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Monday, July 11, 2016

Traditional Publishing: What it is, How it Works, and How to Do it

Two weeks ago I did my post on self-publishing, and now it's time for its counterpart: traditional publishing.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is when a publishing house publishes your book. Here in the U.S. (sorry, I'm not researching every country) there are four (used to be five) large publishing houses called "The Big Four," they are Simon & Schuster, Harpercollins, Penguin Random House, and Hatchette. Each of these publishing houses have what are called "imprints." An imprint is a trade name the publishing house prints under. So, you may have noticed books published by Knopf (such as Eragon by Christopher Paolini). Knopf is actually an imprint of Penguin Random House.

A big publishing house can have a lot of imprints. For example, HarperCollins currently has over 30 imprints. The reason they have so many is that each imprint is "branded" differently and marketed to a different consumer. Harlequin and HarperTeen are imprints of HarperCollins, but Harlequin has romance books marketed to adults, and HarperTeen is for the Young Adult market.

So when you go perusing Barnes and Nobles shelves and see all the different publishing names, it's likely a good number of them are published by one of The Big Four.

But there are smaller publishing houses too. Here in Utah, we have some publishing houses that cater to LDS (or "Mormon") readers, such as Deseret Book and Cedar Fort.

Atticus Books is an example of a small publishing house that prints literary work. Wordfire Press is a publishing house run by bestselling author Kevin J. Anderson. And you can get even smaller. Some publishing houses only publish ebooks. Some will do basically the same thing as my self-publishing guide--they just do it for you so you don't have to.

So there are a lot of varieties of publishing houses. But often when people "dream" of being published, they are thinking about The Big Four. And if you want to get to those guys . . . well . . . let's say it's harder than clicking a button on Kindle Direct Publishing. The trade off, though, is that big publishers have a lot more avenues and resources to push your book--if they choose your book as the one to push. And hopefully the booksellers will like the book enough to want it on their shelves.

Pros of Traditional Publishing

- You have others helping do the work. You don't have to design the cover. If you get with the right publishing house, they will have someone who does it professionally, and they might understand how to design a book cover to grab attention and appeal to your audience better than you do. They will be in charge of formatting the book.

If they decide they really want to push your book, they have access to outlets and potential readers that you don't. They will help your book reach a wider audience.

- Traditional publishing won't pull from your financial pocket. If someone is promising to publish your novel but asking you to pay them to do it, it's probably a scam. Be suspicious of any publishing house like that.

- It might be easier to reach your intended audience. Some genres are better for traditional publishing. Like I mentioned in my post about self-publishing, if you are writing to a picture book, you'll have better luck reaching kids through traditional publishing.

Because it's harder to get published traditionally, you'll know that your book has to have some level of merit to even make it to print. It's less likely you are going to publish a crappy book.

(Of course, there are some exceptions to all these things)

Cons of Traditional Publishing

- You might not agree with or like the choices made concerning your book. Hate your book cover? Too bad.

While professionals might be charged with helping you with releasing your book, keep in mind that they are helping other authors too, and you may not be a priority, or you might even slip through the cracks. You might end up doing most of the marketing of your book anyway. (However you publish, you can't ignore marketing at some level.)

- You make less per each book sold because the publishing house and agent need their dinero too. (But you may sell more books than if you self-published.)

How to Get Traditionally Published

How you get published can depend an the publishing house(s) you are hoping to approach. Large publishing houses only look at manuscripts from literary agents. But some smaller ones and some that cater to specific audiences and genres may not require that you have a literary agent at all.

If you aren't familiar with the traditional publishing process, a word of warning: You might feel overwhelmed reading this. As you go through the guide, don't panic. Instead, ask yourself if this is something you could eventually grow into. You don't have to be an expert on everything today.

1. Write the book (obvious, right?)

2. Edit and revise and do everything you can to get it to the best of your abilities (often this includes getting feedback and beta-readers)

3. Hire a professional editor to go through it (optional), and go through and incorporate (or reject) the edits. Because it can be so challenging to get picked up by a traditional publisher, some writers choose to still hire a freelance editor. Keep in mind that your publishing house of choice likely gets hundreds (if it's a small house), or tens or hundreds of thousands (if it's bigger and you can submit directly) of submissions. 10-20% of those are going to well written. But the house only publishes so many books a year. When it comes down to selecting one of them, are they going to pick a polished manuscript or one that still has some problems? Gone are the days when writers wrote one draft and sent it in for the editor at the publishing house to fix it.

4. Decide if you need a literary agent. A literary agent kind of works as the middle-man between the author and the publishing house. The agent is the person who will approach publishing houses and pitch your novel. They have professional connections to them. Like I said earlier, some publishing houses only look at manuscripts from agents. If you need an agent, go to 4a. If you don't, go to 5.

4a. You need a literary agent. Do some research on literary agents and decide who you want to approach. You can get a membership at PublishersMarketplace.com and research who the top-selling literary agents are of your genre. You can see how many sales they made, and how big those sales were. You can see who they sold manuscripts too. You can see how long it's been since they made a sale. Remember that a literary agent is a human being, so do a little research to see what kind of stories they like and represent. Also, remember there is no point to sending your adult thriller to an agent who represents YA romance. Do your homework. Get a list of several agents you want to approach.

4b. Prepare to submit to literary agents. You can't "hire" a literary agent. You should not have to spend money to get one (other than mailing costs), and if an "agent" says you do, it's probably a scam. Again, do your homework and make sure your agent is a real agent--one that is actually making sales. Your literary agent will be your business partner. You'll submit what's called a "query letter" to them, and depending on their guidelines, they may also want you to submit the opening of your novel. Make sure to follow the submission guidelines correctly for each individual agent. And be professional. They hate it when you send them a submission packet full of glitter and a query letter on pink stationary. If you do that, your submission will go straight to the trash. They don't find it "cute." Make sure your letter and manuscript are formatted properly.

4b1. Write a query letter. Your query letter is one of the most important things of the publishing processes. It's what opens the door to publication, period. A query letter is basically a sales pitch, but a well written query letter that actually works requires study, practice, and revision. Don't just sit down and write one. If you do, I promise you it will be cliche and will be like the tens of thousands of other query letters they see . . . and will go in the trash before they finish reading it. Be serious about your query letter. Study how to write one and get feedback on it. I'm not going to go into the mechanics of how to write a query, because it's a beast all its own, but you can find guides online or in books.

4b2. Prepare the opening of your manuscript (if needed) with proper formatting.

4b3. Submit to literary agents.

4c. Wait to hear back from literary agents. It takes time to hear back from literary agents, so stay busy and start writing a new story. Be patient and try not to bug them. If they are interested in your story, they will ask you to send them your manuscript, maybe part, maybe full. If they are not interested, don't get mad and write them nasty letters. If you don't get any requests, you may want to look at more literary agents, or take another look at your query letter or manuscript to see if there are any flaws or ways they can be improved. If you get several agents who want to represent you, congrats! You now get to pick who you want.

4d. Sign a contract with your literary agent. You guys are now business partners. :) Neither is the boss.

4e. Your agent will probably edit your manuscript and want you to make changes to it before approaching publishing houses. So, you guys get to edit it again!

4f. Your agent approaches publishing houses. Skip to 6.

5. You don't need a literary agent, so prepare to submit to the publishing house itself. Research the submission guidelines for the publishing house(s) you want to approach.

5a. Sorry, you still need to write a query letter. Most publishing houses who don't require agents still want a query letter. Learn about that in 4b1. And make sure you get the name of the editor at the publishing house you want to submit to, if you can, so you can address it to him or her directly.

5b. If the publishing house wants to see the opening of your manuscript, prepare your manuscript.

5c. Submit to publisher.

6. Wait to hear back from the publishing house's editor. Be patient to hear back from the editor at the publishing house and get busy writing something new. The editor may want to see more of your manuscript if they haven't already seen it all. If you have a literary agent, they will handle all that. If not, send what they request. Hopefully, they will want to publish your work. If not, you may need to approach other publishers, and if you keep getting rejected, you may have to decide whether to go back and work on your manuscript more or abandon it.

7. Sign a contract with your publisher.

8. Are you sick of editing yet? I hope not, because you'll have to do some more. The editor at the publishing house will likely have some edits of your book you will need to go through.

9. Your publishing house and literary agent will keep you updated on the process of publishing your book. You should also be doing some of your own marketing of your book to get ready for its release.

10. Your book gets published.

11. Party. Yay!! You just got published traditionally. Go celebrate!

Note: The traditional publishing route is different for short stories, and poems, so I'll be covering the shorter writing forms in a future post.

Next week I have a guest! Shallee McArthur is a traditionally published author, and she will be sharing her experiences with us.

If you have advice for other writers, please leave them in the comments :)


  1. would you be interested in being my publicist? I have a book that is a need and need to get it out.

    1. Hello! Sorry, I work as an editor, not a publicist, but hope it all goes well for you!


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