‘There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist.’
‘Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.’
Kate Saunders on reading for the Orange Prize
So you’ve written a novel. What a feat! First, congratulate yourself. What do you do with it now?
Make sure it’s the best you can make it. Take it through a writing group, editor, beta readers and refine it ad nauseam. Writing is mostly rewriting. Remember that with agents or publishers you usually only get one chance per manuscript.
Then how do you get published in the current environment, which is saturated with good writing and where writing has been devalued (by Amazon – thanks!) many other forms of entertainment are on offer and publishers are by nature conservative?
As you ponder which method to try first, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How important is artistic control to you?
- How much do you value acceptance and prestige?
- What’s your financial situation?
- How important are royalties and advances to you?
- How much time do you have?
- What’s your tolerance for risk?
- Are you a multitasker, entrepreneur and social creature?
- Do you hope to make a living from writing?
1. Get an agent
Find an agent who’s interested in your genre and approach them. Some are on twitter and put call outs for specific kinds of work, some check writing groups on Facebook (so always behave professionally), and others can be found through website searches. Their websites will tell you if they’re looking and what they’re looking for. Don’t be restricted to your country if someone overseas specialises in your type of work.
Going down the agent route can be time consuming as they have lists to manage. The minimum wait to hear back is at least six months. But agents can work well for authors. I have two friends who write sci-fi and have been published this way.
2. Traditional publishing
Traditional publishing is for books aimed at a general audience. Often they’re published by multinational or larger independent publishers who have minimum sales targets. In Australia, a very small market, this means around 10,000 books. But with overseas and other rights, possibly more.
Publishing new authors is always a risk and publishers must be confident they’ll achieve commercial success now and in the future. Publishing a book takes around 18 months of work, so the decision to go with a new author isn’t taken lightly.
Check websites to see if a publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts (meaning you haven’t been published before and don’t have an agent) and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. A few offer one day a week when they’ll look at a small sample of work and contact you if they want more. Sometimes approaching a publisher, even if they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, can work too. But you’ll need to have a great hook to peak their interest so they read your synopsis. Make sure you’ve refined these along with your bio and similar books list to perfection. First impressions are everything.
3. Independent publishers
These publishers almost always specialise in certain kinds of books that appeal to niche audiences. Often, you can approach them directly, which is a bonus. But as a result, it can take a while for them to consider your work. Check writers’ centres websites and manuals of independent publishers in your country. Again, make sure you satisfy their submission requirements and your approach is professional.
Be aware that independent publishers have limited resources, which will mean more work for you in terms of building your brand on social media etc. to generate sales. ON the other hand, they go outside traditional boundaries and in Australia are wining major prizes.
Some people are avoiding the long wait of traditional publishing routes and self publishing. The many advantages include that you have full control, enjoy direct access to your audience, earn a bigger chunk of the retail dollar of your book and you can publish fast. It can be especially useful if your novel falls outside the bounds of typical publishing because of its nice audience, regionality, it’s experimental, has an unusual theme and so on.
But you’ll need to be the type of person who’s happy to drive the process deciding everything from the cover, editing, branding, what format to use (online only, if so with whom, or print to order etc.). Remember, you won’t be able to submit your self-published work into established prizes, although smaller self-publishing awards exist.
Genre books tend to do better than literary novels with self publishing. I have a friend who makes a living this way. She’s a fast commercial writer, highly disciplined and writes in the urban fantasy and chick lit areas.
5. Hybrid publishing
This is the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Usually this means the author pays up front to some extent.
Partnership publishing models offer authors willing to pay access to expertise, distribution, review sites and selling into the marketplace under a publishing banner that has a good reputation with booksellers. The manuscript will be vetted before being accepted or rejected, and will be subjected to the usual processes such as editing. This model is financially risky as the author’s investment may not be recouped. Publishers mostly don’t earn out their investments on books they acquire and partnership publishing is no different.
Alternatively, there’s vanity publishing, closely akin to self publishing, where an author pays a business to publish their work but not under their imprint. This won’t necessarily help your book succeed and is really about a business selling you a service for a profit. They usually don’t vet your work or care about editorial quality.
6. Form your own publishing company
This involves a lot of work, but if you’re an entrepreneur type and self-publishing doesn’t offer the kind of ‘legitimacy’ or recognition you desire, perhaps this is for you.
Going down this path means you’ll be responsible for choosing your genre and market, taking care of the registration aspects, creating a business and marketing plan, establishing distribution channels, knowing about bookshops and libraries, developing a network of reliable professionals such as cover designers, editors/proofreaders, getting on top of legal stuff like rights and options. Phew!
But this offers the opportunity to grow. Ask yourself, do you love the business of publishing? Will it allow you time to write?
7. Whatever you decide, network
Join your local writers’ centre, go to writers’ festivals, attend workshops and courses, and so on. In short, get to know the publishing industry and make valuable connections. From there you can decide what means suits you best. Having a name or being given a business card by an editor (a rare invitation to contact them) is a foot in the door.
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