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Understanding how to publish a book doesn't mean it will actually get published, but some useful guidelines may help. I'm often asked specific questions about this, so I've covered those below.
Increase your chances of acceptance by editing your novel to an appropriate length. That's usually between 75,000 and 120,000 words, with 90,000 being about average. My first novel, Burning Ground, was only 65,000 words when my agent first sold it to HarperCollins Canada.
You will have better luck publishing your book if you have an agent.
Some authors approach publishers on their own with success—Anita Rau Badami is a Canadian author who did well approaching publishers on her own.
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 will often strike a better deal for you, sometimes negotiating a figure that well exceeds what you would get yourself, even after 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.
Knowing how to publish a book will not help you if your manuscript is unready. A book hastily prepared wastes everyone's time and marks you as unprofessional.
Before you attempt to publish your book, get knowledgeable feedback. Publishers will sometimes work with an author to strengthen characterization or plot points, as long as the story is sufficiently original and memorable, but you need to be certain it is before you approach anyone with it.
Have you taken the novel to a workshop or conference 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 Shawguides.com. See the section Writers Conferences and Workshops.
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.
A book publisher also likes you to have an audience—people already interested in your work—co-workers, friends, followers on your blog, agencies you've volunteered with—so consider getting involved with your local writers' guild for networking.
Keep 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, and my agent always took the time to review the manuscripts, occasionally with positive results.
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., unless it is requested. If the agent isn't interested, for whatever reason, you'll 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..."
When an agent accepts you as a client, he or she will usually 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'll send it first to editors he knows personally, the ones he believes may have an interest in it. He'll likely 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 whether to accept, ask for a better offer, or wait for interest from other publishers.
Yay! Any of those would be a great result, and that still happens. It happened to me. But knowing how to publish a book is the least of your worries. First, you must create the best, most original story of which you are capable.
Don't rush it.