How To Get a Book Published: A Step-By-Step Guide.

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

I have basically no understanding of the medical field and the terms they use. (Which are all initials or Latin, it seems.) So when I called Children's Mercy Hospital here in Kansas City last week, I found myself asking a question that I was sure was laughably incorrect. "Hi," I told the operator. "My son's neurologist needs my husband and me to get some genetic tests done. Where do we go to ... uh ... get our genetics tested?"

So I understand why sometimes people ask me questions about publishing, and they don't even know how to correctly ask for the information they want. Unless you were raised in close proximity to an author, that's where we all start. Clueless about how to even ask the right questions.

While books and authors take different paths to bookstore shelves, I'm going to detail the most common journey for a traditionally published book. By traditionally published, I mean a book that a publisher pays you to publish, not one where you're shelling out money for covers and editors and marketing packages.

So while yes, you could bang out a first draft and upload it to Amazon.com right now, I'm talking to writers who want to become like the  novelistsStephen King, J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collinsthey admire.


How do you get your manuscript turned into a book?

Step One: You write the book.

For a fiction writer, you must write the entire book before you can do anything else. And by "write the entire book" I'm not talking about just a first draft. Your book needs to be edited and polished before you can do anything else with it. 

This step alone might take years. It may involve taking writing classes, going to conferences, joining critique groups, reading craft books, hiring a freelance editor, and many, many rewrites. But if you want to be published, you have to write a great book first.

Argue all you want about how terrible the writing is in Fifty Shades of Grey or The Shack or Twilight. First of all, it's rare for a book to get published if it's not written well. Secondly, is that really what you're after? To have a book that's a success despite lousy writing? I'm guessing not.

Don't look for shortcuts on this step. Ignore the people who say, "You're still writing that thing?" and focus on making your book great.

Step Two: You start the query process.

Literary agents and editors

So you've done step one. You've written (and rewritten ... and rewritten ... and rewritten) a great book. Now you get to decide who to approach with it. A literary agent, a person who works on behalf of a writer for a percentage of their earnings, or an editor, who works for a publishing house. An editor is mandatory for traditional publishing but a literary agent is not. We'll discuss that in detail in a minute.

Whoever you approach, you do it with what we call a query letter. Query letters are business letters that are several paragraphs long. They introduce you, describe your book in a paragraph, and ask if the agent or editor is interested in seeing more.

Typically, editors who work at large publishing houses won't read from writers, only literary agents. Smaller presses, like WhiteFire Publishing for example, will look at queries from both agents and writers. If a house accepts queries, they'll post that on their website like WhiteFire has. I cannot stress how important it is to follow the guidelines listed on the website. Your query letters will not be a one size fits all tactic. Writers frequently attempt that, and it gets them rejected. A couple years ago, Jill Williamson posted examples of query letters that sold.

So since editors who work for medium and large publishing houses can be difficult to access, what should you do if you want to get your book in front of them? For many writers, the answer is to find a literary agent.

Same as actors or athletes have agents, so do most career novelists. Literary agents are all different from each other, but generally speaking an agent is a person who has good contacts in the publishing industry. Because they've spent time building relationships with editors and other industry professionals, they're able to get your manuscript in front of editors. Agents also help with contract negotiation, conflicts that arise between writers and their publishing houses, and career guidance. Depending on their personality and strengths, they might also help with strengthening your story, figuring out what would be best to write next, and emotional support when you're having a particularly rough time of it. (If you're curious about the day-to-day of an agent's life, literary agent Amanda Luedeke did a great post for us on that.)

It's impossible to say, "This is the best agent in the world," because different writers need different things from their agents. The important thing to note about agents is that you should run from those who charge reading fees, or who say they might be interested in you ... but first you should pay to have your book looked at by this service. If you have questions about anyone, Preditors and Editors is a great resource.

Quickly, before we move on to step three, query letters are not the only way to find agents and editors. Writing conferences are my favorite way (read: where I've had the most success) or sometimes writing contests. Increasingly, social media can be an effective way to connect. Many agents and editors have a presence on Twitter and you can learn a lot about them there, or on their agency blogs. (Other articles that might interest you on this topic: How to find the right agent for you, Basics about finding a literary agent, Finding a good literary agent)

Step Three: You submit a book proposal.

When you start the query process (whether you're sending out query letters or heading to a conference or whatever) I would recommend having the following ready:
  • A page that lists your title, genre, word count, your bio, a one sentence summary of the story, a back cover copy style blurb, andif it's a seriesvery short blurbs about the other books.
  • A 2-3 page synopsis of your story
  • Sample chapters. Three is standard, but sometimes they specify just the first chapter.
If an agent or editor likes your query letter, they will likely ask to see those things. Trust me, you do not want to be on Google searching, "What is a synopsis?" when an agent asks you to send one. I did that the first time around, and that is NOT the time to be learning how to write a synopsis.

Instead, be getting these things ready as you work on your query letter. Putting together a proposal can feel tedious, but this is a critical step if you want anyone to read that great book you spent all that time writing. Do yourself a favor and do the tough work to make it good. (Other articles that might interest you: How to Get Your Novel Published: Creating a Book Proposal and 10 Reasons To Write a Fiction Book Proposal Before You Write Your Book.)

What happens if they like your proposal?

Option A: They ask to see a full manuscript
Typically over email, especially if it's an editor, but also sometimes for agents too.

Option B: They say, "No thanks."
This could happen for a variety of reasons. They might not like it. They might not think you're quite ready for publication. They might like it but not think there's a market for it. They might like it, but they have a client who writes something similar and they don't want clients competing against each other. There are tons of reasons.

Option C: They say, "Hmm. Maybe. Would you consider rewriting this part?"
This isn't too unusual. It happened to me with my first agent, who pointed out my annoying tendency to write in a passive voice. She said, "If you rewrite, I'll take another look." I rewrote. She took another look. Within months, I had my first contract. 

But the suggested revisions aren't always that simple, nor are they always an obviously good change. Sometimes it's just that they have a different opinion about where the story should go. Before you do any requested revisions, make sure it's something that YOU agree with. Because there's a chance you'll make the changes and they'll be like, "Nah..."

Step four: They want to make it official.

So you've sent your full manuscript to the agent or editor. They love it. Now what?

If it's a literary agent: You should at least have a phone call. Some agents who've been in the biz for a long time, or who have full client lists and aren't actively looking for clients, are more insistent that they meet someone before they sign a contract with them. 

If you're anything like me, at this moment, you're feeling so desperate you'll do anything for them to sign you. Sandra Bishop is my agent. She was my first choice, and I can't even tell you how nervous I was on the phone when we talked. If I'd been pregnant with a girl a the time, I probably would have named my child after her if I thought it would mean she'd take me on as a client.

BUT AGENTS DON'T WANT TO WORK WITH CRAZY PEOPLE. They know we're writers, and some crazy is inevitable, but one of the reasons they want to talk to you is they want to make sure you're a good fit.That they'll like working with you. And you need to know the same about them. Having the wrong agent is no fun at all. This is a time for you to ask questions, and you should take advantage of it because you're looking for the right agent, not just an agent. (Chip MacGregor has a great article on his website about choosing an agent. The whole thing is good, but number six talks specifically about questions to ask someone you're considering working with.)

If it's an editor: An editor works on a team with other editors. Or even if it's a small press, they still have people who they answer to. So if an editor likes your book, they will likely send an email talking about how much they like it and they'll say, "I'm going to bring it to our next editors meeting to get their feedback." If those editors like it, then the editor will take it to a bigger meeting called the pub board. At that meeting, a large group of people from different departments in the publishing house will decide if your book is a good investment. 

Jill Williamson wrote an amazing post about how all this goes down. You can read about the publishing process here, and you can also read about everything that happens between your book being bought by a publishing house to the day it hits shelves.

Step five: Your agent works to get your book published.

So say that back at step four, you found the right literary agent for you. What happens now (assuming your book proposal was put together nicely and they don't need any changes from you) is that they query editors on your behalf. Maybe five or so. Maybe fifteen. It just depends on the project and the agent's style. 

This is why it's important that you work with an agent who has great contacts in the industry, and why you don't just pay your best friend to act as your literary agent. The right literary agent can get your books in front of the right editors who work for the right publishing house who can make your great manuscript into a great book.

One additional note: Expect to wait

At a glance, this looks like five easy steps to getting published. Many aspiring writers are disheartened when they learn that getting published isn't quick or easy. Writing the book can take years. Finding the right agent can take years. And even with a great agent, that first contract can take years too, depending on the market and your genre. 

I don't say that to discourage you. Rather I say it so you're aware that getting your book published might feel akin to a slow hike on a confusing trail that eventually leads to someplace surprising, breathtaking, and completely worth it.

One more additional note: I'm no one special. I spent most my growing up years in Kansas City; an excellent town, but not exactly the hub of the publishing world. I didn't know anyone who worked in publishing, not even as a clerk in a bookstore. The first time I tried to get a book published, I didn't know my genre or what a literary agent was. I just printed off five copies of my 90-page single-spaced book and mailed it off to a few houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. Almost everything I know about publishing, I learned by doing it wrong first. And yet, by the age of 26, I was multi-published, had my books translated into another language, and was working with my first choice agent. 

When I talk to aspiring writers, there's often this sense of, "I might as well just self-publish, because it looks impossible to get traditionally published." And that is an absolute lie. It's not impossible at all. It's very difficult and it requires patience. And yeah, it would be a lot easier if you happened to be one of Stephen King's kids. But if I can go from where I was to where I am now, I think anybody else can do the same.

Have questions about getting published? I'm happy to answer!

15 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this page, Stephanie!!! :D Love it!!

    TW Wright
    ravensandwriting.blogspot.com

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  2. Hello, Stephanie,

    I help lead a public library teen group in Nova Scotia, Canada, that is filled with talented aspiring authors.When I found your website I was impressed at the quality of content expressed in an easy-to-understand language. I will be recommending your website to them, and would like to show some of your posts to them as handouts in our writing skills workshop. We appreciate your hard work to inspire teen writers!

    Laura Bokma

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    1. Laura, thanks for saying hi! I'm so excited to hear about your writers :)

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  3. This was great, but do you have anything for self publishing (if that's a good idea)?

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    1. We don't yet have anything similar for self-publishing. Other blogs too, and I'm sure you can find tons of good articles by running a Google search.

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    2. Will you eventually have one for self-publishing?

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  4. Hi Stephanie,

    I've been writing for five years, but I have no credentials to speak of since I'm a student. I recently finished my third novel, and I'm currently querying agents. I have queries and a synopsis, and I've followed all the rules on the agents' sites. My question is this: if my premise seems unoriginal but I feel that I've written the book in an original way, how do I get that across? It's an 83K YA apocalypse novel with a POC female lead, and it takes place during the first week of America's fall to a zombie-esque epidemic. I realize it sounds slightly overdone, but I am also focusing on the way social media would play into the "zombie apocalypse" since only North America has been affected by the epidemic. I tried to communicate this in my query. Aside from form rejections, however, I am mostly receiving replies that say they aren't excited about the plot. I know by now to expect many rejections. Still, I have to wonder if this is a problem I can fix. Do I need to reword my query, or is my premise just hopeless?

    Thanks,
    Katie

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    1. Hi Katie! Well, it sounds like so far you've done an awesome job. You've been writing for a while, you know to follow guidelines, and you're getting personalized rejections (which, sadly, is a step that shows progress).

      I hate to say it, but I think it's possible that a lot of the agents mentally check out at "apocalypse" and "zombie." My understanding is that editors aren't looking for that kind of book right now, and that means agents aren't either. You may have written a fabulous and unique book, but because you're on the back side of a trend, no one will look at it. I've been there. It is painful.

      It wouldn't hurt to try rewording your query and playing up the unique angle your book takes. While you do that, though, I would also advise - if you haven't already - to be working on a new book.

      I hope this is helpful!

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  5. My parent's neighbor and friend, Dan Gookin, said the publishing companies are becoming ridiculous. He was thinking of doing an experiment with self-publishing, by throwing a fiction book on Amazon, and seeing how successful it would be. He has written 150 tech books now. He is very cynical but I adore the man. My adoration doesn't stop me from trying. I need to get my books out to the world or I will explode.

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    1. Yes, it's hard, but getting published the traditional way still happens. Like I said in my post, I had no industry advantages - neither of my parents are writers, I didn't know a single person in the industry, etc. - and I made it with hard work and learning from my mistakes.

      In my experience, "throwing a fiction book on Amazon" won't do much except waste a lot of your time. There's nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for it to be successful, the writer needs to put love and care into it. Including, but not limited to, writing a great story, having that great story edited by a professional, having a great cover, and marketing it well. Just my thoughts.

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  6. Now I'm seriously intimidated...like, an agent? Synopsis? A bio? Sample chapters? Whaaaaaat?
    I'm not even kidding, my plan was like: write the thing, revise and edit the thing, ask people i know about what they think about the thing, revise the thing some more, read the thing one more time, and submit the thing to a publisher/editor(preferably with fingers crossed).
    But I think I understand a little bit better now, thanks. :)

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  7. If we post our book on a website that allows of reading books for free or in my case Wattpad, will agents and editors maybe go to the website and see if they might want to pulish your book for a larger audience or will they just go right past it. It is my dream to get published and for me to have a book that is in paper and writing and something you can actually hold. One more questio. Will they actually publish teens or will they want to wait until you are in adult? Thank you for yout time!

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    1. Agents and editors don't hunt through sites like Wattpad looking for writers, but sites like Wattpad can help you boost your audience and thereby boost your appeal to agents and editors. I just interviewed Ashley Royer, who's published with HarperCollins because of a story she posted on Wattpad: http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2016/06/an-interview-with-teen-author-ashley.html

      It should be noted that her journey is really, really unusual.

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  8. I know this article is kinda old now, but I just wanted to let you know how incredibly helpful it was for me! Thank you so much for this awesome information. I've decided to take a break from my Freelance Writing career to focus on my novel. You've inspired me :) wish me luck!

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    1. I'm so glad to hear that, Chelsea! Good luck! The Go Teen Writers community and archives are here when you need us :)

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