The big secret to getting your book published is…there’s no secret.
So if you’ve clicked on this article thinking I’m going to tell you the holy grail of making it to the NYT bestsellers list – then sorry, because the real answer is very long and boring.
Let’s get started…
So you’ve written a novel and you think it’s good enough to appear in a shop one day? Great! Now what do you do?
Speak to any author (I can only write about the process of being traditionally published, I have no experience in self-publishing) and ask them how they got their book out, and they’ll all tell you something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
I know dozens and dozens of successful writers, some are very good friends of mine, and not one of them has experienced the same route to publication.
Some started writing straight out of uni, others when they became mums or retired. Some were brilliant from the start and did well with their first book, others have five finished novels on their PC that will never see the light of day and they got lucky with their sixth. Some bagged the first literary agent they approached, and others (like me) achieved more than one publishing deal with no agent and are still searching for that allusive perfect fit. Some got famous with their first book then disappeared into obscurity, others gradually became household names with their tenth book that finally got them noticed.
If you’re serious about entering this low-paid world of constant anxiety and rejection (I’m not being a dramatist, most writers earn below the minimum wage and have a second job that pays the bills) then keep reading.
If you really don’t want to put yourself through this, then don’t take the traditional route. It’s not for everyone.
STEP ONE: KNOW YOUR MARKET
What are you writing? Is it romance, a thriller, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, middle grade, young adult, contemporary, romance or those vague descriptions of ‘literary fiction’ or ‘women’s fiction’? If you don’t know, then you won’t manage to get to the next step.
Read, read, read as many books as you can from your genre. What is happening in the market? What are the trends? What are people enjoying?
Get on Goodreads, Amazon and Twitter. See what people hate and what they are looking for. What’s become tired and predictable, and what things are happening in the world right now that will influence future reading needs?
This is by no means a path to guaranteed success, but at least you won’t write something that’s been done to death and not wanted by publishers or readers.
STEP TWO: ELEVATOR PITCH
Describe your book in one sentence and give two to three literary comparisons. Not easy, is it? If you can’t do that then you can’t pitch to an agent – because they won’t be able to pitch to publishers.
My first book The Path Keeper was pitched as ‘YA fantasy romance set in London and Spain. When 19 year old Ella meets Zac she knows he’s different, but she has no idea his two-thousand-year-old secret will change her world forever. Can love ever be stronger than fate? Twilight meets True Blood – without vampires – filled with the magical realism and passion of The Time Traveller’s Wife.’
My current work in progress is described as ‘YA historical fantasy. How To Stop Time / Meet Joe Black / Daenerys (Game of Thrones)’. But I’m not giving away the plot, it’s not finished or sold yet!
When you can do this with your book then you can move on to the synopsis. I won’t tell you how to write one in this article, but a million blogs online will. Your pitch and synopsis is what will get you possibly noticed by an agent. Your book is what will get you signed.
STEP THREE: REVISION AND EDITORIAL
How many times have you re-written your novel and read it front to back? Twice? Five times? Ten?
Still not enough!
Don’t think about sending your book to agents until you are confident that you’ve tackled every single important aspect of a good story.
- Characters fleshed out and consistent
- Research accurate
- Plot tight (no plot holes)
- Character and story arcs clear and realistic
- The first few lines/chapters have enough page-turning hooks
- The middle doesn’t sag
- The ending is satisfactory
- Pace isn’t too slow or too fast
- Spelling, punctuation and grammar is correct
Yet…even this isn’t enough!
If you want to confidently send off your manuscript, I strongly suggest you run it past an independent editor first. They will pick up so much more than typos. You only get one chance to make a good first impression with that agent you want. Why risk it?
STEP FOUR: FINDING THE RIGHT AGENT
Don’t, whatever you do, send off your manuscript (MS) to every single agent you see.
Join Twitter and look up #MSWL. This is where agents list their Manuscript Wish List. If it sounds like your book is what they’re looking for, you have a head start. Read the agent bios and never send your MS to an agent that doesn’t represent your type of book.
Google and research authors writing similar books to yours and who they’re represented by. Visit sites such as Query Tracker, where you can keep tabs on who you’re querying. Or keep a spreadsheet with notes, ticking off who you’ve approached etc.
Buy the Writers’ & Artists’ Handbook 2019 and study it meticulously. It’s invaluable.
As I said before, there are plenty of blogs and articles that will help you write the perfect pitch, synopsis and query letter. Read them!
Don’t start querying until you are ready and have ticked off all the above steps.
STEP FIVE: WAIT AND BRACE YOURSELF
When you finally have your list of perfect agents, and have read what they are asking for (each agent query request is different, so do exactly as their website instructs), then send off queries in batches of three to five. Wait for a few responses before sending out more.
Some people are signed on their first try, most aren’t. In fact, some top writers aren’t signed until their one-hundredth agent query attempt. It’s about finding the right fit, so don’t get disheartened!
Waiting for an answer from an agent is the hardest part of being a traditionally published author. I wish someone had told me during my own journey how SLOW the publishing industry is. Most agents get back to you within 6-12 weeks (yes, weeks!). I’ve received replies after nine months from agents I’d ruled out as not interested, saying I’d come close to being signed! Silence isn’t always bad…
You may, at this point, get asked for the rest of your MS. This is great news, BUT DON’T GET EXCITED – YOU’RE NOT IN THE CLEAR YET because…
This is when the serious rejections start coming in. And no, I don’t care how much you think you’re be ready for this part, no one is. It hurts, but you’ll survive.
There are many kinds of rejection responses:
- The kind ones where they read everything you sent, liked it but it wasn’t for them (maybe they already have a similar book/author which they’re selling, or it’s not the genre they want right now). They may say something like ‘but I enjoyed your writing style, please send me any future work.’ These are the easiest to stomach and full of hope.
- The standard response that you know is a cut and paste general reply.
- The intern who has been passed your query to practise their book evaluation responses with. These are kind of sweet yet kind of annoying.
- The detailed, helpful response from an agent saying you’re (basically) not good enough yet. Maybe you’re not. If you get a lot of this kind please LISTEN and go on a writing course, seek writing help and/or change your MS. This doesn’t mean you need to give up, or think ‘sod it, I’ll self-publish then’! If an agent has gone to the trouble of thinking it could be improved in any way, then it’s still not good enough for any kind of publishing. Self-published books are (or at least should be) as good as anything in the shops. Get your book perfect, however you choose to get it out into the world!
- And finally, the silence. Most uninterested agents simply won’t reply. Ever. If their site says silence after three months is a no, cross them off your list.
And how do you handle this kind of rejection?
With dignity, professionalism and a huge dollop of self-confidence. You never ever EVER reply with defensive justifications, insults, boasts, spite or anything else that will make you look like a nasty knob. In fact, don’t reply unless the agent has asked you a question or you’ve had a nice dialogue. The publishing industry is small, people talk.
If you’re serious about making it in this world then RESPECT these experts, they are what stands between you and a good book deal. Yes, sometimes you can go direct to a publisher (I did, you can read why further down) – but again, all the above still applies regarding rejections from publishers. Getting an agent is your best bet, because you’ll need the support and the guarantee of a decent advance with an agent fighting your corner. It’s much harder alone.
STEP SIX: MAKE FRIENDS AND JOIN THE WRITING COMMUNITY
So what do you do during the year (yes, it can take that long) of querying, waiting, crying, amending your approach or MS, then querying again?
You get involved in the writing community. Join FB groups and Twitter. Get to know what authors are up to, and what agents and publishers are doing. Get to know what your potential readers are enjoying. Join writing groups and share your highs and lows with others treading this same perilous path. Go on writing courses and retreats, buy How To books and remember – you can always improve. Then read and read some more in your genre.
Making friends with those who are going through this craziness too will save your sanity!
STEP SEVEN: KEEP WRITING AND IMPROVING
What do you think professional writers do when they’ve finished a book and are waiting for their agent to submit it to publishers?
THEY KEEP WRITING.
So while your first book is out there trying to get noticed, write your second book. Blog. Submit articles and think-pieces to magazines and writing sites. Enter short story competitions. It doesn’t matter what you do. Just. Keep. Writing.
STEP EIGHT: NEVER GIVE UP
If you get an offer of representation then wooohooo! Well done you!
I recommend you join the Society of Authors, they are worth every penny, and ask their wonderful legal team to look at the contract prior to signing anything. Plus remember, you can always ask the agent to wait a few weeks, speak to other agents you haven’t heard back from and tell them you’ve had an offer, and see which agent is right for you. Finding an agent is harder than finding the right person to marry, and the relationship may last longer, so get it right!
Then again, you might have done all of the above and still got nowhere. I totally understand why you’d feel like giving up, convinced you can’t write for toffee and your book idea is a pile of crap.
Well it’s not terrible and neither are you. It just means now is not the right time, but one day it might be. So keep tweaking and changing and getting better. I’m going to end this article with a condensed version of my own long journey – because I didn’t give up. Thank god I didn’t!
MY OWN (EXHAUSTING, BUT WORTH IT) JOURNEY
I’ve been writing since I could pick up a pen. I still have stories I wrote as an eight-year-old and they aren’t that bad. I told my parents back then that one day I’d write books, they believed me and never once told me I was stupid to dream. Surround yourself with those kinds of people.
I didn’t go to university. I could have, and I should have, as I got in to East Anglia uni to study English and Film. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d taken that path. Would I have been published sooner? Written something better? Had better jobs? Who knows. Blame my bad decisions on bad boyfriends, teen fear and a need to earn my own money. I deferred for a year and never went. Instead I got a job in magazine publishing. I never looked back.
I went from editorial and production jobs at magazines (from in-house corporate to glossy Cosmo and Harpers) then went on to study marketing and writing promotional copy.
Aged thirty I had my first child and moved to Spain with my family, and that’s when I started writing fiction.
At 32, with two tiny kids aged 1 and 3, I had the idea for The Path Keeper. The characters haunted me, the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I daydreamed and wrote it in my head for hours during those sleepless nights and busy days until I started to tentatively put it on paper. I never, for a single second, imagined it would one day be in the shops. The story was for me and my own sanity.
I joined a writing class just for fun, realised I couldn’t write and rewrote my entire book.
My friend was a small lit agent and offered to rep me. I had not done ANY of the steps above. I was totally green and figured it didn’t matter who represented me to publishers, I’d see how things went. I got MS requests from nearly all the top publishers but, because The Path Keeper isn’t very commercial or easy to fit into any one specific genre (probably because I didn’t do the steps above), I didn’t get an offer straight away.
My agent decided to close her agency three weeks before an offer from a small, but reputable, UK publisher came in. I no longer had an agent nor idea what I was doing – so I said yes. I was signed on a three-book deal for my series!
The Path Keeper hit the shops Feb 2017 and it did well. It got over 130 5 star reviews on Amazon and a second print run by week three. I attended signings and ComicCons in the UK, Netherlands, Spain and Gibraltar, including school visits, press, TV and radio interviews. I was the publishers biggest selling YA that year – but I left the publishers.
Why? It’s a long story, but basically they were closing down their YA division and I didn’t feel supported. I knew the book could do better and I wanted the sequels to get into more shops and in front of more people.
I had a lot of self-belief to make that jump, and luck that I got all my rights back. But then things went downhill fast…
My book was out of print for over a year!
I kept writing (completing the sequel and another contemporary YA standalone). I pitched the new book to agents, but after 20 rejections realised it wasn’t commercial enough so focused on completing the series. That’s when I approached BHC Press in the US and they gave me an offer for another three-book deal. They wanted to re-release The Path Keeper and the rest of the series – now called The Indigo Chronicles.
I was back in the game.
I also acquired a foreign rights agent just for the series, and she’s been really successful getting it abroad (watch this space).
So here we are, twenty weeks away from my first book’s second release on 28th May (worldwide this time), with the sequel Son of Secrets due out 19 November 2019.
See how my journey wasn’t normal? The entire series is complete now and I’m working on two new books. I’m talking to agents, I’m researching and I’m busy with book promotion.
As a working author you are always promoting one book, editing another, and writing a new one. It’s the only way. Perhaps it will do even better this time than the first, maybe it won’t, but none of us writers do this for the fame nor money.
Only those who have an obsessive passion for writing, who see it as a vocation and not a hobby, will put themselves through these ups and downs so that one day they too will hold their book in their hands.
But I’ll tell you something… When you walk down the street and your book is in your favourite bookstore’s window – every single hour and tear was worth it!
The Path Keeper is out 28 May. Click here for more information and a list of retailers.