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How To Get Published: An Overview

Can I send my manuscript straight to a publisher?

This entirely depends on what you’re writing.

For a work of non-fiction, select the publisher you consider most appropriate for your subject and readership (see listings of book publishers in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, taking care to note those that do not accept unsolicited manuscripts). It’s worth consulting the website of the publisher you are interested in as this may include detailed guidelines for submitting material. If it's not clear from their website, make initial contact and ask if they will accept unsolicited material. If they do, ask what they would like to see: a proposal, a synopsis and the first few chapters, or a complete manuscript.

If your work is fiction, you will stand a better chance of being published if you have a literary agent. Indeed, many publishers of fiction will only consider material submitted through an agent. A literary agent will approach the publisher they think is most appropriate for your work and try to sell it to them on your behalf. 

Some imprints of publishing houses or imprints do open unsolicited manuscript submissions for a period of time. However if you wish to be traditionally published you will need a literary agent. 

What do literary agents do?

A good literary agent will have a thorough understanding of the market and will know the best publisher to approach for a particular book. He or she will also be experienced in negotiating an advantageous commercial deal, as well as looking after the client’s best interests when negotiating a contract.

Not all agents are the same so it is important to thoroughly research which agents you will be submitting your work to. After all, this will hopefully be the beginning of a long relationship! Some agents are more hands on editorially with their authors so if you feel you would benefit from more editorial and creative support, then be sure to look for the agents which state this in their bios. 

How can I sell my book to an agent?

From the outset, always be professional when dealing with a literary agent. Consult the listings for literary agents in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and research which agent to approach. Phone or email to check who you should address your submission to, and whether there are any particular ways that your submission should be made (if this isn’t stated in the listing).

Nowadays, most literary agents prefer to receive submissions via email, and you can find the relevant email address on each agency’s website. Some may still opt to have submission packages sent in the post, but be sure to double check this. 

You need to include the first three chapters (10,000 words) of your manuscript, a synopsis of your work and a covering letter. In this letter you will need to give a short pitch of your manuscript, word count, intended audience/genre and include any other relevant information. For example, say if and why you are uniquely placed and qualified to write the book, and whether you can prove that there is a market for it. 

Literary agent Philippa Milnes-Smith says: ‘Think of the whole thing as you would a job application, for which you would expect to prepare thoroughly in advance. You might only get one go at making your sales pitch to an agent. Don’t mess it up by being anything less than thorough.’

How long can I expect to wait?

Be prepared to wait for a decision on your work. Editors and literary agents are very busy people, so be patient when waiting for a response. A literary agent may take anything from a few days (this is exceptional), to several months to respond to a submitted manuscript.

Publishers have many considerations to take into account before a book is acquired. After an editor has read a manuscript, key people in the sales, marketing, publicity and other departments all have to be convinced that the book is right for their list and will sell. A response may therefore take some time.

If you haven’t had a response after a couple of months or so, send a polite letter of enquiry. 

What if I get rejected?

Publishing is a big business and is competitive more than ever: editors and literary agents receive hundreds of manuscripts every day. So the harsh reality of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or literary agent is that you have to be prepared for rejection.

Almost all successful authors have had their manuscripts rejected at some time, so you are in good company. Both publishers and literary agents acknowledge that potential authors have to be really dedicated (with a dash of good luck) in order to get their work published.

Publishers have many considerations to take into account before a book is acquired. Getting all the key people in the various departments to agree to acquire a book is no mean feat.

If you think that your manuscript could be improved, improve it. Submit only your best writing. Check that your material is presented well and always bear in mind that both literary agents and publishers will be asking themselves the question: “Will it sell?”

Study the listings of book publishers and/or literary agents in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and approach only those which state that they deal in your type of book, and approach them in the way they prefer. If you really want to be published, be prepared to persevere!

What is the most important advice for an unpublished writer?

The best piece of advice for any writer is: write better. Be critical of everything you write and read. Push your abilities as hard as you can. Good writing is more likely to get noticed.

What are agent’s fees?

Literary agents make their income entirely as a result of commission on sales of their clients’ work. Generally, they charge around 15% commission on sales in the UK and around 20% on sales to the USA and in translation, and the latter percentage is often shared with a sub-agent in the relevant country. See the listings of literary agents in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook for the commission charged by each agency.

How do royalties and advances work?

Royalties are expressed as a percentage of a book’s retail price or price received. The rate for royalties will be set out in the agreement between the author and the publisher. Royalty percentages vary according to what is agreed for book sales, serial deals, film rights, permissions, etc. The publisher’s finance department keeps accurate records of these so that the author and agent (if the author has one) may see when the book earns back its advance.

An advance is calculated according to the expected initial print run and retail price. It is paid when the book is acquired by the publisher, and on delivery or publication of the book. When sufficient royalties have been earned to equal the advance the author (and agent) starts to earn additional income.

What is self-publishing?

Many highly respected contemporary and past authors have published their own works: Horace Walpole, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling and Lord Byron to name but a few. More recent examples include Susan Hill, Jill Paton Walsh and Timothy Mo. Self-publishing can be a valid form of business enterprise and can be done by anyone. Unless the output is for very limited distribution, the book should have an ISBN for any kind of credibility within the trade.

The self-publisher is in control of everything: what to publish, costings, editing, design, layout, choosing and dealing with the printer, the print run, marketing, publicity, sales, packing and delivery of the books. 

What is vanity publishing?

Mainstream publishers invest their own money in the entire publishing process, from editing the submitted manuscript to selling the end product, and they make their profit from the sale of the book.

In contrast, vanity publishers require an up-front payment to produce a book, and their profit comes from this payment. In his article, Vanity publishing, Johnathon Clifford says ‘The majority of booksellers and library suppliers are loath to handle vanity books, and few reviewers are willing to consider a book published in this way.’

Vanity publishers do not usually have marketing support. It is worth noting that because self-publishing has become more acceptable, some vanity publishers may try to pass themselves off as self-publishers.

What is the difference between a book publisher and a book packager?

Book packagers create illustrated books on behalf of publishers, often working from conception to supplying the final files for the printer or even the printed copies. They supply the total package of editorial, design, art direction and production, some of which is carried out by in-house staff and other aspects done by freelances. By working with a book packager a publisher doesn’t have to worry about the overheads involved but has control over the production of books.

Packagers often specialise in particular subject areas, such as arts and crafts or children’s books, and so have specialist writers and other freelances known to them who can be brought in for particular projects.

What is the potential for writing as a freelance for magazines?

There are well over 8,000 mainstream magazines published in Britain and many hundreds of alternative publications. Magazine publishing is big business: research suggests that weekly consumer magazines are read by 39% of adults and monthlies by 48%.

Freelancing for magazines will normally involve writing features, so it’s important from the outset to have a clear idea about the different journalistic genres. Each will have its own writing style, research strategy, tone, and place in the publication.

How do I know that my ideas won’t be stolen if I submit them for a possible article?

If a publication steals ideas submitted by one freelance and gives them to another to follow up there is no protection in law against this type of theft. While written work can be copyrighted, ideas can occur to two people at the same time.

One solution is to provide only a bare minimum of background detail before the idea is accepted. Personal contact with the commissioning editor also helps create mutual trust and confidence. The best solution is to prove your abilities to the publication with a series of stories, sent on spec or to commission, so they will be concerned not to lose your work to other competitors. Keep a copy of all submitted work.

However, if you should read an article that contains a fact which you have discovered and no-one else has published, there could be infringement of copyright if the author who uses it fails to attribute it to you.

Is a piece of writing copyrighted automatically?

Anything that you write is your copyright, assuming that it is not copied from the work of someone else, as soon as you have written it on paper or recorded it on the disk of a computer or on tape, or broadcast it. It is not essential for the work to carry the © symbol, although its inclusion may act as a warning and help to stop another writer from plagiarising it.

If I receive an advance, can I divide it between two tax years?

Yes. There used to be a system known as ‘spreading’ but in 2001 a new system called ‘averaging’ was introduced. This enables writers (and others engaged in the creation of literary, dramatic works or designs) to average the profits of two or more consecutive years if the profits for one year are less than 75% of the profits of the highest year. This relief can apply even if the work takes less than 12 months to create. Both the spreading relief and the averaging relief allow the writer to avoid the higher rates of tax which might arise if the income in respect of a number of years’ work were all to be concentrated in a single year.

What is an ISBN?

ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. An ISBN is a 13-digit product number used by publishers, booksellers and librarians for ordering, listing and stock control purposes. It enables them to identify a specific edition of a specific title in a specific format from a particular publisher. Each ISBN consists of 5 elements with each section being separated by spaces or hyphens. Three of the five elements may be of varying length:

1. Prefix element – currently this can only be either 978 or 979. It is always 3 digits in length

2. Registration group element – this identifies the particular country, geographical region, or language area participating in the ISBN system. This element may be between 1 and 5 digits in length

3. Registrant element - this identifies the particular publisher or imprint. This may be up to 7 digits in length

4. Publication element – this identifies the particular edition and format of a specific title. This may be up to 6 digits in length

5. Check digit – this is always the final single digit that mathematically validates the rest of the number. It is calculated using a Modulus 10 system with alternate weights of 1 and 3.