Advice on Getting Published from Someone Who Worked in Publishing
A Rough Guide to Literary Agents
How do you get published?
Write a good novel.
How do you get an agent?
Write a good novel.
But what about self-publishing?
Write. A. Good. Novel.
Write the best novel you can. Then make it better. Don’t even bother thinking about agents or publishers until you’re done.
Good to go? Ready to contact publishers? You need an agent.
- An agent is a necessary go-between. They’re the spokesperson for the author in negotiations.
- Don’t approach publishers directly, you’ll end up on the slushpile. Get yourself an agent.
- When writing to them, to gain their interest, remember to say where you studied and your publication track record. If you have experience that’s relevant to the book you’re pitching, also mention that.
- Your working relationship with your agent is more important than your relationship with the publisher. You must have a good agent-writer relationship.
- Agents may work editorially with you before presenting your work to publishers, but publishers no longer do.
- Any agent worth their salt will fight from your corner, earn their cut, and get you the best deal.
- Advances and royalties are important, as are film rights, foreign rights, and digital rights. Give away as little as you can in negotiations.
- Agents are cool.
- Agents are your friend.
- Agents have a better view of the market than you do.
- Agents make sure you get paid.
- The agent-writer relationship can become a lifelong agreement.
- Agents earn from your earnings, not before they sell you. If any agent asks for money upfront, walk away.
- You can be an agent and get published too, but you’d have less time for either.
- It’s best not to be your own agent.
- Agents have their own preferences and specialisms so make sure your work ends up in front of someone who wants to read your stuff.
- An agent must LOVE your work to take you on.
- Agents want an original voice and a good story. Something different / challenging in the way it’s written. You also need to get them at the gut emotional level. You need some sort of connection AND an original voice AND a good story.
- LITERARY FICTION is a genreless genre. You have to find a way to talk about your work (e.g. in your opening letter).
- It’s important to locate an individual in the firm. Think in terms of particular agents, not just the agency, even with the big firms.
- It’s always a good idea to phone around first, or at least speak to the receptionist and ask who to send your manuscript to.
- Get to know the agent you’re sending stuff to. Don’t stalk them, just make sure you know what they want and who they’ve represented in the past.
How long should your manuscript be?
Short manuscripts put publishers off.
40,000 words does not a novel make. That’s a novella and publishers usually won’t touch them with a barge-pole. Because reasons.
60,000 words is too short for a novel and too long for a novella.
Long manuscripts also put publishers off. Even if they’re good.
Yelling at the Publisher: “Never mind the length, feel the width!” isn’t going to cut it.
Short manuscripts don’t look like a good value proposition to the publisher, or customer, which costs money. Long manuscripts require serious editing, and more pages, which costs money.
70,000 to 100,000 words is the right length for a first novel. Because reasons.
The right length differs from genre to genre.
If you’re happy to take the chance, or self-publish, then write whatever damned length book you want. Because ebooks.
How to Format Your Manuscript
I used to work for a publisher and assess the suitability of unpublished manuscripts for publication.
People tried all sorts of tricks to make their manuscript stand out — coloured paper, glitter, balloons, wacky fonts — you name it.
Some tried to save money (and trees) by printing it out double-sided. One numbered the pages backwards, in reverse chronological order, “to make it more postmodern.”
Others got creative with their interpretation of our submission guidelines or ignored them completely.
For example, instead of sending the standard “three chapters and a synopsis, or 30 pages and a synopsis, whichever is less,” one person sent the entire manuscript shrunk down to fit on 30 pages.
Whilst I sympathise with the desire to make your manuscript stand out, or even just to reduce the cost of sending out dead-tree submissions, all they managed to do was annoy me.
The only way these submissions stood out was in the bizarre lengths that the authors had gone through to make their manuscripts look unprofessional, difficult to read, and maybe not worth the effort.
Publishers have submission guidelines for a reason. Use them. Give the publisher EXACTLY what they ask for.
If they don’t have guidelines, then submit in the Standard Manuscript Format for your country of submission. US and UK formats are slightly different, but very broadly-speaking:
- Font: A 12-point monospace serif font (Courier is your safest bet)
- Line spacing: Double-spaced
- Justification: Unjustified. Flush left, ragged right.
- Margins: 1.5 inches all the way round.
- Paper: On single-sided A4 paper if submitted by post.
- Page Numbers: Unless you want me to kick your ass.
You want your manuscript format to be as standard as possible so that it looks ‘proper’, ‘correct’ — professional.
This gives the impression that you know what you’re doing and also makes your manuscript much easier to read.
Then your work WILL stand out if the quality of the prose is high enough.
How to Get Published in 24 Hours
Here’s the short answer: lulu.com
It’s Print on Demand, NOT Vanity Publishing. It’s FREE insofar as there’s no initial outlay. You pay per every book that you SELL (your book will be on sale on Amazon, etc. as well as orderable from certain brick-and-mortar bookshops).
You can sell your book as an ebook, or give it away as a download, so people can pay to download it as a PDF file and print out a copy themselves or read it on their PC, for those who want to avoid paying for postage or printing.
Or if you just want to publish direct to Kindle: kdp.amazon.com
Or if you just like to blog and shoot your mouth off on the internet: wordpress.com
This was news about ten years ago — when I taught an excited bunch of students “how to get published in 24 hours” and they went off and did it. They made their own book, designed the cover, edited it, and sold it on Lulu. They even threw their own book launch.
What’s striking to me now is how so many of us take it for granted.
We’re all publishers now.