Why authors want a publisher and why it’s so hard to get one

With the explosion of self-publishing over the last decade or so—and with its benefits of speed, ease, and accessibility—you might assume that there’s no good reason to opt for a traditional book publisher these days. Not so fast. There are still lots of benefits of getting published in the traditional way, and the bar for publishing is still incredibly high for a reason. Today, I’ll give you the inside scoop on traditional publishing and why it’s so hard to land a publisher.

The benefits

Of course, every publisher is different and offers various benefits and downsides, but generally speaking, there are four reasons why an author would benefit from a traditional publisher:

  1. Experience: With a publisher, you are gaining a wealth of experience in people who understand the publishing industry, genre standards, marketing, etc. These people will guide you through the process and do at least some of the work for you. With self-publishing, you’re on your own or have to pay up-front for this experience by hiring freelancers.
  2. Cost: The publisher often provides editing, design, proofreading, and so on—and none of this costs you a penny up-front. In fact, you may get a deal that pays you an “advance” to write the book. The publisher doesn’t take any money until the book starts making sales. If you’re self-publishing, paying for professionals can get very expensive.
  3. Marketing: While most publishers expect authors to do at least some of the marketing themselves, they understand how to market a book and have the resources and connections to do so—including deals with bookshops and retailers. By contrast, self-publishing authors often struggle to market their books, and bookshops very rarely stock self-published books.
  4. Awards: If your dream is to win a major award such as the Booker prize, then you need a traditional publisher on board because these award panels unfortunately don’t consider self-published books. Other book accolades such as the New York Times bestseller list only consider sales from bookshops, again ruling out self-published authors.

In short, there’s a reason why the big name books you hear about all come from traditional publishers, and why the self-published books that make it big end up being the famous exceptions. It’s because publishers are experts in publishing books and getting people to read them. Most authors are not.

(The caveat is that none of this means traditional publishing is better than self-publishing. On the contrary, self-publishing has a ton of benefits that might make it preferable to an author, and we’ll look at the benefits and costs in our next blog.)

The difficulties

Unfortunately, it’s also the case that traditional publishing is by no means easy and that the bar for entry is extremely high. It’s estimated that publishers reject 99% of submissions, so only a tiny fraction of authors get a publishing deal. This means that self-publishing is sometimes the only option for authors.

A common question is: but why is it so difficult? 

The most obvious answer is: because publishing is a commercial business. While publishers don’t have a crystal ball to foresee which books will be lucrative, they do have to reasonably believe they could make a decent amount of money from publishing it. In essence, it has to be something that they anticipate readers will want to read and something that their in-house teams can work with. This means…

If they don’t believe there is a big enough market actively looking for it, then they will reject it.

If it would take too much work (read that as “money paying staff”) to get it up to scratch, then they will reject it.

If it’s too similar to all of the other books on the market and lacks differentiation, they will reject it.

If it’s too different to everything on the market and there’s limited evidence on whether this kind of book will be successful, they will reject.

And so on.

The less obvious answer is: because most book submissions aren’t good enough. To land a publisher, you need a strong, solid, and compelling query letter and manuscript (fiction) or book proposal and sample chapters (nonfiction). This means you need to understand how to submit the manuscript/proposal, what publishers are looking for, and why they would want to publish your book. 

Importantly, your query letter or book proposal has to convince the agent or publisher to actually read the sample chapters or manuscript. It doesn’t matter how good your book is if the gatekeeper never makes it past the query letter or proposal before hitting “delete”. If you don’t know how to write a compelling query letter or proposal, spend your time researching or hire an editor who knows what publishers want.

Finally, and it should go without saying—yet it doesn’t—follow the submission guidelines laid out by the agent or publisher. If the publisher says “we do not accept unsolicited manuscripts”, then do not—I repeat do not—waste your time emailing them on the off-chance. Instead, research literary agents in your genre and submit to a handful of them. If they’re interested, they’ll pitch to publishers on your behalf. And follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Or email. 

The verdict

So, there are still benefits of landing a traditional publisher, and for authors who want to make it to the big leagues or see their book in bookshops, it’s pretty much a necessity. However, there’s a high barrier to entry, so authors who are striving to bag a publisher need to spend their time researching and writing a compelling proposal and make sure they follow the submission guidelines.

If you need help writing a book proposal for your nonfiction book or figuring out which agents represent nonfiction, we can help, so feel free to get in touch.