Get Your Book Published Methods and Myths

Getting a book published is a process. Part of that process is knowing how to submit your manuscript and, importantly, what to expect if it is picked up by a publisher. I once asked an editor in a major publishing house about her habits in working through the ‘slush pile’ of unsolicited manuscripts that were constantly submitted. In her case it was usually between 500 and 1,000 manuscripts per week. She answered that she never read them.

I then asked why she did not at least scan through them. The people who had submitted those manuscripts may have spent years of their life writing the book, and there might be a brilliantly written, potential bestseller, just sitting in the slush pile waiting to be discovered. Was it really fair to ignore such people without even looking at their manuscript? Her answer was direct and to the point.

‘If they don’t understand how the business works, they don’t deserve to be in it.’

Publishing is a tough business. If authors want to get their books published, it helps to have an understanding of how the publishing business works and what to expect once a book is published. It is also important to understand the different groups of publishers, because how you present a manuscript (and what supporting documents you present) will vary according to each.

That is the subject of this article, which I believe will be sobering for any first-time authors writing in the hope of getting their book picked up by a publisher.

Firstly, I will divide publishing into four groups. 1: Major Publishing Houses. 2: Independent Publishers. 3: Small Publishers. 4: Self-publishing.

The five major international publishing houses
There are five major publishing houses.

1: Major Publishing Houses

There are five major publishing houses worldwide. They are Penguin Random House, Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster. Within these five major houses are their various imprints. They also control much of book distribution to retail outlets.

These publishing houses (the Big Five) make the majority of their money from two types of books. One type of book is written by established bestselling authors. People like Lee Child with his Jack Reacher series. The major publishers have multi-million-dollar contracts with these authors. Becoming one is not easy. In 2022, Madeline Macintosh, the former head of Penguin Random House, was asked how many authors worldwide could be expected to sell 500,000 copies of a title in a year. Her answer was, ‘Less than 50.’

That’s less than fifty authors in the world who can be expected to sell half a million copies. Obviously the Big Five negotiate and compete to sign these people.

The other type of book from which the Big Five make money are ‘celebrity books.’ People who are famous. They are not authors, but a book with their name on it might be expected to sell. Movie stars, sports stars, or people in the spotlight (Prince Harry and Michelle Obama were big ones). The Big Five chase these people, offer them money for a book deal and, once they are signed, often have someone ghost write the book for them.

Being in the spotlight or having a strong social media presence does not guarantee big book sales. Some ‘influencers’ have millions of followers on social media, but these followers are not readers. A famous example is right-wing journalist and broadcaster Piers Morgan, who has eight million followers on X. He was paid an enormous amount to write a book called ‘Wake Up.’ It sold less than 6,000 copies. Apparently, Morgan’s followers are not readers.

Other than known bestselling authors and famous personalities, for the rest of the books they publish, the Big Five act like venture capitalists. They publish many books, hoping that one breaks out, sells big, and pays for all the rest. They often look for a series (especially with Young Adult and fantasy fiction) because if the first book sells, they will have a follow-up waiting.

And these publishers are the people with the strongest marketing teams and the clout with the distribution outlets.

A fact to understand about the Big Five is that they will only consider manuscripts submitted by reputable literary agents. They will not consider anything from first-time authors. Sending them an unsolicited manuscript is a waste of time.

2: Independent Publishers

Next down the pecking order are Independent Publishers. These employ anywhere between five and 100 people (many of them freelance contractors) to edit, design and market their books. There are lots of these publishers and they usually have certain times during the year when they are open to submissions. That is, they might consider manuscripts submitted directly from authors.

But they still prefer manuscripts from leading literary agents because they know the manuscript will have already been assessed and edited, and reached a certain standard of professionalism. That saves them money. It will also have a marketing plan.

Independent Publishers will produce books on a wider variety of subjects and many of them have niche markets, such as art, history, romance novels, children’s books, etc.

They have local and national distribution outlets, which mean they can get their books into national bookshops, as well as online sellers. Internationally, they sometimes have distribution agreements with one of the Big Five. That means, the Big Five distribute their books and take a cut.

To understand what sort of books these people publish, and when they are open to submissions, look at their websites and subscribe to their mailing lists.

Understanding how the publishing business works is critical
Understanding how the publishing business works is critical

3: Small Publishers

These are usually one and two-person publishers, and run the business out of their home. They will publish books on more select or obscure subjects. They will sometimes publish poetry, literary fiction or ‘experimental writing.’ Again, look at their web sites and subscribe to their mailing lists.

Small publishers have limited distribution. Most of their sales are made direct from their web site, or by having their authors speak at events (like book clubs or small bookshops) where they sign and sell books.

4: Self-Publishing

Authors publishing their own books has become a big thing in recent years with Print On Demand (POD) books being sold through online sellers (the largest being Amazon). Many websites offer self-publishing services. It works like this: the author uploads a Microsoft Word .doc of their manuscript. And they pay a fee. The web site then designs the book, designs a cover and uploads both to the online sellers. If someone (often the author or a friend) buys a book, then the computer at the online seller automatically prints and binds a copy, wraps it, then sends to the purchaser.

These books do not sit in bookshops. Usually the author purchases, say, ten copies of their own book and then sells them when they speak somewhere, such as at a book club or reading group. Authors will also sell a few from their personal website.

Worldwide book sales will shock most people - especially new authors
Worldwide book sales will shock most people – especially new authors

Now let’s look at book sales figures worldwide.

These figures are taken from the 2022 US Department of Justice inquiry that stopped the biggest of the Big Five (Penguin Random House) taking over the smallest (Simon & Schuster). Note that these sales figures only apply to the Major Publishing Houses and Independent Publishers. Small Publishers and Self-Publishers sell such tiny quantities they don’t cause a blip on the radar.

  • Worldwide, 90% of titles published sell less than 2,000 copies.
  • Most books, around 95%, do not make money.
  • Only 0.01% of books sell more than 100,000 copies.

That means, even if a book is published by one of the Big Five, or one of the Independent Publishers with distribution outlets, it still only has one chance in 10,000 of reaching 100,000 copies.

While most books will sell less than 2,000 copies, the general average is somewhere around about 1,000 copies. That’s worldwide.

If you want an indication of sales by a Small Publisher, take away a nought on the end. If a Small Publisher sells 200 books, they consider it a success.

Self-Publishing figures are worse. Self-publishing a book via a specialist web site, then putting it on Amazon costs the author money. Amazon estimates that of approximately 3,000,000 books a year which are uploaded to Amazon via self-publishing websites, less that 50 will make a profit. That doesn’t mean they make a lot of money. It just means that fifty books out of three million titles do not cost the author more to produce than what they get as a return.

In summary:

When mentoring first time authors, the question I ask is, ‘Why are you writing this book?’

The answers vary, but they can be loosely grouped into one of three categories. Group one are the people who just want to write—anything. They love writing, they love reading and they feel a need to express themselves through words, then have those words preserved in some tangible form—usually a printed book.

The second group have an unusual or special story to tell. They are often writing a memoir, a ‘how-to’ book, a history of a particular subject, or a fictional story. But it is the need to tell the story that drives these authors.

The third group believe they have a great (original) story, and if they can get it picked up by a publisher, then they will have a bestseller on their hands and they will make a lot of money. If money is the motivation, I point out that they will have to work very hard, for two or three years, for a remote chance of having their book picked up by an agent and getting it into a major, or even independent publishing house. Even if they do beat those long odds, then they will most likely sell about 1,000 copies. Say their book sells at $30 a copy and they get a 10% royalty, they will make about $3,000 for three years of work. But only of course if they are extremely fortunate.

It’s a bit like spending all your money on lottery tickets for three years, winning first prize, then discovering what you are getting is equivalent to what you spent on tickets in a week.

Nevertheless, understanding these figures is the first step to understanding how the business works. In turn, that is the first step to getting your book published. You will need to have a clearer idea of how to present your manuscript, how to promote yourself, and importantly, how to develop a marketing plan that shows you can sell enough books to make your manuscript worth picking up.

Also, the submission documents that accompany your manuscript will vary, depending on the category of publisher or literary agent you are presenting it to.

I’ll deal with these subjects in detail in a future article in this Writer’s Craft Series.

Meantime, feel free to get in contact with me if you have any specific queries or want to enquire about my mentoring service.

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