These tips were derived from several sources, including guest speakers at the London Writers Society. Sometimes, these sources disagreed with each other, e.g., about whether self-publishing was a worthwhile pursuit. (A speaker who worked for a large publishing company said no; a speaker who had successfully self-published said yes.) In compiling this document, I have favoured points that were not too vigorously disputed by multiple authorities; and I have occasionally noted points of dispute.
This list of publishing tips has no pretensions of being exhaustive.
The Three Fundamental Rules of Getting Published
1) Get an Agent. Major publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts from non-agent-represented authors. Such manuscripts are either immediately returned or discarded. (The backlog of unsolicited manuscripts that were never read was simply getting too huge, 14,000+ such manuscripts in the case of one major publisher. Also, the publishing houses could potentially be sued for losing submitted manuscripts.) An implied theme was that agents served as a ‘first gate’ of the industry—if an agent is willing to represent a manuscript, the publisher at least has some assurance that the script is not complete dreck. Also, an agent can give authors some late-stage advice on bringing a manuscript to a saleable state. Furthermore, one speaker asserted that an agent is utterly necessary to navigate an author through the legal issues of publishing, e.g., 37-page contracts; issues of Canadian vs American vs international publishing rights.
2) Your manuscript must be completely finished. Have your book completely finished and highly polished, i.e., to such a degree that it appears ready to publish immediately (although all manuscripts, once bought by the publisher, are always edited further). Do not try query publishers with ‘ideas’ that you are considering writing about—they are not interested. The only possible exceptions to the previous rule are extremely well-established authors, or non-fiction authors with unique access to a topical current issue.
3) Be Professional. Reply immediately to contacts. Send manuscripts that are formatted to professional standards (which vary from publisher to publisher, and sometimes from genre to genre). It’s up to the author to research these standards.
Basic Principles of Selling a Manuscript
These tips, while oriented toward selling a manuscript to a publisher, are also pertinent regarding the struggle to convince an agent to represent your manuscript.
- Is the manuscript good? Is it readable? Does it tell a story? Does the story capture a reader from the beginning to the end? Does the story have a narrative arc? Note, this acid test, ‘does it have a narrative arc,’ was a refrain often repeated by one publisher.
- Is the manuscript ‘unique’? Does it have a hook? A twist?
- Is it publishable in the sense that the publisher feels that they can make money with it?
- Does the writer have a track record? This track record could be as a journalist, a playwright, etc – any profession that understands what a narrative arc is.
- Is the book worth the publisher’s effort/investment/time? One consideration of this is whether or not the publisher believes that the writer will be someone good for three or four books, since the publisher will be building up the writer’s marketability.
- Publisher’s publishing schedule. A major publisher will want to spread out the launch dates for books of a similar nature. The publisher may even have to turn down an otherwise publishable book because they are already scheduled to publish a similar project.
Finding an Agent: Search websites that list agents. Consider also guidebooks to agents. Seek out agents and advice about agents at conferences for your kind of genre. You can also go to the library and examine recent books similar to your own—check the ‘acknowledgements’ section for the name of the author’s agent. Approach the agents with query letters.
Agent Query Letters: A good query letter is essential; examine the web site “Query Shark” for advice on query letters. Query letters must mention the story’s conflict. All query letters must be addressed to a specific agent at the agency; if you’re not sure which agent to send it to, call the agency and ask the receptionist. When searching for an agent, you can submit simultaneous queries to multiple agents, but make certain that they understand that you are doing so. Try sending out queries in groups of five. Expect replies to take months. If you are getting no responses at all, re-examine your query letter (a good query letter sent to enough agents should be getting you occasional invitations to at least send in a partial manuscript). You can resubmit revised query letters to agents that refused you, but let some time pass first.
Choosing an Agent: Can you afford to be picky in choosing an agent? The answer is: “It depends upon who you are.” There really needs to be a good fit between an author’s needs and an agent, and if that fit is not there, then the author should consider trying another agent.
Agent Commission: Agents typically get around 10% commission.
Paying an Agent: A legitimate agent will never ask you for money. There are plenty of fraud ‘agents’ who will do so, often couching their demands as reasonable requests for expense money, e.g., for postage etc. No agent who asks for money is ever legitimate, and no such fraudulent agent will actually try to sell your manuscript.
Canadian Agent or American Agent: One speaker said that it does not really matter all that much. A good Canadian agent will travel to the U.S. and will have contacts in the U.S. market. Some bigger agencies have sub-agents in other countries. Notably, the speaker asserted that a good agent should be aware of the key difference between signing away all publishing rights versus just selling Canadian publishing rights; if the book proves to be a hit in Canada, the American (and international) publishing rights can subsequently be sold for a considerably higher amount.
However, a second speaker suggested that you should consider seeking a US agent, because Canadian agents are mostly interested only in established writers.
Approaching Publishers Directly: If you have an agent, you can still approach publishers directly. (General rule: Don’t wait for the agent to do everything.) Notably, this does not mean that you can directly approach publishers if you do not yet have an agent.
Self-Publishing / Vanity Press: One speaker from a major publisher suggested that publishing via this avenue is a go-nowhere, sell-nothing route. He quoted sales numbers to buttress his contention that, for all the anecdotes to the contrary, the self-publishing industry produces statistically insignificant sales. As for whether or not a major publishing house will pick up a book that sold well in self-published form and republish it, he said that this is extremely rare—he could think of only about two instances that this happened, and both instances were cookbooks.
However, other speakers at the LWS say they have had good experiences with self-publishing (e.g., through Lulu). They suggest that the advantages of self-publishing is that you control everything and get all profits; conversely, however, you must do everything yourself, including marketing the book, and will likely have to hire an editor to help out. Most bookstores won’t touch a self-published book.
Publishing Time Frame: From the time that a major publishing company buys a script to the date that the book actually appears in the bookstore is a period of five years. Exceptions are rare, and typically involve topical current non-fiction books. Major publishing companies typically plan for the market six years ahead of time.
Word Count / Page Count: In regards the eternal debate of how many words equal how many published pages, the answer from a speaker from a large publisher is: 150,000 words equals 200 published pages.
Another speaker suggests that, in terms of word limits, 75,000 to 80,000 words is a ‘cozy’ mystery, while 80k to 90k words is a typical mystery length. She suggests that going over 100k words is dicey for an unestablished author, unless the genre is fantasy, history, or thrillers.
Canada’s Major Publishing Companies: There are three major publishing companies that, between them, dominate the Canada fiction publishing market: Random House; Penguin; Harper Collins.
Major Publisher Author Payments: An author gets an advance payment plus 8% royalties from a major publisher. Note, however, that the author does not start receiving royalty payments until the book sells enough copies to cover the advance payment that the author has already received. In the majority of cases, the book does not sell that many copies, and hence most authors do not receive any payment beyond the advance.
Small Publisher Author Payments: The small publisher gives no advance, but pays higher royalties than the larger publisher. When dealing with a small publisher, verify who gets the rights to your book if the publisher goes out of business.
E-Books: The major publishers are not worried that the E-book is going to ‘ruin books’ at all. A speaker from a major publisher cited anecdotally that there is a ‘death of books’ scare due to the emergence of a new technology every five years. He suggests that research demonstrates the vast majority of people prefer paper books—and besides, those people who do buy E-books have to buy them from publishing companies and authors anyway. People’s preference for paper books means that the publishing industry will not be impacted by internet piracy of E-books in any major way. The speaker opined that independent E-books are not a significant competitor for publishing houses, since their manuscripts are of low quality.
Another speaker, who self-publishes, expressed a preference for doing so via E-books, in the sense that the writer gets a much larger share of the price that the E-book fetches than they would for a hardcopy book.
Blogs: The major publishing houses are simply not interested in publishing material from people’s blogs. One speaker cited, “Blogs are not writing. They’re typing.” When pressed to explain this, he cited that blogs have no narrative arcs. (And no real quality control.)
Editing: Even though your submitted manuscript has to be so thoroughly polished as to appear immediately publishable, the fact is that every manuscript purchased by a publisher will go through extensive further editing. In a major publishing house, this editing will include multiple editors looking at different aspects of the book, e.g., a line editor to examine grammar etc; a continuity editor; a story editor; and another editor that will examine the manuscript during final typesetting etc.
Suggested Resource Books
One speaker noted that there are a great many aids to authors that have been published, but he suggested a short list of these books that are particularly vital to getting an agent and then getting a publisher to buy your manuscript.
- 89th Annual Writers’ Market
- Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market
- Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market
- Poet’s Market, Writer’s Market
- Publish Your Non-fiction Book
- Canadian Press Style Book
- Guide to Query Letters
- Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
- 2011 Guide to Literary Agents
- Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, Literary Agents
- Get Published