Ten Things You Should Know If You Want To Publish A Book

It seems like the number of people who dream of becoming a published author has skyrocketed over the last few years. Of course, it might be the company I keep, but I don’t really think so. I have found for the most part, both in one-on-one conversations and group settings alike, that people have very different ideas about whether their dream of getting published is attainable, how much work is involved in doing so, and all kinds of details in between.

I am often asked broad questions like
“How did you get your book published?”
“How did you find your publisher?”

I am also asked more specific questions like
“How did your blog lead to your book getting published?”
“Aren’t you SO RELIEVED that you’re done writing your book?”

I decided to address some things in this post that people don’t always know to think about when attempting to become a published author the traditional way (as opposed to self-publishing or creating an e-book). Let me be clear that though I don’t consider myself an expert on the publishing industry, I’m certain I know enough to be helpful. I have published two books, and getting them from my brain into the hands of the public involved two completely different experiences. I have several friends who are published authors, and I researched the publishing process extensively, because when I want to accomplish something, I do as much research as possible to help myself get ahead. Though everyone’s publishing journey is unique, here are ten things you should know, regardless of your path:

1. If you think that publishing a book will make you rich, you are most likely mistaken. The fact of the matter is, with all of the books that get published in today’s world, it’s a rarity to be able to retire off of a bestseller or two (or three). We can’t all be James Patterson, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or even the Hollywood celebrity of the moment (don’t get me started on that). The percentage of a book’s retail price that a typical author brings home is much lower than the general public seems to think it is. My published friends and I make a great deal more money on articles we write for print magazines, websites, and other clients than on our books. If I were to take it a step further and calculate how much money I make per hour on a magazine article as compared with an hourly wage on my books, well, I don’t even want to go there. My friend John Cave Osborne, author of Tales From The Trips: How Three Babies Turned Our Lives Upside Down, considers that book to be a stepping stone to other, better-paid projects. He currently writes for online sites Babble, TLC, Aiming Low, and the GoodMenProject.

2. Be ready for rejections. Being rejected is a part of writing. Though there are probably a few authors out there who dazzled an agent or a publisher on the first try, the vast majority of us have had to grow tougher skin because we were told “no” over and over again. And then again. And many times, again. Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” was rejected sixty timesSIXTY TIMES!–before the sixty-first person to look at it, an agent named Susan Ramer, put her faith in the manuscript. The rest is bestselling history. You may get rejected three times, twenty times, or even sixty times, but if you truly believe in your book, you can’t give up.

3. Don’t underestimate the pitch. First of all, you don’t just pitch your book to anybody. Imagine literally pitching blindly. What are the odds that the baseball will get to the spot you want it to? You have to finely tune your options, to try and “match” your book with an agent or publisher. When searching for a publisher, go to the local library or your favorite bookstore (okay, or an online bookseller) and take a look at the section where your book, if published, would be located. Write down which publishers you find, and start there. Searching for an agent is best done online; search for “literary agent for…” with the genre into which your book falls. Once you figure out who you’ll be pitching, you can usually find query and proposal guidelines on their websites. I can’t emphasize enough that if you don’t pay attention to what they want, you might as well not bother. If specific guidelines aren’t posted, you can find lots of different websites that give step-by-step instructions on how to put together a book query and proposal. Don’t take this lightly: a query and proposal are your “way in”, if you can grab their attention and make them want to work with you.

4. Know your competition. Hopefully you know something about the other books that will share shelf space with yours, and hopefully you learned about them before you went to all the trouble of writing your entire manuscript. Not only do you want to publish a book that is unique but your potential agents and publishers will also want to know who your book would be competing against for the readers’ attention. You should include this information in your proposal.

5. If you don’t know much about marketing a book, start learning. These days, large publishers typically don’t spend the big bucks on author tours and other promotions like they used to. (Of course, there are exceptions.) Small publishers never really did much of that in the first place. Contrary to what many people think, the vast majority of authors out there are responsible for their own marketing. Though anyone would want a publisher to foot the bill for advertising and come up with all of the creative ideas needed to sell books, it doesn’t work that way. My friend Dawn Meehan was lucky during the publication of her first book, Because I Said So (And Other Tales From a Less-Than-Perfect Parent) because her publishing house sent her on a book tour and took care of most of the marketing. When the book was recently republished by another house, Dawn asked what they had in mind for marketing. Their answer? “You tell us!” Your marketing plan should be loud and clear towards the end of your proposal.

6. When you finish writing the book, the work has only begun. The publishing experience is not for the weak-at-heart. When told everyone I knew that I finally completed my manuscript, their response was something along the lines of “Wow, you’re done!” Untrue. My writing was complete, but the laundry list of tasks still to be completed was overwhelming at times. There’s lots of work to be done hand-in-hand with the publisher, and then there’s all of that marketing I mentioned in number five. Sending press releases, setting up book signings, and creating websites are only the tip of the iceberg. You can count on being tied up for approximately one year (or more!) after your book is published, trying to get the word out. As with anything else in life, the more effort you put in, the more success you get out of it.

7. Edit, edit, edit, and when you’re finished, edit again. Let’s face it; if I reread this post next week and discover that I made a spelling or grammatical error, I can come back and change it. If I find an error in my 250+ page book as I’m holding a bound copy in my hands, I cannot. My publisher provided an editor for my most recent book, but even after she was finished marking up my manuscript, my sister and I spent countless hours editing from start to finish multiple times. We stared at it until our eyes were practically bleeding, and even on the fourth pass we still found a few items that needed correcting. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I believe my book is as close to perfect, grammar- and spelling-wise, as it could possibly be, and even if someone were to tell me that they found an error, I know that I did everything I possibly could and I’d make myself “let it go”.

8. Be prepared for negative feedback. Remember all of those agent and publisher rejections I wrote about in number two? That sort of professionally short and sweet “No thanks” is nothing compared to what you might get from critics after publication, both from people who have actually read the book and from those who judge it by its cover. When my first book was reviewed on a local website, someone left a disturbing tirade about the cover and made some very personal attacks. At the time it was very upsetting, of course, but I had to absorb the fact that I couldn’t control those kinds of situations and ended up letting it go. Publishing a book is a little like preparing a child for college: you do your best to nurture it while it’s under your care, but at a certain point it’s time to send it into the world and hope for the best.

9. Expect “success” to take a while; it doesn’t happen overnight. Unless you are already a bestselling author with an army of fans chomping at the bit to read your next masterpiece or you’re working on a book about a topic that is in the news and your publisher is pushing it into the public eye while it’s hot, it is likely that it will take a while to make your book a household name. Building momentum can take months, and sometimes longer. Especially if you’re doing your own marketing, getting the news of your book’s publication out there is a monumental task. Since word of mouth is the best form of advertising, plan to get heavily involved in social media: sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and others will help you get your message (“Buy my book!”) to more people in less time. It’s not easy to market a book, and you may have to focus on yours during most of your waking hours for longer than your initial plans indicate.

10. You must be a good writer to get a book published. With the exception of some Hollywood celebrity writers and other newsmakers whose names can sell books (again, don’t get me started), the majority of authors who publish via traditional routes are good writers. That qualification being the best path to publication seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Even though the frequency of blog-to-book deals might make one think maintaining a blog is necessary when trying to get a book published (think bloggers like the Pioneer Woman and Scary Mommy, who just announced her upcoming book), it isn’t. Most bloggers who become authors (including the two I just mentioned!) are good writers. I actually started my blog to make sure I was writing daily. My books are not a direct extension of my blog. When people ask me how my blog led to my books’ publication, I tell them that it didn’t, except that the practice made me a better writer. (My blog was also a “plus” when it came to building my marketing plan.) Meehan got her book deal when she listed a pack of Pokemon cards on eBay and included a hilariously written description. If you have above-average writing skills, the ability to build a thorough and impressive proposal, great ideas for marketing the finished product, and superhuman tenacity, YOU CAN PUBLISH A BOOK.

So what are you waiting for? Go! Write!


  • Heather

    This is an excellent resource for those who are wanting to “think” about writing a book, or those who ARE writing a book! Thanks for sharing!

  • Lisa @ Oh Boy Oh Boy Oh Boy

    does being a good writer need to. include Being good at spellinggramMar and punctuation?

    Great post. I however don’t think I have the attention span to write a children’s story let alone a full book. This is why blogging is good for me. ADHD for writers! 🙂

  • KYouell

    So, I’m no great writer because here’s my story: I convinced my husband to be in charge of the kids for an hour and wrote a children’s book. (This was easily 2 years ago and I still haven’t drawn the pictures.) I’m not thinking that anyone that doesn’t actually know my daughter will want to read, “Emily-No” so I’m wondering where one finds a self-publisher that will do board books. Professor Google was not helpful so I’ve been asking around. If you have any clue I’d appreciate your hint, but otherwise feel free to ignore me & my ignorance. 🙂

    • Melisa

      haha, I’m not going to ignore you! 🙂
      Okay, so I just did my own search and discovered that you were searching for the wrong terms (I think). I searched for “custom board books” (leaving any reference to self publishing out of the search) and immediately came up with a few companies that will do it for you. I won’t name any here because I know nothing about any of them, but they’re out there! 🙂 Good luck with it! (I love that you want to create it for your daughter.)

      • KYouell

        1) You are my hero as “self publish” was in all my searches.
        2) Hahahahaha! I only made that for my daughter as in, if I write it down it will be a way to purge my inappropriate feelings of wanting to smack her. I think of it more as I made it for her older brother, but you wouldn’t know that because you haven’t read it; it’s pretty self-evident. I could tell you the rest of the story, but um, then maybe you wouldn’t buy it?
        3) “You are my hero” means I’ve added you to my reader.

  • Dawn Meehan

    Great tips, Melissa! I love when people assume I’m all rich now because I’ve had a couple books published. It doesn’t totally work that way. And yep, you have to be responsible for promoting your book.