How Hard Is It To Get a Book Published?

frustrated writer asks how hard is it to get published?

There are no guarantees you’ll get a publishing deal, but there are plenty of things you can do to increase your chances. How hard is it to get a book published? It depends on a number of variables.

Many authors dream of signing with a major publisher. And even though we here at BookBaby are all about self-publishing, we do get the appeal of going the traditional route, receiving an advance, and having a professional marketing team behind you.

For now, I won’t go into how the reality of a traditional deal is often at odds with the dream, instead, let’s just focus on the questions at hand: How hard is it to get a book published through a traditional publishing deal? Is it actually possible, or is it a pipe dream?

The honest answer is that getting published isn’t hard if you have what agents and editors want. It really is that simple. You don’t have to know anyone. There’s no secret cabal. You can just be a regular old schmuck and get a deal.

I know this because I’m a regular old schmuck and I got a deal. I didn’t have any connections in the publishing industry or know any secret handshakes. I simply had a book that an agent and a book publisher wanted.

What are the odds of getting a book published?

When it comes to the saturated world of writers looking to get published, whether or not you get plucked from the bunch is partly a numbers game. Here’s what I did: I went to a writer’s conference where I met a literary agent who said I could send him my manuscript. He liked what he saw and he worked with me to get it just right. And then he made one phone call and landed a deal. Bada-bing, bada-boom. The whole process took maybe three months.

I can hear you asking: If it’s that simple, why isn’t everyone a published author?

For the most part, it’s a numbers game. So, let’s start by looking at the numbers.

To get a deal with a major publisher, you first have to land an agent, as the editors at these publishing companies do not accept manuscripts from unrepresented authors.

Of course, an agent typically receives fifty to a hundred manuscripts every single day, which adds up to 4,000–5,000 manuscripts a year. And out of these thousands of manuscripts, each agent generally only accepts between three and ten new authors each year.

So on the surface, the numbers aren’t in your favor.

(There are several smaller publishers who do accept unsolicited manuscripts from un-agented authors, and you can and should consider querying them, though I imagine their acceptance rate is even lower, since they probably get more submissions.)

Factors that impact your chances

To sway the odds in your favor, you have to be tactical throughout the entire publishing process, from convincing the perfect agent that you’re a good match to crafting a manuscript they won’t be able to turn away from. These two go hand in hand: your material should align with the agents you pursue, and vice versa.

Landing the right agent

Not only are the numbers ugly, but the process of querying agents is tiresome, confusing, opaque, frustrating, and time-consuming.

To properly query an agent, you need to do some homework to find an agent who represents the kind of book you’ve written. If you’re looking to publish the next Harry Potter, don’t pitch your book to an agent that specializes in romance or nonfiction books. Instead reach out to someone with a focus on fantasy.

Once you’ve found one who seems like a good fit, you have to follow their rules for querying — every agent wants something different. Then you have to master new skills, like writing a perfect query letter and book synopsis. You also have to find the perfect comps (comparable titles). None of these skills are intuitive, though there are dozens of online articles that can help you.

Furthermore, if an agent does respond to you — not all of them do — their rejection emails are usually just form letters: “I appreciate the opportunity to consider your writing. Unfortunately, your project does not sound like a good fit for me at this time, and so I will have to pass.” That’s a direct quote from a rejection email I received the other day.

You will not get actionable feedback. You will be unable to learn from your mistakes or know what the agent didn’t like. Was it your query letter, your synopsis, your writing sample? Did they get too many similar manuscripts? Did you catch them at a bad time? You will never know.

(If you’re wondering why I am looking for an agent after having once gotten a book deal, well, that’s a long, boring story, but also one that is fairly common. Just because you’ve published one book — or, in my case, ten — doesn’t mean you’re going to publish another.)

So, maybe it’s not that easy

If you do manage to land an agent (congratulations!), that does not guarantee you’ll get a publishing deal. Sometimes agents and authors aren’t a good fit for each other. Also, it’s not like you need a degree or an official certification to be a literary agent. Literally anyone can do it.

So you don’t just need an agent, you need to land an agent who knows which editor will want to buy your book.

(Furthermore, the publishing industry as a whole has had a diversity problem. The industry itself is overwhelmingly white (76 percent), female (74 percent), and straight (81 percent). And even though nearly every agent is requesting diverse books, if the agents themselves are nearly all straight white women (with liberal arts degrees), how diverse are the books they represent likely to be?

This isn’t a slam. These people are genuine about wanting diverse books. But if you’ve grown up a part of one culture, how can you properly judge the authenticity of a book from another — especially when you’re getting 100 manuscripts a day?

I know. I’m saying it’s easy to get a publishing deal while, at the same time, I’m saying it’s nearly impossible.

Improve your manuscript

While the numbers I quoted above are certainly daunting, they don’t accurately reflect your odds of landing an agent.

I mentioned that you need to do your research before you query an agent. Many authors don’t. They simply send their manuscripts out willy-nilly, with little regard for what agents actually want. Also, many authors do not follow agents’ querying guidelines.

So do yourself a favor. Before querying anyone, go to Manuscript Wish List where individual agents outline what they want and what guidelines they prefer you follow. Also, if it applies, review their policy on receiving unsolicited manuscripts.

Then there’s the quality of your writing. According to agents, the number one mistake authors make is they send their work before it’s truly ready for prime time. While connecting you with book editing is part of an agent’s role and will likely be a step before sending it off to a publishing house, they should still receive your draft in the best condition possible.

And while quality can be subjective, many authors send out their work before it’s been properly edited. Don’t fall into that trap. Also, be sure to get feedback from beta readers you can trust before sending your work to an agent. You can also rely on BookBaby’s professional manuscript editing services — all key stepping stones in the publishing process

Study the marketplace — Is your book a good fit?

Then, there’s comps. You need to know the marketplace. What are publishers publishing? You can write a fantastic book, but if it’s not something anyone is going to publish, well, it’s not going to get published.

So, if you follow agent guidelines, understand the market, query agents who are looking for your kind of book, and submit work that is written and edited to the very best of your abilities, you will be way ahead of most of the authors who query agents, drastically improving your odds.

Of course, even if you do all of those things, you still might not land a publishing deal — with this book. Your best course of action is to start writing the next one. Even if you didn’t learn anything from the various rejection emails you received, you will have learned tons from writing queries to researching what agents want. Maybe, while perusing Manuscript Wish List, you’ll find the idea for your next book. I know I did.

Consider self-publishing your book

If you want to avoid all of these querying headaches that come with traditional publishing, consider self-publishing. I’ve done that too. This publishing option has its own challenges, of course, but so does everything that’s worth doing.

If you’re in the homestretch and just need a place to print books, or you’re looking for assistance with the publishing and book marketing process, BookBaby is the self-publishing company that covers it all. With BookBaby’s Bookshop, you can run book promotion and book sales and land your published book in the hands of readers around the world. Whatever you do, don’t give up: whether as a self-published author or through a traditional publishing option, there is an audience for your book.

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  1. Thanks, Scott. I really enjoyed reading about your journey. Mine was similar to yours but had an astounding outcome. I probably should write a book about that. I have written five books and numerous articles as the feature write for Sci-Fi magazine. Plus, I was the major contributor to Sir Richard Attenborough’s collectible book, “100 Years of Moving Pictures.” I have also written and/or script doctored, 23 screenplays. Right now, I am trying to get a new TV comedy series, produced for streaming next year. I am also finishing my next book which will be published in 2023.


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