FAQS About Commercial Publishing (Publishing-House Publishing)

How do I pick a publisher to publish my book?

The best way to find the publisher who will be right for you is to find the books that you read that are most like the one you have written (in genre, in style, in tone) and see who publishes them. If they bought books like yours, the odds are vastly improved that they will buy yours, too.

Don’t waste time sending off your book to those “publishers” who advertise in the backs of magazines. (Not even the ones who advertise in the back of Writer’s Digest.) They’ll accept your manuscript. I almost guarantee it. They’ll also charge you for the privilege of being “published.” This is not the way the business works.

Never send a manuscript to a publisher because you “noticed that you don’t have any romance novels out there—my book will fill a hole in your list.” Your book will fill an out-slot in the publisher’s mailbox. A key rule in publishing lists is “same, but different.” If the publisher does romance novels, then your romance novel with a new twist on a favorite theme will be right on target. Your shoot-em-up western, however, will stand out like a drunken gunslinger at a debutante ball, and will be kicked out the door just as fast. Fantasy publishers publish fantasy. Religious publishers publish spiritual tomes. Literary publishers want The Great American Novel. No publisher wants a manuscript that is completely different from anything else it has ever put out there—and there aren’t exceptions to this rule, either.

So the key to success here is to know what you write, find out who is already putting books out there like it, and from that list, pick the publisher or publishers whose books you like best to query first.

How much do I pay a publisher to publish my book?

Nothing. Not a dime, not half the expenses, not “a modest sum,” not anything. Not ever. You don’t pay to have your book published. The reason you don’t pay to have your book published is as follows: If you’re a writer, then writing is your job. People get paid to do their jobs—nurses get paid to nurse, ditchdiggers get paid to dig ditches, and writers get paid to write.

(For more on this, also see WriterBeware [offsite, opens new window])

(If you’re looking for help on Independent Publishing, the rules are different, but you still don’t go to the publishers who are scumming around trolling for noobs with manuscripts and money)

How much should I charge a publisher to publish my book?

I love this question. It is the flip side of “how much should I pay to have my book published?” The droll answer is “you should be so lucky…”

Again, this is not the way the business works. You want to have an agent represent you in the negotiation of how much you’re going to get for your book (and how many rights you’ll keep and how many you’ll sell), but how much the publisher pays for the book is, in the end, entirely up to the publisher. Don’t expect a fortune. Don’t expect, in fact, to make more than you would have made from flipping burgers part-time for the same number of hours of work for your first novel. $250,000 first-novel advances like the one my previous agent, Russ Galen, got for Terry Goodkind are rare indeed. Much more typical is the $5000 I got for my first book, back before I had an agent.

What are rights? Which ones do I sell?

Rights are what you hang onto with insane, frothing-at-the-mouth determination.

Okay. I’ll be a little more specific. Rights are what publishers, movie-makers, book clubs, and so on, buy (actually lease) from you on your book. When you sell your book, you are not actually selling the book. You are selling to the publisher his right to publish that book in a limited format for a limited amount of time, and the more you can control the limits, the better off you’ll be. Standard rights sales for books permit the publisher to print the book in your country, or perhaps in the region that speaks the same language as you wrote it in. Foreign language rights are separate, and a good agent will help you hang on to them. Movie rights are separate, and again, a good agent will help you keep them. Internet publication rights, compilation rights, book club rights, all of these are rights that BELONG TO YOU from the second that you write the book. They are YOURS, they are WORTH MONEY, and there are unscrupulous publishers out there who would just love to grab them all up in one neat little “World rights, all formats, for all time” clause that essentially robs you of ever being able to resell them, while telling you that the sale of world rights is standard. It isn’t. It isn’t even close to standard.

Worse, there are publishers out there who will claim that their publication of your book under their copyright is a standard business practice. These people are thieves. Never sell your copyright on an original work. Never. Your copyright says that you wrote the book. If you sell that, and the publisher (or agent) puts his copyright on the book, then he in effect wrote the book. It’s his, and will be his forever after. You can never get anything from that book again, you cannot fix this, you cannot get reparations for it. Legally the publisher can buy copyright, and legally you can sell it, but you’d be insane to do so.

You may at times write books for which you do not own the copyright—for these (movie novelizations, media tie-ins, series books packaged by a packager, etc.) make sure that your agent sees that you are well-compensated up-front, and that you are going to get lots of royalties, because you will never see a dime in subrights sales, and for a writer, that is a Bad Thing.

How do I sell my book in foreign countries?

I don’t know. That’s one of the many reasons I have an agent. She does know.


NOTE: If this article resonates with you, and you want to meet other writers who share your passion and who are working in a friendly, supportive environment, come hang out with us and make progress on your writing in my free writing community. Learn how writing fiction for a living really works.




24 responses to “FAQS About Commercial Publishing (Publishing-House Publishing)”

  1. Alicia medeiros Avatar
    Alicia medeiros

    I wrote book and have companies wanting me spend 4-5000 to produce it. How can i find agent or company that dont charge? They want my book bad and keep lowering offer but what do i do?

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      First, those are not legitimate publishers. They don’t want your book. They want your money.

      Commercial publishers PAY YOU. Up front, and then in royalties. You never pay a legitimate commercial publisher.

      You do pay for indie print publication… but not a lot. You pay most legitimate indie print publishers a percentage of the money you earn — Amazon works like this. You put together the books for free, and they take out some of the money you earn as they sell.

      And then there are the GARBAGE businesses, for which, read this article (not mine).

      You have encountered a Garbage Publisher, run by sharks, and you need to get out of the water now.

  2. paul w Avatar
    paul w

    Holly, Thank you so much for this treasure trove of information! I now have a lot of research to do, but I have a starting point with what appears sage advice from someone who has magnanimously written an article to help the naïve among us. Thank you!

    1. Holly Avatar

      Glad I could help. If you like podcasts, my daughter and I do one on writing fiction — Alone In A Room with Invisible People (the title is the job description).

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Can we also use pin names? And how do we get paid ?

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Pen names (not pin names), or pseudonyms, are acceptable. You need to learn the terminology along with processes to do this for a living.

      As for how writers working for commercial publishers get paid (as opposed to writers who are publishing independently), the answer is, “Too little, too late, and their accountant works for them.” I have a lot more on that in the article on money and legacy publishers.

  4. Antoinette Avatar

    Hello’ My name is Antoinette. And I want to write a book about my Life Journey. I need to know What is the best procedure. Of getting started. I would like to speak with someone. That could give me Info on how I can write’ my own Book. Step by step. As soon as possible. Thank You Very Much. (A.R)

  5. Jill Avatar

    Thank you for this article!

  6. Korena Garretson Avatar
    Korena Garretson

    I just recently finished a book. My first book ever. I’m Looking into having it published. Although it’s a book about things that happened in my life I want to submit it as fiction. I changed all the names in the book. So far the companies I’ve looked into such as Christian Faith Publishing and Archway Publishing. CFP wants me to submit my manuscript for a review board to read and review for five days then make a decision if it’s a good fit for their company. then want me to front $3,400.00 for them to edit, design etc. the book. they will publish it and submit for distribution then after I’m paid back they in return get fifty cent per book. Archway wants me to pay without reading it anywhere from $1,500. to $2,000.00 and they do all the work but want 50% of sales which is steep. Both company prices are steep and I don’t want to do something I’ll regret. I also don’t want to submit my manuscript without being protected. Who’s to say I submit it and someone else claim it? How can I protect myself from someone claiming my work before it’s read and how do I find the right company to consider publishing it. I feel that if they think it’s good enough they will want to publish it and receive a portion of profit but I’m new to all this so I don’t know protocol. Should I contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives or what should my next step be. I would think I need to protect my manuscript before submitting to anyone to read. I was also told I should prob come up with a pen name since the book is based upon events in my life, even though I’ve changed the names it offers a sense of protection from someone suing me for writing about the events. However if I go with a pen name family and friends won’t know it’s my book for me to advertise. I wrote it to share my experiences and how I made it through. Any advice anyone can give is appreciated. thank you

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      I’ve answered this in a separate post, and in a personal email, but in case you didn’t receive my direct, personal email, I’ve linked to the post for you here.

      1. Korena Garretson Avatar
        Korena Garretson

        Thank you. What will be the best way to find an agent? The association of authors representatives?

  7. Debra Daniels Avatar
    Debra Daniels

    Could you please give me the name(s) if legitimate publishers? I was sent a contract for my childrens manuscript stating a total of 3000.00 plus dollars was going to be charged for services. Please help.

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      The process for finding legitimate publishers is to go to a brick and mortar bookstore, look in the section for books like yours, check the inside flap/copyright page for the publishers of the books that are doing well, and write down the names and addresses of the publishers.

      THEN look up their query process online, and follow it to the letter.

      You’re writing way outside my genre, so I have no useful information for you personally, but the fly-by-night companies don’t get distribution to bookstores.

    2. Onyenenue Oliseh Avatar
      Onyenenue Oliseh

      Good day .
      Please I have books on piano for children and adult.Please I don’t know how to go about it.I need to publish these materials. Thanks

      1. Holly Avatar

        Hi, Onyenenue. Do a search on “Independent Publishing, Nonfiction.” It’s different than what I do, but there are a lot of resources out there to help you get started.

  8. Beverly Washington Avatar

    Why would a writer pay a publisher, I always thought, that once book is published the publisher get a percentage of the royalties? am I correct?

    1. Holly Avatar

      Hi, Beverly. You’re crossing the publishing models. With traditional commercial publishing, you DON’T pay the publisher to publish your book. The publisher pays you an advance based upon what it thinks it can earn from selling your book.

      It covers all the expenses of manufacturing the books, advertising, promoting, and distributing them, and for THAT, receives the largest share of the money the book earns, while the writer earn a royalty after the publisher has been repaid the money it invests in the book

      The publishers you’re talking about — publishers a writer HIRES — have no business taking the writer’s money on the front end, and the claiming a royalty on the backend. Publishers who do this are sharks, and should be avoided at all cost.

  9. Emily Gould Avatar
    Emily Gould

    I’ve just received my first contract for a nonfiction book with a publisher. I submitted my manuscript and they will be publishing it later this year. I will be getting royalties from each book sale and e-book sale. They wanted all secondary rights originally and I asked to keep those. They counter-offered and said that I could keep those for a period of three years upon which they would retain those rights as well. I’ve done plenty of research and they are a very reputable publishing company. Is this a fair deal?

    1. Holly Avatar

      This is a situation where you need to talk to an agent NOW. Yesterday would be better. Check the Association of Authors’ Representatives for authors who represent work in your genre, contact several who work for agencies you’ve heard of (my agent is at Writers House, and my previous agent, Russell Galen, and the folks who work with him are both legit and very good).

      Explain that you have received a contract, that you are seeking at minimum someone qualified to look over the contract for ongoing problems, and that ideally you would like to engage representation. Don’t sign the contract until someone qualified has gone over it. If the agent will look over the contract for you but does not want to represent you, you’ll owe him or her for this service. It will still be worth it.

  10. ronn Avatar

    I am about to receive a contract offer for my first book. Obviously I am an unknown author at this point.
    The publisher did not solicit me and does not solicit transcripts. I approached them and sent a transcript. After 4 weeks I received a very favorable response that my book is a good fit for there type of publishing. They said if I am interested they will draw me up a contract to be reviewed.
    Even though I am an unknown author, you are saying NEVER pay a publisher to publish your work? Who should I bring this type on contract offer to in order to protect my rights and royalties.
    Please advise

    1. Holly Avatar

      This is where due diligence comes into play. Check the publisher’s name with “scam” in the search.
      Check writer sites and ask writers if they’ve heard of the publisher.
      And see if you can pay a one-time fee to a legitimate agent (http://www.aaronline.org/) or lawyer who knows publishing to make sure the company is above-board and the contract isn’t a rights-grabbing nightmare.

      Also, realize that you can publish and get distribution yourself while keeping 100% of your rights, for FREE or for very low prices, using Lulu.com, CreateSpace.com, Booklocker.com, and other quality POD services.

  11. Laurie K Simmons Avatar
    Laurie K Simmons

    Hello, I have recently sent a manuscript to a major publishing house and they just emailed me letting me know they want to publish my children’s book!Wow! I am thrilled. Will I be expected to pay any fees if I sign a contract with them?How do I know if I need a lawyer or agent? Please, any advice you can give would be appreciated! Thank you, Laurie Simmons

    1. Holly Lisle Avatar
      Holly Lisle

      Don’t sign ANYTHING until you’ve had an agent look at the contract. If it’s a legitimate publisher, they’ll pay you, not the other way around.

      Agents, (and you can find REAL agents at the Association of Authors’ Representatives), can be hired for a one-off look at your contract, even if they don’t agree to represent you. Call around, explain that you’ve received a contract and an offer to buy and you need a professional to take a look before you sign anything.

    2. Holly Avatar

      No. Major publishing houses pay a portion in advance and a portion on completion and acceptance.

      At the point where you have an acceptance, go through the listings in the Association of Authors Representatives immediately, and contact agents who are interested in seeing the kind of work you’re doing. Even if you’re not accepted as a client, for a one-time fee you can frequently get a qualified agent to bug-hunt your contract for killer clauses.

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