Book Publishing in 2023: What’s working for writers
If you’re a success-minded writer who wants to make an impact and get your book published traditionally, this post is for you.
Whether you’re seeking literary agent representation, and /or a book publishing deal with a commercial publisher or a small boutique press, traditional publishing has changed a little in the last few years. I’m going to share what’s working right now for nonfiction and memoir writers and what they’re doing to get wonderful book publishing deals in 2023.
I’ll also share some digital strategies for writers that are currently working and where to place your focus (because i know platform can be so overwhelming!).
The typical path to traditional publication
The path to book publication has always included a few essential pieces: write a manuscript that’s interesting, relevant and compelling, pitch your work to a literary agent or directly to a publisher, and wait for their response.
Of course, there’s a lot that goes into each of those specific steps on their own (!) but for the purpose of this article, that’s the general overview of how a first-time author gets a book publishing deal.
I got my first book deal for a travel memoir after pitching directly to a Publisher via email, and my second book – also a memoir – (A Letter From Paris) was published by Scribe after I secured a literary agent and we went out on multiple submission to multiple publishers.
Digital Media & Traditional Publishing
The digital world has massively disrupted the general path to publication (and bestseller-dom!), because rather than rely on book reviews and paid advertising to market new books to readers, ‘digital platform’ is not just embraced by traditional publishers and literary agents, but it’s an absolutely essential piece of your strategy if you want to get a traditional book publishing deal. PARTICULARLY for a nonfiction.
Here’s a few examples of how this looks:
- One memoir writer landed a 6 figure deal after a bidding war through a following she’d built up from posting videos to TikTok.
- A highly literary memoir writer got an offer of publication from a Publisher who only posted their submission process on instagram (which was then re-shared in a Facebook Group. No more subscribing to Poets & Writers or MSWL!).
- A fiction writer in Sydney landed a three-book deal with a great commercial publisher after starting a humorous blog
- A nonfiction author I coached reached the Sunday Times bestseller list through marketing to her podcast listeners, private Facebook group and email list. She was the first female on the list in the business section, which made me super proud!
- Stephanie Land’s first memoir MAID, which was published after her essay for Vox went viral, was turned into a Netflix series and her sequel, CLASS, is set to be an instant bestseller in its release in a few weeks.
- One New York Times bestselling fiction author I know now sends out a paid Substack newsletter to promote her forthcoming books (she used to just post on Facebook and Instagram) which also reveals how the landscape of social media vs email marketing has changed.
- A writer in the online business space recently landed a huge deal with a Top 5 Publisher, after someone on her 10 000+ email list put her in contact with an Agent. She didn’t receive an advance on the book but received an unheard-of royalty split, with no advance to earn out going into royalties almost immediately!
Improving your chances of getting published
Before I talk about ‘platform’ – which tends to make every writer groan… I want to ask you a question:
Take a look at the nonfiction titles on this week’s New York Times Bestseller list and with any that you’ve read, ask yourself where you first heard about it? I’m betting it wasn’t through browsing a bookstore or reading their catalogue like in the ‘old’ days.
I’ll give you an example – I’ve read THE BODY KEEPS THE SCORE and BRAIDING SWEETGRASS – both on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list for over a year – and both books originally came into my awareness through a comment on a social media post, or a question about something else in an online forum…
The way we make purchasing decisions has changed exponentially over the last twenty years, and the digital world has made it even more possible to move the 7 steps in the buyer’s cycle instantaneously.
So how can you use this to your advantage if you’re wanting to get a traditional book publishing deal?
You’ve got to start thinking long-term about your publishing career because unlike what most first-time authors tend to assume, the DEAL is not DONE when you sign your contract.
That’s JUST the beginning! Every author must meet their publisher halfway when it comes to promoting the book. And publication day is not the day you start promoting your book! As I teach strategy clients – your promotion strategy needs to begin AT LEAST six months prior to publication date. This is where you’re at an advantage by being traditionally published – you don’t get that kind of timeline to create buzz when you quickly self-publish your book in a month or so. To get Media and Publicity for your book, you need to have certain material to publicists and journalists months – if not a year – in advance. This is where the long lead times of publishing can work in your favour!
The paradox of publishing
The paradox of traditional book publishing is that it’s extremely conservative and risk-averse. I’ve spoken about the reasons about this before – for a traditional publisher to produce your book, they cover an enormous amount of costs and the book advance you receive is just a tiny portion of this. So the reason it’s so hard to get a publishing deal is because you need to prove that you can reach people through your OWN networks that will sell more books.
For publishers to recoup their investment in you and your book, you need to sell thousands of copies of your book, and THE MAJORITY of first-time authors sell a mere 250 copies in the first year!
Large email lists, engaged instagram followings, viral TikTok videos, essays and articles which get a huge amount of likes, comments and shares, show potential agents and publishers that there is ‘evidence of need’ for your story and help them to predict whether or not you (as an author) have a reach big enough to sell more copies.
The paradox here, is, the types of people who enjoy the immediacy and independence of successfully mastering digital media – blogging, tweeting, emailing, Substaking, TikToking and ‘self-publishing’ imperfect material quickly and easily – need patience, focus, long-term strategy and commitment to master the waiting times involved in getting a traditional book deal.
Unlike self-publishing a book – where you write, produce and market the thing yourself, a traditional book publishing deal involves various layers of gatekeepers:
Literary Agents – and their individual process of vetting a potential author.
Publishers and their specific acquiring editors and imprints.
Sales teams and their forthcoming catalogue of new releases …
And there’s a LOT the unsuspecting writer doesn’t see when they’re pitching. For example, you won’t even know they’ve already got a huge memoir or a how-to on horses coming out in Fall 2024 when you send your pitch, so even if you get an agent to fast-track your submission, and your proposal is stellar, you could get a ‘no’ for an entirely unknown(to you) reason that has nothing to do with the quality of your writing or the level of interest in your story. They know what their forthcoming list looks like and it might only have a specific gap – in which your book doesn’t sit.
So much of publishing success is about marketing and sales – not the quality of your writing.
Don’t forget that book publishing is a RETAIL industry, so if you can’t show that this ‘product’ will earn out the investment needed to produce it, a publisher will ultimately have to say NO.
But don’t give up and self-publish.
If you want to see your book in libraries, if you want to do author talks with the backing of a reputable imprint and see your book’s beautiful cover peeking out from the new release section of bookstores across the world, if you want it to be produced to a high standard and to have world-class designers producing the cover, editors finessing the text, and all those other wonderful parts of being traditionally published, then don’t ‘shoot yourself in the foot’ and self-publish. It’s rare to get a book deal for a title you’ve already self-published, and the damage it can do to your potential for a publishing deal in the long-term is irreversible.
Yes, you need to wait longer to hear back on a publishing pitch, but there’s ways to improve your chances and you just need to think about this as a sales game.
So, how can you improve your publishing chances in 2023?
Top tips for writers aiming for traditional book publishing deals – and more success when they are published!
1: Get visible online – just start
Whether you choose Substack, Instagram, Facebook, Blog, Email or create content for You-Tube or a podcast series, the sooner you start being visible, the better. Writers with NO digital imprint don’t just miss out on opportunities, it doesn’t look good when a potential agent or publisher googles you and finds… nothing.
2: Choose one platform – and be consistent not just with your visibility but with your style
You DON’T need to post every day everywhere. And you CERTAINLY don’t need to post on multiple different topics. The writers i’ve seen get book deals (and sell more books when they’re published) from digital content have had ONE clear style and one clear message.
3: Make it EASY for people to contact you
I know this is terrifying, but if you don’t have an email on your website or a contact area on your social media bio, then how will a potential agent, publisher, fellow author… or anyone else contact you?
And – please just use your name, not a metaphor or obscure word as the title of your blog / instagram handle, etc etc. The sooner you can get people knowing your first and last name (if you want to be a published author), the better.
4: Have a clear call-to-action on every single piece of content
The reason content on digital platforms results in publishing deals is because the writer has closely monitored which material resonates with readers, and which has not. For example, James Clear wrote an email on habits twice a week for over two years, building up an email ist of 8000 subscribers, and the content that resulted in the most engagement was what he used in his book proposal.
This is how you can test and see what works, what’s interesting, what people want to know more about, etc etc. If the content is an essay, or an article for publication, you might instead just have an author bio. This is another reason you need a website / effective digital presence – so that people can find you if they’re interested in the topic you’ve written about in your essay.
Your CTA will depend on your goals – if it’s more subscribers you might say something like ‘share this post with a friend who eats vegan food’.
5: ENGAGEMENT MATTERS MORE THAN NUMBERS
You can buy followers. You can have a million subscribers but if less than 1% open your emails, you might as well have 50 subscribers. Engagement is simply interaction – so to boost engagement, actually show an interest in what your readers wish to see!
Everything in life is about relationships – and engagement is really just you building relationships with people who have the same interests as you. It’s an authentic way to have a conversation – whether it’s responding to a comment or an email with a personal note, we all want to know a real human has seen us, not a bot!
Put a clear call-to-action in your emails or your blog posts. People need to know what to do next with the information you’re sharing – help them out!
6: Focus on content that COMPLEMENTS your book (but doesn’t give away all the plot points)
This is the most important thing I can say about digital platform for writers – I’ve seen writers get essays published on their book topic but it gives the FULL story away and there is nothing left to know, so inevitably there is no interest in a book deal. Publishers call this ‘taking the pith’.
Similarly, I’ve known a writer who had a tweet go viral, but it had NOTHING to do with the book she was pitching so even though she gained thousands of followers overnight, it did not lead to a publishing deal because it had nothing to do with the messages or topics (or genre) of her book. Which brings me to the next bit:
7: KNOW YOUR GENRE
Be consistent. When you’re creating content for a substack, or TikTok, or whatever medium or channel, think about what you’re trying to sell to a publisher.
If your focus is a memoir publishing deal, then write personal content along similar styles, topics and themes to the book.
If you’ve written a nonfiction book about business, post business tips.
If you’re pitching a thriller, post excerpts and tantalising snippets or behind-the-scenes material or inspiration about the thriller, for example…
8: Do NOT just post about being a writer
… or the path to publication. This is not engaging with your audience, and it’s not going to build you a following in the area in which your book is targeted.
I’ve seen a lot of writers start channels and blogs devoted to chronicling their path to publication. Now, this is not actually sharing any value with people who want to read your genre.
Think about what engages YOU and what YOU love to read, subscribe to, and post.
9: Have FUN and share what feels good to YOU
If you’re obsessed with modern architecture, post about that! If you want to ignore all my tips and post random things about different genres and in different styles, do THAT. I truly believe alignment with what you’re creating trumps enforced strategy, and when you enjoy what you’re sharing, it’s much more likely to engage like-minded people, too.
The way I see it, you can complain that authors have to think about things like social media and digital marketing right now or you can empower yourself by learning how to do it right. In 2010 I lost multiple regular freelance writing assignments for newspaper and magazine outlets that had been my livelihood for three years at that point. But the digital world had arrived – and with it, made redundant a lot of the ‘old’ ways of writing for publication. I had to retrain in digital strategy and learn all about HTML codes, email newsletters and website editing if i wanted to keep writing for a living.
The truth is, for an author to succeed in the 2020s and beyond, they MUST have a digital presence. And it doesn’t NEED to take away from the literary focus of your work or the artfulness by which you approach it. It makes you empowered, it means your work can reach more people, it brings you into contact with more and more contacts and connections who align with you and your work and it’s a stepping stone to success.
If you’re a writer reaching for book publishing success, I can create a bespoke digital strategy to get your work in front of the right people for you to succeed.
I currently offer 1:1 publishing strategy consultations for nonfiction writers and authors. These sessions are personalised, targeted advice and strategy for nonfiction writers and can help you whether you’re…
- Getting ready to send your proposal out on submission – I’ll edit and revise the query, synopsis, parts of the proposal or just help you come up with a targeted list of publishers and agents to pitch to
- Searching for ways to make the connections you need to make to sell your book to an agent or publisher (coming up with comparative titles, answering questions about how different publishers work and how or why you’d choose one over the other)
- Building your platform via a blog, email newsletter list or multimedia content on social channels and unsure of your audience, topics, how to align your nonfiction book category with your digital content, etc.
- Preparing for publication day (and wanting to maximise sales – I come up with a personalised digital marketing & publicity strategy for you)
Prefer to take things at your own pace and learn in your own time?
You might like my step-by-step course: Create Your Writer Platform
This self-study course takes you through how to set up the digital assets you need to succeed in the 2020s and beyond with best-practise digital marketing strategy specifically targeted to writers and authors.
Inside the course, I teach you how to position…
⭐ Your website
⭐ Your email list [how to set up a subscriber-based list]
⭐ Your Social Media Channels
⭐ A Blog (or Substack)
…And how to position and present yourself online so that agents, publishers and readers will find your best work.
With live coaching replays where you can watch me review writer websites, answer questions about blogging and platform (and everything else), as well as guides, templates, and shortcuts for some of the essential pieces, Create Your Writer Platform is the best place to start if you don’t have your online presence dialled in.
Because however you feel about the world wide web – it’s here to stay, and the best way to build a long-term career is to master these foundational pieces of platform before you sell your first book!