How to get traditionally published (9 infallible steps to landing an agent and publishing deal)

How to get traditionally published (9 infallible steps to landing an agent and publishing deal)

Today I decided I want to be traditionally published.

Even though I like having the control of self-publishing.

Even though I know I can earn more self-publishing.

Even though my books routinely outrank and outsell traditionally published books.

Even though I don’t need any help with editing, book design or book marketing.

I want to be traditionally published because I want to be an insider.

If I go to conferences and get a table to promote my books, I don’t want to be excluded from the VIP room where all the “real” authors, agents and publicists laugh and chat and make plans to go out together later.

I don’t want to be the awkward self-published author who has to try and tempt people in (even to take free stuff!) while sitting next to a “real” author with a big line of people waiting to get a book signed.

In the online world, self-publishers have an advantage over traditionally published authors. We often have to work harder, we sometimes learn our way around social media and book promotion, while traditionally published authors just sit back and let somebody else do everything for them.

So I’ve decided to get at least some of my work traditionally published.

I just finished my PhD in Literature. I’m no stranger to spending years working on and accomplishing long-term goals. This year I also started writing fiction, both to prove that I could do it, and to prove that my book marketing strategies work. In less than six months, I have a bigger audience for my fiction than most self-publishing authors have after five years. But I don’t think it’s impressive enough yet to actually hook an agent.

When I commit to goals, I don’t like to half-ass it, or waste time and effort on long-shots. I don’t want to start querying agents until I’ve got a pretty good chance of success.

So here’s my battle plan for the next several years.

Rule Google

1. Google is my friend. As this article points out, agents will often begin with Google to look me up. They want to see any skeletons. They want to see what comes up in the results. Right now all my CreativIndie and cover design stuff shows up pretty high, but very little of my fiction stuff.

I want to build up my fiction site, UrbanEpics, so it ranks high and gets a decent amount of traffic. 1000 hits a day would be reasonable – not a ton, but not insignificant.

2. More press mentions.

I’d like to get at least 5 good mentions on high profile blogs or organizations in my field (writing young adult). I could do that by posting articles, or doing cool things that earn traffic and shares. I want to show, not only that I can get good press, that I know how to get good press.

3. Get more followers.

I have 12,000 Twitter followers, but I should get that up to 25K. I’d also like to get my Instagram up to 10,000. And my Urban Epics Facebook page has about 2500 but I’d like to be up to 10K as well. The easiest way to boost numbers quickly is with giveaways and contests, so I’ll be doing a lot more of those this year.

4. Boost my email list.

Getting more followers is actually pretty useless, other than looking good at a glance. It’ll make it easy for an agent to check some boxes, like “has a Twitter/Facebook following.” But emails lists are more important and more valuable. Right now I have roughly 15,000 young adult readers on a list, but only 2000 on my list of actual fans (who signed up to get my fiction). I want to grow both lists a lot this year – I’d like to get up to 100,000 YA readers on an email list, but I’ll be happy with about 25K.

5. Sell 10,000 books.

I’ve talked with a few agents and they agree that 10,000 book sales is roughly the amount of books it would take for a self-publishing author to impress them. I’m not sure I can do that with ONE book, but I think with all the fiction I’m writing, collectively, over the next year or so, I can get there. It’s not easy, and it will depend on a lot of factors and promotions, but if I can pull it off, an agent will know that my books are decent enough to get sold, and I’m not too shabby at selling them. Again I don’t think this is necessary, and a lot of agents will discover the best story over everything else (many authors get signed with very little online social media presence, or with zero sales history). But since I’ve already self-published, what they don’t want to see is a string of badly designed, poorly edited, self-published projects.

6. Get 1000 reviews.

I’d love to get 1000 reviews on one book – and I might make it with my permafree books (Shearwater is up to 212). But I’ll settle with 1000 total, or over one hundred reviews on everything I publish. Hitting one hundred reviews is a major accomplishment, if I can consistently get over one hundred reviews on my self-published books, they’ll know I can pull my weight in regards to marketing.

7. Make new friends.

Book marketing is to a great extent about who you can get to share your book for you. I’ve spent several years helping authors, and will continue to focus on helping young adult authors with their book launches and author platforms. Small favors here and there can really help authors succeed, and they may be happy to return the favor and share my launch eventually. This is also true for book bloggers, booktubers, and other influential figures in my genre – I need to create opportunities to provide value and for them to get to know me. This is harder, because I’m an introvert (kind of) and socially awkward (very). So I don’t have that excited, open enthusiasm that a lot of other online personalities have. I’m a quiet personality that won’t stand out in a group but will shine one on one.

8. Write a great f-ing book.

All this stuff is just to get an agent’s attention quickly, and make them consider my query seriously. They might spend just a few more minutes reading my sample pages, or thinking about whether my book is a good fit for them. The books I’ve been writing so far have been decent for the genre, but not amazing, and not especially innovative. I was basically writing with training wheels on, and sticking to genre conventions and formula. Readers still really like them, but they aren’t unique enough to excite an agent.

I need something epic and incredible (but not necessarily innovative – a lot of the bestsellers in my genre are new remixes of several other popular motifs, like “Harry Potter meets Hunger Games meets Percy Jackson”). I need to take everything that’s popular in my genre and make it fresh and amazing again so readers can enjoy it in a new way.

I have several projects I think will work. But I’ll have to finish the whole book before pitching, and get it edited, and make it amazing. Luckily, I write all my books to market, which means (for me) that I’m writing them specifically to entertain a select group of readers who like a certain type of story. It doesn’t mean I’m writing fodder to cash in on trains, just that I’m considering my audience and writing with an eye towards reception rather than production.

9. Persevere.

Once I have a book ready, I will query the living soul out of it. I’ll submit query letters to three agents. If one doesn’t request pages, I know my query sucks. I’ll fix it and send out three more, and tweak again until 2 out of 3 ask for pages.

If agents are asking for pages but they pass on the book, I’ll know my beginning of that book sucks, or the story isn’t a good fit for the market I think it’s a good fit for. I’ll probably keep trying anyway, rigorously, for about a month (or 100 submissions). After that, screw it, I’ll self-publish and and market the shit out of it, get my 10,000 sales and 100 reviews, and start working on another book. I’ll keep building my publications and earnings until I have a project that reaches the right agent at the right time and they decide to publish it. This is not impossible or unlikely. This is inevitable.

10. Be a good investment.

If I get a book traditionally published, I’m going to work my ass off to make sure that book is a smash hit, that outperforms expectations. I want the agent who took a risk on me to get a raise. I want the publishing company to make double what they hoped for. I want to follow it with an equally successful series.

I won’t give up all my rights/books to a publisher, because as I hybrid author I can use my other books in more creative ways to reach readers if I have more control. But I do want some books traditionally published, so I get the golden halo of approval that brands me (among the traditionally published authors and publishing industry insiders, as well as the readers they influence) as a “real” author.


I wrote this post years ago and never published it, but I’m doing so now because, generally speaking, most of the tips above are reasonable and a decent approach. Platform isn’t everything, and it will never matter more than the actual book itself, but it can open doors and get people to give you a little more attention and time.

Honestly, I wouldn’t do all this stuff unless you’ve written a few books and tried to figure out whether anyone likes it or why they don’t like it; most authors make common writing mistakes. Most first-time books are not ready to be published. An agent or publisher will not do heavy lifting to fix your broken story, nor will they figure out the market (who it’s for, who might enjoy it) … that’s your job.

But, you could figure it out pretty fast, for example I have an offer where I’ll go through your book, point out problems or issues, help you craft a blurb, proposal or summary, and I can even help build a platform that might help – but there’s no guarantees and most of the time, there’s only so much you can do with a passion project you wrote that doesn’t hold water and isn’t entertaining.

I’ve seen people give up and bemoan their fates when they couldn’t get traction on a first book, but I’ve also seen people at their lowest point decide to continue, write more books, and hit six-figures.

To be transparent, I’ve still never traditionally published, but I also never really tried to… but I have crossed the six-figure threshold and now I’m just focused on finishing all my series so I can start pushing up the profit margins. Most writing advice out there will tell you to just persevere and keep going, but there is a very efficient publishing industry where things are done a certain way; personally I don’t think learning to play the game (pitching to agents) is worth the time and effort, and I steer people towards self-publishing.

But if you want to be traditionally published, you’re absolutely going to need to prove that your book has a market; that’s it shares features with current bestsellers; that you understand trends that your audience is searching for; that you’re paying attention. The more you do that, however, the more you may realize that the book you wrote does not have any of that stuff, and is something different, something unmarketable that people don’t want.

If that’s the case, you’re going to need to be very clever at first a reason publishers should invest in it anyway, and they aren’t going to do it just to do you a solid or because they believe in you or your book; those people are mostly staffed and salaried; this is their job. They love discovering new voices and potential hits, but they probably aren’t going to become champions because your art is so brilliant.

Is traditional publishing right for you?

People prefer trad publishing because it’s a form of validation, and it won’t cost you anything to publish. But big publishers will rarely invest in marketing, and it’s more common for the majority of books, that the advance doesn’t earn out and your next project is dropped. I’m not saying this will happen, but this happens more than 50% of the time so the odds are not with you, and the shrinking advances may not be worth all the time and effort, once you figure in a year of submitting and another year of preparation to publish (those two years could have been used to focus relentlessly on learning to market yourself, or writing six new book, which isn’t impossible… I write an average of 4 novels a year).

You also want to be very careful, if you avoid self-publishing too hard you might fall for one of the vanity press scams that pretends to be a real trad publisher but is actually some kind of hybrid press, where you need to pay for cover design, editing or marketing. It’s true you should never pay to publish, but it’s also true most self-publishers spend between $500 and $2500 per book for services.

The difference is, with a package they are outsourcing the work and you’ll pay extra for lower quality. Since cover design, specifically, is crucial, I can never support or endorse any vanity press because their covers never measure up to truly exceptional book cover design.

You can also try to do everything yourself on a budget (that’s what I teach here!) but it’s risky, and you may have an even harder time getting traction. The most valuable thing, is education, which means spending time to learn all the things you need to know to make smart publishing decision. I have a few free books in the top menu so I hope you’ll start with those…

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *