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. 


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.


Not Good Enough

An interesting piece, in which Zadie Smith says that entrants into a story competition aren’t good enough. So no one wins.

This is a difficult thing to write. Just like everybody, we at The Willesden Herald are concerned about the state of contemporary literature. We are depressed by the cookie-cutter process of contemporary publishing, the lack of truly challenging and original writing, and the small selection of pseudo-literary fictio-tainment that dominates our chain bookstores. We created this prize to support unpublished writers, and, with our five grand, we put our money where our mouths are. We have tried to advertise widely across this great internet of ours and to make the conditions of entry as democratic and open as we could manage. There is no entry fee, there are no criteria of age, race, gender or nation. The stories are handed over to the judges stripped of the names of the writers as well as any personal detail concerning them (if only The Booker worked like that!) Our sole criterion is quality. We simply wanted to see some really great stories. And we received a whole bunch of stories. We dutifully read through hundreds of them. But in the end – we have to be honest – we could not find the greatness we’d hoped for. It’s for this reason that we have decided not to give out the prize this year.

Do I agree with this…? Probably, actually. In an age where a significant amount of publishing works for a quick buck, this is interesting to see. Maybe it’s publicity for her, maybe not. Why give out a prize if there are no deserving winners? This ain’t a tombola. Sure, it’s difficult to get published, but it doesn’t mean sub-standard work should be, just for the sake of it. It’s sure to prompt a wee bit of debate though.




Much to pick apart here. This point in particular stayed in the mind:

…prior to any act of reading, we already live in a fantasy world constructed by advertising, branding, news media, politics and the built or prosthetic environment (in EO Wilson’s sense). The act of narcissistic fantasy represented by the wor(l)d “L’Oreal” already exists well upstream of any written or performed act of fantasy. JK Rowling & JRR Tolkien have done well for themselves, but–be honest!–neither of them is anywhere near as successful at worldbuilding as the geniuses who devised “Coke”, or “The Catholic Church”. Along with the prosthetic environment itself, corporate ads & branding exercises are the truly great, truly successful fantasies of our day. As a result the world we live in is already a “secondary creation”. It is already invented. 

Of course… of course! Wood for the trees with this one, for me. Our fantasy world is already built. Already constructed around us, our fantasies integrated with our lifestyle dreams. This makes the point of escapism somewhat redundant. Where’s the argument to be had? Are we therefore programmed to be escaping in most things we do? The car we chose? The image we want? The things we eat? The choices we make? And what are we escaping in the first place? The real world? People? The reality of emptiness? But if this is already escapist enough, from what are we turning?

How can fantasy literature be really useful, with this in mind. And how the hell do you fit it into a good story?

Perhaps more thoughts later.


Rather Disappointed

I read this and felt it was a great shame indeed. M John Harrison has provided one of the best blogs on the Interwebs. It was like a writer’s notebook, and a great insight into the head of a very important man in the industry, although he’d maybe hate me for calling him ‘a man in the industry’. But at least he’s going out in some style, a wonderful, almost stream-of-consciousness coda. I felt it was important to have MJH blogging. He represented one essential end to a spectrum I was never quite sure about. He provoked, as if he always had a smile on his face. He pointed an awkward mirror on the genre.

At least we got a great year out of it. Some good recommendations.


The Alexandria Quartet—Thoughts

This isn’t going to be a coherent review, because, for me, it wouldn’t suit the book. The Alexandria Quartet comprises of four novels, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. The first two are the most tightly linked, for everything you know in Justine is looked at from another angle, although still from the same narrator. Mountolive is more distant, and Clea certainly moves the three novels forward in time. But, as Durrell intended, they are all meant to be read as one.

The books follow a group of individuals based in Alexandria, Egypt, up to and including the Second World War. That’s about as general as I can get. There is sexual tension, and release; political tension that gathers throughout the story arc; there’s a whole wealth of Middle Eastern history. There’s religion and philosophy. There are momentous descriptions of place and time. The characters are the most complex and layered in any kind of fiction that I’ve read. From our often naive narrator, Darley, who is not really an ‘unreliable narrator’ because we have no reason not to rely on him. Then, the seductive and outrageous Justine, and her husband, the dark-hearted Nassim. There’s Pursewarden, who is one of the greatest fictional creations, layered with metaphor, representation of art, a dose of wit, and some incredible aphorisms. Perhaps my favourite character in any book, even when he wasn’t on the page. There are more, but a sentence here would to no justice.

I am in awe of Durrell for so many reasons. Firstly, for his experimental approach. For showing the relativity in his narrative, and how important that is to fiction—because it is real life. Not merely ‘point of view’, but showing us how one can never be certain of anything, in life or fiction. Secondly, the man brings alive Alexandria to be a character in her own right, a changing, liquid, grand place. (By the time you read Clea, the city has gone, as it was. A construction in the first place, only in words, when revisited after many years, it just isn’t the same place. It isn’t the same character.) Third, is his ability to carve a character to be just as unreliable as real life. In fact, more than any other novel, I was thinking, Here is the truest representation of existence.

This isn’t really a review, is it? I’m just gushing thoughts onto the page. Maybe I can’t really summarise it. Maybe, you just can’t? There are faults, perhaps. Some of the passages of text can make you sweat with their headiness. But that’s an aside. There’s so much to discover here. A history, a philosophy, a poem. I’m using very grand phrases, but you can’t do anything specific with a book like this.

Just get it. Read it. Take your time and enjoy it luxuriously. Feel the dust of those Alexandrian streets. Feel that warm air blowing off the ocean. Hear the palms fizzing in the breeze. Durrell will show you the rest, but go at his pace.

As a side note, when playing with Technorati, to see who else comments on Durrell, it was nice to see how these books stir up thoughts in those who can put things more eloquently than I can.


Lawrence Durrell, Some Thoughts

I’m currently working through one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of recent times. (This year has been a good year of reading for me.) Durrell is a phenomenal talent. He makes you pine for an age you never knew, as much for the quality of writing if nothing else. His ability to bring character and place alive are unchallenged. A thoroughly de-constructive narrative, too, the kind of thing to destroy the formula of a novel and rebuild it, brick by brick. And he often delivers some punching sentences.

  • ‘A city becomes a world when one loves one of it’s inhabitants.’
  • ‘There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.’
  • ‘A woman’s best love letters are always written to the man she is betraying.’

I wish I’d jotted more down as I’d gone through. I shall put down a more thoughtful review—if it’s possible with such a text—in the coming weeks.


Motivation, please

Read this and it’s taken me a while to form any thoughts on the matter.

So are people really telling you that a life is a wilderness unless it includes a career in epic fantasy ? That seems to me to sum up the self-absorption of the genre… You ask me what you should do next. That’s in your hands. You’re what, early-to-mid-20s ? How much money do you want ? If you want real money, you don’t work in writing: you work in money. It’s not too late to start again. Or maybe you should write about money. Maybe you should write the fantasy of money!

Sadly, this is kind of true for the time being. For me, a mid-20s chap who works in publishing and knows this, and writes fantasy that is off the beaten track, it’s a little depressing. I give it about 5 years before the industry permits more experimental stuff, more indies coming into the game, but in the meantime, where’s the motivation to be more innovative, assuming one wants to write experimental fantasy? And who said commercial publishing is about innovation?

I’m a huge fan of MJH, to an unhealthy point, but I wonder, who would publish the Viriconium level stories today? Are audiences up for it? Were they at the time?

There’ll be plenty of free dinners for those young writers who want to be very different.



I read this and it reminded me of when I saw the real life tragedy section in WH Smiths. When I worked for Ottakar’s, you could see the invasion of this kind of book. Full of abuse, rape, torture etc. People couldn’t get enough of their Pelzers et al.

What made me interested in this, is why do readers like to read real life accounts of such incidents, yet there’s a tendency for them to want, in most genres of fiction, characters they love and want to be able to ‘relate to’, whatever the hell that really means anyway. (Some cultural bruising in the psyche, perhaps.) There’s a general desire to read about likeable characters. Loveable characters. Funny and warm and bubble-bath characters.

Are there two completely different types of people buying these ‘real life tragedy’ books and fiction? Why not have more gritty fiction sold in the mainstream mass market? Stuff that’s true to real life, and true to actual character? It seems that it’s okay for something to be abusive and cruel in text form with the general public so long as it’s in real life stories.

I dare say marketing departments have something to do with this. Or is fiction for many some kind of wish-fulfilment? Seems to me that the real tragedy is that fiction can’t be as daring and taboo-pushing as real life. Calling all editors…