[The Great Courses] How to Publish Your Book

Professor Jane Friedman, University of Virginia

24 lectures |  Average 28 minutes each

1 Guidebook


What Will You Learn?

Explore the history of the publishing business, the competition in the market, and the major players in the industry.

Learn what elements comprise a good query letter and which red flags almost always result in immediate rejection.

Understand why you might be rejected, even if you’ve done everything correctly and what feedback is being conveyed.

Get a handle on the pros and cons of self-publishing and other formats and deliverables for your writing.

Course Overview:

We have all heard the stories of publishing “miracles,” such as the struggling English teacher who fished his first short story out of the trash, turned it into a novel in two weeks, and ended up becoming one of the best-selling authors of all time. Or the teacher living on welfare whose book got published because the head of a publishing house gave the first chapter to his daughter to read, resulting in one of the most successful franchises in the world. Or the stay-at-home mom of three active children who wrote at night and just happened to have her manuscript picked up from a slush pile, turning her into a wildly successful Young Adult writer.

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Hearing these stories of success can make getting published appear to be easy—a happenstance where the right manuscript, in the hands of the right publisher, means anyone can become a best-selling phenomenon. But, sadly, that’s not the case. With the advent of the convenience offered by the internet, today’s new writers face unprecedented competition in the writing market. In addition, the publishing market is in a constant state of flux, susceptible to corporate take-overs or consolidations, making publishers even more wary about taking on new authors. Further, a plethora of options for publication make navigating the increasingly complex publishing industry harder than ever. Were those three best-selling writers just lucky?

Most authors, even those lucky best-sellers, have had to deal with self-doubt, rejection, and frustration. Whether it was a touch of luck or steady perseverance and using the right strategies, authors such as the ones whose stories were shared above (Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer, respectively) serve as both a source of inspiration and a source of frustration for aspiring writers. If they can do it, why can’t I?

Luck can, and occasionally does, play a role, but learning the ropes, understanding how publishing works, and having someone who can help you navigate this increasingly convoluted system will make all the difference between a manuscript sitting on your closet shelf—or rising to the top of the best-sellers list.

In the 24 eye-opening lectures of How to Publish Your Book, Jane Friedman, publishing industry expert and educator, provides you with sought-after secrets of the publishing process that will help you navigate this difficult progression, bypass pitfalls that many novice authors get hung up on, and improve your chances of being considered for publication. She acts as your personal guide though the entire process from finalizing your manuscript, to writing the perfect pitch, to reviewing contracts and marketing your book. She provides the candid scoop on what you need to do in order to increase your chances of being considered. The knowledge you’ll gain by having an inside expert teaching you how to position your book for publication gives you a unique advantage and drastically increases your chances of getting noticed in this increasingly competitive industry.

The Magic Formula to Getting Published

The reality is that there is no magic formula that will guarantee publication. Just writing a good book is certainly not enough. In fact, as you’ll learn in this course, once you have written your book, you are not even halfway there. The hard truth is that, with a rejection rate of 99%, many excellent manuscripts will never see publication, and many writers will give up the hope of ever being published.

There are, however, numerous things that you can do to improve your chances and streamline your path to success. This course will provide you with extensive insights into the publishing process that will help you avoid the most common mistakes, pitfalls, and wrong turns that many authors encounter. Avoiding these errors will help you to dramatically increase the likelihood of being considered for publication.

Professor Friedman provides a comprehensive path to publication, which is laid out in clear steps and includes specific tips and guidelines a writer in any stage will benefit from, covering topics like:

  • defining your genre and finding the right market
  • reviewing and editing your manuscript
  • determining the right agent or publisher
  • writing a query letter, developing a pitch, and constructing a proposal
  • submitting your manuscript
  • dealing with rejection
  • understanding a publication contract
  • the pros and cons of self-publishing
  • marketing your book

With expertise in the industry as the former publisher and editorial director of Writer’s Digest, a lecturer in publishing at the University of Virginia, and a former professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati, Professor Friedman is highly qualified to provide you with a penetrating view into the many mysteries of the book publishing world. Previously an executive in the publishing world, and a published author herself, she has a depth of experience that provides her with unique insights into the publishing process from the both the perspective of the industry and of the writer enduring each step.

Be Aware of Publishing Pitfalls

Professor Friedman lays out the realities of writing for a living to aspiring writers so that they understand exactly the scope and commitment that may be required to undergo this process. Most writers, even those who have published multiple works, cannot support themselves fulltime as writers. As John Steinbeck famously noted: “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.” Professor Friedman adds that if you are just writing because your friends or family told you that you should write, you are making a mistake. Another common misconception she dispels is the notion that once you get a contract, your part is done. On the contrary, it is highly likely that you will bear the onus of promoting your book. Once you get a contract, you need to be prepared to publicize and market it.

Once you are aware of the challenges you may be facing, Professor Friedman guides you through the nuances of the different literary genres, advising on the popularity, ease of publication, and pros and cons of each one. She clears up misconceptions about the children’s book market, which is commonly considered one of the easiest genres to break into—yet in reality, the opposite is true. Professor Friedman helps you clarify your goals and objectives, provides tips for pinpointing your audience and market, and guides you in determining what genre best suits your story. This enables you to align your submission to the publication houses best suited for your manuscript and to better stand out from the crowd of ambiguously categorized submissions.

Uncover the Major Players in Publishing

Once you’ve selected the right category for your work, Professor Friedman reveals the publication options available to you. She reviews the Big Five in the publishing industry—New York-based publishers who account for more than two-thirds of the published books in the United States. Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan comprise the Big Five, which Professor Friedman predicts will eventually become the Big Four or even Big Three. Professor Friedman explains the subsidiaries and conglomerates of each, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of working with smaller presses, independent publishing houses, and self-publishing. She also explores in-depth the role that major online players such as Amazon have had in subverting the traditional publishing process. Much like other evolutions and advancements in this industry, the emergence of Amazon has both benefits and drawbacks for struggling and established authors alike.

Nail the Query

One of the hardest parts of getting published is crafting the time-honored query letter—an exercise that can make even the best writers faint with dread. This short introduction of you and your work serves much the same purpose as a resume and cover letter do for job-seekers. At their base, all query letters should include:

  • an element of personalization or a demonstration that you’ve done your homework and you’re aware of the marketplace you are trying to enter;
  • a definition of the property you have to offer—meaning the title, genre and page count; and
  • a brief overview and pitch to sell your story—called a hook.

But in order to effectively catch the attention of an agent or publisher, it should be much more than that. Professor Friedman believes the query letter is all about seduction, and she notes that many authors struggle with it because they have to distance themselves from their work in order to view it as a marketable commodity—a product.

To add to the complexity, no publisher wants to hear “This is the next Hunger Games.” They need to understand what will make your book resonate and stand out in the market the way The Hunger Games did. They need to be intrigued by the scope of the conflict or immediately feel empathy and understanding for your main character, all within a few short paragraphs. You can understand why even experienced writers struggle with the perfect query letter.

Professor Friedman offers a number of illuminating strategies to help you create a gripping query. For example, answer a series of three questions in your hook:

  • What does your character want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • What keeps him from getting it?

She also strongly recommends having a query letter reviewed and critiqued by a number of outside resources in order to provide a distanced perspective that can truly detect if you’ve captured the essence of your story with a compelling hook.

Even if your query is stellar, chances are, you will have to deal with rejections. Professor Friedman spends two lectures exploring the ramifications of being rejected, provides insights into the real reasons that are often behind rejection, and shares tips on how to not take it personally so you can move on. She delves into the psychological battle all writers deal with, considering ways to deal with frustration and desperation and turn those emotions into motivation to keep trying and improving.

More than Fiction

The non-fiction market is much more competitive than commonly presumed, and commercial publishers are extremely selective. As Professor Friedman notes, in order to be considered, you are required to have “a viable idea that has a clear position in the market, paired with an author who has visibility to a readership and marketing savvy. You need to convince the publisher that you have direct and specific experience reaching and understanding your audience.”

Professor Friedman reveals the most important elements a non-fiction writer needs to consider when submitting for publication. She outlines the importance of the proposal, when you may and may not need one, and the three most important components your non-fiction book proposal must include:

  • “So what?” – Why does your book exist? What makes it unique, and which methods do you use to provide this information?
  • “Who cares?” – Demonstrate that there is a sizeable audience for your non-fiction book and that you know enough about your potential readers to know that this book will be of interest.
  • “Who are you?” – You must have sufficient credentials to present yourself as an authority on the subject.

She also lays out five significant steps in researching your proposal that will help you demonstrate how your idea isn’t like a million others out there, and she explains the best format to lay out your proposal. Nowhere else can you find such an invaluable tutorial on how to position your non-fiction book for success.

Going Beyond the Traditional Book

One of the most fascinating areas Professor Friedman explores is the multitude of options for aspiring writers that extend beyond traditional publication. While most writers dream of seeing their name in print, viewing their book physically on the shelf, and potentially even earning recognition and awards for their work, Professor Friedman introduces a number of alternative publishing options and discusses why they are worth considering. With the publishing industry getting increasingly more competitive, it can be beneficial to consider options such as blogs, websites, literary magazines, newsletters, academic journals, fan-fiction, social media, and more. We are living in a world where people are seeking online connections; collaborative reading and writing experiences are becoming increasingly popular. Attention spans are shrinking as well, so for the modern audience, short but poignant blog entries or crowd-sourced collective stories may be a more viable platform for your project than a full-length book. As Professor Friedman notes, “If your blog is read by fifty thousand people but your published book only reaches ten thousand, which one was more worth your time? For many authors, that’s not just a rhetorical question—it’s a reality.”

Self-publishing has made significant strides in the last few years. While self-publishing once signified that perhaps your book wasn’t good enough to get picked up by an established publisher, it’s become more commonly understood that people now self-publish simply to avoid the long process of securing an agent and book contract. And when you look at the success of self-published authors such as Lisa Genova (Still Alice, debuting on the New York Times Best Sellers list at number five in January 2009), or Andy Weir (The Martian, which is currently being produced as a film staring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott), it’s easy to see how self-publishing has become a viable option for many writers.

Professor Friedman outlines both the pros and the cons of self-publishing, walking you through a typical process, introducing some of the options and platforms for self-publication, and elaborating on the steps you will need to take to enable a self-published book to succeed.

The possibilities offered by additional writing platforms and self-publishing can contribute to your ability to get your submission noticed by a traditional publishing house: having an established readership when you query publishers about your work will add more weight to your consideration. Particularly in the non-fiction world, where you will find a publisher who has a proven target market for your work, you will need to demonstrate to the publisher that you have an established audience. You should not expect the publisher to bring their audience to you; you have to bring your audience and your platform to the publisher. Having an established audience for your work through blogs, social media, self-publication, or any other format will help you catch the attention of a publisher. However, self-publishing is itself an accomplishment, and not necessarily a steppingstone to traditional publishing.

No matter what stage you are at in creating your book-to-be, How to Publish Your Book offers unparalleled guidance to help you determine your best path to publication. Will you decide to go the route of the traditional publishing experience, complete with an agent, editor, and publisher? Is self-publishing a smart option for your book? How would you like to explore other publication platforms and media? This course lays out your best options and leads you step by step toward achieving your goals.

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