Book publishing: the Traditional Way, part 1

A couple weeks ago, we talked about the big commitment it takes to write and publish a book. Now, assuming you’re ready or at least interested, let’s examine the ways one can get a book into print. Several years ago, I wrote a booklet called “You Can Publish a Book.” I sold a lot of them, but now it’s out of date. Things have changed so quickly, but for the writer it’s mostly good. We have lots of options that didn’t exist back in the old typewriter days.

Don’t remember typewriters? Well, they were slower and didn’t make copies or make corrections without leaving a mark, but they never lost your files.

Anyway, the basic methods of publishing, all of which I have tried, are:

  1. Traditional print publishing
  2. Print on demand
  3. Independent publishing
  4. E-books

We’re not going to cover all of these today,  so let’s talk about traditional publishing. This is the deal we see in the movies, the dream we all want. In traditional publishing, a company pays you advance money to buy the rights to publish your manuscript, edits, illustrates, formats and does everything else needed to turn it into a book; distributes it to bookstores, online retailers, libraries, and other venues; takes care of marketing and publicity, and sends you a royalty check at least twice a year. All you have to do is write a fabulous book, make whatever changes the editor requests, and show up for the book-signings.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? There are some drawbacks, like it usually takes at least a year for your book to come out, and most publishers put minimal energy into publicity after the initial splash, but it’s still good. Being published by a name publisher gives you credibility and can boost your career in ways that the other methods may not. But there’s no guarantee. Traditionally published books sometimes fail, and books published in other ways sometimes turn into blockblusters.

I advise most writers to try for a traditional publisher first. It doesn’t cost you much money, and established publishers have resources far beyond what you and I have.

So how do you get in? Ah, there’s the rub. The biggest publishers are part of mega-corporations that will not take on a book that doesn’t promise to be a best-seller. It helps to be already famous. But there are numerous smaller publishers, independents and university presses, that will take a chance on good writing by relative unknowns. It CAN be done.

Show of hands: how many have heard of the slush pile? That’s the legendary pile of unread manuscripts stacked up at every publishing house waiting for some college intern to glance at the first page and reject them. We don’t want our books to go there.

Ways to avoid that slush pile include: sending exactly the kind of book they’re looking for in exactly the format they want it, pitching at conferences, and getting an agent to represent you.

We’ll get to pitches and agents soon, but let’s start with sending publishers what they’re looking for. Most of the books in the slush pile get rejected because they don’t fit what the publishing house wants. Sending the wrong subject matter, wrong type of book, or a clone of something they just published will win you a rejection slip–or no response at all. So will sending complete manuscripts when they only want queries or proposals.

The first thing you need to do when seeking a publisher is research the various publishing houses and find one that fits. Look at their websites, browse through their catalogs. You can usually sense a trend? Does you book fit in with this group? If not, move on. They’re not going to go off in a new direction for you. And sending things in a format they don’t want will just piss them off.

You can find publisher listings at Writer’s Market, Poets and Writers, The Writer,, Funds for Writers, and many other sites. These listings will give a brief overview, which should lead you to the publishers’ websites, with their guidelines for submissions.  If you think your book is a good fit, follow the directions religiously.

Usually a publisher will ask for a query, a proposal with sample chapters, or a complete manuscript. We’ll talk about these in detail next week.  For now, look for publishers that might be right for you.

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