The Epic Post on Publishing

As Writer in Residence I’ve been asked a lot of questions about publishing. How to get published, how to self publish, how to get an agent, etc. So I wanted to do a catch all post that talks all about it.

There’s SO much to cover!  Since there are different forms of publication, let’s first talk about landing a traditional publisher, a deal with a big publisher like HarperCollins or Penguin Random House.

In its simplest form the usual route is:

Write book. Find an agent. Agent sends book to publisher. Publisher buys the book … or doesn’t. Win or lose, go write another book.

Here’s how this has worked for me (and I can only speak to three quarters of this, all of my traditionally published projects are out through various educational publishers. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you about the typical traditional process later this year!).

Getting an Agent

First off, what’s an agent? An agent is a professional with contacts and expertise in the publishing industry who will help you package and find a buyer for your book. You don’t pay them directly. They act on commission. Most will take 15% of whatever they sell the project for and 10% of anything that comes from foreign rights sales—forever. So be sure they are the right agent for you. It is a long term relationship.

Okay, now how do you find this mythical creature who will work diligently for nothing until your dream is achieved?

Let’s assume you’ve got a book (there’s a reason the title of this post is Step 2. Step 1 is write an amazing book!). If it’s a novel (fiction) then you need the whole book before going after an agent. If it’s non-fiction then you need a writing sample, and a chapter outline.

Every agent is different. They represent different genres, age groups, and types of books. They have different contacts. They may be really good at negotiating deals and not be at all interested in editing your book, or they may be editorial agents and like to really dig in. I’ve had both. I much prefer the latter. Agents know what sells and can guide you to a more commercial manuscript. My point is, you need to research who is the best fit for your book and the best fit for you. You can’t just email everyone; you need to be targeted.

It’s tough to know how an agent likes to work with their clients but you can determine their tastes by reading their website, seeing who and what they represent, and who they have sold books to in the past. All of this information is usually available. Many agents will also have Twitter feeds that you can follow or read (aka creep).

Once you have a list of agents you’d love to represent your work, you need to look at how they prefer to be approached. Almost all of them only take submissions by email. Most will want to start with what’s called a query letter. Some will want a query and a sample of your book (usually the first few pages or chapters), and a few will want the query and the full manuscript, often with a synopsis or outline. A synopsis is your retelling of the story as quickly as possible—ideally a page or two. An outline is a detailed chapter by chapter summary of the story. Synopses and outlines are probably the most painful things an author can possibly write. I’d rather lose an important finger.

In any case, so you send out your query and wait for a response. Writing queries is an art form and I’d recommend that you don’t query ALL your desired agents at once as you may decide your query needs to be rewritten—especially if all you hear back are crickets. Some agents want to clear their inbox so fast they’ll reject you within minutes. Others will never reply. Some will take half a year to get back. This is not a fun process. The reality is, agents receive thousands of queries every year. They don’t have the time to reply personally. So don’t take it personally (but of course you will).

Here’s what a reply looks like:

“Thanks for submitting ASSURED DESTRUCTION. Unfortunately, it is not right for our list. I wish you the very best of luck placing it with a good home.”

Of course, that’s not what you as the author really hear. You hear, ‘wow, this really sucked. I mean stunk up our office. See ya.’

The reality is, it’s a template reply. As an author you really need to prepare yourself for rejection and just keep writing, you will find a home for something, eventually. Perseverance and words on the page are the two key factors in winning as an author.

Sometimes though, sometimes you’re receive a request for more. The agent liked your query, hooray! Now, let’s hope they like the book. After you send them your book, what do you do?

Wait to hear back. How long will you wait? Somewhere between a day to six months or forever.

What’s the best antidote for this vomit inducing, email reflexively checking anxiety?

Write another even better book.

So what does a good query letter look like?

Here’s one that landed me an agent for a project:

Dear, Agent-I-Desperately-Want-To-Rep-My-Book,


Note: Don’t actually say this. They already know this. Do use their name, personalize as much of the query as possible. Agents like to feel special too. 🙂

I hope you will consider representing my young adult mystery, ASSURED DESTRUCTION, the first in a high concept series where 16 year old Jan Rose recreates the identities of criminals from recovered hard drives.


NOTE: 1st paragraph is, genre, title, and logline. You should normally include the word count here too.

I have published several graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada and produced an online mystery for Scholastic Canada, Australia and New Zealand that sprawls over its own fully functional social network. Although this is my debut young adult novel, I have written five adult novels all at various stages of publication with small presses. I am a member of SF Canada and ITW.


Note: 2nd paragraph is about me, trying to sound credible. This paragraph could go at the end instead. Short story credits count too. Join organizations, be an active author!

The pitch:

On all kids’ hard drives are pieces of themselves, which, if someone is prepared to take the time, can be pieced together to live again on the Shadownet as online identities. That someone is 16 year old Jan Rose.

Hobby? Art form? Sad, pathetic plea to garner friendship, even virtually? Sure, Jan is guilty on all counts. Maybe she’s even addicted to it. It’s an exploration. While picking apart the private lives of others, she learns a lot about herself. She’s not as strange as she thought. Everybody has a guy or girl she or he hasn’t talked to, but wants to. And—most important—everybody has a secret. The Shadownet’s hard drives are Jan’s. They’re stolen from her mother’s computer recycling business Assured Destruction. If the police knew, Jan’s mother could lose their sole livelihood.

When the real people behind Shadownet’s hard drives begin to have bad things happen to them, Jan realizes she is responsible—who is doing it and why, she doesn’t know, but as her life goes to pieces Jan must use all her tech savvy to bring the culprits to justice before she becomes the next target.

Note: The above is similar to the back of the book summary you see on published books. You want to give the agent a sense of the voice of the book and how it can be marketed. But the real goal is to get the agent to skip the rest of the query and start reading from Chapter 1. This part takes a lot of rewriting. Sit on your query for several days and rewrite it a good ten times. Then share it with other writers and see what they think. There are websites devoted to sharing and editing queries. Use them.

If this is of interest I’d be delighted to send you the complete manuscript (first chapter is copied below).

Note: Be sure to follow the agent’s requirements.

But that’s not the query that got me my current agent. My current wonderful, perfect, amazing agent (she could be reading …) I met at a conference in New York City. Yes, nothing beats face to face pitching. And that is exactly what I did there. I went to the conference with the express purpose of pitching and winning this agent.

You may be thinking—wait a second, I have to get up and speak publicly as a writer? Aren’t we supposed to be introverts?

Unfortunately, yes, I too am an introvert and don’t get excited about public speaking. But with practice I swear you can get over it. And besides, pitching actually makes your book better. If you can’t pitch it, you can’t market it, and it won’t sell.

Here’s how my winning pitch read. It’s for an adult novel called THE TERMINALS:

Dying for a reason is a good reason to live.

In a desert field hospital, Lieutenant Colonel Christine Kurzow takes the gun out of her mouth. She’s agreed to hold off on her suicide on condition that she be given a terminal mission—a mission to track the dead into the afterlife and retrieve information vital to the US government.

Under General F. Aaron’s command and with the help of the unit’s Rom psychic, the Terminals have stopped nuclear attacks, found lost submarines, and foiled bioterrorist plans, all from Purgatory—a secure unit in the NYC Veteran’s Hospital.

Hillar the Killer, the worst murderer the United States has known in a century, is gunned down at a roadside diner. It was a mistake. The location of eleven trapped children died with him. Christine’s first case is Hillar’s. She has three days to locate the kids. But the killer believed in an ancient sect of Gnosticism and only someone of the same beliefs can track him. While she awaits her own mission, Christine must convince a monk to die early…and trace the killer through Gnostic hell.

To save herself, Christine must overcome her haunting guilt for the deaths of her soldiers. But, even if she succeeds, this isn’t a job she can quit. The Terminals is a secret organization. It stays secret because its agents die.

Uplifting, I know. So I pitched her at the conference, she asked to see the first 50 pages, which I sent the following week, then she asked for the full manuscript, and then gave me a call. (When you get a call from an agent, you have an agent.) This is where you get to pump your fist silently in the air (or not so silently if you have a mute button). A short eight months or so following the pitch … she became my agent and has been for the last two years. We never sold that book I pitched, but in step 3—the submission process, I’ll tell you all about how that went and what I think happened.

But that’s Step 2. Nothing beats good writing, but you need to know how to market your book as well. Selling an agent is a good benchmark in determining if your book will sell to a broader market.

So let’s assume you wrote the book and now found an agent!

Step 3: Time to sell the book!

The first thing you need to know is that your agent is only human (hopefully). She may have fifty clients, all hoping that they’re her number one priority. But you’re likely not. An agent needs to eat so clients that have a stream of income pouring from them are going to come first. So lesson number one is: be patient, don’t over think long pauses in communication (easier said than done), and get ready for the long haul. This is just the beginning.

The second thing to realize is that an agent is only as good as the work they represent and so they take pride in ensuring that your work is fantastic. They are on your side.

If you have an editorial agent be prepared for at least one round of major edits. She’ll then want to read the rewrite. You’re looking at 3-6 months before submission to publishers.

A good agent will then prepare a list of editors they think are looking for this type of book. They’ll know their market and editorial tastes. This is usually a list of 5-7 editors at major publishing houses. The agent will then prepare a submission package which is a lot like a query but often a bit longer. You will HAVE to have a synopsis by now—these are used by the editor to sell the novel internally and it will be requested, so get to it. The manuscript will be so polished it shines. The package will go out and, if all is well, the vast majority of editors will accept the full submission of the manuscript.

Then you wait. I know right? Wait to hear from agents, wait to win the agent, wait to submit … just wait, once you have a publisher then you really have to wait!

You know the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat?’ The meaning has changed over the years. In its original form it wasn’t curiosity that did it, it was care or WORRY. Which makes sense, right? Curiosity is a good thing. Worry on the other hand, worry is the mind killer. Worry is the little-death that brings total obliteration. What’s the antidote to worry? Go write another book.

But you will hear a response, eventually.

There are three types of scenarios for your book. You may receive an answer super fast that they want it (very good sign). Or you may need to wait months for replies to trickle in. They all might be ‘nos’. Just saying. Then you’ll need to do another round of submissions and wait again. It may never sell. THE TERMINALS didn’t sell for me. The key reason—I think because you never really know—is because it didn’t really fit a specific genre. It was halfway to a thriller and halfway to a horror and didn’t quite fulfill the requirements of either. Here’s one example of a response:

“I think my issue with The Terminals at this point is that it, very admirably, tries to work itself into so many different genres and subgenres, and it exists as a thriller, suspense, fantasy, sci/fi, and even a bit of mordant, bleak comedy, but it doesn’t quite excel in any of those categories enough to elevate it to those fans.  It’s an extremely diverse buffet dinner of perfectly edible, often quite good food, but it doesn’t feel like the sort of meal I’d reach for when hungry.”  

ASSURED DESTRUCTION which also went on agented submission I pulled from the process during the first round because I received funding to do a transmedia campaign bigger than any advance could have been, but I also had had a few passes from editors who thought the shelf life of it was too short because of all the technology involved in the book. I took this to heart and took a route that would take it to market much faster. (More on this later when we talk about some of the advantages to self publishing.)

Or … you might get more than one ‘yes’ and your agent can create a bidding war between the two to get a really great deal. Big deals do happen. Deals in the millions but even a deal at the $100,000 mark is considered a big one. Anecdotally, the average advance for a first time author is somewhere around $5,000-10,000. But the range is varied.

Editors receive a whole lot of books to read and have very limited publishing spots for new authors so they have to LOVE your book to buy it. Actually not just them. If they love it, they’ll take it to an acquisitions committee usually comprised of another senior editor and the marketing group. Everyone needs to love it and think they can sell it. The numbers need to work. It’s a business.

There’s another option though and that’s what is called a Revise and Resubmit, or R&R. This is where an editor likes a book enough to make notes and offer a second chance if you decide to incorporate their comments into a new draft. This is a big compliment—why would they give you this chance if they didn’t think it was worthwhile? The trick here is to listen well and don’t go halfway. Rewrite your novel REALLY taking into account their comments and send it back in with your fingers crossed.

So say everyone loves the book and they give you a contract! Hooray, you’re a big deal. Part of a very select group of authors. Congratulations! Celebrate. Celebrate and get ready because now the real work begins. You’re a year minimum from publication still, maybe two, and there’s a lot to be done.

What steps will a publisher  take with your book? They are the same steps you should be taking if you’ve decided you want to self publish instead. That’s right, if you’re the publisher you have to do what they do.

Step 4—working with the publisher and the advantages of publishing traditionally.

So, you’ve got a book deal. Now comes the heavy lifting. This is for real. You won’t get a second chance, and you need to hit the ball out of the park.

Your publication date is set for September 19, 2017. Yes, you read that right, 2017, two years from now. ‘BUT THE BOOK’S DONE?!?’ you say. Well, sure, sort of, but first it’ll go through a battery of editing. Developmental editing to improve the story structure, perhaps trimming a character or two, or adding in a romance angle. Then comes line editing which will sharpen the pacing and voice of your work. Copy editing takes care of most of those grammatical mistakes, sets house style, and further tightens the prose. Finally proof readers will catch the last typos and formatters will typeset the book for print and ebook. The cover art will be completed and a full marketing plan developed. You can’t just send your book into the ether without a marketing plan! Professional reviewers need ARCs or Advance Review Copies at a minimum three months before you publish, and if you’re lucky, you’ll need to coordinate with several different countries.

Let’s work backwards so we all understand the timeline. You’ve got a publication date of Sept, 2017. Your contract was signed Sept 2015, your book first went on submission to publishers six months before that, in March 2015, your agent signed you six months before that, in Sept 2014, but you started querying agents nine months earlier until you found the right one, and it took a year to get your book written for an idea you got in September 2012—Five years before publication.

September 2012—Book Idea

January 2013—Start book

January 2014—It’s done!

September 2014—I have an agent!

March 2015—It’s on submission.

Sept 2015—I’m gonna get published!

Sept 2017—Okay, now I’m gonna get published.

Can you see why it’s so important to keep writing? By the time you hit 2017 you should have another five books ready to go.

Now in case you think writing is still a get rich quick scheme … let’s look at the moula.

September 2012—No money

January 2013—No money

January 2014—No money

September 2014—No money

March 2015—No money

Sept 2015—Money!!

Sept 2017—Money!!

Post Sept 2017—Maybe more money …

You won’t see any cheques from anyone until you sign the contract with your publisher, but a typical contract will divide what’s called your ‘Advance’ into three stages. An Advance is an advance payment against the prospect of future royalties. Let’s assume your advance is $10,000. Not bad right? Well, you get a third to half of that upon signing the contract. Let’s say a third: $3,333. Of which your agent takes her well-deserved 15% or $500. You will receive the second payment of $2,833 once your editor has a manuscript they like, and the third payment will be due when the book is signed off as done.

If you sell enough books, then you can earn more money still. But first you have to pay back the value of the advance in the form of book sales. If your contractual royalty is say 10% of the net value received for your paperbacks (often not this high) and 25% on ebook, then you’re going to have to sell some 10,000 copies before you see more money. Many books never earn out. You really want yours to. Why? Because you want to publish more books, right?

You as the author are also a sales person. Actually, you’re the most important sales person. So if you’re so important, why use a publisher? Well, lots of reasons. Many authors don’t have the wherewithal to do all that editing, cover art, marketing, etc. No authors have the store distribution and access to the library market. They don’t have catalogues. They’re not established brands.

Even more important though is that sales of your actual books are only (or less than) half of the potential of the book. There are audio rights, foreign sales, and movie rights to be sold as well, and these can be substantial. Books can be staged, starting with a hardcover edition to maximize buzz and sales of the book. And publishers have access to many more outlets for professional reviews and awards than your typical self publisher.

So more money, more distribution, a huge support group of professionals who have hung their hats on your book’s success. Why do people self publish then? There are some good reasons for that too.

Before I go on to that though, I want to mention one thing. You are only a debut author once. Debut authors published traditionally get a lot of attention. There are special awards for them, and they are noticed by reviewers searching for the next big thing. Debut authors who self publish receive the opposite of established self published authors. They receive absolutely no attention. So, don’t throw away your debut lightly. It only happens once.

The Pros of Self Publishing

Writing a book is hard. Finding an agent is hard. Finding a publisher is hard. Traditional publishing is hard. And so is self publishing.

Actually the act of self publishing is easy. But the decision to self publish is big. It should be as hard fought as any traditional publishing contract. And self published WELL, that’s hard.

Give me any manuscript and within 30 minutes I can have it set up. Within 24 hours it will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Google, Chapters, and iTunes. I might spend $5 and pay someone on Fiverr to create a decent cover for it. You can set the price. Let the money roll in … right? Nope.

This is not how it works.

This week we’ll talk self publishing.

Although there are many different ways to publish there should be one thing that they all have in common—your manuscript should be awesome.

Traditional publishers follow a distinct process in the preparation of a manuscript. Use it. Polish your manuscript as best you can. Use friends and family, a writers critique group, workshop the chapters. Then hire or find someone willing to do a developmental edit for you. Then have someone to a line edit. Then a copy edit. Then a proofing. Have the manuscript professionally typeset or learn to do it yourself (it’s actually not that hard but it does take time).

Don’t skimp on the cover. There are professional cover artists that cost thousands. And there are others that cost hundreds. You can find cheap ones on Fiverr, or maybe someone who offers templates (but this may mean that many authors will have the same cover art as you do). This is before we talk about marketing. Distribution for ebooks is easy. You can upload them directly in most cases, in others you can use Smashwords which is a platform that will push your book out to various vendors (for a % royalty).

Marketing is a whole other post, but it is the hardest part. There are almost a million English language books published every year. A MILLION! There are only 30 million people in all of Canada! And the reading population is roughly 20% of that. The real challenge is having your novel discovered.

The decision to go the traditional route is a lot like the decision to take investment in a company. I used to work in Venture Capital and private companies would come to me looking for money. The decision to take that money came with a lot of negatives. Venture Capitalists like publishers demand a lot of rights for decision making. But they also come with money, and know how, and partners.

As a self publisher you are, for the most part, limiting yourself to ebook sales. These are roughly a quarter of your potential market (audio books, hardcover, paperback, screen rights). But with traditional publishing you are giving up 80% of your potential royalties on every sale, perhaps a little more or less depending on the publisher and the format. But you’re buying into the theory that they can give you a smaller piece of a much bigger pie.

Let’s assume your book is just as good as anything a major publisher would produce. You’ve taken it through a whole series of pro level editing. Your book cover was designed by the same artist doing book covers for the Big 6 publishers. There are reasons why this book wasn’t picked up: Market saturation, concerns over shelf life, lack of a clear genre fit, all good business decisions. Or maybe you just want to do it yourself for another reason.

So what are the advantages to Self Publishing?

Velocity—You can publish as many books as you want as fast as you want. Remember how long it took from start to finish to publish traditionally? Five years. Many authors are not willing to wait that long. Many more fear that someone will publish a competitive book or trends will change before their book comes out. The most successful self publishers publish three or more books a year. There are marketing benefits to velocity as well.

Control—You may still own the copyright when you publish traditionally, but the book is now part of a team’s and you don’t have say over everything, from a changeable publication date, to edits you may disagree with, to the cover, and pricing. You have to be prepared to work well with others.

Motivation—This isn’t one many people think of, but consider this. Let’s assume you have an ebook that sells for $8.00. Under a traditional model you get $0.94 of that (Amazon takes 45% of list price from publishers, factoring in a 25% ebook royalty less 15% for your agent you’re left with $0.94). If you self publish you would receive 70% of Amazon’s list price or $5.60. And you can sell that same book for $2.99 and receive $2.08. At the lower price point it gives you a marketing advantage over traditionally published works. Why is this all important to motivation? Well if you’re spending equal amounts of time online you’re likely to have more incentive to sell a book where you make two dollars rather than one, right? And if you’re employing other strategies like social media and mailing list advertising then you have a greater likelihood of earning enough on sales to pay for the cost of advertising if you self publish. It’s just math and human nature.

We’ve already considered the advantages of traditional publishing but there are good reasons to self publish too, particularly if you write genre romance, which has a thriving ebook market. Books for children and middle grade (9-12 year olds) are very difficult to self publish successfully because the ebook market for these niches is much smaller and tough to reach no matter how motivated you are!

I hope this series provided something of a balanced view. If you have any questions, fire away!

Categories:   Writing Tips