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 traditionally published author and ask them how they got their first book published, 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 laptop 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 then went on to self-publish, eventually bagging the perfect agent. Some got famous with their first book and 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, thriller, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, middle grade, young adult, contemporary, romance, or that which is generically named ‘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 isn’t wanted by publishers or readers.
* Remember, if your topic is niche or you want full control of your publishing journey, self-publishing is always an option. For now I’m focussing on the traditional route to market.
STEP TWO: ELEVATOR PITCH
Describe your book in one sentence and give two to three literary comparisons. Not easy, is it? This is why, when I teach Pitch to Product at Raindance Film School I talk about writing your pitch and synopsis BEFORE you start to pen your novel. This will not only save you a lot of time (it’s easier to discard an idea that won’t sell than an entire book) but it will help keep your writing tight and commercially-minded.
If you can’t do that then you won’t be able pitch to an agent – because they won’t be able to pitch to publishers.
The elevator pitch for my debut thriller, GOOD GIRLS DIE LAST was literally: “FALLING DOWN meets PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN: Set against the mounting tension of a London heatwave, one woman must fight her way through the city to catch her flight back home while a serial killer stalks the streets.”
This pitch got me an agent in 3 days, a top publishing deal in 3 weeks, and 6 months later a TV deal!
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 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 attend a writing course, like those run by Jericho Writers, read SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL and plot using the suggested beats (that’s what I do), and/or 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.
Speak to your author friends and see who their agents are (recommendations often get you to the top of a slush pile).
Google and research authors writing similar books to yours and who they’re represented by (or see who they thank in their acknowledgments). 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.
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 fiftieth agent query attempt. It’s about finding the right fit, so don’t get disheartened! BUT, if you haven’t had a bite after twenty do look at your pitch and your book and consider why it’s not being picked up.
You want your book to be a big hit, so scraping the barrel to get any old agent isn’t the answer, because then you’ll also get a crappy publishing deal – when you could have tweaked the book and got the best. So be constantly re-evaluating (go back to step 3 if you must or pay a mentor to help you).
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 that 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 practice their book evaluation responses. 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 bitter. 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 and they will remember you.
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 in my other blogs) – 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 signed writers do when they’ve finished a book and are waiting for their agent to read it or 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.
How can I say this with confidence? Because my first book was signed as a trilogy – and everything went downhill after that. Imprints went under, translation deals fell through, two entire novels failed to get me an agent, and even my manga deal was cut short after three stories – but I didn’t stop writing.
6 years after my first book was signed I ended up writing a new genre. GOOD GIRLS DIE LAST was the book that changed my writing career (agent, deal, TV). This may be the beginning, ior it may be as good as it gets, the only way to find out is by carrying on writing and learning and trying.