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How to Publish a Book

How do writers become published authors? In this article, we take a look at the inner workings of traditional book publishing.

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Manuscript Mentoring

Feb. 24, 2023 · 14 Min Read

A woman's hand on an open book.

There are two approaches to publishing a book: traditional publishing and self-publishing. Traditional publishing is when the writer signs with a literary agent and then an established publishing company—or, alternatively, signs for a publishing company directly. As the name implies, this is the original approach to book publishing. The vast majority of best-selling writers have a literary agent and a publishing company behind them. This article deals exclusively with traditional publishing.



What constitutes a “book publisher”? Publishing companies usually consist of multiple imprints—smaller companies—that handle different genres or broader subsets of books. For example, Tor Books owns the Forge, Starscape, and Tor Teen imprints (among others); Penguin RandomHouse owns DAW, Riverhead, Firebird, and Del Rey Books (to name but a few).


As a debut writer, it is very difficult to have your book published by a large, reputable publishing house. Finding literary representation can be near impossible, and most publishers won’t even consider un-agented writers. Certain imprints sometimes allow unsolicited submissions from writers, but in general you’ll need a literary agent to represent you before editors at publishing companies will even look at your work.


If you do manage to convince a reputable literary agent to sign you, and that literary agent manages to land you a publishing deal, then the benefits will likely far outweigh any difficulties you encountered along the way.


So, what steps are involved in traditional publication? Let’s have a look.

Three book shelves crammed with colorful books.

Step 1: Make Sure Your Book is Really Ready

Step 1: Make Sure Your Book is Really Ready

Most books are still in a rough condition after the first draft. Although it is an achievement in and of itself to finish a novel, it is not nearly enough to just proofread it once after completion. It depends on the modus operandi of the writer, but in most cases a novel requires multiple drafts and much revision before it comes into its own. Revision and proofing aren’t the same: proofreading fixes spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, and—sometimes—clumsy sentence composition. Revision, on the other hand, addresses broader issues, such as scene structure, exposition, the suspension of disbelief, plot structure, etc.


It is a good idea to make use of at least a few beta readers during the revision process. Beta readers are individuals who read manuscripts prior to publication to give feedback to the writer. They are usually unpaid volunteers and can include family members and friends. However, the less likely they are to be biased, the better. Apart from beta readers, writers can also hire a professional editor. It depends on the level of experience an editor has, but actionable recommendations from an astute editor can make a big difference to the health of a novel and the growth of a writer.

A black-and-white image of a man with folded hands, looking at written pages in front of him
Step 2: Finding a Literary Agent

Step 2: Finding a Literary Agent

Once your book is finished and you are sure it is the best it can possibly be, the search for a literary agent can begin. There are various reasons why writers are better off with a literary agent than without one. As mentioned, most large publishing houses won’t even look at your work if you aren’t represented by a literary agent. Agents work on a commission basis, so it is in their interest to secure the best possible deal for their client from a publisher. Royalty percentages, foreign rights, film and television rights, author appearances, merchandising and licensing, and audio rights are all negotiated by the agent on behalf of the author. Many literary agents also give editorial assistance to their clients. This is a substantial workload, and unless you have a lot of time on your hands and a solid grounding in contract law, it is probably better for you to be represented by a literary agent than to go it alone.


A woman and a man shaking hands over a desk.

For many writers, finding a literary agent is a daunting process. Literary agencies are often flooded with hundreds of unsolicited submissions a week–so, standing out in the “slush pile”, as it is called, can be difficult.


Before you can actually submit your work to a literary agent, you first need to make a shortlist of agents who are open to accepting unsolicited submissions in your book’s genre. You can get information on literary agents freely on the internet; however, the most informative and up-to-date sources are usually not free. Publishers Marketplace is arguably the most reputable online source for finding accurate information on US literary agents. However, it costs $25 a month to access its most useful data. Writers usually subscribe for a single month to get the information they need, then unsubscribe before the second month bills.

Customers perusing books in a book shop.

Another good database on literary agents is Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (released annually by Bloomsbury Publishing). Although it includes literary agents from the USA, it focuses more on agents in the UK and Ireland. It also lists literary agents in the British Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, etc.). Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook is part of the series; as the name suggests, it focuses on agents who represent children’s books. You should note, however, that these books do not catalogue individual deals like Publishers Marketplace does.


Useful free websites include MS Wishlist, a site that tracks the tweets of literary agents, and QueryTracker, website where queriers share information on agents and queries. Although QueryTracker has a premium version, it’s free information is still useful.


Knowing some of the books a literary agent has represented in the past can give you a good idea of what they’re interested in and, crucially, what they’re good at selling. If an agent has placed dozens of romance novels in significant deals, then they will probably be a good representative for your romance novel. The same goes for any other genre. Obviously, you should review the agent’s profile on their agency website to make sure they are currently open and accepting submissions in the genre your book is written in. Finally, if the agent is based in the US, then it is an added bonus if he or she belongs to the AALA (Association of American Literary Agents).

Things to Consider When Shortlisting a Literary Agent

Things to Consider When Shortlisting a Literary Agent

What have they sold in the past?

Are they currently open to unsolicited submissions?

What genres are they interested in?

How well known is the agency they work at?

Is the agent a member of the AALA?

Four old books stacked beside each other.

Step 3: Submitting to a Literary Agent

Step 3: Submitting to a Literary Agent

Once you have your shortlist of literary agents that you want to approach, you can begin putting together your queries. Querying can be stressful—you’re sending your work out to be scrutinized by a literary professional, after all. The agent’s decision could change your life forever, or you could be rejected out of hand.


The sheer volume of unsolicited submissions that literary agents receive necessitates an almost pitch perfect query for your submission to stand out. Not only do you have to get the basics right (submission requirements, business etiquette, letter format, etc.), but you have to pitch your idea in a succinct manner that, despite its brevity, does not take anything away from your novel’s hook.


It differs from one literary agent to another, but most of the time agents expect a variation of the following when receiving a submission:  

  • A query letter (usually no more than one page in length).

  • A synopsis (usually a maximum of two pages).

  • A writing sample (this can range from anywhere between five pages and fifty, depending on the agent). 

Some literary agents require submissions to be sent via online forms (either from their website or on a third-party website, such as QueryManager). Be sure to check and double check the submission requirements of all agents before querying—there is no surer way to be rejected than not sending exactly what they agent asks for.

An old bookshelf crammed with books.
The Query Letter

The Query Letter

There are few things as daunting as writing a query letter to a literary agent. After months (perhaps years) of writing your masterpiece, you’re now faced with distilling both yourself and your book onto one side of a single A4 page. Again, you should always refer to the individual agent’s requirements—some of them have very particular requirements regarding query letters. For the most part, however, a query letter should have the following structure:

  • It should consist of 3–4 paragraphs.

  • The first paragraph should introduce you and your novel. The title, genre, word count, and similar books should all be included in the first paragraph.

  • The second paragraph should describe the plot of your book in a few lines.

  • The third paragraph should list any writing credentials you may have.

  • The fourth paragraph, if you decide to include it, can consist of one or two lines thanking the agent for his or her time.

  • The letter should be polite and professional. Remember, a query is essentially a job application; do not use an overly familiar tone.

  • The letter should contain all relevant contact information (phone number, postal address, etc.).

  • The letter should not exceed 1 page in total (if written in 12 font size).

  • The font should be as straightforward as possible—don’t use a font with wild flourishes or an unorthodox appearance. Calibri (Body), Arial, and Times New Roman are good choices. Obviously, use one font only for your letter, and stick to black as the color.

  • Offset the title of your work and other book titles with either full capitalization (TITLE OF MY BOOK), or italicized sentence case (Title of My Book) whenever mentioned in the letter.

  • The letter should not include any irrelevant information. Past jobs you’ve done are only pertinent if they are related to writing or the subject matter of your book. If you’re a journalist, include that information; if you’re a detective and you’re writing a crime thriller, include that information. However, if you are a software developer and your book is a Western, then you can probably omit your job. If you have a tertiary education, include it no matter its relevancy.

Query Letter Example

Query Letter Example
An example of a query letter, accompanied by margin comments for greater clarity.
Book Synopsis

Book Synopsis

To write a good synopsis, you should know what a synopsis is not. It isn’t a blurb (back-of-book description)—it is not intended to tease, but to inform. It should not build tension; its sole purpose is to convey a book’s plot, problem, main characters, main events, and resolution.


A good synopsis should also be succinct. This isn’t just a consideration for the agent’s time, but it shows that you can successfully condense writing into manageable passages (which is an art in itself). It depends on the individual agent, but most agents expect a synopsis to be no more than two pages in length (double spaced, 11 or 12 font size, first paragraph indents, and regular margins).

Synopsis Example

Synopsis Example
An example of a book synopsis. The image also contains margin comments for greater clarity.
Step 4: Waiting for the Literary Agent’s Decision

Step 4: Waiting for the Literary Agent’s Decision

Response times for literary agents vary wildly. Some respond within hours or days; others can take weeks or months to review queries. Many factors determine how quickly an agent responds—workload, the time of year, and prior commitments all play a role. However, most agents tend to respond within eight weeks. Some respond only if they are interested in seeing more material. Usually, you can find the expected response time of a literary agent on their website. Do not send a follow-up email before their stipulated review time has elapsed. Also, don’t phone their offices when following-up; unsolicited phone-calls are a sure way to put an agent off.


Should you submit to more than one literary agent at a time? Absolutely. Agenting is a subjective business, and most agents understand that writers submit to more than one agent at a time. The only caveat to this is that literary agencies usually have a rule whereby you can only submit to a single agent at that particular agency at a time. Be sure to review each agency’s submission guidelines.


There are three outcomes to a literary agent submission:

  • Rejection. The agent declines the opportunity to see more of your work, or the agent does not respond at all (which means the same thing).

  • Partial request. The agent likes the sample you’ve sent and would like to see more pages or chapters. The agent may request to see the material on an exclusive basis.

  • Full request. The agent likes the sample you’ve sent and would like to read the entire manuscript. Again, the agent may request to see the material on an exclusive basis.

If you are in the very lucky position of having had a partial or full request, you’ll have to do some more waiting after sending the additional material through. Again, it depends on various factors, but an agent could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to make a final decision. Again, don’t pester them too early for a decision.

Step 5: Literary Agent Contract

Step 5: Literary Agent Contract

If the agent likes your book enough, they’ll offer you representation. Agent contracts cover a wide range of subjects, but some of the aspects that are covered in the agent/author contract include:

  • Commission. Literary agents usually take 15% of an author’s earnings on book sales and other rights. This is the standard rate as determined by the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA), a professional organization of US literary agents. However, commission rates can vary from one agent to the next.

  • Scope of representation. The types of work the agent can represent, the territories they can represent them in, and the types of deals the agent can negotiate on behalf of the author.

  • Term. The term of the agent/author relationship as well as the conditions that have to be met for termination.

  • Payment terms. The financial obligations that the author has to the agent.

  • Rights. The contract will stipulate what the agent has authority to sell on behalf of the author.

  • Indemnification. Literary agent contracts usually contain an indemnification clause between the author and the agent so that they cannot hold each other accountable for any lawsuits that may arise from the work.

  • Obligations. Contracts usually outline the author and agent’s responsibilities.

These are just a few of the aspects that a literary agent contract may cover. As with any contract, it is a good idea to consult a legal professional before signing.


After signing the contract, the onus shifts to your literary agent to secure a deal with a publisher. This may be postponed for a while if the agent feels the manuscript still needs editorial work. The level of editorial involvement from the agent varies from agent to agent. Some literary agents are very hands-on and will suggest changes to plot, character, and structure. Other agents are less editorial in nature. Either way, when both the agent and the writer decide the manuscript is ready, the agent can start looking for a publisher.

A notebook and a pen.

Step 6: Finding a Publisher

Step 6: Finding a Publisher

Much like how the author pitches a book to literary agents, literary agents pitch books to editors at publishing houses. Editors at publishing companies decide if the book being pitched by the literary agent is a good fit. If it isn’t, then it is rejected. If it is, they’ll offer a contract. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year for a literary agent to find a publisher for the book they represent. Obviously, there’s no guarantee that the agent will even find a publisher. If there’s interest from more than one editor/publishing house, then the literary agent invites the editors to offer their best deal—effectively auctioning the book off.


The back and forth between the literary agent and publishers depends on the level of interest the book has. Publishers are invited to table their best offers, which include royalty percentages, author advances, and marketing support. The agent and author then decide which is the best offer and go with it.

A woman sitting in bed, working on a laptop.
Step 7: Book Publishing Agreement

Step 7: Book Publishing Agreement

The book publishing agreement, also known as the publisher contract, is the document that outlines the agreement between the publisher and author. Key provisions of the contract include:

  • Rights. The rights that the publisher is acquiring. This typically includes the different formats of the manuscript (print, audiobook, ebook, etc.). It also specifies the territories that the publisher is buying distribution rights for.

  • Author advance. An advance on royalties is sometimes stipulated in the book publishing agreement. It may be paid in a lump sum or in installments. However, it is usually difficult for debut writers to secure an advance on royalties.

  • Royalty percentage. The royalty percentage that the publisher pays to the writer after deducting expenses. The bigger the author, the better royalty percentage he or she can secure. For debut writers, the royalty percentage is usually 10–15%.

  • Publication schedule. The timeline for publication, including the date the publisher plans to release the book. Deadlines regarding revisions and manuscript delivery are also stipulated.

  • Marketing. The publisher’s plans to market and promote your book.

  • Editorial control. The publisher’s level of editorial control over the book (the publisher’s right to make edits, revisions, and cuts).

  • Termination. The conditions that govern the contract termination. For example, if the writer fails to deliver the manuscript in a timely manner.

  • Subsidiary rights. Rights that govern other adaptions of the book (film adaptions, television adaptions, foreign language adaptions, etc.).

Step 8: After the Book Has Been Published

Step 8: After the Book Has Been Published

Depending on the contract drawn up with the publisher, the author may have various contractual obligations to fulfill after the book has been published. Responsibilities may include:

  • Marketing. The author may be expected to promote their book through book signings and social media.

  • Interviews. The writer may be required to give interviews to journalists and media companies.

  • Appearances. The writer may be asked to appear at book festivals and other events.

Manuscript Mentoring

It can be daunting to prepare a manuscript for submission to literary agents. First impressions count, and the slightest mistake can lead to rejection. If you need help with your book, queries, or synopsis, have a look at Manuscript Mentoring’s professional editing services.

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