The most common question I get asked is how to sign a book publishing deal with a publisher. I’m talking about a good publisher, too, not one of those fly by night publishers who accept anything. Those are easy to find. In fact, they’ll usually find you and offer the world on a platter. Don’t publish your book through them under any circumstances. They are only offering you a platter of well-disguised bullshit.
This article isn’t about them, though.
It’s about how to find a legit, credible publisher who will be interested in publishing your book. One who has a good chance of making it a best seller. I’ve seen a lot of posts like this before, but none of them delved deep enough for me. I like digging into the weeds, so that’s what I’m going to do here.
I am going to explain everything I know about finding a publisher. This article will take you through the entire process of landing a publishing deal from start to finish. If you follow everything I lay out in this post, you will have an excellent shot at having your book published.
Is it a guarantee? No. Because there are no guarantees in life except death.
Does this mean that there aren’t other ways to get a publishing deal that I won’t lay out here? Of course not. There are exceptions to every rule. Your uncle might be best friends with the CEO of Random House, or you just might be that one in a million jewel that hits it big. It could happen.
The chances of that happening, though, are slim. It’s hard to build a career on a million to one shot. It’s almost impossible to plan for luck. Being at the right place at the right time certainly could land you the deal of a lifetime, but it’s not bloody likely.
These steps, on the other hand, are replicable and consistent among many successful authors with traditional publishing deals. They are highly likely to result in your desired outcome. Life is about taking high percentage risks and while being an author is a risk, this article will help you mitigate that risk.
For ease, I’ve broken this up into sections. I think you should read the whole thing, but if you REALLY want to skip to the second part and focus on the mechanics of getting the deal, I won’t stop you.
The road to writing success is paved with authors who signed terrible publishing deals. I can’t tell you how many people I know who excitedly signed with a publisher only to have their book released to crickets. They barely sold more copies than they could have sold themselves and often without any bookstore or library distribution.
This generally happens because people think that ANY publisher is better than no publisher at all. That is just not the case. Signing with the wrong publisher can be the kiss of death for your book and possibly your career. For instance, if you are a cozy mystery with a three book deal and those books don’t earn out of your advance (make enough to cover the money that the publisher pays you before the book launches), then no other publisher will sign you as a cozy mystery writer. If that happens, you can either self-publish your cozy mysteries or completely reinvent yourself as a different kind of writer.
That example is not a hypothetical. This really happened to somebody, and they had to reinvent themselves as a psychological thriller writer in order to get a new publishing deal. This is why it’s so important to find the right publisher, who can give your book the best chance for success.
Why do things like this happen?
Well, the book might not have been very good, but the chances of that are unlikely. It’s most likely because publishers specialize in a genre or specific type of book. There are publishers that only publish art books (like Inside Editions) or spec fiction (like Tor), while others are known for romance (like Harlequin). Even enormous publishers like Random House, which seem to publish all types of books, are really just a collection of a dozen or more smaller imprints, each of which specializes in a specific type of book.
Finding a publisher that specializes in publishing your genre gives you the best chance of success. The right publisher already has a built-in audience and distribution to the places your readers already frequent. The places readers buy fantasy books differs from where readers buy romance novels.
So, if you have a romance novel, you wouldn’t want to publish it through Tor books because they don’t have access to the right reader for you. They already have millions of raving sci-fi and fantasy fans who will rabidly buy the book of books, but romance just isn’t their core market.
If Tor suddenly publishes a romance novel, would those fans care? Maybe some would, but probably wouldn’t…because they are interested in SFF books.
Sure, Tor could technically go about publishing a romance novel competently enough. After all, at the end of the day books are just a collection of paper, words, and images. However, they won’t do as good a job as a publisher that specializes in romance novels and already knows both the customer and the industry.
Your goal then isn’t to find a publisher (which isn’t that hard if you aren’t picky). Your goal should be to find the right publisher. One that aligns with your values, and knows your genre better than anybody else, because that puts you in the best position to have a best seller. Signing with the wrong publisher is worse than signing no deal at all.
Before landing a book deal, it’s imperative you set yourself up for publishing success.
You might think you’re going to finish that great American novel today and get an agent tomorrow, but that isn’t gonna happen, homie.
The average turnaround time for an agent to read your material is 3-6 months. Then, an editor could take another 3-6 months on top of that. After that, publishing your book takes 18-24 months from the moment you sign the paperwork. Publishing success is not a short-term success story. It’s a long-term career path that required thought and planning.
The goal of setting yourself up for success is so that when an agent or editor gets a hold of your manuscript, they don’t have any reason to say anything except “HELL YES! I totes want to work with you!!!”
Make sure your book is awesome
I shouldn’t have to start here, but frankly most books are utter and complete garbage. They have terrible grammar, abysmal spelling, and don’t tell a coherent story. There is no way they could compete on the open market with the likes of Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, or Elmore Leonard, and make no mistake, that is your competition.
Before you can get a publisher, you must make something awesome first. What you make must be able to stand up against the best books on the market today. Otherwise, your book won’t get bought by a publisher.
Editors and agents already work with dozens of talented authors who write amazing books. If you want to get in with them, you better knock their socks off.
Are there published books that aren’t awesome? Sure there are, but too many authors compare their work to the worst books on the market when they should compare them to the best books out there. Comparing yourself to the worst books is a great strategy to get motivated and quell your self-doubt, but when trying to land a publishing deal, it stops being effective.
Agents get thousands of submissions a month, and an editor gets hundreds more. Their slush piled never stops growing. So, when they pick up your book, it better blow them away. Otherwise, they are going to toss your manuscript away and pick up the next one. There are too many other books to read to waste time on garbage.
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100 rejections a year is a good goal
Even the most successful authors get rejected all the time. Whether it’s rejection of a book proposal, a best seller list, or from a potential reader, authors live with near-constant rejection. There’s a weird thing about rejection though. The more rejection you face, the more success you have at the end of the day.
I remember reading this article, which talked about why 100 rejections a year should be your goal, and it blew me away.
The author decided that she couldn’t depend on success. Sometimes she would send ten proposals and get three accepted, and other times she would get zero. But while she couldn’t predict success, she could predict rejections, because most of the time she got rejected.
So, she decided to focus on getting 100 rejections a year, because rejections meant she was applying, and if she applied enough, she would have enough stories accepted to earn a living.
In the same way, your own career will be built on rejection, so get comfortable with it now. The more comfortable you get with rejection, the easier your life will be in the long run. Rejection is never easy, but it can be like an old friend, reminding us that we are still in the game.
Build a following
This will be the most controversial thing I say in this post, but you must build a following before you stand a legitimate shot at getting published. I know for a fact this will be the most controversial thing I will say in this post because I’ve been yelled at by countless authors who’ve screamed that their books should be judged on their own merits.
And they are right. I’m not disagreeing with them. Their books should be judged on its own merits…
…but they won’t be, because at the end of the day it’s all about the return on investment a publisher will get from your book. If you can justify their ROI, your book will most likely get accepted. If not, it probably won’t.
Publishers know that their books will sell even if it’s garbage, and are willing to pay them ungodly sums because it basically prints money for them. Publishing is a business and publishers are out to make money. It’s a cool business, but it’s a business. Now, you can get grossed out by that or use it to your advantage. It’s your choice.
And yes, there are plenty of authors who have broken through without even having Facebook. Before 2004, every author broke in without Facebook, and many have broken through without a mailing list too…but you are not them and this is not 2004, or 1997, or 1826 either. It’s today. And today, right now, you need to build a following before you get that publishing deal.
Many editors will say it doesn’t play a factor in their decisions, but I don’t buy that. Editors argue for their books in front of an editorial committee before they get a green light to publish anything, especially anything new. If they can say you have 20,000 people on your mailing list and 100,000 people on Instagram, then they can build a stronger case for why you deserve consideration above other equally worthy books (and trust me, at that stage, they are all equally worthy).
Can an editor make a successful case to publish your book even if you have no following? Yes, of course they can, and do, but go ask one about the best book they’ve never been able to publish and watch their eyes drop to the ground. Every editor has gone to bat for a book and been rejected.
You don’t want that to be you. You want to give that editor, and their editorial committee every reason to say yes. That means you need to build a following.
But more importantly, building a following is the best thing you can do for your career even after you have a publishing deal. It gives you have an immediate connection to a group of rabid fans who love your work. That is the most powerful thing…well, ever.
Meet other authors online
How do you get started building your social media profile and mailing list? By meeting other authors online and helping each other out. Every author already has access to a small group of readers, even if that group is only their family, and when 1,000 authors come together and help each other grow, they can all build a massive following. This is why most successful people know each other, because they all found and helped each other succeed.
This doesn’t have to take a ton of work either. There are thousands of forums you can join without ever putting on pants, in the comfort of your bed, while eating Doritos. Heck, you don’t even have to leave Facebook.
Hundreds of author groups are available on Facebook. All you have to do is go to the search bar at the top of Facebook and type in Authors, books, or writing, and you’ll get a list of hundreds of groups dedicated to authors.
There are ones dedicated to helping authors, and ones dedicated to offering newsletter swaps. Ones dedicated to offering paid marketing opportunities and ones dedicated to meeting other authors. There are a lot of terrible groups out there, I know, but there are also gems, and the more authors you meet, the more you will hear about the best ones.
You’re looking for groups that foster conversation and aren’t just full of people spamming their book promos. Good groups are out there if you do a little digging. After joining them, you can start conversations with other authors, comment on posts, and start your own threads.
Then, when you find somebody interesting, friend them on Facebook, message them, and chit-chat. Don’t be the dick who sends a link to their own projects. You wouldn’t do it at a dinner party and you shouldn’t do it on Facebook, either.
If you do this enough, you will build a nice little friend circle of other authors. Together you can run group promos and arrange newsletter swaps together, thus growing your audience with readers interested in reading your books while helping your friends grow their audiences as well.
If you don’t have ANY mailing list right now, one surefire way to start building up your newsletter fast (If you are a fiction author) is to join Instafreebie or Bookfunnel and join group giveaways. Note, you will need a book completed, or at least a preview of one, and a book cover before you can join in any of these newsletter opportunities. If you need a cover I recommend Go On Write and The Creative Paramita, who both specialize in affordable and beautiful premade covers.
Once you have a completed story, even if it’s just a short story or preview, you can easily build up a few thousand people in a couple of months using Instafreebie and/or Bookfunnel. Then, you can use those new readers to join bigger group promotion opportunities. Note: You will need somewhere to store those emails. MailChimp is a great option because they offer the first 2,000 emails for free, but that runs out quickly. I use Sendinblue now, which is great until you reach the 20,000 email mark, and then you will want to check out services like Mailget or Sendy. While you can skip steps and go straight to Sendy,
I highly recommend you start with Mailchimp, then upgrade to something like SendinBlue, and then go to Mailget because at each level there is an increased difficulty. For example, Mailget and Sendy make you sign up for Amazon SES. If you don’t know what that is, don’t even look it up.
On top of building your list and making friends, an additional benefit of meeting authors is that some of them will already have agents, and they might even have signed a publishing deal. Most authors are open about sharing their secrets if you don’t come across like a crummy asshole who is just using them. Just…be cool, alright? Remember, these are your friends. How would you treat your friends? More importantly, they are human beings.
Publish new content consistently
If you want to go the extra mile, start a blog and start delivering high quality, consistent content to people. This helps editors and agents find your work more easily than if you just have your manuscript, but it’s also a great way to deliver new, fresh content to your readers, who will build a closer bond with you because they are consistently giving them something new to read.
I honestly don’t think this is an extra mile activity. For me, it is mandatory, but enough of my successful author friends don’t have a blog, so I can’t say it’s a requirement for getting a publishing deal or making a living as an author. I can say that it helps a lot though, especially when it comes to getting noticed. Publishing consistent content makes people stand up and notice you as somebody who can meet deadlines and engage readers, and in this world getting and keeping attention is vital to your success.
What kind of content should you share on your blog?
Well, it can be anything, honestly. Some writers dish out chapters of their novel on a weekly basis, like Andy Weir. Others, prefer to do reviews of other books by authors in their genre. Others blog about their personal life and still others focus on helping authors make better books.
It doesn’t matter what you put out there. What matters is that it’s high-quality content and consistent, which you can use to build a connection with readers, agents, and editors. Plus, if you have an impressive visitor count, you can use that as leverage when you contact publishers.
I know what you’re thinking. “I’m trying to get a publishing deal so I don’t HAVE to self-publish, jackass, why are you telling me to do the exact opposite of the thing I’m here to learn? Are you even listening, bro?”
No. I’m not listening…because this is a blog. I can’t hear you no matter how loud you shout. However, I do understand your frustration, but here’s the deal. Self-publishing, done right, is a great way to get noticed by a publisher. Not only that but even some of the most successful traditionally published authors ALSO self-publish their work. It’s called being a hybrid author, and it’s incredibly common.
There are lots of reasons. Maybe their agent or publisher didn’t accept a pitch but they loved it enough to write it anyway (remember, even successful authors have pitches rejected ALL THE TIME).
It could also be because they are writing companion stories for a series where every book takes years to write and they don’t want to fall out of the public zeitgeist, or they want more control of their careers, or they may want to test out a new genre before they pitch it to a publisher.
Whatever the reason, even Brandon Sanderson self-publishes some of his work, and he’s about as successful as they come. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you.
But the real reason you should self-publish is to have some sales numbers to back up your writing ability. If you can sell several thousand copies of a book on your own without the backing of a publisher, then a publisher can extrapolate that you will sell much more will their help. Suddenly, you have hard data that shows you are a successful author and people are willing to pay you money to read your work.
Remember, this is all about giving the publishing house every reason to say yes to your pitch. When the editor goes into that pitch meeting with their bosses to get the green light for your book, you want them armed with every possible quiver in their arsenal.
There is another great reason to self-publish your books, which I touched on at the beginning of this article.
Even if things go perfectly, it’s going to be 2-3 years before your book hits print. In those intervening years, you won’t have anything to promote if you don’t self-publish and get something out there for the world to see. Self-publishing allows you to build buzz and hype for your work while making some money in the process.
Additionally, if you self-publish your work, you won’t need a publisher. If you still want one, that’s great, but you won’t need one to be successful. Instead, you will treat a publisher as a partner who can increase your visibility, instead of a necessity to get your work seen at all. When you can go into a meeting as an equal instead of as a subordinate, it changes the conversation and a whole new range of possibilities open up to you.
However, don’t self-publish just to self-publish. If you fall flat on your face and don’t sell any books, it’s going to turn people off from offering you a publishing deal. Only do it if you are willing to take it seriously and do the work to make your book successful.
Now that you’re thoroughly exhausted doing weekly blog posts, setting up your Twitter accounts, and self-publishing books, it’s time to actually land that book deal. By now you should have a decent-sized following, a great book, and some sales figures to back up your pitch. You have set yourself up for success!
Now, let’s get you that book deal!
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Go into bookstores and libraries
If we can agree that the right publisher is everything when it comes to making your book a success, then the first step to finding a publisher is to figure out who publishes the types of books that write.
There are several ways to do this, but my favorite is to get my butt off my computer and go to a bookstore or library. Yes, it is very easy to find books on Amazon, but if you just wanted Amazon distribution you could do that yourself using KDP or Draft2Digital.
One of the best parts of traditional publishing is that they can distribute your books to libraries, bookstores, and schools. Without that benefit, I don’t see why you would sign with a traditional publisher. So, if you want bookstore distribution, you need to see what kinds of books store carry, and who publishes them.
I recommend going into both bookstores and libraries because they use two different ordering systems (Ingram for bookstores, Baker and Taylor for libraries). While bookstores and libraries do have access to both systems and sometimes order from both, this usually stick to what they know.
Bookstores are also more likely to carry paperback books because of their cost, while libraries are more likely to order hardcover book because of their durability. So, they might also have a different selection of books.
Another reason to go into both is because publishers not only specialize in certain genres, they also specialize in publishing specific formats, meaning the hardcover publisher may not be the same one who publishes the paperback edition.
While you should go to both, I would start at the bookstore, as they usually have their books arranged into sections, while libraries have their fiction section arranged by author (if you are a non-fiction author this is not the case), which can be a big headache unless you are like me and enjoy spending whole afternoons in the library.
When you get to the bookstore, head over to your genre’s section, pick up as many books as possible, and find the publisher.
Usually, the publisher will have a logo on the spine and the back of the book, but you need more info than that. Flip open the book to the copyright page in the front (usually before the title page). It will tell you all the information you need to know about the publisher, including their address and website.
Make sure to bring a sheet of paper with you to write down all the information you find inside the book (note: A phone camera also works). While you are working, tally the number of books each publisher has on the shelf. Some will have many books, while others will have just one. Also, write down the name of the book and author because you will need them for later research.
Then, rank the books from 1-10 based on how much you think you will enjoy the book based on the information you have and how much you like the design of the book. If you have the time, read a little bit of each book.
Read books by the publishers
When you are done at the bookstore, buy the books that seem the most exciting to you. I know spending money is ugh, but the store just performed a great service for you. The least you can do to say thanks is pick up some books you’ll probably love. Besides, you’ll need these books for more research.
Why? Because you need to read books made by the publishers before you send a query letter to them. This is for three reasons. The first is that you want to make your communication personal and gushing about their books is a great way to warm somebody up to you in a hurry.
The second is that you want to know if the books are good or not before you query anybody. If the publisher doesn’t write books you like, they probably aren’t the right publisher for you. If the author doesn’t write books you like, then you shouldn’t query their agent, either. It saves you a lot of wasted time in the long run.
The third reason is that you want to know if the tone of the books meshes well with the tone of your books. You might write mystery novels, but a hard-boiled detective novel is much different than a cozy mystery.
Before you query anybody, you should always read books they were involved with to make sure they are in alignment with your own books.
Find the publisher’s website
It’s time to go home and check out the publishers you found during your trip. Start by going to their website. If they didn’t have a website listed in their book, just type their name into Google.
You want to start with their website because it will show you at a glance if the book they published in your genre is a fluke or if they have a lot of other books that fit with your specific genre. Additionally, you will be able to beef up your list of books to research. You will also see if they are still in business and get a peek at their submission policy. If their submission policy is on their website, make a note of it.
Head to Amazon
Now that you have your list of publishers, head to Amazon. Whether you love Amazon or hate them, they have the best data about books, and their information is updated hourly.
Once at Amazon, type in the name of each book you found. See where they rank currently, what year they were published (if you don’t have this already), and scroll down and see also boughts (in the middle of the page where Amazon shows what other things people bought when they purchased that book).
Researching the also boughts deepens your data and gives you even more ideas for publishers and authors to research. Just because you went to one bookstore does not mean that they have an exhaustive list of all publishers. Amazon DOES have an exhaustive list of all publishers, and now is the time to exploit it.
You won’t be able to see a historical sales rank on Amazon, but you can use Novel Rank to see an estimate of book sales over time. This isn’t 100% accurate, but it will give you decent data of how a book performed over time.
If you run a search for 5-10 books from the same publisher, you get a sense of their average book sales through at least one channel.
Once you have a good list of publishers from your research, ask around to your newly acquired group of friends for personal insights. See if they’ve had any experience with the publishers you found. You aren’t using them to get an “in” with a publisher. You are simply trying to make the best decision possible and cut any publishers off with a negative history. Who knows, you might even get some new publishers to target by asking around.
Find the right agent
At this point, you should have a comprehensive list of publishers in your genre. Now, you just need an agent to send your manuscript off on your behalf since most publishers won’t accept unsolicited submissions (note: if you found any that do take unsolicited submissions make sure to keep that list handy).
Just like publishers, agents specialize in specific genres and book types, so it’s as important to find the right agent as the right publisher. Luckily, there is a way to find the perfect agent for you.
Along with your publisher research, you should have written down the name of every author whose book they published. Which means that along with having a comprehensive list of publishers that publish your genre, you also know the authors who publish in your genre as well.
If you knew who represented those authors, you would know what agents handle your type of book, right? And it’s possible to find that information with very little work. All it takes is opening your browser.
I prefer to use Google, type [author name] + agent, and let the algorithm do the work for me. However, if you can’t find it that way, then Query Tracker is a great search tool that will tell you any author’s agent they have in their database.
Query Tracker isn’t always up to date though, which is why I prefer Google or simply looking up an author’s website. Most authors have the name of their agent on their site in case a somebody needs to contact them for work.
Once you have the agent’s name, you can look them up on Google, through Facebook, or on Twitter to see their submission policy, and whether they are open or closed. Some agents make exceptions during special times of the year or during Twitter pitch contests (note: This is a list of 2017 contests) which happen throughout the year. Or, you can find them at writer conferences. If you want to see an in depth look at how somebody went about getting their again, you can check out this article.
I have tried very hard to keep your costs down in this article. You can do nearly everything in this post for free or with very little monetary investment. However, I do recommend you attend at least one writer’s conference a year, and that does cost money.
Writer conferences are a great way to meet with agents and publishers. They are also a fantastic way to meet other writers and become friends with people you’ve only known online.
I made some of my best contacts at writer conferences because people have their guard down. Most conferences post their guest list months before the conference, so you’ll be able to see if any of your targeted publishers or agents will be at a conference months before you book your attendance.
Just note, sometimes schedules change and guests cancel. This might happen to you, but it is still a chance worth taking. If they don’t cancel, then any guests of the show will likely accept pitches at the conference as a condition of being booked as a guest. However, this information will also be available on the conference’s website. I speak at the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Conference at least once a year, and they always have pitch sessions with agents and editors.
If agents and editors are accepting pitches at the show, it means that you’ll have a chance to sit down with an agent or editor, look them in the eye, and talk about your book with them. This is huge. Meeting somebody in person humanizes you.
Instead of being a nameless face in the crowd, you are an actual human with hopes, dreams, and ambitions. This should be enough, along with a stellar pitch, to pull you out of the slush pile and give your book a fighting chance.
You don’t have to go to dozens of conferences. Just pick one or two a year that give you the best chance of success.
Send a personalized query letter
Once you have your list of agents and publishers who accept unsolicited submissions, it’s time to write personalized query letters.
In your letter make sure to gush about the books you read that they were involved with and why you think they would be a good fit for your book, along with a quick blurb about your book and yourself.
I’m not going into the mechanics of a query letter here. I wrote an article about how to send a query letter without sounding like a crazy person. If you don’t want to turn people off with your query letter, I suggest you read it.
Submit to anthologies
Once you send out your query letters, it’s going to be a long time before you hear back. Some agents and publishers might respond in a couple weeks asking for a full or partial read of your manuscript, but you might not hear from others for months. Even after you send off your manuscript for review, it will be months before you hear anything back.
This isn’t the time to rest on your laurels. There are still plenty of things to do so you can increase your chances of getting published. The first is to submit to anthologies. Many publishers put out anthologies throughout the year to find new authors and introduce newly signed ones to their audience. It’s not a big money maker, but it is a perfect proving ground for new talent.
Anthologies are a great way to make in-roads with a publisher. If you are accepted, you’ll immediately become one of their published authors and work with one of their editors on your story. If you do well, they will be much more receptive to hearing your book proposal in the future. There are Facebook groups like this one whose only job is to post open calls for new material.
Rotate your submissions
While you wait for answers to your first queries, you can build a second and third list. Then, start rotating in new pitches to your original list every few months. World Fantasy Award Winner Tim Powers talked about this strategy in an episode of my old podcast, The Business of Art, which blew me away.
If you do this correctly, you can stagger your submission throughout the year and be developing new pitches consistently.
Hire a good lawyer
Congratulations! You have a publishing deal!!! Woooooot!
Don’t get cocky, though. You still need to hire a lawyer to comb through the finer points. Yes, your agent is great and will negotiate for you, but before you sign on the dotted line, consult with a lawyer. Make sure it’s one that specializes in publishing, not your cousin Frank who’s a mediocre divorce lawyer.
I’m sure Frank is very competent and doesn’t smell much like an old yak, but somebody that specializes in publishing deals will know the ins and outs of your deal. An agent is great, but a lawyer knows the law, and if you don’t want to get screwed, you need them both on your team.
I know this is a tremendous about of information, but the best thing you can do is get started today. Maybe there are some parts of this article you don’t like… and that’s cool.
Luckily, this piece is very long and hopefully comprehensive, so I’m sure there is something you can get started on today. The best time to get started was ten years ago. The next best time was yesterday. This third best is right now.
I hope you enjoyed this article. It was my goal to make this the most comprehensive guide to landing a publishing deal that has ever existed. If you think I missed something, let me know. Or, if you think I did a good job, let me know that, too!
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