How to get published: An insider’s guide to the 4 types of book publishing

If you’re an aspiring author, the age-old question is “How do I get my book published?” While it used to be a simple case of “find a publisher”, there are four main options to get published these days—from traditional publishers to self-publishing, and there are pros and cons to each. It can be difficult to know which book publishing path is right for you, so we’ll explain the four main methods of publishing, then you can work out the best publishing option for you and your book.

#1 Traditional publishing 

This is what most people imagine when they think of getting their book published.

It means being able to walk into Waterstones and see a physical copy of your book on the shelf emblazoned with the Penguin logo (or replace with any other big-name publisher). It means potentially wide-scale readership, the chance that someone on the train opposite you might be reading your book. It means the possibility (albeit, possibly slim) of becoming a bestseller or winning a prestigious literary award. It means the prospect of a book deal worth thousands and (again, the slim possibility of) royalties that might enable you to give up the day job. It might mean book signings, offers to be a guest speaker, and so on.

This is why it’s the pipe dream of most aspiring authors.

So, how do you get a traditional publishing deal? Well, the process differs for fiction and nonfiction, but as we specialise in nonfiction, we’ll let you in on that process.

  1. First, plan your book (topic, key message, structure, audience, etc.). Then write a book proposal, which is essentially a plan that sells the book to a publisher, demonstrating that it has the potential to make them lots of money. This means you need to do thorough research into the target market and your competitors. You might want to hire an editor who specialises in book proposals to check how compelling it is and give you some pointers. (We offer this service, and you can get in touch here.)
  2. Now write your sample chapters. Note that with nonfiction, you pitch the book proposal and sample chapters, not the whole book. Again, you might want to have an editor check and edit your sample chapters to ensure they’re compelling and demonstrate your writing skills.
  3. Next, start researching relevant agents. This means agents who have secured deals for books in your genre. Don’t pitch to fiction agents or ones who specialise in a totally different genre to you. Get a longlist of 50 and a shortlist of your top 10.
  4. Write a compelling query letter that is tailored to each agent, not a generic letter addressed to any agent. Tell them why you want them and why they’d want to represent your book.
  5. Send your query letter, book proposal, and sample chapters to your top 10 agents. Wait and see. If they don’t bite, try the next 10 on your list. Rinse and repeat.
  6. If a publisher bites, you’ll enter contract negotiations and all being well, land a book deal! The deal might vary from decent to amazing, and you’ll get an advance to write the book plus the potential of royalties if it sells well.

#2 Small press / indie publishers

Technically, you could class this as part of #1 but there are differences. This method means you still get your book traditionally published, but with a smaller or more niche publisher, often known as “small press” or “independent/indie publishing”. These publishers often specialise in a particular type of books (for example, medical or tech). They might be publishers you’ve never heard of, but they take in half of the market share in book publishing so they’re not to be sniffed at.

With smaller publishers like this, you may be able to submit directly without needing an agent, so check the publisher’s website for submission guidelines before seeking agents. You’ll still need a strong book proposal and sample chapters to be accepted by a small or niche publisher though, and you’ll need to focus your submissions on publishers that accept books in your genre.

The upside of going with an indie publisher is that you’re still getting published in the traditional sense—with a publisher’s name to add credibility to your book. But with smaller publishers, you may not get to see your book in Waterstones as they might only do print-on-demand or online sales. You might only get a small advance to write the book, rather than a big book deal like a traditional publisher could offer. And the publisher might expect you to do a lot of the marketing yourself because they don’t have the clout of someone like Penguin. But still, you’re getting published.

#3 Self-publishing 

In simple terms, self-publishing means you publish the book yourself and don’t have a publisher. Note that you might self-publish through platforms such as Amazon or Kobo, but they are not the publisher. Some authors have their own name as the publisher’s name, while others use a company name to seem more legitimate.

One of the main benefits of self-publishing is that you get to keep a much higher percentage of the royalties (70%) than with traditional publishing (5–10%). The downside is that you might not achieve the same level of wide-scale readership as with a big publisher and you most likely won’t see your book in Waterstones. It’s also highly unlikely that you’ll win the major book awards because they sadly don’t consider self-published books.

However, you’re still a published author and there are many advantages of self-publishing, including building your industry credibility, leaving a legacy, helping people, earning a side income, and more. With self-publishing, there’s also no barrier to entry like there is with options #1 and #2, which is a major positive for authors who either got rejected by publishers or don’t want to waste time waiting to hear back from agents and publishers.

Note that self-publishing doesn’t mean you have to (or should) go it alone. On the contrary, I recommend hiring book professionals to help you make the book look and sound professional and valuable. After all, your name is going on the front of it. There are a few different options to get professional help:

  • You can find “self-publishing companies” who offer pre-publishing services such as editing, design, proofreading, and marketing. However, you are still the publisher—what you’re paying for is the services of experienced book professionals, not to get published.
  • You can hire experienced book professionals (editors, designers, proofreaders, etc.) separately online via individual websites or freelance platforms. You pay them up-front and they don’t get royalties from book sales.
  • You could hire a book coach (which is what I am) to guide you through the process and provide a team of vetted, expert professionals without you having to find them yourself. If you need help with self-publishing, get in touch.

Importantly, self-publishing means you have to market and promote the book yourself, which means you need to spend time learning how to do that. Ideally, you need to build an “author platform” before publishing so you have readers who are ready and waiting (salivating even!) to read your book. Don’t wait until you’ve published to start marketing.

#4 Vanity publisher 

As the name suggests, vanity publishers prey on the “vanity” of authors in wanting to get published. As such, you have to pay them for the privilege of getting published, rather than you getting paid by the publisher like you would with #1. Legitimate publishers earn their money after the book has sold, not before.

Unlike with traditional publishers, you’ll experience little or no scrutiny in whether they accept your book. While this might seem like a positive in not battling to get a publisher, it isn’t a good thing. It simply means that every book they take on means more money for them, so they don’t really care about quality. And even though they charge you to get published, it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily provide editing or other services.

The problem is that vanity publishers can come across like small publishers and it can be difficult to spot the difference. They often look like legitimate publishers offering a publishing deal, or they describe themselves as a “self-publishing company”, yet they don’t offer anything concrete in terms of services provided or might only provide basic, poor-quality editing. If a publisher is asking you to pay to be published by them, be very wary.

If a publisher is happy to accept your book without a book proposal, then watch out. If a publisher reaches out to you saying they want to publish your book, then it’s most likely too good to be true. Legitimate publishers don’t just accept any book that comes their way—there is a barrier to entry. In fact, they are often inundated with submissions and reject 99% of them. No barrier to entry means you’re probably falling into a big hole.

In summary 

There are pros and cons to each type of publishing (though with vanity publishers, the pros are few and far between, so be careful). Ultimately, it’s up to each author to decide whether they want to seek a traditional publisher (big or small) or self-publish. For authors who want to achieve New York Times bestseller status, it’s worth taking the time trying to land a traditional publisher. But for those who are rejected, don’t want to waste time trying, or want to keep a high percentage of their royalties,  then self-publishing can be the path to book success.