Road to Publication, Part One

Darren, master of UKSF Book News, mentioned that I ought to blog about the process of my path to publication and what happens when the book is bought. To shed light on things in the industry. I’m all for this.

One of the things I’ve learned from writing, as well as being an editor at Solaris, and working in the book trade for Ottakar’s, is that very few new writers know how to go from “Oh, I’ve got this idea…” to it being, well, anything more than that. Many people I’ve spoken to don’t know where to start. So this is the first part of an ongoing blog post, a kind of how-to-get-published-in-many-difficult-steps. There are few shortcuts, so bear with me. And if there are any questions, feel free to comment. Ideally, I’ll cover everything. I’d love to make the industry more transparent.

Before you put pen to paper with a novel project, I’d say one of the essential things is to get thee in a bookshop.

Look around. Look at what are the titles on offer for 3 for 2. Look at what is selling and working. I was lucky enough to work in a store. You get an idea, then, of what commercial editors are looking for. Not explicitly the Next Big Thing, but just their tastes, an idea of trends. You are not writing a fantasy or SF novel from 1963. Sorry. Conan’s out, baby. Writing something so obviously retro is not likely to get you a book deal in 2008. Things change. None of this means you need to “sell out”, you just need to know the market you want to write in. (This goes for any genre.) You can always innovate, but unless you know what the building blocks are, you might not stand much of a chance of your book seeing bookshelves.

Whether anyone likes it or not, publishing is a business.

Money is made and lost. Editors will buy your book thinking that a) it’s very good b) they love the writing and c) they think they can sell it. Marketing departments have a major say in what books get commissioned. “So and so has sold x-thousand copies—we want more like that.” It’s a fact of the publishing world. So look around on those shelves. Read the backs of books. Better yet, read the insides. Know what is new, because that’s an indicator of what companies are looking for. You can easily tell those submissions from passionate readers of a genre, from those who don’t really pay much attention to it.

My experience with this was when I was writing New Weird novels. Essentially, I couldn’t get them published. No editor in London wanted to touch that kind of fiction. It didn’t sell. Few bought it. I had to realise that the New Weird was dead. It was barely alive to begin with. So I faced facts (half way through one of these novels), and took my writing into more commercial settings. At some point, you have to face reality. Luckily, I could rescue one of the major plot strands, so all was not quite lost. And importantly, I had a decent amount of writing practice behind me to take into new projects. Psychologically, it was tough, but essential.

So, once you’ve got a familiarity with the market and the genre, you can maybe seriously start writing your book. You ought to be able to know what you want to write about, and where it will fit in on the shelves. I’ll talk a bit more next time about good approaches to the next stages. Obviously, I can’t help much with the actual words on the page, but once they are down, there are many more steps to take, even before you think about sending it to a publisher.

Here are some summary notes which I made to a creative writing group recently:


  • Read ferociously, various types of fiction, especially what’s selling at the moment. Understand what makes a story work at the commercial level. Read out of the genre, read in the genre.
  • Be savvy as to what’s going on in bookstores. It’s the business end of things, where trends occur. Look at books, what’s being published. Look at the backs of books and see what they’re about. Get a feeling for what publishers are looking for.
  • Understand your genre. Links in to the above, but more specific. When you know what you want to write—sf/fantasy/horror/crime—take a detailed look. Spend some time in big stores. Look at the promotions. This is useful so you don’t end up copying what’s been published completely. It’ll also act as a guide as to what you think you can write. It shows you what is expected, also. Follow what each publisher is taking on. Moreover, follow this up online. There are a list of great genre review and news sites that give constant information.
  • Be aware that sometimes similar books will sell. Look at chick lit, for example. Some clichés are useful, when given a unique spin. Many fantasy novels at the moment are very similar. Understand what it is that they have in common; and how they differ.
  • So, when you sit down to write a project, you should have some awareness of where it’s going to fit in the market. This is crucial, because publishing is a business. Publishers exist to make money.
  • Know what is selling well (and what’s selling too well). These are the things that, in your synopsis, you want to compare things to (unless in the selling too well category, then don’t compare to this—Pratchett and Rowling are industries in their own right).
  • Many new novel decisions are made not just by editorial, but by marketing departments. Their job is to make money. They too have pressures for results, and the bigger the company, the more commercial decisions they will make. 

Read part two.
Read part three.
Read part four.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. Hey there Mark

    Interested by your post, particularly your statement that New Weird doesn’t sell. I know New Weird is hard to pin down as a style/sub-genre – though you clearly think you were writing it yourself – but I was wondering what kind of things New Weird (NW) you are referring to. Or specifically what kind of NW tropes are no-no’s for London editors.

    China Mieville clearly writes NW novels and they sell – you even find them in WHSmith, which has a very limited range of stock. Hal Duncan has also found himself in Smiths and in Waterstone’s 3 for 2 offers.

    I’m wondering whether it is not necessarily NW novels that are hard to sell, but whether the writer is able to make the tropes – urban, modern, non-linear, surreal, political, realistic, contrary etc. – accessible and easy-to-read/just not plain scary to your WHSmith reader.

    I’d be interested if there is a dichotomy in your views since you are both editor and writer. Especially since Solaris appears to buck the London-trend by publishing people like Jeffrey Thomas.

    Best wishes and best of luck with the books,

    Colin Brush

  2. Mark

    I guess what I’m questioning is NW as a useful term. I’ve followed the debate elsewhere – and for pity’s sake let’s not get into that here! – but it seems to me that its use usually muddies waters rather than clarifies anything.

    Perhaps a better question from me would be this. What is the difference between the books that Peter at Macmillan has bought from you and the book you were writing before your agent told you to try a different approach? Alternatively, what did you need to change as a writer to get published? (I’m not trying to get you to admit that you’ve sold your soul or anything.)

    The reason I ask is that I read widely for work and in more narrowly defined areas for pleasure. Readability and a good hook are the two elements that I require from the books I choose to read – certainly from an author I’ve not tried before. Of some of my NW reading several years ago it seemed to me that the writers weren’t always interested in readability and hooks (that’s an understatement made for the purposes of irony). Which is fine for short stories and for various agendas and small presses, but not for novels if you’re seeking to be published by London publishing houses.

    Simply put: definitions don’t matter if the writing and the hook are good enough. I’m guessing you disagree …


  3. I don’t think NW is a good term at all. I interviewed China Miéville once, and it included basically a stack of writers just doing something different. Including the likes of Al Reynolds, who writes solid space opera. I think it’s interesting that NW writers use a hook that’s really destructive to careers. I think even China began to regret using the term after a while. People love movements and genres in SF and Fantasy.

    All I changed for me was the setting. I just stripped a little of the deliberate cross-genre weirdness, made things a little more stable in the background. Basically, the main difference is that he can compare this one to George R R Martin, Scott Lynch or Steven Erikson to his sales team, rather than a writer they didn’t want more off, which in my case was China. My tone and approach to story are pretty similar.

    But the bottom line is story. Tell a good story. Yep, definitions are for those critics, and for discussions far away from the shop floor. Just wonderful writing, and a great idea told well…