Congrats on finishing your novel! Whatever happens next, no one can take that away from you.
So what is next?
1. Decide if you want to be published by an established publisher like Penguin-Random House or Simon & Schuster. These are called “traditional” or “legacy” publishers, and it is very hard to break into them. You cannot even get your book read at a traditional publisher without a literary agent representing you. (See below for an FAQ on this.)
The good news is: anyone can get an agent and anyone can get published. All you need is a great novel!
2. Or, you can publish your novel yourself through a wide variety of self-publishers like Kindle, or with a company that will publish on your behalf. This is called “self-pub” or “indie” (independent).
My personal recommendation: Try for a traditional publisher first. The skills you learn as you search for a literary agent will serve you well if you later choose to “go indie.” Independent publishers are not disappearing any time soon. There will always be a way to self-publish.
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What does “traditional” mean?
Traditional or legacy publishing means the book is purchased by a company that is in the business of printing and selling books, such as Random House or Simon & Schuster. It also refers to any publisher which does not in any way ask for money from the author. Any publisher asking an author for money is either a “vanity press” or is up to something fishy. Traditional publishers typically pay some form of advance against royalties, and handle all of the production costs, including editing, layout, cover design, printing, marketing, etc.
What does “independent” mean?
Independent refers to authors who take full control of their own work, including any and all costs associated with its production. An indie author may very well pay for the following out of her own pocket: Content editing, copyediting, interior book design and layout, cover design, marketing, printing, and shipping. Some indie authors pay for all of these things, some pay for only some. It is generally best, particularly on a first novel, to have a professional to copyedit the book and do a great book cover. Printing and shipping varies, as some places (such as Amazon’s CreateSpace) do “print on demand” or POD, so the author isn’t responsible for that cost.
The reality is that if you want to see your book on actual shelves in bookstores, your best bet will be to look for an agent and try to get published by a traditional publisher. Self- or indie-published books are extraordinarily difficult to get into bookstores. (And yes . . . brick and mortar bookstores are still a huge factor in your success.)
What’s a “Big 5”?
There are generally considered to be five large corporations running the vast majority of traditional publishing imprints. These five (as of 2017) include Penguin Random House; Simon & Schuster; Macmillan; Hachette; and Harper-Collins. Each has various imprints beneath these larger umbrellas. Most of the imprints do not accept unagented manuscripts (also called “unsolicited” manuscripts), and require a literary agent to get a foot in the door.
What exactly is an agent?
A literary agent is someone who has access to editors at traditional publishers and who represents your work to them for a percentage of any sale. The usual rate (as of 2017) is 15% of your advances and royalties. Very few if any legitimate agents charge authors any fees. Also, some agents work closely with their “stable” of authors on revisions, others do not. It is an important relationship and care should be taken not only in searching for a good agent, but in entering a professional relationship that is right for you and your book.
Again: Agents do not get paid until and unless you get paid.