Traditional Publishing 101

Ever since finishing two of my books, I’ve had to ask the tough question of whether I want to go indie or traditional with publishing. Well, I don’t like making decisions, so I decided to be a hybrid. While I’m indie publishing The Purple Door District in December, I’m also trying to go the traditional route with my other book Dragon Steal.

But what does it take to publish a book traditionally? I had a friend ask me this question recently, so I thought I’d toss up my own thoughts on the whole process. Keep in mind, this is just based on what I’ve learned through my own journey and studies. If you have advice about publishing, feel free to post it down below.

Warning! This is going to be a longer topic. I originally wrote this for The Writers’ Rooms, and I’ve expanded upon it for my readers here.

Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing

  • They know their stuff. Traditional publishers are in the business, so they know how to get the job done. They have a team of people who can do all the little fiddly bits (covers, back matter, editing, marketing, legalese, rights, taxes…) so you don’t have to do it on your own. It saves you a huge headache. 
  • Legitimacy. Because of the gatekeepers, people know that if a book is good enough to be published traditionally there’s a certain expectation of quality–or at least of whatever quality the publishing house is known for. (Note: this does not mean that indie publishing is not legitimate. There’s still a stigma against self-publishing, but it’s dissipating day by day).  
  • Marketing. You don’t have to do your marketing alone! A team will help you, though you will still be expected to market your story somewhat.
  • But… They take whatever they think is marketable. This can mean a distinct lack of freedom for your writing, since they’re less likely to take “risky” work.
  • But… Publishers are ultimately in it for the money, and will drop writers for the slightest reasons. Even well-established, upper-mid-range authors will find themselves struggling sometimes. Or, a publishing house could drop an author partway through their series and battle over the legal rights of the original books. 
  • But…It takes FOREVER to publish your book. For YA, sometimes a book that’s acquired doesn’t come out for two years. By then, the hot market could have moved on and you’ll have missed your “hot topic” window. 

First Step: Query Letter, Pitch, and Synopsis

  • Query Letter: This is essentially a sales pitch to an agent to get them interested in your book. It’s a brief piece that describes the story, provides word count, relates the book to other familiar genres/books, and gives a little background about the author. This is often one of the hardest things to write asides from your story. Make sure you find a good guideline example to follow and adhere to anything an agent requests in the query letter. You can check out my blog post all about writing query letters here
  • Pitch: The pitch is your elevator speech. You want to wow the agent, editor, publisher with a 5-second pitch, 30-second pitch, or 1-minute pitch. Think of it as 1 sentence, 2 sentences, and a paragraph about your story. Throw in something unique that is going to catch the listener’s attention. A great way to get practice is by participating in pitmad on twitter, which happens quarterly. You put your pitch on twitter at the same time agents and publishers are looking for the “next best thing.” If they like your tweet (or contact you directly), it means they’re interested in your piece! The next one is on December 6th, so get those pitches ready! 
  • Synopsis: Your synopsis is basically a long summary of your story. In about two pages, double spaced, you have to introduce the agent to your protagonists, antagonists, your world, your plot, and everything that’s unique about the story. This includes (gasp) the ending! They want to hear it in your voice, not just a simple retelling. This piece is vital, because it may make your break your chance at getting to talk to an agent. If you’re interested, I can write a blog post about constructing a synopsis. Let me know below!

Additional Resources:  

Tactful Ways to Say Awkward Things in Your Query Letter, Medium.com

The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter, Writer’s Digest

7 Tips for Pitching to an Agent or Editor at a Conference, Writer’s Digest

Step Two: Finding an Agent/Publisher/Editor

  • Research: Look for Agents who are requesting your genre. One easy way to do this is to find out the agents of some of your favorite books that are similar to yours. Books like “Guide to Literary Agents 2018” can help you not only find agents, but develop your query letter too. Don’t just query to a random agent. They need to be looking for the thing you’re selling. You can also check out Query Tracker to see what agents are looking for. Once you do find an agent, model your sample chapters, query, and pitch to their standards. Also, by no means should an agent ask for money up front (but we’ll get into that in the red flags section). 
  • Response: Response time can take a very long time, even 6-months to a year. You can query to multiple agents, but if an agent accepts you, you’re responsible for letting other inquiring agents know that you’ve accepted an offer. Typically, if an agent is interested, they’ll request a few chapters or the full copy of your book. Query Tracker is great with indicating response time for agents as well. 
  • Rejection: Everyone is going to get rejected at least once. J.K. Rowling was rejected by multiple agents before she found one. If a rejection says something more than, “I’m not interested,” consider that a success, because it means the agent thought enough about the story to write you a longer response. If you want a better idea what it means to receive rejections, take a look at my blog post here. It might help you out a bit. 
  • Acceptance: When an agent accepts your piece, it’s up to the agent to take the book to an editor and a publisher. She will try to sell the book to a publisher through an act called acquiring. Once a publishing house accepts it, the agent, publishing house, and editors will work with you to perfect your book. Keep in mind, an editor may require heavy changes to your book, so be open minded.

Additional Resources:

Guide to Literary Agents, Writer’s Digest

Step Three: Contracts

  • Contracts: A book contract is a legal-binding agreement between the author and the book publisher that outlines rights, obligations, and money earned. In a traditional agreement, the author retains the copyright and the publisher purchases the right to distribute the book in many forms (paper/ebook/audio, etc). The contract is usually dictated by the the literary agent on behalf of the author. Make sure you get everything on paper and you retain the rights to your book.

Things to Consider About Contracts

  • Rights: How long do they keep rights to publish your book? Is it for a year or several? Will they relinquish the rights to your book if their company goes down?
  • Series: Is your contract for a single book? Is it for a series? Will they reprint your previous books when the new series comes out? Do they have the right to cancel the contract halfway through the series?
  • Non-Compete Clause: This clause says that the author can’t write another book with the same subject or name during the life of the contract. While this may not matter to you, it’s something to keep in mind.

Additional Resources:

What is a Book Contract?, The Balance

Five Publishing Contracts Red Flags, Alina Popescu Writer

Red Flags in Traditional Publishing

  • Contract Publisher Retains Rights: Sometimes when a publishing company likes the idea of your book, and has had a similar one already suggested, they may ask you to write the piece, but all rights remain with the publishing company. If you’re more interested in royalties than having your name credited to you, this is fine, but if you want to retain rights to the book, this is something to watch out for during the contract phase.
  • Publisher Requires Money to Publish Book: Back away. You should not have to pay the publisher to publish your book. You should receive royalties, and you will work with a literary agent to figure that out.
  • Literary Agent Who Charges Upfront: Literary agents do not receive payment until the book is published. They will receive a portion of the book sales.
  • Promised Publication: Some websites will promise to publish poetry, books, essays, etc. if they’re submitted to the site. These are generally not places you want to submit your work to. While they might, indeed, publish it, they will ask you to pay for a physical copy of the piece and will publish it to other locations.
  • Agent/Artist/Editor Problems: Sometimes the relationship between the author and the agent, artist, or editor does not work. Authors have pulled back from agents before because either the agent failed to uphold their end, or the relationship just was not positive. Some artists who design covers may not have the author’s best interest in mind and may produce work that does not jive with the book. On the flip side, an author may express distaste in a book cover that the artist created (I’m looking at you Terry Goodkind), but the publisher will print the book anyway. And sometimes authors and editors bump heads. Do what’s best for you and your book.

After that, you will work with the marketing team to get your book out in bookstores and in libraries. You’ll set up tour dates to do readings and signings. Interviews both online and on television will become your new best friends. But keep in mind, the marketing team won’t do all of the marketing. You’ll have to do some of it yourself. For more tips on marketing, check out my post here.

Like I said, this was going to be a long one. Hopefully it’ll help get you started on your path to publishing your book. And if you’re going to try out for pitmad, let me know! I’d love to cheer you on.

Happy writing!