Are you thinking of writing a traditionally published book? If this is the year you finally put yourself first and follow your dreams, good for you. We’re not living through a pandemic to recreate our former lives from 2019. We’re surviving to find our purpose — at work and in our personal lives.

When I first dreamed of writing my new book, Betting on You, I had a million questions about how the world of traditional publishing worked. How does someone publish a book? Where do I find an agent? How do I get on TV to talk about my book?

I’ve compiled my thoughts and advice for first-time authors who want to publish a book traditionally but don’t know where to start.

It’s an exclusive club meant to keep you out

Traditional publishing is an elite and expensive enterprise. They’ve created editorial rules and processes intended to filter out indistinct riff-raff and elevate big ideas. However, we all know this is an imperfect system and often misses the mark regarding diversity and inclusion.

Unfortunately, non-traditional publishing hasn’t delivered on its promise to disrupt the marketplace. The writer is left with two imperfect systems. What should you do if you want to write a book but can’t decide between traditional publishing, self-publishing, or even a hybrid model?

I say — go big or go home.

Groucho Marx once wrote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” But if you have a big idea and want to change the world, it’s worth breaking into the world of traditional publishing and leaving your mark.

You need an expert to guide you

It’s always been a myth that you could mail a book proposal to an editor and it had a realistic shot at being published. That’s never been how it works.

How does it all happen? That’s what I wanted to find out, so I hired a book coach with a track record of advising best-selling clients. There are plenty of advisors out there who can tell you how literary agencies operate, the secrets behind writing a killer book proposal, and the mysteries of how traditional books are sold. Find your coach.

Will this cost money? Yes. How much? It depends. Companies invest in themselves in good times and bad. Instead of floundering in the marketplace with unanswered questions, they bring in the experts. If you believe that a job worth doing is a job worth doing well, find an authority on traditional book publishing and hire them. Your dreams are worth it.

Good upfront advice is worth its weight in gold. You’ll spend less time in the weeds, and you may even earn a healthy book advance.

Your platform matters

Traditional publishers want authors with strong personal brands and robust platforms. You have a greater chance of being published with an established house if you have a great LinkedIn network, Twitter connections that aren’t spammy, and a vibrant Instagram account.

What about TikTok, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Clubhouse, etc.? Sure, those platforms matter if your content is healthy, productive, and has a history of helping you acquire authority in your area of expertise.

But your single greatest asset is your email list. It’s the only platform you genuinely own and can’t have taken away from you. If you don’t have an email marketing strategy, none of your other social profiles matter unless you’ve gone viral more than once.

What you submit is not what you publish

Traditional publishing houses require a book proposal. Mine looked like this:

  • An introduction to the big idea
  • Author biography
  • Author media links
  • A history of speaking gigs and earnings
  • An overview of target readers with detailed demographic information of that audience
  • A proposed marketing plan
  • A competitive analysis of books like mine with details on how this new book would be similar but different
  • Proposed book specs, which means book-length and a delivery date plus any requests for media, photos, images, etc.
  • Suggested outside voices and influencers to include in the book
  • A chapter outline including titles and summary
  • Two sample chapters

My proposal demonstrated competence and commitment. It was data-driven and informed by research conducted with my book coach and literary agent. And it was 82 pages long.

The book proposal opened doors to in-person meetings with editors. If you have the right agent, editors at traditional publishers already trust that you can write. What they really want to know is if you can sell. In those meetings, I had the opportunity to answer specific questions about my platform.

My book proposal went to auction, and I selected Henry Holt & Company based on the connection I felt with the editor. Once I signed the contract, we got to work.

I wrote my book proposal in the summer of 2018, signed my agent in October of 2018, signed my book contract in 2019, and delivered my final manuscript in February 2020. What I wrote in that proposal is not what was published. The final version of the book is so much better.

You need outside marketing and PR help

If you’re lucky enough to work with a traditional publisher, they will provide you with PR and marketing support.

Your editor at a traditional publishing house operates as a project manager, and you will benefit from the hard work and expertise of corporate PR and marketing leaders who know how to sell books. But there are only so many hours in a day. And the market is noisy. You will need outside marketing and PR help to sell a traditionally published book.

How much does that cost? It depends. Is it worth it? Absolutely.

I’ve hired an excellent publicist who works collaboratively with my team at Henry Holt & Company. She helped acquire media mentions during a pandemic, recession, insurrection, inauguration, and impeachment. And I work with two marketing firms to help optimize my website and create content that supports book sales.

Nike doesn’t create a new shoe and wait for the market to discover it somehow. PR and marketing professionals make it happen for them, and they’ll make it happen for you.

Reviews and ratings matter

Reviews tell people what the book is all about and whether it is good. Ratings are a quick, numerical way for people to decipher if the book is popular and timely. Both are important.

Unfortunately, authors can purchase reviews and ratings. It’s hard to trust that a five-star review is accurate. How do we combat fraud? Ask people who legitimately bought the book to leave a review and a rating on the site where the reader purchased it.

At a bare minimum, ask people to leave reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Those are two sites where it matters most. And traditional publishers want to see your book well-reviewed on both sites.

Never stop asking for the sale

When you write a book, you automatically become the CEO and Chief Sales Officer for a new start-up. It can be difficult for some authors to transition from creative storyteller to cut-throat businessperson, but it’s necessary to meet your obligations in your book proposal and contract.

Asking for the sale can be scary or seem disingenuous. Remember that your book is meant to be of service and change the world. It’s your duty and obligation to tell everybody about it.

Are you worried about being blatantly craven and obvious? People are in the dark, which is part of the problem with selling books. You think you might come off as annoying, while someone is wondering if your book is even out yet.

Give people an easy way to buy your book. Ask for the sale. And remember that your core audience will forgive you for talking about nothing other than your book. If your marketing is strong enough, they’ll amplify your sales messages.

Final Thoughts

If you want to write a book but don’t know if traditional publishing is for you, remember that you have options. You could publish with an established house for your first book and pivot to a different model in the future. Or you could start with a self-published book as a means to gain confidence and grow your platform.

The thing about traditional publishing is that it requires maximum effort on your part, the flawless execution of your marketing skills, and the resilience to persevere when the market tells you no. If you’re going down this path, make sure you give it everything you’ve got.

I have no regrets about traditionally publishing my book with Henry Holt & Company. They’ve been excellent partners and advisors.

And if you’d like to read an excerpt of Betting On You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control Of Your Career, we’ve included a link to a free chapter.

Your Free Chapter of Betting on You

Have you read “Betting on You: How to Put Yourself First and (Finally) Take Control Of Your Career” yet? If you’re still on the fence, I would like to offer you a free chapter full of ideas about how you can make work more enjoyable. The main idea? Learn something new!

The most engaged employees are focused on their personal and professional development. If you’re ready to become more engaged with your work, it’s time to dive into something new.

I’m sharing a free chapter from the book — on continuous learning, professional development and finding a mentor. Take some time for yourself this week and give it a read. Try some of the ideas and let me know how it goes!