Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are:, (useful, but subscription required),,, and for the literary market, (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

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