Major traditional publishers do not typically accept unsolicited manuscripts; they usually work with agents, which introduce two entities your manuscript must impress before it can achieve publication.
Agents get masses of manuscripts sent to them every single day. This is why it takes them months to get back to authors, often with a generic “thanks, but no thanks” response. When literary agents and mid to small traditional publishers take time to sit down and sift through the slush pile, they are looking for reasons to say “no” rather than “yes”. Here’s why they say “no”:
Competition is Tough
Because publishers are taking on so few authors, there are a very limited number of new authors that literary agents can represent every year, and competition is high to get picked up. Publishers are running a business, so they need to be assured what they take on sells, so every title they’re pitched by an agent has to equal dollar signs over competing titles.
The Work is Not Quite Ready
Your work may show promise and potential, but agents simply do not have the time to develop your writing and guide you through the revision process. They know that the publishers they pitch to are looking for reasons to say “no”, and that any manuscript they send over to them that needs loads of reworking will be rejected.
They’re Looking for Something Specific
Agents regularly meet publishers to get a good understanding of exactly what they are looking for at that time. This will take into account the sort of authors the publishers already have, and which of those are selling the most copies. For example, a crime editor might buy three new books a year and want: one American thriller, one Scandi noir, and one British cozy crime. If an agent pitches them a gritty, urban, gangland crime thriller, they are simply not going to be interested. Agents basically have shopping lists from the publishers and will only take on manuscripts that match those lists.
The Author Platform Isn’t Large Enough
Traditional publishers and literary agents are going to take notice if you can prove you have a large following already, as they know there’s potential for those people to buy your book. This might be having a top YouTube channel (funny how most top YouTubers have books now), a TV show (especially for non-fiction, such as cooking), or even a popular blog. This is why it’s worth putting yourself out there and connecting with your audience before you even finish writing your book.
Self-publishing invites control over two key areas of the publishing process: creative control and money matters.
As the publisher, you determine whether suggested edits get made and which final cover design is chosen. Sometimes traditionally published authors are asked to cut sections of their books based on feedback from the house’s editor, and several have very little say in the final cover that represents their story. There are reasons for this of course; it’s the job of editors and designers at publishing houses to make these calls, and they wouldn’t have their jobs if they didn’t know what they were doing. But as a self-publisher, you decide which professionals you hire and have the final say on decisions that are made.
The average author royalty earned in traditional publishing is about $1 per book sale, and book advances have to be earned back $1 at a time before you ever see another dime. Deciding to self-publish can mean you earn more per sale, for which you would only receive a fraction if you were with a traditional publishing house.
You can get an idea of how much you’ll earn for every sale of your print book using IngramSpark’s publisher compensation calculator.
There is a stigma that a self-published book won’t travel farther than a writer’s personal bookshelf. This is a myth that should be put to rest in today’s indie publishing landscape.
With book distribution, like that provided by IngramSpark, self-published books have distribution opportunities much like traditionally published books. IngramSpark shares self-published titles with over 39,000 retail partners (including Barnes & Noble and your local independent bookstore), libraries, and major online retailers (including Amazon, Apple, and Kobo).
Independent publishers need to think bigger than selling via Amazon or their author website alone. It’s also time to think bigger than your hometown, as IngramSpark not only distributes to retailers within the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, but worldwide. There’s no reason your book can’t achieve distribution like those produced by big traditional publishers. All you need is the right distribution partner. You never know where or how readers will find your book, so it’s important not to limit your distribution to Amazon alone or relegate sales to just your home country.
As an independent publisher, you have yourself to thank when your book is successful. It is due not just to your writing abilities, but also your business sense. To be a successful traditionally published author is not the same as being a successful self-published author, because as a self-publisher, your success is wholly your own. Self-publishing allows you to:
Self-publishing and traditional publishing don’t have to be an either/or decision. For many authors, getting traditionally published is their dream, and like many things, the path to success in book publishing can be made of stepping stones.
As mentioned previously, the first big stepping stone to becoming traditionally published for many is finding a literary agent. This task can seem extremely daunting, but many have landed a literary agent or book deal by self-publishing first with the following tips:
Hone Your Craft
First things first: you’ve got to be a good writer. Good writing is what grabs the attention of a literary agent. Write every day, write when you don’t want to, and write a lot. Even if you think what you’ve put on paper is bad, you’re actually refining your writing skills the more you exercise your writing abilities.
Invite Yourself to the Party
When you’re just starting out, looking at publishing a book with a major publisher is like standing at the summit of Mount Everest. If you’re not in a position to make that quantum leap just yet (few are), then don’t worry about it! Platforms like IngramSpark allow writers to publish their own work, get it out into the world, and start making a name for themselves.
At the end of the day, so much of your success in landing an agent is going to be who you know. Go to events, attend readings, and engage with people in the industry on social media.
Use Self-Publishing as Your Launching Point
Your self-published book can help you build up your author platform and acquire sales to gain momentum behind your name. Once you’ve achieved this, it's time to start thinking about your next project.
When your new manuscript or proposal is ready and you know it's time to get an agent to represent it, the only method is to start emailing like crazy, and reference your impressive sales and following generated by your first book. Start by compiling a list of literary agencies, and be sure to do your research on which agent represents which genre. The worst thing you can do is waste time and energy sending your fantasy fiction YA novel to an agent who only represents nonfiction memoirs. Email as many agents as you can until you find the one who is just as excited about your book as you are.
Much like traditional publishing, self-publishing is an important business decision. It can be treated lightly or executed quickly, but authors should expect out of it exactly what they put in. If you invest very little into getting your work to market, then you’ll see very little return and very little attention from readers and those in the publishing industry.
This chapter was compiled from the following posts on the IngramSpark blog:
"Why Literary Agents and Publishers Reject Books" by Leila Dewji, co-founder of I_Am Self-Publishing
"Why I Left Traditional Publishing in Favor of Self-Publishing" by Stephanie Chandler, founder and CEO of the Nonfiction Authors Association
"Letting Go of the Traditional Publishing Dream” by Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press
"Don’t Be Fooled: Common Misconceptions About Self-Publishing" by IngramSpark
"Self-Publishing to Land a Book Deal" by Jane Friedman, co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet