A Traditional Publisher for Your Book?

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 even 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 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. Today I’m just going to look at the traditional publishing route.

How is it done?

  • 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 Writers Digest Books’Writers Market and Information Today’s Literary Market Place. These books 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 isnot proper etiquette for you to contact someone who does not already know you in order to ask for a referral. Unless such a person has already indicated interest in your work, this is probably not the route to take.

  • Having your book accepted by an 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 telling you that 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 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 Rotten Rejections,. 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—decide 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 that all of you reading this 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 400 people in the United States make their livings entirely on the proceeds from their books. In other words... no matter how good you are, don’t quit your day job quite yet.