cover letter being clearly generic to be blanket sent
- Arrogant or demanding attitude
- Multiple typos or grammatical errors
- Statements about positive feedback from friends / family members
Your cover letter should include:
- The title of your novel
- The word count to the nearest thousand words
- A summary of your novel – usually a few sentences for the UK, a few paragraphs for the US
- Relevant background you have – i.e. if the novel is from the point of view of a surgeon, and you’re a surgeon, put that in.
- Relevant writing experience – have you been published before? Have you won any competitions? Do you hold writing qualifications? Definitely include that.
- Reason for submitting to that particular agent - having seen them in person somewhere is ideal, or it could be that they represent your favourite author, or that some of the books they've launched recently sit in a similar space to yours.
Your cover letter could include:
- Reason for writing the novel – if it’s important and relevant
- Comparative titles – these are published books that compare with yours, and help give a flavour of what yours is like. Here are a few pointers for choosing 'comps':
- They should have been published within the last few years – the agent wants to know that there is a market for your book now.
- Runaway successes are actually not a good idea to use as comps. Things that go ‘viral’ are impossible to consistently replicate, so they are less of a useful barometer than solid, well-performing novels that met expectations.
- Focus more on style and feel than content. It’s better to choose a title that is similar to yours in the way it’s written, rather than one that uses a completely different style but tells the same sort of story.
Dealing with Rejections
The one thing that’s (almost) guaranteed about submitting your work, is rejection.
You’re submitting because you believe the book you’ve lovingly crafted is ready to delight the world.
So for most of us, receiving rejections or simply being ignored can feel like a very personal slap in the face. You can end up doubting yourself, and wondering whether you really are cut out to be a writer.
Try to remember that the vast majority of writers have had to endure the same thing – it is a rite of passage.
Here are a few examples to remind you that many of the most successful books out there had a long and painful road before they achieved publication:
- Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ was rejected 60 times by agents over three and a half years. It has now sold ten million copies and been made into a major Hollywood movie.
- Agatha Christie endured five years of continual rejection. Her book sales are now in excess of $2 billion.
- The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times that Beatrix Potter decide to self-publish 250 copies (before self-publishing was a thing). It has now sold over 45 million.
- After three years of rejections, Meg Cabbot could not lift the bag under her bed she kept the rejection slips in. The Princess Diaries has now sold 15 million copies.
- 100 agents and publishers rejected Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace, which went on to win the Costa Children’s Book Award.
- 24 agencies turned down The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. It sold to Time Warner for $1 million.
- Alex Haley received 200 consecutive rejections. His novel, Roots, went on to sell over 8 million copies.
- Kate DiCamillo received 473 rejections before anyone agreed to publish her. She is now worth $10 million.
- “To prove how hard it is for new writers to break in, Jerzy Kosinski used a pen name to submit his bestseller Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers. All of them rejected it, including Random House, who had published it.”
These are just a handful of examples of the most famous books. You can be sure that there are thousands more stories out there from authors who stuck it out through dozens, if not hundreds, of rejections then went on to achieve their dream of publication.
There are many ways to successfully self-publish (and even more ways to unsuccessfully do it).
Here is just a brief overview of some of the steps you’ll need to take to give yourself the best chance of achieving your goals.
We’ve split the info into three sections:
- Preparing Your Book
- Publishing Your Book
- Marketing Your Book
Preparing Your Book
Format your book correctly
In order to upload to self-publishing platforms, you need to have a file of your novel in the correct format (filetype), with the correct formatting (how it looks). If your novel is formatted poorly, with strange fonts, uneven margins or random breaks, then your readers might lose faith and stop reading, or not buy in the first place.
You can use dedicated software to format your book, or hire a professional to do it for you.
People always judge books by their covers, there’s just no getting around it. If you can afford a reputable, professional cover designer, then that’s highly recommended. If not, you can use an app such as canva.com to create your own.
You will need a compelling summary of your book to hook potential readers. You can use your premise and short synopsis as bases for writing this.
Publishing Your Book
Research and choose categories and keywords
Ebook platforms use categories to help readers find the books they like. The more specific you can be with your sub-category, the more likely you are to find the right readers.
Decide on eBook or Print or Both
You can choose to publish your book as an eBook, which means it is available electronically, for people to read on devices such as Kindle, NOOK or Kobo.
If you want your book in print, then you can do print on demand, where a copy of your book is printed only when someone orders it. Or, you could decide to pre-print a batch of books, but this involves high up-front costs, so unless you’re confident you’re going to be able to sell them, this is a risky option.
The largest self-publishing platforms are:
- Amazon KDP
- Barnes and Noble Press
- Kobo Writing Life
- iTunes Connect
You can choose to publish on one, some or all of the platforms. Some of the platforms may offer preferential deals for exclusivity, but you may prefer to maximise your reach. Bear in mind that the more platforms you publish to, the higher the overhead of getting and keeping all the formats correct, and meeting each platforms' unique requirements.
As well as the ‘big four’ there are numerous smaller self-publishing platforms out there, so to make the process of uploading to them less arduous, it’s possible to use an Aggregator, a service which submits your work on your behalf. This can save a lot of time and energy, but it will have some impact on control and income.
Popular eBook aggregators are:
It’s difficult to know how to price your book – you don’t want to undervalue it, but you need to be competitive. In order to decide on the most appropriate price for your book, check out where the competition has placed theirs.
It’s common for self-published authors to offer one book for free, in order to get readers hooked on the rest of the catalogue.
Marketing Your Book
A good launch can make or break your book’s chances of success. This will involve identifying your niche, perfecting the design, mastering categories and keywords on the sales platforms, networking and promotions.
After launch, you’ll still need to work hard to market your book. This could involve building up a personal following on social media, building a mailing list via your website (yes, you’ll need a website), working out your USP, giveaways, promotions, social media or print adverts, attending events and conferences, and getting glowing reviews and testimonials.
Decide whether you'd like to go the traditional or self-publishing route, then export your novel and send it out into the world!