Which publishing are you after: traditional or self-publishing? Many authors will want to choose traditional publishing, meaning you will:
want a major publisher to pay you for the right to publish your work;
want that publisher to invest £15-£50,000 in all aspects of your work (editorial assistance, copy editing, production, warehousing and transport, sales, publicity and marketing);
want to secure national distribution for your books, not just online;
want to sell your work in multiple formats (hardback, paperback, e-book, audio, etc.);
want to sell a wide variety of rights (film rights, translation rights, etc.);
want a decent chance at making a go of being a professional writer.
If your work is more suitable for distribution to friends and family, or if it’s on a very specific subject (e.g. A Manual of Beekeeping) and you’re very well connected in that area (e.g. you run the Australian Beekeeping Association), then self-publishing may be more suitable.
This guide assumes that your interest lies in traditional publishing. If you want to go for self-publishing, then our self-publishing guide is what you’re after.
We like Matador (the best conventional self-publishing company in the UK), and of course, Amazon Kindle (for e-publishing).
Getting signed by a major commercial publisher isn’t easy. If you want the grim facts, here they are.
Almost no major publisher will look at new work unless that work is sent via a literary agent, meaning you definitely need an agent.
And agents are very, very selective. A rough rule of thumb is that a good agency will take on 1 in every 1,000 manuscripts that come their way. That means it’s not enough if your manuscript is promising, or good, or even very good. It must be dazzling. Nothing less will do.
If you get an agent, you have an excellent chance of being published, but though your odds are now good, they’re not 100%. It still all depends on how much editors at major publishing houses love your work.
Because there are more people writing now than in the past, and because publishers have been publishing fewer titles, getting published is harder now than ever.
That’s the bad news, so let’s balance it with the good.
A good literary agency will look at and consider every manuscript they receive. It’s a core part of their business.
What’s more, nearly all agents are on the lookout for outstanding new work – because they know perfectly well that all the bestselling authors of today were total unknowns once.
New books by debut authors are published all the time. Publishers don’t care if you’re young, or if you’re beautiful, or if you’re going to look good on TV. All they care about it that your manuscript is amazing. If it is, they’ll want to buy it.
Some books by unknown authors do well. Ask J.K. Rowling.
Getting ready to contact literary agents
Most manuscripts sent to literary agents aren’t yet in a saleable state. The most common issues are as follows.
The concept is not marketable. Loads of people create manuscripts that just aren’t the kind of things that will make money for publishers. A literary novel where nothing happens for 300 pages. A ‘comedy’ where all the jokes belong to some 1970s sitcom. If you want to write just for the sake of it, that’s okay, but publishers will only publish work if they think it will make them money. You need to make sure you are reading the market correctly.
The writing style isn’t strong enough. If you aren’t careful about the way you use language, no one is going to buy your manuscript. You are trying to sell your skill with words, so you can’t afford to be sloppy.
The story isn’t strong enough. It’s no use writing beautifully if your story doesn’t hang together, or has patches where the tension seems to go slack. You are competing against hundreds of other writers, so you have to make sure that you start strongly and continue that until the end.
Your manuscript is poorly presented. If a manuscript is poorly presented, it almost always means its writer hasn’t taken care with other things. An agent will be perfectly justified in rejecting your work on the grounds of careless spelling, weak punctuation, etc.
If you’re unsure on anything, your manuscript mightn’t be ready to sell, so get help to be sure you grab agents’ limited attention. Your options are:
Go on editing the manuscript yourself, if you sense there’s more you could do.
Check your presentation. Our guide will tell you what you need.
Get manuscript feedback. You’ll get a written report from a professional editor, telling you what’s working, what’s not working, and how to fix what isn’t yet right. All our editors are writers themselves, and we have a fabulous track record at helping people get their work published. Find out more about critiquing.
Give it time. Don’t rush it. Don’t send to agents until you’ve had a chance to put it down, leave it a few weeks, then give it a cold read all the way through. Almost certainly, you’ll find bits that need to be changed.
Finding the right literary agents
Before you start contacting agents, you need to know what you are doing. Agents:
are salespeople, their job being to sell unpublished manuscripts to publishers;
know all the major publishers and their editors, i.e. when they come to sell your work, they’ll contact the right person at the right place;
have their finger on the pulse of the market, knowing what’s selling and what isn’t, so if an agent advises you to edit your work, then listen;
may be there throughout your career;
will charge you a commission of 15% on any money they make for you, a good agent being worth every penny of that and then some.
You also need to know what agents are not. They are not:
on the lookout for potential because they need manuscripts ready to sell;
in it for love because they need to make money, which means that your work needs to feel sellable;
there to get your work into bookshops, since that’s what publishers do;
there to promote you or your work, since that’s also what publishers do;
going to make a single penny out of you unless they can sell your manuscript, so they really have to believe in it and that means it has to be excellent.
Agents are also nearly always generalists, not specialists. If you write for children or young adults, then you should get an agent who specialises in this area. Otherwise, most agents will handle both fiction and non-fiction, commercial and literary work. If they love your writing, they’ll take you on.
Preparing your agent submission pack
Don’t send your entire manuscript to agents – they don’t want it. Here’s what to send.
Your covering letter. A short letter, no more than one page, that briefly introduces your book (1-2 paragraphs) and yourself (1-2 sentences, unless your own experience is highly relevant to the subject matter of the book, in which case you can talk about yourself a bit more). That’s all you need. Don’t waffle on. More on covering letters.
The first three chapters of your manuscript. Or about 10,000 words all told, which might be as little as one chapter, or as many as 5-6 if your chapters are very short. It can vary according to agencies’ guidelines, so be sure to always check, and make sure your manuscript is properly presented. If in doubt, check our guide.
Preparing to wait
Although agents do want to take on excellent work by new authors, it’s seldom their highest priority – after all, they have a whole host of existing clients to take care of. So be patient. As a rough guide, you might get a response in 2 weeks, but 6-8 would be perfectly typical.
When literary agents reply
When you do hear back, you may hear one of three things.
A standard form rejection letter. By far the most common response that most writers get (unfortunately).
A ‘nice’ rejection letter. Anything with a personal note from the agent counts as nice. It’s still a rejection, but it proves your work made a connection. There are some good things happening in your writing.
An invitation to send the rest of the manuscript. Needless to say, you accept any such invitation with alacrity.
If you are asked to send in your complete manuscript, then you need to do some more waiting. When you do hear back, you will hear one of three things.
I loved your work! I want to take you on as a client. At this point it would be appropriate to get drunk and kiss random passers-by.
I liked your work, but … If an agent comes back to you with some editorial reservations, then you probably want to do what you can to address those reservations, and take the revised manuscript back to the agent.
Sorry, but … A near miss, but wonderful encouragement that you’ve got this far.
Next steps and publication help
If an agent has taken you on, congratulations. You’re away.
If you’ve done all this, and haven’t succeeded, then don’t despair. Writing is hard. It’s hard to do at all, but it’s terribly hard to do it on your own and without expert help. We’re here to give you that help.
Our main service is to give honest and rigorous feedback on your work. Our aim is to help you make it so strong that agents and publishers can’t turn it down.
Just get in touch and if we can help, then we will.