How to get a book published
Have you ever dreamt of writing a book and seeing it on a shelf in a bookshop? Do you read a novel and think ‘I could do that?”
It is said that everyone has a book inside them, but how does a new writer, having written their book, find a publisher? Do you really need an agent? Is it worth considering self-publishing, perhaps digitally?
Catherine Stafford organises the Orwell Writers Group in Suffolk, and she asked them for their thoughts.
“First and foremost, enjoy the process of writing. Meet up with like- minded folk for support and sharing of ideas. Take every opportunity to learn about writing – .by reading extensively, attending courses, following online writers’ blogs. Whether you are writing for fun or with an eye to earning money from your work, learn as much as you can, and keep writing to improve your skills,” they said.
Most members of writing groups enter the many writing competitions that are around.
“The challenge of writing to the strict rules of competitions (word count, content, layout etc) is very good discipline for writers, as well as being fun. The chance of winning, and therefore seeing your work in print, is an added incentive, which probably explains their popularity,” concluded the Orwell Writers.
Sam Ruddock is a publisher with Gatehouse Press, director of Story Machine Productions, worked as the Programme Manager with the National Centre for Writing in Norwich for ten years and is now the freelance Project Producer for their Inn Crowd project, which puts live literature shows into rural pubs across the country. He is also a writing and life coach, and runs memoir writing workshops
“There are two reasons people want to write down their life story. Things happen to us and, through writing, we can start to feel we have agency in our lives. It can also be therapeutic in working through difficult things in our past. And then there are people who just have a desire to share their life with other people,” Sam explained. “Whether that’s for family and friends – a book that ten people read – or being a mega star, it doesn’t matter, it is the urge to share one’s story”
What are the chances of finding a publisher for a memoir?
“Realistically, relatively low. The problem with the literature industry is that there are more interesting stories to be told, than there is capacity for readers to read them or publishers to publish them. Some good books – some REALLY good books – don’t get published or take years and years to get published. I tend to think, if you are doing it just for the end goal of publication, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. If you are doing it for yourself and enjoy the process of writing, then you are setting yourself up to succeed whatever happens. Chance plays a role. All a writer can do is try to do their best work and come away from it feeling they have created something worthwhile”.
With the opportunities for digital self-publishing, is that worth an author considering?
“In some ways we’ve gone back to more of a 19th century model of publishing where some people publish through publishers and others pay for their own publication. I think each circumstance is different and you can have great success as a self-publish author – and you can be published and still fall through the cracks,” Sam warned. “I would say to all writers keep both in mind and explore what your strengths are. If your strengths are marketing, building communities and talking to readers, then you might succeed very well in self-publishing. If, like me, it’s an area that you are weakest at, then self-publishing is a terrible idea!”
Publishers prefer to deal with an agent rather than a direct submission, probably because, when they are faced with a pile of manuscripts, there has already been some ‘quality control’.
A literary agent will charge a fee, usually of 10-15% commission on sales in this country, 10-20% for film and television rights but, hopefully, should raise more than they charge.
Andrew Lownie is an author who runs the UK’s most successful writer’s agency so is ideally placed to give advice to new authors on how to find an agent.
“Authors come through the most circuitous routes and for the most extraordinary reasons. One told me recently he had selected my agency because it was conveniently near Victoria Station!” Andrew said. “Most come on personal recommendation from an author, editor or even another agent (since we all have different specialities and some agencies are more acquisitive than others). Authors may read articles by agents, hear them speak to various organisations or, if they have famous clients, may read about them in the papers. Sometimes we approach public figures or someone we have read about in the paper, who we think might have a good story, and offer representation.”
How should an author approach an agent?
“Most agents only accept submissions by email, which should consist of a cover letter, synopsis, and some sample material. Additionally, for non-fiction they may ask for an author profile, a short note on competing books, sources, and possible marketing outlets.”
He advises about which the books that are less likely to be commissioned.
“Unless one is a household name or has had a particularly exciting life or miserable childhood, steer clear of autobiography. Equally the fact one has backpacked to India does not necessarily mean one can turn one’s experiences into the travel book we have all been waiting for. The market for poetry, political polemics, books on obscure hobbies and novels set in the worlds of accountancy or journalism is limited.”
For new writers it is not all bad news. There are other ways to share your writing.
BBC Radio Norfolk and BBC Radio Suffolk are both involved in the Upload project, inviting listeners to record their music, poems, thoughts, experiences and stories for broadcast on a weekly evening programme and online.
Suffolk libraries are also helping new writers with Suffolk Writes, a project giving the opportunity to make a written work available to Suffolk Libraries customers to borrow.
“If you have written a novel, short story or poetry and you want people to read it then this is the project for you!” they advise. “You’ll retain the copyright of any material you submit to Suffolk Libraries and you’ll be listed as the publisher in the catalogue entry, ensuring it is a truly self-published ebook. Your work will be read by a volunteer reviewer before it is added to our catalogue to ensure that it meets our collection policy criteria. They will be looking at things like the overall presentation, spelling and grammar and the content of your work.”
If you have had the dream of being a writer, every published author usually has the same advice – if you want to write, don’t just talk about it – do it!
NB: This article was first published in an online Suffolk Norfolk Life, May 2020