The Complete Guide to Publishing a Novel

I have always believed that novel writing is its own reward. But publishing that novel, of course, is the real prize that awaits you.

Note: The world of novel publishing has changed beyond recognition since I first wrote about the topic a few years ago. And the good news is that things are one heck of a lot better for writers today!

The bad news? A lot of what I wrote is very out of date - so much so that I've recently removed a lot of it.

At the time of writing (June 2015), I'm working on a comprehensive resource designed to show folks how to publish and promote fiction in the online age.

In the meantime, the brief notes below will have to suffice...

Are You Ready to Publish Your Novel?

If you are serious about publishing a novel, and perhaps making writing your career, take my advice and do not submit it for publication (or publish it yourself) until it is as good as you can possibly make it.

You hear folks in the book publishing world complain about it all the time: how a novel submitted to them started out brilliantly, but then rapidly went downhill after Chapter One...

  • The first chapter made the agent or publisher tremble with excitement - it was that good.
  • But then the writer obviously grew bored or, more likely, impatient with the project and everything from Chapter Two onwards was a huge disappointment.

Don't let this happen to you.

I am going to assume here that you are not the type of novel writer who gets bored... the kind of writer who starts writing fiction in a whirlwind of excitement but then, when things turn a little tougher mid-manuscript, decides to just get the damn thing written, get it published, and move on to something more exciting in life.

You are in it for the long-haul, right?

Nevertheless, you still face the danger of publishing too early through impatience.

In novel writing, "good enough" just isn't good enough - not with 99.5% of manuscripts getting immediately rejected (and the vast majority of self-published novels getting ignored). To publish your novel successfully, you need to aim for perfection.

But don't publishers have editors?

Yes, they do. Once your novel is accepted for publication, a copy editor will work on your manuscript with you to improve it. But this happens only once the novel is accepted (and only if you publish in the "traditional" way.

Before that, you effectively need to act as your own copy editor. For a publisher to accept a "lazy" manuscript (where the writing goes downhill after the first chapter), the writer had better be one of those rare geniuses. And which of us is one of those?

So I'll say it again...

Don't publish your novel until it as good as you can make it.

Yes, it is important to make the novel's opening chapter, and the opening paragraph in particular, as perfect as you can (because this is the first thing an agent or publisher or bookstore browser will read). But why stop striving for excellence there?

If you are not going to devote care and attention to every single page, why bother to write a novel at all?

You must always write to the best of your ability - whatever your ability may be - and do so consistently. Make the final sentence as strong as the opening sentence, with no weak ones in between, and you could go far.

Okay, down to business...

So How Do You Get Published?

If you had asked me that ten or fifteen years ago, the answer would have been a lot simpler. Since the advent of the Internet, the picture is a lot more complicated. But let's keep things easy for now and begin with a look at...

Publishing a novel traditionally

Although having an online presence (your own blog or Facebook page) is a good idea for any novelist, doing things "traditionally" basically means getting published without any help from the Net. There are two ways to achieve this...

The first option is finding a publisher to produce and market your novel for you, and you can do this either by submitting the manuscript directly to a publishing house or sending it to a literary agent, who will submit it to a publisher on your behalf.

Years ago, it was relatively common to approach publishing houses without bothering to find an agent first. Nowadays, you'll have a very tough time taking this route.

Read this article for the longer explanation of this. Or make life easy on yourself and accept that finding a literary agent (who will then sell your novel to a publisher for you) is virtually a "must do."

My best advice here is to be persistent. Sure, you might get lucky and have your novel accepted by the first agent you approach. But more likely you will need a good strategy for the long haul facing you.

Once you have decided where you will send your novel, you'll need to know which literary agencies to send it to, as well as what, precisely, you should send (covering note, synopsis, etc.).

See Submitting a Manuscript for more on this.

Does Getting Published Traditionally Take Luck?

In a word, no. To publish a novel, you simply need to write one to a publishable standard...

If you work hard enough for long enough, there is nothing to stop you succeeding.

If you don't get published, bad luck is the thing you blame it on.

Sure, you need to be persistent. You might even need to be willing to scrap the first novel and write a second, better one.

But cream always rises to the top in the end.

Never forget that. And leave the moaning about bad luck to those writers who were not willing to work hard enough or long enough to succeed.

The second option is to cut out the middle man and go it alone. This is known as "self publishing."

I am still talking about "traditional" publishing, remember - and in the case of self publishing, doing it the old-fashioned way is not for those of you who prefer a gentler life.

What are the pros and cons of going it alone?

  • Being your own boss can be a very attractive way of getting your novel in print. After all, why settle for the small percentage of sales revenue given to you by your publisher (in the form of royalties) when you can keep all of the profits for yourself?
  • The catch, of course - and there's always one of those - is that there might not be any profits at all if you go about self publishing the wrong way - and 100% of nothing won't pay too many bills.

The Third Way: Publishing Novels Online

Once upon a time, not so long ago, writers wrote novels and publishers published them.

Most novelists were rejected, of course, and not always because their fiction was not up to scratch. Sometimes the publishers loved the writing but couldn't see a "large enough market" for it.

Life wasn't much better for the chosen few.

For every novelist who went on to become a household name, hundreds of others didn't even sell enough books to cover their advance. And they were never published again.

And then the internet changed everything...

Self-publishing became viable for the first time. The emergence of digital books increased this viabilty. And social media gave writers the tools to promote themselves and their novels.

In short, a new breed of storyteller – part writer, part publisher, part marketer – was born.

Don't get me wrong — "traditional" publishing will survive. And having a novel published in the old-fashioned way is still a worthy and realistic ambition to have.

It's just that things are somewhat topsy-turvy now...

The best way for the big publishing houses to sit up and take notice of you is to first build an audience online. Do that, and do it well, and the publishers will come to YOU... rather than the other way around.

You may be able to tell from my tone that this is a hugely exciting area. And, like I say, it's one I intend to dig into in great detail in the near future.

My current day job involves teaching people how to promote themselves online – using Facebook, Twitter and all the rest of it – so that knowledge is going to come in mighty handy.

Bottom line?

Traditional publishing houses (and indeed booksellers themselves) are struggling. Added to that...

The ability for a writer to tap into the wealth of online publishing resources (like those provided by Amazon) now makes it possible for them to run their entire career through their laptop - and without much financial risk, either.

In short, things are looking pretty sweet for us novelists!

Does that mean that traditional publishing is dead?

No. But it probably will die if it fails to embrace the new opportunities open to everyone online.

Time will tell.

Self publishing online is a totally different beast to doing it the old-fashioned way. It involves minimal financial outlay, neither to produce the novel nor to promote it. And you will, of course, have a global audience at your fingertips.

Now, I am well aware that many folks will still have their hearts set on the traditional route to publication. And that is okay - bricks-and-mortar publishing houses have been around for many years and are not going to disappear any time soon.

That said, even if you want nothing to do with Internet publishing, you'll still need to embrace the Net to an extend, in order to build your so-called "writer's platform."

Much more on that, and on everything above, when I start digging into this topic in depth.

Apologies for the "dust" in the meantime!