Before your novel goes out to find its ideal agent or publisher, let’s take time to visit book shops and up-to- date libraries. E-readers can help but are less easy to browse.
What sort of book have you written? Is it in a genre? If it’s crime, for example, settle into the crime sections of as many different bookshops as you can and really look at what’s there. However much you admire Conan Doyle, it’s recent publications you’re after:
- Who are the main publishers of books like (or a bit like) yours? Make a list – you’ll look them up in detail shortly.
- Who are your favourite living authors in this section? Living because that will give you an idea what publishers and agents are looking for now.
- Who are those authors’ agents? You can sometimes find out from the author’s website or by looking in the acknowledgement sections of their books.
- Who were those author’s editors? You might find an independent mentor or editor mentioned in the acknowledgements. More often it’s effusive thanks to the publisher’s editor who helped pull the book together just before publication. Both are useful to know.
Borrow and buy as many of your favourites as you can afford, to study at home.
Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren by Mary Cassatt, 1880
And a whopping great copy of the latest Writers & Artists Yearbook will pay its way time and again.
When you want to learn from a book, the same approach works as for giving feedback to your writer friend: read once for the thrill and gist of it, a second time more slowly, deeply, on the lookout for technical detail:
- How long is the standard book in your genre these days? 400pp for novels? 200 for some children’s age groups?
- How long are the chapters? Are there always chapters? How are books usually divided up?
- What shape and tone does the first chapter take? Is it mostly action, dialogue, description or backstory? Study the proportions of these in the last chapter too.
- As you read, develop a feel for the balance of action, dialogue and description. How much is there of show or tell? What does the writer achieve and how?
- What is the through-line of what you’re reading? Notice what techniques the author uses to keep bringing you back to it. How else does the author keep you on edge or hold your attention?
- Notice places where you see two or even three things going on at once, winding together. What does this add to the pace and mystery?
- Do you find your attention wandering? Why?
- Is there anything you would improve? Be bold.
- Characters: how many are there? Are they all actively needed in the story? What are the proportions, male/female, old/young, interests, ethnicities etc? Does this make you realise that your own characters are too like each other? (Unless that is deliberate to make a social or other point, as in Lord of the Flies.)
- Notice other techniques like use of tenses, POV, flashbacks, memory and other use of time. In Young Adult novels, for example, using the first person is very common. Can you see why? How are writers in your genre using point of view to serve a story these days?
Am I suggesting another rewrite of your book?
I am not suggesting, now or ever, that you write to a formula. The fact is though that, for your first book at least, when you’re trying to step forward from the crowd, it’s best to offer publisher something close to what they know works well. It’s not too late for you to make adjustments. It is at this stage in writing my second novel that I realised division into chapters was holding the story back; it could flow better without them.
By now you have a short list of publishers, agents and editorial staff who favour your kind of thing.
There is absolutely no point in sending your love story to publishers who want horror fantasy set on Mars. The scattergun approach will only produce rejections you don’t need and you will get demoralised. There is no point either in sending your precious words to publishers and agents who have closed their inboxes to unsolicited submissions. They expect you to know this.
You are hunting for publishers and agents who are a) suitable and b) available and it’s time to take a fine-toothed comb to the Yearbook.
I have no shares or stake in Writers & Artists. I just know it to be unrivalled as a resource for writers, not only for the lists but for its excellent articles about the business. The moment you open it, you will see what I mean. The sections of agents and publishers in various countries are what you are looking for at this stage. You will find short descriptions of what each one does and is looking for, with author lists and contact details.
Agents’ and publishers’ websites
By the time any physical book exists, it has been superseded by events and people do move around in the publishing and literary agency worlds. Besides, you will find much more detail on the companies’ websites. So use the Yearbook to produce your list of best targets and then browse their websites in detail. Sometimes you will come upon a submission window (of a week, month or even a day) in an otherwise closed publisher.
Events, courses, social media
How do publishers and agents find us? They lead events and tuition courses, talk at conferences, Book Fairs and literary festivals, and usually publicise what they’re doing on social media.
Go to as many events in your genre as you can and don’t be afraid to ask a question or strike up a chat afterwards. Your research in book shops will come in handy – it’s time to explore with them some technical aspect of one of their books or authors you like.
Publishers and agents are looking for good writers with great stories but the world is full of talent and that means they are free to choose to work with the ones they like, the ones who are easy to get along with. Try not to mention your ornamental stacks of rejections, your overdraft or how little you think of the work of some famous authors. Be professional, pleasant, kind and have plain no-nonsense business cards ready.
Follow up on any good contact promptly and professionally. Do not ever assume they’ll remember you; just mention that you enjoyed meeting whoever it was at whatever event it was and, if they asked to see some of your work, thank them and send it.
What do you send? Next week we’ll look at submission guidelines.