What Are the Steps in Book Publishing? One Author’s Trad Pub Journey
So, you’re writing a book and you think it’s really strong. Like, literally, this is going to be a bestseller, you’re SURE of it. But… now what?
Seems like a question with an obvious enough answer: You publish it, duh! Although the basics of this answer are correct, it’s basically the same argument as saying if you want to be able to pay all your bills, just become a millionaire.
Like, wow, alright awesome—sounds fucking incredible! But how?
Hate to disappoint you, but I have no idea how to become a millionaire. I do know a little bit about the steps involved in taking a book from an idea to a published novel, though! Let’s take a look at a ten-step process of publishing a novel.
What Are the Steps in Book Publishing? No One True Path
OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This post represents my personal path to publication. The more writers you talk to, the more you’ll find that if you’re looking for the One True Path to publication… you’re gonna be disappointed. I’m pretty sure there is no such thing. My journey of taking Among Thieves from the seed of an idea to a book on the shelf was slightly different from many of my writer friends’ journeys. It might be different from your journey, too—and that’s okay!
It’s also important to note that this information is only related to traditional publishing. If you’re more interested in the self-publishing route there are a ton of excellent resources on blogs like TheWriteLife.com and Writers.com and other sites that can help you with that goal! I haven’t tried out self-publishing just yet, so I’m definitely not the person to come to for tips about that.
I’m still a newbie in the world of trad pub, but I’ve seen a few things, so that’s the info I’ll share here.
On the whole, the traditional publishing industry isn’t known for its transparency. That’s not the only issue currently facing traditional publishing, to be clear… but it’s definitely one of the most prominent challenges. The point of this post isn’t necessarily to provide you with a foolproof roadmap to publication. I’m mostly just trying to shed some light on my journey, hoping that it helps you find your own path to publication when the time is right!
tl; dr, this is the blog post I wish I could have read like, seven years ago.
Alright, let’s get started.
Step One: Write a Book
Step one of the publication journey should really be more like step zero. Before you can publish a book… you have to write a book.
I honestly debated whether or not I needed to include this step, but I’ve seen enough confusion online among newer writers related to this that I decided to include it. The confusion usually stems from whether or not you really need to write a whole book before getting a book deal.
The answer is, yep.
The idea of selling a book on a proposal isn’t really a thing anymore. To get a traditional publishing contract, you will need to write the entire project, start to finish.
But MJ, might I then waste a whole bunch of time writing a book that doesn’t end up getting published?
Haha, sorry, I know this isn’t exciting news. I wrote several books before my debut novel, Among Thieves. Five, to be precise. This is pretty normal for most of the traditionally published authors I know. It helps if you think of it as time spent learning the craft rather than time wasted, but I can definitely empathize with the frustration associated with writing something that never sees the light of day.
There are a few exceptions to the “write the whole book first” rule: If you’re writing nonfiction, or if you’re incredibly famous, you can likely sell a book on a proposal. But if you’re a regular joe and a fiction writer, like me, you’ll have to write the whole thing.
Step Two: Edit Your Book
Once the book is written, you can just start submitting to publishers, right? I’m sure you already know the answer here: Not so much. You’ll need to edit your book next.
Your future agent or the professional editors at your future publishing house will certainly do some edits down the line with you, but the publishing industry is ridiculously competitive. You’ll need two things on your side to get a deal, in the end: A pretty big pinch of luck, and the strongest damn manuscript you can possibly produce.
To make your manuscript strong, there’s a few methods you can use. I suggest a combination:
Self-Editing: First, you can self-edit the project. Everyone should self-edit their work. Usually, I create an extremely messy first draft that is borderline nonsensical in places. Clean up the work as best as you can without outside help. Try to fill in any plot holes you find, strengthen up your character arcs, and make the plot as cohesive as possible.
Beta Readers: Next, you might choose to work with beta readers. Beta readers are usually writers or other cool bookish people. When you send your project to a beta reader, you’re sending it along asking them to read it like they would any other book and hoping for their honest feedback. Beta readers can help you catch large-scale issues like pacing problems, plot holes, and more. The great thing about using a beta reader is that usually, it doesn’t cost anything. You can trade beta reads with another writer, for example, giving everyone a benefit while still being cost-effective for those of us working on a strict budget. You can find beta readers in your writing group if you have one. I didn’t have one, so I always found my readers on Twitter, which is also a great option!
Professional Editors: Your last option is to hire a professional editor. Professional editing services range from developmental edits, where they help with pacing, plotting, character arcs, and more, to line-edits and copy edits where they help you chase down all those pesky grammatical errors. The tricky thing with professional editors is that they are expensive. Most freelance editors charge clients by the word. A developmental edit may cost $0.08 per word. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider that your novel may be upwards of 100,000 words—making your total bill eight grand.
You’ll likely use at least two of these three editing methods. Personally, I did a metric shit-ton of self-editing and employed the help of beta readers. I never had the cash to hire a professional editor, but I know some folks who have done so and really enjoyed their experience! Do what feels right for you and your budget, but make sure you’re making the manuscript as clean as possible before you move on to step three.
Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash
Step Three: The Query Trenches
Step three is where we actually start working toward publication! We have a book. It’s pretty. It’s edited. Now, it’s time to get it in front of the eyes of some industry professionals.
Most large traditional publishers (e.g., Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, Tor, etc.) won’t accept book submissions directly from authors. In order to be considered for publication, you need to first get represented by a literary agent.
If you’re planning to target smaller publishers, you may be able to skip this step, but I would personally caution you not to. I know some folks who have published through smaller presses that did not require an agent. During their debut process, some of them were bummed not to have an agent to support them and help them navigate the business side of things. Obviously, though, your path is yours—if you decide you want to pursue small presses without an agent, do what feels right!
Your agent will be your ally and your guide through the murky waters of traditional publishing. They will not only pitch your project to publishing houses, but will help you negotiate contracts, make business decisions, and communicate with your publishing house.
To get an agent, you have a few options. I’ll be brief, since I’ve heard the industry has changed quite a bit since I signed with my agent in 2017, but I believe these options still stand:
Slush Pile Querying “Slush pile” sounds gross, but really it’s just a term to encompass any and all queries that come in that haven’t been requested. Basically, if you’re just starting out and you don’t have any contacts in publishing (hello, this was me), you’re ending up in the slush pile. You’ll research agents who might be a good fit for your book, write out a thoughtful query letter to introduce yourself and pitch the book, then hit send and wait, hoping they stumble across your email at the exact right moment, fall in love with your pitch, and request more materials.
Conference Pitching Another option you have is to pitch in person (or maybe via web conferencing applications, now? Who knows!) at a writing conference. You can scout online for writing conferences coming up in your area and register to attend. Some of these conferences will have an option to pitch to a literary agent in person for an additional fee. The downside of conference pitching is the cost. If you’re looking for a free querying option, pitching at a conference might not be for you. However, the benefit here is that you get immediate feedback on your pitch, regardless of whether or not the agent is interested.
Twitter Pitch Contests Lastly, you can participate in Twitter pitch contests! Contests like PitMad, DvPit, PitDark, and more allow writers to tweet out a pitch of their project with the appropriate hashtags. Then, agents will browse the feed and interact with the pitches they’re interested in learning more about.
An agent will interact with your submission by requesting more materials (like a full manuscript, a partial manuscript, or a synopsis of the entire plot), and if they’re still interested, you may get an offer of representation!
This process is not fast. It can take months at best and years at worst. If you’re stuck in the query trenches, hang in there—I was there for years, I know the feeling. Try to work on a new project to distract yourself, and reward yourself for your patience with lots of chocolate.
Step Four: Revision Party
Once you sign with an agent, that’s when the path really starts to vary. Step four was a part of my publishing path, but it definitely isn’t a part of the process for everyone. The fourth step in my journey was agent revisions.
Not all agents do heavy revisions with their clients. Some agents (especially some of the more established agents, from what I’ve heard) only take on projects they believe are ready to submit to publishers right then and there. Sometimes, agents with a more editorial nature (like my agent) will take on a project they think might be a diamond in the rough. Maybe they love the voice but there’s something off with the pacing in one of the acts. Maybe the characters are singing to them but they have an issue with the way you’ve ended the story.
Whatever the case is, your agent may want to do a few rounds of edits with you to polish your manuscript up before sending it out to publishers. Editors at publishing houses see hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts a year. If you want your project to stand out, you’ll want it to be as squeaky clean as it can be!
This is also your first opportunity to evaluate what you’re willing to change and what you’re not willing to change about your book. You’ll need to be somewhat flexible in order to get published traditionally… however, it’s okay to have some dealbreakers! Establish now what things would make you say “no” to a book deal if you were asked to change them.
This part of the process can also take months or sometimes years. (You’ll notice this will begin to become a pattern in this post).
Step Five: Going on Sub
Once you and your agent are both happy with the manuscript, it’s time to go on submission to publishing houses, called “going on sub” (very creative, I know).
Basically, going on sub is like the query trenches, episode two.
Your agent will send the project out to various publishing houses, and you will wait. Then you’ll likely get some rejections from some of those publishing houses. Your agent will send it out to more publishers. And you’ll wait some more.
I won’t sugarcoat it—being on submission kind of sucks. It’s slow and stressful at the same time, like a prolonged, low-key anxiety attack. The fastest I’ve personally heard of an author selling their first novel was about three months on submission. Oftentimes, it takes much longer than that.
Another downside here is that getting an agent isn’t a guarantee that your book will ever sell to a publisher. I did not sign with my agent on Among Thieves. We worked together on a different project for over a year, took it on submission for another year, and it never sold. Among Thieves is the second book my agent and I worked on.
In short, if you’re stuck at this part of the process, refer to my advice for being stuck in the query trenches. And maybe add some whisky every once in a while.
Step Six: The Legal Stuff
Alright, your time on submission is over WOOHOO! A publisher is interested, your dreams are coming true, this is it!
The first thing you’ll want to do here is: Celebrate! Seriously. Dance around, punch the air in victory, scream in joy at the top of your lungs. It’s probably been several years since step one at this point—at least one year, and that’s if you’re super lucky—so you’ve definitely earned a celebration.
Next, let’s talk about the legal stuff.
The first thing you’ll get is called a Deal Memo. This is essentially what the publisher sends over outlining the vague terms of the offer they’re extending. This will include what rights they’re offering (world rights? US only? Audiobook rights?) and the advance they’re offering.
Again, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but if you’re anticipating a six-figure book deal on your debut in the 2020s, you’ll likely be disappointed.
An average debut advance is somewhere between $5,000 and $25,000, from what I’ve heard.
A best-case scenario is that multiple publishing houses want your book! If that happens, your book will go to auction. If your book goes to auction, you may be in for a higher advance because multiple publishers will be duking it out for the right to publish your book.
Now for the hardest part: Your lifelong dream has just come true—you’ve been offered a publishing contract…. And you can’t tell anyone. Secrets are huge in publishing, and this is the first big one you’ll have to keep.
Once you accept the offer, you’ll wait to receive your contract. This can take from a few weeks up to a few months. After you’ve signed the deal, you get to tell everyone you’re going to be a published author, right?
You have to wait until the publisher announces the deal before you can talk about it. With my first book, it took about a month and a half after I signed the contract to get the announcement. With my second book, it took literally three days. So, your mileage here may vary.
Step Seven: Edits & Copyedits
If you thought you were done editing your book after agent revisions, you are sorely mistaken. Step seven in your journey to publication is edits and copyedits with your publishing house.
Again, this will vary significantly. Your edit letter from your publisher may request a number of large-scale changes, small tweaks, or anything in between. You may go through multiple rounds of edits with your publishing house, or just one or two. This just depends on how close the book is to your editor’s vision at the time of signing.
After your developmental edits, you’ll get copyedits. Copyedits are, as I like to say, the most humbling experience you’ll ever have. Copyedits include a lot of grammatical fixes, but also nit-picky research and references. For example, if you said a character’s eyes were green on page 47 but brown on page 122, it’ll show up in copyedits.
My favorite copyediting story from Among Thieves involves a scene on a boat. Halfway through edits, I had changed what type of boat my characters were on. I then proceeded to reference parts of a boat that didn’t exist on that particular kind of vessel. As a non-sailor myself, I didn’t catch this. Thankfully, my copyeditors did.
Tl;dr: Copyeditors are wizards.
Step Eight: A Test of Patience
Step eight… screaming into the void.
Okay, not really. But also, kind of.
Publishing is fucking slow. However long you think the timelines are going to be… double it. Let’s put this into perspective: I signed my first book deal in mid-2019. My book wasn’t released until late 2021. I had to wait over two years between signing the contract and seeing my book on the shelf.
My timeline was pushed back a bit because of COVID, but still, waiting over a year between contract signing and publication is normal in the industry. Patience is essential.
After edits are done, you probably won’t have much to do for a while. Advanced reader copies usually come out around 4ish months before your book release (though this can also vary). You’ll get your cover art a month or two before that, most likely. You may sign off on audiobook narrators, foreign rights deals, etc. in the interim, but most of step eight is literally… just…
Step Nine: Release and Promo
Step nine is what we’ve been wanting for like five to ten years at this point: Your book release!
This step is when your book baby goes out into the world!
If you’re lucky, your publisher will set up some promotional events. Book tours are rare for debuts, but you may get some interviews or guest blogs. Many authors don’t get much in the way of promotion from their publishing house for their first book, though.
If your publisher isn’t setting anything up, don’t fret—book yourself some promo! You can find podcasts and bookish YouTube channels and ask if they’re looking for guests, request to write guest blogs on various book blogs and contact local indie bookstores or libraries to see if you can hold a signing at their location.
You’ll get a lot of “no’s,” but you might get some “yes’s!” You never know until you ask.
A word of advice: Even if you don’t think you need to take a few days off from your day job for your book release… Take a few days off. Your brain will be oatmeal. Joyful oatmeal… but still, decidedly oatmeal.
Step Ten: Write Another Book
The last step in book publishing is… start it all over again!
You’ll be able to skip some steps this time around, especially if you already have an agent! But if your goal is to support yourself as an author, you’ll need more than one book to do that! Get to work on that next book and get back at it!
What Are the Steps in Book Publishing? Choose Your Own Adventure
Alright, that was a doozy of a post! But let’s just say that length of the post mimics the length of this process: Publishing a book is not for the faint of heart. Your path will be riddled with rejection, impostor syndrome, haters, and worse.
It’ll also be filled with wonderful bookish friends, the amazing experience of getting to tell a story to the world, and connections with readers. All in all, the good outweighs the bad by a hundredfold, in my opinion.
As a reminder, these steps just reflect my personal experience, not necessarily a universal traditional publishing experience. Depending on your agent or publishing house, your journey might look quite different from mine.
If you choose self- or indie-publishing, your path will look radically different from mine—and there’s nothing wrong with that! Sharing a book with the world is an immensely personal process, and you need to choose the publication path that best fits your hopes for your story, yourself, and your career.
Regardless of your path, the moral of the story is this: Overnight successes are rare in the book world. You’ll need patience, thick skin, and dedication to get to the finish line. But as long as you’re creating a book you’re proud of, you can hang in there and see it through.
Best of luck to anyone on this journey, whether it’s your first trip around or your tenth!