Lather. Rinse. Repeat.


Publishing involves process, especially traditional publishing.

In my “real” life, I’m a freelance writer, editor, and book designer. I help authors along the publishing journey by providing discrete services. Although the name of my business may suggest otherwise, Hen House Publishing is not a traditional publisher.

That being said, I receive and see inquiries every week from writers wanting to be published, and 99.9% of those inquiries would be automatically rejected because the writers didn’t do their due diligence. I learned the importance of doing the research decades ago before the internet was around. I had no one to guide me, no acquaintances who were writers, nothing beyond my own motivation to figure this stuff out. So, I did what anyone would do: I went to the library and asked the reference librarian for help. That got me started.

I discovered two key resources: the Writer’s Market and the Literary Marketplace. Back then, the Writer’s Market focused on publishing companies and the Literary Marketplace focused on literary agencies. I learned both were necessary because not every publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts, which means authors need literary agents to represent them to those publishers. Either way, literary agencies and traditional publishers accept only 1%–2% of the manuscripts they receive. A writer’s odds aren’t good to start with, so to optimize the chances of your manuscript being accepted, you have to follow instructions and play the game by the rules.

By the way, authors don’t make the rules; publishers and literary agencies do.

So, if you’re determined to pursue the traditional publishing route, then you’ve got to go about the right way.

  1. Master the craft. This shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. No agent or traditional publisher will take on a manuscript that’s poorly written and needs excessive, substantive work to make its contents fit for public consumption. Although a publisher will put the manuscript through a thorough editing process to make it fit their specific requirements, it may make sense for the author to pay for a manuscript assessment and/or editing to boost the manuscript’s chances of acceptance. A manuscript assessment and/or editing will help the author refine the work so that there’s not as much for the publisher to do—and the less they have to do increases the likelihood of acceptance.
  2. Learn the correct way to format your manuscript. Publishing companies and literary agencies generally specify “standard manuscript format” or “classic manuscript format.” There are several resources that teach what that means. I learned from the Writer’s Market. Another excellent source for instruction on proper manuscript formatting is here:
  3. Learn to write a query letter. The query letter is your initial outreach to an acquisition editor (at a publishing company or magazine) or a literary agent. The query letter’s purpose is to introduce you (the author) to the company, interest the acquisition editor or literary agent in your story, and convince that editor or agent of your manuscript’s potential to generate a profit. Remember, publishing is a business. If the agent or publisher doesn’t believe your work will be profitable, then they’ll reject it.
  4. Follow the submission guidelines. Every literary agency and every publishing company publishes guidelines that want writers to follow. These guidelines may include instructions to submit a synopsis, an outline, the first 50 pages of your manuscript, the first three chapters of your manuscript, the entire manuscript, a book proposal, or something else or combination of things. Sometimes they don’t want all those documents submitted with the query letter; sometimes they do. Yes, this means more work for you. Learn what publishers and agents want in a synopsis. Learn what makes a good outline. Learn how to write an effective book proposal. If you don’t, your failure to follow the company’s submission guidelines and submit the requested documents will result in automatic rejection. Literary agencies and publishing companies don’t want to work with authors who can’t or won’t follow instructions.

However, before you begin the submission process, you still have to do your due diligence. The first step is to find the best market for your work. If you write gritty science fiction, then Ladies Home Journal isn’t your ideal market. You need a company that handles literature like yours. Begin your search for the right agencies and/or publishers with one of the two venerable resources suggested above. When you have a short list of prime recipients, go to each company’s website and read their submission requirements. That’s where you’ll find the following important information:

  1. Does the publisher accept unsolicited manuscripts? If not, then you’ll have to find a literary agent to represent you. Large publishing companies often use literary agencies as filters, knowing that literary agents won’t submit substandard or unsuitable manuscripts to them for consideration. In other words, they use agents to cull the chaff from the wheat.
  2. Is the publisher or agency currently accepting submissions? Sometimes a literary agency has all its staff can handle. Perhaps a publishing company has reached its annual quota for production. In either case, the company may not be accepting submissions even if they handle literature like yours: they just don’t have the capacity at that time. If so, you’ll have to find a different publisher or agency, because submitting your work to them when they’re not accepting anything is an excercise in frustration and foolishness.

Remember, all this effort is intentional. You have to jump through their hoops and follow their rules if you want to play their game. Throughout it all, you are obligated to conduct yourself in a professional manner and educate yourself about the industry to manage your expectations. This means you should understand that a publisher assumes the financial risk of producing your book—they pay the editors, artists, graphic designers, and printers—so your share of revenues from book sales won’t be large. (Royalties of 15% is considered generous; you’re more likely to be offered half that or even less.) Literary agents earn their income by selling manuscripts to publishers and from a percentage of royalties earned by authors. Although publishers will put some effort into marketing, they reserve the bulk of their marketing budgets for the authors and books they know will rake in the profits. Therefore, marketing is the author’s responsibility.

If all this seems too much or offers you less control over the fate of your story than you prefer, then self-publishing is always an option. But there’s a process of best practices to follow for that, too. What an author must bear in mind is that self-publishing does not mean “do it all yourself.” Self-publishing means you, the author, accept all the risk, responsibility, and reward inherent in the publishing journey.

Either way, this is not a journey for the fainthearted.

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