L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Harry Bingham

publishing a book

The all you need to know guide

Getting a book published, even your first book – that sounds like it should be pretty do-able, right?

And so it is, but the publishing industry is (inevitably) pretty complex, and can generate massively different outcomes depending on the choices you are about to make.

In the same way, you might want to be a professional musician … but does that mean you do a paid gig in a local bar? Or get signed by a massive record label? In this blog post, we will weigh up the options and show you how you could get your book published. It’s possible to get published for free, and it’s also perfectly achievable even if you are a first time author.

It’s also true that the publishing industry has got way more complex since the rise of Amazon and all that went along with that. That complexity is confusing, for sure, but it’s also good. The fact is there are more routes to publication than ever before in history. You just need to pick the route that works for you.

And that’s what this post is all about. We’ll tell you:

  • What your options are
  • Which option is right for you
  • What the pros and cons are, and
  • How to access the particular publishing route of your choice

If you need extra info on any topic, we’ll direct you to a resource that gives you everything you need.

Oh – and you probably want to know about me. Well, I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve been traditionally published all over the world, with in the company of the world’s top #3 trade publishers. Furthermore, I’m the founder of Jericho Writers, so I’ve helped literally hundreds of writers just like you through to publication, so I know exactly what’s involved for a writer like you.

But I’m not just about traditional publishing. I’ve also self-published (and love it.) I’ve sold fiction and non-fiction. I’ve sold full-length manuscripts and skinny-as-you-like book proposals. I’ve also had experience of plenty of other publishing routes. And this post is going to tell you EVERYTHING.


How to get your book published in 2020:

That’s a lot to get through, so buckle up and read on …


What’s involved?

The “Big 5” traditional publishers (outfits like Penguin RandomHouse or HarperCollins) dominate the world of trade publishing. They have huge financial resources. They have huge marketing and sales reach. They already publish a stellar list of names.

And they reach right across the English-speaking world – so in that sense getting published in the US is much the same kind of process as getting published in the UK or Australia … and quite likely with the same group of firms involved as well.

Obviously, those big publishers need to acquire material to publish, so they go out and buy it. They buy manuscripts (ie: novels or non-fiction which haven’t yet been turned into actual books). They buy those manuscripts off authors in return for an upfront cash advance. That advance is highly variable – think anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000+ for a book – and will be supplemented by royalties if sales are sufficient to ‘earn out’ the advance.

And the publisher isn’t just there to write the checks. They are also there to sell your book, which they do by:

  • Working on the manuscript editorially. That’ll normally involve a structural edit, a copy edit, and a proof read – layers of editing that in turn fix story, then typos/clarity, then a final check before printing. (More on types of editing.)
  • Designing cover art and preparing the book for production. Books are normally produced in four formats (hard cover, paperback, e-book, audio)
  • Selling the book to bricks & mortar retailers. Retailers – such as Barnes & Noble in the US or Waterstones in the UK don’t automatically stock all books that are printed. Far from it. So arguably the key part of a publisher’s job is to convince specialist retailers (basically bookstores) and generalist ones (notably supermarkets) to order and stock the book. Ideally, your book will be entered into promotions, that place your book in the most visible store locations and with an attractive price reduction.
  • Selling the book via online retailers. Although Amazon pretty much does stock every book out there, publishers still have to persuade Amazon (and Apple, and Kobo, and so on) to promote your book as much as possible. That means your book will start popping up in “deal of the day” or “recommended for you” type promotions.
  • Marketing the book. That will probably involve a mixture of traditional publicity (such as newspaper interviews and book signings) and digitally driven campaigns, probably involving social media, email marketing and perhaps some use of pay-per-click advertising.

To most writers, all that sounds pretty good, but – no surprise – there’s a catch.

The catch, quite simply, is that your book has to be pretty damn good, because there’s a hell of a lot of competition out there and publishers are only interested in buying the very best crime books / romances / diet books and whatever else.

So how to publishers find those amazing books in the first place? Well, the shortest answer is that they focus nearly all the efforts on the manuscripts that come to them via a literary agent.

Literary agents are basically salespeople who sell manuscripts from writers like you to the big publishers. They don’t charge any kind of upfront fee for that service; they take a commission on sales made, typically 15%.

Just to emphasise that point: agents cost nothing until they make you money. So (setting aside all your trouble and effort in writing the damn thing), with the agent/publisher route to publication you will get your book published for free. Not even free actually: you’ll be paid. You won’t be expected to buy your agent coffees or fund the cover illustration or anything like that. When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t spend a single penny (other than for paper and ink and stamps – we used all those things in those days.) Next thing I knew: people were offering me six-figure sums for my work.

OK. So agents are good; they make sales; they work on commission. But it gets better.

In addition to that basic sales activity, literary agents also:

  • Offer you editorial advice to help you get your manuscript in shape for sale
  • Run the auction process
  • Negotiate the resulting contract
  • Supervise the publication process, advise you on it, and act as your bull terrier if any conflicts arise
  • Sell other rights, such as foreign language rights, audio (if not part of the original deal), and film and TV rights.

In short, a good literary agent will end up making you far, far more than the cost of that 15% commission, so you should have no hesitation in working with an agent, if you get the chance.

Because the Big 5 publishers publish all types of work – adult novels, children’s novels and plenty of non-fiction too – literary agents work with all these things too. Most agents aren’t that specialist either. Yes, a children’s literary agent may exclusively work with children’s books, but most literary agents for adult work will work with novels and non-fiction. In that sense, how your publish a novel (for example) works exactly the same as publishing any other type of book.

How do you get an agent?

If you’re getting a book published for the first time, you need an agent. And the only really difficult step in getting an agent is the very first one: you have to write an absolutely superb book.

Remember that, as a rough guide, a literary agent is likely to take about 1 manuscript in every 1000 that they come across. If you’re writing a spy story, your work will be competing head-to-head against John Le Carre, Tom Clancy and every other great spy novelist out there. So your manuscript has to excel. It has to dazzle. It has to be wonderful.

But let’s assume you’ve already got a great manuscript, what then? The steps you need to follow are these:

  1. Generate a longlist of literary agents. You’re looking for agents who are taking on new clients and who are interested in work in your genre. You can find a full list of literary agents here for the US and here for the UK. If you sign up for AgentMatch (free trial here), you can use simple tools to filter by genre, client, and more.
  2. Whittle that down to a shortlist of 10-15 names. To generate your shortlist, just go through your longlist and look for possible points of contact. An agent represents one of your favourite authors? They’re a keen rider and your book is set in a racing stable? The agent has Irish ancestry and your book is about Irish emigrants in the 1920s? Any of those gives you a good reason to pop the agent onto your shortlist. (Oh, and why only 10-15 names? If you send your material out to about a dozen agents and don’t get a positive response, that’s a pretty damn good signal that your manuscript is not yet strong enough to get a book deal – in which case, getting third party editorial feedback probably needs to be your next step.)
  3. Write a query letter. That tells that agent why you’re writing (you’re seeking representation), what your book is and who you are. It’s easy to write a great query letter. Just follow the advice and look at a sample query letter here.
  4. Write a synopsis. A synopsis basically summarises your story, and it’s a quick way for an agent to get a handle over whether the basic structure of your story feels OK. A synopsis can be a nightmare to put together, but it doesn’t have to be that way. All the advice you need, plus a good example of a synopsis, can be found right here.
  5. Double-check your opening chapters. Most agents want you to send them a sample of your manuscript along with the query letter and synopsis. Typically, they’re looking for about 3 chapters or about 10,000 words. So make sure that opening chunk is looking great. Tips on presenting your manuscript right here. Tips on the commonest errors in first time novels can be found here.
  6. Send your submission pack out to your shortlisted agents. You need to allow about 8 weeks for agents to read and decide on your submission. And, sorry to say, but loads of agents don’t even have the courtesy to send out a “sorry, but no” email if they are rejecting a manuscript, which means that you have to work on the assumption that, after 8 weeks, no news is tantamount to rejection.

At this point, you have other won – you’ve been offered representation, in which case, congratulations. Your path to publication is now in the hands of a very experienced professional, and you should be fine from here. If there are problems en route to getting published (and, believe me, there will be), your agent should be able to guide you.

Or you’ve lost – that is, you have no offers of representation, and not even any close misses. In that case, you really need to go back to your manuscript, figure out why agents aren’t getting excited by it, and then fix whatever needs fixing. The best way to do that is by getting pro editorial help, of the sort that we at Jericho Writers can offer.

But there’s a middle ground too, where you haven’t quite won but you haven’t quite lost either. That’s the ‘nice rejection’, often where an agent asks for your full manuscript but ends up, reluctantly declining. If you’re in that category, then it’s GOOD NEWS. The fact is, you’re in a zone where some editorial work really should ping you over the line. Again, we can help.

Extra resources

We have a whole bunch of resources available if you want to pursue these topics further. (Clue: yes, you definitely do.)

Free resources:

List of all literary agents in the US

List of all literary agents in the UK

How to get a literary agent

Do literary agents charge fees?

Do literary agents edit manuscripts?

How to write a query letter

How to write a synopsis

All your literary agent questions answered

Additional resources
These resources are for Jericho members only. Not a member? Then join us.

Behind the scenes at a Big 5 publisher (feature length film)

Interviews with literary agents Diana Beaumont, Kate Burke, Piers Blofeld

Finally, we have a complete course on how to get your book published – and not just published, period, but published well, published successfully. That course (here) is costly to buy but it’s free to members. Do consider joining us if you need that further help.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

The first question is whether or not you want to pursue traditional publication. Trad publication will suit you, if:

  • You are writing literary fiction or one-off non-fiction (eg: memoir)
  • You are writing genre fiction but aren’t super-prolific (eg: you don’t want to write more than a book or two a year)
  • You want the kudos of traditional publication
  • You want to be sold via physical bookstores, as well as via Amazon
  • You want a shot at newspaper book reviews, book signings, radio and newspaper interviews etc
  • You don’t want the hassle of self-publishing

If that sounds like you, then traditional publishing should certainly be your goal. The next question is whether you need an agent. You basically have to have an agent, if:

  • You are writing fiction, for adults, young adults, or children
  • You are writing mainstream non-fiction (of the sort that might sit on those front-of-store tables in a large bookstore)
  • You are writing specialist non-fiction in a big, rich category (such as diet or cookery, for example)

If your book is very niche, your likely advice is small, which means an agent’s 15% won’t be especially tempting. In all those cases, you can forget about getting a literary agent and just proceed to option 2, which is traditional publication, but without a literary agent.

Pros and cons

The advantages of trad publication are:

  • You get an advance
  • You get some experienced professionals handling the production, sale and marketing of your work
  • You have a literary agent to guide your journey
  • You have all the kudos and other pleasures of traditional publication: you will have become a published author and will have earned all the respect of your new role. I bow to thee.

The disadvantages are:

  • You lose control over your intellectual property – you’ve sold it, remember? The book now belongs to the publisher, not to you.
  • It’s harder to make a living as a trad author than it is as an indie one. Watch our YouTube video on author incomes here.
  • Traditional publishing is a bit of a crap-shoot. Most bestsellers are made via huge supermarket sales, but there are many fewer supermarket slots than there are books, and the process by which supermarkets choose which books to stock is scarily random (for newbie authors, at least.)
  • Traditional publishing isn’t so great at publishing on Amazon. You can see my thoughts on that (via Publishers Weekly) here.
how to get a book published


What’s involved?

The actual publication process is exactly the same as for Option 1 – so everything I’ve said above applies here too.

The big difference with this route is that you’re not going to send your work out to literary agents; you’re going to send it direct to publishers. Obviously, the publishers you choose will need to be carefully chosen. So if you are looking to sell a volume of military history or something on Early Colonial interiors, you’ll need to approach the publishers who work in that field.

Otherwise, the basic approach is the same. You locate your targets. You send a query letter. You include enough sample material that the publisher can make up their mind. And that’s that – you see what responses come back to you. (The big difference: agents are slow, with response times often around 6-8 weeks. But publishers are way slower: you need to allow 4-6 months to get a proper response. That’s crazy, I know, but …)

How do you find a publisher?

Not easy.

Services like Jericho AgentMatch don’t really exist in the same way for publishers. Yes, you can trawl through the membership pages of the American Association of Publishers or (in the UK) the Publishers Association … but those guys have a lot of members, the vast majority of whom will be irrelevant to your needs.

So really the best way to find a publisher for your book is to find other titles in your niche. That should be easy for you, because it’s your niche. So if your book is about motor maintenance, look at the other engine-related books on your shelves. If you’re writing about bonsai growing, look at who publishes books about bonsais. How to find who publishes a book is simple – just look inside the front cover. That page with all the tiny, boring print about copyright and that kind of thing will also tell you who the publisher is. Note that publishers (eg: “PenguinRandomHouse”) generally operate through a multitude of imprints, eg, Bantam, Ballantine, Doubleday…). You need to identify both the publisher you want and, where relevant, the imprint in order to wriggle through to the right desk in the right office.

Make a list of those publishers – then approach them direct. They’ll welcome your submission and they won’t expect you to have a literary agent. (In fact, they’d be mildly frightened if you did have one.)

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

Assuming you definitely want traditional publication (and again, see Option 1 for more on this), you should only really avoid using a literary agent, if:

  • Your work is in a small subject-led, but consumer-oriented niche (eg: “How to Maintain Your Motorbike” or “The Complete A-Z of Roses”)
  • Your work is academic and destined for an academic publisher
  • Your work is business or professional, and destined for the kind of publishers that handle that kind of thing

Agents don’t want those kind of books and they don’t add much value to the publication process either. For those reasons, direct submissions to publishers make the most sense.

Pros and cons

The advantages of this route are that:

  • You get the pluses of trad publication
  • You get to publish work that’s too niche or specialist to warrant an agent’s involvement

The downsides are simply that:

  • Bookstores don’t shift very many copies of niche books – they’re mostly sold via Amazon. But in that case, self-publishing looks like a particularly attractive option, because you can retain all the proceeds from sale for yourself.

If you have a mailing list or other platform – for example, you have a popular blog on rose growing, and your book is all about growing roses – then self-publishing should be very simple and immediately lucrative.

publishing a book


What’s involved?

When we talked above about trad publication and literary agents, it was kind of assumed that you’d already written your book. If you are looking to sell a novel, then you basically have to have written the book and edited it until it sparkles.

But that sounds like a hell of a lot of work for a project that might never sell, right? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just outline a project, see if anyone wants it, then complete it only if a sufficiently attractive deal is laid under your nose?

Well, luckily for you, that option certainly exists. It exists only for non-fiction, and not even for all types of non-fiction, but yes: you can offer literary agents a book proposal in place of an entire book. That book proposal might in total amount to only 10,000 words, and should include:

  • A query letter
  • A personal bio, including any platform or authority you bring
  • An analysis of the market and audience
  • An introduction to the book
  • Approximately 3 chapters of sample material.

You can read much more about what’s needed right here.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

The book proposal approach will work, if:

  • You are writing non-fiction
  • That non-fiction is not narrative-led (in which case, an agent or publisher might need to read the whole book before making a decision)
  • It’ll work especially well if you bring significant authority (“I’m a top physics professor”) or terrific platform (“I’m a teenager with 2,000,000 Youtube followers.”) Read more about author platforms here.

If your work is mainstream and could provide a ton of sales, then you will want to navigate via a literary agent. If not, you can go direct to publishers.

Pros and cons

Pros? Simple:

  • You can secure a contract and get paid before you’ve done a ton of work.

I once secured a $250,000 / 2-book deal on the back of a book proposal that ran to about 10,000 words. Nice, right?

Downsides? I can’t think of any. You’ll have to invent your own.

literary agents and traditional publication


What’s involved?

Although the Big 5 publishers dominate the market in sheer volume of sales, they do have one not-so-little weakness. That is that their sheer size entails a prodigious cost base, and therefore an inability to handle small but important or interesting work. For that reason, we are living in a golden age of tiny, but very successful micro-publishers. Some of these – Black Lawrence or Coffee House Press in the US, Galley Beggar in the UK, for example – are tiny but mighty, accumulating awards and literary kudos far out of proportion to their size. You can find a useful list of such presses here.

Most of these presses have a firmly literary bent, and you probably don’t need a literary agent to approach them. (Though if you have one, your agent should make the approach, not you.)

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

If your project fits with one of these companies’ mission statements, you should absolutely think about submitting your work. I know several talented authors with real passion projects. Big 5 firms and agents just weren’t interested (market too small; not enough money to be made), but the authors ended up with smaller presses and were extremely happy with the result.

If you’re a member of Jericho Writers, you can watch a filmed conversation with the founders of Galley Beggar Press here. If you’re not a member, you can join us here.

Pros and cons

Pros and cons are nice and simple. The big advantages of these presses are:

  • You can get a quirky, small-market literary project off the ground
  • You’ll be published with real passion and commitment by people who love your work

The downside is equally simple:

  • Money? Not a chance. If you leave with $1-5,000 in your pocket, you’ll have done very well!


What’s involved?

Self-publishing via Amazon (and other online retailers) is, quite simply, the biggest story in publishing – it’s not just been the biggest revolution of the last 10 years. It’s probably the biggest revolution since the invention of printing.

In terms of what’s involved – well, duh!, you get to sell your work via the world’s largest bookstore to pretty much every reader this side of Mars.

Amazon charges you nothing to stock your book. It has easy tools to create your ebook and your print book. Its royalties are brilliant. (70% of the ebook sale price? That’s over 4 times what you’ll get via a trad publisher and agent.) Plus of course there’s a whole ecosystem now which enables you to promote and sell your work.

Because that sales process is complex, however, this blog post isn’t going to talk about it at all. You can find everything you need right here, in our Ultimate Guide to Self-Publishing.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

Self-publishing will suit you, if:

  • You are writing genre fiction, or clearly subject-led non-fiction, such as “How to Win at Email Marketing”
  • You are relatively prolific – with 3 or more books a year being your goal
  • You are happy to write in a series (because series are way more profitable than one-off books)
  • You positively want to be in control of your own small business
  • You aren’t going to start crying if you have to handle a little tech and a few numbers
  • You have a little cash to invest – a first publication will probably cost you $1-2,000, but you won’t, most likely, make your money back with that first book.

The two things I’d emphasise here are (A) you’ll do well if you write fast and capably, and (B) you need to want to run things yourself. Yes, there are people who self-publish simply because they didn’t get picked up by traditional publishers – but their whole body language is one of reluctance. Those people never succeed. Yes, they may sell a few books, but that’ll be that. To win at self-pub, you have to seek success. You have to want it.

Which is good. Which is the way it should be, right?

Pros and cons

The advantages of self-publishing are:

  • It’s lucrative. Boy oh boy, it can be lucrative. If you look at recent debut authors, and look at how much they are earning from publishing, there are far more indie authors making money than trad authors – that’s true, whether you set the benchmark at $10K, or $25K, or $10K, or even $1,000,000. More info on our YouTube video here.
  • You retain control: you’re the author; you’re the publisher. If you two fall out, then your problems go well beyond just publishing issues.
  • You have a brilliantly close relationship with your readers. When I started self-publishing my Fiona Griffiths series, I came to have the best relationship I’d had with my readers in 15 years of being a pro author. It’s been wonderful.

Downsides? Well, not downsides exactly, but:

  • You do have to work hard. You have to engage in the marketing as well as the writing.
  • You have all the issues of any small business person – namely, all the problems land on your desk in the end
  • It’s competitive. You still have to write a stunning book. Then do it again, and again, and…

It does take some upfront spending, without any guarantee of return. The biggest issue with self-pub, in fact, is arguably that writers want their first book to make money and give up when it doesn’t. In truth, the game is usually slower and more incremental than that.

publishing a book


What’s involved?

In the old days, if you wanted to be a publisher, you needed to be able to print books, arrange warehousing and logistics, and you needed a big corporate sales team to persuade retailers to buy the books. In short, things were complicated, and publishers ended up combining into ever larger units in order to compete.

But then a new breed of publishers came up with a radical thought. Who needed bookshops any more? The fact is that 70% of all adult fiction is digital. E-books and audio books dominate the market. And plenty of print books are sold online as well, so the sales pathway is digital even if the product isn’t. Add online print to the total, and you’ll find that more than three-quarters of the whole adult fiction market is sold through digital channels.

Why shouldn’t a publisher attack that 75%, and simply leave the rest for the big boys to squabble over?

That’s precisely what a new breed of “digital-first” sellers did. They focused purely on that online sales channel (selling print as well as e-books, but only via online routes.) And there have been blisteringly successful examples of such sellers: Bookouture in the UK, TCK in the US, plenty of others too.

Those guys are traditional publishers in the sense that they’re still very choosy about what work they take on (albeit that they accept more like 1 in 100 submissions as opposed to something more like 1 in 1000.) They are also like traditional publishers in that they will take care of your book’s publication – the editorial, the design, the marketing, and so on. The one real difference is that they won’t seek to get your book into the big chain bookstores or into the supermarkets – but your online sales might be such that you really don’t care.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

You need to write the kind of books that are right for a digital-first approach. In fiction, that means you are writing series-led genre. In non-fiction, that means you’re writing something with a clear interest-group led appeal (that “How to Grow Roses” book, or “How to Train Your Memory”, for example.)

And then you need to not care too much about bookstore distribution, because you won’t have it. Or national newspaper reviews, because (almost certainly) ditto. And any advance you get will be very small (but the royalties you can expect will be correspondingly generous.)

And bear in mind, the scale of success here can be huge. Angela Marsons was used to getting knocked back by trad publishers … but digital-first Bookouture turned her into a million-selling sales sensation.

Pros and cons

The advantages of a digital-first route are:

  • Your chances of acceptance are higher
  • You can submit your work via a literary agent, but most digital-first houses will also accept direct submissions
  • E-book royalties are likely to be anywhere from 50-100% higher than at a traditional house
  • Publication success is a little less of a crap-shoot than it is with a regular publisher. So if a particular cover doesn’t find favour with its clients, a digital-first house will just change the cover and go on seeking sales. A Big 5 firm would simply send a truck to collect all those returns coming back from a supermarket and move on, sadly, to the next author and the next book.

The disadvantages are:

  • A lower initial advance
  • Less kudos
  • You won’t have the trappings of traditional publication, such as distribution through bookstores and newspaper reviews, etc

If you succeed the way Angela Marsons did, you really won’t care about the downsides.


What’s involved?

Amazon is a bookstore, and a self-publishing platform, but it’s also a publisher in its own right. The name of that publishing arm is, imaginatively, Amazon Publishing, or just APub.

It is an odd one, though. Because other retailers hate Amazon, they won’t stock its books. So an Amazon author is sold by … just Amazon.

That’s weird, yes, but the model has been astonishingly successful all the same. More than 35 APub authors have hit 1,000,000 in sales, and that number is expanding all the time. Amazon does a great job at editing, design and all that, and I’ve never met an unhappy APub author.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

Uh, well, the answer is: a successful one.

Amazon doesn’t take unsolicited manuscript submissions. Mostly it looks for existing authors who could fit its template, and reaches out to them. Alternatively, literary agents can call direct.

In fact, I’ve included this option on the list not because APub is relevant to you today – it isn’t. I’ve included it because (A) it might become relevant to you in the future and (B) APub is such a large force in the marketplace, you can’t really have an overview of publication channels that doesn’t include it.

But if you do get an agent and are interested in APub, it’s worth a chat. More likely though, you’re likely to be headhunted by APub if you self-publish or trad publish and they see something in you they like.

Pros and cons

Uh, the advantages of APub are quite simply:

  • You can sell a lot of books
  • And make a lot of money

The disadvantages are:

  • Right now, that door is closed in your face.


self-publishing to trad, crowd-funding publication, Social publication,


What’s involved?

Quite simply, what’s involved here is that a bunch of loathsome vipers try to steal your money.

You send your book off to a vanity publisher, and you’ll get some letter back saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, we really loved this book, but you know what, it’s a tough market, and our editorial board didn’t quite feel all right about taking on the risk here. But if you pay us $X,000, we’ll partner up with you and sell this book worldwide.”

Exciting, right?

Except they’re not partnering up. They’re taking your money. Yes, they will produce a book, and it might even look OK. But their marketing promises are meaningless. They will not – not meaningfully – sell your book. They’ve already earned their cash: you just gave it to them. Selling books is hardly necessary.

Run, run, run from these awful humans. They’re not technically committing a crime, but the gap between their promises and their delivery is huge.

Avoid, avoid avoid.

If you want a longer discussion of these appalling people and all the reasons why vanity publishing is terrible, please just read this short guide.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

No one. Ever. These people are snakes in human form.

Pros and cons

The advantages of vanity publishing are quite simply:

  • None whatsoever

The disadvantages are:

  • You waste your money and feel like an idiot afterwards.


What’s involved?

Here, you’re basically paying a third-party outfit to design and produce your book. That’s not actually so different from what a vanity publisher offers. But the big difference is one of honesty.

If a print/design company charges you a fair price to design and produce your book, and to make it available through the obvious outlets (Amazon, other e-tailers, the book wholesalers), then that’s just fine. Lulu is one example of this kind of company, but there are plenty of others. They’ll make a perfectly nice book for you and yes: if you create a reader-demand for that book, the book will be available for purchase or order.

But if the basic operation of creating a book comes garnished with flaky and unrealistic promises about marketing, some horrible high-pressure sales tactics, and topped off with a crazy price, then what you have is a vanity publisher.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

This option will be right for you if you just want a nicely produced book. One personal example: after my father’s death, my sister had the nice idea of bringing a photographer along to his memorial service. My sister got those photos printed up into a nice-looking photo book of the day. She circulated it to close friends and family, and it’s been a beautiful and treasured object on my shelves ever since.

Another example: if you’ve written a memoir of your time in nursing, you probably have a ton of present and former colleagues/patients who’d enjoy the book. Circulating a PDF doesn’t seem like much fun, so pay a bit extra to have the book properly bound and have a few dozen (or a few hundred) copies made. Your work is worth it.

Pros and cons

The advantages, simply, are that:

  • For a reasonable cost, you get a nicely made product
  • Other people can handle distribution via Amazon and Ingram, etc

The downside is simply that:

  • These companies offer a production solution, not a marketing one. If you actually want to sell these books in any number, this option is unlikely to work out for you.
how to get your book published


What’s involved?

I’ve come across a lot of writers want to get published traditionally, but have difficulty opening the gates of success. For that reason, they think, “I’ll self-publish, see if that works, then use that success as a springboard to mainstream publication.”

And, well, OK. Some authors have done that, and done that successfully – James Oswald, for example. There are plenty of other examples.

But what I’d ask is: why? I’d say that you’d need a minimum of 50,000 free downloads + 10,000 paid ones to get an agent even modestly excited about your trad potential. Really, you probably need to double or treble those numbers to get an agent properly interested. But once your indie career is hitting those heights, what really does trad publishing offer you?

And yes, I know some indie authors who make their money via self-publishing, but who dabble with a bit of traditional publishing on the side, really just to explore new things and to prove they have what it takes there too. But in general, I think if you self-publish, you should do so with the intention of self-publishing over the long term.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

As I say, I don’t think this model makes much sense, except as a bit of fun on the side for successful indie authors.

Pros and cons

If you want to go down this road, then  by all means do. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. though.


What’s involved?

A few years ago, a friend of mine, John Mitchinson, had a brainwave. Why should publishers take the risk of commissioning a book if they had no idea whether there’d be a consumer market for it or not?

And flip that around: wouldn’t it be brilliant for consumers, if they were the ones, in effect, choosing what books to commission or not? You wouldn’t even need to stop at books: potential authors could offer other merchandise, the chance to meet, and other incentives too. You could build a whole community around each book project. In a way, the whole thing could be like a modern reinvention of the eighteenth-century model in which people subscribed to a particular book project prior to publication.

That was the idea. Unbound was the result – a Kickstarter for books in effect. (And yes: you can crowdfund your book on Kickstarter too. And yes: though Unbound is a British company, it’ll happily handle submissions from authors anywhere in the world.)

The idea has been prodigiously successful, and the company is currently raising funds for a major expansion into the US. Where books successfully meet their pledge target, the company publishes the books and arranges distribution into bookstores, as well as foreign rights sales and the rest.

What kind of writer/book is right for this publication option?

The site does particularly well with non-fiction, especially where there’s a wholesome quality to the book being offered – a book on whales and climate change may work better than one on German history, say.

But fiction can also work on the site, again especially when that fiction is distinctive and a bit too quirky for ordinary Big 5 style publication. If you’re a member of Jericho Writers, you can watch a filmed interview with Matthew Clayton, head of publishing at Unbound, here. (Not a member? Then join us.)

Pros and cons

The advantages of this route are:

  • You get paid
  • You get top quality distribution from a respected publisher
  • You can find a route to market for non-standard pieces of work

The disadvantages are:

  • You have to rustle up the bulk of your subscribers yourself. That probably means hitting Twitter very, very hard!


What’s involved?

If there’s a large social platform out there, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone’s explored a way to tell stories on it. Of the social-as-storytelling platforms, by far the best known and most elaborate is Wattpad, with some 70 million users who are there for the purpose of storytelling (rather than, say, watching fake news, trolling each other, or sharing gifs.)

Wattpad is a huge site for fan-fiction and romance, but it’s pioneered other genres too. It has a Wattpad “After Dark” site, aimed at romance for adult readers. It’s experimented with an app that delivers story via text messages.

Other sites and other companies have performed similar experiments.

Such sites aren’t quite an answer to the question “How Do I Get a Book Published?”, simply because their product isn’t a book, as normally imagined. But maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe your question is, “How do I get my story published?” and you kind of know that your story is too short or too early-stage to quite justify a book. For those type of writers, social publishing can be a brilliant first route.

What’s more, that kind of social storytelling can lead on to bigger things. The most obvious recent example of such success was EL James’ 50 Shades trilogy, which started out as fan-fiction in the Twilight fictional world, then dumped the Twilight references and was picked up by a digital-first publisher (that’s option #6 on our list). When that digital-first publication started to make waves, James sold the rights to Random House, that propelled the book and its author to mega-stardom. In effect, that one trilogy moved from social publication, to digital first publication, to Big 5 publication (with literary agent attached.)

What kind of writer / book is right for this publication option?

If you’ve come to this blog post wanting to write a book and get it published, then Wattpad and its sisters is probably not the right channel for you, simply because Wattpad isn’t really in the business of publishing and promoting books. Yes, you can practice your craft and build an audience on Wattpad, but you still have to make the leap from that to a more formal publication channel.

If you’re already on Wattpad (or something similar), then fine: keep going, and make the leap to more formal publication when you judge yourself ready. If you’re not already active and successful on one of those sites, then engaging more deeply will probably seem like a diversion from the road you actually want to walk down.

Pros and cons

The pros of social-first publication are:

  • There are no gatekeepers, or upfront costs
  • The readership is supplied by the website; all you need to do is craft a product that those readers want (more easily said than done, of course.)

The downside is quite simply:

  • You end up with readers and with writing … but not an actual book for sale via bookshops or Amazon.

Personally, this isn’t a route I’d advise … you can yell at me if you want to.


I said there were a load of different routes to publication – and by now you probably believe me. But in the end, there are two broad variants:

  • A traditional approach, where the key thing is the concept that someone – a literary agent or commissioning editor – is judging whether or not to accept your work.
  • An indie approach, where there are no gate-keepers and your approach to Amazon and the other e-tailers is direct and unmediated.

Both routes are great. Both options will appeal to different authors – or (like me) the same author at different times and with different projects.

Either way, the essence of success remains the same:

  1. Write a great book
  2. Create a great product (e-book, hardback, audio file, etc)
  3. Get those products in front of a broad and well-chosen audience

And it’s all easy. The whole thing is easy-peasy. All except the very first bit – writing a great book. That’s as tough now as it was a hundred or three hundred years ago. That difficulty is what makes this craft of ours so frustrating – and so rewarding.

Happy writing. Happy editing. And get published.

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