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which is a bit different from my usual ones about writing and reading – it’s in answer to a question a lot of new and unpublished writers have asked me.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.

40 thoughts on “How to get published

  1. Really great advice, Chris. The only thing we cannot really be sure of ourselves is whether our books are good, or if not that, at least marketable. I see a huge amount of what I personally think is rubbish (over written, over described, over emotional with irritating repetition and faulty grammar) being published by the big publishers, so someone thinks it’s good. So much of what we consider makes a good book is subjective, isn’t it? I have several books on my shelves that are acknowledged as fine literature, but I have not enjoyed them and would not recommend them to others. Test readers can really be helpful, but in the end it’s down to what people like and want to read.

    • Yes writing is subjective – but not at every level. I believe there is good and bad in writing in just the same way as there is in everything else we create. I suppose one acid test is – does the book do its job properly? You know a bad chair if it collapses when you sit on it. Working out whether a book is good or bad is not always easy as that. But a publisher will not hesitate to turn you down if they don’t think your work is up to scratch so I think if you are serious about getting published you owe it to yourself to make your book as good as it can be.

  2. Ditto all the above. I also think one of the most important boks I refer to is The Writer’s Market. No point in writing a brilliant novel and submitting to publishers who will not be interested. Really enjoying your blogs, by the way

  3. love this article! I recently did a work experience at a small publishing company and in their case they did have to pick between a number of different manuscripts, and the ones they regularly picked were specific to their company! So very sound advice!

    • Thanks! I think all publishers have loads of books to choose from, it really is a buyer’s market as far as they are concerned. So you do make it easier for yourself if the publisher you approach has a track record of publishing books similar to yours.

  4. Really spot on advice! I actually found rejection slips helpful! They made me revisit my first novel and see I should never have sent it – I was learning all the time. My two humble tips… Persevere and read dialogue aloud – in private….

    • I think that’s great advice about reading aloud – I’d go further than dialogue and say read all of it! The sound of the words and the way they fit together is so important and you can hear that best if you say it out loud. As you suggest, it’s probably best not to let anyone hear you do it though!

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  6. Loved your tips on traditional publishing! I have some insight into electronic publishing to share since you mentioned it above. Ruby Mountain Press is a publishing company committed to publishing selected, high quality, nonfiction and fiction books. We will have a blog post out soon about how to get started with e-book publishing, how to distribute your book, and which formats to use. Feel free to check it out if you are interested in pursuing another avenue of publication! Communicate with us on Hope this may be helpful for you, and I’ll look forward to talking more with you! I’m enjoying your blogs!

    • The very best of luck with your venture! I’m sure it will be of interest to many authors. If you have a traditional publisher they do of course put out an electronic version as well as hard copy – my publisher Skylight Press has my book out on Kindle. But the competition to find places with a traditional publisher is intense and I am sure many would be authors will be interested in the alternative route to publication you offer.

      • Thank you! I appreciate the conversation about publishing and believe the comments shared here will help a lot of people. We’ll look into Skylight too, and best of luck back to you!

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  9. Hi Chris, thanks for pointing me to this post – very illuminating – I think, its all about, write – edit, edit, edit and try, try hard, try harder! 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on Bookin' It and commented:
    Some sound advice on Traditional Publishing, for those of you who might be considering this route. Some of this is good advice, even for those of us who have chosen to self-publish.

  11. Great article, Chris.

    I’m published by a small, indie digital company here in Edinburgh called Thistle In The Kiss & it is great after years of submissions & rejections to be published. It seems to me that the challenges then change!

    My book is an ebook, which is not a route I ever thought about before it happened. I want to see my book in print, in a bookshop, so that is the next challenge….

    Thanks for the article, great read which I will certainly encourage others to read.

  12. I think that new writers should be aware, though, that publication by an indie press (small publisher) is a completely different kettle of fish from traditional publishing (usually via an agent, and with the Big 5 or 6). You’re unlikely to sell any more than with self-publishing, will have to promote just as you would if self-published, and the standard of editing and proofreading is often questionable. Having read and reviewed many, many books published by indie companies (which can be as small as one individual working from home), I’d advise writers to read a couple of the books already published by them, to check out the standard. Too many new writers enter the industry knowing little about it, and do not understand the massive difference between a book deal with a major publisher, and getting taken on by a one man band.

    • Very true. Though it’s also fair to say that even a big publisher is no guarantee of sales. And authors need to promote their own work whoever they are with.
      I’ve worked with two different small publishers now and the advantages, for me, are that I don’t have to deal directly with the technical stuff such as editing, proofing or the cover. I don’t have to pay for printing etc. I have also had some help and support with marketing from the publishers I have worked with, but this is hit and miss and depends on who you are with.
      Perhaps the biggest advantage for me has been having someone to work with and share the responsibilities – a partner if you like. Though I appreciate that, for some authors, that might be the last thing they want and they would rather control everything themselves.
      It’s very true you have to be careful who you work with – just as they are careful who they take on, it has to be a two way relationship which works for everyone. And, like many authors, I have turned down offers from publishers because I didn’t feel they would be right for me or my work.

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