You’ve come here because you’re wondering (or are at least curious) about how to write and publish a book. It’s a truly exciting endeavour. When I first started on this path in 2012 I was overwhelmed with questions about the entire process. Actually, I had started mapping my book years before that. It was only in 2012 when I first put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard) and started typing up chapter one.
Here’s the truth, straight up. Writing and publishing a book is crazy difficult, super exhausting and also one of the most rewarding things you can ever do in your life.
It’s going to take up tons of your time.
A lot of energy.
You’re going to consume more caffeine than any one person should.
Possibly get some drunken inspiration on the way (it helps – do it).
And by the end, you’re going to write a book. Congrats! That’s only the first step because this post is called how to write and publish a book.
Let’s be perfectly clear – if you’re lazy – if you can’t fathom spending hours and hours sitting in front of a computer typing thousands upon thousands of words, then editing every single one of those multiple times to perfection – you’re in the wrong place. If you haven’t shaken your head and closed the browser window yet then read on. Below this point is your complete guide on how to write and publish a book.
Remember – it ain’t gonna be easy. Not for one second.
Step #1: Plan it out… or don’t plan it out
Not everyone’s a planner, and that’s okay! Some people are gardener writers who prefer to plant a seed and let a book naturally sprout from the ground up, really having little to no idea what direction it’s going to take. Other writers are architects who need spreadsheets, birthdays of their characters, not to mention favourite colours, pets, number of hairs on their head; maps, locations, and outlines of every single thing, scene by scene.
Figure out what type of writer you are and plan your story to your heart’s content. Or don’t plan it out at all. Either way, don’t delay too long because the worst writing mistake you can make is simply forgetting to write, or not even starting.
Step #2: Start writing and don’t frigging stop
Grab a cup of coffee, a pint of beer and GET TO WORK! The first step (okay second) of writing a book is to write! There are no excuses. Jump in front of your word processor and start spitting out word vomit onto the screen. It’s okay to write the most terrible piece of literature to ever curse the Earth at this point. In fact, if what you write makes you cringe then that’s pretty much expected, ESPECIALLY if this is your first go at ever writing a book. You’re going to go back and fix all of that in the editing stage.
Right now – Get. To. Writing. Set a goal for yourself – whether that’s 500 words a day or 2,000, or simply to finish by a certain date – make it happen. If you need to work alongside others, consider NaNoWriMo, where you and countless other writers chug out an entire book in one month. You’ll be dead by the end but you can do it! It helps to know that you’re not alone and plenty of writers have written books on extremely short deadlines. When you’re super-famous you can write and publish your next book at George R.R. Martin’s pace.
Step #3: Figure out if what you’re doing works for you
Did you over-plan? Did you not plan enough? Are you completely lost, distraught, and demotivated? Step back and take a moment to figure out if your writing plan is working for you. Do you need a different writing environment? Do you need some kick-ass music to keep your mind focused and in the right place? It’s okay to breathe and fix what’s not working. Remember, the definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing and expecting different results. If something isn’t working for you in your writing process – change it. On the other hand, if you’re super productive – capitalize on it, do it more, then leave a comment down below letting us know your strategy.
Step #4: OMG you’ve finished? Awesome!
Look at this! You’re on step #4 and at this point, you’ve already written a complete book – frigging congrats! Take a moment to celebrate because on the journey of how to write and publish a book, actually having written one is a big freaking deal. Okay? Now that I’ve told you the good news, take a deep breath. You’re probably going to need it.
The bad news is that writing a book was the easy part. Now that you’ve written a book, you get to tear it apart, page-by-page, and cry yourself to sleep as you stress yourself out wondering how you’re ever going to make this thing good enough for someone other than your mom to read. It’s okay though because…
Step #5: First drafts are garbage anyway
I lied a bit. You didn’t write a book yet – what you wrote was a first draft. And first drafts aren’t meant to be a gift to mankind. They’re meant to be these embarrassing documents you hide away on the deepest depths of your computer. Think of it like building a house. You start by putting up a frame and eventually adding in the walls, ceilings, floors, and decor. You don’t build a frame of a house and try to sell it off as a finished product. Any buyer would laugh. That’s all a first draft of a book is. It’s a framework for the awesomeness that’s about to come.
Step #6: Edit till you can’t edit no more
Fair warning – this part sucks. Editing sucks big fat monkey balls but it’s absolutely 100% crucial to do it and do it well.
Before you get to this part – take a break. After you’ve finished your first draft, put your story down for a month or two and go do something else. Read a novel, play World of Warcraft, volunteer at an animal shelter, practice stand-up comedy – just put it aside.
Once you’ve come back, be aware this editing is not about fixing spelling and grammar. This is about making the BIG changes your story needs to transform from its word vomitty beginnings into the work of art you want it to be. Does your dialogue sound natural? Does the story’s pacing flow? Are there major plot holes? Are characters making decisions merely to push the story forward or because their actions actually makes sense? Is there passive voice? Are you making any other bad writing mistakes?
Edit it over and over until you can’t possibly fathom editing anymore. Then edit some more anyway.
Step #7: Get beta readers to call you out
Is your story as good as it possibly can get from your point of view? Good. Time to put it to the test by seeking out some beta readers. Ask your friends or family to give you a hand or go somewhere like Scribophile where you can network with other writers who will give you feedback on your book, in exchange for feedback on theirs.
Remember – this is about getting your story to the utmost pinnacle of perfection, or as close as it can be before you start hitting up literary agents. This is because literary agents get swamped with manuscripts on – literally – a daily basis. If you want your book to stand out from the countless other stories they’re guaranteed to be receiving, then you’d better invest the time early on to give it its best shot at becoming a published book.
Step #8: Time to write a query letter
I have more bad news for you – everything you’ve done up to this point has been mind-numbingly easy compared to this step. Writing a query letter is the bane of many authors existences, yet it’s something you will have to master if you want to find a literary agent. A query letter is sort of like a commercial for your book that has one goal and one goal only – to make an agent WANT to read your book.
Doing this involves taking that 60,000 – 100,000 word masterpiece you just wrote and condensing it all down to roughly 250 words. You will need to go over those 250 words with a fine-tooth comb, straighten them out, then offer them the most luxurious conditioner money can buy. You’ll have to summarize who your main character is, who the villain is, and what difficult choices they must make. There’s no time for secondary characters, worldbuilding, subplots, or any of those other goodies. You only have enough space to include the bare essentials.
And you have to do it in a way that will make it stand out from the hundreds of other query letters agents are receiving.
Step #9: Query – Query – Query till you drop
Once you’ve written the perfect query letter, it’s time to start putting together a list of agents you want to submit it to. Use a website like Query Tracker or Agent Query to come with potential agencies and agents. Write down your top choices in a spreadsheet or Word doc. DON’T submit your query to every single agent you come across right off the bat. Maybe send it out to 3-5 to start with – there’s a reason for this. Here it is.
Chances are your perfect query letter you’ve drafted isn’t going to be as perfect as you thought it was, especially if it’s your first time writing one of these soul-crushing documents. Not only that, but a lot of agents will want you to submit a synopsis and/or your first one or two chapters along with the query. If all of this isn’t up to snuff and you start getting rejection after rejection (and you probably will – everyone does), you’re ruining your chances with that agent. If there are only 50 agents representing your genre and you send a subpar query to all of them at once – you kinda just screwed yourself over.
Submit to 3-5 agents and analyze your results. Did they request your partial manuscript? Your full manuscript? Or are they all dead ends? Revise, take a deep breath and resend.
By the way, if you’ve gotten this far and are wondering when I’m going to start talking about how to become a self-published author – I’m not. This article is about traditional publishing, although I’ll probably write one on self-publishing another time. If you’re struggling with figuring out whether you want to self or traditionally publish, check out my guide on comparing the pros and cons between traditional and self-publishing.
Step #10: Don’t give up
Querying is honestly one of the most difficult parts of the entire process of how to write and publish a book so DON’T GIVE UP. Confession: when I first started querying Elementalists: The Fires of Canicus, I queried to over 40 agents and either got rejections or never heard anyone. It wasn’t until about halfway through that process I realized my book was WAY too long and they probably didn’t even read the first chapter once they saw the word count. It wasn’t until I met an agent at Toronto Writing Workshop when I had my first request for a full. What a happy day that was.
Keep track of the agents you submit to. My preferred method for doing this is by creating individual file folders on my computer for each submission. Basically, I create a folder for each agent and agency I submit to. My naming structure looks like this:
Agency – Agent’s Name – Date Submitted
If I receive a rejection then i change it to
REJECTED DATE – Agency – Agent’s Name – Date Submitted
Within each folder, I put notes, a link to the agency’s website, and all the materials I submitted. Feel free to copy this method or use something else that works for you. Just keep track of your queries one way or another.
Step #11: OMG you got a request!!!
An agent liked what you had to show off and they either requested a partial of your manuscript or if you’re extremely fortunate your full manuscript. Pour a glass of champagne, let out tears of joy and celebrate ’cause if you’ve gotten this far you frigging deserve it! Hold off on posting on social media and telling the world about your request for now though because the agent might still change their mind… but the odds are looking pretty good!
Step #12: Make a good impression
Waiting is the worst part. Believe me, as I write this sentence my full manuscript is sitting in the hands of a literary agent who I oh-so-hope loves every single word in my novel and is preparing to call me back.
Then one day, it happens; the big moment you’ve been waiting for. You’re sitting at home, or maybe at work, and you get a phone call. You pick it up and say, “Hello?”
“Hi! This is the agent that requested your manuscript. I loved your book and wanted to talk to you about it.”
As awesome as this is… KEEP CALM and be professional. Remember, an agent will take you on as a client but this means more than them simply liking your book. It means they also think you’re someone who they can work with. Okay, you can act a bit hyper and excited but don’t start jumping off walls, thinking your story is going to get published exactly as it’s currently written because that probably ain’t the case.
You know how during this whole process of how to write and publish a book I’ve kept telling you that the next step is going to be even harder than the last? Yeah, that still holds true. Because…
Step #13: Edit your book again for the agent
Earlier, you were editing your book so an agent would take you on. Now that an agent HAS taken you on, it’s their job to get your manuscript up to snuff so that a publisher will give it the magical stamp of approval. An agent is like a gateway or a filter to the big publishing houses. It’s their job to sift through the swathes of rough drafts that would otherwise come a publishers way, and only present the publisher with the absolute top tier of writing and storytelling.
Your agent will give you an ‘edit letter,’ which is a scary little document full of all sorts of changes you’re going to have to make to your book if you ever want to see it on store shelves. You might have to kill characters or scenes you love but I promise it’s for the greater good. Agents know what a book takes to make it all the way through traditional publication and it’s their job to get you there. If you can’t fathom the idea of allowing someone else to have partial control of your story, you’re better off looking at self-publishing.
Remember, an agent handles the business portion publishing a book so you can concentrate on doing what you’re best at – the writing.
Step #14: Time to find an editor
I finally have some GOOD NEWS for you – this is not your job! Now that you have an agent, it’s your agent’s job to pitch your book to editors in hopes that one of them likes your story enough to take it on. You’re considered ‘on sub’ during this part of the process and it’s up to you to keep quiet. Don’t post on Twitter, Facebook or call your local radio station with news about how you’re going to be a published author. Nothing is set in stone yet and things can still fall through. It’s entirely possible no editors will be interested in your book, in which case, go back to Step #1 and start over or self-publish.
Here’s the sad part. Writing and publishing is an extraordinarily subjective business. Trends dictate what’s popular and what’s not. Just because one genre is popular today doesn’t mean it will still be tomorrow. You might have a great story but if the world isn’t ready for it then there’s little you can do, other than hope you’re in the right place at the right time.
Finally, one day, if all goes according to plan – your agent gives you another call and has good news. You’ve got an editor and you’ve got a deal! Your dream is officially a reality – you’re going to become a traditionally published author. You really can celebrate this time.
Step #15: Book launch! (and beyond)
After another year of working on even more edit requests, this time even more grueling and on behalf of your editor rather than your agent, the big day arrives. You’ll be assigned a publicist at this point who could be either super helpful or somewhat less helpful than what you expected.
This is your chance to shine. Your book is a big deal so make it a big deal. Have a big launch party. Invite your friends and family over. Before and after your book is released, it’s your grand opportunity to do some book marketing. Reach out to other bloggers and influencers in your niche. Try to arrange for interviews. Contact local schools and see if any of them are looking for speakers, especially if you’re publishing MG or YA. Get on social media and start talking if you haven’t been doing that already.
If your book is an instant success, congrats on making it! You worked hard to get to this point and deserve it.
If your book’s sales are underwhelming, that sucks, but that’s the business of publishing. The good news is that you’ve already gone through the process once and know what it involves. The fact that you’re now a published author is a huge boost for your credibility, ensuring your next venture into traditional publication will undoubtedly be easier than the last.
Fifteen steps and that’s it. That’s the excruciating, overwhelming process of how to write and publish a book. That’s what it takes to become a traditionally published author.
It’s not easy and it’s not for the sane. If you want a guaranteed income, you’re better off getting a salaried job. If you want to dream big you’re in the right place.