Pitfalls on the Road to Publication

& How They Can be Filled

Josiah Lebowitz

  Back to Pebble Version

Over my life, I’ve heard many things that could be called common misconceptions about many things.  Genres, cultures, people, careers…  It’s the last of those that I’ve had the most trouble with lately, being in several fields that are often surrounded by misinformation and idealistic fantasies.

One of these misconceptions involves the art of writing.  At some point in their life, nearly everyone considers writing a book of some kind.  Few even begin such a large undertaking and even fewer complete it but there’s still that dream that if you could only put everything down on paper, it would be published and people from all over the world could discover your work.  I’m here to tell you that writing the book, as long and challenging as it may be, is the easy part.  For many promising authors, publication is little more than a dream despite years of effort.  It’s a problem, although one that, with some effort, can likely be solved, or at least reduced.

On his site, best selling author Dan Brown lists what he calls ‘7 Powerful Tips’ for getting published (Brown).  They include things such as creating a strong foundation and setting for your book, creating tension, and editing.  All are important but they’re also things that any decent writer could tell you.  Contrary to what Brown implies, good writing in no way guarantees that your book will be published.  In fact, many publishers will reject you without so much as glancing at your manuscript.

I’ve been writing young adult fantasy and sci-fi for over seven years and looking for a publisher for around six.  I’m not going to brag about how great my writing is or whine about how stupid publishers are for ignoring it; that certainly wouldn’t help my standing.  But I will say that I read my genre all the time.  I know what works and what doesn’t, what’s published, and what sells.  I know what the audience wants, what the genre needs, and what it doesn’t.  Over the years I’ve tried all three major routes to publication (publishers, agents, and print on demand).  After hundreds of letters I can still count the number of personalized replies I’ve received on one hand and my attempt at print on demand was left to quietly disappear without any advertising budget to support it.  I did receive one positive response from a publisher however, in a stroke of extremely bad luck, they want out of business before my book could be published. 

So what is the road to publication really like?  Let’s go over the usual route that most fledging authors will take on their search for a publisher.  Chances are, once you’ve finally finished writing and editing your manuscript, you’ll be at a loss as to what to do next.  The first step is to decide what publishing companies to submit it to.  Fortunately, there are resources to aid in that task.  The Writer’s Market (Brogan, Writer’s Digest Books), a yearly publication, contains a massive list of both American and foreign publishing companies along with useful information including their submission criteria and what genres they publish.  Your first step, after buying The Writer’s Market, is to go through it and mark every publishing company that might have even the smallest bit of interest in your manuscript.  Why so many places?  As the saying goes, never put all your eggs in one basket.  Although many publishers discourage simultaneous submissions (the practice of submitting one manuscript to multiple publishers at the same time), it’s in your best interest to submit it to as many places as possible.  It often takes anywhere from two weeks to six months (depending on the company) for you to receive a reply to your submission.  That’s a long time to wait, especially if you get a rejection.  Submitting to multiple companies at the same time speeds the process up considerably.

But, before you can submit your manuscript anywhere, you need to write a query letter.  A query letter is a single page letter in which you try to sell the publisher on your manuscript.  The content of such a letter has a lot to do with your own personal preferences but, judging from the examples I’ve seen in various books and websites, they generally include three paragraphs.  The first briefly states who you are and why you’re qualified to be writing about whatever your subject may be; the second is devoted to an extremely brief summary of your manuscript; and the third is the closing where you thank the publisher for taking the time to consider your work and remind them that you’ve included a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) for their reply (NEVER forget to include an SASE; a handful of publishers accept submissions via e-mail but this is a rarity).  For many publishers your query letter will be the only sample of your writing they ever see so make sure it’s perfect before sending it out.  However, some publishers will require additional material to be included with your submission.  This varies by publisher (always read the submission guidelines) but generally includes two or three sample chapters and/or a synopsis of the manuscript so keep both items handy in case you need them.

So, you’ve found your publishers, wrote the perfect query letter, and spent a small fortune at the post office sending off all those letters and samples.  Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and waiting for one of the many companies to express interest in your manuscript, right?  It’s easy to get excited when your first reply arrives in the mail but don’t get your hopes up.  Your average publishing company gets hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands, of submissions each year and most of them are returned with nothing more than a polite, and completely generic, form letter saying something along the lines of ‘Thanks for asking but we can’t publish your manuscript right now.  However, this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it so good luck submitting it to other publishers.’  Get used to these…odds are you’re going to see lots of them.  In fact, you’ll be lucky if you get anything else.  Even a personalized rejection is an extremely rare occurrence.

Now don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always happen like this.  Sometimes people get lucky; sometimes a publisher gets the right letter at the right time and everything is great.  But don’t count on this happening to you.  Chances are, no matter how good your manuscript and letter, your odds of your manuscript catching a publisher’s eye aren’t much higher than your lottery ticket being the big winner.  Of course, if you’re famous or have connections in the publishing industry that’s another story entirely but for all of us normal people that’s not going to help.

So, what happens if your query letters fail?  There are other options.  For example, you could try to find a literary agent.  Literary agents are people, or groups of people, who do all the legwork for you in return for a cut of the profits once your manuscript is published.  In a nutshell, you give them your manuscript and they go and show it to all the appropriate publishers.  Your chances of getting published are much higher if you have an agent, and some publishing companies will only accept submissions from agents.  The process of finding an agent is nearly identical to that of finding of publishing, complete with buying a book, the yearly Guide to Literary Agents (Brogan, Writer’s Digest Books), and sending out query letters.  Unfortunately, agents aren’t much more likely to accept your work than publishers so this route usually ends in another stack of generic rejection letters.

If all else fails, you could always consider self publication.  If you’re really ambitious (and have lots of cash to spare) you could start your own publishing company just to publish your books.  For the rest of us, print-on-demand companies can seem like the answer to a prayer.  For several hundred dollars, a company such as Author House (http://www.authorhouse.com/) will publish your book, make it available through all major on-line retailers, make it available to bookstores for purchase, and send out press releases to a variety of media outlets.  As exciting as it can be to finally hold a professionally produced copy of your book, don’t get carried away.  Advertising can be a problem.  Those press releases are all well and good but most media outlets simply ignore them.  So some person they never heard of published a book, what do they care?  If you’re writing something for a small targeted group such as martial arts teachers for example, advertising your book can be fairly easy and print on demand may be a good route.  But, if your manuscript is a more mass market type of thing, like a novel, you’re in trouble.  There are tons of books out there by well established authors.  If you don’t have lots of money to advertise your book, no one outside of your family and friends will even know it exists.  But hey, at least it will be on store shelves right?  People may see it, pick it up, and tell their friends about it right?  Unfortunately no.  The greatest advantage of print on demand companies is that they’ll print anything as long as they’re paid.  This is also their greatest flaw.  Someone could print a book that’s entirely blank or consists of just one word repeated over and over again as long as they paid.  Because of this, brick and mortar bookstores are reluctant to stock print on demand titles unless they’re already big sellers, so don’t count on seeing your book on store shelves any time soon.  Finally, print on demand books are incredibly expensive (often costing 2-3 times more than a comparably sized novel from an ordinary publishing company) which can drive off even the most curious consumers.


So, what options does the aspiring author have?  You should certainly try the traditional route, there’s nothing to lose except time and postage fees and there’s always the small chance you’ll get lucky.  But don’t hold your breath.  Once you get one professionally published book you’re in, things become a lot easier (or so I’ve been told).  However, getting that in can be a near impossibility.


There’s no way around it.  The system needs to be overhauled.  Especially now, with TV, computers, and video games taking over more and more people’s leisure time, it’s important that publishers’ make a greater effort to find and support new talent and ideas.  I’d like to make a few suggestions that I feel could greatly improve the process, benefiting authors, publishers, and ultimately consumers.

First off, the submission process.  More companies should accept sample chapters (if not entire manuscripts) as it’s impossible to get a handle on the quality of a manuscript from a single page letter.  Secondly, the generic form letters must disappear for good.  Instead, replies should contain at least a sentence or two explaining why the manuscript wasn’t accepted.  I do realize how many submissions publishers and agents receive.  However, I’m sure that many of the companies (or at least the large ones) could afford to hire one or two extra staff members dedicated to reviewing and responding to submissions.  If necessary, I believe most authors would be willing to wait a little longer for replies if they’re guaranteed something other than a generic rejection.  Finally, in the age of computers that we live in, it would be nice if more companies accepted electronic submissions.  Although I understand the security risks that electronic files present (viruses, spyware, and the like) they would improve response time and save authors lots of money on printing and postage fees.

Now for the print on demand process.  Unfortunately, for those without an advertising budget only so much can be done.  However, I think bookstores could really step up to the plate here.  Instead of treating print on demand books like the plague, major chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders should hold a contest where they review the latest print on demand books and pick several of the best to be displayed in their stores.  Such a process would be cheap to implement and provide an enormous boost to the print on demand industry.  Publishing companies could consider a similar contest, with the best print on demand books receiving a full publishing contract.

Finally, I would like to suggest some changes for writing contests in general.  At first glance these contests seem like a great way to get some recognition for your manuscript if it does well.  Unfortunately, at closer inspection, they often aren’t worth entering.  To start, the contests often change an entry fee ranging from about $10-50.  And, even if you win, the prizes are often lackluster at best such as minor cash prizes.  Instead, publishing companies should be the ones hosting these contests for unpublished manuscripts.  Entry should be free with the grand prize being a publishing contract with the company hosting the contest.


To conclude, I’ve always loved reading books.  I love writing them as well and will continue to do so whether I find a publisher or not.  There are already lots of great authors out there but I know that they are many more just waiting to be discovered if only the industry would give them a chance.  The changes I’m suggesting aren’t radical but I believe that they would make a world of difference for authors.  And, when there’s more quality books available, everyone wins, be they author, publisher, or consumer.



Brogan, (2004), 2005 Writer’s Market, Writer’s Digest Books

Brogan, (2004), 2005 Guide to Literary Agents, Writer’s Digest Books

“Query Letter Replies”, (2000-2006), Various Authors and Sources

Author House, Author House Web Site, Retrieved on April 9 2006 , (http://www.authorhouse.com/)

Daw Books, Daw Books Web Site, (retrieved on April 9 2006 ), (http://www.dawbooks.com)

Dan Brown, (retrieved on April 9 2006 ), “Getting Published 7 Powerful Tips”, (http://www.danbrown.com/tips.htm)