writing & publishing

How Not To Get Published

I understand, when you’re putting pen to paper for the first time, the desire to become a published novelist. You maybe fancy yourself as a Bohemian type, having read the tales of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris. There’s a deep sensation that’s difficult to explain – you write, and you want to see your words bound in a book and sitting on a shelf in a big fat pile of other such books that you’ve written. Soon your emotions are bound up in months or years of graft and it means something.

The interweb came along. Suddenly there were all sorts of platforms in which you could have your words read by people. Online activity changed our perceptions about how to become a novelist, but unfortunately the reality is much as it was before. The internet doesn’t tell you that.

So here are some things that most likely won’t help you get published. That is, in the sense of having an editor buy your work, make a book, and put it on a shelf in a bookstore.

1) Start a Facebook group and adding lots of people as fans. You expect a major New York or London editor to stumble fresh out of a slush-pile session onto that obscure page in a glut of others? Really? You think by adding a heck of a lot of people this is any different than the digital version of vanity publishing?

2) Twittering your novel. Just no, unless you’re Japanese and your culture is wild enough up to cope with concepts such as micro-novels. Twittering and adding folk is essentially another form of spamming, and no one really cares; just because you add a million people and they “follow” you, doesn’t mean they’re reading a word of what you’ve written. Twitter is an information stream, a social network to dip in an out of, and most importantly: it’s not a book.

3) Blogging your novel a chapter at a time. Okay, I’ll concede that this can work, but it is extremely rare. You’ve heard the stories about that one author who maybe had his or her blog seen by an editor, or who managed to get thousands of followers which led to a publication deal. I’d suggest that such writers might have had his or her manuscript accepted if sent to a publisher or agent anyway, and the blog was, for the main part, merely extra media. You still need to be a good writer, and you still need the distance miracle of an editor having the time to read your blog.

4) Asking lots of other writers to read your work. See Scalzi’s post on the matter. He’s right.

5) Self-publishing with a vanity press, and then sending that to a publisher. Big no. Adverts are all over the internet offering temptation: you can get published by sending along your work with a pile of cash and oh look! you’re published and while you’re at it you can buy some v1agra for longer-lasting pleasure!

It’s really not the same. Self-publishing does have its place: local books, perhaps, or for non-fiction, but for first-time fiction it’s vanity, and a big no. It’s an expensive way of stapling your manuscript together and asking people to pay for it. There is no editorial work (structural or line-edits), no good cover art, no way to get it into modern bookstores, and most of all, no respect. You will be loathed by booksellers for harassing them to stock a vanity work. You send it into editors and you’re likely to be pre-judged – something you do not want to happen. Note: If you want to know how to prepare a manuscript properly, my agent has some FAQs (scan down).


What I’m saying is, instead of doing all of this stuff that has diminishing returns on your dignity, you could spend your time doing things which are valuable: perfecting your craft, taking a look at what editors are currently looking to buy, researching your book, editing, rewriting, making coffee, thinking about improving. If you’re good, you’ll get there, but it can take years. I know this – it’s hard work, but keep at it. Some of what I’ve said might seem harsh, but I’ve worked in bookselling, editorial, and as a writer, and these things will really save heartache over the years.

(I’ll follow up with a bunch of notes I once gave to a creative writing group on the best things you can do to increase your chances of publication.)

EDIT: just to add that these aren’t demeaning some of the options (humour aside); I’m merely stating that time can be spent better doing other things…

By Mark Newton

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

16 replies on “How Not To Get Published”


Bravo! Love it! Can’t agree more. Though I am a serial infringer of #3; not in the hopes of an editor seeing it and signing me to a $5 million deal, but so that friends and family and others can read about the tales that have been gathering proverbial dust on my harddrive. [Plug:]

Thank you for stating the painfully obvious to a group of lumpheaded unpubbies.


Okay, so let’s say that a first time author did the unthinkable. They paid for an editor to clean up their manuscript, they submitted to publishers, one one of them bit with a “joint venture publishing” deal – in other words: a vanity press. Said author didn’t do enough homework until it was too late, and afterwards found out what a terrible predicament it is to have a publisher who cares very little to help you get book sales.

So now the learning has happened. The author knows this was a very bad idea, but still would like to get this book (let’s say its part of a series) out and published with a regular publisher, perhaps even by revising and re-editing the work. The writer has, after all, matured significantly as a writer since that time. What should be done to correct this horrible mistake?

Should query letters to new publishers specifically call out that the work was published and only sold 200 copies? That they published with a vanity press, but didn’t realize their mistake until it was too late? Or should all that discussion be held after the merrit of the manuscript has captured their interest? Obviously the conversation has to happen at some point.

There’s a lot of warning out there to be seen, but not a lot of talk about correction of a mistake that’s already been made in using the vanity publisher. What can be done?

You’re missing the point of #3: you give stories away as a blog or a podcast to build audience. As you build audience, you prove to the narrow-minded, incestuous, shelf-specific publishing clique that your work will sell with the end user.

All of your advice hinges upon the old-media model that you have to find the one person at the publishing houses that will love your work and go to bat for you. By giving away content online, you wrest the control out of that very finite number of people and open it up to the world.

Your vanity press argument is largely the same — if an author can self-publish a book and move 10,000 copies (and prove they went to readers, not into their garage, granted), publishers want to hear that.

If you’re just another writer with just another book that the editor/publisher likes, it’s still a massive financial risk for that house. However, if you’ve sold 10k copies, 20k copies, or you can show you’ve got 500,000 uniques a month reading your blog, your work is market-tested and is a significantly lower risk for the publisher.

The point of vanity publishing and/or blogging your number is not to “get lucky” and have the right person read it, it is to develop audience and connect with fans.

Worked for me.

While largely in complete agreement, it’s nevertheless true that I have done two of the above in the past and they unquesionably contributed to getting me an agent, at least.

It’s not folly to push your work in some creative way that you can do well. What *is* folly is to simply do what someone else did and imagine it will work for you too.

I was hoping this might provoke a reaction or two…

Jenn: thanks! Yeah, that all sounds totally
cool for friends, family etc.

Anonymous: I wouldn’t bother mentioning it if I were you. If the writing is good enough, you’ll be accepted by the agent/editor in question. You’ll be judged firstly by your writing, and secondly by your writing. 🙂

Mr Scott Sigler: apologies, I’m not familiar with your work – what kind of stats do you have for sales? I’d be interested to hear those, but most of all I’d think you a rarity, and the problem is when a hundred writers waste their lives trying to emulate what happens once in a blue moon.

And it may seem a clique from the outside, but publishing ain’t a boys’ club. It ain’t the Free Masons. They want a good book to sell – it’s a business, after all.

Hey Stephen! Do you think that you would have been represented by John even without doing those two things if you simply sent the manuscript to him?


As for stats, my last novel CONTAGIOUS was a New York Times best-seller in hardcover.

It’s not a blue-moon phenomenon, it’s old-school patience and hard work. People who continue to provide quality stories for free, online, and are willing to put in 3-5 years worth of consistent work, will develop audiences. The publishers want quality books, absolutely, but the opinion of the few is a bigger risk than the opinion of the many. If an author can show that his or her fiction resonates with a large audience, what publisher wouldn’t want that information? That kind of knowledge helps publishers make informed business decisions.

My overall point is that publishers always publish books they think are going to sell, but only 5% of those books make any money. So with a failure rate of 95%, why would you hinge your career on that opinion? Why not first go to the masses and prove your work will sell?

Yo, Scott.

I remember your book – did you have that online thing against Eric Brown’s review? Or was that another SF author? (Sincere apologies – my memory really is playing up at the moment.)

Sure, slap ’em up online. Thing is, many editors couldn’t give one iota about what’s been written up online. So what about all the millions of writers who don’t have a success story with your model? We don’t hear about them. All publishers care about is finding either a) great writing which wows them or b) commercial writing which they like and think will sell well.

And sure a publisher might want a large built-in fan-base – but I’d discourage any writer worth their salt from slaving away for hours on such publicity which, in the very modern age, gets lost immediately. They can spend that time becoming great artists.

Unfortunately, publishing is rather old-school, whether we like it or not. It’s resistant to a lot of change.

And hey, I don’t make the rules, it’s just how it is out there. I’ve worked on all sides of the divide, and I know I’m one of the really lucky ones to be where I am at my age.

Where did you get the 5% figure from incidentally? I’m intrigued to see publisher success rates – it makes for a frustrating read sometimes.

Anyway, clear that we can agree to disagree.

Tremendous blog entry, with a terrifying link! (In a good way.)
Yes, some self-published books do see a commercial release one day. One self-published author I met in my bookshop has just released her commercial debut. Eragon is perhaps the most famous book to have originally been self-published. William Blake was only self-published in his lifetime. But so what? Standing naked on the tube station reading your book aloud is likely to cause attention (and arrest-if only some of the self-published self-evangelists I’ve dealt with professionally would meet the same fate). The overwhelming majority of commercially published writers were not self-published first, and the same majority of self-published writers do not go on to a professional book deal. Does this not tell you something? And having sold 200 or 2000 self-published copies speaks only of your ability to harass strangers into buying it in person, NOT of the quality of the work. For someone so confident, self-possessed to demeen themselves loitering in bookshops violently handselling is a strange paradox to me, and to Mark it seems – why don’t they put that effort, time and swagger into… trying to get their book published?

If I could give advice to aspiring writers (indeed to my younger self): 1. READ, and 2. THE FIRST BOOK YOU EVER WRITE WILL BE SHIT. Harsh maybe, but you learn from it. Early projects are never wasted. And you know what? You’ve just spent 2, 3, 4 years writing and honing your masterpiece, and it doesn’t disappear if you don’t get an agent immediately. You don’t have to write it live, so go back and change it! And as you gain experience, and feedback, you will learn what your weaknesses are, which is kind of the same for any endeavour. You should know what you were trying to write, and how/where your efforts fall short so far. Then rewrite the thing! It is amazing, terrifying, and empowering to get into a rewrite and realise how much more is still to be done, how much better it could be. And work on the feedback of others – anyone who thinks ‘It’s my book so everyone else can f**k off,’ will never get a deal. Ok, if someone said I should put more horny girls and vampires into my book I’d tell them to f**k off. But if they found the beginning of my work too confusing for someone who hasn’t lived in the project for years and already knows what’s going on, I’d take that on board.

A final point: everyone can write.The older you get, the more you’ll have read, and written (essays, reports, emails, letters), and spoken – all of this will improve your ability to communicate ideas to an audience via a printed page. So your first book will be better the later you leave it (unlike, say music, where your first lesson will start from nothing whether you’re 7 or 70). Big wow, you finished your first ever book. Join the club. Now don’t swan around your local Borders saying ‘Hello, I wrote this I’m a writer, I am you know, buy it!’ Go back alone to your room, and improve it, or write something new and better.

‘Manuscripts don’t burn.’

Hey Graham.

Sage advice from the front line there… The whole self-published thing does indeed seem a strange lure to many – it’s a psychology that I just can’t see. I remember the days of local self-published dudes coming in with their boxes of tat, and simply annoying everyone on site, spurred on by the one-in-a-million success (which might have happened just by emailing the manuscript to an agent instead of paying for publication).

But the quality factor is something I missed out on. The failures are, in many ways, a plus. You probably won’t succeed the first or second time. You need the failures to slap you into better shape, to focus you on development. It happens to everyone. And even when you *do* get published, it helps train you for dealing with any further criticism.

Vanity press by-passes all of this, and merely steers you down a path to being a poorer writer…

I appreciate your effort on writing this blog entry. Those points will not get anyone published since publishing involves a different process. However, those steps can basically pump up any published book. The steps that you have mentioned in your entry can perfectly increase web presence, and break the ice into limelight.

Sincerely, | You have the book…We have the Marketing Resources.

BookWhirl: surprised at your bizarre response, but then I saw you were a marketing company – do you honestly charge authors to tell them these things?

Presumably you don’t mean that vanity publishing will help your already-published book? Facebook group: no it won’t help much at all. Facebook is like a second email – you’re still spamming people and annoying them. By all means if you’re established let a group form around you, but you won’t sell many books off the back of it. Twittering your work? Not in the real world when you want to shift more than a dozen books. Twitter can be used hugely effectively in other ways, but not that one.


Not sure. Having two significant authors prepared to give cover quotes probably got his attention though (we can ask him one day) and that wouldn’t have happened without having gone as far down the self-publishing route as producing some ARCs.

To my mind, the most important thing anyone has said here (in terms of advice to budding authors who want a mainstream publishing contract anyway) is what Scott said: 3-5 years of consistent work. Even if you can do something to draw lots of attention to yourself, you need to be able to reliably deliver good consistent content.

More extensive discussion at:

I strongly disagree with Point #5. Self-publishing is NOT vanity purblishing. I’ve successfully self-published two novels that actually made money for me, put me in demand as a speaker at dozens of locations, and impressed an agent to take me on for my next novel. I used professionals for both the editing and the cover work. One of my novels qualified for judging for the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve used professionals for editing and cover art. I really resent your term that this was “vanity” publishing. I probably showed more professional expertise in my books than many “mainstream” publishing firms.

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