Publishing: How to Get Published the Old-Fashioned Way

How to Get Published

Despite the growing trend for self-publishing, plenty of authors still dream of getting published the old fashioned way.

By selling their book, getting signed up by one of the Big Six, receiving a fat, juicy, advance check, and of being able to walk into a bookstore anywhere in the world and find a copy of their masterpiece.

It might take years for this to become a reality, and it’s one that will never materialize if the writing is sub-standard. In fact, thanks to the advent of digital publishing, and rapid evaporation of bricks-and-mortar book retail outlets, and the growing pressure on the publishers’ bottom lines, the demand for “excellent” product has increased.

If your work doesn’t offer something better than what’s already out there, then go make sure it does!

Once, you’ve crafted your manuscript into a bestseller, what do you do next?

Well, really you don’t have to wait until you’ve finished at all. Literary agents will sign books based off sample chapters and a compelling book proposal, and if you want to submit directly to publishers (which you can for most of the smaller to medium sized presses) then similarly they will accept sample materials and a proposal outlining your vision for marketing the book.

Before you embark on the lengthy process of writing a book proposal however, I suggest you get some feedback on your writing. Try these three online writing communities who offer manuscript feedback services, or join your local writers group—there are literally thousands of them all over the world:

First Chapter – A great site where you can submit your work for feedback, it gets sent to librarians, reviewers, writers, etc.

We Book – Another community site where you can submit your work for review by readers, agents and publishers!

Writers Digest – Have fantastic articles and advice on the writing and publishing process, sign-up to their free e-news.

Next you will need to prepare your package to present yourself to agents and publishers, more on writing book proposals in another post, but for now, lets look at how to locate these mysterious creatures.

Literary agents are still perceived as the Holy Grail in the writing community, both feared and revered by budding writers, but they are generally a friendly bunch, open to hearing about your work, if it’s good!

Literary agents rely on writers for their income, professional reputation and so the relationship is far more symbiotic than most writers realize. Yes, they send out thousands of rejection letters, but that is mostly because writers have done one of three things:

1) Failed to do their homework and sent a Romance novel to an agent who primarily shops Self-Help titles to non-fiction publishing houses.

2) They’ve sent them a first draft manuscript that still has gaping holes in the story, clunky writing style and needs a damn good edit!

3) They didn’t read the agency’s Submission Guidelines which clearly state to send an electronic submission of three chapters, a synopsis, competitive titles, and information on the writer’s previously published works, instead they sent the full manuscript of their memoir, all the photographs of their long lost relatives that they want included in the book and drawing of the cover design they have in mind, all carefully enclosed in a brown manilla envelope. Yup, that’s a reject!

So, it’s really important that you do your research when looking for prospective agents to represent you. How do you do this? You visit their websites, you go and connect with them at literary festivals, book festivals and panels hosted by writing groups, and you start by searching for them on one of these two websites:

Pub Match – Find agencies, publishers by genre, subject or country – this site is phenomenal!

Literary Marketplace – Has one of the largest databases of publishers on the net, find the fit for you with a quick search,

At Finish Your Book, we advise our students to find the authors who are most similar to them, in terms of the work they produce, not their looks silly, then use Literary Marketplace or Pub Match to do a search to learn who represents them. In our opinion, it’s much easier for an agent to sell a book/author that is in a similar genre and writes in a similar style to one they have previously sold.

Put yourself in their shoes for a minute.

They are having lunch with the editor of Putnam, who published the ever-so-successful novel The Help, the is representing your novel, which is about the struggles faced by a modern day nanny living in upstate New York, the prejudice she faces, the bullying by her bosses and the transformative journey she takes when the sympathetic teenage daughter of her employee convinces her to write a blog about her experiences under a pseudonym.

The blog becomes a massive hit and the nanny is lifted out of her miserable life of servitude. It’s not the same book, of course, but there are parallels, and the publisher is seeking something that fits the success model they have just experienced with the previous title.

The agent can pitch your book as something similar, something with a ton of sales potential, and because they sold Kathyrn Stockett’s work, you know they have the relationship with the publisher and the ability. It’s a win, win.

Once you’ve found your short list of agents, we recommend identifying 5 -10 who are in your space, then go check out their websites, look at what materials they require, what, if anything, they are looking for, and see what events they have coming up, many list the literary festivals they will be attending. Then go make contact!

If your book is a non-fiction piece on a niche subject you may want to submit directly to the publishing houses. Nothing wrong with that! It’s expected for non-fiction titles. Start by identifying the publishers who put out similar books, visit their websites, go look in the bookstores, then check their website again for their Submission Guidelines, and whatever you do, follow them!

You can also use the manuscript submissions service provided by Bowkers, which reaches over 3,000 publishers:

Bowkers Submissions Service – There is a small fee for this manuscript submission service.

You will get rejection letters, or hear nothing, so be prepared. But hopefully somebody somewhere will like what they see. You probably won’t get the same level of advance that you will if you are repped by an agent, but niche non-fiction books aren’t renowned for earning six-figure advances anyway. Do make sure you have someone you can go to for advice once you are made an offer.

You might need to do a bit of negotiating and you will certainly need someone to go over the contract they send you. That’s where the Authors Guild (in the USA) and The Society of Authors (in the UK) come in. They both provide free legal advice to authors who have an offer letter from a national publisher:

The Authors Guild – Offer FREE legal advice on negotiating contracts, if you have an offer letter from a traditional publisher.

The Society of Authors – Also provide free legal advice on negotiating contracts, if you have an offer letter from a traditional publisher.

Be prepared, the journey to getting published is a long one, but it’s worth it in the end. And there is a lot of value of having a publisher behind you.

They are experienced in what they do, it’s their job, they have the relationships with buyers, distributors, foreign sales agents, libraries, retailers and they visit trade shows, know how to build market interest, secure book reviews, manage the finances, chase up royalties from foreign publishers owed on your foreign language translations. Self-publishing involves a LOT more work and expertise than people realize, and most authors will never sell more than a thousand or so copies that way.

Securing the support of a publisher and agent might mean the difference between international recognition vs. thirty-three sales on Amazon!

If you want more advice? Check out these great articles on traditional publishing, writing book proposals, query letters and advice on how to find a literary agent:


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Categories: Literary Agents, Publishing, Self-Publishing, Traditional Publishing

Author:Gemini Adams

Multiple-award winning, bestselling author, artist and founder of the Finish Your Book educational program.

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3 Comments on “Publishing: How to Get Published the Old-Fashioned Way”

  1. May 3, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I agree with everything you have said! 🙂 But… what do you do when you get conflicting advice from agents? I spend at least an hour researching an individual agent before sending them my query. Most agents have been responsive to the query and have requested partials or full manuscript. And like most authors new to the field, I receive the ever so depressing letter of rejection. Often though, what one agent likes about my book, the other does not. What do I do? Do I change the story to meet the specifications of one agent hoping it will intice others, or do I leave the work as is and hope that I find the needle of an agent in the very large haystack of literary agents?

    • May 3, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

      Hi Carmen,

      Well, that all depends. If the comments that the agents are giving you are consistent, then you might want to follow the advice. If they are all wildly different, I recommend you find an editor to work with who can help you see the wood from the trees. You also have to find out why they are suggesting changes, and how they believe it will help make your book more salable. If they can give you a good enough reason, and you respect the agent, and they are willing to represent you if you make the amendments, and your intuition tells you it’s the right thing, then, go for it!

      • May 3, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

        Thanks Gemini! I’ve had my manuscript evaluated by a professional editor and been given the thumbs up. I suppose I need some luck on my side when it comes to finding an agent. What are your thoughts on Webook? I joined last month but wonder about the whole evaluation process.

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