Getting a Book to Print: Submitting to Multiple Publishers or Self-Publishing?

25 May 2021


Publishing a book is a momentous occasion in one’s life. It is the acknowledgment of one’s skills and expertise. Whether your book was penned completely on your own, or with the help of a ghostwriter, getting a book deal is the type of validation so few people receive.

However, taking an idea to print can be a long, winding road.

Attaining that elusive book deal requires patience as aspiring authors navigate the canals of the publishing industry. Often, this journey begins with submitting a book proposal.

Most writers who contact book agents or publishers never hear back from them. This lack of response may lead would-be authors to consider self-publishing as a viable alternative.

While mainstream publishing sometimes frowns upon self-publishing, the self-publishing trend has gained momentum in recent years. Thus, writers now have various publishing options at their disposal.

In this article, we will explore submitting book proposals to multiple publishers in hopes of landing a book deal. We will also discuss self-publishing as an alternative once aspiring authors have exhausted traditional publishing options.

Submitting Book Ideas

As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say.”

Indeed, these words resonate with practically all aspiring writers.

Traditionally, getting a message out to a mainstream audience meant publishing a book. Having a book published provides a large-scale platform for writers to showcase their message.

For novice writers, the publishing process may prove to be surprisingly intricate. Superficially, it may seem like publishing a book mainly boils down to submitting proposals. From there, it would appear that some agents will be happy to pick it up. However, the book publishing business is really a numbers game.

On the whole, book agents receive a plethora of submissions regularly. Therefore, book agents need to sift through the sea of proposals and manuscripts to find that one golden nugget.

All book agents dream of discovering the next New York Times Bestseller. After all, such a discovery would represent millions of dollars in royalties.

This approach leaves many aspiring authors on the outside looking in. Thus, authors looking to submit their works for consideration must carefully follow literary agents’ and publishers’ submission guidelines.

The Writers’ Union of Canada offers the following advice:

Please note that many agents only accept query letters and not unsolicited manuscripts. Before submitting manuscripts to literary agents, check the submission guidelines on their websites to learn about their submission requirements and areas of interests/specialization. Some agencies do not accept unsolicited manuscripts at all, but rather require an introduction from a more seasoned writer.”

From this valuable contribution, it is plain to see why most manuscripts go unnoticed.

In general, query letters are the most effective way of getting one’s foot in the door. A query letter provides the opportunity to gauge a book agent’s interest. Consequently, a compelling query letter can lead to a manuscript request.

Jane Friedman, a renowned writing expert, describes query letters this way:

The query letter has one purpose and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work. The query letter is so much of a sales piece that it’s quite possible to write one without having written a word of the manuscript. All it requires is a firm grasp of your story premise.

Aspiring writers must view a query letter as a marketing tool. It intends to entice agents and publishers to move forward.

Often, agents will buy an idea. To them, an idea can materialize into a solid manuscript. In contrast, a poorly written manuscript may prove to be a waste of time. Therefore, a solid, well-rounded query sells much better than a time-consuming manuscript.

Simultaneous Book Idea Submissions

For the most part, traditional publishers and literary agents frown upon simultaneous submissions. Generally speaking, publishing industry professionals feel it is inappropriate to contact multiple publishers and agents simultaneously.

Nevertheless, the publishing industry has softened its stance on this practice over the years.

A common misconception among writers is the difference between simultaneous and multiple submissions.

A simultaneous submission means that a writer has submitted the same literary piece for consideration to various agents or publishers. A multiple submission is when an author submits various literary pieces to the same agent or publisher.

On the whole, writers should submit their literary pieces to multiple agents and publishers.

After all, the likelihood of being selected by the first agent is relatively low.

Nevertheless, some agents may consider this practice inappropriate.

The main argument against simultaneous submission is that it attempts to create competition among publishers for a book’s rights. Mainly, publishers seek exclusivity to a book’s rights. Therefore, encouraging simultaneous submissions allows writers to bypass a publisher’s exclusivity rights.

However, this argument does not hold up to scrutiny, particularly if publishers only accept about 10 percent of submissions on average.

In reality, publishers expect writers to submit to various publications even though submission guidelines may forbid it.

According to Nathaniel Tower, managing editor of Bartleby Snopes, the main reason why publications are reluctant to accept simultaneous submissions boils down to wasting their time.

In essence, editors and agents do not wish to waste their time on a submission whose writer might withdraw. Exclusivity ensures agents will not have the rug pulled out from under them.

The Writers’ Union of Canada indicates that query letters must state the author has made simultaneous submissions, and should also include a deadline. This deadline intends to give the agent a reasonable timeframe to accept the request or reject it.

If the deadline passes without an answer, the writer is free to accept other proposals. The Writers’ Union of Canada suggests a three-month deadline upon submission of a query letter.

Additionally, authors must be forthcoming when receiving multiple offers.

Authors should give other agents and publishers up to the deadline to submit offers or counteroffers. This practice aims to provide transparency throughout the submission process.

Ultimately, a lack of transparency may slight agents and publishers. Consequently, agents and publishers may refuse to receive further submissions.

The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators offers valuable insight into the simultaneous submission process:

  • Make simultaneous submissions to agents and publishers.
  • Send multiple query letters mainly for nonfiction projects.
  • Keep an eye on single-submission policies, and set a three-month time limit before withdrawing the submission.

This insight can prove a valuable rule of thumb for authors wishing to submit their work to multiple publishers. Ultimately, a great query can get the process moving much faster and more effectively.

Self-Publishing as an Alternative for Aspiring Writers

The overall publishing process can be lengthy. From a query letter to final publication, the entire process may take months, if not years. For some writers, this process may fizzle out in the submission stage.

Nevertheless, the biggest question on aspiring writers’ minds is, “Why do literary agents take so long?”

While there may be several factors in play, it is important to consider the main ones.

First, book agents work with known winners. In other words, book agents will always pick proven earners over new and unproven writers. After all, publishing is a business like any other. Therefore, book agents will always prefer proven money-makers over newcomers.

Also, a specific book agent may already have multiple submissions on a similar topic. Moreover, they may already have an established author covering that niche. Consequently, the agent may pass on future submissions in that niche.

Additionally, agents may have a flood of submissions. Hence, they have a sizeable backlog to sift through. Unfortunately, some submissions may fall through the cracks. A considerable backlog is usually the reason why some writers never hear back from agents.

Indeed, a book deal with a mainstream publisher would be the first choice. However, when simultaneous submissions fail to bear fruit, writers may wonder what other options may be available. At this point, self-publishing may become a viable fallback option.

Self-publishing consists of authors publishing their works without the help of a book agent or publishing company. In the past, self-publishing represented a high cost to writers. Editing, printing, distribution, and marketing made self-publishing prohibitive.

However, Amazon’s Kindle platform has changed the self-publishing landscape for good.

Currently, Amazon’s Kindle has enabled aspiring authors to publish their works at a fraction of the cost. While Kindle is predominantly a digital platform, Amazon offers print-to-order service, as well. This approach allows writers to have the best of both worlds.

Generally speaking, self-publishing on Kindle removes much of the legwork traditional self-publishing requires. Self-published authors no longer need to bear the cost of printing, distribution, and marketing. Kindle’s vast size makes these tasks more accessible to writers.

Self-publishing is a suitable alternative for writers who have grown weary of rejection from traditional book agents.

Going the self-publishing route enables aspiring authors to bypass the barriers of traditional publishing. Additionally, self-publishing allows writers to have full creative control over their pieces. Therefore, self-publishing is an enticing option for those who no longer wish to wait.

The self-publishing phenomenon has boomed thanks to its accessibility. Virtually anyone with a written piece can publish it within minutes. This ease of use makes self-publishing exceptionally enticing for would-be authors.

Renowned marketing specialist Guy Kawasaki offers this insight into the world of self-publishing:

A successful self-publisher must fill three roles: author, publisher, and entrepreneur or APE.

Indeed, Kawasaki’s world places self-published writers in a different dimension. A self-published author must be willing to spend a considerable amount of time marketing their works.

While platforms like Kindle simplify logistics, they do not necessarily facilitate marketing. Ultimately, marketing falls squarely on the writer’s shoulders.

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

At first glance, self-publishing appears to be a lifeline for struggling authors. Certainly, self-publishing is a viable alternative for aspiring writers. However, up-and-coming authors must consider both sides of the argument before dipping their toes into the waters of self-publishing.

To begin with, the publishing industry is gradually shifting to a predominantly digital means. Current industry trends point to a growth in eBook sales.

In 2020, eBook sales grew by 12.6 percent compared to 2019. After flattening sales in 2018 and 2019, eBook sales saw a renaissance due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, it seems that eBooks have more room to grow.

Also, brands use books predominantly as marketing tools. Thus, the aim of writing a book is not to sell the book itself. Instead, the aim is to use the book as a marketing tool to generate more sales.

Consequently, self-publishing provides an avenue for brands to get their books out to the public.

Digital marketing expert Neil Patel indicates that digital books are the second-best means of increasing lead generation, according to data-driven research.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for self-publishing is a greater royalty share for authors. Traditional publishers offer deals between 5 to 10 percent royalties for writers. This cut pales in comparison to the 40 to 70 percent writers can earn through self-publishing.

According to the Kindle Direct Publishing website, writers can expect to earn a 60 percent royalty on paperbacks (printed using Amazon’s services) and 70 percent on eBook royalties.

For all the positive aspects of self-publishing, there is also a downside that aspiring authors must consider.

Firstly, self-publishing is marketing-intensive. This situation implies that writers must actively market their books all the time.

According to Forbes columnist Nick Morgan, “All books, fiction or non-, need to be marketed heavily in order to stand out in a field of something like a million books published every year in the United States alone.” Indeed, making a brand-new title emerge amid a sea of publications can be a daunting task.

Secondly, building a successful writing career through self-publishing takes time and commitment. Rarely do authors hit a home run with their first self-published work. It’s only after marketing high-quality publications that self-publishing may yield profitable results.

Derek Murphy of CreativIndie offers this insight: “Self-publishing demands long-term commitment and a focus on building your own platform.” Certainly, building a brand from scratch is a long-term endeavor.

Lastly, self-publishing fails to deliver one thing that traditional publishing can: prestige. Authors published by traditional, mainstream publishers can boost the credibility of their work. Dominique Raccach, publisher and CEO at Sourcebooks, offers this thought on the explosion of digital content:

An excessive amount of digital literary content perhaps devalues books in terms of integrity and pricing. While offering consumers value for money is great, this model is driving down the value of eBooks.

The boom in self-publishing has led to a flood of low-quality publications. Consequently, self-published authors have gotten a negative reputation. While there certainly are high-quality publications in the digital self-publishing domain, serious writers need to reconsider going the self-publishing route.


Whether your book is written with the help of a ghostwriter, or penned completely on your own, having a book published is the pinnacle for burgeoning writers.

Indeed, getting a book deal from an established book agent or publisher represents the ultimate validation of a writer’s talents. However, getting to that point may exceed an author’s patience.

While self-publishing may seem like a viable alternative, writers should be wary of the downside to self-publishing at first sight. Mainly, the knock on writers’ reputations may be enough to discourage authors from going the self-publishing route. Nevertheless, self-publishing may prove to be an effective channel when a book serves as a marketing tool.

Ultimately, choosing the right path hinges on the writer’s vision for their publications.

Zach Richter 

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