4 Publishing Industry “Rules” You Can Break (and 6 You MUST follow!)

In publishing rules are just guidelines. We give you these guidelines to help you (believe it or not). We’re not trying to make your life harder; we are trying to show you how to succeed. These guidelines are what you should generally follow, but there are times you can break the rules.

A great skill for a writer to have is to know which you can bend and adapt, and which needs must be met. Read on…


  • Anything that is contradicted by multiple people at top levels – Have your go-to sources (Writer’s Digest, ME!, KidLit411, Debutante Ball, Writers in the Storm, Pub Crawl Blog, Query Shark, Jane Friedman, Girl Friday Productions, Susan Spann etc) and trust those who have years of industry experience at the top levels–we all agree on the important things. However, there will be things we don’t agree on. Therefore, trust your own gut sometimes or go with 1 trusted source (aka if you are querying a certain agent go with their guidelines, not some XYZ site that’s right 60% of the time). The most important thing is that you’re clear and concise–so if you bend the rules make sure you’re making yourself more clear, not adding complications.
  • “One Size Fits All” social media advice – If anyone is telling you there is one single way to build an author platform or brand they’re wrong. Recognizing and growing your brand will always be authentic to you. Just be yourself online, and be consistent about it. Emulate the frequency or interaction of others that you admire online, but develop your own voice. (More on platform/branding below.)
  • MFAs are the only route to getting published – You don’t need one. If you have one that’s great! But no one needs one to get published. Some people like the structure and built-in critique system. But you can recreate that outside of a school program by reading a lot and with writing groups and critique partners.
  • Marketing and publicity that began in the ice age of publishing – We are working in a very different world. The good thing about where we are right now is that writers can take chances on things! Cover reveals, price point drops, merchandise that is unique to your book. Be agile! Be forward thinking! You have full permission to question all marketing and publicity advice–but, here’s the kicker, you have to try everything and you have to throw yourself into it. You don’t get to complain that publishing is a different world and do nothing. You get to say “hey, things are different and discoverability has changed–so what am I doing as a writer to find my readership?” Finding your audience is up to YOU, not your publisher but they will help. Relying on what a publisher has done in the past shouldn’t be good enough for you, you can’t assume anything. You need a fresh plan for your book and a team that understands what your unique goals are. Everyone wants to sell books, your team will be on board for that, but it’s the ways we’re doing it that have changed.

If you understand why the rules are there, sometimes it’s okay to bend them to make a point. But you must know why the rule is there in the first place. It’s like satire. If you’re going to satirize something you have to know 1) what it is you’re playing with 2) what satire is.


  • Spelling and grammar – This should be easy enough in the manuscript, but sometimes writers like to get cute with puns in titles. (Please avoid! Puns in titles makes everyone question themselves and sales/booksellers think there is a typo.)
  • General length guidelines – Your adult manuscript should be between 70-90k words; if you can’t follow these rules then there’s something wrong with the structure of your book. Reasons it might be longer than 90: SF/F. However, even debut SF/F should try to be 90k because it gets really expensive to print (therefore the cost of the book goes up) and translate long works (you won’t get foreign rights deals) which makes it an uphill battle for debut authors starting a career.
  • Yes, you must get on social media – There are no excuses for a contemporary writer not to be on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Tumblr. Join the conversation! Learn more about the industry and your market. Unsure about social media? Read my post about building an online community and this one about recognizing your brand.
  • Communicate with your team – Rebelling against the establishment isn’t going to get your book published well. A great book might get published, but an author that’s willing to go above and beyond to promote themselves and work with their team will be a shining star. Rebelling against what your agent, editor or publicist needs from you will stop them from wanting to help you. Be a willing partner. Tell us what you’re up to and let’s work as a team.
  • If you’re writing non-fiction platform is a MUST MUST MUST – There is absolutely no way to get non-fiction published in a big way without a platform. Agents don’t look at non fiction unless it comes with a sizeable audience and a demonstrable expert. (Hint: Here’s what we want in a platform. And here are my important platform secrets that you should know from reading my blog.) Fiction authors: platform isn’t a requirement, but understanding that you’ll need to grow one eventually is helpful at early stages.
  • Submission guidelines – there is no way you’re going to get an agent’s attention by ignoring or modifying their guidelines to suit you better or try to stand out. The ones that stand out are the ones that follow the guidelines and do it well!

Yes, these rules are there for a reason…to help you get published!

Q: What other “rules” are you still confused about?

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

28 thoughts on “4 Publishing Industry “Rules” You Can Break (and 6 You MUST follow!)

    1. With non fiction I can’t sell it unless the author can guarantee a platform (i.e. potential book buyers) like hundreds of thousands of twitter followers, academic expert with wide network, on TV etc. With fiction the writing comes first every time. A platform doesn’t make up my mind about a fiction author–it does for non fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Carly, I appreciate your emphasis in fiction that “the writing comes first every time.” That you feel that way has made me return to your blog again and again. At the same time, I hear loud and clear that debut authors should not disregard these rules, which are solidly based on business and marketing realities. My takeaway is that publishing successfully is that delicate balance between the demands of art and the demands of commerce.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Is memoir considered fiction or non-fiction? In other words, do you need a platform if you’re trying to get a memoir published?


    1. Yes, memoir is non fiction. So ideally you’d have both a fabulously written book and a platform to launch it. With smaller presses a memoir can be published with a smaller platform. However, the major publishers require a platform.


  2. Thank you so much Carly for another helpful post!

    I do have a question about social media platform and memoir. I understand it is important to establish yourself as an expert in an informational or how-to topic but why in memoir?

    I have written a memoir about adopting my daughters through foster care. I understand having a lot of followers and expertise is important if I’m writing a book about the adoption process or parenting trauma-exposed children but memoir is nothing more than my reads-like-fiction experience? (I know platform is about exposure and the likelihood of making more money, but hope you can explain further. Hope this makes sense.)


    1. Memoir is really tough. It can work well in a local market or small press but in order for national interest the book has to be so well written; the best writing anyone has seen that year. Because personal memoirs are up against celebrity memoirs.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I started writing my story, I thought everyone would be interested because it is so unique compared to the other adoption memoirs out there and fills a much-needed void (foster adoption). However, I find myself feeling increasingly frustrated by celebrities getting published simply because they’re celebrities. Their memoirs may be engaging and well written but, let’s face it, they get an automatic foot in the door. (I’ll step off my soap box now.)

        Thanks for answering. I appreciate the insight you provide and that you take the time to respond to our comments and questions.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your blog and book have been so helpful—I appreciate you sharing all of your valuable insights, but I do have one question. Do you have a preference between query letters being addressed Dear Carly, or Dear Ms. Watters?

    I’m in the advertising industry which tends to be more informal and am struggling with the formality that’s usually suggested. I wouldn’t want it to come across as disrespectful, it just feels more authentic to use a more informal greeting.

    Liked by 1 person

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