Making Money From Writing, Part 2: Novels

Yesterday we surveyed the short story market, where you can find the right magazines for your stories, how you can sell the same story again as a reprint and to an anthology, why short story collections are such a hard-sell to publishing houses, and how and when you should self-publish them.

Today we are going to talk about novels.  There are only two real ways to sell your novel, and the choices are, for the most part, mutually exclusive, so you have a big decision to make.  The first way is to a trade publishing house (both large presses and small, independent presses), and the second is to self-publish.

Large Publishers

If you want to sell your novel to one of the large trade houses, in most cases you will need a literary agent to submit on your behalf.

There are exceptions, some imprints like Tor still take unagented submissions, but for the most part, editors state that they will not read submissions that are unrepresented.

To get an agent in the US, you must send a query letter first, a short email describing your book and your publication history.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different, where it is standard to write a cover letter and include the first few chapters of your manuscript right from the off, postal submissions are more common, and a lot more weight is placed on the synopsis.

If the agent is interested, they will request to see either the first few chapters, or the rest of the manuscript.

If they are then interested in representing you, usually a phone call takes place first to assess mutual suitability then, assuming everything is fine, an offer of representation is made.

If you are happy with the terms, and they are usually standard – 15% on the earnings of that book for life, whether you part ways with the agent in the future or not – then you sign the agreement and the agent begins submitting to editors (after you make any changes she feels is necessary first).

The number varies from agent to agent, but agents tend to sell at least half of the manuscripts they represent.  If the agent is successful and sells the manuscript to an editor, you will receive an advance on royalties.

The average advance for a first-time author of fiction with a large publishing house is between $5,000 and $10,000.

Most books do not “earn out” their advance; in other words they don’t sell enough copies to cover the royalties they would have paid out without an advance.

If your book does well, or breaks even (which requires less sales than earning out), you may get a larger advance, and a larger print run, for your next book. If your book does poorly, you may struggle to get a contract for your next book.

However, the tricky part is getting an agent in the first place.

As they only receive a percentage of your earnings (both from the advance and any royalties you receive), they only take on clients they feel will make them money.

This is understandable, but it means that most agents only take on a handful of new clients every year, after all, most of them will have a large number of existing clients, all of whom will have their own demands on the agent’s time.

Agents receive thousands and thousands of submissions every year, and your chances of being plucked from the pile are very small.

However, if you bag a big-name agent, they are more likely to score you a big deal. And if the publisher lays out big money on your advance, this means they will have to print huge numbers of your book to recoup that outlay.

This means that they will invest significant resources in promoting your book, as they will need to sell all those books they have printed. If you are lucky enough to be in this situation, it’s the surest path to success in the literary world.

Agent-hunting is tough. You must be prepared to deal with a lot of rejection, sometimes helpful, sometimes snappy. You mustn’t take it personally, they are not rejecting you , they are rejecting your book, just as when you pick up a book in a store and set it down after a paragraph or two because it’s not quite right for you.

You also must be prepared for a long haul. Many writers don’t succeed in gaining representation until they have sent out over a hundred query letters and submissions, sometimes a lot more. Many writers also don’t succeed with their first book, or even their second. You must be prepared for it to take time.

There are excellent resources to help you find agents, write query letters (a special art), and deal with any tricky situations that come up along the way. Be warned, there are a lot of unscrupulous agents out there.

The golden rule is to never ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, pay money to an agent. If an agent refers you to a particular editing service, don’t use it, it’s a huge conflict of interest. To check whether an agent is one of the bad guys, go here.

Small Publishers

Small, independent publishers are often overlooked by writers who feel that it’s either a large house or nothing (or self-publishing).

But this is a mistake. If anything, smaller houses are in a better position to exploit the changes in the publishing industry.

Most embraced e-books long ago, are more flexible with their pricing, and many have already abandoned frustrating things for customers like DRM and territory restrictions on e-books.

If you write in a relatively unpopular genre, if yours is more of a niche book, or if it is something that the larger houses consider less marketable, a smaller house could be the way to go.

The disadvantages of a small house are a (usually) smaller advance, if you get one. Initial print runs are smaller too, and they sometimes have problems matching the distribution of the larger houses. And if your book isn’t on sale somewhere, it can’t sell.

On the plus side, you don’t need an agent to submit to them, they provide a much more personal service, they will fight hard for each individual book they publish, and some have a great reputation for producing quality rather than quantity – small presses garnered a huge amount of nominations for the major awards last year.

Again, here you must do your research. The best thing to do is to look at the books in the store that are similar to yours. Check who they are published by (and who the agent is, if it’s a larger house – it will usually be in the acknowledgements).

Go to their website, check the submission guidelines, follow them.  Prepare for a long wait, it can take between 6 months and a year to hear back. You can get more information about smaller presses here.


Before I list the benefits of self-publishing, I must give a warning.

For the most part, if you self-publish your book, you are closing the door on traditional publication for that book forever. Unless your sales numbers are great (and chances are they won’t be), no trade house is going to want to publish it.

If you decide to go down this road, just remember, it’s a one-way street. You can attempt to publish your next book through a trade house, but this one will be gone.

The biggest mistake self-publishers make, aside from putting out an unprofessional product (poor cover, editing, formatting, marketing), is publishing too early.

I spent 18 months searching for an agent, and got as far as the phone call twice, but it didn’t work out.  That sucked, as did all the rejections and waiting around, and getting your hopes up only to have them dashed, but I am in a better position now because of it.

First off, I’m tougher. All that rejection thickens your skin. And if you can’t handle the idea of rejection, how do you think you are going to handle your first poor review?

Second, my book is a lot better now. I received lots of helpful feedback along the way from agents and editors, and I have gone through three further drafts since I first started submitting. When I think back to the book as it was, I hang my head.

And if self-publishing had been as viable an option then as it is now, I may have considered it. If I had done it, it would have been a disaster.

The key here is to have some kind of solid critiquing network. Whether that is a professional writer you know, a knowledgeable beta reader, a good writing group, or an online forum where you can get feedback, you must have somebody impartial that will give you an honest, proficient assessment of your work.

They aren’t doing you any favours if they just flatter you and ignore the flaws. This goes for whatever publishing option you decide. Your novel must be perfect whether you submit to a trade house or decide to self-publish.

You must educate yourself thoroughly on every option, and make your own decision. Don’t be swayed by headline-grabbing advances or stories of self-publishing success. Decide what’s best for you based on your own circumstances.

If you have gone through all of these steps, and decide that you still want to self-publish your novel, you must realise that it is very difficult to be successful – the vast majority only sell a handful of copies.

The only way of giving yourself any chance to succeed at self-publishing is to treat it like a business. You must write the best story you can write. You must hire a professional editor. You must get a professional cover. You must format your book properly. And you must market it well.

If you have any short stories written, I would suggest that it might be best to self-publish these first. There is less risk involved, and if you mess it up, you won’t have ruined your most valuable work. It can be great practice too, if you then decide to self-publish your novel.

I would also recommend publishing it as an e-book only first. Print self-publishing is a minefield. It can be done right, but it can be expensive, and you have lots to learn before you can consider it – even more so than digital publishing.

If your novel does well as an e-book, then you will have the resources to do a print version, if appropriate.

I am producing a continuing series of posts called INDIE PUBLISHING FOR INTERNATIONAL WRITERS, and you can follow me, step-by-step, as I make my first steps into digital publishing, and see if it is right for you.

If you want to learn more about the changes in the publishing industry, I have written a series of posts called THE NEW DIGITAL LANDSCAPE, which should help.

And if all this is getting too much for you, try a haiku.

Tomorrow we will take about the various digital sales channels where you can sell your work: Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, and Xinxii.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

0 Replies to “Making Money From Writing, Part 2: Novels”

  1. This is a bit too much of a sweeping statement, imo, David:

    “If an agent refers you to a particular editing service, don’t use it, it’s a huge conflict of interest.”

    There are a lot of reputable editing houses in the UK who provide excellent services, and who get recommended by agents and publishing houses, without there being any conflict of interest. Of course there are sharks out there (in USA, mainly) who claim to be agents, but, in reality, are scams fronting for poor-quality editors.

    Do you know of any small eBook publishers who publish genres other than Romance/Erotica? I found a list of them somewhere and they all seem to concentrate on these types of books almost exclusively.

    1. Hi JB,

      While there are more scam agents in the US, they exist in the UK too.

      I accept your point about the statement being somewhat sweeping. The article was already twice as long as I usually like to write, so there wasn’t really space to go into the nuances of the situation. I felt if I had to make a general statement, that was safest.

      In the US the situation is very different, there is a long history of unscrupulous agents telling writers with no hope of publication that they are one good edit away from representation and recommending a “friend” who happens to be an editor.
      Usually these edits do more harm than good, and the agent then sends them back for another round, and another, each time telling them they are closer and closer. By the time the writer wises up, they are several grand out of pocket, and there manuscript hasn’t improved at all.

      In the UK, there is a closer, legitimate relationship between editing services and agencies. However, I still have a problem with agents who only recommend one service. There is a conflict of interest there, even if the agent (and the editor) have the best of intentions.

      I feel, and I am not alone, that if an agent is going to recommend editorial services (which is a tricky area), that they should at least recommend a number of services, so that it doesn’t appear that they are pushing one service with the underlying assumption that if the writer pays for this service then their chances of publication and representation will increase.

      Many agents in the UK have decided to not recommend any editorial services for just that reason, even when directly asked by writers.


      P.S. With regard to small e-book publishers, what are you looking for exactly? A small independent press which focuses exclusively on e-books? Are you talking UK or US or does it matter?

  2. “And if self-publishing had been as viable an option then as it is now, I may have considered it. If I had done it, it would have been a disaster.”

    I think this is the aspect of self-publishing that could cut a lot of potentially bright writers careers short. Women, when they look in the mirror, seldom like what they see. They often point out flaws that no one else would even notice. Men are the opposite. We look in the mirror and say “Damn, I look good,” even when empirical evidence might suggest the opposite. More often than not, new writers are like these men.

    It takes many years to become a competent writer, but when we’re beginning especially, we often have an inflated sense of your own ability. If the option exists to avoid all the rejection that typically goes into fashioning a successful writer, many are going to take it, using the marketplace as beta readers. It’ll work for a few, and be disastrous for most.

    1. David,

      You are right. Writers are the last people to see mistakes in their own work. That’s why even seasoned pros, with a string of bestsellers, still use beta readers.

      I have tried to emphasise all the way along on this blog that learning to self-edit, and having some kind of impartial proficient critique network (whether that is a forum, a beta, a pro writer or whatever) is crucial to any writer’s success.

      We often don’t see flaws in out work until after they are pointed out to us. Then they are obvious.

      It’s part of the split-brain balancing act needed to be creative. You need to have confidence in yourself to produce, you need to switch off the critical voice in your head and just get it down on the page, or else you will never write anything. Then, when you are editing, you use the other side of your brain and try and hold it up to the light, weed out the crap, and tighten it all up.

      But you still miss stuff. Everyone does.

      And the less experience you have, the more stuff you are likely to miss.

      Agents and editors say that the number one reason they reject stuff is because the writer submitted to early. The piece wasn’t ready.

      Now, with self-publishing as an option, many people are, and will continue to, publish stuff that isn’t ready.

      But they will suffer with poor reviews (if they get any) and poor sales (if they get any).

      And while you can trunk a novel that an agent rejects, or work on the piece more before sending it out again, those one-star reviews are forever.


    2. I don’t see how rejection in the form of a lack of sales is any worse on the delicate ego of the new writer than is rejection in the form of a form letter. Nor do I see how the latter helps less in building character or improving writing skills more than the former. 6 of one, half-a-dozen of the other. In either case, the story or book was only seen by 1 or 2 people, and then probably forgotten.


      1. I take your point, to an extent. However, the agent’s rejection letter is private, and no-one knows about it unless I tell them. If it was broadcast for the world to see, that would be a lot harder to deal with, especially for a new writer. Those Amazon one-star reviews don’t go away, and web pages are cached forever. No agent will remember the terrible pages I sent them when I was first submitting, but if I had published that book, the record of the poor readers’ reviews would have followed me forever.

        This is an extreme example of what can happen:

Leave a Reply

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