How to Get Published: The Book Submission Process

This article contains a comprehensive overview of how to get published, from how to write a query letter to the book submission process.

How to Get Published

If you’re on this page, you’re wondering how to get published. First, you have to write an amazing book. There’s no getting around that, and it’s a huge part of the process. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you have a strong book or book proposal ready to go.

The next step is gearing up for the book submission process of submitting a book to a literary agent or submitting a book to a publisher. The big difference here is that getting a literary agent first will help you access bigger publishing houses in your query for publication. Literary agents also advocate for you in book negotiations and help shop your project around for foreign and ancillary rights. Without a literary agent, you are submitting a book to a publisher directly, but fewer publishers take what are called “unagented submissions.” If you’re dreaming of publication with a big house, a literary agent is the first person to target.

This is a very personal decision—whether to go agent first, or publisher first—and it’s completely up to you. Not every project will need the services of a literary agent, and some projects may be better off published independently, but that’s a conversation for a future article!

Book Submission Steps

In general, these are the book submission steps that you want to follow: 

  1. Finish a manuscript or book proposal.

  2. Read in your category and become familiar with other books in your genre. Find some comp titles, if possible, and other authors doing work like yours.

  3. Decide where it fits into the marketplace, and who you want to approach (literary agent or publisher) with your manuscript submission.

  4. Research literary agents or do publisher research and put together a submission list. Make sure to research manuscript submission guidelines, so you’re sending each person or company exactly what they want to see.

  5. Compile a list of 10-20 literary agents or publishers to approach at a time. Feel free to make an “A List” and keep a “B List” in reserve.

  6. Write a strong query letter for your manuscript or book proposal.

  7. Put your submission together, following manuscript submission guidelines, and fire away!

  8. Either receive an offer of representation or a book contract, or...

  9. Collect feedback and decide how to proceed.

  10. In the meantime, start working on your next project!

How to Find a Literary Agent

If you decide to find a literary agent to help get your book published, you will need to familiarize yourself with these publishing gatekeepers. The good news is, literary agents are looking for exciting new clients, so they are usually very public about their preferences and wish lists. Literary agency websites are full of valuable information, including manuscript submission guidelines and literary agent preferences. There are many websites with lists of literary agents. You’ll even find searchable literary agent database sites.

Start your research here. My favorite resources are AgentQuery, QueryTracker and PublishersMarketplace. The latter is a paid literary agent database that tracks sales. Unfortunately, anyone can hang a shingle out and say they’re a literary agent, but I want to make sure that the person I approach is actually selling books to big houses, so I always recommend you join PublishersMarketplace, even if it’s for a month while you research to find a literary agent. The money is well worth it.

Per the above book submission steps, I recommend putting together a list of literary agents that’s 10-20 names long, and then keeping 10-20 more in reserve. Keep this very important query tip in mind: Only submit to one agent per agency. And follow all their manuscript submission guidelines. For example, most literary agencies accepting queries do so via email, and do not want attachments. If you break the rules, your project won’t be considered.

The reason I recommend targeting a smaller list of literary agents at a time, rather than sending to all 100 literary agents who represent young adult, for example, is that this allows you to respond to feedback. If literary agents reject you with the same basic critique, and you’ve already sent your project to everyone on Planet Earth, you’ve burned some bridges and you’re out of options. Smaller submission rounds are a sane approach.

How to Find a Publisher

If you’re wondering how to get a book published, the process to find a book publisher is very similar to what I described above, to find a literary agent. Only you’re limited to publishers that accept submissions directly from writers. This leaves you with small to medium houses, regional publishers, or niche publishers, usually. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to get a book deal from a major publisher, you should think about finding a literary agent first.  

Publishers accepting unagented submissions will keep manuscript submission guidelines on their websites. You will want to follow these. Usually, you will not be submitting directly to a publishing house editor (unless you meet one at a writers conference, for example, and receive a specific invitation), you’ll be sending into a general publisher slush pile. Even so, follow the submission guidelines to the letter or your manuscript will be rejected.

A great resource for finding a publisher that accepts manuscripts is the Writer’s Market series of books from Writer’s Digest. They are updated every year, and different publisher directories and lists of publishers exist for different types of book projects. For example, the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market edition is for people who want to get a children’s book published. They also publish the Guide to Literary Agents.

From there, the process to find a book publisher is the same as I recommend for how to find a literary agent. You will put together a submission list of 10-20 houses, then keep another list of publishers in reserve. Be prepared to wait a long time. Publishers that keep a slush pile are usually slow to respond. I’ll discuss response times in more detail, below.

How to Find a Publisher

If you’re wondering how to get a book published, the process to find a book publisher is very similar to what I described above, to find a literary agent. Only you’re limited to publishers that accept submissions directly from writers. This leaves you with small to medium houses, regional publishers, or niche publishers, usually. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you want to get a book deal from a major publisher, you should think about finding a literary agent first.  

Publishers accepting unagented submissions will keep manuscript submission guidelines on their websites. You will want to follow these. Usually, you will not be submitting directly to a publishing house editor (unless you meet one at a writers conference, for example, and receive a specific invitation), you’ll be sending into a general publisher slush pile. Even so, follow the submission guidelines to the letter or your manuscript will be rejected.

A great resource for finding a publisher that accepts manuscripts is the Writer’s Market series of books from Writer’s Digest. They are updated every year, and different publisher directories and lists of publishers exist for different types of book projects. For example, the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market edition is for people who want to get a children’s book published.

From there, the process to find a book publisher is the same as I recommend for how to find a literary agent. You will put together a submission list of 10-20 houses, then keep another list of publishers in reserve. Be prepared to wait a long time. Publishers that keep a slush pile are usually slow to respond. I’ll discuss response times in more detail, below.

How to Write a Query Letter

Query writing and the topic of how to write a query letter are always on writers’ minds. Why? The query letter is often seen as a ticket to getting a literary agent or publisher on board. I’d argue that a strong project is the ultimate deciding factor, but a strong query letter doesn’t hurt.

Writers have many questions about query letter format, so I’ll tackle that here: 

  • Start with a bit of personalization for why you’re targeting that particular publisher or literary agent, if you have it. If you don’t have anything, omit this part.

  • Segue into your logline pitch for the project. For nonfiction manuscripts, you will want a bigger focus on market potential here.

  • Provide logistical details about your manuscript or book proposal, like title, word count, and category or genre.

  • Spend one to three paragraphs focusing on the “query meat.” For novels and memoirs, this means who your character is and what the main plot will be. For nonfiction, this is a space to establish why your project is different from what’s already on the market, and the size of your audience.

  • A bio paragraph summarizes who you are and your writing credentials, if any. Nonfiction and memoir writers will want to emphasize any marketing platform they have, especially.

  • A quick sign-off can be as simple as stating what’s included (the first ten pages or three chapters, or whatever is requested in the manuscript submission guidelines), mentioning whether it’s a simultaneous submission, and thanking the agent or publisher for their consideration.

Your ideal query letter word count is 250 to 400 words. The letter should fit nicely on one single-spaced page, which is the standard query letter length.

Most query letters will be sent via email or an online form. Attachments are usually not allowed. That means you should copy and paste your materials into email. Make sure to send a test version to yourself first to look for query letter format issues, which can sometimes happen with text that comes over from a word processor.

Several special query letter considerations: A picture book query letter is generally short because the stories themselves are short. They often focus on theme as well as story. If your project has an illustrated element, you will want to make your illustrations or picture book dummy available for online viewing, since you can’t send an attachment. Throw it up on a website behind a password and provide the access credentials in the query, or include a link for the agent or publisher to download via Google Docs or Dropbox, for example. If you’re an illustrator, you will want to have a portfolio website anyway, and you are welcome to send the address around.

Remember, the goal of query letter writing is to get the agent or publisher to look at your manuscript. That’s it, that’s all. The simpler and more professional your query letter, the better.

Going on Submission

Now that you have a manuscript or book proposal, your publisher and literary agent research done, and your query letter written, you’re ready to submit. Make sure that you are following manuscript submission guidelines, then assemble all of the email addresses and materials you need. Remember to check everything for typos and make sure that you’re populating the correct information into each email. Errors can and do happen here. While they’re not the end of the world, copy and paste gaffes in the heat of the moment don’t help you put your best foot forward.

When you submit a manuscript to a literary agent, you will press “Send” and then get an automated response, usually a confirmation of receipt and a notice about response times. Same thing for when you submit a manuscript to a publishing company. Then the waiting begins!

Literary Agent Response Times and Publisher Response Times

Literary agent response times and publisher response times vary. Sometimes, you will hear a rejection or interest right away. Other times, you will hear absolutely nothing. In most cases, no response means a rejection, unfortunately. Sometimes you will get a request for more material. If you have sent a query letter and partial manuscript to a literary agent, they may send you a full manuscript request. This means that you can submit your entire manuscript, usually as an attachment. (Attachments are okay in this case, since they have been requested.) Publishers will work similarly. If there is interest, believe me, the literary agent or publisher will let you know.

Often, literary agent response times and publisher response times are listed in the submission guidelines. For literary agents, if they do respond to all submissions, they will try to do it within six to eight weeks. Publishers sometimes can take three or four months to respond. If you don’t hear within each agency or publisher’s stated timeframe, it’s okay to check in, but you may not get a response to that, either. After about six months of hearing nothing, it may be safe to assume that you’ve been rejected.

 Full manuscript response times can be tricky. It takes a lot less time to read a query letter and ten pages than to read and consider a 300-page novel. Some literary agents establish expectations for full manuscript response times, others take as long as they take. Publishers are similar. It’s okay to check in after about three or four months, unless you’ve been told otherwise.

Waiting is the hardest part, after the excitement of submission. But rest assured that within months of putting yourself out there, you will start to hear back. Now you enter the last phase of the submission process.

Collecting Feedback and Next Steps

Sometimes a submission ends in a rejection letter. Sometimes it ends in an offer of representation, or a publishing deal. These are the straightforward options. Most rejection letters you receive will be form rejections, unfortunately. There isn’t a lot of time to respond personally to every submission. Literary agents and publishers regret that, but it’s a reality of the business when they receive tens of thousands or more projects per year. Sometimes, though, a literary agent or publisher will send manuscript feedback. This can be simple, like, “I didn’t connect with the voice,” or it can be more involved, with entire paragraphs of critique and suggestion. Sometimes, they may even ask you to revise your project and send it back to them, often called a “revise and resubmit” request.

This last outcome is very exciting, because it means that you have something promising on your hands. Sure, an outright offer would be more exciting, but often an agent or publisher will want to see how you take manuscript feedback, and whether you can revise.

Once you have waited patiently and collected all of the feedback you think you’re going to get, step back and think critically about it. If you’re getting nothing but form rejections, there’s an issue with your project or the quality of writing. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If nobody is connecting, there are big issues. Enlist a critique group or freelance editor to help you identify the issues and revise. If you’re getting some consistent feedback, see if you can address it. Even if those agents or publishers didn’t outright invite you to submit again, it may be possible to approach them once you’ve done a significant revision. If you have a lot of revise and resubmit offers, dig into the comments seriously. A beta reader or freelance editor is very helpful to fine tune an almost-ready project, too. Getting revision requests mean you’re on the right track.  

If you’ve made changes to your manuscript and want to submit again, you can resubmit to any agents and publishers from your A List who showed interest in a revision. You can also fold in some B List agents and publishers who haven’t seen the project before. This is why submitting in rounds is such a smart idea.

If the manuscript truly got no interest, or you want to take a break for a while, think about shelving this project (even temporarily) and starting on something new. The best and most successful writers, after all, are those with several ideas in development at any one time. Then you can do the exciting book submission process all over again!

The Pitch for freelance editing

Now you know more about how to submit a book for publication. It’s up to you to decide how best to arrive at the strongest possible manuscript. Check out further resources on how to find an editor, and get insight into estimates of editorial service rates. I can help.

Please don’t hesitate to check out my writing craft book or reach out for editorial services via the contact form, below.

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