How to get published

Here’s a post which is a bit different from my usual ones about writing and reading – it’s in answer to a question a lot of new and unpublished writers have asked me. The question is: ‘How do you get published?’

I don’t just get asked this on social media – I get asked in everyday life too. In fact, in the next few weeks I have two speaking engagements coming up where, as well as reading from my novel and answering questions about that, I’m also due to be asked about my ‘road to publication.’

So I thought I’d share what little wisdom I have on the subject with you. My credentials for doing so are straightforward – I do have a novel out, it’s published by Skylight Press. You can find Song of the Sea God here in the UK and here in the USA and read the first few pages, see if it’s your kind of thing.

Just to be clear – I’m talking about traditional publishing in this post, not self-publishing or indie publishing which I know is very popular these days. I haven’t any experience of self-publishing so I don’t know the ins and outs – I’m sure there are many other places you can go to for advice on that.

So here are my top tips:

Write a good book
That’s my first piece of advice – and I don’t mean it to sound facetious. Of course, everyone who sets out to find a publisher believes they have a good book, otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time. But I’d remind you that, as a first time writer, all you have is your work. You have no reputation, no contacts, no track record, just that book – so are you sure it’s the best it can be? Go on – take another look at it – rewrite it again, it can’t hurt. Maybe show it to a couple of people whose judgement you trust and canvas their opinion on its strengths and weaknesses.

One thing my publisher has told me is that they get snowed under with a a great deal of material which is simply not good enough to have a realistic chance of being published – make sure your manuscript is one of the ones which is!

Do you need an agent?
Well I haven’t got one, and I do have a publisher, so I guess not. The way I see it is that, at my level, the main purpose of having an agent would be to help me find a publisher for my book so, if I can find a publisher on my own, then I don’t need one.

I’m sure there are many advantages to having an agent and perhaps in the future I will have one, who knows. You can send your work to agents directly so it’s probably worth approaching a few to see how it goes – you may get lucky, be snapped up by an agent who will then sell your book to a massive publisher for a huge advance. We travel in hope don’t we? And unless you apply to them you’ll never know. There are lists of agents all over the internet if you Google for them – many accept email submissions.

Can I approach publishers without an agent?
Many of the big publishers will only accept submissions from authors through an agent – which is why many unpublished writers are so keen to find an agent. Agents have become gate-keepers for the major publishers it seems to me, acting as their readers. The whole thing can feel a bit of a closed shop – the big publishers will only speak to you through an agent and the agents only take on a very few first time writers each year.

But the good news is that many smaller publishers will take submissions directly from first time authors and these are the ones you need to look for – typically they will be the smaller ones, independent of the big conglomerates. My experience has been that these small presses are much more approachable than either agents or major publishers. They tend to be run by enthusiasts who really care about the books more than anything else – just the same as you do.

Where can I find a list of smaller publishers?
Google for them for starters – there are lists all over the place. But I would say – decide first what you are looking for – look for someone who will be a good fit for your book, that’s more important than you might think. Publishers are spoilt for choice when it comes to manuscripts, as far as they are concerned it’s a buyer’s market. They are almost looking for reasons to turn you down as they can’t possibly accept everything. So if your book is a close fit to what they do publish then you have immediately pulled a little ahead of the field.

Another good place to look for publishers is on Twitter lists. Find the Twitter feed of a publisher who might suit you – then look at the lists they are on. More often than not you will find that the other members of these lists are other similar publishers who you can Google and submit to in the way they advise on their website.

What do they ask for?
Agents and publishers typically ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first 50 pages, or two or three chapters, of your book. Check the requirements on their website though as some vary. I might do another post on how to submit later.

Should I apply to just one agent or publisher at a time?
Nah – some of the agents grumble that it’s not cricket people applying to lots at once. They would like you to apply only to them, wait two months for them to turn you down and then apply to someone else. But frankly the odds are stacked so highly against you that you’d be a fool to worry too much about that. I’ve never heard a small publisher grumble about multiple submissions.

What happens next?
Mostly what happens is that you get rejected. They can reject your book simply by ignoring your query, or by sending you a form letter, or occasionally by scribbling or emailing you an encouraging note. It’s much rarer for them to ask for the complete manuscript but if they do they will probably reject it anyway. I’m not trying to be off-putting here, but it’s best to know.

I keep getting rejected – what should I do?
Keep on keeping on. As Samuel Goldwyn once said: ‘The harder I work the luckier I get.’ As I’ve said before, I could paper my house with rejection letters I‘ve had over the years – but I have had my successes too. And when I look up at my book shelves, there is my novel staring back at me – which makes all the hard work worth while.

To download or not to download

Recently my book – which has been out in paperback for a few weeks now, was turned into a download. You can now get it on Kindle here.

As well as the old-fashioned dead tree way here.

I’m not sure how I feel about it – pleased still of course, that the book is out at all, that I have a publisher in Skylight Press out there doing their best for it and caring about it as much as I do. But in terms of the fancy new Kindle version – how do I feel about that? It’s the future I know, no doubt at all about that. It would take someone who was a bit of a Luddite these days to be a download denier – and that’s certainly not me.

So I’m glad to have the book out in this format – and I certainly see the advantages of it. The portability of the devices, the almost instant access to a whole library of books.

I also think that anything which not only preserves, but reinvigorates reading and the novel has to be a good thing. It has to be a living, breathing art form, the moment it lapses into becoming a museum piece then it’s doomed.

Finally, I like the way that downloads, and that means Kindle right at the moment, have already led to a publishing revolution allowing authors who do not have a publisher to take their destiny in their own hands and do it themselves. This reminds me of the early days of punk rock – or of indie bands. The self-sufficiency they had, the DIY ethic, led to some brilliant music and a voice for people who would not otherwise have been heard.

The same thing is happening in fiction now I think – different voices, ones which might not have made it into print, have managed to side-step the publishing system and find a platform for their work.

So two cheers for downloads then. But let’s not (ahem) write-off books.

Let me say firstly, that the dream for me, the one I’d had since childhood, was to have a book published – one I could hold in my hand, put on my bookshelf – one that had the feel and smell and yes, romance, of a book. I didn’t dream of a download.

But that might be more to do with the fact I have grown up with books. A new generation may well be following hard on my heals who dream of switching on their Kindle, swiping their fingers across the screen and having their name pop up on the illuminated display.

Times change after all. But my key worry isn’t about the downloads themselves – more about what they can lead to. Once things are available on digital format it seems to me that their value starts to plummet.

Look at music – digital piracy has decimated that industry. Look at movies, going the same way. There used to be a newspaper industry – I used to work in it. Now because so much news is available free on the internet the market has set the value of news at near zero.

I don’t want the same fate to befall printed fiction.

Already I am hearing horror stories from fellow authors about their downloads being pirated and stolen. Most authors are paid little for their work even when the system is working – if it breaks down they are in real trouble.

So I’m delighted to have my book out on Kindle – thrilled by it – and I really value those readers who choose to buy Song of the Sea God in that way.

But my hope is that the download revolution doesn’t issue in an era when books are thought of as ‘freeware’ available to all without any payment to those who have worked hard to produce them.