One of the questions I see a lot is writers wondering whether or not their book will get published.
I am in a lot of online writing groups where writers get to vent their quandaries, celebrate their successes, puzzle out plot points, and share inspiration. As I watch these forums, I find there are trends in questions from time to time. And the one that is occurring the most, in various forms, is “will my story be published?”
I am here to address that.
The simple yet complex answer is down to ID: It Depends.
The unfortunate thing is that writing a book and publishing a book are two different things. This is the reason why I harp on so much about knowing your “why,” as in, knowing why it is you want to write a book. When you know this, then you can discover your goal for the book, which determines how you write it, and what you write about.
Reasons to Write a Book
There are many reasons people write a book, and that can range from simply wondering if they can get from beginning to end, all the way to wanting to be an influential literary figure who is discussed in English classes through future generations.
Here are just a few—a few—reasons people write books.
- To see if they can
- To practice writing their next book
- Because they have a story in them they just have to get out
- Because it can potentially make money
- It will advertise their business
- It will make the writer more visible for their other endeavors
- The writer wants to be the next [Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Meyer, Anne Rice, Judy Blume, Alice Hoffman, etc.], and reach the level of fame that means everyone knows who they are and there are shows and movies made from their books
- The writer wants to be the next [Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, Alan Moore, Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, etc.] and be influential literary deities studied in universities over the next century—as a bare minimum.
- The writer just wants to create something for their family and close friends to enjoy.
All of these mean different avenues and approaches to writing as well as different publishing goals.
If your goal is to make a living first and foremost, then knowing the market is what you need to do and write to that. What that means is keeping your finger to the pulse and either writing so quickly that you can produce and publish enough books that fit in with current trends that people instantly pick them up, or being able to predict the way trends are going and write to that and get ahead of the game. This is just one example of how your “why” can influence what and how you write.
Different Publishing Avenues
To directly address the questions of will a book be published, a writer needs to look at the different publishing avenues that a writer can pursue that fit in with their why.
Here are a few different ways an author can publish:
- Traditional Publishing. This means using a publishing house that is already established as a publishing house and does not expect money from you if they accept your novel. Traditional publishing may or may not require an agent for submission, will require you to adhere to their guidelines, and are looking at your book as a marketable product rather than as a piece in and of itself. This is why many writers, when they’re rejected from one publishing house, may get compliments from the publisher along the lines of “This is a great book, but it isn’t what we’re looking for right now.” They are essentially looking at what is trending and selling in the market, and calculating the likelihood that your book will be sold based on that market. If accepted, your manuscript will be invested in by the publishing house, from editors to cover design to marketing.
- Self-Publishing. The appeal of self-publishing for many authors can range from the lack of gatekeeping found in traditional publishing, to more control over your finished book, to a difference in royalties. If you are writing books to publish to make a living, self-publishing might be the choice for you, since you get around 75% of royalties when you say publish through Amazon, vs. 5-10% when you publish through a traditional publisher. Likewise, you control how fast or slow your content is published. If you want a book released every two weeks, you can make it happen. The downfall of this method of publishing is that it is a lot of a work. You are your own publishing house, essentially, which means you are the one paying for cover design (and trust me, you want to hire someone for that unless you have a graphic design background), editing, and marketing. The upfront cost can be intense, though there are plenty of writing groups out there whose main objectives are to help writers self-publish.
- Vanity Publishing. This form of publishing gets a lot of flack, though unnecessarily, in my opinion. This is a form of publishing that works for some people, but not for all. It is somewhat of a hybrid of traditional and self-publishing. Vanity publishers will extend the invitation for a writer to submit their work to them, and they will read it. I haven’t heard of anyone being rejected from these publishers, though it might happen. they then will offer the writer a publishing package, in which they do all the work of finding the right cover, the right editor, and put forward the marketing, though the writer is expected to cover those costs. At the low range, it can cost a grand to several grand, depending on the package the writer purchases, as well as the publisher. The benefit of this is that the publisher will have talented staff working on the writer’s book, and it takes away from the work the writer would have to do if they were self-publishing. It also removes the gate-keeping element while still producing a professional-looking end-product. The downfall is that there can be a stigma that surrounds publishing this way, usually found among other writers.
- Hybrid Publishing. Hybrid publishing is often used synonymously with vanity publishing, though there are differences, though they are slight.I won’t lie, this isn’t something I’m terribly confident in. However, according to Reedsy, “the ideal hybrid publisher will be selective when it comes to the authors they work with, and will truly want to shape the market the books take on.” I highly recommend reading the rest of this post for more information: Hybrid Publishers: What Are They and Should You TRUST Them?
“Will My Book Be Published?”
It depends. It depends on what you want for your book and the method of publishing you go for. Furthermore, it depends on the publishers you submit to, if traditional publishing is your goal.
It gets even more complicated: it depends on how you present your submission.
Earlier I mentioned gatekeeping. What this means is that those who are in a position of power to accept or decline a submission are essentially the gatekeepers of literature for their publishing house, and thus to the public. They decide what is quality enough or marketable enough that it can be invested in. There are many problems with this, including those that bleed into social issues such as a lack of diversity in publishing and literature (specifically looking at BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled voices in the literary world).
While the publishing house might be looking for something specific and your book might meet those qualities, it could depend on who it is that receives your piece and their own personal decision as to whether it is worth investing in. Publishing houses tend to be, or want to be, well-oiled machines, but at the end of the day, dealing with literature is dealing with art, and art is a human aspect. Thus, the human element must be considered, which differs from one human to the next.
Likewise, how you submit your piece can mean the difference between a published piece or not. Your story might be the next great [British, American, Canadian, European, etc.] novel, but if you have no idea how to write a cover letter and sell not only your novel, but yourself on a single side of a sheet of paper, it might not even get read by the publishing house. This is where having an agent can be helpful, though you still need to be able to sell your book to your agent beforehand.
Speaking of formatting, another important thing to consider is having your book as edited and polished as possible before you submit for publication. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: this includes self-publishing. Hiring an editor for this task is essential. Not asking your family member to do it, but hiring a non-biased, professional editor. There are readers and publisher who won’t get passed typos and organizational mistakes of a manuscript.
Have I made this seem impossible yet? I’m sorry. It’s not. It is absolutely possible to get published.
What You Can Do
This isn’t a dire impossibility. Writers are getting published every day, or their choosing to self-publish. And there are ways you can hone success for your hard work. Here are a few tips.
If you are writing a book to be published to the wider world, regardless of what method of publication you choose, it is essential that once your piece is written, you treat it like a professional business product. Get yourself in the mindset that this is what will represent you, and you are going onto Shark Tank, or whatever big-league television program where you only deal with CEO professionals who only see [dollar, pound, euro, etc.] signs.
I know, this might not be the advice you want to hear. After all, writing is an art. You are an artist. I hear you, I understand, and I’m there with you. But after your art piece is created? You’re a businessperson, and the hard-to-swallow Truth pill is that once your art is created, it is a product.
So what does this mean? This means that you need to look at what your publishers want and figure out how to market your book to them.
No matter where you’re at in your writing stage, there are a few things you can start doing now:
- Make note of the books that are similar in tone/genre/message/style to yours, and who is publishing them, and when.
- Make a list of your ideal publishing companies you’d like to work with
- Begin looking at what they are looking for in books, and whether they require agents. Likewise, look at when they are open for submissions. An excellent resource for this is The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is updated every year with publishers and agents, providing details as to when submissions are accepted as well as what they look for.
- Repeat steps 1-3, though instead of looking at publishers, look at representing agents. This isn’t necessary. Not everyone wants an agent, and not all publishers require one.
- Start practicing writing cover letters and reach out to those in writing groups for feedback. In many Facebook writing groups there are agents and editors who might be willing to offer critique, as well as other experienced and published writers.
The Most Important Thing
While the submission and publishing process can be daunting, don’t get discouraged. When you submit and get rejected (and you will get rejected at least once by a publisher. All the greats do), do not be discouraged. And if you self-publish a book and it doesn’t sell, do not be discouraged.
When you put yourself out there and don’t get the result you want, it can feel hard to continue on. But the important thing to know is that it’s not necessarily down to your piece, but how your piece was presented or marketed, or even what the general trend in literature is at that moment.
Here are authors who you likely know, and how long it took them to first get published.
- Stephen King – Carrie – rejected 30 times
- Dr. Seuss – rejected 15 times
- Richard Adams – Watership Down – rejected 26 times
- James Joyce – Dubliners – rejected 22 times
- Frank Herbert – Dune – rejected 23 times
- Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen – Chicken Soup for the Soul – rejected 144 times
- Herman Melville – Moby Dick – rejected 4 times
- George Orwell – Animal Farm – rejected 4 times
- Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – rejected 121 times
- William Golding – Lord of the Flies – rejected 21 times
- Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections before his first piece was published
- Kathrin Stockett – The Help – rejected 60 times
- Samuel Beckett – Murphy – rejected 40 times
- James Patterson – The Thomas Berryman Number – rejected 31 times
- John Grisham – A Time to Kill – rejected 28 times
- L. M. Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables – rejected 5 times
- Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair – rejected 76 times
- Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time – rejected 26 times
- Joseph Heller – Catch 22 – rejected 22 times (seems fitting, right? 22 and 22…I’ll show myself out)
- William Golding – Lord of the Flies – rejected 21 times
- Anne Frank – The Diary of Anne Frank – rejected 15 times
Just to name a few. There are countless more famous authors not mentioned above, such as Beatrix Potter who was rejected enough that she took it upon herself to self-publish The Tales of Peter Rabbit. Likewise, Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, Agatha Christie, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Richard Bach, and so many more were rejected before they went on to take their places in literary history.
So…Will You get Published?
I’m sorry I can’t give a better answer than that. But at the end of the day, it depends on a lot of factors:
- Your goals for your book
- The avenue you take
- The market
- The publisher
- The agent
- The timing
- Your genre
- Your presentation of your book
- Your persistence
At the end of the day, it depends on the investment you want to put into your book, both monetarily and financially. Writing books to get rich or make a living, unless you’re a ghost writer, is a pretty touch way to go, and the reality of it is that it’s a low likelihood of making a living. It is not impossible, by any means, but it is a lot of work, no matter what avenue to publication you take.
However, if you are writing for the love of writing, and the intrigue of craft and revision and writing, then it’s worth it. You’ll be spending time doing what your soul is calling you to do, and that’s why you do it.
This is a big topic, and there is a lot to think about. In considering publication, you’re making the switch from artist to businessperson. And as a result, it’s going to take a lot of consideration and research. As a result, your homework comes in multiple parts.
Homework Part 1
The first part of your homework involves some introspection. I would recommend a journal for this exercise.
- Spend some time thinking about why you are writing
- Using your why as a focal point, begin exploring what you want to do with your writing when you’ve finished it. What is your ultimate goal?
- Be honest with yourself and ask how much energy you are willing to put into this goal. If it’s everything you’ve got, explore that. Ask yourself what that entails. If it’s not very much, ask what you can do with that “not very much” energy, and see if you’re willing to expand it and how, or what you can accomplish with that energy. There are no wrong answers here. This is an exploration of you, in this moment, in this situation, right now. This can always change if you don’t like your answers.
- Begin researching different publishing avenues. If you know for a fact you want to go the traditional publisher route, then look into publishing houses and begin researching what it will take to be represented by them.
Homework Part 2
That’s the first part of your homework. The next part of your homework will be on-going. As you read for the fun and enjoyment of it, begin paying attention to your favorite books and who:
- Published them
- What agents represent them
- Their editors
A lot of this information can be found in the acknowledgements at the beginning or back of the book.
Homework Part 3
This is the least fun part of your homework. I’m sorry, but it will pay off.
Begin practicing writing cover letters. There are actually multiple steps to this (because I love giving you lists).
- Refer to your list above of publishers and agents you’d like to work with. Hopefully you have a list of at least five, in any combination. Look at what they require for submissions.
- Consider literally anything you’ve written, or are thinking about writing, regardless of what you want to do with it. It could be a poem you wrote in the second grade, a short story you wrote because you were pissed off and ended with you just scribbling across the page, or the novel idea you’ve been kicking around. Anything.
- Create a mock submission to each of the publishers/agents on your list for any of your pieces or ideas. Do this multiple times. Get comfortable with it. Get used to collecting and writing and organizing your ideas/stories/poems in the ways they require, and write a cover letter for every one of them.
- If you create something you like (regarding your cover letters), then start sharing them in writing groups or with trusted people who know what to look for in this situation. Remember, too, that a cover letter for a piece of literature is not the same as a cover letter for a resume for a job. There are similarities, but they are not the same. So when you pick people to look over it, make sure they are someone who has some experience or authority on the matter.
That last step can be a little scary, but no more scary than handing your work over to a beta reader, in my opinion, and certainly less scary than actually submitting a piece of writing.
Remember, whenever you’re submitting anything, you’re putting a piece of yourself out there. Just like being out in the world as an individual, you or your work might not be to everyone’s tastes. That’s okay. It is not possible to write something that everyone likes.
I was once at a pub talking about my frustration with preparing a piece for submission. I was told by one of the listeners of my plight, in all seriousness, that what I needed to do was write a book that everyone loves.
I just stared at him, wondering if he thought that no writer had considered this approach.
There is no such thing as that unicorn of a book. There are haters of Winnie the Pooh out there (I don’t know who these monsters are, but I know they exist). And so I tell you this, dear writer, with all the love and empathy I can muster that you will not write a book that everyone loves. And just because a publisher or agent can’t get behind your work doesn’t mean that your work isn’t worth being out in the world.
Keep writing. You’ve got this.
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