How to get your novel published traditionally

Although writing stories is always valuable, many of us dream of getting published traditionally and sharing our stories with a wider audience. Making money as an author is always a nice bonus and seeing your own creation in a bookstore is a feeling like no other.

Getting published can work differently in different countries, so in this post I give you general guidelines and best practices rather than a step-by-step guide. To get more specific information, it’s best to research publishers in the country where you want to get published, especially if you’re somewhere other than in the US or the UK.

This far, I’ve been published in Finland and that experience probably isn’t useful for the wider audience, but I have just started pursuing getting published in the UK and I’ll definitely share those experiences with you.

If you’ve already written a novel that is ready (or almost ready) to be shared with the world, read this post to learn how to get published traditionally.

Don’t make these mistakes if you want to publish your novel

The very worst mistake you could probably make is focusing on the publishing process before you’ve even figured out how to write a story. I frequently come across people on Reddit who have so many questions about if they’re likely to get published or if they should pursue publishing when they’ve got zero writing experience under their belts.

Don’t start writing a book because you just like the idea of being a published author. You need to be committed to writing an amazing story, not to reaching the image of a published author you made up in your head, because your book is always going to be your most important asset.

Another mistake is thinking you’ll get there without hard work or without learning from others. Your “genius idea” will not be enough to get you published and you definitely cannot make it by thinking you’ll just outwit everyone by doing your own things instead of listening to expert advice. Google is free so there’s no need to improvise.

I know, this was a bit of tough love, but some people need it. I don’t want you to waste your time on a dream you’re not even remotely equipped to achieve because you keep looking for shortcuts. So let’s get into what you actually need to do to get published.

First, write a great book

Writing a novel that people want to read should be your utmost priority.

First of all, you need a great story. Readers are willing to overlook a lot of things if the story is great. Then, you write that amazing story the best way you can. You make it better and then you make it even better.

Oh, but actually, before you start writing or even planning that story, you need to make sure it’s something that people will want to read. That means you’ll need to think of your genre, and later, your premise. There IS an audience for every genre, but what publishers care about is how big that audience is.

You’ll also need to consider trends. Sure, novels about teenaged vampires might have been super popular at some point but in 2024 you might need something else. Unless, of course, you have a unique angle and you aren’t just copying someone else’s idea because you felt like it might be profitable.

Only send out a POLISHED manuscript

I know, the idea of getting published is exciting. You want to get started on the process as quickly as possible. However, this is no place to rush.

If your novel seems rushed and badly edited, that’s going to get you tossed in the pile of discarded manuscripts sooner than you can say Dickens. I know what I said about a good story mattering the most, but that doesn’t mean you get to do a sloppy job with everything else. What it does mean is that you can’t replace a good story with exquisite writing.

You wouldn’t send your children out to the world unprepared and thus you shouldn’t send out your manuscript unpolished. Yes, there’s only so much that you can do without professional editing and as a one-person team, but no agent or publisher is going to see the “potential” in your badly written manuscript. They don’t have the time for that.

Only send a full manuscript when requested

Where I’m from, we just send our full manuscripts to publishers, but when it comes to querying agents, you don’t necessarily get to send your full manuscript straight away.

An agent might only want your synopsis or a short description of the story at first, and then if they want to hear more, they might ask for the first chapters and then later more if it all goes well. Do NOT send your full manuscript unless specifically requested.

The UK agents that I queried generally wanted the first three chapters or the first 10K words of your manuscript when you first approach them. One agency wanted the full manuscript straight away with the synopsis on the first page. Whatever it is they want, make sure you only send them exactly what they asked for – no more and no less.

Have a reason for why you should get published

A unique angle to an already loved genre or premise might be reason enough to publish your book but you should also work on yourself.

Have you achieved something that makes you especially capable of writing the story you’re writing? Maybe you’ve worked as a nurse for 10 years and you’ve now written a wartime romance between a soldier and a nurse. Maybe you’ve been on the town council for ages and you’ve written a murder mystery that involves small-town politics.

Sure, stuff like that is pretty hard to engineer afterwards but they might give you ideas on how to use your life experience to write engaging stories. Some agents are interested in “underrepresented voices”, so if you’re in any kind of minority and that reflects in your writing, don’t be afraid to mention that.

Something that you can have control over is building a social media platform. I know, it’s not my favourite thing either, but publishers really like it if you already have an existing audience. If you’ve got ten thousand followers and you pitch your baseball romance novel to them with a raging success, you’re more likely to actually get a book deal for that novel.

Manage your expectations

Who doesn’t love the idea of overnight success? You’ve been working night and day to write the next bestseller and when it’s finally time to look into publishers, you get people fighting over the publishing rights of your novel left and right. You can pick your choice and just watch the success roll in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite go like that. Maybe for someone it does once every twenty years or so, but you definitely shouldn’t rely on it. You should expect to get a pile of rejection letters before you even get a maybe, and that’s not a judgement on your writing skills, it’s just the reality.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be positive but I just don’t want you to put too much weight on a nice dream. Believe that you can “make it” but be flexible with the timing.

Even when you get that coveted publishing deal (I accidentally typed “publishing dream” at first, which was strangely accurate.) it doesn’t mean you’ve now reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. First of all, the money isn’t that good when you’re just starting out, but also, there’s still a lot of work ahead of you. And sometimes books just flop and you never hear from the author again. Hopefully that won’t be you.

Research agents and publishers before you submit your manuscript

I know not every country has literary agents and in a lot of places you can submit your manuscripts straight to publishers. Still, whether we’re talking about agents or publishers, the same rules apply. Agents are just the middlemen between writers and publishers, the people who have all the connections and experience who do the talking for you.

We’ve got the internet so it’s a lot easier to do your research now than it was previously. You can easily find a list of agents or publishers to look into and then see if they’ve previously represented or published books in the same genre as yours. There’s no point in contacting absolutely everyone and hoping something will stick – you don’t want to waste anyone’s time by querying a manuscript that would be a bad fit for everyone involved.

If there are published authors you know that write similar stuff to your stories, check out their websites to see who they’re represented by and who has previously published them. This can help you go after the right people.

Where to find an agent to represent you and your book

Fortunately Google is free, but you could also purchase Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook if you want to get published in the UK. I don’t know what the equivalent might be in the US, but you could use a website like Publisher’s Marketplace. Query Tracker is another wonderful website (and it’s free!) where authors can look for agents.

With so many options out there, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged, but fortunately Reedsy also has lists of literary agents for you to browse. You can find agents from the UK, US, Canada, India and Australia. Just make sure they really are currently open for submissions when you check out their websites.

Pay attention to each agent’s wishes

Not every agent represents every kind of author and not every publisher publishes every possible genre. You need to make sure you’re pitching to the right people.

When I queried agents in the UK, they usually described what they liked seeing in their favourite books, what specific elements they liked in specific genres and what would be interesting to see in books that writers submit to them. Some had very short and specific wish lists, like “a YA fantasy with thriller elements and unicorns”.

Don’t waste anyone’s time by pitching to agents who aren’t looking for anything remotely like your novel. At the same time, it’s totally fine to emphasize different aspects of your story as long as it’s accurate. If you’ve written a historical mystery with intergenerational trauma and a touch of romance, you have three different things you can emphasize when you pitch three different agents.

Keep track of who you send your manuscript to

I know you have a lot of things going on and a lot on your mind, so you shouldn’t expect to remember all the details of every submission. That’s why you need to have a query tracker.

Sure, you can buy query trackers for Excel, Google Sheets and Notion, but you could just create a spreadsheet yourself. In the very least, have a column for who you’ve queried, when did you do it, when you can follow up if needed and what response did you get.

Seriously, you don’t want to end up sending your manuscript twice to the same people. That would be highly unprofessional. Also, if you can expect a response in six weeks, you don’t want to follow up with them after three weeks just because it definitely felt like a longer time. Just do yourself a favour and start tracking this stuff immediately.

My Novel Writing Hub for Notion actually includes a query tracker among many other things, but like I said, you can just create a simple spreadsheet yourself.

Be polite and professional at EVERY STEP of the way

Listen, I know you’ve got your manners. Your grandma would never forgive you if you were acting out of line. But somebody out there needs the reminder.

When you’re contacting agents or publishers, always stay professional and polite. Don’t put emojis in your query letter and for Pete’s sake make sure you proofread what you’re sending out.

When (not if) you get a rejection, you might not need to reply anything. If you DO want to reply, let it be “thank you for your time” with some polite embellishments – don’t call them an arse who doesn’t know anything about literature and definitely don’t try to argue with them.

Follow submission guidelines exactly

The quickest way to waste everyone’s time is to improvise instead of following the exact guidelines you’re given when it comes to submitting your manuscript. Have the exact font size and line space that is asked, include the kind of cover letter that is requested and include absolutely everything that you need to include but NO MORE.

If everyone you’re sending your manuscript to has different requirements, tough. You still need to do exactly what you’re asked. Don’t rush this part of the process even if you’re eager to get your manuscript out there in the world because not following the rules could mean you don’t even get considered at all. Don’t think they’ll make an exception for you just because your writing is so good, there’s more competition out there than you can even imagine.

I recently spent two and a half days querying ten agents. It rarely took me less than an hour per email. Even if all the materials are requested to be sent as attachments, you also need to write a professional email to go with them.

Take time writing your query letter

In the US, (and possibly in other places but not in the UK) agents want you to approach them with a query letter. Essentially, you need to sell your writing to the agent so that they’ll want to hear more from you, and if it goes well, they’ll request more material.

This might seem like an annoying extra step after you’ve already written an entire novel but you should dedicate at least a couple of days to writing your query letter properly and then personalize it for each agent you send it to. Make sure you’ve got all the elements that are requested, and if you have no idea where to start, here’s a quick list of things that can be included:

  • A polite introduction of who you are
  • Explanation of why you’re reaching out to this specific agent or publisher
  • The title of your novel, what genre it belongs in and how many words is it
  • A compelling logline that captures the attention and hooks the reader
  • A brief summary of your plot incuding the main characters and the main conflict
  • 2-3 comparable titles (more on this soon)
  • Your author bio including any accomplishments you might have and your author platform
  • Contact information
  • A polite closing of the letter

Remember to tailor the query letter to each agent or publisher you’re sending it to and do follow their guidelines rather than this blog post.

What if you need a cover letter instead?

When I queried agents in the UK, nobody asked for a query letter. Instead, they wanted your cover letter, synopsis and a sample of your novel (usually the first three chapters).

A cover letter includes some of the same elements as the query letter I described above but usually it was requested as a separate file so it wouldn’t include any of the polite pleasantries you would include in your email. Generally, you need to describe your book with a quick hook and then a short summary, and then explain why you’re the right person to have written this particular book.

Before I started, I was naive and thought my pre-written cover letter was going to be enough, but I ended up changing it A LOT for each agent I queried. I wanted to emphasize different aspects of the novel for different people, and some agencies wanted more information about me as the author and some wanted less.

Write multiple versions of your synopsis

Your synopsis is something else that you need to have a couple of different versions of. My initial synopsis was two pages long, written with 1.15 line height, and in hindsight it was probably a bit too long. When I ran into the first agency who required a one-page synopsis written in 1.5 line height, I had to rewrite the whole thing and that actually turned out better than the original.

A synopsis is a brief description of the main plot points of your novel, though you should focus on the emotional journey of your protagonist rather than just writing a list of things that happen. Writing a synopsis is hard because you have to leave out a lot, and many of those things might feel very important to you, but the person you’re querying needs to be able to get a bird’s eye view of your story. That means you also need to reveal the end and any major plot twists you might have.

Have a list of comp titles

Comparable titles or comps are other novel that yours could be compared to. I know there are writers out there who think they’ve written something that has never been written before and that their work couldn’t possibly be compared to anything, but not only are they likely wrong, they’re also shooting themselves in the foot.

Publishers and agents need a frame of reference. They need to know if your book is going to be “Anne of Green Gables meets Fallout” (actually that sounds like an incredible idea) or if it’s “like Game of Thrones in Mongolia except based on real events“. It’s a quick way of figuring out what your story is like but also who the audience is going to be. This is also where that fresh angle comes in.

You should already know SOME novels that are comparable to yours since you should always read in the genre that you write in. If you can’t come up with a satisfying list of 2-3 titles, you’ll have to do some research. Find lists based on genre or vibes on Goodreads and read the descriptions of promising titles. Ask other readers if they know any books that are “like X but with more Y and less Z”, for example.

If you start reading more within the genre when you’re still working on writing your novel, coming up with these titles will be easier. Having them before you even start the writing process can be good, too, but you’ll want to include recent titles and you don’t know how long writing your novel will actually take!

Network within the industry

If there are any writing conferences near you, attending them could be greatly beneficial to your writing career. You won’t just learn more about publishing but you could possibly also meet people with useful connections.

Befriending other authors in your area or within your genre is also always a good idea. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re in direct competition with each other and must therefore treat every other author as a foe. There’s always more to be learned and your friends can help you navigate the industry.

Agents are out there in the social media as well and sometimes you might get a chance to connect with them. In the very least, follow relevant ones and stay up to date to what they’re doing and working on.

Be patient

Querying can be a waiting game for the most part. After you’ve done your bit, you need to wait to hear back from the agents or publishers. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing for you to do between sending out your manuscript and getting a publishing deal, though.

Follow up if allowed

Do NOT pester agents and publishers about your manuscript, but if they allow follow-ups in the submission guidelines, you can ask after your manuscript if you don’t hear from them.

This is where a query tracker is especially handy. You don’t want to be hasty but you also don’t want to forget you were planning to follow up in a timely manner.

Be open to feedback

If you’re lucky, your rejection letters might include feedback. This is very rare, though, but if it happens to you, you should absolutely take all the feedback into account. If a publishing professional is telling you something, you want to listen, even if it’s painful to hear.

If you stay patient but you’re still getting nothing but rejections, you might want to get some outside opinions. Ask for other authors or avid readers what they think of your story and what they think could be improved. Although luck is definitely a factor in getting published, there could be a very valid reason for why you aren’t getting picked up, and you want to fix any issues rather than give up.

Keep improving your materials and your manuscript

I know we like to hear stories of authors who got 150 rejection letters before they got picked up by a publisher and became New York Times bestsellers, but what we don’t usually hear is what those authors did in the meantime.

More than likely, they weren’t just waiting. They were applying any feedback they got and they kept improving their manuscripts. They read more books and attended workshops. You want to do the same, too, if you want to increase your chances of getting published.

If you never get a single request for more material, it could also be that your query/cover letter isn’t good enough or that your synopsis leaves a lot to be desired for. Keep improving them and ask for feedback from other writers who have walked the walk.

Sometimes getting published is just about luck

Sometimes it’s the right kind of book that appears at the right time that gets published. Often, the wrong kind of book at the wrong time gets overlooked no matter how good it is.

The reality is, there are a lot of aspiring authors in the world. There’s no way that every great book will get published because there simply aren’t enough resources to publish them all. Sometimes not-so-great books get published because someone saw that a unique story could sell well in a specific market. (I bet there’s at least one book you can think of at the top of your head.)

Keep learning and don’t give up

Okay, some people should give up, but only if they’re not willing to keep learning.

Writing books that people love is a skill, and that means you can learn that skill. You can hone it. You might not become the very best at it, but there’s still room for you. And hey, if you never get your publishing deal, you can still share your stories in other ways and you can even consider self-publishing.

Any way of sharing your story with the world is valid.

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