Traditional Publishing: Do’s and Don’ts

Traditional Publishing: Do’s and Don’ts

For many, the path of author leads them inexorably towards the traditional publishing route. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Just be prepared for the reality to not quite match the image you’ve always had in your head. The publishing industry is tricky to navigate and difficult to fully understand. Let’s go over a few things that I hope might help you along on your journey.

First and foremost, I want any author out there to understand Yog’s Law. Yog’s Law states “Money should flow towards the author.” There’s a reason this law exists and that’s to warn authors of the dangers of certain aspects of the publishing industry. If you’re in contact with a “publisher” and they want money from you for any purpose at all, it’s a scam. Plain and simple. A legitimate publisher will never ask the author to front the cost of anything. If they want you to pay for editing, layouts, cover and etcetera, then run. Don’t walk, run. They are trying to scam you. This type of publisher is usually referred to as a Vanity Press or a Subsidy Press. No good will come from signing with one. That’s my two cents, so take it as you will. When in doubt, do a little research on the Press and find out what kind of reputation they have before you sign anything. Predators and Editors along with Writer Beware are great resources for checking this.

Now, if you’re signing with a legitimate press, be they a small publisher all the way up to the big boys, there are some things you really need to do before submitting. I’ll take this first part verbatim out of yesterday’s post:

First and foremost, you have to write a good, solid story. Nothing will ever cover for bad writing. If the product itself is bad, no amount of pretty wrapping paper will fix it. You might get a few initial sales based on good cover, but once a few people read it and the negative reviews start coming in, those sales will vanish. Writing a good story builds trust with your readers and makes them want to return again for future books. Well-written stories will be the foundation on which your writing career is built. Bad writing will only mark you as just another badly written/produced self-published author. No one wants that. It makes all of us look bad, even when you’re doing everything right.

Read that paragraph again if you need to. Let it sink in. The manuscript has to be well-written before a traditional publisher will even consider it.

Query Letters: You should never send a completed manuscript to a publisher unsolicited. You start the process with a query letter, unless you’re fortunate enough to have an agent. Just starting out, that’s unlikely. Most agents won’t touch you unless you’ve got a proven following. They work on percentages of your royalties, so to quote Jayne Cobb from Firefly, “Nothin’ into nothin’, carry the nothin’.” No established following equals no sales and therefore, no royalties to share with an agent. So, query letters will be your go to move. Go to Google and search query letter and you’ll find dozens of “expert” opinions on how to write one. I won’t go into the how, but I will tell you what needs to be in your basic query letter.

  1. The Guts or the Housekeeping: This will be your book’s genre or category along with word count, title/subtitle and target audience
  2. The Hook: This is the basic plot or description of your story and really is the most important part of the letter. It needs to be between 150 to 300 words, give or take. Don’t be too wordy or too brief. That word count is a good base range for most books.
  3. Bio: This is a brief introduction of yourself. Don’t get wordy. Keep it simple. No more than a hundred words, give or take. Keep it brief. It’s just a basic introduction.
  4. Include a thank you and salutation. This is just a sentence or two. Basically, thank them for taking the time to check out your query letter.

The entire letter should be about a page when completed. If the publisher wants more, then they’ll ask for it. A follow-up letter can be sent, but keep it brief and to the point. Don’t re-send the query letter. That won’t exactly endear you to them. If they don’t respond to the follow-up, don’t contact them again until they contact you.

If they do want more, they might sample a few chapters. Usually in the ballpark of 3 chapters or about a hundred pages, whichever is smaller. They will give you the specifics of what they want. When they do, go to their website and look for their submission guidelines. Manuscripts, even partials, that are sent in without following the guidelines generally get tossed in the trash or deleted. Pay attention to their guidelines. They’re there because that’s how they expect things to be done. If you can’t follow their instructions, they likely won’t even consider your work. Do this with EVERY submission you make to a publisher. Every publisher and press have their own submission guidelines. They’re not always different, but sometimes even a small change can make a big difference. Watch those submission guidelines.

Now, if they want the finished manuscript, send it in the proper format for submission. Again, this is crucial. This is how the publisher wants your manuscript set-up because that’s how it’s easiest for them to read, edit and leave notes in the margins. It’s part of the process. If you can’t follow their guidelines, they might not want to work with you. Pay attention to their posted guidelines.

Most, but not all, publishers have their own editors. They may want you to submit a ready to print manuscript. If that’s the case, you’ve already seen how that’s done in the self-publishing entry, but I’m nothing if not detail oriented, so I’ll copy it to this entry too. See below:

Next, editing is crucial. Poor or non-existent editing can kill what was otherwise a well-written book. Take the time to have your book property edited. It is possible to edit it yourself, but it’s always better to have another set of eyes look at your manuscript. Fresh eyes see things you might have missed. Also, you know exactly what you were trying to say. Does someone else? Let another person take a crack at the manuscript and see what you might have missed. Editing services are another possibility, but good ones are expensive. I see editing services offered on Facebook and other social media, but be careful and check them out before you pay them to edit your book. See if they have a good reputation. What do their previous author clients have to say about them? Have they ever actually edited professionally before? There are websites you can check, too. Predators and Editors is a good one as well as Writer Beware. Both of them have listings of the good and the bad in the industry. Do a little research before you pay anyone. It’s just good advice. Also bear in mind that it could take more than one round of editing to fix issues within the book. Food for thought.

If they do provide an editor, that’s awesome. You might want to run through your manuscript a time or two before sending it to the publisher anyway. The more you fix before it goes to the editor, the less red will be on the manuscript for you to fix later. Also, submitting a clean copy looks good on the author, as well. Make the editor’s job easier. Don’t worry, they’ll still find plenty of things that you missed and need to fix. That’s what they do.

The publisher should handle the interior layout and formatting. You’ll likely still have to write your own back-cover blurb. Copied from the last entry again. See below:

The back-cover blurb. Wow, that’s a tough one. If you think writing the book is bad, wait until you have to figure out how to describe that book in two to three paragraphs. Back cover blurbs need to grab the reader’s attention and do it quickly. You have to sell that book in those few paragraphs. No pressure there, right? Take your time and get input from friends and family on the back-cover blurb. Don’t just bang it out in ten minutes and slap it on the back of the book. Invest the time and thought into making it as good as it can be, because it represents your novel. It represents you. You’ve got to grab their attention and drag them into the book, making them want to read more. Make sure you edit the blurb just as thoroughly as you did the book. Errors on the blurb are magnified and will turn off a reader.

As for getting the manuscript ready for the printer/platform, the publisher should take care of that. Also, cover and sizing should be something they deal with as well. If they don’t do any of that, you probably should have just self-published anyway. If the publisher doesn’t provide cover art, editing, layout, formatting and all the interior material, then they really did nothing for you but upload it and take part of your royalties. If you have to do all of this on your own, anyway…. well, congrats. You are self-published with extra steps and less money.

Publishers are supposed to take on the task of everything but the writing. If they don’t or if they charge for any of those, you’ve got a huge red flag. Again, Writer Beware and Predators and Editors are great places to check the reputation of a publisher. Be careful and be informed.

No matter whether you self-published or went with a traditional publisher, odds are really good that you’re going to be doing ALL of your own marketing. That’s just a fact of life unless you’re with a big publishing house that has a large publicity budget. Even then, they don’t like to spend money on people that don’t already have an established name or following. That’s just a cold, hard fact of the industry. I won’t go into marketing because that’s another conversation. A long conversation.

Best of luck with whatever you decide in your publishing endeavors, be it traditional or self-pubbed. Do your research and be prepared. Don’t forget Yog’s Law. If they want money from you, the author, then it’s probably a scam.

Good writing and good fortune, my friends.


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