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getting published

How to Get a Book Published: 10 Steps

Lizzy Goudsmit Kay. Former senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay
August 6, 2023
August 6, 2023

We often hear from writers who feel that the publishing process is shrouded in mystery, from submitting to literary agents to what happens at publishers’ acquisitions meetings. This month, we’re running a series of blogs to demystify parts of the publishing industry and answer your questions.

  • How do you get a book published?
  • What does a literary agent do?
  • How long should my novel be, and what are the average word counts for different genres?
  • What is exposition or back story, and why do I have too much of it?

In this article, our editorial director Lizzy Goudsmit Kay – who was previously a commissioning editor at Penguin Random House – has put together this step-by-step guide to the path most writers take on their way to publication.

  1. Write. Write. Write.
  2. Edit. Edit. Edit.
  3. Querying Literary Agents
  4. Submitting to Editors
  5. Acquisitions Meetings
  6. Offers
  7. Contracts
  8. Working With An Editor
  9. Covers
  10. Campaigns

If you’re hoping to get a book published, and would like to know what happens at every stage – from your first draft to your first book tour – then click to read now. It all starts with a great idea...

While many authors have great success with self-publishing (and hybrid publishers), this piece sets out the key steps to getting published via a traditional publisher.

1. Write. Write. Write.

Where to start

So you want to be published?

It’s not necessarily an easy goal, but it is an achievable one, even if you have your heart set on the traditional publishing process. And the first step is relatively simple...

If you want to get a book published then you need to write a book.

So you’d better start writing!

You don’t necessarily need to be writing the novel that you want to see published right now – but if you aren’t writing, then you can’t become a writer. We recommend that all new writers begin by thinking creatively rather than focusing on securing a traditional publishing deal. What do you enjoy reading? Why do you enjoy that genre (or writing style or type of narration)? What stories capture your attention?

If you love reading science fiction or watching science fiction on television, then maybe this is where you should begin. If you love short stories, maybe that’s the right space for you.

You don’t need to be thinking about a full manuscript or, if you’re more interested in non-fiction, a complete book proposal at this stage.

Just write a first chapter. Maybe write a second one. Perhaps introduce a character. Try a first-person narrator, a third-person narrator, or a combination of the two.

You aren’t committing to a finished manuscript here. You’re simply writing!

Writing the book

Then, when you find something that feels particularly engaging – an idea or a character, ideally – dedicate some more time to that project. And if it continues to feel exciting, keep going!

Soon you’ll reach the midpoint of your story and, sometime after that, you’ll find your way towards the ending.

Then, take a moment.

You have just written an entire manuscript! You have finished writing your first draft!

This is a huge achievement!

If this feels like an impossible goal – and having a book published feels impossible too – then don’t worry; there are plenty of resources available to help you get that first draft on to the page. We have great articles dedicated to writing the first draft of a novel, starting to write, and developing your characters. You might like to explore our website in a little more detail and maybe join us on one of our creative writing courses.

You’ll be able to chat with our incredible writing coaches, who will guide you through some of the common pitfalls and work with you to sharpen and polish your idea.

You can also check out Novel Writing 101 for some helpful tips.

While self-publishing, hybrid publishers and traditional publishers have different processes, the first step for all three is to write a really great book!

2. Edit. Edit. Edit.

You need to write a novel – a complete novel – before you can truly know the shape of your story, and so we always recommend that writers complete a first draft before turning to the first edit. You will find that you learn about your story as you craft it: the characters evolve, the plot beats take shape, the overall narrative arc is formed as much in the telling as in the planning.

But once the initial writing process and that first important draft are complete, you’re ready to explore the editing process in more detail.

The editing process

This is the moment to turn your attention towards how to get a book published (if that is your ultimate goal!) You want to be asking questions of your story at this stage:

  • Does it have momentum?
  • Will the reader want to keep turning the pages to reach the final chapter?
  • Are the characters fully formed and dynamic?
  • Are their motivations evident throughout?
  • Is there a central question that holds your story together?

This is also the moment to start asking questions about the publishing world more generally.

  • Are you hoping to see this book published?
  • Are you interested in the traditional publishing route or are you looking to self-publish?
  • Are you thinking about the target audience for your story?
  • Are you honing a pitch and coming up with a great book title that will stand out on submission to literary agents?

It may feel like these two sets of questions are disconnected but the second set should inform the first. If you can’t identify your target audience, you need to think about why that might be. Is there a clear enough hook? If not, you might want to return to the idea of that central question. Is the genre obvious? If not, what are the key components of your story? Have a look at this list and see which genre feels most appropriate.

You might think that these questions are only relevant if you are looking for a traditional publishing deal – because these are things that most traditional publishers will be asking of your novel – but self-published authors will tell you that a clear pitch is essential for them too.

I’d recommend beginning with the bigger questions – the second set –  and then turning to the first set of questions and the story itself. This is where the real editorial work starts! Our courses are the best place to get help, with guidance from professional editors, but our top ten tips for self-editing are a great tool, too.

If you feel like, despite your best efforts, your story just isn’t coming together quite as you want it to, then our Ultimate Manuscript Assessment offers a thorough report on all aspects of your story from one of our publishing editors.

You can search for agents using The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook. You can also explore the websites for literary agencies and the social media profiles of agents you think might be a good fit. You might have heard of Writer's Market, too, but Writer's Market is not available at present. You can also meet agents at writing conferences but this is by no means the norm.

3. Querying Literary Agents

When to query a literary agent?

It isn’t unusual for new writers to think that they’ve finished editing a novel before the story is really ready – because the unfortunate truth is that a finished novel often requires many, many rounds of edits. We know this can feel incredibly frustrating!

If you think you might be nearing the end of the editorial work, you’ll find some important questions to ask yourself here. If you’re sure you’re ready to submit to a literary agent – because your novel is definitely, completely finished; no doubts at all – then it’s time to prepare for submission.

How to submit to a literary agent?

You want to submit to the right agents, those who publish in your genre (and so know the right editors) and who understand the type of story you’re telling. You don’t need a personal connection to land a literary agent (honestly!) so spend some time online and in the acknowledgements sections of your favourite books, and compile a list of literary agents who you'd love to work with to get your book published.

Then, check the submission guidelines for each of these agents. They are often similar, but some have very specific requests so don’t assume that one submission package will work for every agent on your list.

Most require a brilliant synopsis (which is essentially the book outline and is covered in more detail here), the first three chapters (although sometimes a specific number of words or pages) and a stand-out query letter. The latter is particularly important and this is true for all genres, from young adult novels and children’s books to science fiction and literary fiction.

The query letter typically addresses five key areas:

  1. The hook
  2. The story
  3. The market
  4. The agent
  5. The author

You can find more about writing a good query letter here.

And, if you’re a member of The Novelry, you’re eligible for our bespoke submission service in which our editorial team pitches your story to our trusted literary agents on your behalf.

Many writers find submitting their novel to literary agents an incredibly daunting prospect, but your book is written; you’ve done the work! You are absolutely allowed to chase agent representation, publishing deals and a physical book to showcase all of your efforts.

After submitting to literary agents

If an agent likes your submission package, they will likely request the full manuscript. If they like your complete manuscript, they might suggest a conversation. And then, fingers crossed, they will offer to represent you!

There are so many publishing options – including self-publishing and hybrid publishing – but all require an audience for your story.

4. Submitting to Editors

So what happens after you find an agent?

Before submission

Traditional publishers don’t typically accept unsolicited submissions from aspiring authors, so you cannot approach most acquiring editors directly. Therefore, for many writers, a literary agent will offer the first introduction to the wider publishing world.

This is why finding an agent is such a significant step on the path to getting your book published (and, if you’re looking to find a traditional publisher and be traditionally published, it’s an essential step).

There may be some further editorial work to do and then it’s on to finding the right publisher! Your agent will likely want to submit your novel to a number of different acquiring editors in different publishing houses.

Normally, they will share a list of proposed publishing editors with you ahead of submission.

They will then prepare their own query letters – based on their knowledge of the specific publishing company they’re approaching, the wider publishing landscape and their relationship with that editor – and submit your novel in the hope of securing a book deal.

After submission

You might hear back from editors very quickly. You might find yourself waiting a little longer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be offered a book deal. You only need one agent and one editor in order to secure a publishing deal for your story!

A reminder here that the process can be slightly different for a nonfiction book, which will require a book proposal instead of a complete manuscript at this stage too.

5. Acquisitions Meetings

The next step is a key one!

You – and your agent – will be waiting to hear from one (or more!) of the editors. And the big hope here is that one of them gets in touch to say that they really like your novel. This is a moment to pause, and whoop, and cheer!

But it isn’t the final step; it’s a slow, steady, step-by-step process.

An editor will need to discuss your story at an Acquisitions Meeting before an offer is made.

Each publishing house has a different approach to these meetings but, broadly, they require representatives from different departments to discuss the commercial potential of your story.

Your agent will be waiting for a phone call – or an email – afterwards to explain how it went.

Is the publishing company keen to take on your novel?

Fingers crossed!

If you are self-publishing, you will likely want to hire freelancers to copy-edit and proofread your novel (and, later, to design your book cover). If you are hybrid publishing, you'll likely receive guidance at each of these stages.

6. Offers

In an ideal world, your agent will receive multiple offers from several publishing companies and an auction will ensue, in which each editor increases their bid in an attempt to secure your novel for their list. If you follow the wider publishing industry (for example, on social media), these are the deals that you will likely hear about. But many authors are acquired without an auction and go on to enjoy great success.

You will likely be focused at this stage on the advance (if you are pursuing traditional publishing). You are guaranteed this sum of money whether or not your book achieves its projected level of sales, and it’s often perceived as a mark of a publishing company’s faith in the project.

Writers who find the thought of publicising and marketing their own novel overwhelming but aren't interested in traditional publishing, might choose to explore hybrid publishing.

7. Contracts

There are lots of writers thinking about how to get a book published and the traditional publishing process, and yet very few think about the contract – which is one of the many, many reasons it makes sense to work with an agent.

A contract for a traditionally published book will set out the details of the various parties involved (often you, your agent and your publisher). It will very clearly state how many books the publisher is acquiring from you (normally one or two for debut novelists), the details of the publication (a line or two on plot, for example, as well as an approximate length and the deadline) and what rights they are acquiring (in which countries, languages and formats they will be able to publish your book). There will also be details on the advance (including how much and when it will be paid) and the royalties (how much you will earn for each sale in each format – because you typically earn more for hardbacks).

You will be presented with a book contract (normally sent via email). You should absolutely read it closely and flag any concerns or anything that doesn’t make sense to your agent.

how to get a book published in 10 steps

8. Working With An Editor

Your main points of contact within the publishing industry will likely be your agent and your editor.

Most editors within a publishing house focus on three main things: acquiring new titles, editorial work and project management.

Acquiring new titles

During particularly busy periods, an editor might receive a new query letter every few hours – and these are typically all from literary agents. An editor is responsible for reading these and determining whether or not a title is worth taking forwards to an editorial meeting and, later, an acquisitions meeting. For every book that an editor acquires, they will have received hundreds and pitched dozens to the team.

Editorial work

In the traditional publishing industry, the majority of acquiring editors do editorial work. But this isn’t always the case. In some publishing houses, there will be a separate team or a sub-team who do the majority of the editorial work – so don’t worry if you’re working with multiple editors.

If you’re a member of The Novelry, then you’ve likely worked with a professional editor already.

Our team has experience at the most famous publishers – Penguin Random House, Pan Macmillan, Harper Collins, Hachette, Orion and Titan Books – and have overseen many bestselling and award-winning novels.

But for most writers, this will be their first introduction to a formal edit and it’s often the part they imagine when wondering how to get a book published.

You will likely receive an editorial letter that sets out any changes required; as always, these are suggestions and you can discuss any elements that feel jarring with your agent and editor. There may be several rounds of edits – beginning with the bigger-picture structural edit and then moving to a more detailed line edit – before you and your editor feel the manuscript is ready.

Your novel will then be passed to a copy-editor, a typesetter and then a proofreader. You can find out more about all stages of the process here. If you’re thinking about self-publishing, you’ll want to take note of this too!

Project management

Finally, an editor is responsible for managing your book through the publishing path, liaising with other departments internally and externally in order to ensure that everything is happening as it should and that your book has the very best chances of success.

This is why the editor is often the go-to for the writer and their agent.

how to get a book published in 10 steps

9. Covers

While self-publishing is a great option and many self-published authors have great success, one of the benefits of a traditional publisher is that you get access to a whole range of publishing services – including book cover design.

Briefing a cover

Your editor will brief your cover to the design department – likely with input from sales, marketing and publicity – outlining the plot, any significant themes or motifs, and comparison covers and titles. You might be consulted in advance, but this isn’t always the case – so don’t worry if you aren’t asked to contribute to the brief for your book cover!

Selecting a cover

Your designer will share a selection of covers with your editor, and perhaps a wider team too, and they will work together as a group to ensure it is the strongest possible cover for your story.

It’s worth noting that, in this context, strength isn’t only about a beautiful cover that accurately represents your story, but one that accurately targets your audience. There are lots of elements – some subtle and some less so – that tell a reader what to expect from a book, and it’s important to incorporate these so that the right reader will be drawn to your book cover.

You might be shown a number of different options, or you may be presented with your publisher’s favourite, but you are always allowed to share your opinion!

how to get a book published in 10 steps

10. Campaigns

We could write pages and pages about campaigns alone (and, truthfully, about any one of these sections because there are so many publishing options) but, for most book publishers, there are two main teams that work on the campaigns for a title: publicity and marketing.

Publicity

In the very simplest of terms, a publicity team focuses on coverage for a book that cannot be bought, for example, coverage in magazines and newspapers or slots on television and radio (which, admittedly, are difficult to secure for first-time novelists). It is the publicist’s job to build some buzz and create excitement about your story, which will drive sales on publication and thereafter.

We offer a vibrant and engaged writing community who will absolutely be there to shout about your novel in the lead-up to publication and support your publicity campaign!

Marketing

A marketing team is primarily focused on reaching the right audience and typically has an allocated budget for your book.

They might do this digitally – for example, by advertising on social media – or by creating assets for bookshops (such as bookmarks) or posters for bus stops (although, again, this is unlikely for a first-time novelist).

And then? You’re A Published Author!

This is a whistle-stop tour of how to get a book published but, really, it’s this last step that makes the most difference: printed books! After all of the above, you will finally hold a copy of the book written by you in your hands and realise that YOU ARE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!

If you would like to fast-track your novel through the early stages, we recommend our popular course – The Finished Novel Course – which takes you all the way from the idea to agent submission and then, hand-in-hand with one of our trusted agents, we’ll be cheering you on to this final stage of the process!

Someone writing in a notebook
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay. Former senior commissioning editor at Penguin Random House
Lizzy Goudsmit Kay

Before joining The Novelry, Lizzy Goudsmit Kay was a Senior Commissioning Editor at Transworld Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, home to general fiction authors including Kate Atkinson, Dan Brown, Bill Bryson, Lee Child, Richard Dawkins, Paula Hawkins, Rachel Joyce and Sophie Kinsella.

Members of The Novelry team