Is a Traditional Publisher For You?

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image: Freddie Marriage for Unsplash

Even in an age of self-publishing and Amazon publishing gone mad, my editing clients still have the same question: What are my chances of having my book published by a traditional publisher?

I have to be honest with you here. It looks hard, and it’s harder than it looks. Everyone who has written a book feels as though they’ve done their job and now it’s time to sit back and wait for the bidding wars as the book is auctioned off to a major publisher.

Reality is very different.

There are three ways of getting published in the conventional sense of the word (although stay tuned: more are emerging): traditional publishing, self-publishing, and using a subsidy publisher; and each uses a different method. How does the traditional model work?

There are a couple of options:

  • Submitting your work directly to a publisher. This is known as “over the transom,” since manuscripts used to be tossed into an editor’s office in precisely that manner. There are resources available to help you, notably Penguin/Random House’s Writers Market and Information Today’s Literary Market Place as well as Poets & Writers. These sites will tell you exactly what each publisher is looking for, and what each publisher wants in the way of contact (query letter, book proposal, entire manuscript, etc.).
  • Sending your work to a publisher through a referral. While an agent or a publisher might be willing to accept a recommendation from someone they know and respect (author, MFA professor, the editor of a literary journal, etc.), it is not proper etiquette for you to contact someone who doesn’t already know you in order to ask for a referral unless such a person has already indicated interest in your work and willingness to help.
  • Having your book accepted by a literary agent who will then submit it to publishers on your behalf and for a percentage of the book’s sales.

Some publishers will only work with agents. Why? Because it makes their job easier! The agent can match projects with specific editors, decide if something is publishable as is or if it needs more work, and provide some feedback to the author.

Publishers, on the other hand, will rarely offer feedback. Frustrating as this is, it’s simply not practicable to tell hundreds of authors a day why their manuscripts are being rejected. In general, what you will receive is a form letter (these days, an email) telling you your manuscript does not meet the publisher’s current needs, and wishing you the best of luck elsewhere. Most of the time, you won’t know if it was rejected because it wasn’t “good enough” — whatever that might mean — or merely because the editor was having a bad day. The end result, sadly, is the same.

Perseverance pays off. So does working and reworking your manuscript. Sometimes putting it aside for a year (as it makes the rounds of publishers and gets rejected every few months) can be useful: if you look at it again with fresh eyes, there’s a good chance you’ll find ways of improving it.

Many, many well-known authors have known rejection. (If you don’t believe this to be true, take a look at André Bernard’s wonderful Rotten Rejections, filled with letters editors and publishers wish they’d never sent.) And the odds are stacked against today’s author even more than in the past: no longer can an acquisitions editor make the decision to purchase a manuscript alone. These days, a whole team — including representatives of the publisher’s marketing department — decides on the project’s financial viability. A rejection may therefore have nothing to do with the literary value of any work.

I wish the news were better. I wish all of my clients could get published easily and painlessly. I just want everyone to be prepared for a long journey and a possible negative outcome.

It has been said that only about 400 people in the United States make their livings entirely on the proceeds from their novels. In other words — no matter how good you are, don’t quit your day job quite yet!

Bestselling novelist of mystery and historical fiction. Writer, editor, & business storyteller at jeannettedebeauvoir.com.

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