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

Now that you've finished your novel, use our primer to decide whether traditional, university or independent, or self-publishing is right for you and your book.

by Jenna Kalinsky

First of all, congratulations on finishing your novel! It is a 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.

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Before You Go for Traditional Publishing: the Literary Agent

To publish with one of the “Big 5” traditional trade publishers:

  • Penguin Random House
  • Hachette Livre
  • HarperCollins
  • Macmillan Publishers
  • Simon & Schuster

    you need a literary agent.*

*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.

The Literary Agent

A literary agent is the gatekeeper to the big publishing houses. Once you have a completed manuscript and an agent takes you on as a client, they will do their utmost to sell your book.

This includes negotiating the deal, handling rights (foreign and domestic), getting excerpts or other of your writing placed in newspapers and magazines to generate interest in the upcoming release of your book, and generally helping you to varying degrees nurture your career and boost your value as an author in the marketplace.

A good agent is a goldmine and one worth waiting for.

The contract they have you sign is between you and the agent, meaning even though your book is the means through which you acquire the agent, once you’re together, as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial, you may work together for subsequent books and other writing projects.

Many writers remain with their agents for their whole careers but splits and upsets can happen like in any marriage!

The agent works for you just as you work for the agent: your book needs to be gorgeous (and saleable) for the agent to put their reputation on the line and shop it to the publishing houses, so they may have you work on it for a period of time until they feel it is a project they can get behind.

Commonly a literary agent is also an editor, and their editorial feedback coupled with what they know about the saleability of a project will guide their notes to their writers.


  • Pitching to an agent and signing with an agent is free. No agent will ask you for any money whatsoever (and if they do, run!). The agent earns their money by selling your book (and receiving their 15-20% of all incoming money to you).
  • 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 of finding and signing with a literary agent can be 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), which could take a month to a year. Then they will attempt to sell the book, which can take anywhere from a week to a year to not at all.

Traditional Publishing

Joining the ranks of literary greats by being published at a known house is a dream of most authors. Once a big traditional publishing house buys your book, with an advance that ranges from acceptable to sizeable, depending on how the book is anticipated to sell, you can know that within 1.5-2 years, your work will be on shelves in major bookstores, and you will be on the rise in the public eye.


  • Being published by a big house is a door-opener and holds high cultural currency.
  • Your book will be managed by a creative team, and while they may consult with you on some issues, by and large, they will handle the art, layout, publication schedule and possibly some marketing (requiring you to take part in events, book tour/readings, etc.)
  • Your book will be available on bookstore shelves, sent to reviewers of newspapers and blogs, and you may be requested for media appearances.


  • Once your book is sold, it takes between 18 month-2 years for it to hit the bookstore shelves.
  • 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 at your own time and expense.

hanging books

Independent or University Press

You do not need an agent to approach an independent or university press. You can pitch your book by sending them a proposal directly. You will need to pitch 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. Again, if anyone asks you for a penny, do not work with them.
  • 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 as 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 to negotiate your contract for you (which is actually far easier to do once the publishing house has already acquired your book).



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.

His 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, Library of Congress registration, print run, rights, and even sometimes marketing and publicity.

An intermediate service, like the Self-Publishing Book Formatting and Upload Assistance we offer at One Lit Place handles the formatting and uploading to Amazon KDP for e-book and print and Smashwords, who serve all the other online retailers for e-books.

Lastly, you can DIY most of the process to keep costs down and maintain all the autonomy- and if you truly do everything yourself, it’s free!


  • 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.

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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 if you go the extra length to ensure you’re putting your very best work out there, you will be glad you did!

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 three streams of publishing: traditional, independent or university press, or self-publishing are a valuable and honorable way of getting your work out into the world.

Have a heart-to-heart with yourself about your priorities: creative control, timeline, income potential, notoriety, and future plans that would hinge on this work, and in the end, as long as your book makes it onto the page, you’ll have done the right thing.

If you want to write a novel but haven’t begun laying out your ideas (and perhaps the task of writing feels so daunting you can’t wrap your head around it), let us support you through it step-by-step with our Write Your Novel, Memoir, and Business | Self-Development Book in 4 Months Programs.

Continuous mentorship, comprehensive lessons in writing craft and practice, and a custom writing schedule ensure you have everything you need to confidently tell your story and get a first draft in only 4 months!

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

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