You have a book in you. It might be advice driven or a memoir or a collection of recipes you’ve been honing over several years. You know you want to write a book, but where do you start?

It’s all extremely straight forward – let me give you a lay of the land.

Traditional Publishing

Big 5 Publishing Houses: Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster. Typically you’d get published by one of their larger imprints, for example Penguin Random House’s Crown Imprint.
What they want: Big titles that will sell lots and lots of copies. That means it’s strong hook and/or a large author platform. If you have seen a similar book in Barnes in Noble, that’s likely a good hint that your title would be a fit here.
How many do you have to sell? At least 10,000 but usually over 20,000 hardcovers in the first year. That’s a lot of books for most new authors– it means averaging 500 copies sold a week, for a year, and to give you some perspective, most books on average sell less than 500 total.

Medium-Small Publishing Houses: Independent publishing houses and smaller imprints of the Big 5 (for example Hachette (parent) / Perseus (publisher) / Seal (imprint)– Hachette is a big 5 publisher but Seal is a smaller imprint.
What they want: Titles with a strong hook and an author with a platform but also they will represent titles based on merit, not potential sales alone. There’s often a mission tied to their selection of books, for example an attempt to bring more LGBTQ or Latino or literary non-fiction titles to the public’s attention.
How many do you have to sell? It depends but depending on the size of your advance between 2,500-10,000.

Self Publishing

Amazon- Kindle

Draft2Digital- Nook and iTunes

Nook Press- Nook

Gumroad- pdf

Lulu- pdf

Your blog- pdf

There are no gatekeepers, so you can choose whatever platform you like, however do note that Amazon and Barnes and Noble sales will show up in BookScan. BookScan is a reporting tool used by publishing houses and agents that allows them to see sales totals for all titles. So, if you self-publish on Amazon, for example, and sell 12 copies before giving up and moving on to something else, that book will show up when publishers look up your name when five years later you submit a book proposal through an agent.

Where Does Your Book Fit?

A lot of new writers jump straight to the self-publishing conclusion. I’ve self-published four ebooks (and have since moved to a online course format) before publishing with a big 5 publisher. I’m the same writer. Those first four books weren’t unworthy it’s just the way I decided to handle them. You won’t necessarily have an easier time or make more money with one option or another. In fact the playing field is rather level – there are pros and cons to both options. So how do you decide? It’s a mostly personal choice, but if you’re here, it’s likely you already know the direction you want to go in. Let’s double check:


5 points: You like the idea of being published with a publishing house. Having that credit behind your name would make you feel, even in some small way, validated.

5 points: Your non-fiction book falls under one of the broad categories of:

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Leadership
  • Management
  • Motivation & Self-Improvement
  • Business & Money
  • Self-Help
  • Personal Finance
  • Health, Fitness & Dieting
  • Science & Math
  • Parenting & Relationships
  • Biographies & Memoirs
  • Politics & Social Sciences
  • Religion & Spirituality
  • Arts & Photography
  • Children’s Books
  • Computers & Technology
  • Cookbooks, Food & Wine
  • Crafts, Hobbies & Home
  • Education & Teaching
  • Engineering & Transportation
  • Gay & Lesbian
  • History
  • Humor & Entertainment
  • Law
  • Sports & Outdoors
  • Travel

1-10 points: You have a blog. Total up your subscribers and followers on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc) and give yourself 1 point for every 1,000.

5 points: You’re willing to tweak your concept to fit the traditional publishing mold or to make it more broad.

5 points: You are willing to write a non-fiction book proposal, even if you end up just using it as a roadmap for your self-publishing launch.

5 points: You have some expertise related to your book. For example: you have a degree or you’re a regular keynote speaker or you have appeared on TV as an expert for this subject.

10 points: This book is part of your larger career direction and the first step of many towards developing your career.

-5 points: You don’t want to deal with a publisher or getting an agent, you just want to write something up and sell it.

-100 points: Your book falls under one of the broad categories of:

  • Fiction (it’s a novel or any type – you do not need this course)
  • Comic or Graphic Novel (you don’t need a proposal, you need sample pages and a whole different type of course)
  • Religion / Spirtuality (there are exceptions but often these are handled with indie presses– if your concept is broad then don’t count this)
  • Subspeciality niches– for example not cars, but VW 1960s bugs, not travel but backpacking through Iran, not parenting but raising vegan-free-range-nudists. All great topics but probably so specific that you won’t ever be a fit for publishing house unless your platform is really big (see above).

Your Score:

10-35: Traditional Publishing. Let’s get that book proposal written!

1-10: Leaning towards Self-Publishing. It doesn’t sound like you really want to go traditionally published, so consider for a moment if this is the right course for you.

0 and below: Self-Publishing. This probably isn’t the course for you, but that’s okay! Self-publishing is a great way to go, it’s just not what we’re teaching here.

Why You Need an Agent:

Well, you only need one if you’re going to attempt to traditionally publish your book. And if you’re going to break into the top 5 publishers, you almost always need an agent. Otherwise about 80% of books have one. So what’s the big deal?

1. The big 5 publishers, including all their myriad of imprints – and there are hundreds – will all look at agented books first. In most cases, but not all, not having an agent means automatically cutting the top 5 out of your dream list of publications.

2. They talk sense into you. If you’re writing a book that just isn’t marketable – that is, it’s a fine idea but they know no one in the publishing world is going to bite because they’d be afraid of poor sales – your agent is there to break the news to you AND suggest changes.

3. They read and critique your book proposal and offer suggestions based on their experience seeing hundreds and hundreds of proposals over the years and seeing which ones get offers.

4. They have contacts in the industry so they know from their lunch last week with Editor X at Publication Y that she’s looking for a book just like yours – and can personally approach her friend and suggest your book. Yes, they are little networkers for you. Networking works. And if you’re a writer you probably don’t have time to be BFFs with a dozen NYC editors.

5. They handle all the negotiation and messy stuff of publishing so you get to be the nice, happy-go-lucky writer and never have to get your hands dirty with demanding changes to your contract or pushing back on cover designs. It’s really nice.

6. It’s easier to get an agent then it is to get a book deal, so if you can’t get an agent that is extremely helpful information to know. It tells you that your concept is not as broad or timely or marketable as you thought. It gives you a clue that you either need to shift directions or let the concept go.

7. In the best scenario, your agent is your mentor and career coach, someone who has a birds-eye-view of the industry and can help shape your career.

How to Find An Agent

So how do you get an agent? You write a book proposal. Then you email the agent about your idea. That email is called a “query letter” and we’ll cover that in the last week of the class. It’s basically like, “Hi! I have a book idea. It’s THIS. I’m the best person to write it because of THIS. Do you want to read my proposal? Thanks!” That’s it. (Also do you see why you need the proposal first? Because if they say YES you don’t want to be scrambling to get something together.)

However before you write the proposal, it helps to know which agents you are going to target. You want to start researching NOW.

A good agent:

1. Has published books similar to yours.
2. Has worked with publishing imprints like the ones on your dream list.
3. Seems to have similar taste in books as you.

There are two ways to approach this, either by searching for agents directly or searching for books like yours. You have one week for this assignment but it’s a critical one. I HIGHLY recommend searching both for books just like yours, keeping a list of publishing imprints you admire and the agents you’re targeting.

First, download this excel spreadsheet to track your research: 

Agent Research

1. Go to Amazon and search for a Best Selling Book that’s similar to yours. If it doesn’t say best selling a good hint is if there are over 500 comments.

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2. Now you can go after Elizabeth Gilbert’s agent (and you should!) but you also want to scroll down and look:

-the publisher
-the categories they used
-Amazon’s generated list of related titles

3. For the publisher, go take a look at that imprint, for example:

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You can do a quick google search and find their page:

Make a note of the kinds of books they publish – if it’s a fluke and it doesn’t look like a fit, don’t worry, just move on. However if you love what they are doing, then put that publisher on your list. It will help when you’re searching for agents later on.

4. For the categories, you can often drill down to even more titles in your genre by clicking here:

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Then click into that category (or all three) and take a look at the books that are currently trending for that section:

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For the ones that make sense, add them to your spreadsheet.

5. Finally, take a look at Amazon’s related titles section:

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This may lead you to more titles that are related to yours.

After you’ve deep dived on this a while – and found yourself down the rabbit hole more than once – you should have a list of books, publishers and agents slowly formed. Here is where the next research comes in:

1. For publishers, you want to see if there are some good agents that ACCEPT UNSOLICITED QUERIES that have recently sold a book to that imprint (we will talk about how to break through to those agents but it requires a reference from another writer or a good contact).

Where to look at recent purchases? Publisher’s Marketplace has all of them but they charge $25/mo. I used it, I recommend it, I know many people in the publishing world use it, but if $25 daunts you, I understand. You can also google or try using Query Tracker or just google for latest news (for example Riverhead recently purchased several books at once).

You can also ask in the FB group if someone would kindly be willing to look something up for you with their PM membership – but I highly recommend making the investment.

When you look up your publisher you’ll glean some interesting information about where their current interests lay, but also the specific agents that are placing books with them. If you see an interesting title, look up that agent and see if they are taking submissions. If yes, then add them to your AGENT tab in the spreadsheet.

2. For books, you can also use Publisher’s Marketplace to find out who the agent was– it goes way back– but you can just google for that information too. For example, when I google my book, my agent comes right up:

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Add these agents to your AGENT tab too, or if you already have that agent (a good sign!) then just note the additional book that they’ve represented in your search.


Once you work through this process and get all your potential agents lined up, you’ll want to look them up online and see if they accept queries (hopefully you’ve been doing this as you go) and if they do, they should have a non-fiction book proposal format that they prefer. This is big. We will cover the book proposal in detail but every agent has their own submission guidelines. Make a note of their requirements so when we begin the proposal writing next week you’ll be ready.

Ready? It’s a lot to do but you have a whole week. Let’s go!


1Identify books similar to yours.
2Research them on Amazon to find their publisher, related books and other books in the same category. Add these items to your Agent Research spreadsheet.
3Identify agents that have recent books with your dream publishers.
4Identify agents that represented the books you identified.
5Research those agents to see if they accept unsolicited queries. If yes, find out their submission guidelines.