By Boni Wagner-Stafford

November 23, 2023

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An Author’s Path to Publishing — with Jane Friedman


For new authors, and even for not-so-new ones, navigating the path to publishing can be quite a daunting task. Jane Friedman knows all about it. As a publishing commentator, expert, and editor of the industry newsletter, The Hot Sheet, Friedman often fields questions from authors about the processes involved in getting their book published.

What follows are the most frequently-asked questions from authors hoping to attract a publisher — and our summary of Jane’s answers. Of course, the simple answer to most of these questions is, “It depends.” It depends on your goals as an author and your values, for instance. However, knowing a bit about how the industry works can help you make informed decisions on your publishing journey.

What you as an author can do to increase your chances of a publisher taking on your book

Publishing a book is risky business and publishers take a gamble with each manuscript they take on. Whether they’re one of the so-called Big Five book publishing houses or an indie publisher, the way they decide which books to publish is far from random. There is a lot of research and data analysis involved. For example:

  • Historical trends: What has sold and what hasn’t sold in the past?
  • Social trends: What is happening in the world and how might that influence the books people may want to read? For example, after the murder of George Floyd, and with the rise of Black Lives Matter, books about social justice and race saw a surge in popularity.
  • Market trends: What does the book-buying public want? Here publishers scour data about who buys what, how much they’re willing to spend to buy it, which genres are more popular, and which book formats are more popular.

When you want to convince a publisher to take a chance on your book, you can greatly increase the odds if you take a bit of the guesswork out for them by bringing your own data and insights. For example, your following on social media can tell you a lot about the demographics of your potential readers. This is because the reality is that it is your network that will likely do a lot of the buying of your book, at least at the start, as your book’s visibility begins to rise. Understanding your network and your reader audience can help inform everything, from the tone of your manuscript, to the cover design, to how to market your book. Or, especially as a nonfiction author, you might have access to resources that nobody else has, for instance through a personal connection to the subject. Demonstrating your awareness of social trends and market trends in your submission will go a long way to letting a potential publisher know you’re doing your homework and will be ready to roll up your sleeves to dig in on marketing and promotion.

Speaking of marketing and promotion …

Marketing and promoting their book is one of the areas that many authors really struggle with, especially when they’re of the mindset that art and business don’t mix. However, your book is your business. And for it to be successful, you need to be willing to do everything you can to get people to buy it.

As a starting point, you need to look at your “why”: Why did you write the book? What motivated you? What are your goals? Did you write the book to make money? Did you want to inspire others with your story? Did you want to share your insights and maybe change the way people think about a topic?

Knowing your “why” will help you to identify your audience. Once you know who they are, you need to ask where to find them, who they talk to and how you can become part of that conversation. Social media is a great way to reach that audience, as long as you engage with your followers rather than just post about how everyone should buy your book.   

It’s also important to remember who your book-buying audience is — which is often different from your audience above. You may have a massive following on social media or a huge fanbase, but they might not be the kind of people who typically like to buy books: much less nonfiction books. When you can identify your book-buying audience, you can target them more directly when engaging on social media.

As an author, you need to be proactive in your marketing efforts, even if your publisher has an entire marketing team to help you. Communicate with your publisher and find out what you can do to help. Of course you can use your social media as part of your marketing efforts but maybe there’s more you can do: Maybe you know someone who can get you on the right podcast, for instance. Or maybe you have a little extra money that you can use to attend a book festival and get your name out there. Any effort is better than sitting back and letting the marketing team give your book their boilerplate treatment.

Should you get an agent to help you?

It’s nearly impossible to get one of the Big Five publishers to give your submission a second glance. And even some of the large indie publishing houses won’t look at your manuscript if you don’t have a literary agent to submit it on your behalf. Even with smaller publishers, it can be useful to invest in searching for a reputable agent to help you navigate the contract negotiations, help you understand the publishing process and have those difficult conversations you don’t want to have. However, searching for and finding an agent willing to take you on is akin to running another gauntlet — be prepared for a potentially lengthy search and set a deadline for yourself for when you’ll stop looking for an agent and when you’ll turn to other publishing options.

Many of the smaller indie and hybrid publishers will be happy to guide you through the publishing process and brainstorm ideas with you. After all, they’re as invested in the success of your book as you are, since a bestseller is great for their reputation and their bottom line too.

Hear Directly from Jane Friedman

We spoke with Jane and published the conversation on The Ingenium Books Podcast. You can listen to that episode here.

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