Publishing a Book

I brought a big, ol’ copy of the manuscript with me on this trip. It’s coffee stained now, with pages turning up and riddled by pen marks in a language I’ve created between today-me and my future self: √ red.; caps?; pp..

Yep—line edits are well underway. A few places demand larger changes, but overall I’m looking at redundancies, capitalizations, and plot points for book #2.

While this may seem like the final sprint in this five-year marathon, a few major hurtles remain between the hunk of paper sitting next to me here, and the book I CANNOT WAIT to share with you.

I thought for this post I’d detail those hurtles, as I’m often asked about the process of publishing. While I’ll surely learn much more in the upcoming months, here’s what I understand so far.

For starters: no, I’m not planning on self-publishing this book.

I have a collection of essays I ended up publishing myself. I initially had been in conversation with a traditional publisher when I decided I wanted to share the essays with a larger audience, but when I discovered how long it would take to change the essays to meet the publisher’s needs, I decided the money I would make from the essays wouldn’t make sense for the time invested.   

So I self-published. In a try, fail, try again kind of way, I learned more about the process of book publishing, including how to format a book, buy an ISBN code, market a book, create an ebook, and distribute printed copies to book stores.

And yeah, about that whole money versus time invested ratio—it didn’t make much sense for self-publishing either.

Yet I figure I learned as much in the process as I would have in a college class on book publishing, so I wouldn’t do anything different even if I could. I also more clearly understand why agents and publishers take the percentage cuts they do in traditional publishing, (on average 15 and 40 percent, respectively).

I imagine this awareness will be important to keep close when seemingly extraneous people profit off all the years of self-doubt, cramped fingers, and solitude a writer endures to bring a book to life. Many writers chose to self-publish because it is possible to retain more profit as the author when one choses this route.

Yet for this book, I’m pursuing the traditional path. Partly because I want to prioritize writing, rather than book-crafting and marketing, in my career. Mainly, though, traditional publishers can generally reach a much larger audience than a single author can.

After I comb through and polish the text in the manuscript to the best of my abilities, I will draft what is called a query letter and send it to agents. The letter addresses the agent personally, explaining why I want him/her to represent my work. This involves, as you probably guesses, researching agents prior to writing to them.

Agents typically represent specific genres and themes. Some agents do them all—from self-help to sci-fi—but it seems most prefer to specialize. Beyond finding an agent interested in my genre, I also look for agents who seem to align with my career goals and, ideally, my personality.

Yep, there’s some stalking involved. I listen to podcast interviews with agents I’m interested in. I check out their Instagram accounts, read some of their tweets, see whom they represent and how these authors compare and contrast with my work. This is so when I write them a letter, I can introduce myself by saying, Your dog is cute.

Just kidding…kinda. Hopefully I won’t come across as creepy, but informed. Agents receive hundreds of letters from authors seeking representation. They want to know you did your homework.

The well-researched, perfectly crafted query letter is, alas, just the beginning of the traditional publishing adventure course. If an agent is interested, she’ll request the manuscript. (For fiction, a writer typically needs to finish the entire book first; for nonfiction, a thorough outline and first few chapters usually suffice.) If the agent likes what she reads, she’ll offer representation.

Hurtle one: jumped. Hurtle two: agent finds publisher. This may take a month. It may take a year—or longer. The agent reaches out to the publishing houses until one, (or a few if the book proves promising), offers a contract.

Why not skip the agent and reach out to the publishing house myself? Most publishing houses will not accept unrepresented solicitations. Having to first find an agent as a writer acts as a filtering system of quality for the publishing house.

Once the writer has been led over hurtle number two by her agent, the publishing house either sends the manuscript to one of its editors or requests the writer to hire a reputable editor. Here the book undergoes either minor tweaks or considerable alterations. Fingers freaking crossed it’s the former for my work.

After quick or not-so-quick revisions, the book, at last, emerges into the world.

So here I am, with a book nearing completion, and yet this giant hill remains to be climbed. More than once in the last couple of years I’ve felt like Frodo and Sam in Mordor. They came all that way, through the Mines of Moria and the mystical woods of Lórien, only to gaze up at the ominous mass of Mount Doom. 

I’ve sometimes wondered why I ever told anyone about writing this book in the first place—much less having an entire section on this newsletter and my website where I share the process. People will ask with sincere care, How’s the book? And I feel like a broken record: Coming along.

Why not wait until the publisher sends it to the printer? Maybe I should have. But honestly, we all know Frodo got that ring to Mount Doom because of Sam. While keeping my process secret may have reduced the discomfort I sometimes feel with the length of time this project has required, it would have made for a lonely journey as well as a long one.

So thank you for being part of the process. For reading this peek among the others. For all the kind words of encouragement I’ve received from friends and strangers alike.

Next month I’ll connect back in with an insight more directly related to the book and its content. As always, feel free to send me an email with any specific question(s) you may have about writing in general or my work in particular. (Either by responding to this newsletter or using the email address provided in the footer below.)

Thanks again—here’s to making the trek despite it all.