You’re writing a novel. Self-publishing seems too hard, so you want to sell your novel to a traditional publisher. Then the publisher will take care of publishing, so that you don’t have to worry.
We’ve had some questions about traditional publishing, and although I’m an crusader for self-publishing, traditional publishing can be hugely valuable for a new author. If nothing else, it dispels a lot of authors’ natural romanticism about writing, publishing, and marketing.
The first step is to write your novel.
Write your novel, then sell your novel
Yes, you need to write your novel first, if this is your first novel.
If you’re already published, whether or not anyone will offer you a publishing contract depends on:
- With whom you published, and what your numbers are;
- If you’re self-published, how your books are selling;
- Your platform. Yes, you need a platform.
If you’re already published, and your numbers are good, you may be able to get a contract on several chapters, and a synopsis of the rest of the novel.
The big challenge with traditional publishing is that it’s in flux. Two decades ago, you could write a novel, and although your literary agent and publisher knew that it was mid-list fare, you’d nevertheless get a contract. (If your numbers were good on your last published novel.)
Today, no one likes mid-list books. Mid-list books are books which will probably return the publisher’s expenses, with a little profit, but which won’t do much beyond that. Traditional publishers look for books which have bestseller potential, and that means that you must complete your novel.
Let’s look at some tips to help you with the traditional publishing process.
1. Aim to interest a literary agent while you’re writing your novel
My primary dislike of traditional publishing arises from the time it takes. You can expect it to take a couple of years to get published, and that’s not counting the time it takes to get an agent, and a publishing contract.
So it makes sense to write a synopsis (a summary of your book), and send out some query letters to gauge agents’ interest while you’re writing your novel. Agents will take a month or three to respond.
Write your query letter, and send it to agents in whom you’re interested. Any agent who responds will want to see your novel’s proposal.
A proposal for a novel includes a vital component: a competitive analysis.
2. Do it now, analyze the market for your novel
Competitive analysis is the most important component of your book proposal. More on pitching and book proposals here.
While this seems scary, and most authors hate thinking about money, please recognize that for a publisher, it’s all about the money. Publishers are businesses, and like all businesses, they prefer to stay in business. All publishing is a GAMBLE. This means that every publisher is looking for a sure bet: a book which readers will love, and which will sell. No publisher can breezily spend the many thousands of dollars it takes to publish a book without having at least some confidence that the book will sell.
Start by researching your genre’s readers. Today, the hottest genres of fiction are:
- Some sub-genres of romance, like the New Adult genre;
- Mysteries and thrillers.
Which books are the top sellers in your genre? What are those books’ Amazon sales ranks? An agent can estimate the number of sales a novel is making daily from its Amazon Best Sellers Rank. (Look at the Product Details on a novel’s page on Amazon to find its current Best Sellers Rank.)
Next, assess your novel as coolly as you can.
How does it stack up against the current hot sellers in your genre?
To which current bestselling title is your book most similar?
Your query letter to literary agents must include something like, “my novel is a family saga in the style of Debbie Macomber”, or “a horror novel which readers of early Stephen King will love”.
When you include a “my novel is like” sentence, agents take notice, because you have a professional attitude, and that makes all the difference.
You’ll need to include a full competitive analysis of the market for your novel in your novel’s proposal.
Ask your agent what she/ he would like to see in the analysis.
3. You’ve got a publishing contract! Amazing, but…
Never, ever sign an “all rights” contract.
In fact, when you’re offered a contract, assume that you’re about to be robbed blind.
You are. Sadly, your agent can’t protect you, because an agent’s first loyalty is to the sale. Not to you. Fifteen per cent of nothing is nothing, so the sale trumps everything.
Find a lawyer with some experience in intellectual property rights management, and read every book you can find on copyright. Then read your contract with a jaundiced eye. You’re about to be robbed; the only question is by how much.
And yes, if you think that I take a dim view of publishing contracts, you’re right, I do, and I developed that view from a lot of hard-won experience.
Crack open a bottle of champagne, and allow yourself a day or two of celebration — someone wants to buy your book! Yippee… this is a huge moment.
Then get a lawyer, and don’t be rushed into signing anything.
4. Write another book, and another one
Should your literary agent and publishing house have real confidence in you an as author, you may be offered a multi-book contract, especially if you’ve been published before. However, in the current book publishing environment, it’s best to avoid multi-book contracts.
Get an accountant. Let your accountant and lawyer run the numbers for you.
Multi-book contracts are challenging, because:
- You nail your colors to the mast of one publishing house. What happens if they go broke? (The sinking ship will take your books’ rights with it. You won’t be paid, and you can’t publish your books elsewhere, in some cases not for years. Your books are part of your publisher’s assets.)
- If your first novel under the contract is a bestseller, you’ll kick yourself, unless you’ve got a clause in your contract which increases your advance significantly, should this happen. (And adds other safeguards to your contract too. To repeat, get an accountant, as well as a lawyer.)
Whatever happens to your first novel, get started on your next, and the next one after that. Nothing eases disappointment as much as being engrossed in writing your next book, whatever happens to your first book.
I hope I’ve given you an inkling that the waters of traditional publishing are filled with sharks. They are. That said, a traditionally published book is sometimes worth whatever it takes.
The experience eliminates any romanticism you may harbor about publishing, and turns you into a professional author.
And as always, with all your writing, when you aim sell your novel to a traditional publisher, have fun. 🙂
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