FAQ – Getting Published
Will I ever get published?
The short answer is it depends. Are you a gifted writer? Do you have a commercial idea? What competing books are on the market? If writing for the general reader (as opposed to for the educational, professional or academic sector) the marketing side will be vital are you happy to write articles, appear on local radio, do the festivals circuit and generally put yourself about?
This last point is particularly important, given that publishing is a saturated market, with over 200,000 books published each year in the UK alone. The days when it was the author's job to write and the publisher's to market are over.
The first step towards getting published is to look at things from the publisher's perspective. Every day publishers and agents are flooded with proposals and manuscripts. A new proposal will get a cursory look – it may seem cynical but after the tenth Overcoming Depression – a personal account of the week or yet more childhood memoirs, you too might view the 'slush pile' as something of a poisoned chalice.
The other point is that editors typically improve their promotion prospects by taking on agented books. Such acquisitions get reported in the trade press (particularly when large amounts of money are involved), so that the editor's name gets noticed. The acquisition of an unsolicited manuscript is low in the commissioning pecking order. Moreover, because of the timelag between acquisition and publication, an editor may well have left the company by the time a book acquired in a competitive auction' gets published, so may not have to face the commercial consequences of it failing to make a profit. And even if the editor is still in situ, there is always the sales department to blame!
A few tips:
- Unless you are stunningly good-looking, well-connected, or have some quirky facet to your background, fiction is the trickiest category to break into. Thousands of competent novelists are unable to secure contracts; while others languish on publishers' midlists. The Independent (12 March 2007) reported the shocking statistic that
although the average author earns £16,000 a year according to the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society (ACLS), when
you remove the superstars, the figure for the rest is closer to £4,000. So unless you are writing for vocational reasons, you need to have the staying power and ability to break through.
- Genre fiction publishing (eg crime, historical fiction etc) is slightly more straightforward to break into, given the existence of defined buyers and routes to market. If you fall into one of these categories, join your relevant trade association and use the resources on offer - newsletters, meetings and the like.
- Non-fiction is perhaps the easiest category, especially if you have identified a niche. But you will still need to follow the guidelines below.
The Three C's
Your book needs to be:
- competently written,
- aimed at a commercial market and
- able to improve on the competition.
Publishers seem to be so overstretched these days
that there is less time to devote to in-house editing. Of course there are notable exceptions but the more you can
do to hone your writing ahead of submission, the better. Go to the Plain English Campaign's website for some free advice or work through the books in our We Recommend section.
It is also important to develop your own style so if you are naturally enthusiastic, for example, don't go for measured civil service tones. And vice versa. Above all, choose a topic or genre that you enjoy so that your enthusiasm permeates the proposal.
Finally, hone your skills by writing for non-book publications before progressing to a book proposal. And there is no subsitute for reading widely.
The market for your prospective book needs to be big enough to make commercial publication viable.
Like most industries, publishing has its fads – the 2004 Christmas period, for example, was characterised by publishers trying to replicate the success of Profile's Eats, Shoots and Leaves – while missing the chance to publish what turned out to be the surprise self-published bestseller, George Courtauld's The Pocket Book of Patriotism. One of the charms of publishing is its unpredictability and commissioning editors with impressive pedigrees routinely reject books which later appear in mortifying prominence on the bestseller lists. Going back a bit, imagine how the first Harry Potter book might have been dealt with at an acquisition meeting – 'Aren't boarding school stories a little dated?'
So factor in this sheep mentality and don't forget about smaller publishers (less money but often more flexible and innovative), or else the self-publishing route.
it is easier to say what is not commercial. No-hope areas for commercial publishers include personal memoirs (who cares?), local interest subjects (limited audience) and obscure biographical figures (obscure for a reason). If in doubt, pick your bookseller's brains.
Remember, too, that publishers have different minimum sales thresholds. One might be happy to sell 2,000 copies of a book; others might have 5,000 or 10,000 as their minimum. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the publisher, the lower the sales threshold.
Don't airbrush out the competiton! Visit a few bookshops (nb different stores stock different books) to build a sense of your market. Who are the market leaders? What aspects of current books could be improved upon? Where are the gaps? What is the appropriate format and price for that market?
Build this intelligence into your proposal – but be honest with yourself. You will come across more strongly if you give credit to the competition rather than attempt to prove that your prospective book is better in every respect.
What do I do if a publisher says they will only consider work coming from an agent?
Sadly, this use of agents as a comfort blanket is increasingly common. Yet it is a big mistake. Think of Ben Schott. According to Bloomsbury's Nigel Newton, as reported in Publishing News (10 January 2003), the success of Schott's Original Miscellany taught him to 'be vigilant about all things you receive in the post'. This surprise Christmas 2002 bestseller – more than 250,000 copies sold – arrived, of course, through the slush pile. And George Courtauld's bestseller which failed to attract either an agent or publisher had sold over over 37,000 by Christmas 2004.
Publishers who specify 'no unsolicited proposals' justify this by saying that it takes an enormous amount of time to trawl through the 'slush pile'. Yes, unsolicited proposals can arrive by the truckload. Equally, most can also be rejected very quickly (just one look at that pink scented paper).
Most agented material has a higher minimum standard, as the proposals will have gone through an initial screening process. However, assessing unsolicited manuscripts not only hones editorial skills but also offers the possibility of discovering a proposal that is new and fresh rather than something that has 'gone round the block'.
On a more practical note, here are some tips as to how to get through to publishers if you do not have an agent.
Seek out the publishers who will consider unsolicited manuscripts and proposals start with the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and The Writer's Handbook and then check out the websites. Even where a publisher's official stance is to discourage unsolicited submissions, I would still try them. The key is to root out the name of a relevant commissioning editor – a 'Dear Sir/Madam' approach is bound to boomerang back. Be upfront in your submission letter and include compelling ammunition as to why your editor should consider your proposal.
Before you submit your proposal, maximise your chances by following our Submission Guidelines
How do I choose a publisher?
Assuming you need a conventional publisher - rather than
a digitally-produced short run - start with the end in mind. First, think about what kind of book you plan to write, ie whether you see it as a hardback or paperback, for a general or specialist market. Which authors do you identify with and who publishes them (cue for a few visits to bookshops)? NB When you do your bookshop research, bear in mind that the name on the spine of the book may be that of an imprint, not of the publisher – the address will be given inside on the copyright page.
Think, too, of what you want from a publisher. the personal attention and pioneering spirit of an independent publisher or a sales & marketing powerhouse such as Ebury? If you are simply desperate to get published, stop now, as this attitude is a barrier to success.
Just as important as the overall reputation of your publisher is your confidence in the person who will be your main contact (usually the commissioning editor).
Another factor is the level of sales and distribution you require. Increasingly, bookchains are cutting back on the number of publishers whose sales reps they allow to call on individual branches – Smiths, Ottakar's, Borders and Waterstones all fall into this category and even where they allow publishers' reps to call in on branches, they often limit this to a small number of accounts.
After your bookshop visits, use the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook or The Writers Handbook to order catalogues from your target publishers' publicity departments. Look at their websites. Then ring to get the name of the relevant commissioning editor. If the receptionist is in gatekeeper mode, either try during the lunchbreak, or through a different department.
Start with a shortlist of three to five publishers in the first instance to allow yourself another shot. You may wish to ring up the Society of Authors to check whether there are any publishers you should avoid (eg if they are having financial problems, or are rumoured to be up for takeover).Then submit your proposal according to our Submission Guidelines and don't forget the covering letter.
Things will go quiet for a while. Keep your nerve and do not chase for a few weeks or so. Assuming your proposal strikes a chord, you will be called in for a meeting. This should be a two-way exchange so plan your questions ahead of time. As mentioned, perhaps the most important thing is that you choose an editor your primary contact who you feel rapport with.
Both the IPG and the Publishers' Association have factsheets for authors.