Outline of the Publication Process
I. Proposals, Samples, Manuscripts
For a nonfiction project, the most important goal of an author should be to have a unique idea with broad market appeal. The next step is to prepare a professional looking proposal to secure representation by an agent and to sell the work to a publisher.
Before submitting queries to agents, a fiction author should have a completely edited and formatted manuscript ready to send.
A query letter should include a one page synopsis of the book and a short paragraph that details the author’s credentials and any publishing credits the author has. When being sent to our agency, the query should be sent via e-mail only, no attachments. We no longer accept unsolicited snail mail of any kind.
If you are querying several agents, take the time to do the research and find out whether they prefer to be contacted by snail mail or by e-mail. Do not contact agents by phone. Do your research using the guidebooks listed on our resources list and always check the agent’s website for the most up to date information before contacting them. You will save yourself and the agent a lot of valuable time by doing this research in advance — not to mention saving yourself some unnecessary rejection letters!
If the agent likes the description of the project, the agent will ask for either sample chapters or the entire manuscript in the case of a fiction project, and the completed proposal in the case of nonfiction. The agent will also request the author’s current resume including publishing history, and a target market analysis which includes a comparison to similar books, preferably on the New York Times or Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. The agent will tell you what method to use when sending this material (either snail mail with SASE or e-mail).
A nonfiction author does not have to finish the book before approaching an agent. However, the author must do quite a bit more homework regarding the market place. The author should have a complete proposal including an overview of the project, a marketing analysis with a detailed comparison to each of the competing books and why your book will be better, a detailed outline with descriptions of each chapter, a description of why you are the perfect person to write the book (along with your current resume including any published works to date), any impressive supporting documentation (including articles, brochures, etc.), and two or three sample chapters.
II. Choosing an Agent
One of the best sources to research different agents, the type of projects they handle and their background interests is Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. Agents that you send query letters to should be interested in representing the kind of project you are working on.
For example, if you have a great mystery novel, and you contact an agent that does not represent mystery novels, you will automatically receive a rejection letter from the agent. It does not mean that your project is not a good one, it means that the agent does not prefer to read mystery novels and does not have the necessary contacts (editors of mystery novels) to sell your project. It is crucial for the agent to be extremely enthusiastic about your project in order to properly represent it.
III. Query Letters
The query letter is aimed at getting an agent’s attention and demonstrating what makes your project outstanding. It should be professional with no typos and should be signed by you. As mentioned above, be sure to include a description of your project, your past publishing history, and basic information about your background.
E-mail queries will usually be responded to immediately, but please allow up to three weeks for a response, especially during holiday seasons. All hard copy queries must include a self addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with the correct amount of postage for any materials you wish to have returned and should only be sent to agents who accept unsolicited snail mail queries. Multiple queries are acceptable as long as you inform the agent that you are making multiple submissions.
IV. Agent Response
If the agent responds positively, the agent will ask for the complete nonfiction book proposal and sample chapters (for fiction either sample chapters or the entire manuscript with the supporting material).
Some agents will ask for an exclusive, meaning that they have a specified amount of time in which to consider the project without you approaching any other agents for representation. If the agent does not ask for an exclusive, you are under no obligation to that agent and you can send the project out to other agents who request it.
If the agency decides to offer representation, the agent will call or meet with you to make sure you are both comfortable working together and to explain some guidelines. You should address any questions and concerns you have during this time.
If it is necessary, the agent will at this point advise you on how to revise the proposal and/or the manuscript, either personally or in conciliation with an editorial service. The title is re-examined with the target market of the work in mind.
V. Submissions to Editors and Publishers
Once you have secured agency representation, you should address any particulars you think would be helpful to the agent in approaching editors: list any editors/publishing houses you have approached and what their responses were, advise the agent if there are specific publishers you think he/she should approach, etc.
The agent will then compile a list of the best publishers for your project, make calls to them to establish interest and circulate your project. The responses usually arrive within four weeks, but this varies from book project to book project and from editor to editor.
It is probable you will see some rejections in the first round of submissions. The agent will send you the responses and will discuss them with you to determine if there are reoccurring concerns or comments made by the editors. The agent may advise you to make revisions to the proposal and/or manuscript before another round of submissions.
VI. Offers, Negotiations and Contracts
If a publisher is interested in your project, the editor will contact the agent with an offer for an advance against royalties. The offer is based on what the publisher thinks they could sell, but it might be lower than what you and the agent think you should get for the project. The agent and author discuss the offer and begin negotiations. The agent will not accept any offer without first obtaining the author’s approval.
If there is considerable interest in a project and an offer on the table, the agent may organize an auction. Each publisher has equal opportunity to bid on the project and the project is sold to the highest bidder.
Then, with the author’s approval, the agent accepts the basic offer and advance on behalf of the author. The agent and author discuss contract needs and the agent negotiates the terms. (For an explanation of the terms and differentiation of book types, see Mark Levine’s Negotiating a Book Contract or a similar source.) When an agent feels the contract is acceptable, it is sent to the author.
If the terms are clear and acceptable, the author signs all copies of the contracts and returns them to the agent who forwards them to the publisher. The publisher then sends fully signed contracts and a check according to the terms of the contract. The agent then deducts the commission and expenses and sends a check to the author.
VII. The Editorial Process, Publication, Publicity
Once under contract, the nonfiction author writes the book and finishes the entire manuscript on time (deadlines are set in the contract). The fiction author begins the editorial process in conciliation with the publisher. Many authors forget to include an acknowledgment page and regret it once the book is published. Along with family and friends, it is a wonderful opportunity to express your appreciation to your agent and editor, who have worked very hard on your behalf.
During this time, the publisher makes promotion plans, creates a design for the cover, prepares the sales catalogue information, determines advance sales, etc.
When the author delivers the finished manuscript on time, the publisher reviews the material and pays on acceptance and/or publication via the agent according to the terms of the contract. For example, an advance for $X might be paid out in the following way: 1/2 $X on signing of the contract, 1/4 $X on delivery and acceptance of the completed manuscript, and 1/4 $X on publication of the book. This is just an example.
The publisher then line edits and copy-edits and sends suggestions to the author for approval. When everything is perfect, the book is designed and put in galleys. Corrections made by the author after this point are costly and must be paid for by the author. This does not include typographical errors made by the publisher.
Depending on the contract, the author may or may not have the right to review and comment on the cover design. The cover design is ultimately the choice of the publisher.
The book is then put in pages and is sent to the printer. Depending on the advance paid to the author and advance sales, the publisher decides how many copies to print.
The author may then work with the publicity and/or marketing department to promote the book. Publicity sends copies of the galleys to reviewers and gathers quotes for the book jacket.
The books arrive! The author and agent receive copies (the number of copies are determined in the contract). The publisher sends copies to reviewers, radio stations and newspapers with a press release.
Authors may do signings, radio programs, television appearances, public speaking and sometimes even a paid tour in order to promote the book. Royalty statements and checks are sent to the author via the agency. Congratulations! If you have made it this far you should be very proud of yourself. Publishing is a tough business, but the process can be fun and rewarding. Now, start thinking about your next book!