How you prepare your novel for traditional publishing will vary a little depending on the exact way your agent and publisher operate, once you land them.
Most publishers take on very few unsolicited manuscripts. That means you can’t just send them your book to consider. Instead, you’ll have to send them your manuscript through a literary agent.
Publishers aren’t doing this to be mean – only to be practical. By reading only submissions sent to them by agents, someone has already vetted the manuscripts and decided they’re viable in the marketplace.
Some smaller publishers accept submissions direct from authors. Both big publishers and smaller publishers have their pros and cons, but it’s my opinion that an agent is worth getting not only because they increase your chance of being selected by a publisher, but because they can provide you with a wealth of advice and legal knowledge. They handle contracts and rights, and (should) have your best interests at heart.
The traditional publishing route
The traditional publishing route goes something like this:
- You finish your novel to the best of your ability.
- You send your manuscript to beta readers to get general feedback.
- If your beta readers respond with oodles of enthusiasm, you put together a submissions package (usually your first few chapters, a synopsis and a query letter) and start asking agents if they’re interested in representing you. If the feedback from your beta readers isn’t so good, or if you keep getting rejected by agents, you probably need to keep working on your manuscript, so you might send it to a professional developmental editor.
- You land an agent. Woo hoo! The agent might suggest more changes to your manuscript, or they might think it’s ready to submit to publishers, which they will do on your behalf.
- Your novel is accepted by a publisher and your agent negotiates the best deal for you. Crack open the champers!
- But the hard work isn’t over yet. The publisher might suggest more changes to the manuscript and pair you up with a line and copy-editor – which the publisher pays for.
- You address any issues the line and copy-editor raises and go through the manuscript to check you’re happy with the edits.
- The publisher has the interior of the book designed and typeset, and they have the cover designed, too.
- The publisher has the book proofread by a professional.
- You address any last queries from the proofreader, and the book is ready to be published.
As you can see, the publisher ends up paying for most of the quality control services, but you’ll have a little less control over the editorial and design decisions than you would if you’d decided to self-publish. The agent is paid when you are paid – they normally take around 15%.
If you want to go down this route, the most important thing is that the foundations of your novel are solid from the start.
That means your idea is marketable, your plot is solid, your characters are vivid, your voice is strong, the pacing is balanced, and so on. Working with a developmental editor (e.g. to critique your manuscript) is one way of improving your book in this way.
You might also consider hiring a professional line and copy-editor if you feel grammar and punctuation aren’t your strengths. Both agents and publishers are flooded with submissions, so the closer your book is to a publishable standard, the more likely it is to be accepted. Publishers would ideally like to pay for as little as possible during the quality control stages, so if the book is already in fantastic shape, they’ll likely be more willing to publish it.
Saying that, you should keep in mind how difficult it is to be traditionally published. Even if your novel is fantastic and beautifully written, you might be unlucky and it might just slip through the cracks.
So though you certainly need a quality manuscript, you also need a good pinch of luck to be traditionally published. You’ll also need a big dose of patience, as it can take a while for this whole process to complete.
If that doesn’t sound like much fun to you, you could consider self-publishing your novel!