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FAQs on How to Publish Your First Book: Tools for Writers Series

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When publishing a book, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. How do you start? What should you expect? Can you turn book writing into a full-time career?

In this post, we tackle your most frequently asked questions about book publishing. Let’s dive right in.

Should I work with a traditional publisher or self-publisher?

We take no hard stance on either. Traditional publishing can be a wonderful choice for many authors, while others flourish with self-publishing.

Traditional publishing tends to be more respected. If you happen to score a publishing deal by any of the Big Five, like Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, or Simon & Schuster, you may feel immediate validation as an author. Plus, you get paid in advance. However, as a self-publisher, you control your destiny. There are no hurdles to getting published. You set the pace for when you publish, and you could have your book in your hand by this time next week. Also, you get a higher percentage of your profits.

The choice between traditional and self-publishing is ultimately up to you. We've written an entire post about the pros and cons of each that you can check out here:

Traditional or Self-Publish: What’s Best for You?

Can I get a publishing deal without completing my manuscript?

The answer to this question depends on whether you’re shopping around fiction or nonfiction.

If you’re hoping to traditionally publish a work of fiction, you definitely need to complete the manuscript ahead of time. While there may be some exceptions, most publishers want to see a fully polished manuscript from you. A story is all in the telling of it, which is especially true for fiction. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but it’s how you write that idea that determines whether your story is sellable or not.

If you’d like to publish a nonfiction book, you don’t need to write the entire book first. Instead, you can write a book proposal (which we’ll discuss in more detail later).

How do I write a manuscript?

FAQs on Publishing Your First Book

Write your manuscript however you feel comfortable. There are all sorts of word-processing programs available, but the most popular are Google Docs and Scrivener. However, you can use paper and pen or even a typewriter if you prefer. The goal is to get whatever’s in your head onto paper (actual or digital).

Also, if you’re writing a novel, check out this advice: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Your First Novel.

When it comes time to format your manuscript for editing and later for shopping around to literary agents and publishers, follow these 10 tips:

  1. Choose a standard font, such as Times New Roman
  2. Use 12 point for your font size
  3. Choose the color “black” for your font
  4. Always opt for left-aligned, never centered or justified
  5. Double-space your manuscript
  6. Choose 8.5 x 11 white paper
  7. Leave a 1-inch margin
  8. Single space, not double space, after periods
  9. Number the pages of your book, beginning at chapter one
  10. Start each chapter on a new page

Do I need an agent before I get a publisher?

In most cases, the answer is yes.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “we don’t take unsolicited manuscripts” before. This is exactly what they’re referring to. Most publishers do not want to receive manuscripts they didn’t request.

Whether you want to get published by one of the Big Five or even if you’re hoping to work with a smaller publisher, you’ll likely need the representation of a literary agent first. Your agent will talk up your manuscript and get a publisher interested in working with you.

Literary agents play a pivotal role in traditional publishing. However, getting a deal with a literary agent isn’t easy. You need to find an agent who believes in your book and is willing to work tirelessly on your behalf. An agent doesn’t get paid until you get a deal. This incentivizes them to work diligently for you, but it also means that many agents won’t accept you unless they’re certain that your book will sell.

Your best bet is to research dozens, if not hundreds, of agents and then make a list of 50 that you’d like to query. Choose agents based on who and what genre of books they represent.

We’ve created a post to help you find success. Check it out here: The Do's and Don'ts of Approaching Literary Agents.

Editing before querying will show potential literary agents that you’re professional, serious, and ready.

How do I write a query letter?

A query letter is a one-page pitch that you write and send to a literary agent. You have approximately 300 words to convince them that your book is worth their effort.

Before writing a query letter, always check the submission guidelines. Tailor your query letter to each individual agent. While you may use a standard template, personalize it with details individual to that agent. For each, explain why you decided to query that particular agent. Did they represent an author you admire? Do they work with your genre? Include that tidbit in your query.

Of course, your query letter should also introduce your book and make a case for its future sales. Quickly explain why you think it will do well. Do you already have a fanbase? Is your topic relevant to current events?

Finally, remember that you’re not looking to get hired but instead you’re looking for a partner. You don’t need to beg an agent to work with you. Present your case and if it’s not the right fit, continue sending out queries until you find the right agent to represent you.

Here’s our advice on how to write a darn good query letter.

Is the querying process different for a nonfiction book?

Earlier, we discussed that you can pitch a nonfiction book before writing it. But that doesn’t mean that you only need to come up with an idea and a 1-2 page book proposal. Your book proposal gives an overview, but an agent who’s interested will also request an outline of your book and a sample chapter or two. This will give the agent a flavor of your writing style as well as the general direction of your book.

We’ve covered the process of pitching your nonfiction book in detail here. Check it out.

I just received my first offer of representation and I'm excited. Should I accept it?

Not so fast. While it is indeed exciting to get a representation offer, don’t immediately accept the first offer. This is especially true if you’ve sent out multiple queries and haven’t heard back from them all yet. You may have a chance of working with your dream agent, so don’t accept too quickly.

But do respond. Let the agent know that you’re weighing all offers and you’ll let them know within a specific timeframe.

What's the process like after I get a literary agent?

After you’ve signed with an agent, he or she will shop your manuscript around to editors at different publishing houses. Agents are generally well-connected (it’s a necessity of the job), so your agent will likely know who to approach.

Be patient. This process can take months. Editors are overwhelmed with manuscripts.

In addition to practicing patience, you should also continue writing. Work on new projects that you can hopefully publish next. The more books you write, the better position you’ll be to make a living as an author.

How much money will I make?

FAQs on Publishing Your First Book

We get this question a lot. Is it possible to strike it rich, or at least make a living wage, as an author?

Less than 10% of authors (both traditionally published and self-published) make $100,000+ a year. The majority of earning authors make between $5,000 to $10,000 a year. Also, many authors make zero.

One benefit of traditional publishing is that you can get an advance on your book. This advance may be $5,000 or more, depending on the terms of your agreement. That’s a sweet deal. However, it’s an advance which means that your book will need to sell a certain amount of copies before you can earn additional royalties. Don’t expect to earn any royalties until after that advance is paid back at your royalty percentage.

If your royalty is 10% of each book sale and your books sell for $20 each, you’ll need to sell 2,500 books before you can collect royalties. Of course, all of this can be worked out during negotiations.

Self-published authors tend to keep a higher percentage of the book sale (minus what you pay to print the book). However, self-published authors have to work harder to get noticed because they don’t have the built-in prestige and marketing power of a traditional publisher.

Your earning potential is only capped by your hustle. Most of it boils down to your ability to promote your book and create an engaged community who will refer others. Notice that it’s your ability, not your publisher’s. While your publisher will provide marketing assistance, your book’s success ultimately rests on your effort. You share your publisher’s marketing department with hundreds, if not thousands, of other authors. They can only give your book so much attention.

This is why it’s a good idea to hire your own marketing service. We discuss the benefits of hiring a publicist to market your book here. Check it out.

Do I need to take care of editing myself?

Absolutely. This is one of the most misunderstood parts of the publishing process.

You may think that you don’t need an editor if you’re planning to go the traditional publishing route. After all, your publisher has an editor, right?

While your publisher will have an editor, you also need to go through the editing process before querying traditional publishers or agents.

Your manuscript needs to be polished and ready to go before sending out your first query letter. The first person that you convince to buy your book is your literary agent. You won’t do it with a sloppy, disjointed manuscript that’s riddled with typos.

First, do what you can by editing on your own. These editing tips will help you DIY.

Then, submit your edited manuscript to us. We’ll provide a manuscript critique, which is a big-picture edit that looks for improvement opportunities, structural inconsistencies, and uneven characterization.

After you’ve made edits, we can help you with a comprehensive edit. This is a line edit that goes into every single sentence of your manuscript. We look for pacing and clarity and dissect every element to ensure that your story is riveting.

Finally, we offer a copyedit, which checks grammar, spelling, typos, punctuation, and syntax. This should always be the last type of edit, after you’ve written (and re-written) the strongest story possible.

Only after these four rounds of edits is your book ready to be pitched to agents. Typos or continuity errors can stop an agent in their tracks and prompt them to reject your query. Editing before querying will show potential agents that you’re professional, serious, and ready.

Learn more about our editing services here.

Additional Resources

Before you go, check out these related posts:

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