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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Finding a Publisher for Your Novel

I've had a few queries recently from writers frustrated by their inability to get a publisher to look at their novel. The one below is typical:

You know, I think the one biggest need for the writing community is a primer on how to actually get printed. I have written four novels now. I have submitted one to several companies (with no answer), one to an agent (with no discernible activity), and have two waiting in the wings. It seems I can get no one to look at any of them.

How do you find a publisher that is willing to work with you? I've most often heard that "it's all in having the right contacts" but how do you establish those? I resist vanity press and don't know the first thing about web publishing. I just want someone to publish my books. I am very frustrated. Writing the book is by far the easiest part of the whole thing...


I do have a lot of sympathy with the frustration expressed here. For a new writer today (who isn't already a 'celebrity') even getting a publisher to look at your work is a challenge. For what it's worth, here are a few suggestions that may help overcome this problem.

1. Try a Range of Agents and Publishers


The old days when you were told to avoid multiple submissions are long gone - life is simply too short to wait for some lowest-of-the-low junior editor to pluck your manuscript out of his/her in-tray and condescend to read it.

For checking out publishers and their requirements, I particularly recommend the annual Writer's Market and Writer's Market UK. These are comprehensive guides to the US and UK markets respectively, and both list a range of publishers in other countries as well.

There are nowadays some great interactive websites where you can search for agents who handle the type of book you are writing, and read comments by other authors about their experiences with them. LitMatch and QueryTracker are two such sites I highly recommend.

And by the way - don't just limit yourself to the country you're in. Publishing is nowadays very much a multi-national industry. If you're a UK writer specialising in hard-boiled detective fiction, you may find you get a better reception from some US publishers. Or if you're an American author specialising in historical novels set in 19th century London, you could most certainly try some British agents and publishers as well.

2. Enter Writing Contests and Competitions

I can speak from personal experience here - winning a high-profile contest really can open doors for you. A few years ago I won a short story contest run by a top UK women's magazine. As part of my prize I was invited to an awards ceremony at London's Dorchester Hotel. I was seated with (among others) a BBC producer, a literary agent and a book publisher, all of whom were keen to find out what other literary gems I had in my locker. In many ways the contacts I made through winning that competition were more valuable to me than the prize itself.

3. Get Testimonials in Advance

Anything you can do to help your book stand out from the rest will help. And one way of doing this is to get 'testimonials' for your book from published authors and/or celebrities, which you can submit to an agent or publisher along with your manuscript. My course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days goes into some detail about this, incidentally.

4. Make Your Novel as Good as It Can Be

You really do need to ensure that your novel is as good as it can possibly be before you submit it.

If you know that grammar and spelling aren't your strong points, therefore, ask someone you trust to go through it for you, or pay a professional editor. In any event, there is a lot to be said for getting your work checked over by someone seeing it with fresh eyes.

Be sure, especially, that the opening pages of your novel grab the reader. The days of long, rambling introductions are long past. You need to capture readers' interest and attention in the first few pages, either with the quality of the writing or an exciting scenario (preferably both).

Don't assume that publishers will overlook a few little mistakes either - they won't. You are entering a highly competitive arena, and only your very best work will do if you hope to succeed.

5. Don't Expect It to Be Easy

Perhaps I'm stating the obvious here, but getting a novel published is not - and never has been - easy. Even J.K. Rowling had her first Harry Potter book rejected by twelve publishing houses before a then-small independent publisher called Bloomsbury decided to take a chance on it.

Neither does it necessarily get easier once you've been published. I was talking recently to my friend Jeff Phelps, the award-winning novelist and short story writer. He told me that he had just sent his latest novel to his publishers and received a reply showing polite interest but asking him to rewrite the entire book and then re-submit it (still with no guarantee it will be accepted). And Jeff is a meticulous writer, so I'm sure there was nothing wrong with the book stylistically.

Looking at it from a publisher's point of view, publishing a first novel from an 'unknown' writer is a huge gamble. Publishers know that most first novels lose money, though there is always the hope that, like J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel, one will succeed spectacularly. As an author, your task is to demonstrate to a potential publisher that your book has that added 'X factor' that will make it stand out. And publishers also want to see that you have the ability to write more books, preferably lots of them. Even if your first book fails to make money for them, then, hopefully your second or third may be the 'breakthrough' novel that catapults you into the big time.

6. Consider Self-Publishing

Self-publishing is not the same as vanity publishing. It just means you take the financial risk of publishing your book yourself.

Print-on-demand services such as Lulu.com allow you to publish your book yourself and only pay when an order is actually received, so the risk is far less than the traditional method of getting hundreds or even thousands of books printed in advance.

As a self-publisher, you will have to handle everything from design to publicity yourself (or pay someone to do it on your behalf). However, all the profits will go to you as well. And a growing number of books that were initially self published are subsequently picked up by mainstream publishers.

7. Use the Internet to Promote Yourself and Your Work

This is a huge topic, and I can't go into great detail about it here. But there are lots of ways you can use the net to raise your profile and generate interest in your book, both from readers and potential publishers.

Here's just one example: You could publish extracts from your novel on a blog or website. Indeed, some writers have put their entire books online. If publishers can see that your work is attracting interest from readers, it may provide the encouragement they need to offer you a contract. At the very least, it means your work is being read and enjoyed by others rather than gathering dust in your desk drawer.

Finally, though, I would say: persevere. If you believe in your work and are sure it is worth publishing, keep sending it out. Eventually there is a real chance that someone else, an agent or a publisher, will read it and agree with you.

Good luck, and enjoy your writing.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Ann Isik said...

Thanks for the extensive advice, Nick. I noticed especially the bit about not limiting oneself to "...- the country you're in. Publishing is nowadays very much a multi-national industry".

I agree. There are lots of writers' conferences in the US, for example, every year, where you can make a pitch to editors and agents vis-a-vis, by appointment. Okay, it's an expense (tax-deductible), risky, a long-shot for a first-timer, but just going indicates you're serious about your writing and there are all the 'networking' bonuses, workshops and ... fun! I'm hoping to get to a conference in the US next spring, even if I don't have my wip finished. I already know I'll meet up with some writers I've met 'by Internet'. Partners/family not participating in these conferences are made welcome at the hotel and conference meals, so it can be the family holiday too.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Many thanks, Ann. That's a great bit of advice. Of course, there are UK writers conferences as well (e.g. Swanwick), but AFAIK you don't get the chance to pitch to editors and agents there.

9:18 PM  

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