A Perfunctory Guide to Writers Looking for Publishers - Maggie Stiefvater
February 19, 2014

A Perfunctory Guide to Writers Looking for Publishers

Back To News

I’m asked at least once a week how to get published. Once upon a time, this was a very straightforward answer:

1. Write a novel.

2. Write a query letter.

3. Send the query letter to agents or to editors.

4. Rinse and repeat until said agents and editors ask to see the rest.

5. Rinse and repeat until they see the rest and ask to buy it.

5. In the case of multiple offers, speak to all parties on the phone and see which one makes you feel like the prettiest pony.

Here were things you did not do:

1. Pay to be published.

2. Pay your agent anything besides 15% of the sale price of your book and your royalties.

3. Pay for any of the costs associated with being published such as cover design, editing, printing, hiring of performing bears, etc.

4. Do anything other than write and be paid for writing.

But now there are many ways to be published. Self-publishing and small publishers no longer have the same stigma attached to them. It is no longer the most obvious thing to say: to get published, write a query letter and submit it to an agency or a publishing house, DONE.

Instead, you must ask yourself: what is my goal in publishing?

If your goal is to write a book that you hope will appear on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, CostCo, and supermarkets everywhere, you still need to follow the first set of steps. A traditional publisher is still your only way to get into all of those places. And if you really do have your eye on stands in supermarkets and Sam’s Club and airports, you not only need a traditional publisher, but you need a large traditional publisher of the sort that generally exists in New York and is called something like Little, Brown, or Scholastic, or Random House. You will also need an agent.

You will need, as I said before, to do all of the steps I first listed.

If your goal is to write a book that you’d like to see on shelves but are fine with those shelves being the ones in specialty stores or libraries or schools, a smaller traditional publisher might be a good option for you. This is especially true if you’ve written a less commercial book. (here is a good way to judge if something is commercial: can you imagine your mother, your hair dresser, your veterinarian, and your brother in law all reading it? if so, it is super commercial. Commercial =/= good. It merely means many people will pick it up).

These smaller houses will carry the burden of editing and printing and marketing for you, but they won’t always have the clout to get your book into major stores. They are, however, often less competitive than the larger New York houses, and they will often give you more personal attention and promote your book for longer. You don’t always need an agent to submit to them either, though I recommend an agent if you’re pursuing a full-time career in writing.

But if your goal is only to be read, or to if you have a keen marketing mind and want to represent yourself, self-publishing is an emerging option. You’ll have all of the control, and there will be no rejection letters in your future. But you’ll also carry the entire burden of cover design, editing, printing, formatting for digital distribution and, most importantly, marketing and publicity. I was a self-representing artist, and success is possible, but it will look different than success at a traditional larger house, and it will ask different things from you. You will not, at this point, ever walk into a Sam’s Club and see a self-published title sitting on the table out front. It is very possible to be a writer without Sam’s Club. But it’s important to keep that in mind if a big commercial career is what you long for. That book on that table bears a logo of a large traditional publishing house.

A note: There are several companies that offer to help you with self/ digital-only publishing at the moment, but I’m not convinced of their usefulness at this point. I think it’s a little too soon to see how they’re anything but a middle man at this stage. My feelings are if you’re going to dive into the digital world, you should be doing it because you want the freedom and control in your own hands.

What it comes down to is that you need to be honest with what you need out of your publishing experience. Unhappiness comes from wrong-headed expectations and targeting the wrong house. If you long to see your book at O’Hare airport, you’re going to have a miserable experience self-publishing. If you want to publish a serial story in ten parts over two years, you’re going to have a hard time pitching it to a traditional house. Don’t expect a small house to suddenly change its stripes and drop a quarter million marketing budget on your novel.


Make a list of books and careers that you admire and would like to model, and then work backward to find out how those authors ended up where they were. And if something sounds too good to be true, it is. Consider suspect any option that seems like it doesn’t require rejection and work and practice and polish and scrabbling of your hands and teeth. This is the best job in the world, which means there are a lot of people who are fighting for it. If you really want it, you’ll fight alongside with them.

It’s very worth it.

Further reading:

A Rather Longer Post on My Self-Publishing Thoughts

Publishing Does Not Want To Eat Your Heart

A Proper Education: What To Study to Be A Writer

Ten Rules for Query Letters

(all of my writing posts here)