There has never been so much opportunity to get your work out into the world. We’ve talked about self-publishing a lot recently - so let’s talk now about more traditional publishing routes. 

Self-publication is an appealing route to market for many new writers. For some writers self-publication is a conscious choice and for others it represents a route removed from the (sometimes insurmountable) barriers you might encounter with literary agents, publishing houses and independent presses. However, traditional publishing represents many things new and established writers alike need and / or want, such as:

  • The reassurance that your work is good enough to be published

  • The credibility of your publisher backing your work and your career

  • Financial advances and royalties

  • Experience and expertise

  • Funding to cover essentials like legalities, cover art, editing and PR

  • Distribution

  • Book deals for sequels and new works

For many writers, traditional publication is still the ultimate goal, despite the rapidly rising popularity of self-publication platforms such as Amazon KDP and ‘vanity publishers’ who offer most of the same services as a traditional publisher but at the author’s expense.

There are a lot of writers in the world and getting accepted by a publisher is notoriously difficult. The good news is, there are plenty of things you can work on to present yourself as a fantastic publishing prospect and increase your odds of getting picked up.

Pick the right publisher or agent for a. Yourself and b. Your book

The days of posting your manuscript to every publisher you can find an address for are long gone. In fact, larger publishers typically won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, with no exceptions (regardless of how good the manuscript is). If your goal is to approach a large publisher, you’ll first need to acquire a literary agent to approach publishers on your behalf.

Small and independent (indie) presses are usually more open to receiving manuscripts directly from the author but do your homework first - they will likely only accept a capped number of submissions within a certain time frame. You should be able to find out from their website whether they are currently accepting new pitches. Don’t send your manuscript if they aren’t - there’s a good chance it will go straight in the bin and you're not going win any brownie points. Remember, smaller presses don’t usually have the resources and manpower of the larger publishing giants, that's why they cap the number of submissions they'll accept.

When choosing agents and publishers, don’t take a scatter-gun approach. Regardless of how great your pitch is and how good your book is, sending a young adult coming of age story to a publisher who specialises in celebrity memoirs is not going to get you published. Reach out to agents and publishers who work with genres, themes and authors similar to your own work and yourself. Do your homework and decide if you would fit in at this press.

Some great ways to pick out potential publishers include:

  • Find recently published books which you feel complement / share similarities with your own manuscript. Look up the publisher.

  • Think about the authors you admire who write books similar to your own work. Find out who they work with.

  • When you find a likely publisher, take a good look around their website. Do they feel like a good fit for you? Take a look at their catalogue of titles. Would your book fit in there?

First contact is crucial, so get it right

When you’ve found a publisher who is a good fit for your manuscript and is open to submissions, do more homework. Not all publishers want you to send the same thing, in the same format, so don’t make any assumptions.

You should be able to find some guidelines about whether your publisher wants just your pitch, your pitch plus the first chapter of your book, your pitch plus your whole book, whether it should be electronic and emailed or printed and posted etc. They might go as far as to specify what font style and size to use.

If a publisher tells you what they want to see and how they want to see it, adhere to these guidelines. Publishers get more manuscripts than they can publish and probably a lot more than they can feasibly read. Culling out and binning the manuscripts of authors who clearly haven’t bothered to do their research or who don’t care enough to follow the rules is just part of the selection process.

Make sure your work is high quality

This one should go without saying, but make sure your manuscript is great. Page one, especially, should be beautifully written, engaging and compelling. And no, your first page doesn’t need explosions and car chases to make it engaging. If your publisher can’t get past page one, why would you (and they) expect a reader to do the same? If you ever catch yourself explaining that you know your first few chapters are boring (but, you might justify, necessary) and not to worry because the pace picks up in chapter four, then you probably need to do some serious redrafting.

Any work that you send to a publisher should also be very high quality. The more editing work your manuscript needs, the more expensive it’s going to be for a publisher to work with. The publishing representative that picks up your manuscript can usually get a very good idea of how much work your manuscript is going to need from just a brief glance - it’s their job to know this. 

Do yourself a favour and iron out everything you can before your manuscript sees the light of day. Never send a rough draft unless you’ve been specifically asked for one - this would usually only occur if you have a pre-existing relationship with a publisher or if they really want to work with you (you may have won a literary competition, for example).

Get your pitch right

We’re not going to go over every aspect of writing a successful pitch - that’s for another time. Instead we’re going to check off a few golden principles:

  • Keep your pitch to a maximum of one side of A4 (or equivalent length). Publishers don’t usually have time to read through 6,000 words from an unknown author.

  • Proofread it. Proofread it again. Proofread it a third time. Get someone else to proofread it. Do not send a pitch to a publisher with poor grammar or spelling mistakes.

  • Don’t send a stock letter to every publisher. Make your pitch personalised. Explain why you think the publisher is a good fit for you and your work - show that you’ve done your homework by perhaps referencing relevant works and authors the company has represented; but

  • Don’t lie. Don’t pretend that you’re passionate about a book or author you’ve never heard of, just to try and score points with a publisher. It will bite you in the ass.

  • Present yourself professionally but let your personality and uniqueness shine through. You are your brand and you are who the publisher is going to be working with.

  • Get really good at the short paragraph / one line elevator pitch. In your pitch letter / email, you’re also going to introduce your story. Keep it short and compelling. Don’t give everything away but give enough to leave the publisher with an understanding of your work and a thirst to pick up your manuscript and start reading. If you’re not sure how to write an elevator pitch, this book is a great start.


Consider getting some work out into the world first

Literary magazines

If you’re good enough to get published then you’re probably good enough to have your work featured in well known literary magazines. Having some work picked up and published by reputable publications or anthologies isn’t likely to earn you a huge amount of money (if any) but it instantly chalks you up some points in the credibility column. Recent (ideally relevant) features in a good quality literary magazine is something to include in your pitch letter.

Writing competitions

Being shortlisted or winning in a renowned and credible writing competition is a tremendous feather in your cap when approaching a publisher and is sure to make them sit up and take notice of you. In fact, most competition winners receive some sort of publishing consultation as part of their prize. You may find that if you can win a very well known writing competition, a publisher might approach you (so make sure your manuscript is ready for scrutiny by the date winners are announced). 

Build a tribe / distribution network

To both publishers and authors, stories are both a passion and a business. Never forget that publishing is a business. Yes, publishers need to work with authors and manuscripts that will make money, because if they don’t, people are likely to lose their jobs and the press might go out of business. There are presses out there who have funding or part of their budget set aside for less commercial passion projects, which they believe to be important or innovative. Still, your publisher needs to believe that an audience will read your book, even if that audience is niche.

Selling and marketing a book (and you, as the author) is an expensive process. Many self-published books fail because the content is great but the author didn’t have the experience or resources to market their product. How can people buy a book if they don’t know it exists?

Successfully marketing a book requires time, money, skill and experience. If you can approach a publisher with a ready-made distribution pool then you’re bringing a very valuable asset to the table.

Tribe building takes many forms - a mailing list, a subscriber count on your blog or Medium page, a thriving social media page, access to a large network of people through a writing group or application, to name a few. If you are already connecting with a lot of people who are the right audience for your book and who are engaged and interested in what you have to say, then you are much more likely to represent a good investment to a publisher.

To conclude

No one ever said publishing was easy! There are plenty of lucky ducks who get picked up without too much hassle, and still fathoms more manuscripts that go straight in the waste paper basket.

British author LJ Ross is one of the few authors who is all but guaranteed to top Amazon’s book charts the day her books go on pre-order and again on release day. Ross self-published her first book Holy Island after her manuscript was accepted by publishers, with the caveat that certain changes were made. Not wanting to compromise her creative vision, Ross went ahead with self-publication armed with the knowledge that her book was good enough to be commercially published if she chose. Self-publication was Ross’s choice, not her last resort and acceptance by professional publishers gave her the validation she needed to go it alone.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that traditional publication is still a great option, in a world filled with the noise of self-publication. Could you get picked up by an agent or publisher? You’ll never know if you don’t try.

And don’t forget:

Proofread your pitch letter!

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Cover image: Florin Radu from Pixabay