How to Write a Query Letter for a Literary Agent in Traditional Publishing

How to write a query letter

How to write a query letter.

You’re in the process of writing a book, and you’ve decided to try to get it traditionally published.

Most publishing houses won’t work directly with authors, so in order to get your book traditionally published, you need to get a literary agent to represent you.

Your agent’s job is to get your book in front of editors and negotiate your book deal as well as any other rights (foreign, film, etc.).

The first step landing an agent is to write your book (if you’re writing nonfiction, you would write a detailed book proposal). The next step is to compile a list of literary agents whom you may want to work with.

Once you’ve gathered a list of agents to contact, you can start working on your query letter.

What is a Query Letter?




A query letter is a one-page, single-spaced cover letter (or letter of introduction) that contains a summary of your project and your author bio. The goal of the query letter is to entice a literary agent to read the attached material or request either a partial or full manuscript.

Before you write your query letter, do as much research as possible about query letters. This article is an overview to writing a query letter. If any part of the process becomes difficult for you, dig deeper, pick up a book on query letters, or consult a specialist.

Basic Outline for a Query Letter

There should be six parts to your query letter, including the salutation and valediction:

  1. Salutation: Also called the greeting, the salutation often starts with Dear… Make sure you address the agent by name; do not use To Whom It May Concern.
  2. Opening: The introduction of your letter should identify your book’s genre, word count, and any other important details.
  3. Synopsis: This is not a full synopsis–remember, the cover letter is only one page, so the synopsis has to be tight. Include a quick but compelling overview of the plot, establish the setting, and describe the main characters. You should also identify the core conflict and describe the resolution.
  4. Credentials (bio): Include your writing credits, education, or experience. If you have a lot of clips, bylines, or publishing credits, only include the most relevant or prestigious.
  5. Closing: This is where you thank the agent for taking the time to consider representing you and offer to send sample chapters or your full manuscript.
  6. Valediction: Some common terms used in the valediction are Regards, Thank You, and Sincerely (followed by your name).

How to Write a Query Letter

Here are some tips to guide you as you write your query letter:

  • No matter how elaborate your story is or how much you want to tell the agent about yourself, keep it to one page. Do not bend this rule. Be clear, concise, and professional.
  • Don’t use gimmicks. Colored paper, weird fonts, and other attempts to stand out from the crowd will backfire. Agents have to get through a lot of query letters, and they know what they’re looking for. Be professional.
  • Make sure you adhere to each agent’s submission guidelines–no exceptions!
  • Condensing all this information into one page is going to be tricky. Give yourself plenty of time to refine and revise your letter. When it’s done, have a few friends (with strong writing skills) take a look. Polish it until it’s perfect.
  • Do not mention your failures or unpublished manuscripts (except the one you’re pitching). Yes, you learned from those experiences, but a prospective agent doesn’t want to hear about them–at least, not yet.
  • Do not mention that you’re self-published unless your self-published book was successful and generated loads of revenue.
  • There’s nothing wrong with being humble, but a query letter is not an appropriate place for self-depreciation.
  • You don’t need to tell the agent your work is copyrighted, and you don’t need to include any kind of copyright mark on the document. Agents are professionals and know your work is copyrighted the instant you created it.
  • Do not talk about how you’re going to be the next J.K. Rowling. Do not suggest your book belongs in Oprah’s book club. This kind of arrogance will come off as an illusion of grandeur.

Additional Resources

Here are a few more resources that you might find useful:

Have you ever written and submitted a query letter to a literary agent? Was it successful? Did your book get published? Share your experiences with traditional publishing by leaving a comment.

How to Find and Choose a Literary Agent

Find and choose a literary agent

Find and choose a literary agent.

If you’ve decided traditional publishing is right for you, then you’ll probably need to find a literary agent.

A literary agent represents your interests and should act as your advocate. Your literary agent will shop your book around to publishing houses and try to land a publishing deal for you. Before doing this, some agents will help you prepare your book to ensure the best possible presentation to publishing houses. For all this, the agent gets a cut of the profits from your advance and royalties.

In addition to selling the publishing rights to your book, an agent may also sell audio, film, and foreign rights, although you may need different agents to represent different types of rights. If you’re an author, you’ll start with a literary agent and may later need a Hollywood agent if you want to try to sell your story to a film studio.

Do You Need a Literary Agent?




If you’ve written a novel or a work of creative nonfiction, such as a memoir, and you want to publish it traditionally, you’ll need an agent. You do not need an agent for publishing poetry, short stories, or essays. Agents primarily represent longer works. You probably don’t need an agent if you’re targeting small press publishers or specialty publications, because they often work directly with authors. Finally, some publishing houses  don’t require agent representation for works of nonfiction and niche categories. The best thing to do, in any case, is check the publishing house’s guidelines, keeping in mind that an agent will be able to land you a better contract and offer than you can negotiate on your own.

Finding a Literary Agent

Finding a literary agent could take some time. You might start your search before your book is completed, but you should not reach out to any agents until your project is finished. For novels and creative nonfiction, that means you have a solid, polished draft. For nonfiction works, you’ll usually submit an extensive book proposal.

You’ll want to start your search with the genre of your book, because most agents specialize in specific genres. Here are a few different methods you can use for conducting your search:

  • Online search: Try typing your genre with the term “literary agent” into a search engine and see what comes up.
  • Similar books: Check books that are similar to yours. Often, agents will be listed in the acknowledgements or on the author’s website. Some authors even name their agents on their Twitter profiles.
  • Social media: You can also search social media for literary agents.
  • You can use a paid service like Writer’s Market to find reputable agents.
  • Agent Query and Query Tracker offer online tools and resources to help you in your search.

As you search, compile a list of literary agents and agencies that might be a good match for you and your book. Try to get as many as possible–I would aim for at least a hundred, because you’re going to have to whittle that list down, and chances are, every agent you contact won’t be interested.

A Few Warnings

Unfortunately, the world is full of scam artists, and some of them pose as literary agents. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting scammed as you try to get your book published:

  • Writers are vying for agents, so they don’t need to advertise. Good agents are awash in submissions and queries.
  • Literary agents don’t charge authors anything up front. They take a cut of your book sale, after the sale is made. You don’t have to give your agent anything in advance except your manuscript. This includes fees for editing, proofreading, or any other prep work on the manuscript or other related services.
  • Agents and agencies should have some type of portfolio, usually a list of authors they represent or a list of books they’ve sold posted somewhere on their website.
  • The author-agent relationship is personal. It’s not the kind of transaction that is completed online. You should talk to your agent by phone and if you’re in the same area, try to meet in person.
  • Legitimate agents will sell your book to legitimate publishers, not vanity presses. Familiarize yourself with publishing houses by checking the copyright pages in various books with a focus on your genre.

Choosing a Literary Agent

Once you’ve got a decent list of potential agents, it’s time to narrow it down to the agents you want to query. In this phase, you’ll research agents and agencies and assess them, weeding out the ones that aren’t a good match for you.

Start by conducting an online search for the agency or agent’s name. Check out their website and learn more about them. You might also want to visit their social media profiles, which can give you a good sense of their attitude and personality.

As you research the agents, try to get a vibe on the type of material the agent likes and wants to represent. That will help you determine if they are a good match for your project.

IMPORTANT: Be sure to check the agents’ submission guidelines. These can range from simple, electronic submissions to outdated snail-mail submissions. This is most important when you start sending your submissions to the agents, but some may include requirements that are beyond your scope. You may not want to work via snail-mail, for example. Therefore, the submission guidelines may help you narrow your search. In any case, when you do start querying agents, be sure you follow their submission guidelines to the letter, otherwise, expect a swift rejection.

Once you’ve submitted queries, if you’re lucky, you’ll hear back from agents who are interested in representing you. At that time, you may need to further narrow your list. Make a list of questions to ask each agent and beware of any agents who are not responsive to your questions. But be respectful–agents’ time is valuable, so don’t waste it on questions you shouldn’t ask (because you will have found the answers during your research phase).

Final Tips

Create a document where you can store and track the information you collect. Spreadsheets work great for this because you can create separate tabs (worksheets) and break off agents you’ve crossed off your list (but might want to revisit later).

When you do start submitting your work, you’ll most likely need a query letter and a synopsis of your book. Specifics depend on each agent’s submission guidelines. However, you should be prepared to put considerable time and effort into preparing your submission materials.

Have you ever searched for an agent? Did you land one? Did your agent sell your book to a publisher? If you have any tips to add on finding and choosing a literary agent, leave a comment, and keep writing!

A Self-Publishing Checklist for First-Time Authors

Self-publishing checklist

Self-publishing checklist for first-time authors.

Writing a book is hard enough. When you self-publish, your workload multiplies exponentially.

For first-time, self-publishing authors, the work involved can be particularly daunting. You’re taking on a process that is traditionally completed by a team of experienced professionals, and since it’s your first time, you don’t know what you’re doing or how to do it. Hopefully, today’s checklist will provide you with some basic guidelines to help you develop a solid plan that you can use to self-publish your first book.

Self-Publishing Checklist

This checklist is meant as an overview, a basic list of tasks and projects you should complete when you self-publish a book. You may need to work on some of these steps simultaneously. For example, while you’re revising your book, you might want to start the process of building your platform. While you’re working on the cover and formatting, you might want to start creating a marketing plan.

1. Write the best book possible.

There are many ways to approach writing. Some authors write for the market, going after whatever genre is most popular at any given time. Others write whatever moves them. I’m a firm believer in writing the book you want to read. You might write with an outline or you might write by the seat of your pants. Do it alone or collaborate with a partner. But whatever approach you use, you should write the best book you possibly can, a book you can be proud of. Writing the best book includes everything from drafting and revisions to working with beta readers and editors.




2. Line up your service providers and vendors.

As you go through the self-publishing process, there will be projects you can tackle yourself and projects you’ll need to hire out. You might be able to set up your own website but if you lack graphic design skills, you’ll probably want to hire someone to design your book cover. Maybe you can format your own book, but you need someone to help you learn your way around social media. For every step in the process, there are experts out there who can assist you. The decisions you make about which tasks to hire out will depend on your skills, schedule, and budget. One cost you should definitely plan on would be an editor. There are a range of edits you can get from developmental editing to line editing (proofreading). At the very least, you should have a professional proofread your manuscript before you put it up for sale. Be sure to find and contact these service providers in advance so they can fit your project into their schedules.

3. Get a website, and start building your platform.

Building a platform takes time–a lot of time. That’s why it’s something you should start working on early in the publishing process. Your best marketing tool will be your website, so start with that. It will be your online headquarters for sharing news and announcements (like your book launch), providing information about yourself (your author’s bio), and connecting with fans. One of the best ways to build a platform is to start a blog. Use it to speak to your target readership. You should also venture into social media. Try setting up one account at a time. Give yourself a few weeks to become familiar with each one before diving into the next.

4. Develop your marketing plan and materials.

Marketing a book is like writing a book–there are many ways to do it. You might launch your book with nothing more than a quiet announcement on your blog. Or you might do a hard launch, complete with advertising and a blog tour. From pricing and giveaways to submitting your book to reviewers and developing a social media marketing plan, there is no end to the options available to you when it comes to marketing your book. That’s why it’s a good idea to set aside time in advance to learn about your many options, and then figure out which ones are the best match for you and your book. You’re far more likely to find your readers if you have a marketing plan in place before the book becomes available.

5. Get a good cover.

Self-published authors have been ridiculed for their low-quality book covers. You know what they say: don’t judge a book by its cover. The problem is that most people do judge a book by its cover, at least they do initially. Maybe you’ve written a brilliant novel. It won’t matter if your cover was designed by an amateur. Potential readers will take one look and decide your book is unprofessional, and they’ll pass it up, maybe even for a book that’s not as good but has a better cover. If you’re not a graphic designer, the cost of the cover could be a significant burden. Fortunately, there are affordable options out there, including pre-designed covers that may not be customized to your taste, but at least they look professional. Just remember this: you’re investing in your future as a career author.

6. Get your book professionally edited.

Speaking of investing in your book–do not skimp on editing. I would say editing is even more important than a decent cover, but it really depends (as with all things in self-publishing) on your skill set. Typos and blatant errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation tend to yank readers out of the story and have also been known to garner tons of negative reviews. Don’t let your excellent story suffer because you didn’t bother to get it properly edited. If you’re working with a tight budget, join a writing group and look for beta readers with strong editing skills, but be prepared to give back by providing critiques for others.

7. Plan to format your book for various editions and platforms.

You should put out paper and electronic editions of your book, and you should publish your book across as many platforms (stores) as possible. This ensures that your book is available and accessible to anyone who wants it. Each version needs its own ISBN and unique formatting. You’ll also need to render a .mobi file for the Kindle and an .epub for everything else. You may even want to do a hardcover, and eventually, an audio book. You might want to publish internationally or get your book translated into multiple languages. Decide ahead of time what formats and platforms you’ll publish to initially. You might want to get print and paper out immediately and tackle the audio book later. Be aware that formatting can be tedious and there’s a learning curve. Be prepared to spend some time formatting your own books, but also know that there are lots of service providers out there who will format your book for you, and they can be quite affordable.

8. Get ready to launch!

Some authors publish their book and immediately shift their focus to writing the next one. Other authors take some time to do a big launch and draw readers to the first book before delving into the next one. The luckiest authors have enough time to do both. The great thing about self-publishing is that you can choose a launch strategy that works for you and your book. Sometimes, a single book (especially one that took a long time to write) warrants a hard launch with lots of buzz. Other books (especially books that are the first in a series) might perform better once several books are available. Do some research, find out what strategies have worked for other authors, and plan your launch accordingly.

9. Get busy promoting.

One you hit the publish button, your book will become available to tens of millions of readers, but they won’t know it unless you tell them about it. Whether you start promoting your book immediately or wait until you have a few books out before you start promoting, you’ll eventually have to come up with a marketing campaign, and then you’ll need to execute that campaign. Marketing a book is a lot of work but the payoff can be worth it if you do it right. Here are some ideas to consider: contests and giveaways, newsletters, blog tours, social media, sales, advertisements, and submitting to reviewers.

Make That List and Check it Twice

You writing and publishing experience will go a lot smoother if you work from a plan. By starting with a plan, you can establish a series of deadlines for your project. Whatever you do, don’t rush your book to publication. Give it the time and attention it deserves.

Remember, the writing should always come first. Don’t get so caught up in planning everything else that you don’t leave any time to get your writing done. But do your research and make a plan, so you can check off every task one by one. And then get busy on your next book.

Good luck with your self-publishing projects, and keep writing!

Hybrid Publishing: The Best of Both Worlds

hybrid publishing

Use hybrid publishing to your advantage.

We’ve talked about how to decide whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is right for you, but what if neither feels quite right? What if you want to do both?

The newest model of publishing to have emerged is hybrid publishing, a combination of self-publishing and traditional publishing that empowers both authors and publishers.

Hybrid publishing is dynamic. While there are clear steps, benefits, and drawbacks to the distinctly separate models of self-publishing and traditional publishing, hybrid publishing allows authors and publishers to take what they want from each model in order to create a tailored, innovative approach to publishing, which offers mutual benefits to all parties involved.

How Hybrid Publishing Works

Hybrid publishing is difficult to define because there are so many possible variations. It’s safe to that say that it’s neither self-publishing nor traditional publishing but any combination of the two, and this approach can be applied not just to a single project but to an entire career.




Here are some examples of hybrid publishing:

  • An author whose career started with traditionally published books decides to try self-publishing. From there, the author publishes some books traditionally and self-publishes others.
  • An author who has self-published several books is picked up by a traditional publisher.
  • An author might get a traditional book deal for print publishing but continue to self-publish e-books, retaining all digital rights and royalties.

These new hybrid models are changing the face of publishing. So what are the benefits?

Benefits of Hybrid Publishing

Publishers benefit from hybrid publishing because they can sign authors who have already self-published and established an audience. That’s a lower-risk investment for the publisher because they know the books will sell to existing readers and fans. Currently, every new author is a risk for a publishing house. There’s no way to tell which books will make the best-seller lists and which ones will bomb. Under this model, it’s less likely that a book or author will suffer low sales because there’s already an audience ready, willing, and able to buy.

When authors self-publish, they earn a larger percentage of royalties as long as they price their books accordingly. With Amazon Kindle, for example, if you price your book between $2.99 and $9.99, your royalties are 70%. That’s an awful lot compared to traditionally published authors, whose royalties are about 7-10% for a paperback and 25% for an e-book. Authors who have already published traditionally can leverage their existing audience by self-publishing a few books and enjoying larger royalties on their self-published titles.

Recently, breakout author Hugh Howey got a print publishing deal and was able to keep his digital rights, which means he will continue to collect larger royalties on his e-books (up to 70% for Kindle sales) than most traditionally published authors receive. The expense of printing, distribution, and storage is non-existent for e-books, so it makes sense for authors to keep a larger share of the royalties.

Is Hybrid Publishing the Future?

Think about the process of publishing a book by a new author from the publisher’s perspective: they have to hire a staff to read query letters, book excerpts, and full texts. They pay editors to review selected texts and decide whether they’re worth publishing. They pay a team of editors, cover designers, book layout designers, printers, and distributors, all with absolutely no way of knowing if the book will find its audience. From a business perspective, that’s a pretty risky model, especially when you consider the fact that most agents and editors admit they have no idea why some books make a splash while others sink to the bottom of the bargain bin.

There must be tremendous savings in paying someone to peruse self-published books online instead of using the traditional query process. Recruiters can sift through ratings and reviews, look at samples of texts, and determine the likely success they’ll enjoy with certain authors. Meanwhile, authors who self-publish are honing both their writing and marketing skills on a smaller stage, so if and when they’re picked up by a publisher, they have the proper experience to reach out to the broader audience that the publisher will expose them to. It’s a win-win.

Does it really make sense for publishers to continue footing the expense of publishing new authors? I don’t think so. Does it really make sense for authors to go through the grueling process of querying agents and editors when that time could be spent getting their books to market and building the foundation of a long-term career? Probably not.

Hybrid publishing offers authors and publishers the best of both worlds. By lowering the risk for publishers and raising the earnings potential for authors, it’s an ideal model.

Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing: What’s Right for You?

self-publishing or traditional

Are you self-publishing or traditional publishing?

If you’ve finished a book or are working on one, then you’re probably thinking about how to publish it. There are two obvious choices: self-publish or try to get it published by a traditional publisher.

There was a time when self-publishing was a last resort, a final attempt after an author had accumulated piles of rejections. In recent years, technology has made self-publishing easy and accessible. As a result, reams of authors have elected to self-publish without even bothering with traditional publishing.

The stigma of self-publishing has faded but many authors still diligently query agents and publishers, hoping to get their books published by traditional means.

The good news is that now authors have a choice. It’s no longer a matter of choosing the better option but choosing the option that is right for you.

There are many factors to consider in deciding between self-publishing or traditional publishing. Let’s look at the benefits of both forms of publishing.

Benefits of Self-Publishing

Creative Control
When you go with a traditional publisher, they gain certain rights to your book. Contracts vary but as an example, they’re going to decide what cover and title go on your book. I’ve heard from authors who hated their book covers and/or titles. If you get a great agent and editor or if you’re lucky enough to get a cover and title you like, this may not be a problem. Publishers also own printing and distribution rights for a specified amount of time. Under the self-publishing model, authors retain all rights and creative control of their work.
Pricing
Agents and publishers cost a lot of money. Everyone gets a cut from the editors, proofreaders, cover designers, layout designers, distributors, etc… The list goes on and on. That means traditionally published books cost more, and that cost gets passed on to readers. The average self-published ebook novel is $2.99. Traditionally published: about $10-15.
Profit
You’re sharing profits with everyone involved in producing your book, so you get a much smaller royalty. An average advance these days could be as low as $5000 and royalties are about 7-10% for a paperback and 25% for an ebook. When you self-publish, there’s no advance (in fact, you’ll incur some costs) but royalties are much higher. If you price your Kindle ebook at $2.99-9.99, the royalties are 70%. You set the price of your books, so you determine how much you make off each copy sold.
Marketing
I was sort of horrified years ago, when I learned that for most new authors, publishers don’t do a lot of marketing. You’re lucky if they send you on a book tour. Many traditionally published authors hire their own PR firms and marketing professionals and pay for these costs out of pocket. Again, this can vary depending on your contract but unless you have what they think is going to be a blockbuster (or if you’re already hugely successful), traditional publishers don’t usually invest a whole lot in marketing a new author. That’s not to say they won’t help with any marketing but from the authors I’ve heard from, when it comes to marketing, there’s not a lot of difference between traditional and self-publishing. Either way, most of the burden is on the author.
Timeliness
After you finish writing your book, it can take months to get an agent (if you get one at all), and then it can take many more months to sell it to a publisher (if you sell it at all). From there, it’s usually about a year before the book hits stores. I’d say most authors wait 1-2 years (minimum) between finishing their book to seeing it in stores—and that’s if everything moves along on schedule. Some of that time is useful; you can start working on your next book and you can get your marketing plan going. Some authors don’t mind but others are frustrated, especially when that 1-2 years turns into 3-4 years or more.
Gatekeepers
Up until a couple of years ago, agents and publishers acted as gatekeepers. They and they alone decided whose books got published. Some people say they prevented bad writing from hitting the market, but Harry Potter was rejected at least eight times, so they were obviously also preventing some good stuff from hitting the market. Lots of books that went on to be successful were originally rejected. What this tells us is that publishers don’t necessarily know what they’re doing when it comes to picking good or salable books. Also, and this is my personal opinion, I’ve come across some traditionally published books that I thought were terrible. Think about it: a book can get rejected because whoever read it that day was in a bad mood, didn’t like one of the characters, just read a similar story, or simply didn’t care for the tone, style, or voice. 

Self-publishing has opened the gates and it’s true that a lot of low quality books have hit the market—poorly written manuscripts packed with typos and just plain bad storytelling (and awful covers). But readers are smart. They know how to read the first few pages, check the reviews, and filter the good stuff from the bad stuff.

Benefits of Traditional Publishing

Validation
Even though they don’t always get it right, agents and publishers make a living choosing books that they think readers will embrace. Their job is to find the good stuff and get it to market. So traditionally published books do still have that extra stamp of validation and credibility. The question is: does the average reader check to see who published a book before they buy it?
Editing, Design, and Formatting
In the traditional publishing model, books go through several rounds of revisions as part of the deal whereas self-published authors take on the cost of hiring their own editors. The same is true for book covers: most self-published authors are not artists and have to hire someone to make the cover. As a rule, it’s fair to say that publishers know better than authors what cover or title a book needs. Some self-published authors also pay someone to format their books for print and electronic publishing. Many do it themselves (there are plenty of tutorials available online) but it’s pretty tedious work, especially if you’d rather be writing.
Not only are publishers more experienced in the editing, design, and formatting steps in the book production process, they also have a team of professional editors and designers.
Marketing
Some authors, especially hugely successful authors, do get a marketing campaigns via traditional publishing. Marketing is half the work of selling books (the other half is writing them), so this is a crucial point: if your publisher helps considerably with marketing, it could save you a lot of time and money compared to self-publishing. But a marketing budget is not something new authors can count on. There may be downstream marketing disadvantages to self-publishing: for example, some reviewers who won’t look at self-published books and some bookstores won’t carry them.
Distribution
If you want to get your book into brick-and-mortar bookstores, it’s a lot harder when you self-publish. Traditional publishers already have a print-and-distribution system in place, so they’ll make sure your book is available wherever books are sold, online and offline. But if you self-publish, your books will primarily be available in the online space, which limits potential sales. Some self-published authors have successfully gotten their books into physical bookstores, but it requires a lot of legwork.

Self-Publishing or Traditional Publishing?

Ultimately, each author has to decide which model is right for them. The decision between self-publishing or traditional publishing is fraught with considerations, mostly dealing with time and money. Are you in a hurry to get your book out? Self-publishing is going to be a lot quicker. Do you lack design skills and can’t afford to hire a cover designer? Traditional publishing would probably be a better option for you.

Have you ever published a book? Did you choose self-publishing or traditional publishing? Why? When you do publish a book, which model are you more likely to use?

A Writer’s Guide to Types of Publishing Companies

types of publishing

A guide to various types of publishing companies.

Publishing used to be simple. A writer wrote a proposal or manuscript and then found an agent who was willing to represent the book. The agent shopped it around and sold it to a publisher. The writer received an advance and then the agent, publisher, and writer worked together until the book appeared in book stores about a year later.

That model hasn’t gone away. You can still find an agent to help you get published and you can still aim for selling your book to a publishing house, but technology has opened more doors for writers.

Terms get thrown around, like traditional publishing, legacy publishing, self-publishing, vanity publishing, and indie publishing. But what does it all mean? What’s the difference between self-publishing and indie publishing? Is there a difference? Why should we care?

Types of Publishing Companies




Most writers hope to eventually publish a book. While many writers already have their heart set on traditional publishing or have their minds made up to self-publish, it’s helpful to take a close look at all available options before making a final decision.

As a writer, the sooner you start studying the publishing process, the better, because the type of publishing you choose can affect how you write and what you do while writing. For example, if you decide to self-publish, you might want to start building your marketing platform months before your book is finished.

To get started, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the types of publishing companies that you can choose from. This isn’t an definitive guide; it’s meant as an overview to introduce various types of publishing companies and the options that are available to you as a writer.

Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is exactly what it sounds like: the traditional way to publish books. Nonfiction writers submit a proposal (which often includes a few sample chapters) and fiction writers submit a manuscript to agents until they find one who is willing to represent them. The agent then sells the proposal or book to a publisher. Once the book is sold, the author receives an advance (sum of money). At this point, nonfiction writers write the rest of the book. Writers work through revisions with editors at the publishing house. The publisher handles the book cover, printing and formatting, and distribution. The publisher may also handle some marketing. Traditional publishers are also called commercial publishers.

Traditional publishing is sometimes called legacy publishing, a term that is slightly controversial because it has conflicting connotations. I’ve heard people describe legacy publishing as literary or highbrow, outdated and inefficient or dignified and respectable. I’d say the jury is still out on what legacy publishing implies, so my recommendation is to stick with the term traditional publishing for this model.

Further reading: Nine Reasons Authors Still Choose Traditional Publishing

Vanity Publishing

Vanity publishing has a fairly bad reputation in the literary world. In this model, the writer pays to have a book published. Whereas traditional publishers pick and choose which books they send to market, vanity publishers don’t require an approval or editorial process. Whereas traditional publishers are in the business of selling books, vanity presses are in the business of printing books.

Some vanity presses may offer services in the areas of editing, formatting, and cover design. Vanity presses can be used for self-publishing; in this sense, the vanity press provides printing and binding. The author is responsible for all editing, design, distribution, and marketing. The bad rap comes from vanity presses presenting themselves in a somewhat misleading way, often making authors feel like their books are being published traditionally. Writers who are not knowledgeable about publishing have felt scammed by vanity presses. However, these publishers do have a role in our society. For example, many people use vanity presses to publish books of a personal nature, such as family trees and family bibles, works that would not be publicly distributed and would only have a small print run.

Futher reading: Where Publishing Gets Practical

Subsidy Publishing

Subsidy publishing falls somewhere between traditional and vanity publishers. Subsidy publishers enter a partnership with authors. Under this model, authors keep most (or all) rights and ownership of the work. Whereas traditional publishers pay authors an advance, in subsidy publishing, authors must make a financial investment in the cost of publishing. The publisher handles production and distribution and provides funding for sales and marketing. Authors start earning royalties immediately since the books don’t have to earn out an advance. It’s easier to get a subsidy publishing deal since these types of publishing companies aren’t as selective as traditional publishers. Whereas vanity presses earn profits from printing books, subsidy publishers (like traditional publishers) earn profits from book sales.

Further reading: Subsidy Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

Self-Publishing

With self-publishing, the publishing company is the writer. Self-published authors are solely responsible for writing, editing, proofreading, cover design, layout, distribution, and marketing. That’s not to say self-published writers do it alone. Self-published authors with business savvy know their own limitations and hire out different aspects of the production process. They may work with freelance editors and cover designers and will usually publish their books on platforms that include distribution. For example, Amazon provides print-on-demand publishing through Create Space and distributes e-books online. Authors are solely responsible for all publishing costs but also retain full creative control and all ownership and rights to the work.

Further reading: A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Joe Konrath is an advocate for ebooks and self-publishing; this site is packed with articles and information on self-publishing)

A Few More Terms You Should Know

There are a few other types of publishing companies and publishing-related terms that all writers should know:

Print-on-Demand Publishing: Once a book is completed, copies are printed as they are ordered.

Indie Publishing: Indie publishing has taken on two meanings. It can refer to a small press publisher or it can refer to self-publishing. I imagine that in the coming years, it will settle into one definition or the other, depending on how we all use it.

Small Presses: Most commercial publishers are big businesses or are owned by larger, corporate conglomerates. Small presses are small businesses that usually specialize in certain genres or topics and produce and distribute in smaller quantities than big publishing houses. Many small presses work directly with authors and don’t include agents in the process.

University Presses: These presses are nonprofit, usually print academic works, and are run by universities and colleges. They often publish literary magazines and journals as well as textbooks and creative works.

Publishing is an Evolving Business

The world of publishing is currently undergoing dramatic changes. The companies are changing and new models are emerging. There’s no telling what publishing will look like when the dust settles. In the meantime, we writers must do our best to stay informed about standards and trends so we can make the best decisions when the time comes to publish our own work.