How to Publish a Novel

Before beginning the discussion, we must set aside as a separate class celebrities, sports figures, leaders of industry, established journalists, and those who are related by blood, marriage, or old school ties to agents, editors, and others within the publishing industry.

Personal experiences:
  • Re: Traditonal Publishing
    In 2007, I sought representation for my first novel. After 300+ query letters, I received a response, was signed with a small agency, and my manuscript was sold to a small publisher. The book was edited by one of their people and released in December 2009.

    My agent then informed me that all the promotion of the book was up to me. I was given a list of potential reviewers and while the publisher absorbed the cost of distributing sample copies to those reviewers, no other hype was offered.

    New to Facebook at the time, my agent tried to steward me through developing a following, but I'm the most unnetworked person on the planet; I'm seven degrees from Kevin Bacon.

    Anecdotes abound regarding creative intersection of authors and publishers, from retitling the work, to critical rewriting of political, social, or religious narrative to fit commercial norms and the publisher's bent. My book should have been retitled; the title was misleading. As a newbie, I had no idea and didn't get guidance.

    My book also included extensive quotes of lyrics from a song and quotes from a movie, both of which are forbidden without permission. My publisher, as represented by the editor, did not advise me of this, allowing them to go unchecked.

    Based on this second factor—and it wasn't selling anyway—I convinced the publisher to pull the book from distribution lest we all get sued.

  • Re: Self-pubishing.
    Some years ago I attended a writer's group in which a participant related his strategy for achieving high ranking on Amazon. Amazon's ranking system is not based on overall sales, but on sales velocity: the number of sales over time. A book selling 100,000 copies oveall, but only a few recently, will fall below one that has sold only 1,000, but fifty within the previous days.

    He invited fifty friends to purchase his $15.95 book within the first few days of self-publication. It was clear his fifty friends—verified buyers—had packed the comment section, too. His book made it into the top ten and the exposure drove sales over 3,000 in the first month.

    A year had gone by. I asked, how much had he spent. He admitted to $5,000 on professional editing, cover design, and, (my opinion) fifty copies of his own book at retail price. I asked how many he was then selling. "About twenty a month," he said. Hardly an income.

    I bought his book. Terribly written, rife with sophomoric word usage, and just plain boring.

  • To provide perspective on the market:
    I wrote a non-fiction health-related book in 2013. I self-published on Amazon via Ceatespace (now Kindle Direct Publishing). The publication cost—separate from the production cost—was just my time; publication was and still is free of charge. Few were sold and the ranking in 2019 was about 5,000,000th overall.

    I mentioned the book to an acquaintance, "If you're interested, buy it, I can use the three bucks."

    His purchase pushed the ranking to 3,000,000th, leapfrogging two-million other books with one sale.

    • Those two million hadn't sold a copy in years.
    • While there are over 10,000,000 books listed on Amazon, those below 5,000,000th in rank have sold barely a few. Ever.

Self-publish versus publication via the agent-editor-publisher corridor? There is no perfect wisdom. However, there are a few truths that can reasonably be accepted:
  • A sufficient number of authors have successfully self-published to prove the viability of that route.
  • Millions of writers have self-published. Most of their books never see any sales.
  • Anyone can compose something that looks like a novel, and the deluge of published-for-free books delivered electronically or printed-on-demand creates an obstacle to a worthy book being discovered by the public.
  • The challenge is to network and market one's book to critical sources who can magnify exposure.

  • Those seeking representation must scream through the noise of hundreds of thousands of unpublishable manuscripts...
    • be included in the several hundred that might be acceptable
    • be retained with a few dozen to be seriously considered
    • be selected as one of the few speaking clearly enough to enamore an agent.

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