Written by Emily Harstone August 26th, 2019

7 Common Mistakes New Authors Make When It Comes To Publishing

For the purpose of this article, I am defining new authors not as people new to writing, but as writers new to publishing their work. Publishing your work is a completely different beast than writing. There is some overlap between crafting a good query letter and crafting a good chapter, but it is insignificant in the scheme of things.

Publishing requires a lot of work and a different skill set. I was writing for over a decade before I started to get serious about publishing, and during that decade, even though I attended workshops and classes on writing, I learned surprisingly little about publishing. The only way one can learn about publishing, in my experience, is to start submitting your work. Even then, different kinds of submitting have different learning curves. For example submitting to and being published by literary journals has a much lower learning curve than the same process with publishing houses.

Over the years that I have run Authors Publish, I have learned a lot about how publishing works, not just from my own experience as a submitter, but from all the time I have spent researching publishers, talking to published authors, editors, agents, representatives of publishers, and unpublished authors, not to mention all the manuscript submissions we have received (we don’t publish manuscripts, but that doesn’t stop writers from submitting them).

Below are the most common mistakes I’ve seen authors make and I have heard editors and authors complain about.

1. Not Researching

The most important part of getting your novel published, outside of writing and editing the manuscript itself is researching. I have had so many conversations with writers who signed a contract with a publisher on this list. All of these authors never Googled the publisher they were about to sign the contract with, otherwise they would have never signed the contract. Research might seem overwhelming at first, particularly if you have not done much research in the past. As someone whose undergraduate degree was in History and Classical Civilizations, research is something I actively enjoy doing.

One author recently wrote me to say that he had decided that research was about as much work as writing a novel, and it is true, sometimes it is. But the more you do the more you know, and the less time you have to spend on research in the future. Researching publishers or agents for your first novel might take two years, but if it works out, you might never have to put in that time again.

Now if you are just starting out and the researching aspect of publishing seems overwhelming to you, the following articles should be a good jumping off point: Red Flags: A Guide to Avoiding the Wrong Publishers and Evaluating a Publisher’s Website.

2. Having Little to No Previous Experience/ Knowledge Base

Knowing how publishing really works is so important. These articles, How Publishing Really Works, The Seven Most Common Manuscript Submission Mistakes, and 6 Popular Myths about Book Publication, are a good place to start, but acquiring a firm base of knowledge takes time and experience, something no article can impart.

Each genre is a different world. Publishing poetry generally doesn’t involve an agent, and the poets that have an agent have one for speaking gigs, not for writing ones. Publishing mass market fiction requires an agent, but publishing science fiction often does not. Nonfiction involves a lot of successful niche publishers.

But it goes beyond that. Often writers have written work that doesn’t fit into the marketplace at all. For example a lot of writers write Young Adult fiction that involves adult main characters, even though if you go to a YA section of a bookstore you will not see any work that fits that description. This is one of the many reasons it’s so important to read in the genre you write in.

It’s not enough to read this information once, it’s something you learn over time.

This is one of the reasons I encourage writers to submit to literary journals before submitting to manuscript publishers. You can learn more about how publishing really works without risking your manuscript falling into the hands of the wrong publisher. Having a poem or a short story published by the wrong journal is just much more low risk, particularly because standard practice with literary journals is that the rights revert to the author after or soon after publication.

3. Not Following the Guidelines

Submission guidelines exist for a reason. If a publisher tells you not to submit a book of poetry, don’t submit a book of poetry. That seems straightforward, right? Still I am sure that publisher receives a dozen books of poetry a year, at least. Most of those manuscripts will be deleted right away and the author not responded to. None of them will be published by that publisher. I regularly receive complaints from authors about the fact I have not responded to their submitted manuscript even though I state in the submission guidelines that we don’t publish fiction or poetry manuscripts.

Writers sometimes tell me about the hundreds of rejections or non responses they receive and I wonder how many of those rejections are non responses were the direct result of the work being submitted not being what the publisher accepted at all.

There are other important aspects of submitting manuscripts. Following the formatting guidelines, for example. Including a synopsis if they ask for one. Not including a synopsis if they don’t, etc. Read the submission guidelines carefully. Always remember when it comes to fiction, don’t submit till you have a complete manuscript, even if the publisher is only asking for an excerpt.

4. Not Editing Work

Presenting a polished manuscript (or manuscript excerpt) as well as a polished query letter is essential. If your query letter is a mess, the editor might not wish to brave the manuscript. If the manuscript itself is error-riddled, even if the story is good, the publisher is going to pass. Editing is a lot of work and finding a good editor is important. If you can’t afford to hire one, finding a beta reader (or readers) can help, so can trading manuscripts with another writers.  These two articles are a good jumping off point: 5 Free & Cheap Editing Options for Your Manuscript, and The Top 3 Red Flags When Searching for  Book Editors.

The same goes for literary journals. Cover letters are not very important there, but the work itself should be polished with no glaring errors.

5. Self Publishing in Order to Traditionally Publish

For some reason, a lot of new publishers believe that once they self publish their manuscript, they will have a better chance at finding a traditional publisher. This is not true. Most traditional publishers will not consider a manuscript that has been previously self published. Emily Harstone has written a whole article about this here, so that is all I am going to say about that.

6. Just Submitting Once (or Twice)

Publication, particularly manuscript publication, takes a lot of hard work and effort. You have to submit to many editors and/or agents before your work gets accepted. Many agents and publishers and almost all literary journals accept simultaneous submissions for a reason. The majority of the work they receive gets rejected. Many publishers and agents take up to six months to respond. You cannot stop submitting for that period of time.

This article focuses on literary journals, but it talks in detail about the cost of, and problems with, limited submissions.

7. Taking Rejection Seriously

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.” – James Lee Burke. Rejection means you are submitting. So it is a very good thing. This article goes into more detail about how to handle it, or rather embrace it.  

In Conclusion   I made most, if not all of these mistakes as a new submitter; it is a natural step towards becoming a published author. The key is to learn from your mistakes, and become a much better submitter, and ultimately a published author.

Caitlin Jans is a poet, a novelist, and the editor of Authors Publish Magazine. Her writing can be found in The Conium Review, The Moth, The Labletter, Literary Mama, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Facebook.


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