A writer reached out to me with news that she’s writing a nonfiction book and wants to be published. “What’s the process?” she asked.
I’m happy to explain. I’ll cover the main steps to becoming a traditionally published author without going into minute detail. This will give you—and her—a broad overview.
Pre-Process Stage: Educate Yourself
Before taking the first step toward publishing, start learning everything possible about the industry. Educate yourself.
Learn industry terminology, roles, documents, processes, and proposals.
Learn about self-publishing, as well, in case that ends up being an even better approach for you and your book.
To begin understanding how the publishing world works:
- Watch conference videos on YouTube
- Attend writing conferences
- Read books and articles
- Listen to relevant podcasts
- Subscribe to website feeds to study trends and announcements
- Follow gatekeepers and decision-makers on social media
The more you know about the book publishing process, people, jargon, and expectations, the more confident you’ll be heading into each conversation at each stage of the journey.
As you gain knowledge, you’ll discover opportunities, challenges and frustrations, and hopefully you’ll make informed decisions about the best publishers, agents, and marketing approaches for you and your project.
The Long Road to Publishing
Let me warn you, though: publishing is not for the faint of heart.
They say from the moment of signing a book contract to the day of the book’s release is on average two years. That doesn’t include all the steps leading up to the signing of that contract, so it can stretch out even longer.
You need patience, vision, grit, perseverance.
The act of defining a book concept takes time. To sign with an agent and land a contract can take an even longer time.
To then develop the book proposal and eventually write every word of a manuscript will require a tremendous output of time, effort, creativity, and courage.
A writer may want to give up at several points.
So take it in stages, because getting a book published is a marathon, not a sprint.
How to Get a Nonfiction Book Published
Now, what are the main steps to traditional publishing? Here’s a high-level look at how it works.
Step 1: Build a Platform
Learn what a platform is (see “Educate Yourself” above) and why it’s important. Then learn all the ways you can build one. Begin to step into spaces where you can connect with target readers, bringing them content related to the general topic of your book concept.
During this step, readers meet you and connect you to that topic. Along the way, you solidify your author brand and build a platform you can use to encourage, inform, and entertain people.
And one day you’ll be able to tell them about the book that’s in the works.
Building a platform takes time—the sooner you begin, the better, because publishers will not consider authors who don’t have a platform.
Continue to build it as you move into Step 2, so your platform continues to deepen and expand. Bringing a substantial platform to the conversation with a book publisher makes you a more desirable author for them to sign.
Step 2: Create a Book Proposal
You’ll need a book proposal. Publishers use these business documents to decide if they want to partner with the author to publish the proposed book.
A typical proposal includes many elements such as your platform stats, the book’s table of contents, chapter summaries, and three polished sample chapters.
Because the proposal includes platform information, you’ll want to tackle Step 1 as soon as possible and continue with those platform-building efforts throughout the process. Publishers want to see that you connect with readers and can get the word out to them.
You may want to have the sample chapters edited (or at least proofread) to be sure they go out in the best shape possible when an agent or editor asks for your proposal. So build in time for finding and sending your draft to get a second set of eyes on the document.
Step 3: Pitch/Query Literary Agents
When your proposal is complete and you’ve built a substantial platform, you can begin the process of querying literary agents.
Research agents by looking online, flipping through Writer’s Market, asking author friends about their agents, and turning to the acknowledgements section of books that are similar to yours. There, you’ll see who those authors thank as their agents.
You’ll want to develop a system to collect all of this contact information including their preferences and process for submission.
Build a list of your top choices and research the agents who sound like a good match for you and your project.
Visit their website and take careful notes.
Search for video interviews, articles they’ve written, and podcasts where they’ve appeared as guests.
Figure out what they’re like as a person and an agent, and find out what kinds of projects they’re acquiring. And of course make sure they’re open for submissions, but agents open and close to submissions frequently, so check back if they’re closed.
Now that you have a list, you can begin to contact agents. This can be done in person agents attend an event like a writing conference, where you could sign up for a one-on-one agent meeting with them, or you can contact them via email, following (very closely) their submission guidelines. Some agencies will use a form for you to submit your information while others request you send via email.
Make a list of your top five to ten agents and start querying them or submitting through their preferred process.
You generally query first (send an email or fill out a form with a strong, enticing query letter). Hopefully your idea, writing style, and bio impresses them and they’ll ask to see your proposal, which is why you have to have the completed proposal ready to go (Step 2).
Track Submissions and Responses
Set up a system to track all queries and submissions closely, making note of dates sent, responses, and information such as what to do after a certain stretch of time—for example, should you follow up after so many weeks with an email? Or, does an agency say to consider no response a rejection and move on? Add that to your tracking system and date it so you know when and how to follow up.
Pitching in Person
As I mentioned, you might attend a writing conference where you can sign up for brief one-on-one sessions with agents to pitch the project in person.
These are a great way to make a positive impression and meet someone in the industry. During that brief interaction they may ask for a proposal, so you hand them a hard copy or email it to them right away, whatever they prefer.
Update your tracking system with their information.
Keep in mind that to be considered, your platform needs to be substantial (and growing) and the proposal needs to be complete and ready to hand off (Step 2).
Step 4: Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Repeat Step 3 until you land an agent or happen to connect directly with a publisher and get an offer without being represented by an agency.
This unagented option is a rare path to publishing these days, but you might get an introduction to an editor through someone, maybe another author. And then you could be fast-tracked into the publishing house.
Agent and Editor Feedback
During those meetings and via email—before you’ve signed a publishing contract—some agents will give you feedback on the book or the proposal and suggest or even request changes.
They may ask you to revise your proposal and sample chapters, and you can consider their ideas and decide if you agree. They know what sells, so keep an open mind.
As you submit to agents, you might get input from several who turn you down, and you find there’s a recurring concern.
Again, they know what sells, so keep an open mind. You might choose to tweak your proposal before sending out another batch of queries or attending another conference.
Step 5: Work with an Agent to Fine-Tune Your Proposal
After many rejections, you’ll be discouraged. But you should be proud. Instead of sitting around dreaming about being published, you’re in the arena, taking the risks.
One day, you’ll get an offer. You sign with an agent. You’re repped.
Once you land a literary agent, you’ll work with him or her to be sure your book proposal is ready to shop around. This person knows what publishers are looking for, so he or she may ask you to rework, reword, or revise sections.
Step 6: Find Your Publisher
Now it’s time to find your publisher.
Having representation allows you to entrust most of this step to your agent.
When your proposal is prepared and converted to the agency-branded format, your agent will send it out to publishers who seem like a good fit.
Time will pass.
You’ll feel many feelings during the wait. This is a good time to distract yourself with other projects or dive into your current work in progress while you wait.
One day, a publisher will show interest. Maybe more than one! At that point, you’ll work with your agent to hash out details and an experienced agent will negotiate a great contract for you!
If you don’t have agent representation, you might have found a publisher who accepts unsolicited manuscripts and pitched them directly.
Or maybe you got an introduction to an acquisitions editor at a mid- or small-sized publishing house, perhaps through another author-friend, and the editor took it to their pub board.
However you connected with that publishing house, it’s possible you may receive an offer directly from their team.
If so, you can reach out to agents. A few agencies offer contract review services. For a fee, their legal review team will review the contract so you understand all the fine print.
Another option is to find a lawyer who specializes in book publishing and intellectual copyright and hire her to review your contract line by line.
Step 7: Sign with a Publisher and Work with Their Team
You worked through an agent or interacted directly with a publisher to land a contract.
Now you’ll work primarily with the editor they assign to your project, although you’ll also interact with the marketing team.
You can ask your agent questions about industry details that confuse or concern you and he can step in to clarify or discuss delicate situations with the publisher on your behalf.
Step 8: Finish Your Book on Time and Prepare to Launch
Write your book.
Finish your book.
Meet the deadline.
Finish the Book on Time
You’ll feel like you’re done when you send your manuscript to your editor on or before the deadline. And you should celebrate because you hit a major milestone.
Now you’ll wait while the editor reviews your project. She may be juggling multiple projects, so give her space and time. Hopefully she’ll give you an estimate so you get an idea what to expect.
Prepare to Launch
While she’s working with your words, you can be prepping for launch. You’ll have a lot of tasks to follow through with to get the word out about this book. When you crafted your book proposal, you put together a marketing and promotion plan. Now it’s time to work that plan.
Hopefully you’ll interact with the marketing team to confirm what you’re doing and what they’re doing, divvying up the tasks. Some activities will be completely on your shoulders.
Rounds of Edits
You’ll go through a round or two of edits, depending on the editor’s process and the state of the book when you turned it in. Eventually you’ll get the last chance to make significant changes and then it’s in layout mode.
When you see the galleys—that final copy reflecting the layout—it starts to look like a book. No more changes at this point other than catching small typos.
They will have a professional proofreading it, and usually they’ll grant you one last look at those galleys before the book goes to press. If you catch a few small mistakes, like a misspelling or misplaced comma, flag those details and let your editor know.
Step 9: Launch Your Book
For months you’ve been busy following through with pre-launch plans and tasks, and now you’ve received confirmation of launch day.
You and the marketing team will work together to time a lot of tasks and activities so the word gets out about your book at the right moment for the right people—your target reader.
Launch day may feel amazing or it may seem anticlimactic, but when the book is released into the world, you can say you are a published author.
With ongoing effort to get the word out, especially during the first weeks following its release, this book will hopefully reach the ideal readers you’ve imagined all along the way.
When you get to this point—your book available through libraries and bookstores, both online and in stores, digital and print—it’s official: you got a book published.
Publishing Paths Can Differ
That’s the overview of the process.
You’ll hear publishing stories involving discouraging details or wild successes. Your own publishing experience might surprise you and you’ll sidestep the typical stages involved in the process or take longer than expected.
Keep learning about the industry, keep building your platform, and keep pitching. Like I said, it takes perseverance, it takes vision, and it takes grit. But people are out there waiting for a book just like yours, so stick with it.
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