Hello comrade in writing arms! Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of book publishing!
I have lots of thoughts about the writing itself, but in this post, I will focus on the practicalities of getting a book *published* rather than written. That is, how do the words you write get made into a book that will sit on a shelf, calling out to a reader? (The part about how you get a reader to know your book exists and want to read it is called book marketing- here's a good podcast about that for when you get there!)
Here are some things I wish I'd known when I was starting this whole process. (Or maybe I wouldn't have wanted to know, as it looks pretty darn intimidating when I spell it all out- but I hope that knowledge is power and you find this helpful!)
How did you get your book published?
I started working on my first book, UNDER THE SKY WE MAKE, in July 2017. I would write for half an hour before work most mornings. I found my fierce literary agent Anna Sproul-Latimer in July 2019 (via my bestie Lucy Kalanithi- thank you Lucy!!). Anna sold my book proposal to my wonderful editor Michelle Howry at Putnam (a Penguin Random House imprint) in February 2020. I submitted the full manuscript in May 2020, did tons of editing and fact-checking over summer and fall 2020, and the book will be published March 23, 2021. This is an example of "traditional" (sometimes also called "trade" or "commercial") publishing; see below.
Believe it or not, this timeline is considered very fast in the publishing world! (At least, the time from when I found an agent to when the book will be on shelves and e-readers and in earbuds. I was very lucky to be supported by a team who believed in the book and wanted to help get it out in the world. Probably the fact that I had written like 200,000 words when I met Anna helped, though that also created other problems too!)
How do I publish a book?
Well, there's the writing part, which I won't cover here- but you need an idea that you’re excited to write around 70,000 words about (give or take a lot). And then rewrite. And rewrite. And fact-check. Repeat, etc.
There are two kinds of publishing: traditional publishing and self-publishing.
Traditional publishing in the United States (the largest book market globally, with almost a third of sales) requires that you find a literary agent, who will coach you in developing a book proposal which they will submit on your behalf to a bunch of publishers. (The major US publishers do not accept submissions directly from authors; agents have the contacts and knowledge for where to pitch your book for the best chance of success.) Hopefully one or more of the publishing houses your agent sends your book proposal to wants to give you a book deal, i.e., pay you to write the book you describe in the proposal.
In traditional publishing, once the publishing house gives you a deal, you will work with professional editors, copyeditors, publicists, and other publishing professionals to help edit, publish, design, distribute, and market your book.
Traditional publishing is full of lovely people who are passionate about books; it is also a business. Publishers are looking to publish books they think they will make money from, i.e., where there is a substantial commercial audience (group of people ready to shell out $15-$30 in cold hard cash for the chance to read or listen to your words). You have an idea you want to get out into the world; they want to sell books. Everyone wins if you sell a lot of books! (However, this is rare, and difficult. See below.)
Self-publishing means you as the author are in charge of every step from writing, editing, copyediting, publishing, marketing and distribution (or you are in charge of finding people to do the steps you don't do yourself).
How do I self-publish a book?
Sorry, I don’t know anything about this! There are pros and cons to traditional vs. self-publishing, and people on The Internet have lots of thoughts about them! If you find some particularly helpful resources, please share them with me and I’ll link them here.
How do I publish a non-nonfiction book, that is, fiction or something else?
(Side note, isn't it weird that "fiction" is the baseline norm of books, and you must specify "non" if you fall outside that genre? Why isn't it "truth" and "non-truth"? Or "real stuff" and "things I made up"? But I digress.)
I'm not sure, I don't write fiction! I think for example a book proposal for fiction looks very different than my nonfiction one I describe below. Please do your homework!
How do I find a literary agent?
This is a very intimidating step and I procrastinated about it for a long time!! Hence two years elapsed between when I started writing my book and when I found Anna. In hindsight I would have saved us both a lot of time if I'd started my search for an agent sooner (although then maybe Anna and I never would have met, sliding doors yadda yadda). You need an agent if you want to traditionally publish a book.
Literary agents, and the entire publishing industry, are shrouded in mystery to the novice, or at least that’s how I felt. The most comprehensive way I found to get an overview of active and reputable literary agents in the United States is to pay $25/month for an account on Publishers Marketplace. With its charmingly functional design straight out of 1997, this is the publishing industry clearinghouse where you can look up agents and see their stats- what genres they represent, how many books they’ve sold, etc. You can also see which agent represents your favorite authors, and represents authors with similar books to the one you want to write (“comp titles”).
When am I ready to get an agent?
I would say you need to have done some substantial thinking, writing, and editing on your book idea, so that you are prepared to share:
- an elevator pitch for the argument of your book. (Note, clarifying the argument is the hardest part and a good agent will help you revise/improve it, but I think they will be impressed if you can write the sentence, "In MY BOOK TITLE I argue that X."
- an outline of the chapters you plan to write (like a table of contents) and at least some ideas about what goes in each chapter and how they relate to each other.
- a reasonably strong draft of at least one full chapter, i.e., writing you would be OK with a stranger reading and judging you on.
- a compelling argument for why this book is needed in the world (by whom? Who are the readers you are trying to serve?), and why you are the one to write it (establish your credibility).
How do I get a literary agent to represent me?
You’ll need to query them, i.e., send them an email introducing yourself and your book idea in a compelling way that makes them want to represent you, and ask if they are accepting new clients. Some agents are “closed to queries,” in which case you should not annoy them by sending them a query anyway. Read and follow the query guidelines on their website. Some agents will want just a cover letter, some will ask for a sample chapter, or a draft book proposal. Agents are notoriously overbooked, so it will likely take some time for you to hear back from them, and many of them will say no. That sucks, but take heart. It's like dating- you don't need everyone to like you, you just need to find the one person you click with.
What does a nonfiction book proposal to a traditional publisher look like?
In my case, it was a 20,000 word document that I labored on with my agent for eight months before we sent it out (after I had already been working on the book itself for nearly two years). My proposal contains a 3-page overview of what the book is about and why it’s needed (establishing the market, i.e., the publisher wants to know that there is a large group of people who are likely to be interested in buying this book), a 3-page “about the author” where I try to sound very fancy (this is to establish my authority of the subject, my credentials as an expert, and importantly, my “platform”, which is publishing industry code for “how many people are fans of yours who will buy a book that you write?” This is a cringe-worthy section to write about yourself, thank goodness for agents who are great at it). The remaining 60-ish pages are chapter outlines. These establish the basic structure of the book, as well as what goes where. Each chapter has an overview (a ca. 1 page summary of what the chapter will argue) and almost all chapters have substantial content, e.g., a 3-8 page sample excerpt of text that would appear in the final book.
What does an editor at a traditional publishing house do?
Given the title, I rather understandably thought that an editor's job was mostly to edit text, that is, to read and discuss and comment on words on a page and offer constructive feedback for how to make them shorter/punchier/better. An editor does this! But they also do a lot more.
The editor is the one to "acquire" your book for the publishing house. The editor will read your book proposal and decide if it's a project they want to undertake, in which case they'll share it with colleagues and ultimately get approval from the "publisher" to bid on it. (In this case, the publisher is not the company/publishing house that appears on the spine of the book like Penguin, etc., but rather a senior executive-type person who sets the editorial direction of the publishing house, and ultimately controls the purse strings. Confusing, I know!)
Throughout the publishing process, your editor will be acting as an "ambassador" of the publishing house. They will introduce you as needed to some of their colleagues working on various parts of the book, who you'll work directly with (like publicists and marketers), and sometimes the editor will act as an intermediary between others, like copyeditors, designers, proofreaders, and others who you might not meet directly. The editor is your main point of contact with everything happening at the publishing house.
How do I publish a book outside North America?
Sorry, I don’t have any experience with this! My current book contract is for distribution in North America (which includes the US and Canada, and also the Philippines for unknown-to-me Publishing Reasons). I hope publishers in other countries will want to buy rights to distribute my book in English in their country, and translate it to local languages, but this hasn't happened for me yet (my agent is working on it). At the moment, to buy my book outside North America, booksellers are jumping through some hoops (here ends my knowledge of exactly what they’re doing, but I can say that my book seems to be available for pre-order (what's pre-order and who cares?) nearly everywhere in the world on the largest online book retailer whose name rhymes with Autobahn, and through many independent bookstores, though often only after publication).
If you are based outside the US and Canada, and/or your market (target readers) is outside the US and Canada, I would guess you should look for an agent in your current country, which I don’t know how to do, beyond Googling "name of author you like" + "agent" (thanks to Alice Bell for this suggestion!).
What’s the difference between academic publishing and trade publishing?
I have not published an academic book. But my understanding is that it looks very different than what I’m describing here. As an expert in an academic field, you write a proposal directly to an academic publisher, and eventually sign a contract with the publisher (no agent is involved). I have heard these proposals are much shorter and simpler than the 20,000 word proposals you need to get a traditional book deal, perhaps as little as a few pages. One important difference is that (as far as I understand) you will not get paid to write an academic book (no “advance”), support from the publisher in editing and promotion are likely to be lower than in traditional/trade/commercial publishing, and the market is primarily (though not exclusively) targeted at academics (scholars within your subject).
How does the money work?
Ugh, how crass, money. Well, we live in capitalism (for now) and have to pay rent, so let's talk about it!
Before we do, though: for your sanity, it's important to think about why you want to write your book, and how you want your book to fit into your broader mission on Earth. No single book is the be-all, end-all, but you want to believe in your book enough to invest years of your life into it, and do it in such a way that you'll feel you did your best, regardless of how the money shakes out.
Speaking of money: If your goal is to be rich, don’t write a book.
It's hard to find real numbers on this, but I keep reading that most of all books published sell fewer than 1,000 copies. Even most traditionally published trade books from a major publisher (where substantial resources are invested in paying the author an advance, paying for the time of professional editors, copyeditors, publicists, etc.) sell far fewer than 10,000 copies. Womp-womp!
Your contract will specify the exact terms (and your agent will be the one to negotiate them for you and explain what they mean and what is reasonable- a very important job!). From what I understand, it’s common for a commercial book deal to consist of an advance (money the author makes before the book is published, for the work of writing the book) as well as royalties (money the author makes if the book “earns out”, that is, you sell enough books that the publisher recoups the costs they have spent on it, often set around 10,000 copies).
Data on author advances are not public, though the announcements on Publishers Marketplace sometimes use a cute code where "nice deal" is below $50,000, "very nice" is $50-99k, "good deal" is $100+ and there are finer distinctions after that, but TBH as a first time author, this will probably not be your problem (unless you're already uber mega Obama-level famous, in which case, could you please do me a favor while you're here, and Tweet about my book? Thanks!)
My anecdotal understanding is that Big 5 traditional publishers offer advances starting somewhere in the range of $30,000-$60,000, with smaller independent publishers likely have smaller advances. However, this blog post by agent Chip McGregor says (after lots of prevaricating) that an average first book deal might be $5k-$15k for fiction and $5-$20k for nonfiction. I honestly have no idea what to expect across the industry. Ask your agent, and don't quit your day job. (Or, throw yourself into author-entrepreneur mode, and embrace the hustle!)
Book advances are paid in installments (for example, 1/3 upon signing the contract, 1/3 upon delivering a full manuscript, and 1/3 upon publication). If you deliver the book you promised to the publisher's satisfaction within the terms of your contract, you will get paid your advance (that is, it doesn't depend on how well the book sells, or not).
Note that your agent gets a flat fee (industry standard is 15%) of all the money you make as an author (and they are worth every penny). A reputable agent should never ask an author for money upfront. An agent is investing in you as a client because they believe in your work. They are accepting the risk that they will never make any money from you (if you don't sell a book), and certainly will not make any money from you for somewhere between a little while to a looooong time (until you sell your first book).
I’ve read that 95% of books do not “earn out," thus very few authors ever earn royalties. Here’s more info on the financial side.
Note that you should find a qualified accountant to help you manage and report the money correctly for taxes, and probably you will want to set up a business (e.g., a limited liability corporation or sole trader) for when you do get a contract. Huzzah!
How can I learn more about book publishing? This is all so confusing and intimidating.
I know! Sorry about that. Don’t give up- the world needs your book!
Here are some resources I’ve found helpful. Part of me wishes I'd started reading publishing industry stuff years ago, to help me prepare for my impending book launch, and part of me is glad I didn't, so I focused on writing the book I wanted to write (but now I feel behind on a lot of the industry knowledge). Wherever you're starting from, you are not alone!
How to Glow in the Dark- this is a weekly newsletter about all aspects of book publishing, written by my brilliant agent, Anna Sproul-Latimer, to demystify the process with expertise and empathy and humor. It is well worth the subscription price.
Agents and Books- I subscribe to Kate McKean’s newsletter and find it very helpful. I’ve sent in questions to the Q&A Thursdays and gotten very useful answers.
Business for Bohemians, by Tom Hodgkinson- Anna recommended this book, and it’s been really useful to think about the creative contribution I’m trying to make in my career (beyond the first book), and the practical steps needed to make that succeed. I want to have a beer with the author. (BTW, add books to your Goodreads Want to Read bookshelf to help authors!)
Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, by Courtney Maum- this reassuring and friendly book is really good at giving an overview of the whole process, illustrated with relatable stories and examples.
The Creative Penn Podcast- Joanna Penn has a huge and comprehensive assortment of information for every aspiring writer.
Good luck and keep writing!