Publishing a Novel: Where to Start

If you're on this page, you're probably thinking about publishing a novel of your own. And if, like me, you're beginning your journey with no idea of how to make it happen, you'll want some basic advice. So here's my advice on how to start.

First of all: Finish a manuscript.

How long should it be? It depends on genre, but here's a couple of pages that will help you pinpoint your target word length:

BookEnds: Word Count 
Agent Janet Reid on Word Count
BookLamp: How Long is the Average Book?
The Swivet
Writers Digest

Note that standard length is determined by word count, not pages, because the size of the font and the paper varies depending on the project. This gives everyone involved--agents, editors, and other writers--a single measure of comparison.

Also note that, thanks to e-first publishing (when a publishing house releases your book as a digital copy instead of a print copy, and depending on sales, may or may not ever make a print edition), word count is loosening up a lot, since the publishers don't have to worry about forcing your book to fit into a standard number of pages--if it does get printed, it's already proven profitable, so they're pretty much guaranteed not to take a loss for the extra costs for nonstandard numbers of pages. You also have less to worry about if you're self-publishing, where shorter novels are more common (50-55K is not unusual for full-length novels).

If you do need the length in pages, for standard industry purposes, consider there to be 250 words per page. So, a 100,000 word manuscript would be about 400 pages.

This is a good time, by the way, to begin your research on the publishing process. So even if you're not finished with the book, it's not a bad idea to read ahead and start getting an idea of what you're in for.

 Second: Edit the manuscript.

This includes giving drawer time, and doing edits based on content instead of grammar and spelling. Do not attempt to submit a manuscript until you feel it's fully polished.

Third: Research.

If you've not begun your research yet, you must do it now.

Here's a few posts that will get you started:

Publishing Terms You Should Know
The General Process (For Traditional Publishing)
What to Expect
Sarra Cannon's Resources for Indie Writers (For self-publishing; link sends you to her website)

You'll also want to research the many types of self-publishing and traditional publishing. A POD publisher, for example, is a self-publisher, but that's not the same route as going through Smashwords. A small publishing house will have different pros and cons than a large publishing house, and if you're serious about publishing, you should know to avoid "vanity" publishers at all costs. Check out Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors for more on those.

Fourth: Decide which route is best for you.

Note that publishing is going through an upheaval with the introduction of e-books and self-publishing via e-books. This means you have a greater range of options than you ever did before, and you'll have a thousand people trying to tell you what the One True Answer is.

Take it with a grain of salt. There is no One True Answer in this business. There's only "what works for me" and "what doesn't work for me," and only you can decide how to answer that. The pros and cons of self-publishing? There's a lot of them. Once you've done some research for yourself, you might want to check out my take on the "Traditional or Self Publishing?" debate. But that's just my opinion, and there are many, many opinions.

One factor you may consider is how much you stand to earn from each process (aka how much money authors make), and the possible schedule of income. Here are some assorted articles, surveys, and blogs by various sources looking at income (including both self- and traditional publishing) as an author.

Fifth: Research again

Once you've figured out if you'll be starting with self-publishing or traditional publishing, and which route to take, you'll need to figure out whether or not you want an agent. If you're self-publishing, probably not. If you're traditional publishing, probably.

For self-publishers, you'll need to find reputable editors and good cover-design services. You'll also want to decide which self-publishing platforms you'll be using, and figure out how to convert your documents into the appropriate formats. You'll also need to figure out how to afford the starting costs for editing and cover design.

For traditional publishing folks, you'll need to find which agents and publishers you plan to target, plus do some market research to figure out who your target audience is and how to reach them. Make sure you're following standard manuscript format, and learn to write a killer pitch, query, and synopsis.

Sixth: Put your research to work.

Do all the things you learned you need to do to succeed in your chosen route.

This is when you cross from being a "writer" into being an "author." Good luck! Oh, and I hope you've started your next book. Your fans are waiting for more.

(updated 9/16/2015)