Getting Your Book Published: How to Get Started

Steps for How to Make It Happen

Book signing
If you're willing to put in the work, your idea might someday become a book. Getty Images Entertainment

"I have a book idea. How do I get published?"

I get some version of this question from friends-of-friends, relatives and readers at least once a week. So I'll start by writing exactly what I tell those friends-of-friends and relatives — read my articles on this site, why don't you? Why do you think I've been doing this for over five years?

Okay, now that that's out of my system, let me get started answering the latest iteration of the question, which came in through Facebook from a reader:

"I have never written a book before, but have a great idea on paper for one...

"How Do I Get Started with Publishing?"

First of all, dear reader, I'm taking you at your word that you really are serious about your idea and willing to do the tremendous — TREMENDOUS — amount of work it takes to write a book and find a publisher for it and find an audience for it – not necessarily in that order.

[Note that I'm writing about traditionally published books – self-publishing is a whole 'nother deal – and even more work. Here are questions you should ask yourself to help you decide whether or not you should self-publish. Also, read this frank and informative article about the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing.]

Again, I'm assuming you're serious because there are an awful lot of people out there who, when they say, "I have a book idea" balk at the very next, very vital step, which is:

1. Research Your Book Idea

A literary agent and/or publisher will expect you as an author to know if something similar to your book exists on the market. Do your market research to understand things like the market, the competition, the right agents and your all-important target audience - i.e. who your book will appeal to.

For example, for non-fiction, even though your vision of the book is similar but much better than anything on the market, the agent and publisher are going to want to know that you know exactly what those competitive titles are and what needs they don't fill that your book will.

For fiction, you'll be also be expected to know the comparable — "comp" — titles, successful books that you can point to and draw positive comparisons. (For example, when pitching Girl on the Train, the comp title would've been Gone Girl. Both were murder mysteries with unreliable female narrators – and the fact that they both had "girl" in the title helped with reader recognition, too… but I digress.)

So, again, you need to research the idea early and often to keep up with the market.

2. Get Your Book Idea Down On Paper*

That Is…Write the Novel or the Book Proposal

This is the most important step but, again, a lot of "idea people" would love for someone else to do this part for them. But ideas are like… noses. Everyone has one (will the nose-less lobby ding me for that?) — and everyone is too preoccupied with his or her own ideas to listen to yours. Plus, you can't copyright an idea.

Copyright will protect your execution of the idea — and your personal vision or story may just be the piece of work that will inform or uplift or entertain or enlighten or bring about world peace.

 

But first, the idea for your book has to be fully expressed, otherwise, nobody's going to "get it." So... 

Do you have a story for a novel that you can't get out of your head? Then get it out of your head and onto paper* — write it! 

Or are you an expert in your field who knows that your ideas would be helpful to an audience? Then develop a book proposal.

*Do people still use paper? Okay, flesh out your idea on the computer.

3. Understand That Your First Draft May Indeed Suck

Your first draft might not be ready for prime time (it absolutely won't be ready for prime time!), especially if it's a novel. So make sure you get some good feedback and revise. If you need to, get some paid editorial help.

And while you're doing all that writing and rewriting, you need to…

4. Build Your Community of Writers and Readers

As much as the quality of your storytelling or the appeal of your subject, literary agents and publishers are going to want to know that you have built a platform for your work — that you can help bring eyeballs to those literal or virtual pages.

If you haven't already, get yourself and your writing out into the world.

Join associations of like-minded writers; participate on social media and on Goodreads, blog or start a blogging group, start your own YouTube channel. Medium is a cross between social media and a blogging platform – it's a good place to write opinion essays that relate to the topic of your book (I wrote and posted an essay about John Newbery there, to see what the platform was like. The experience was fun and there are a lot of authors on Medium.)

Finding an audience is often harder than the book writing is, but book publishers are in the business to sell books — and that means they need a lot of people who are willing to shell out the money for your book.

5. Find a Literary Agent to Represent You

Having a literary agent is key if you want to be published by the Big Five publishers. Agents are the gatekeepers, they are the bouncers for the publishers' club. They are the people who assess your work and you — are you an amateur writer or do you have ​the potential to be pro enough to be let in? Read more about exactly what literary agents do to get your book published and how to get a literary agent.

6. Get Rejected and Lick Your Wounds

It happens to the best of us… but the pros take feedback from the rejections and use it to improve their writing and their presentation of their work, to refined their book proposals, to learn more about the market and where their books fit in, look harder for an agent or an editor who might be more inclined towards your work.

7. Don't Get Discouraged

Does publishing a book all sound very, very complicated and very, very hard?

That's because it is. I'm reminded of this quote from Leonardo DaVinci:

"God sells us all things at the price of the labor."

Publishing is part art, all business — and it's not for the faint-hearted.

But IF you are really willing to do what it takes, IF you are willing to spend very likely more than a few years of writing and rewriting and networking, IF you have the stamina and the guts and the persistence to repeat these steps… and repeat these steps... and repeat these steps... and IF you are willing to work and learn and grow…

Then you will one day see your idea as a "book" and, by that time, you will be worthy of the title of author. And then you'll get to see what the rest of the publishing process is like.