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How to Publish a Book

Understanding how to publish a book is easy. The difficulty arises in first writing a manuscript worthy of publication, and in then getting that ms. into the right hands. Still, when new writers ask about publishing they usually have specific questions in mind, so I've tried to cover those below.

How Many Pages Should My Novel Be?

You can increase your chances of acceptance by editing your work to an appropriate length, usually between 75,000 words and 120,000 words, with 90,000 words being about average. However, for every rule there is an exception. My first novel, Burning Ground, was only 65,000 words when my agent first sold it to HarperCollins Canada.

Do I Need an Agent?

You will have better luck publishing your book if you have an agent. Some authors approach publishers on their own with success, but a literary agent has a personal relationship with numerous editors at publishing houses and will know which ones to approach with your particular story. An agent can also recommend judicious changes to your manuscript to make it more saleable. In addition, agents can often strike a better deal for you, sometimes negotiating a figure far greater than their 15% commission. They know what publishers have bought recently and for how much. As writers, we often don't know if an offer is reasonable or not. An agent also sells foreign rights to your book. This would be difficult to do yourself and will increase your overall revenue significantly. If you do not use an agent, you will want your publisher to buy world rights to your novel and to commit to selling those rights.

How Do I Know if My Novel is Ready for Publication?

Knowing how to publish a book will not help you if your manuscript is not ready. You will seldom get a second chance with an agent or publisher. An agent knows how to publish, but a book hastily prepared wastes everyone's time and marks you as unprofessional.

Before you attempt to publish a book, make certain the story is original and technically strong. Get knowledgeable feedback. Publishers will sometimes work with an author to strengthen characterization or plot points, if the story is sufficiently original and memorable, but you need to know whether it is either before you approach anyone with it. Have you taken the novel to a workshop for feedback? Have you had a manuscript evaluation? Doing one or the other is an important first step. A wonderful resource for finding writing workshops is See the section Writers Conferences and Workshops.

How Can I Get an Edge on the Competition?

Having previous publication credits always helps, as does winning a legitimate and well-known writing contest. The Writers' Market publication has a section for finding contests, both in the book and on their website, and also has information on how to publish. A book publisher likes you to have a fan base—people already interested in your work, so consider getting involved with your local writers' guild for networking and keeping abreast of markets and competitions. If your work is strong enough, authors who mentor, instruct, or lead workshops may offer to put in a good word with their agents. I've done this in the past, with mixed results. My agent accepted a couple of writers as clients and rejected others I thought deserved representation.

How do I Approach an Agent on My Own?

Agents almost always have submission guidelines on their web sites. Follow these guidelines carefully. If the agent asks for one sample chapter, do not send two, or worse, the entire ms. until it is requested. If the agent is not interested, for whatever reason, you will receive a kindly worded rejection letter, perhaps encouraging you to keep writing.

Do NOT read this as anything more than the polite rejection it is, and NEVER respond to such a letter asking why the agent rejected you. This will mark you as unprofessional and you will be remembered as someone the agent wishes to avoid. If the agency wants to hear from you again, the letter will have a line that reads, "please feel free to contact me again when..."

What Happens After I Find an Agent?

When an agent accepts you as a client, he or she will often provide suggestions for improving the story or the title. Remember, the agent is the expert on how to publish a book, not you. Later, you can request a second opinion from the publisher's editor, but reject the agent's advice now, and you may never meet that editor.

When your agent deems your ms. ready, he will send it first to editors he knows personally. He may talk it up over lunch, and interested editors will either read the ms. themselves or have their assistants read it. Your agent may or may not keep you informed of rejections, but you may ask for an update, and at that time the agent will tell you how the ms. is being received.

If your book meets with enthusiasm, the editor may make a verbal offer to the agent, who will contact you immediately to explain the terms the publisher has in mind and advise you whether to accept, ask for a better offer, or wait for interest from other publishers.

Again, knowing how to publish a book is the least of your worries. Much more important is creating the best, most original story of which you are capable. Also, there is much more to publishing than what I've captured here. For a more in-depth discussion of how to publish a book, click here.

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