Do you have a book in you? Most of us like to think so, but how easy is it to get your words into print? What routes are open to the budding writer? Alysoun Owen, Editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook – the annual guide on how to write and get published, provides advice on the process and options.
The publishing process
There are two main routes to publication. The long-established way is to sign with a literary agent who negotiates with a publishing company to secure a deal on your behalf. Unless it is a work of specialist non-fiction or for the education or academic markets, you will probably need to go via an agent to reach a publisher, as most don’t these days welcome unsolicited submissions (take a look at their websites to check for sure). The other route is to self-publish – now a reputable and realistic alternative (see below under Self-publishing).
The publishing process consists of five main strands. Once your manuscript is delivered to the publisher, it is edited for style, consistency, accuracy, structure and readability. Is the text and any other content, such as charts, maps, photographs, and bibliography, of an appropriate length, style, and level for the market it is intended? Does the finished manuscript conform to what your publishing editor commissioned and her sales and marketing colleagues have eagerly waited for? Your raw script is then designed, a cover is created and the text and any illustrations designed to appeal to the intended readership, market or prevailing aesthetic fashion. The designed text is then produced and your work is transformed from manuscript to a complete set of ‘printable’ pages or e-book pages. Finally, running heads, page numbers, chapter headings, preliminary pages (the title, copyright and content pages) and end matter (further reading lists, indexes, acknowledgments), will all be incorporated, after which the pages will be set to a pre-defined format, page size, and binding style. The book, complete with the cover is then printed or converted into an E-pub, Mobi or other e-book formats.
Next, comes marketing and your book becomes the preserve of a host of marketers, publicists and PRs. If you are lucky, it is brought to the attention of potential readers via book sites, blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, reviews, author events, readings and any number of headline-grabbing activities. Just think Harry Potter and the range of events scheduled to tie-in with the 20th anniversary of the wizard boy’s first published adventure, not least Bolton’s record-making Harry lookalike gathering. So far so controllable; the publishing experts have waved their magic publishing wands to create a well-published work.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that there is one new book published every hour
The final part of the jigsaw and the most challenging is distribution – getting your book into the hands of your reader. This is where publishers have a march on self-published authors, particularly where print, rather than e-books, are concerned. They have well-established agreements with bricks and mortar bookshops, library and other suppliers and can sell in bulk, absorbing large discounts with online bookstores such as Amazon. How to make any book stand out in a sea of publications is a challenge even for publishers who are seasoned professionals, so just imagine how inventive and entrepreneurial the lone writer or small independent press needs to be to get their work noticed.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that there is one new book published every hour. Nielsen, the providers of book sales data to the publishing industry, estimate that £2.76 billion print books and £370 million worth of e-books were sold in the UK in 2016, with every £1 in every £4 spent on a children’s book. The recent media-hyped predictions of the death of the book have proved to be a nonsense. Books live on in a multitude of forms, formats, genres and styles. So how does the fledging writer get noticed?
Improving your chances and hooking an agent
There are three main ingredients in the recipe for publishing success: Write a great book; find a dynamic literary agent, and cross your fingers. Luck does play a huge part, as anyone who has submitted to publishers and agents and received rejection letter after rejection letter will confirm. But, knowing something about the process that will turn your prose from a Word manuscript into a finished book, might help improve your chances.
Let’s assume you have written a brilliant book – a fast-paced thriller, say, populated by a cast of absorbing characters speaking gritty dialogue, with an unpredictable twist in the penultimate chapter and a killer opening line to chapter one. How do you know if it is ready to send out to a publisher’s commissioning or acquisitions editor? You don’t. But you can try and make your text the best it can be – polish and redraft until you can burnish no more; read it aloud to see how realistic the dialogue really is; ask friends and contacts you trust to give you honest critiques on what works and what doesn’t; take soundings from other writers in creative writing groups and forums on and off-line; pay for editorial advice from reputable companies or individuals if you think you need it. In short, do all you can to make your book as readable as it can be, so your target reader won’t be able to put it down. Consider the tone, structure, pace, style, characterisation, historical setting of your novel or the clarity, detail, and how the information is presented in your practical manual.
Beware of agents who ask for a fee for reviewing your work: they are not agents as such
Your first real, external reader will be the literary agents to whom you send your manuscript. Think before you submit and prepare a submission package that each agent wants – you can find details in the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook about who to contact for which genres and forms. Most agents and publishers in the UK are London-based and there are a plethora to choose from, with new agents and agencies starting-up each year. Beware of agents who ask for a fee for reviewing your work, they are not agents as such. Agents, like publishers (and you as the author), share in any profits from the sale of your book and shouldn’t take money to help fund publishing activity, such as the parts of the process highlighted above.
Take your time, don’t squander the chance to submit well in a bid to get your well-crafted script off your desk
It’s important to find the right agent for you and your work, as it can be a close working relationship. Remember that an agent will work for you, they have your best interests at heart and will try to get you the best deal they can. They receive on average 12-15% of all income you receive from your book. Do your research to avoid wasting time contacting agents who won’t be interested in your book. There is no point in emailing a series of middle-grade schoolgirl mysteries to an agent who only represents non-fiction adult writing. Take your time, don’t squander the chance to submit well in a bid to get your well-crafted script off your desk.
Agents typically require three things as part of a submission: A cover letter, sample chapters (usually the first three) and a full plot synopsis. The covering letter should be brief and include a clear introduction (around the equivalent of A4 in length) to your book, as well as the book title and the essence of your story, your ‘pitch’.
Can you sum up your story in 50 words or even one sentence? Who it is for and why should the agent take note and read on? Try speaking the description of your book out loud; are all the essential propositions: Setting, period, genre, intended age of your reader, plot all there? Your covering letter should intrigue, entice and encourage the agent to want to turn immediately to your sample chapters. Do your opening words and sentence hook them and demand that they turn from page 1 to 2 and from the first chapter to the second?
The synopsis is usually a practical digest of what happens across each chapter, to provide the agent with a sense of the arc of the narrative, its beginning, middle and end and intertwining plot twists. Agents will have their own literary interests and pet hates and it’s worth finding out if you think a particular agent might suit you and your work personality-wise. See who else they represent, follow them on Twitter, sign-up for one-to-one pitching sessions at literary festivals or come to one of our regular Writers & Artists How to Hook an Agent days.
Successful indie authors invest considerable time, effort and money into improving their sales
The DIY-approach to getting published can be highly rewarding. A few authors do profit to the tune of six figures, but the ones you read about in the media are the exceptions. Self-published authors do get to keep the lion’s share of any revenue from sales of their books, typically 70% from sales via Amazon Kindle Store versus 15% or so from a book from a traditional publisher. Remember though, a self-published title may be very cheap (less than £2) and publishers do know how to promote and sell books. Successful indie authors invest considerable time, effort and money into improving their sales. This includes off and online marketing activities such as search engine optimisation (SEO). Don’t despair if this sounds too daunting, there are plenty of individuals and businesses that you can hire to carry out these activities.
As you would when scouting for a plumber or builder, invest time in understanding what it is you need help with and ask for written quotations for any work tendered for. True self-publishing – when you perform all aspects of the publishing process as well as the writing yourself – editing, designing, producing, marketing and distributing – is hard. It can be free, straightforward and easy via platforms such as Kindle, but to produce a professional book that is free from spelling errors, has a great page design and quality photography, requires real skill, investment and doggedness. Writers are rarely hot-shots at cover illustration and text design. You might be, but it may be more productive to employ experts to help you with things such as blurb writing, cover design and page layout.
There are two main avenues for these paid-for services. Either outsource a discreet part of the process to a vetted individual or series of individuals (such as a copy-editor, a proofreader or designer) or sign-up to a self-publishing provider company who will do all aspects and in effect become your packager in exchange for a fee. Unlike true publishers, such providers are unlikely to offer to actually sell your books. There are a host of such providers, so be careful what you sign-up to, read contracts carefully and ask to see examples of other books they have created. I recommend that you don’t part with any cash until work has commenced. Phased payment plans are fine, but don’t hand over hundreds or thousands of pounds in advance. Any reputable provider should be running a legitimate business with good cash flow – you wouldn’t pay your plumber in advance of your dripping tap being fixed.
Publishers carry the costs for all aspects of creating, distributing and selling your book
The biggest difference between self-publishing and the more established agent-publisher route, apart from established distribution channels as alluded to above, is money – who pays for what? Publishers carry the costs for all aspects of creating, distributing and selling your book. As a self-published author, you will bear these, not inconsiderable costs yourself. Paper and print and storing printed copies of a title can be pricey and intimidating: How do you ever sell copies of your autobiography piled high in your garage or spare room? Print-on-demand (POD) has made this less of an issue and e-books have revolutionised all publishing and is now a viable route for the self-published.
There is plenty of support from those who have gone before. Self-published or indie authors are generally a generous breed, happy to share advice, knowledge, pitfalls and successes, everything from how to find a suitable editor to using social media to help drive sales. The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is a good place to start.
When deciding what route might be best for you, consider the following. What are your (realistic) ambitions for your book? Is it a memoir, local history or an information guide to help fundraise for a local charity, community or school? Is it important to simply see your story and ideas in print and might the self-publishing route be a more likely route than securing the services of an agent and publisher? In addition to skills and aptitude, do you have the time, money, energy to invest in the venture?
Whichever route you take, good luck with the journey and be sure to take a copy of the latest edition of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook or Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as your trusted companion.
To find out more from debut and seasoned authors on how they got from manuscript to print, and to sign-up for editorial services and regular workshops and other events, go to www.writersandartists.co.uk