How to Become Trade-Published as a Novice Fiction Author


Being published as an unknown author is not terribly difficult if you write non-fiction and you are a known subject matter expert. Your fame represents your non-fiction author platform. For non-fiction, you might not have much trouble selling plenty of copies on your own as a self-published or POD author. You hire a good editor, pay for printed copies and sell them by yourself as the expert. If you are really famous, an agent and publisher can handle it all.

No such road is available for unknown fiction authors. Unless you are a celebrity, and mostly likely no one reading this is, you’ll need to create a viable author platform. Without one, you’ll have a great deal of trouble acquiring a talented and well-connected literary agent or one of the big publishing houses that will make you famous. You can count on your digits the number of famous self-published fiction authors, and most of them used traditional publishers to become famous.

Big publishing houses only work with trusted agents. Yet, it can be more difficult for an unknown fiction author to acquire a good agent than it is to find your own small publishing company. At least that’s what happened to me. The novice fiction writer should begin by finding a small traditional publisher. It’s attainable.

There is a way to create some fame for yourself with fiction. The trouble is, it will cost some hard-earned cash. Large publishing houses only accept proposals from trusted literary agents. The way to break into traditional publishing for fiction is to work with a small traditional publisher. In some cases, that small publisher will not charge the author a dime. Traditionally, that was the definition. But today, with small publishers squeezed financially, some will ask you to share in the cost.

I most certainly do not mean subsidy (vanity) publishing. Subsidy publishers earn their money from authors willing to pay up front to have their book printed and bound. Such “publishers” are disparaged by the greater publishing industry. They perform no significant editing. They are more like printers than publishers; as the author must pay the entire cost, plus the subsidy’s margin. One they have your money, they will do nothing at all to distribute, market, promote or sell your book. In most cases, after paying a few thousand dollars, you’ll have nothing more than a handsome book suitable for coffee table impressions, plus your book will be displayed on a web site that attracts almost no one. The public will not know that the book exists, or that you are a published author; and no one will lift a finger to distribute and sell that book. Nor can you impress readers, agents and publishers by throwing out the name of your subsidy publisher. In fact, once known, that information will damage your reputation as an author. I recommend subsidy publishers for only one type of author; the person who wishes to write a memoir for progeny, but has no interest in sales.

As publishers are increasingly squeezed financially, they have taken to asking unknown authors for a contract in which the author pays the expenses, or at least share in the cost of editing, printing, binding, ISBN numbers and distribution. Virtually all authors today must market their own books, even with a large publishing house. But if you are willing to throw some cash into it, a small traditional publisher might be your best answer.

Think globally. There are thousands of small publishers today all over the world. It doesn’t matter if your small publisher is two miles from home or on the other side of the world. I live in Ohio. The traditional publisher of my first book was a large textbook publishing company in the US. But the publisher of my debut novel was a small publishing house in Israel. After I acquired an agent, she sold it to Texas Tech University to be republished. Telling the world that you have been published by a university for fiction is a powerful addition to your author platform. Global commerce related to publishing has become much more fragmented in recent years. A trade publisher is a trade publisher, whether they are in New York, Paris, Mumbai or Tokyo.

Why should you pay a small traditional publishing house to create and distribute your book? It might be the only way as an unknown author to impress agents, publishers and readers with your talent. Unlike subsidy publishers, small traditional publishers have a good reputation. And because they earn their profit from sold copies, they have a vested interest in effective promotion and marketing. Every time you tell people about it, engage in marketing, post a book landing page or Facebook fan page, you’ll be proud to tell the world that you are under contract with a real, bonafied trade (traditional) publisher. It instantly elevates your fiction author platform in a way that self-publishing and subsidy publishing cannot accomplish. After that, you will find it much easier to distribute and sell copies, as well as attract agents and big publishers.

Why should you pay to become trade-published and then share the profit with your publisher? To an unknown fiction author, platform is more important than royalty income. The more famous you become, the better your platform, the easier it will be later to acquire an agent and through that agent, become published by one of the big houses; which makes your platform even more enticing to big publishers. All of your future books stand a much greater chance of success when a team of experts is in charge of editing, printing, distribution, marketing and sales.

When a prospective agent, publisher or reader decides to Google your name, you’ll want many pages of positive articles and publicity to appear. Note I said “many pages” of positive items – not many items. That’s your goal. And to reach it, you must either hire a good publicist, which can cost thousands of dollars, or you can learn how to be your own publicist. Again, the Internet will be a huge help. After being published by the big houses a few times, you will no longer be an unknown fiction author. When you acquire a large fan base, you can then consider whether you should self-publish and keep all of the net profit from future books.

How does an unknown fiction author contract with a small traditional publishing house? First you must locate them. I devoted months to that task when my debut novel was completed. It’s painstaking work. Fortunately, almost every publisher, small or large, has a web site. Let Internet searches do the hard work. Some small publishers specialize in one or two genres. You can have Google troll the Internet on various search terms.

There are also many agencies and associations that list small publishers and literary agencies, along with contact information. Try to send proposals out to at least 10-15 small publishers per day. I had to contact over 100 small publishers in order to generate four contract offers (excluding subsidy publishers). The more you contact, the sooner you’ll have options. I’ll deal with proposal writing in a later post. You can also review some of my older posts here for proposal writing information. Believe me, creating a winning publishing proposal is very hard work. Never underestimate its importance.

In conclusion, novice fiction authors can become famous, acquire agents and land big publishing house contracts. It takes time, determination and hard work. But it can happen, if you have talent and marketable books. This is the only way to get your book into bookstores and chain store retailers, where more than half of all books are still sold. Want your book sold at Walmart and Target, in addition to Amazon and Barnes & Noble? Don’t self-publish. Find a small trade publisher. Nor can you obtain a review from any of the biggest and best review organization if you self-publish. As a long-time reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, I’m well aware of that issue. Publishers will promote your books at international book fairs, conventions and conferences, with top industry leaders; how many self-published authors can pay for that? So as a novice fiction author, there is a way to become successful. It’s with small traditional publishers. If you must pay some of the costs, it could be well worth it. Go for it!