Recently, the members of the free online writing community I coordinate and I have been discussing publishing paths, and as part of those discussions, I wrote up this rough and ready primer on traditional publishing. A couple of folks suggested I share it with more folks, especially given the recent stories about authors not understanding things like advances.  I hope you find this information helpful, too. 

Before I begin, though, let me say something – many of us, myself included, have turned to traditional publishing because we feel the validation the process will give us is something we need. We hope that if the gatekeepers of publishing approve our work to go into the world we will feel like we are “real writers” or our work as “actual merit.”

This affirmation might come for some writers, but for me and a lot of the writers I know, that validation wears off very quickly. Soon, we can settle back into our insecurities about the value of work work.

So I hope you can hear me when I say this – the ONLY thing that will reward you consistently for the writing is writing itself. Not book contracts, not huge sales’ numbers, not a blurb from Stephen King or Jesmyn Ward. Just the writing. Therefore, find ways to validate the worth of your own writing – and it has so much worth – so that you can keep going no matter what AND feel these external affirmations as bonuses, not essentials.

Fiction Vs. Nonfiction in Trad. Publishing

I need to begin with a bit of fundamental information here: for fiction, you need to have a draft of your full work – full novel, full collection of stories, full novella, etc – before you start looking for an agent or publisher.

For nonfiction, you need a very clear picture of your work – who is it for? what genre is it? what ideas do you have for marketing? where does it fit in the world of already-published books, etc? But you don’t need the full manuscript (except perhaps for memoirs – message me if you want to talk specifically about memoir.) The answers to those questions need to be included in a book proposal. (This post from Jane Friedman gives the BEST advice on writing a book proposal.)

Agents, An Almost Always Essential Member of your Team

Every week, I talk with a writer who wants to know how to just send their book to a publisher without getting an agent. Every week, I tell them not to bother unless they know someone at a small (I mean VERY small press) or have been given a personal and influential invitation to that press. Otherwise, they need an agent.

An agent is an amazing advocate for your work. Their job is to find the right publisher who wants to publish and sell your work. They only get paid if they sell the book – NOTE THAT. If an agent says they want money up front, run away. That’s not how this works.

Because they only get paid if they sell your work, they are particular. They want good books, yes, but they also want books they can convince a publisher will sell and make the publisher money. So even if they love a book idea, which was the case with my book The Slaves Have Names, if they can’t figure out a way to sell it, they won’t represent it.

An agent takes a cut of your advance and royalties from a book, and depending on the contract you sign with the agent, they may also have first dibs on any other books you publish in the future.

Publishers – How Payment Works

Once your agent has helped you get your book into the best shape it can be – sometimes they ask you to do a really thorough revision – they will then “shop” your book to publishers, i.e. they’ll send the book to the publishers they think are the best fit for the book.

Then, the publisher considers similar things that the agent considered: can they market it? Can they make their money back and more? If they think they can, they’ll offer you a contract.

A lot of traditional publishing contracts include an advance of some cash that is intended to help the writer have time to finish the book. Most of these advances will not replace your income from a full-time job. For example, my advance for Plantation Jesus was $1,000 (half of the total advance, which was split with my co-author Skot).  Sometimes advances are higher – a friend got a $100,000 advance but that was paid out over three years and covered 2 or 3 books.

Then, after the book is published, your portion of the money earned through royalties goes to “earn back” that advance, which means until your book sells enough copies that the publisher makes back the money they paid you in advance, you don’t get money from book sales. Note – this can take a long time since you will be making typically 10-15% of the cover cost of each copy of your book you sell. So for Plantation Jesus, which came out last year, I have still not earned back my advance, so the book isn’t paying me anything more yet.

Getting the Book to Print

After the book is bought, the publisher will then give you notes for revision from the editor that gets assigned your book. So your book will be edited again, and this is a good thing. These edits will focus on making the book as strong as it can be for the market the publisher has determined.

The publisher will also create a cover design – sometimes with your input and sometimes without it. They will format the book for print and take care of distributing the book to bookstores, libraries, etc.


While the book is being produced for publication, the publisher will also put together a marketing plan – sometimes with and sometimes without your input. They’ll decide where to take out ads, who to get blurbs from, who will get Advanced Reader Copies, and how they will get the word out on the book.

Then, they’ll execute that plan with a focus on getting as much press before release and in the two weeks after release.  After those two weeks, most publishers slide your book further back in their priorities because they need to focus on other books they are publishing.

If you want a long-game book marketing strategy, you need to take some cues from indie-published authors and execute those plans yourself.  Unless you are Tayari Jones or Celeste Ng – or have a major platform that will guarantee attendance and, thus, book sales at most events – most publishers aren’t going to book you a national book tour. It’s just too expensive for too little return, so I highly recommend you bone up on marketing yourself, even if you are going the trad. publishing route.

The Next Book

Then, you do this all again for the next book. Sometimes, your agent will want to represent you for your next book, and sometimes the publisher will want that next book, too. Sometimes, they won’t. A lot of their decision about whether to continue representing and publishing you will have to do with book sales.

So there you have it, the super-quick overview of traditional publishing. I definitely recommend you look at all of Jane Friedman’s information on publishing in her Writing Advice Archive. Her resources are stellar.

And of course, comment below or email me, and I’ll try to answer questions or point you to people who can.


Sales have been poking along here, so I’m up to 280 copies of Love Letters To Writers, which means I have to sell three-quarters of my goal in the last quarter of the year. I’ve got a big promotion coming up in early November, so that will help. . . but we shall see.  Sometimes, the best laid plans . . .


If you’re thinking of doing NaNoWriMo in November – I am! – these books might be just the ticket for getting yourself sorted before the month begins! Some great options here, including one of my books. Get the full list here!