How to Publish Your Novel: A Primer on Traditional, Independent & University, and Self-Publishing

white double doors opening

First of all, congratulations on finishing your novel! It is a very big deal to complete a book-length project, and you should feel extremely proud of yourself.

Now you are in “Phase 2” which is when you look at how you’ll put your book out into the world. Each of the three streams of publishing: traditional, independent and university presses, and self-publishing has positives and negatives and addresses different criteria.

It’s a lot to consider, so to help you determine which is right for you and your novel, I created this primer, which will give you a healthy amount of information and serve as a launching point from which you can deepen your research.


three filament hanging lights

Traditional Publishing

To publish with one of the “Big 5” traditional trade publishers: Penguin Random House, Hachette Livre, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon & Schuster, you need a literary agent.


The Literary Agent


A literary agent is the gatekeeper to large publishers and the person who sells your book, negotiates the deal, handles rights (foreign and domestic), and helps you place other writing in newspapers and magazines to generate interest in the upcoming release of your book.

Note: Some of these big publishers have imprints who do accept un-agented (“unsolicited”) manuscripts, so if your book meets their criteria, you are welcome to query them directly.


  • You lay out no money to acquire an agent or sell your book. You earn an advance once your book is sold, out of which the agent earns their 15% fee.
  • Being published by a big house is a door-opener and holds high cultural currency.
  • A good agent may be able to inspire a bidding war over your book or get you a two-book deal, resulting in a higher advance.
  • An agent hustles the industry on your behalf and will often negotiate additional publishing opportunities for you (either having to do with promoting the book or as separate submissions) such as newspaper editorials, essays or chapter excerpts in magazines, and even film or TV options.


  • The process is very long and emotionally challenging. Finding an agent can take anywhere from a few days to several years. After you sign on with an agent, the agent will typically have you edit the book to their specifications (most agents also serve as editors to some degree) before they attempt to sell the book, which could take a month to a year. Then they will try to sell the book, which can take an infinite amount of time, and finally, from the time the book is acquired by a publishing house to it appearing on bookstore shelves could be up to 2 years.
  • The publishing house will take over creative control with regard to cover art, book type, release date, and other details. Their in-house editor may also require you to make changes to the book even after the agent has worked with you on the project.
  • The per-book earnings may be low because of the many parties involved taking a cut. This author left Random House because while her advances were sizeable, she was offered, “about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon” and walked away. (She self-published her third book and hasn’t looked back.)
  • Unless you are a household name already, you will likely be tasked with doing your own marketing and publicity.


hanging books

Publishing with an Independent or University Press

You do not need an agent to approach an independent or university press; you will need to present your book based on each press’ specifications (available on their websites) and have a draft that is as perfect as can be when you submit.


  • You do not need to pay anything at any point in the process.
  • A smaller house still carries plenty of cachet and is a door opener.
  • Most independent or university presses acquire only a few titles a year, so many authors find the experience personal and rewarding.
  • The publishing team may be more open to collaborating with you on creative issues such as cover art, editing, etc.
  • Once you have a relationship with a smaller house, they are typically open to publishing additional work from you. You may also have an easier time getting future books picked up by a “Big 5” house and/or an agent smaller presses are trusted and respected.


  • The house will help where they can, but you will be largely tasked with doing your own marketing and publicity.
  • Your advance and per-book earnings may be low.
  • You will need to negotiate the contract yourself or hire a literary agent (which is actually far easier to do once the publishing house has already acquired your book) to negotiate your contract for you.


Self-publishing has opened up into a dynamic and user-friendly option for many writers. You can hire an outlet that provides a full suite of services and does everything for you from the print run to placement in online bookstores, or you can DIY nearly the entire process apart from the actual printing. There are many options to choose from, each one offering a slightly different service:

Author Christian T. Huber wrote a comprehensive article about the pros and cons of self-publishing his novel as well as his (satisfied) personal experiences using Amazon. This informative blog also contains great resources and information about the self-publishing world and where to start.

Because self-publishing isn’t regulated, it’s important you do your homework! When you find a company or two that fit your criteria, talk to other authors who have used them to get a sense of their experiences, and check this site, which has rated hundreds of self-publishing companies.

How much you pay depends on the level of service you purchase. A full-service package will handle the editing, formatting, cover art, placing the book in online outlets, ISBN number, Library of Congress registration, print run, rights, and even sometimes marketing and publicity.

A DIY service will keep costs down- or as Christian notes- may even be free!, and ensures all autonomy is yours.


  • You’re the boss of your time, product, and earnings. You get to determine whether the book is hard cover, trade paperback, or e-book and set the amount the book will cost and determine what percentage you wish to earn per book. You can work with any editor you like, find cover art that suits you, and even pick your font.
  • You can find a solution that suits your printing needs, timeline, skill-set and budget.
  • Some services have very quick turnaround (print-on-demand, for example) and you can have your book in hand within a month.


  • Full-service packages can be expensive, and DIY can be frustrating, so you’ll want to shop around to see which publisher suits your needs and skill-set.
  • Regardless whether you purchase a full-service package or DIY, some elements must be outsourced, namely the editing, proofreading, and cover art.

black and white semi-colon computer key

Before You Self-Publish: Outsource Editing, Proofreading, and Cover Art

Many of the administrative aspects of self-publishing are fairly straightforward and can be done yourself. Editing, proofreading, and professionally formatted cover art, however, should be entrusted to professionals.

Even if you are an excellent editor yourself, your brain is too familiar with your work, making you far less physically able to catch errors in a way someone new to the project can.

What makes the democratic nature of self-publishing so wonderful is also what makes it so dangerous. It may be tempting to DIY the editing, proofreading, or cover art, but why spend thousands of dollars and not go the extra length to ensure you’re putting your very best work out there!

People eat with their eyes, and your reputation is at stake. Handle as much as you can yourself, but the editing, proofreading, and unless you’re a professional graphic designer or illustrator, cover art should be outsourced.

All in all, you can’t go wrong with any of the 3 publishing streams of traditional, independent or university press, or self-publishing. Identifying what your priorities are is key, so you can enter into this Phase 2 and feel confident you’re doing the right thing by your book.

vintage typewriter at


If you haven’t written your novel yet and don’t want to be one of those writers who only says they want to write a book and never does it, check out our Write Your Novel in 4 Months Program.

This hands-on program supports writers through the drafting of your novel with personalized mentorship, comprehensive lessons in writing craft and practice, and a progressive writing calendar, all of which ensure you stay the course– and in 4 short months, enables you to join the elite group of authors who have written books!

Ready to publish? Next, CLICK HERE to read up on how to get a literary agent or approach an indie press- and download our FREE submission spreadsheet!

We’re here for you. Feel free to contact us any time to chat about your writing ~

No Comments

Leave a Reply