Book Writing and Publishing FAQ – Do I Need to Write My Book Before I Try to Get an Agent or Publisher?

While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert about book writing and publishing, I have had 6 books published by major publishers, and I’m writing my 7th.  Therefore, I feel like I can answer at least some questions about book writing and publishing.

Keep in mind, if you ask 20 authors, agents, or publishers the same question, you’re likely to get a wide variety of answers.  With that in mind, my answers to the questions in the new Freelance Writing Jobs Book Writing and Publishing FAQ Series are my opinion and based on my own research and experiences.  Different tactics have worked just as well or better for others.  In other words, don’t take my answers as law, but do consider them as suggestions based on my own learnings.  Also, keep in mind that these answers apply to people who want to be published through traditional publishers, not through self-publishing or print-on-demand publishing houses.

With that said, here is the first question in the Book Writing and Publishing FAQ Series:

Does my book need to be completely written before I approach publishers or literary agents?

There are a couple of situations that can affect the answer to this question, so there isn’t a clear yes or no answer.

If you’re a first time fiction author, than it’s highly likely that a publisher or agent won’t even consider your query unless you have already completed your manuscript.  The reason is simple — they need to know that you can actually finish what you started and your book won’t fall flat ten chapters in.  While you won’t be asked to show a publisher or agent the completed manuscript until they review and approve some sample chapters, they will want to know that it’s done, the word count, and that it’s waiting for them to read whenever they’re ready.

If you’ve already published a fiction book through a well-known publisher and your sales numbers show that your book had some success, then you might not have to write the complete book before you try to sell it.  You might only need a few sample chapters and a great query letter and summary.  If you have an agent or relationship with a publisher already, you can ask them what they want to see from you for your next book idea.

Now, let’s talk about nonfiction book publishing.  Typically, you don’t have to write a complete nonfiction manuscript before you can start querying agents and publishers.  However, you will need a well-written query letter, proposal, and annotated table of contents.  You should also have a few sample chapters written in case an agent or publisher request them.  Publishing nonfiction books is different from fiction in that much of your success at working with an agent or publisher is based on your platform — your ability to prove that you have a way to reach a large audience and push sales of your book.

It’s important to understand that nonfiction book publishers evaluate proposals and often modify the direction of the book to suit their needs and vision of the marketplace.  If you write your entire book before you secure a publisher, you might end up having to rewrite the entire thing.  Furthermore, nonfiction book publishers typically determine the word count for books they publish, particularly for first-time authors.  Therefore, you don’t want to spend months and months writing a 150,000 word manuscript only to have a publisher tell you that they don’t want the manuscript to be more than 70,000 words.

Of course, if you’re worried that you might not be able to write a complete book, then you should consider writing the complete manuscript before you query agents and publishers.  Once you sign a contract to write a book, you’ll be given a deadline when you need to hand in your manuscript, and for nonfiction books, that deadline is often a lot sooner than you might expect.  It’s not uncommon to get a nonfiction book deadline of 3-months!

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7 responses
  1. Erick Pettersen Avatar

    Thank you for this information, Susan. I had been told by a friend of mine, who recently published her first non-fiction book, that there was no reason for me to write my entire MSS. I talked to another fiction author friend who said you did need to finish your entire mss. Her reasoning was also that they want to know you can complete it. And I talked to a publishing consultant friend who said I would need to send in a query first but have a completed MSS. It is nice to hear that I am not wasting my time writing my entire book before I start sending out queries.


    1. Susan Gunelius Avatar

      Erick, you’re welcome! Good luck with your queries!

  2. Doug Avatar

    My experience has been that an outline, sample chapters and a compelling query are all that’s needed. But, I’ve had absolutely NO success at selling fiction so my experience actually falls in line with yours.

    1. Susan Gunelius Avatar

      Doug, Keep at it. You never know when the right agent or publisher will stumble on your query at the right time! Even J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was published in the U.K. after an assistant at Bloomsbury stumbled upon it because the black binder it was sent in intrigued her. Without that binder, that proposal would have gone into the garbage as it had been sitting in the rejection pile. It’s a story I tell in more detail in my book, “Harry Potter: The Story of a Global Business Phenomenon,” and I think it can be very inspiring to all aspiring fiction authors. Timing means everything!

  3. Tammi Kibler Avatar

    Hi Susan,

    The Writing Job Leads link isn’t working. Just an FYI. 🙂



  4. Susan Gunelius Avatar

    Thanks for letting me know. I’m not sure what’s happening but the tech team has been alerted. I’m sure they’ll get it fixed as quickly as they can.

  5. Adorna Avatar

    Is it necessary to have your story copy written before you send it to a publisher?

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