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How and Why to Publish a Book

May 16, 2020

You have a book. Or a book idea. Or just this idea that you should be an author. What now?

The first step is to understand your options. Let’s start with traditional.

How Traditional Publishing Works

If you’re interested in selling a book to a traditional publisher, here’s how it works: you’ll need to find an agent who will submit your 25-60-page book proposal to book publishers. For tips on getting an agent, see the end of this post.

Here’s what you should know going in: even if you’re signed by an agent, it's really, really, really hard to get a publishing deal today; the rough statistic is that two out of every 10,000 book proposals submitted to major publishing houses sell. It also takes a really, really, really long time for a book to see the light of day—usually a year or two between when a publisher acquires your book and when it’s released.

If a publishing company does acquire your book, however, there’s good news: they cover the costs of editing, designing and releasing. In exchange, they own the rights and make all decisions about the cover, title, release date and everything else (with your input, of course). Once they earn back your advance, you then theoretically start earning royalties (the rates vary bit it’s usually been between eight and 25% of the book sales), This is theoretical, however, because only about 25% of books ever earn out their advances.

The Reality of Traditional Publishing

The rewards of traditional publishing are undeni­able—especially if you’re published by one of the Big Five publishers. Your book is legitimized in the eyes of many and your chances of hitting bestseller lists and getting covered by the media are better.

The misconceptions people have about traditional publishing are also undeniable. Everyone I know who tells me they want to be published traditionally gives the same reasons—they want to hit the New York Times bestseller list, they want to be sent on a book tour, they want the support a big publisher provides and they want their books in stores.

Traditional publishing has changed enormously since my agent sold my first book in 2005. While I’d been able to get $50,000 for Party Girl back in the pre-Instagram days when only college students were on Facebook, the only new people publisher are giving book deals to now are those with massive social media followings and email lists.

Traditional publishing doesn’t care how good a story is. It may have never cared. My friends from the traditional publishing world—the friends who had sold big books to major publishers—are either contemplating going back to school, working at celebrity weeklies or embarking on entirely new careers.

Traditional publishing is really destined to only work for the Elizabeth Gilberts, Glennon Doyles and whoever else happens to have a book really hit. As my friend Jennifer Armstrong told me when I had her on my podcast, “There are levels internally that publishers don't tell you about, and when my book hit the first week, it felt like I had unlocked this whole new level in a video game that I didn't know existed. On my previous book,they'd all been very polite, and said things like, ‘Here is another thing someone has written about you. I am passing it on,’ and that was kind of it. Now they were saying, ‘Do you want to have a marketing meeting?’ I’d say, ‘I thought we already had that meeting.’ And they essentially said, ‘Sure, but do you want to have a real meeting?’”

The reality is that most of the writers who pass the Rubicon by getting a deal are going to end up disappointed and broke.

But What About the Bestseller List & Bookstores?

Here's what I can say about the lists: the chance of a book hitting the Times list is minuscule and putting your focus on that is a great way to make your book release experience miserable. (I know because I did it—five times!) The one time I didn’t obsess over a book of mine hitting the list, it did hit the list. And while it’s undeniably cool to be able to dine out on being a New York Times bestselling author (and trust me, I have), focusing on that as a goal is, I think, to miss all the potential joys of the publishing experience.

In terms of a book tour, I personally know almost no one who has been sent on one—and I know a hell of a lot of traditionally published authors. I guarantee Elizabeth Gilbert, Glennon Doyle and all the authors who don’t need book tours are sent on pretty plush ones, but the authors I know who “go” on tour are often paying for and arranging those tours themselves.

What Your Publisher Will and Won’t Do

Look at it like this. Imagine you’re a filmmaker and you get a studio to invest in your movie. Yahoo, you’ve made it! And this isn’t just any old movie but one you wrote and are directing, producing and starring in. And you’re not just starring in it—you’re the only star. The year that you’re shooting, the studio is very supportive. Lots of patting you on the back and giving you advice. Then it’s release day. You’re a bit scared by the fact that, er, nothing seems to be happening. So you reach out to the studio…and don’t hear back. You’re confused. Weren’t you all in this together? Didn’t they give you money so you could all have a hit on your hands?

So surprising is this experience that every time it happened to me, I basically suffered something close to amnesia and therefore had to go through it six times in total before I finally got the memo: my pub­lisher wasn’t going to do anything for me. The reality is that publishers pick a book or two a season to put all their efforts behind—and my books never made the cut. All the major media exposure I got for my books I secured myself. That’s because the chosen ones are the ones that don’t need support. My publisher's indifference to my books wasn’t personal; they were just going for low-hanging fruit.

As for having your book sold in bookstores, HarperCollins paid for each of my books to be in stores for a few weeks. Then the books slowly, with each purchase, dwindled out of the store—never to return. The reality is that most books that aren’t instant bestsellers don’t stay in stores—unless the author jumps in and hustles the book to booksellers him or herself. 

I don’t mean to sound discouraging. I just mean to sound realistic. And there’s a reason that, after six traditionally published books, I wouldn’t go tradi­tional again.

So let’s move on to the other options.

How Self-Publishing Works

Self-publishing isn’t what it used to be back when your great aunt paid a janky publisher to put out your family history and foisted the copies upon every family member over the holidays.

Instead, these days, it’s possible to publish a book yourself that is indistinguish­able from a book pub­lished by, say, HarperCollins. If you’re going to achieve that goal, however, it means that you must strive for excellence at every stage.

The time frame is—well, it’s whatever you want it to be. While I highly recommend taking your time with it, Amazon allows you to replace a book with an updated version at any time so it’s possible to launch a book, re-do it and launch it again. Still, I don’t recommend that. “You only get one chance to make a first impression” is a cliché for a reason.

Excellence at every stage involves hiring the best editors, cover designers, layout designers and everyone else your team requires but if you’re not interested in making that level of time or financial commitment, you can also just go for it. If you want to go ahead and publish your book, here are seven steps to the EASIEST, LEAST EXPENSIVE way to do it.

  • STEP 1: Go to, search “book layout for Kindle”; hire one of them 
  • STEP 2: Go to, click on Create a design
  • STEP 3: Scroll down the page that comes up, then click on Book Cover under Blogging & eBook 
  • STEP 4: Select a cover, change the text and go…
  • STEP 5: Upload the file and cover to Amazon by following these instructions:
  • STEP 6: Decide whether or not you want to sell your book exclusively on Amazon (the advantage is that you can make your book free for five days every 90 days and really try to drive sales); if you do choose that, enroll your book in KDP Select.

         Here’s how:

  • Go to your Bookshelf.
  • Click on the ellipsis button ("...") under the KINDLE EBOOK ACTIONS menu next to the book you want to enroll.
  • Choose Enroll in KDP Select.
  • On the screen that appears, click Enroll in KDP Select.

Baby, you are published!

Of course, you should only do it when you've created something you consider a masterpiece. And that is, of course, a lot of work.



So Why Do All This Work?

I'm a primary example of what a book can do for a person. The fact is, my books have taken me from girl who couldn't rub two nickels together to woman The Today Show calls when they need an expert. They've helped me to build a company where I work with seven and eight-figure entrepreneurs.

The truth is, my books have given me everything. And I'm certainly not the only one. I'll leave you with this quote from my client Emily Lynn Paulson:  “My book is my business card, not my debit card. I didn’t do a book because I thought it would make me a millionaire. You definitely can make money and I have and it's been great. But I think of it differently. When I think of the things I've invested in, in my life—college, training, coaching programs, all that stuff—I'm not necessarily using those; this is something you can really use.

If you're a realtor, you get a website and pamphlets. I saw the book wasn't the real estate but I'm the real estate. So the book really was marketing my business card. And I understand that it’s really a residual thing. The book is going be out there forever.

The part for me that has paid off the most has been being able to put “author” next to my name—just like putting master's degree or whatever else…you're paying for the credential. This has been a credential I couldn't put a price tag on. People will start paying attention to you and invite you to things without even reading your book. It’s the fact that you've written the book that’s the draw and not necessarily what the book is about.”

You Can Pick Whatever Publishing Route You Want. Here's Why I Choose (My) Self—Self-Publishing, That Is

I don't like to feel frustrated and neglected; it's just not a good look for me. I'm also not great at having other people in charge (there's a reason I've been fired from almost every job I've ever had).

And the reality is that we are in the golden age of self-publishing. I first noticed it when I began to see that traditional publishing was falling apart. That's when I discovered an entrepreneur and author named James Altucher who’d done several books with big publishers. Then he wrote a book called Choose Yourself. He hired independent editors, cover designers and everything else. It sold 45,000 copies in the first week. 

Other names were popping up. Amanda Hocking. Mark Dawson. Nick Stephenson. People were doing the thing I’d long derided—self-publishing—and making not just a killing but also an impact.

I wanted that, too.

But this is my reality. If it's not yours and you're determined to go the traditional publishing route, the first step is to get an agent. Below, as promised, please find...

Recommendations From Top Writers on How They Got Their Agents

Jason Smith, author of The Bitter Taste of Dying

I actually did everything backward and did mostly what they say you shouldn't do. I wrote a ton of stuff for free, which a lot of writers say you shouldn't do. They say you're more valuable than "free." I say that's bullshit. You don't get to determine your own value. That's determined by the demand, so to me, it made sense to build the demand before demanding value. I had the deal with Warner Bros off a free story, that was seen by 100k people, but I still didn't have an agent. Through Warner Bros, I was connected into the world of ICM, and Heather Bushong, the book to film agent. From there, they connected me into the literary side

Jillian Lauren, New York Times bestselling author of the memoirs Everything You Ever Wanted, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty

I didn’t re-invent the wheel. I got my first agent through a cold submission! my basic advice is to check the acknowledgments section of books with the same tone/theme/subject etc of yours. Writers always thank their agents first. Ask all the friends you have for intros to their agents. And just do it right and write an amazing query and proposal and don't jump the gun and try to get an agent before you have an EXCELLENT, PERFECT product.

Mark Ebner, New York Times bestselling author of Hollywood Interrupted, among other books

In 2003, I was reading some autobiographical prose from Los Angeles journalist emeritus Marc Cooper. In one of his stories, he was going gonzo with his literary agent, "Big Vig." I asked around, and sure enough, David Vigliano was a major player in the NYC book world. I cold-called him, and asked if he was "Big Vig." He laughed, and became my first (of many) book agents that day.

Amy Spencer, author of The Happy Life Checklist, among other books

I got my agent through a friend short-cut mixed with a little magic. I began in a research-y way: I found similar books to mine that I loved, looked up the agent that each author thanked in the back, and then reached out to a few of them with queries about my (big, 60-page, non-fiction, dating advice book) proposal. One of them wrote back asking to see the proposal, which I sent. At the same time, I'd shown my proposal to a magazine editor friend. She personally loved it and said, "You know, I have an agent friend I'd be happy to put you in touch with." Turns out that agent didn't usually rep the type of book I was proposing, but I figured I may as well take her up on the personal connection anyway, since the agent had agreed to at least take a look. So I sent my proposal to that agent...and the next day got an email from a *different* agent saying she'd seen the proposal on her colleague's desk, grabbed it, read it, and asked if she could represent me! What a little miracle. We got on the phone and connected instantly. I did check in a few times with that original agent I'd sent my proposal to, but she kept putting me off, so I decided to go with the whip smart, persistent, on-top-of-it agent who actually "got" me and wanted to work with me without hesitation. She sold that book for me in two months with multiple offers and I've been with her since through three more books!

Ryan Hampton, author of American Fix

I researched the web. And then reached out to other authors for recommendations. Eventually it led to me finding my agent, who was totally off the map with a boutique agency. My friend had just published a book on addiction and he made the intro. I still had to sell her on the idea though. It’s helpful to have an active social media presence when pitching. I had some big shot agent who was willing to sign me but didn't really seem to have heart (or time) for the project. And I like people who are hungry like me. I literally just Googled "literary agent" and dialed every person—cold called and emailed.

I said, “Hi my name is Ryan Hampton. I've spent the last two years watching my friends die from addiction. I'm sick and tired of reading the same old addiction memoirs. I have a story to tell. And I think if the rest of the world could see what I did through my lens, they would be outraged. I'm writing a book. Not just any book. And it's not my story on how I got sober. I want people to be as outraged as me. I'd love to work with you, but if you aren't interested please let me know now. I'm going to get this published. Thanks." That literally was my pitch.