Tackling this enormous subject is highly problematic and every publisher will have their own views and advice. I can’t promise to have everything answered here, but this will provide a start on what I hope is a successful journey for you. It may be arduous, so be forewarned.
Basics for Beginners
One of the questions publishers are asked most frequently is: How can I get my book published? Many publishers have bruises to show from the manuscripts poked into them at conferences and festivals, still, jesting aside, this is an understandable feature of writers simply not knowing how to get attention at the right time, in the right place, and with the right person. This is a big topic, a big baggy topic: How do you get published? In this article, I’m going to explore literary publishing, but much of what is outlined below could work well for other books.
We have to start somewhere, let’s start with some Don’ts
- Don’t approach people through social media – it’s a frivolous, capricious, evanescent media
- Don’t use public meetings, workshops and especially parties, to pitch your work
- Don’t pitch an unwritten work (if you only have an idea or a chapter, finish the book)
- Don’t pitch too early, make sure you have everything ready – from evidence of skills and support, to interest and engagement
But Don’ts are boring, so let’s add some Dos – these are the precursors to getting your work into the hands of an editor:
Skills. Do perfect your own skills and, especially, your completed manuscript
Reading. Do read widely among contemporary books to see where your work might fit (you may think, How the heck will my reading new books get me published – well, it will show you what readers are buying)
Relationships. Do actively build relationships with people in all parts of the book trade (i.e. volunteer for literature festivals, for writing organisations, for bookshops)
Critical feedback. Do join writers’ workshops, attend writing groups and, if it’s right for you, build your skills by attending short courses and consider a Creative Writing MA. No publisher requires you to have qualifications as a writer, still less to pay money to obtain such qualifications – but a creative writing course may build your personal skills, experience and contacts very effectively.
This article will provide you with some context in considering how this complex and, at times, bewildering process works. It won’t provide all the answers or all the information, but it will give you some things to consider about choosing a traditional route or self-publishing your work. Either route may be right for you. You might think of this as publishing with a team or publishing without one. Choose the team route, and you will find everyone around you has expertise, a role and a part to play in making your book succeed. A book is a significant financial investment that has to deliver profit.
Traditional publishing is finding work that:
- Has a recognisable market that people in the book trade will (or can) find profitable
- Has a market large enough to warrant commercial investment (however that may be constructed)
- Has contemporary resonance (remember that fashion is fickle and books and genres have their moment in the sun)
- Is by a writer capable of being published now and in the future (i.e. you have the skills – including interpersonal skills, tenacity and professionalism needed to develop)
- Is brilliantly written, with a deeply engaging story (or stories)
Most publishing fails in some way; it fails more often than it succeeds. Most books fail commercially. Those that do not, carry the list of many publishers, large and small. The scale can be rather surprising: one book may support an entire list. It’s important to understand that publishers become very experienced in seeing what won’t make them money, much more than what will – for publishing is a sophisticated form of gambling and a futures market that many beside the publisher wish to influence. It is unpredictable and mercurial, yet it is often based on extraordinary degrees of consultation, debate and judgement. Will psychological thrillers be the big sellers in 2022, or will it be treatises on self-medication, will it be stories of anxiety and persecution or sixteenth-century sewing? The future is the vacuum of hopes; the present, the graveyard of dreams.
In this respect, a commissioning editor taking on a book experiences a mix of commercial constraints, revenue expectations, cultural desires, hopes and dreams and a few cuts and bruises. Each editor will want to balance their list with a range of books, spreading their risks across a given area of expertise. An editor will be judged on whether their list has delivered a return, or if their choices have merely contributed to the costs of the business. An editor operates in an organisational context and their choices will be scrutinised by colleagues from publicity, sales and marketing, and the executive, to arrive at a view on whether a book can be turned into a success. The key difference with traditional versus self-publishing rests in this matrix of professional concern and commercial traction.
I’ll add one lonely bullet point here:
Data history. I’ll put this here, as a feature of all publishing and bookselling is analysis of the evidence of sales from business information companies like Nielsen. If you have previously been published, an editor and the sales team (and eventually a bookseller) will be looking at the evidence of sales from your last publication, and the sales trajectory of your overall work.
Walls of Pragmatism
Many publishers refuse to accept submissions. Why is this? It seems stupid. In an age of walls and borders, it’s no surprise that publishers have them, too.
It is one component of the defensive nature of list building. Something of value is made through curation, and that involves leaving out as much as including in. If the barriers to the list are thin, then a publishing team can quickly be inundated with material that is unsuitable – who has time in their busy week to scrutinise 100 or more submissions?
Some writers believe that a closed list is missing out on a potential wealth of sensational books, including theirs. The fact is that great books do find their way in. They climb over the walls, and they achieve this through a wide range of means.
Before we explore those ways to engage with a publisher, let’s consider what might get some attention:
Does your book match the list? Number one in any editor’s mind. So many submissions – 99% – are simply the wrong book for the publisher. Do not send your memoir to a fiction publisher. Do not send your tetralogy of off-world robot pirates to a publisher of translated Latin classics. Understanding a list is the first hurdle. Build your experience of a list by reading it, not naming names, but seriously engaging with it.
Be known. Publishing is very much about taking a writer on as much as taking on a specific book. Once the publisher has invested, they will want to nurture their investment; unless both parties had it wrong and the book did not have a sufficient audience – remember that publishing is not charity
Be investible. This relates to your skills in the round. How you handle the editorial and production process, how you work with publicists, whether you are timely and professional, presentable and engaging and passionate about your work and your readers
Know your market. This is manifest by your experience of the books you have read and admire by living writers. If you cannot imagine who would want to read your book and pay money for it, then no editor will help you – be able to articulate the broad area you are working in and what you hope to achieve
Remember, the business of a publisher is readers. This might seem trite, but the publisher is an expert in audiences. If you are rejected, it’s simply that the publisher cannot see their customers currently match your work – you don’t buy great shoes from a baker
The Bolted Door is Loose
If you’ve got this far, you have done well. The context can be dull. You can ignore it, but if you do, the context will probably ignore you back. You can suggest it be reinvented, yet we wouldn’t expect you to reinvent 600 years of customs and practice in one lifetime.
All of the above: the presentation of the work, the presentation of you, your track record, prospects, and those answers to every barrier and suspicion an editor can bring to bear, can all be mediated through a literary agent. Yet all the concerns listed here, will also apply to why a literary agent would take you on, too. Finding an agent may be as vexing as finding a publisher.
Let’s look at how people do get past the barriers and into the hands of an editor
Agencies. The Arts Council, the British Council, often feature and support unpublished writers and, beyond their own efforts, may support further literary agencies that help develop writers and find them an audience
Agents. A good agent will know a publisher’s list well, what the publisher can afford and what they can do for you and your work. They may know several publishers who would love your work and they may even construct a bidding war – quite often, it’s a begging war
Anthologies. Whether they be thematic works, celebrations, political or social commentary, or annual reviews – an anthology is the perfect place to be seen and publishers often pay attention to the talent that may be revealed
Blogging and vlogging. It may be the story of your novel in development, or the broader context of your writing life – who you are reading, thinking about, researching and exploring – a blog can provide a window on you and your work
Competitions. Writing competitions can reveal talent in development and an editor with their nose to the ground may watch what happens in competitions
Direct experience. Many editors teach at workshops, talk at conferences and festivals. Some even teach writing at universities – i.e. we already work with you. If we do, then you already have your opening
Enquiring. The doors may be closed, but if you are particularly confident your work fits an editor’s list then writing a letter outlining why you feel this, offering details of your profile, the essential compelling nature of the book, its story and the audience may open a door
Performance. If you regularly perform your work, you can build an audience ahead of publication, finding events that allow you to read work – perhaps stories, extracts or specially-written performance pieces, can attract editorial interest and build an audience
Prizes and awards. Literary prizes can often provide a springboard to editorial interest and many publishers will be watching longlists, shortlists and winners to see what talent is around and who might fit the list
Recommendation. Many routes in come from other writers. As in all walks of life, who you know can open doors, and when it comes to experienced writers talking to an editor, this may gain you entry
Relationships. Here we are again with the issue of relationships. The people you work with, the work you do in the book trade, where you have volunteered or freelanced, can all have an impact. The world of books is very small, word simply gets around, and editors are curious by nature and want to know who is making waves
Reviewing. Building a critical reputation around the books you love will almost certainly introduce you to publicists within a publishing business, yet beyond this, your reviews of writers may spark the interest of an editor
Running events. Running regular events featuring writers you admire can create many opportunities, forge the relationships we have listed above and build those important interpersonal skills for handling an audience
Showcase or roadshow. Whether it be a presentation of work on a Creative Writing course or the result of a prize or competition, or the developmental work of a literary agency in your region – showcases of talent can be a terrific way to draw in publishing interest
Social media. Maintaining a window on your writing life through social media can allow editors to see what you are working on, if you share friends it provides tangible evidence of those relationships we have listed above
Submissions. Some publishers do actually take them, and the simplest route is to match your work to their specific guidelines and windows of opportunity – the doors may often be shut, but sometimes, they briefly open
Volunteering and work experience. It does no harm at all to discover more about publishing by working with publishers
Your own writer’s website. A website can be a great window on your work, yet the audience for it will almost certainly be derived from its links to social media – if you can steer interest from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter towards your website, you can build an experience that will attract editors
In almost every case here, what you are looking for are moments of collision, moments of discovery, based on a developing reputation. In spite of all this, everything, every single thing, will come down to the essential character of your finished, perfected manuscript and how well it fits a publisher’s list. We wish you every success.
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Chris Emery is a poet and director of Salt. He has published three collections of poetry, a writer’s guide, an anthology of art and poems, and edited editions of Emily Brontë, Keats and Rossetti. His work has been widely published in magazines and anthologised, most recently in Identity Parade: New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe). He is a contributor to The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing, edited by David Morley and Philip Neilsen. He lives in Cromer, North Norfolk, with his wife and children.