FROM AGENT TO PUB DAY: THE 8 PHASES OF TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING
(Originally written for Creative Pinellas, as a Professional Artist Grantee!)
The literary world keeps their secrets close to the vest. So I thought I’d pillage recent memories and offer a step-by-step breakdown of the process for curious minds. This is only my personal experience, and like everything in life, paths vary. Assembly required. External use only. You get it.
There are 8 distinct phases of the traditional publishing process. Buckle in. ACQUISITION This is hands down the most difficult part of the process. I heard NO many, many, many times before I heard YES. Two years of NO, in fact. Over 100 NOs or no response at all (every author’s personal favorite).
This may be of little help, but in the end I believe it came down to coincidence and a little dumb luck. My debut novel, Thieves, Beasts & Men, is set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the agent who eventually signed me happened to have spent some time there and felt a sense of nostalgia when reading my query letter. I’ll post my original query at the very end of this post so you can check it out. If you’re an aspiring author, maybe it’ll help you craft your own.
Within a week of sending out a new batch of queries, I received an email from an agent requesting the full manuscript. About a week after she received it, I got another email saying she’d like to speak with me about representation. I squealed, cried, twirled. The normal stuff. During that call, she discussed everything she loved about the book, what she envisioned for its future, etc.
This was by far and away one of the most celebrated days of my entire life. And it was a very stressful and long-awaited process, so don’t be fooled by the pared down anecdote above. I had my YES. After 2 years of NO and multiple give-ups. But it will eventually happen. Keep going.
When Thieves, Beasts & Men went out, I was offered publishing contracts from two different houses. Here’s what happens next: When a publishing house is interested in your book, they’ll set up a conference call between you, your agent, and the editor who is trying to acquire your work. (Editors are the touch point for any given publishing house. It’s rare to talk to anyone at the house outside of the editor.) This call is very similar to the initial agent phone call. The editors are trying to woo you. They tell you how much they love the work, and it’s up to you to read between the lines and figure out if they not only loved it, but if they GET it. Your editor should understand your vision and champion beside you.
After I spoke with both editors, it was time to powwow with my agent about the best choice for me. She guided me away from one publishing house who was offering a joint publication and film rights. Her theory was that she could negotiate better film rights directly if she were able to retain the power to do so. It’s hard for an author to reject a combination book/film deal, but when you sign with an agent, you have to trust her guidance. Fingers crossed that time will prove that decision was the correct one.
Upon choosing an editor/publisher, the agent and editor will hash out your contract. Rights, royalties, advances, all that stuff. You talk to your agent about your hopes and dreams within a contract – never the editor. You sign the contract, and then you are officially in the club. Shortly after, you’ll discuss a timeframe for your book. This includes when final edits will begin, when they need to be completed by, when you will be assigned a publicist, when books will go to print, etc. With Thieves, we began final edits about three months after the contract was signed. So that was a good three months to celebrate, get tired of waiting, and begin the next book in order to pass the time. Always just begin the next book already. EDITING I have to backtrack a little when it comes to editing. Some literary agents will edit your manuscript before sending it out to publishing houses. Some do not edit at all. Mine was very hands-on, and we spent about three months bouncing the novel back and forth. I would receive her notes, then make suggested changes (or choose not to), and back it would go again. Over and over. I was so grateful to finally have an agent that I took her every suggestion as gospel, and I shouldn’t have. In the end, I was left staring at a manuscript that was still very much mine, and yet something was gone. Too much of me got edited out in the process, and I insisted that I go over it one final time and add back some of the magic that I deleted too ambitiously. Once this was complete, she gave her thumbs up, and that’s when we began planning our submissions to houses.
And we’re back.
When final edits begin with your editor, it’s a similar process as with your agent (if your agent edited). It bounces back and forth for a while until no more changes or polishing is recommended. (Side note – I absolutely LOVED my editor. I felt such a connection w her that I can’t really explain. I got very lucky.) DESIGN & TYPESETTING It was at this stage that my editor suggested I create some illustrations to serve as chapter art. I didn’t immediately jump at this opportunity, and I’ll tell you why. Yes, I’m a fine artist as well, but I didn’t want to downplay the literary form by filling it with imagery. I wanted to make sure the story stood on its own. Eventually I got over myself and made some cool illustrations for my book.
Now comes the best part: the cover! It’s almost unheard of for an author to have input of any kind on the cover, but this was very important to me. One of my few requests was that I have cover design final approval. Every author wants to land at one of the largest publishing houses. But there’s a lot to be said for landing at a smaller press. I’m not sure I would’ve been given any design input whatsoever at a larger house. But with a small press, this was granted. It probably didn’t hurt my cause that I work in fine art, and have a degree in graphic designer.
When my editor reached out and asked for cover design inspiration that she could pass along to the designer, I scoured the internet for cover layouts that I thought would represent Thieves well. I wanted the main image to be feminine yet dark. Moody. And most importantly, I wanted it to portray a sense of disconnectedness and confusion. After stating this in the email, I included a few stock images that appealed to me. I also included a photograph I’d taken while working on an underwater series called, To The Depths Go The Fallen, to show her what I meant when I said “feminine, dark, moody, and disconnected from reality”.
I included it only as inspiration, but the editor loved my photograph so much that it became the actual cover. PROOFREADING The manuscript will be assigned to a copy editor. I’m quite in love with the English language, so although this might be drudgery for many folks, it made my little heart flutter. I received documents that noted all of the idiosyncratic phrasing that was in my book. Things that might have otherwise been flagged as grammatically incorrect, but it’s the copyeditor’s job to make note of the artistic flair of each individual author. This document is called a style sheet. There are also lists of grammatical corrections. For example, you only use the term one another if you’re referring to three or more. If it’s only two, it’s each other. How fun!
One of my favorite steps in the process was receiving my “Advance Reader Copy”, or “galley”. In the past, these were printed copies, bound and looking very much like the finished product. It was a trophy I couldn’t wait to put on my shelf. Like holding the original script of a movie you love. Unfortunately, due to Covid, and what we now know was the beginning of a paper shortage, I did not receive the bound galley I’d fantasized about. I received what’s called an eARC instead. Electronic Advance Reader Copy. It was still one of the best days I spent on this unique journey. To flip past the front cover and see the publisher info in the front matter, the dedication, the prologue and the chapter opening, was pure magic. MARKETING I can’t spot enough of a difference between marketing and publicity for me to explain it properly. I still struggle with the differences myself. But I just googled it! Apparently marketing is paid advertisements while publicity is earned.
Hm. I think I’ll talk about blurbs here, instead. That seems on point.
After proofreading, your editor will start to ask: Who do you know? Usually, the answer is: No one. So you’ll be asked to research similar authors as yourself and reach out to them for what’s called an editorial review, or blurb. These are the little one-liners, sometimes longer, that you’ll see on the cover or interior pages telling potential readers how great the book is. My editor reached out to one author she thought would be a great fit. My agent reached out to another. And I pulled on my big girl panties and cold-emailed four authors who penned some of my personal favorites. And two actually said yes!
I asked my editor how many blurbs were standard, and she said it was very hard to get authors to offer blurbs at all. She said one blurb is good, two is great, three or more is an embarrassment of riches. So I was REALLY excited to receive four amazing reviews from four amazing authors.
I’m still humbled that four busy authors who knew nothing of me or my book agreed to read my work and offer a blurb. If you find yourself in this situation in your writing career, please don’t hesitate to reach out. In retrospect, I wish I’d reached out to more. This was anything but an easy task for me. I’m a bit socially hostile to begin with, and cold-emailing authors felt like telemarketing of the most self-indulgent kind. I almost didn’t do it at all. But then I reminded myself of something I read many years ago: People want to help you. They’re more likely to say yes than no, simply because you’ve asked.
When agents and editors ask their roster for this favor, it comes off as professional obligation. But when you are brave enough to do it yourself, it reads as mutual creative respect, which it is. So do it yourself. PRINTING At some point, you’ll be sent a proof of the full layout of the dust jacket, complete with back matter, author bio on the inside flap, and ideally, a shiny, glowing blurb on the front. And then you wait.
Receiving my author copies in the mail was one of the most exciting moments of my life, followed closely by one of the biggest disappointments. In the e-book, the illustrations were crystal clear, and display exactly as intended. However, a ball was dropped somewhere in the printing line. The illustrations I’d spent months working on looked as though they were black pages with a slight hint of an image. At this moment, I realized one of two things likely happened. One, either the printer was not accustomed to including illustrations inside book pages, and did not prep the files properly, or the publishing house never ordered proofs to check before printing. Maybe both. 🙁
Anyone who purchased the hardcover edition of Thieves, Beasts & Men will never know what some of those images are, or how well they were illustrated. SALES Who knows how this works? Not this girl!
This stage of the process takes place behind closed doors, and happens somewhere in the tangled web of publishing house, printer, distributor, and store buyer. PUBLICITY Unless you choose to pay for an outside publicist yourself, one will be assigned to you. During that meeting, the publicist will ask about a number of things that could be used as talking points for potential interviews or guest blog posts, etc. Things about the story, inspiration, even personal things about your life. Much was talked about at length with the hope and anticipation that a newspaper, magazine, blog, television opportunity, or anything else, may come knocking.
Unfortunately, publicity is hit or miss. Plus, my publicist left her position one week after our phone call, and I was assigned someone new, who was likely assigned many other authors in the gap that was left behind. I still have no idea if outlets were pursued on my behalf or not. The way a publishing house markets and publicizes your book is a bit of a mystery.
Within this same time frame, the publishing house submits your novel to be reviewed by the trade publications. These are the Kirkus, New York Times, Washington Post, and other powerhouse (or smaller) entities. It’s another submission process all over again, and one you are no longer a part of. That’s the publicist’s job. I was told Thieves was submitted, but none of the trades had elected to review it, which was a HUGE bummer. It could have potentially made a big impact in sales. But they receive close to a gazillion submissions a month (give or take), and can only review a few, so I get it. But again, I’m kind of in the dark about the process. I don’t know what trades were submitted to, what was sent, or if there was follow-up. I just have no idea. It’s another behind-the-scenes situation.
Around this time, everyone will pressure you to build your online presence. You may be a different person than I, and already enjoy all that the internet has to offer by way of socialization. But that’s not my lane. This was a major challenge for me.
If you’re on the path toward publishing – traditional or otherwise – start on this NOW, otherwise it’s a total nightmare. Most authors choose Twitter as their primary outlet because it’s a word-based platform. (I HATE Twitter.) I choose Instagram because I’m an artist as well as an author, and it seemed a better fit. But it was still a struggle. I had an account, but hadn’t logged in for over a year. I try to force myself to be excited about posting, but it’s still drudgery.
Two other big ones that are very important are your Goodreads profile, and your Amazon Author profile. On Goodreads, you’ll want to start reaching out in every way possible. Write reviews on your favorite books. Create catalogs of your recommendations. Follow other authors. There’s even a place where you can conduct a Q&A and allow readers to ask questions. This is a major social network for books and you should be super active immediately. FINAL THOUGHTS The year leading up to my debut release was the biggest and most impactful classroom I’ve ever been a student of. It’s trial by fire. It’s learning by observation, listening, and lots of reading between the lines. I have no doubt every author has their own unique experience, but this was mine. Hopefully I’ve been able to offer some insight on the publishing process, because knowledge is power, particularly in a secret society like literature.
When all is said and done, your family will be so very proud of you. Your friends will squeal with delight. You’ll throw a launch party, and total strangers even buy your book!
And when you find yourself at this point in your literary career, my personal advice is: Don’t fuss over every new review, or worry about distribution and sales. Publication day should be cherished and celebrated, but not put on a pedestal. Start the next book and get back to work! _________ As promised, below is my exact query letter that landed my agent, copied and pasted straight from my sent folder. I remember endlessly researching query letter examples online, and those I found most helpful were actual queries that had been successful. Glean whatever you can from it. I still chalk it up to a bit of random luck. I also think getting right to the damn point rather than wasting her time with needless chatter helped too. Agents don’t know you personally and have absolutely nothing invested in you as a person…yet. They don’t want to hear about your life, career goals, or inspiration. They really, really don’t. Just tell them about your book, that’s it. Get in and get out! _________ Good morning! I am seeking representation for my book, THIEVES, BEASTS & MEN, an alone-in-the-woods style thriller that skirts the line between literary and commercial. It is complete at 98,000 words, and could be described as Room meets Nell, with a twist of Deliverance.
Adelaide has lived a long, solitary life in The Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s been a good life, but she’s an old lady now, and she’s ready to die. On the verge of ending it all, she discovers two feral children living in her woods and captures them in a misguided attempt at a new life.
But how does one care for children who are more beast than human? They do not sleep like children, they do not eat like children, and they only communicate with chirps and grunts. But they do play like children, and so Adelaide, in the twilight years of her life, must learn how to play again.
When dangerous men (and the children’s feral mother) emerge from the darkness in pursuit, Adelaide faces a grueling choice. She can release the children back to the wild, saving her own life but losing everything she has grown to love, or fight to defend her new family, risking the death she no longer seeks.
And she must decide soon, because the men are coming for the children.
Unless the wild woman gets to them first.
Encountering crippling starvation, an illness against which the children have no immunity, an angry feral woman stalking her cabin, and a depraved man Adelaide hasn’t seen in many years (and hoped to never see again), Thieves, Beasts & Men explores one woman’s battle to confront her past while creating a new future in the face of increasing madness.
This book will appeal to readers of Karen Russell (Swamplandia!), Hanya Yanagihara (The People In The Trees), Michel Faber (The Book Of Strange New Things), and similar works. Per your submission guidelines, I will include the first 10 pages beneath my query. The full novel is, of course, available upon request, as is a full synopsis. I thank you graciously for your time and look forward to hearing from you!