How To Get Published
The book market is a crowded one. Your work may be of great personal significance, but it must also compete for shelf-space and readers in an industry that is both competitive and hard-nosed… but endlessly fascinating.
Always remember that publishers are businesses. They aim to make a profit. They sometimes take a risk with a less commercial book, but not without believing that there is a sufficiently robust market for the idea – both in the UK and elsewhere – to make it financially viable. They achieve this by selling as many copies as they can, and by trading rights with overseas publishers. These negotiations often take place at the major literary trade fairs in Frankfurt, Bologna and London – but rights departments are busy all year round. Sales are driven by ensuring that publishers’ marketing and publicity energies secure widespread publicity leading to strong sales through as many outlets as possible. Publishers also sell other rights – serialisation, film, TV and audio rights, large print etc. depending on the terms of the contract and the contents of the book.
Booksellers have traditionally had considerable influence on publishing decisions. Publishers often check jacket designs with key buyers before they sign them off. In order to ensure that a book is a priority for a bookseller a publisher may pay for it to be included in bookshop promotions – buying window space or inclusion in special promotions.
Most books are bought by bookshops on a ‘sale or return’ basis. This means that if the book doesn’t sell sufficiently fast, the bookseller has the option to return it. Though that’s the last thing a publisher wants or needs…
So booksellers can make a huge difference to a book’s success. The best booksellers have amassed a following of loyal and trusting customers – there is nothing to beat a personal recommendation.
Librarians too are influential in terms of personal recommendations and deciding which books they wish to include in their stock selection. A welcome source of income for authors and illustrators is PLR – Public Lending Right – a scheme by which they are paid based on the number of times their books are borrowed.
On-line booksellers use their readers’ personal recommendations to drive sales – it’s easy enough to jot down your thoughts on a novel you’ve enjoyed and post it for others to see, and your views can be influential.
In addition to working with booksellers of all kinds, publishers promote books through the press and media, on-line through social media outlets, and via a growing brigade of bloggers and vloggers. Although books receive quite a bit of coverage – both specialist and general – there is still terrific competition for airtime and review space in traditional media, so support from bloggers and vloggers is invaluable. It’s well worth identifying Twitter and Instagram hashtags that relate to the genre in which you’re writing – you can learn a great deal from the resulting conversations.
There are thousands of books published every year. Every single one of them is a potential best-seller. So here are a few pointers to help you navigate your way through.
Sources of information for people interested in careers as writers or illustrators
Submitting your work
If you’re seeking representation from Fraser Ross Associates, here’s how to submit your work
So what steps can you take to break through into this tricky business of publishing?
‘My grandchildren howl with laughter when I read it to them. They keep telling me I must get it published. They’ve even illustrated it to save the publisher the trouble!’
As you would if embarking on any business – do your homework. Research your target market. It isn’t good enough to say that your children love your story; it must be sought (and therefore bought) for thousands of children in the UK and ideally internationally if it is going to work for a commercial publisher.
Most publishers prefer hiring their own choice of illustrator, so don’t go to the trouble or expense of commissioning illustrations privately.
‘For goodness sake, I could do better than that…’
Watch the trends but don’t decide to write a book which has, effectively, been written already. Publishers are understandably bandwagon-jumpers, so there are always possibilities, but aim for originality – a unique selling point that acknowledges a trend but improves on it.
‘I haven’t found any other books on the prehensile claws of the left-footed Mid-Atlantic Puffin so thought I’d fill the gap…’
Your specialist area of knowledge may simply be too narrow to support a book on the subject. But there are lots of examples of non-fiction achieving remarkable sales, backed by an enthusiastic publisher and inspired marketing and publicity. If you have a ‘niche’ idea, consider what specialist outlets there are for it – on-line or terrestrial, or the radio and tv programmes and journalists to whom it might appeal. Beware of understandable flattery and idealism from family and friends. How many copies can you envisage selling under your own steam? Publishers are increasingly reliant on authors and illustrators to market and sell their own books – alongside the more traditional sales routes.
‘I’ve loved writing since I was a child…’
That’s all very well, but can you tell a story? We receive impressive examples of creative writing every day. Very few of them, however, tell a compelling story. You may have a real aptitude for language, and some great ideas, but without a narrative structure and storytelling skills – and this is true for both fiction and non-fiction – the likelihood of publication is limited.
‘So what’s the point…?’
This rather gloomy preamble is designed to inject a modicum of reality into a world which is often about personal dreams, ideas and ambitions. It is perfectly possible that you have within you a publishable book. But the simple, if admirable, act of completing it is only the beginning of a long journey.
Explore some the books listed in the Useful Resources page on this website.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get dispassionate, objective feedback and many writers have found that critical, constructive support from a local writers group has been invaluable. Details can usually be found in your local library.
Consider taking a course with the Arvon Foundation www.arvonfoundation.org. Each Arvon Writers’ course is tutored by two published writers – you may find yourself on the receiving end of feedback from a writer whose work you’ve long admired. Numbers are limited so it’s an opportunity to make the most of the available expertise – and all the Arvon Writers’ Centres are situated in beautiful parts of the UK.
There are lots of stories of multiple unsuccessful submissions before a bestselling novel found its publishing home. It can take a long time before a book is accepted, and the process of awaiting individual publisher responses can be lengthy too. A literary agent can speed the process up, but their enthusiasm for your book doesn’t guarantee immediate success.
On acceptance, you will begin talking to the editor with whom you’ll be working. They will almost always ask for revisions. This is usually a healthy dialogue and though it can be alarming – especially for a first contract – it makes for a better book in the long run. Not everything the editor suggests will feel right, but your relationship should be sufficiently robust to survive any resulting negotiations.
A delivery schedule will be built into your contract. Try to keep to it. Publishers aren’t all paragons of virtue where deadlines are concerned but they notice if their writers and illustrators fall behind.
It’s important that you keep in regular contact with your Literary Agent during the writing process. Apart from the fact that she will be interested in how things are going, good communication means that if there are any glitches or delays, they can be discussed openly in order to prevent any nasty shocks on either side. But remember – Literary Agents like good news too!
Respond as speedily as you can to all requests for information and changes.
The period of time between signing a publishing contract and finding your book in a bookshop or library can seem extraordinarily long. The intervening period is full of jacket design decisions, marketing meetings and publicity campaigns, sales meetings with central buyers for the large bookselling chains, visits from local publisher representatives to independent bookshops and international trade fairs where your publisher will endeavour to sell foreign rights.
Publishers usually solicit orders from bookshops up to six months ahead of publication. And remember, yours will be one of thousands of titles sold in the same way. Good publishers will keep you in touch with proceedings and, of course, you’ll have your next book well underway by that time…
So just keep writing.
You will have heard stories of raucous launch parties and dinners in up-market restaurants, but most books arrive without such fanfare.
Some publishers organise a tour of bookshops, libraries and if appropriate, schools. This is as much to establish you as a recognisable face to your potential readers, as it is about selling piles of books. But if the two go together, that’s all to the good.
But some publishers don’t. Authors and illustrators benefit from being self-reliant and motivated.
There are many reputable networks and agencies to support writers and illustrators. Librarians often arrange events, organisations like SCBWI hold regular meetings and conferences, and the Society of Authors is an invaluable source of information and encouragement. In Scotland, all authors and illustrators should register with Live Literature, a scheme run by Scottish Book Trust that subsidises authors’ visits throughout the country.
There is no doubt that an author who endears him or herself to the dedicated, but underpaid workforce behind bookshop tills and library counters will see that relationship reflected in better sales and higher borrowing figures. And these invaluable supporters have friends as well as customers. Word of mouth can be a powerful selling tool – perhaps the most powerful selling tool.
So take every opportunity to introduce yourself in bookshops and libraries, and encourage your friends and relatives to support local booksellers by buying their copies there too.
When your book is published, you should register it with the Public Lending Right scheme. This government-funded scheme makes an annual payment direct to authors and illustrators (not through their literary agent or publisher) which reflects the number of times each of their registered books has been borrowed over a twelve-month period.
But don’t forget the day job – writing the next book!