Traditional publishers include the ‘Big 5’ (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and their respective imprints, as well as a whole host of smaller, independent publishers.
Traditional publishers pay for the entire publishing process – editing, proofing, typesetting, printing, art and design, promotion, advertising, shipping, and, of course, paying author royalties – a percentage of the book sales. In other words, traditional publishers shoulder all the risks: if the book fails to sell, the publishers lose money – you don’t. If you want to find a large audience for your book, traditional publishing has the means to get you it.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s very difficult to secure a traditional publishing deal – particularly if it’s your first book. Many publishers won’t read unsolicited manuscripts (although Penguin Random House and Allen & Unwin are an occasional exception to this rule), only accepting manuscripts that have been given to them by literary agents.
Not having an agent shouldn’t stop you from pursuing traditional publishing, if you think it’s the right choice for your book. But how do you stop your book from ending up on the stack of unread manuscripts that sit on an editor’s desk (or more commonly these days, in their inbox)?
The best thing you can do is research the market. Think about which publishers would be the best fit for your book. Is your book historical fiction? If so, research other novels in this genre and see who the relevant publishers are. Are you writing a self-help book, or a cookbook? Which publishers are the market leaders for these categories? Remember that publishing is a commercial business and if a book is published, it’s because there’s a market for it.
Once you’ve found the right publishers, it’s time to see who to send your manuscript to. Look online and check out the ‘submissions’ page on the publisher’s website; if there isn’t one, then call up and ask if they accept submissions and, if so, who to send it to. Most publishers prefer to receive email submissions with a cover letter, the first few chapters, and a synopsis of the whole book. Your synopsis should be a lively summary of your book that’s between 500–1,000 words. Have a look at some guides to writing a fiction synopsis here and a non-fiction synopsis here.
Whatever you do, make sure you don’t write your synopsis in a salesy way. As the writer, your job is to tell the story, not to sell it. Leave the sales to the publishers! Then, once you’ve sent it off, all you have to do is wait and be patient. It can take months for your submission to be read, and even longer for you to hear back. Remember that publishers receive hundreds of submissions each day. If you haven’t heard back after 8 weeks, you can always send a follow-up email – but always keep it short, sweet, and simple.