Road to Publication, Part Two

Continuing the path to publication discussion, here’s the follow up from having an idea of the types of books that sell.

Now you’ve written something. You’ve chucked out your TV, trimmed your social life so you can get things down on paper. It’s a full novel now, not a patchwork of ideas. It’s all the way through. Written to the best of your ability. You’ve put it away and come back to it with fresh eyes to rewrite the damn thing. Hopefully, it’ll be a good way to being what publishers want to buy. So what the hell do you do?

Well firstly, there are some final things. Make sure it’s formatted well—double spacing, in a decent font. Run a spell check over it. Get a synopsis together. Some might say that’s as hard as the actual writing. Have some points in mind about what (current) books you can compare yours to. Think in terms of marketing.

Next: find a list of agents. Literary agents are essential. Most publishers won’t even look at submissions that don’t come from agents. It wouldn’t be possible to operate otherwise. Get a copy of The Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook. In there you should find a listing of agents by the genre they represent. Not every one will represent SF and Fantasy. Find those that do. Write to them, with a covering letter, with a brief outline of your work and if they’d like to see it. Keep it polite and simple. Remember, it’s a business, so act professionally.

Maybe they’ll ask to see your work—great, send it on as required. You should know your market, know the kind of readers your book will appeal to. Now, prepare to be rejected. It’ll happen. Get used to it. Don’t be so arrogant to believe your work is genius, because there are many that do! If you’re not like this, then you’ll be able to modify your book, work on your writing.

When you get to this stage, resist temptation to self publish. In my opinion, this is sinful. I think it’s terrible the way self-publishing imprints rip-off people, play on their emotions, so that anyone can publish their book. Anyone! The main issue I have is that as a writer you have no one to edit, no one to give feedback. Why’s this important? Because you improve as a writer, and you improve as a person. (Although self-publishing can be good for obscure types of books, especially local ones that aren’t going to be commercial at all.)

If an agent gets back to you negatively, move on. Learn from your mistakes. Maybe your writing isn’t quite right—work on it. Listen to advice. Study other authors. Look at how they piece a novel together. Read. Look at their style. Look at how the plot is formulated. There are a billion things you can learn from reading with a keen eye. It isn’t easy. Some people might never get there, but you don’t know unless you try, do you? 

And if the agent gets back with a positive—listen to them. They know what they’re talking about. (Note: never pay an agent upfront. I’d be asking some serious questions if they wanted cash.)

I felt lucky when I signed with John Jarrold. I sent him some material when he was starting out as an agent. He got back to me immediately with praise and acceptance. I felt like a fraud at the time, knowing next to nothing about the publishing world, but what the heck, I had a great agent. I went with it. And I didn’t get published right away. I had the heart-breaking journey navigating around ‘marketing departments’ and their requirements. It took a couple of years to get things right, but I couldn’t have done it without listening to John’s advice.  So in my case, after one unpublished novel (that has remained so), one that has been sold to a small press, and the third attempt to Macmillan, I finally got there.

I guess the advice I’d have is to work really hard at it, remain professional, and find out as much as you can about the industry. Don’t assume you know too much. I’ve only been in the trade for a few years, and I’m frequently suprised by things…

Oh, and if you find it hard, join a writing group. They’re great for moral and support. Plus you realise you’re not alone! 

If anyone wants to chat some more, drop me a line on here or on one of the social networks to the right. I’m more than happy to keep a debate going. 

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About Mark Newton

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


  1. Something I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while now (aside from the tedious booksellers in uniforms thing currently sweeping mainstreet Britain), is the difference in stance between independent musicians (i.e. those who essentially self-publish their own music) and self-publishing authors. Yes, 99% of anything will be crap, but the consensus (as you hint at in your post) is that self-publishing is frowned upon to the extent that it should only be considered for the most niche of publications. Why should that be the case? Is there not an argument for the more avant-garde stuff to be self-published? Word of mouth is as valid here as it is in the independent music scene, but as with double barrelled Home Counties names and working ‘free’ for a year to get your foot in the door, it seems publishing isn’t quite up to speed with other creative industries in many respects.

  2. Hi Rob,

    Let me think: it’s late so this could be rambling and incoherent.

    Yes, it’s a tricky one, isn’t it, but book publishing and music just aren’t the same industries. Generally speaking, you need to be able to connect words well to be a good writer, even an average one. From bestselling mush to arty stuff, you need a good grasp of language. I would say that people who can write well WILL be picked up by publishers at some point, that’s a fact. It might take some time, but it can happen.

    Editors want to break new things as well as having a safety net. In fact, the big sellers help fund more experimental works. It’s a myth that publishing is totally about money. Readers are smart; a publisher would be a fool to keep ignoring that they want new stuff too.

    Also, a great percentage of readers like to be shown what kind of book to read – be it in recommendations on TV/blurbs on the book / packaging that’s similar. They’ve read something they like, and want something that was a bit like it. That’s why genres exist.

    When I worked in the book trade, we frowned a lot on self published authors. Back then, the books were poor quality and every one I saw was terribly written. It was horrible self indulgent stuff. Not always the case, I admit. It had a stigma to it.

    Another thing: music is quick – to wrap up a tune, burn it to disc etc., to even gig, and note crowd reactions. Writing is slow, much slower. Great works may take generations to be realised.

    What ordinary readers might not realise is the editorial input and guidance that goes into most publications. A self published author will not get that critical feedback, will not have a need to improve as a writer, will likely get no better than they are. Then they could be stuck publishing their own titles indefinitely, and not get a wide readership. I would say the aim for most writers is to be read by many people. Publishing is a business. Even experimental publishers like P.S. Publishing require high quality writers, not just anyone.

    It is an interesting debate, and if it wasn’t so late I’d give a more thought-out response. Maybe if you find me at a convention bar, I’ll answer better! Mine’s a Guinness…

  3. I’d have to agree with self-publishing being sinful. I once cruelly likened it to having a robot girlfriend and going around saying “I’ve got a [robot] girlfriend, do you?” Nope, I’m single. Self-publication to me smacks of make-believe. Cheating oneself and preventing any chance of doing it “for real”. The persistance and self-belief of self-published authors is commendable in a way. I maybe wouldn’t have the guts to stand in a bookshop and accost strangers all day. But if they only put that much time and effort into a. writing something else, new, better b. reading and c. approaching agents. Then, as Mark says, they’d learn, improve. Most authors published today have unfinished, unpublished or “lesser” efforts that are crucial on the way to writing that breakthrough. The most famous self-published book to get attention and subsequent major backing was Eragon, but that’s the exception that proves the rule – it only got noticed because a successful writer’s nephew got a copy and loved it. Yes, flooding a local market with copies of your first ever book, saying “Hi there I’m an author” may get it noticed but chances are it will merely demonstate to commercial publishers that you lack the ability to write publishable material. (Not that a publisher would actually see or care about you harrassing customers and offending staff.) If it deserves to get a real publisher, why hasn’t it? What really offends me is the attitude of “Oh, it’s so hard to get published these days when i’m not a big well -known name like John Grisham with all his money.” Bullshit. Everyone starts somewhere. Successful commercial rich authors started off skint. Money pays for self-publication, ego massage and then dumping a load of copies on you,at your expense, taking the money and ripping you off. Not to mention they look cheap and bad, just on the outside. A friend of mine and fellow bookseller once said she hated the phrase “never judge a book by it’s cover” because “what else are you going to judge it by?” Write a book. Read lots of books. Write a better second book. Get people to read it and get constructive feedback. Yes it’s tough. Work hard, work smart. Putting your own money into printing shit quality copies of your first attempt at a novel then strong arming joe public and your mum’s friends into picking up a copy during your exclusive 12 hour appearance at your local Borders (sorry for the plug there but hey, publishing is business) is working hard, but not smart. It’s taken me years to finish anything I’d want to be published. I look back at my early efforts and cringe. But I learned from them.

    The road to Hell is paved with self-published copies.