Sending it out – 5 best tips #getpublished

Publishers or agents?

An agent told me once that if you take independent publishers into account, more publishers are accepting direct submissions than agencies. It’s hard to say whether luck will favour you starting with agents or publishers, so it’s a good idea to try a mixture of both.

1/ Who do I try first?

Make a longlist of your best targets in order of preference, remembering that a rejection means you cannot approach them again with a later version of your novel unless you ask you to.

Do I try one at a time or several?

Publishers and agents like to feel that they are the first and only readers of your proposal, of course they do. On the other hand, each one can take three to six months to say it’s not for them. So, it’s not unreasonable for your first shortlist to be around three publishers – one big and well established, one medium sized and one tiny – and the same for three agencies. You’re looking for a spread of size, experience and sense of novelty. Within a well-established agency, their new young adventurous agent might be a good idea, for example. Or not. Much depends on how the wind is blowing and we won’t know until we’ve tried.

The more websites you scroll through, the more of a feel you will get for each firm’s ‘personality’. Have you noticed how kind they tend to be? They really do want to find our best new stories and sell them for us.

2/ What do I send?

Always send precisely what the submission guidelines ask for. This sounds obvious but if you’re sending more than one at a time, details can slip and overlap. Best to concentrate on one submission at a time.

Usually they ask for three things:

  • Your cover letter or email. Some are happy with emails, others (still) specify hard copy only.
  • A synopsis and/or chapter summary.
  • Sample chapters. Usually for fiction it’s the first three.

Many agents and publishers like email and often have an online submissions process on the website to help you out. A letter can feel like a slog these days but it will give you the satisfaction of feeling the physical weight of what you send. Always do your best to make sure your submission is complete in one go. Sending follow-ups with additions or corrections will not gain you extra attention – you risk being seen as annoying.

3/ What goes in the email/letter?

If your submission coincides with a busy agent or publisher having an off day, sorry to say it but your email/letter may be the only part of your submission that will be read, so take time to make it as engaging as possible.

Your tone is important. This is a business communication and you need to be professional. On the other hand, don’t be too formal and dry. Agents and publishers love a good story well told and your words should carry that.

There’s no point in being showy either. The days of pinning a Monopoly fiver to the front page are gone, as are dubious jokes.

  • ‘Dear [first name and surname, spelt correctly]’ usually works these days.
  • In your first line, drop the name of your recommendation by one of their authors if you have one. Likewise, mention where you met, if you have, such as an event where the agent was speaking. Best not to be over-friendly: ‘You might remember me’ is plenty.
  • Why is your work apt for them and for the particular person you are writing to? Which aspect of their author list or particular publications of theirs do you admire? Try to be specific without grovelling. (Saying they are a ‘leading’ publisher or agent is not enough; they know that.)
  • No negativity: ‘This must be your worst nightmare’ or ‘sorry to be boring but’ just puts ideas into heads and stops them reading.
  • Describe your book in one paragraph, not forgetting the title, genre and total word count. This is your sales pitch and needs to be the most arresting part of your submission. Agents and publishers are looking for narrative drive, a good strong story. Above all, be clear. This is harder than it sounds.
  • Characters first: who do we care about most in your story? Another way to put that might be, whose story is it. Focus on that character: what does s/he want, what stops him/her getting it, why do we care? If you have several main characters, keep to two or three at this stage; more are confusing.
  • What is the gist of your story arc and why is it vital? Be specific: a character ‘has many other adventures’ is not enough.
  • Between the lines is a sense of why your book should sell while others do not.
  • In another short paragraph, give your writing CV. This should be two or three sentences about the 3 to 5 main places you have been professionally published or are in the pipeline, any prizes in recent writing competitions or your completion of a university creative writing course (though this is not essential). People with most to brag about tend to have short, plain bios. If you are a first-timer, do convey that you are a committed writer keen to improve your craft and output. Show that you are enthusiastic about the revision process by briefly mentioning your writing group and circle of critical readers. However hard you toil at producing reports at work, they do not count. Nor do unpublished scripts. Saying that your mum loves your story will not help.
  • Why are you the person to write this book? This is what they mean by ‘anything relevant about the author’. For example, if your romantic lead is a fire fighter, it will help to know that you are one. Why did you come to write this book? If there is an interesting story there, give it a line or two. Do not waste their time saying that you’ve loved reading and writing since an early age, that is taken for granted.IMG_2930Still Life with Books and Candle, Matisse (1890)
  • Who is likely to buy your book? Here is where you describe how your book fits with the book market (which shelf in the shop, which age range for children) and how yours stands out from the others available. Are there other markets besides bookshops that might welcome yours?
  • How would you help to sell? Are you happy with giving public readings and talks, being interviewed, writing journalism and blogging? Any other ideas? Summarise your online and social media prowess – you will be expected to have some.
  • If your submission is with other publishers or agents at the same time, it is polite to say so without detail or appearing to pressurise.
  • Do not forget (even though they are also on your script’s cover page) to provide your name and contact details, and your website if you have one.

4/ Things not to include:

  • Full CVs of you and your family with or without holiday snaps of pets etc.
  • CDs and tapes.
  • Artwork unless specifically asked for.
  • Marketing plans – let them deal with that.
  • Extracts from rejections from other agents and publishers. However tempted you are to mention the ‘This looked OK but…’ part of a rejection, it is irrelevant here.
  • Confirmation postcards. A waste of time, they just get lost.

5/ Is your submission email/letter ready?

You know by now that writing is about rewriting. Let’s look at this first draft of your submission again:

  • Is it too long? How much is too much? Aim for one side or equivalent of 12-point A4, or slightly more. More than two pages are unlikely to be read.
  • Read it aloud to yourself. Does it feel easy, relaxed? What jars or feels repetitive?
  • Is the tone right? Friendly and professional, hard-working but easy to get along with. Have another look at the publisher/agent’s website to see how formal their tone is and follow their lead. Is there room for wit without being cringe-worthy?
  • Typos, spelling, grammar, cliché check: there’s always time for a last careful look, by somebody else if you are sick of it. You don’t want a hilarious typo to mar the whole thing.

Well done! That’s the first thing. Next time, we’ll look at your synopsis.

Happy writing!

Choosing your trad publisher and agent

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.

IMG_2889

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.

The Writers & Artists Yearbook

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.

IMG_2888I 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.

Happy writing!