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How to get your book published

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Find out more about my how to get your book published workshops here 

Whether you'd love to produce the definitive non-fiction work on a topic you're passionate about, write a children's book or haul out that half-finished novel from your bottom drawer and turn it into a bestseller, getting a book published is a major ambition for many people.

One route is self-publishing, which is now an extremely viable option that I will cover in my next post. But getting a book deal with one of the large publishing houses such as Penguin or Harper Collins remains an ambition for many writers. So here are some tips to get you started. 

Do I need an agent?

Having an agent definitely puts you at an advantage. They'll know which editors are most likely to be interested in your work, understand the complexities of the legal and business sides of publishing and will almost certainly be able to negotiate a better advance than you could yourself. A good agent will also advise you on your career and stand up for you in any disputes (say, over your book cover or problems with the editorial process) with your publisher. In return, they take a 15-20% commission from your book-related earnings.

However, there are certain sectors of publishing where agents tend not to be used – such as academic publishing or where advances are likely to be small. For example, if a book looks likely to only attract an advance of £1K, then unless they felt it was going to generate significant royalties or had faith in your long-term career, many agents wouldn't feel it financially viable to take the book on.

How do I find the right agent?

The standard advice is to get a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and research the agents in there to see which might be suitable for you. Most have a list of authors they represent and from checking them out you'll be able to gauge whether a particular agency might be your sort of place – for example Darley Anderson has a fantastic stable of romance and crime writers, whereas Aitken Alexander Associates has authors of a more literary bent.

But don't let your research stop there. Most agencies have websites with more detailed information – a breakdown of which agents represent which particular authors within the agency, guidelines on how best to submit your manuscript and so on. It's always a good idea to submit to a named agent rather than the general submissions address as it's less likely to end up being read by someone's niece doing work experience on her gap year. It's also worth reading The Bookseller (available in larger libraries) for information about new agencies setting up – these are often started by established agents from large agencies breaking away and deciding to set up on their own, and as such are more likely to be looking for new clients. This is how I found my own agent!

And don't just restrict yourself to the conventional route – lateral thinking is a useful tool when it comes to getting an agent and here are some other ways of coming to their attention.

Competitions – The Romantic Novelists' Association and the Crime Writers Association both have competitions for aspiring novelists, and being placed in one of the literary short story competitions (see The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook for details) can help get you noticed.

Going to talks by agents Many literature festivals and writing groups have talks by literary agents – go along and hear their advice direct, then join the queue of aspiring authors eager to talk to them afterwards. If it feels right, you could even give them a couple of chapters there and then. Now obviously none of this is possible during lockdown - but some agents are giving seminars at online book festivals so book in. Following them on social media can also be a useful way of finding out more about what they're looking for 

Standard guidelines usually involve sending - 

The first three chapters and a synopsis of your work

Non-fiction books can often get a deal on the basis of the initial chapters, whereas with novels, agents and publishers tend to want to see the completed manuscript, to ensure that you've managed to keep the momentum going rather than fallen into the common problem of getting off to a cracking start and then having your novel sag in the middle like a Victoria sponge. But just send the first three chapters of your novel initially – if they want to see more, they'll let you know. A synopsis is usually one or two pages long, but individual agents have their own preferences. Check out agency websites for their requirements and stick to them.

A covering letter This should include a brief summary of your book, who you see the potential readership as being and some information about yourself and why you're particularly well-suited to write it. Whatever you do, I implore you not to say that your family and friends loved your book (or in particular, that your children did if you're writing a book for youngsters) – it really makes agents and editors cringe. If you have any ideas for future books, it's a good idea to mention this briefly – it'll give the agent an idea of where your career is headed.

Selling outline If your book is non-fiction then adding a 'selling outline' can be helpful. This would go into greater depth about the potential readership, your qualifications to write it and why it's better for the competition. For example, if your proposed book was 'Caring for your Gerbil' your selling outline would give figures for the number of gerbil owners, mention the fact that you've spent ten years as features editor on Gerbil Keeping Today, and give reasons why your book would be better than other current titles in the field.

Do I send my manuscript to one agent at a time, or do a group mail-out?

This is a tricky issue, and not one with a clear solution. Many agents don't like the idea that you might be approaching others at the same time, but bearing in mind how long it can take to get a response from an agent (up to six weeks) the whole process can end up being dragged out for ages. And of course, the agents won't necessarily know you've sent your work to others (unless you tell them, or they happen to hear via gossip) – so really, it's up to you what approach you take.

What if I get rejected?

Rejections come in two varieties. Standard – just a photocopied, 'many thanks but our list is full' letter, or Personal – where the agent has taken time to give you feedback on your work. The latter are far more encouraging, as they wouldn't bother if they didn't think you weren't at least roughly on the right track.

How should I approach and deal with publishers direct?

If, for whatever reason, the agent route isn't right for you then it's worth approaching publishers direct using the 'first three chapters, synopsis, selling outline and covering letter' formula outlined above.

If they offer you a deal, it may be possible to get an agent after the event. Alternatively it's worth joining the Society of Authors – they'll accept you if you have a contract and often will allow you to join on the basis of considerable journalism experience. They examine members' contracts and give advice free of charge.

Money, Money, Money

How advances and royalties work

The usual practice for authors is to be paid an advance and then royalties on top if the book sells well. To give an example, if Jane Jones sells her book 'Caring for your Gerbil' for a £9k advance, she will get a percentage of the cover price as royalties - approximately 50p per copy for the average paperback. Once it has sold 18,000 copies, the advance is said to be 'earned out' and the extra 50ps go to her. However, if it only sells 2,000 copies, Jane will still get to keep the 9k – you don't have to give unearned advances back. An advance is usually paid in three chunks – one on signing the contract, one on delivery of the manuscript and one on publication – so Jane would get 3k each time.

Some advances are modest, but go on to make huge sums in royalties. For example the first Harry Potter book sold for £2K advance but has gone on to make millions in royalties. However some books get paid high advances that never get earned out – David Blunkett and Greg Dykes memoirs both fall into this category.

Large advances tend, on the whole to go to high-profile politicians and celebrities who publishers believe can generate the publicity needed for high sales – though sometimes less glitzy authors can get them too, especially if it's thought the book might have some special appeal or is capable of bagging one of the big literary prizes. On average, first advances tend to be in the £2k-£15K range, but with potential for foreign rights on top of that if it has overseas appeal.

Some publishers offer just a flat fee, without royalties - maybe as low as 1k for as many as 20,000 words. Only you can decide if this sort of figure is worth your while.

Who makes the money from a book's cover price?

For a £6.99 paperback, these are some guideline figures

£4 to the retailer

52p to the author

50p cost of production

70p cost of distribution

35p cost of promotion

And the remaining 92p pays the publishers bills and wages.

Special promotions It's not widely known that Waterstones and other publishers charge publishing companies for their books to be in special promotions such as 3 for 2s (costs about £10K to be on one of those front tables, £6K to be Read of the Week, £25K to be in the Christmas Catalogue and so on. Also, the books have to be 'chosen' publishers will put them forwards and the chain buyers will select them. It's fantastic if your book is chosen to be part of such a promotion, as it'll give it a real boost, but the decision about that tends to be taken by the very top brass in the company and it's unlikely that, as a first-time author you'll be able to influence the process directly (though if you've got a pushy, confident agent who really believes in your work they may well urge it on your behalf).

The editing process

Editorial input can vary from 'thank you very much' to 'please rewrite this from start to finish'. Much of the input offered by editors is invaluable – they can tell you if you haven't developed a scene sufficiently, whether your clues about who the murderer is are either too obvious or too obtuse, or point out that you've repeated facts and figures from Chapter 2 in Chapter 8. When the editor-author relationship works well, it's wonderful. But it can run into difficulties if the editor is urging changes that the author doesn't want to make. How you deal with this situation can depend on a lot of things such as your level of trust in your editor, your belief in yourself - and how well you handle conflict.

Your book cover

Everyone agrees that book covers are vitally important – but creating the jacket most likely to appeal to the book-buying public can (like most things in publishing) be a tricky business. There are often fashion trends in book covers – for example, after the success of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, other historical authors had their jackets designed in a similar style. Publishing houses tend to get nervous about author's wanting to get involved with their cover, in case they put forward their best friend/their daughter/their sister-in-law ('she's terribly artistic') to design it. However, if you're tactful about it, you can have some input. I went to the library and photocopied book covers I loved and ones I hated and sent them to my editor with a note saying 'Please pass these on to the Art Department and ask them not to give me a cover that's going to make me cry'. And I adore both my book covers!


When a publishing company is deciding to take you on, one of the factors they'll be taking into consideration is whether they think you're a 'promotable author'. Often this means – are you young, beautiful and famous (or have you slept with someone who is famous)? But if this doesn't apply to you, don't despair! 'Promotable' also means articulate and passionate about your subject. Publishing houses love it if you seem like the sort of author who'll be happy to give talks at literature festivals, go on the radio or bare your soul talking about any personal topics raised in your books. Having said that, how much publicity does actually sell books is debatable – JK Rowling and Louis de Bernieres are both famously shy, but it doesn't appear to have done them any harm.

So is it going to be worth my while?

That's a question only you can answer. As the author John Steinbeck once said, 'Publishing makes horse-racing look like a nice, stable occupation.' The financial rewards of writing a book vary wildly, but even if you don't make much cash out of it, there are other benefits to be considered. Being an author can mean you're taken more seriously in your professional field, and opens up other opportunities, such as teaching. And of course it means that you've moved on from being one of the people who only talks about getting a book published to one of the rare few who's actually done it.

Good luck!

I run workshops on How to get your book published via Zoom - here are the ones scheduled for for  August and September 2020 - cost £16
Do email me at maria@mariamccarthy.co.uk if you'd like to go on my mailing list for future courses. I also offer 1-2-1 publishing advice sessions, £45 for 45 minutes.

Maria's books published by Simon and Schuster 

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