A client recently asked me how the mechanics of publishing work. This client has no interest in self-publishing; rather, he’s hoping to take the mainstream route when his novel is ready. I decided to blog about this because there are probably many as-yet-unpublished writers who might find the following information useful.
MAINSTREAM PUBLISHING – HOW IT WORKS
You can’t approach a publisher without finding a literary agent first. The role of the agent is to screen the fiction or non-fiction manuscripts they receive. Agents receive hundreds of manuscripts each week. Many won’t even be read. If you make a mistake in your covering letter, such as a typo or getting the agent’s name wrong, your work will be deleted immediately. Agents do this because they have far too many people requesting their services. It is not uncommon for a writer to approach fifty plus agents with a manuscript and to be rejected repeatedly. If and when this happens, you need to stop submitting your work and concentrate on improving it. Honestly, we’ve all been there – it’s part of the writer’s road.
If you’re new to all this, please don’t confuse literary agents with publishers who will charge you to print your book. This is called self-publishing (or vanity publishing) and it isn’t what we’re discussing here. If you’re looking for an agent, an agent is not a publisher, and no decent agent (or mainstream publisher) will ever charge you to read or to print paperbacks of your work. I say this because at the time of writing, in Australia at least, an internet search for ‘literary agents’ will actually pull up publishers who are hoping to sign you up to pay for your book to be printed. This is not the same thing as getting an agent.
If an agent likes your work, they will sign you up for a standard percentage cut of your future royalties. Your agent will suggest edits for your manuscript first, and once they’re completed, he or she will pitch your book to a number of publishers simultaneously. Novels can get as far as the acquisition stage (a meeting where new books are discussed at the publisher’s ‘round table’) and still be turned down at the last minute. If your book is accepted for publication, then it’s time to crack out the champagne. From hereon in, you won’t need to read blogs like this, because you will be involved in the industry directly, and will be offered plenty of advice from people in the know, on everything from editorial help to film rights representation.
All literary agents have websites, some containing considerably more detail than others. Some of the long-established agencies don’t need a big shop front on the internet, because they have traded for so long that they get work through recommendation and word of mouth. Many literary agents now operate internationally, although at the time of writing, most Australian and New Zealand agents will only take writers from these countries. It is vitally important that you read each agents’ submission guidelines on their websites. If you don’t follow them, your work will be deleted without being read. The industry is very competitive, and more is turned down than is published.
Useful and interesting links for writers seeking representation and advice:
THE SMALL INDEPENDENT PRESS
There’s only one kind of publisher that a writer can approach directly (discounting self-publishing, which, as I’ve already noted, this blog doesn’t deal with): the small independent press. Indie presses won’t pay you an advance, won’t do huge print runs, and won’t put an awful lot of money into promoting your work because they don’t have the budgets that the bigger publishers have. If you wish to approach an indie press instead of an agent, research indie presses so that you know you’re targeting the right organisations. If you send your work to a publisher who isn’t independent, it will be deleted without being read, and you’ll spend months wondering why you didn’t hear anything back.
It’s a long and often rocky road, because writing is a long and often difficult business. Expect every step to take at least twice as long as you thought it would. But keep writing, because that’s really the point of it all.