When I meet aspiring authors who haven’t yet dipped their toes into the publishing world, or have but it was yonks ago, a question I often get asked is: how does a writer get published nowadays?
So this one’s for you, folks! Let’s assume you’ve written a novel (maybe with the help of one of my workshops? Click here for more information), made it as perfect as you can with several rounds of revisions and now it’s ready to be read by more then you, your mum and your writing group. In fact, it’s ready to potentially make you some money. What do you do next?
There are three roads you can go down which I've briefly laid out. I then delve into them in a bit more detail below:
1. The literary agent route: Many of the big publishers will only take submissions via a literary agent. So this means you need to submit your novel first to a literary agent. If one takes you on as a client, they will then send your novel out to several publishers on your behalf. If you get a book deal, your novel will then have a great chance of getting onto the shelves of high street retailers like Waterstones and the supermarkets, and online retailers like Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books and Google Books. Income potential: Most larger publishers will offer an advance, paid in instalments such as signing of contract, submitting of final draft and publication of novel. Debut advances range from the low thousands to the hundreds of thousands (rare!). The average is about £5-10k. Once sales of your books have made your publisher enough to cover your advance, you will receive a percentage of the income your publisher receives for each copy sold of your book (known as royalties). This is usually about 11% on print, 25% on digital. An agent will then take commission, usually about 15%. This is why a lot of writers are poor, ha ha. No, I kid, I'm doing this full-time now making more money I did working my full-time office job, so it can be done and is by many authors.
2. The direct submission route: Some publishers have what is called an ‘open submissions policy’ which means you can submit your novel via their website or email. Your submission will then be read to see if it's the right fit for the publisher. With this route, there is no need for a literary agent. Many of the publishers who accept unagented submissions are digital-first, meaning your novel will first come out as an ebook via websites like Amazon. If it does well, then it might be printed too. Some of the large publishers will have ‘open submission’ periods too, usually lasting a month or more, where you can submit directly to them. Income potential: A lot of open submission publishers won’t pay an advance but you will get a higher percentage in terms of royalties, eg. 40% on digital copies. As you're not using a literary agent, you won’t have to pay any commission on this.
3. The indie publishing route: This is where you are in charge of publishing your novel yourself, forking out for elements ranging from book cover design to editing. But the return in terms of royalty percentage is much higher. Eg. 70%. But you won’t have the backing and support of a publisher.
Right, let’s delve deeper…
The literary agent route
If you want to see your books on shelves at places like Waterstones and WH Smith, then the literary agent route is your best bet as the big publishers (the ‘Big 5’ as they're known, so HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan) will only take submissions via literary agents.
I'd argue the 'Big 5' is now the 'big 6' if you include Amazon, which has its own in-house imprints like Lake Union and Thomas & Mercer, and operate in a similar way to the 'Big 5' when it comes to submissions, usually only accepting submissions from agents. Or they've been known to approach authors, often indie authors, who are setting the Amazon charts alight. While you won't see your books in places like Waterstones, you will get the might of Amazon's epic influence and marketing clout behind you. They also pay advances unlike other digital-first imprints but will also offer competitive royalty percentage.
So, what does getting a literary agent involve? It’s a bit like applying for a job: a short covering letter giving some details about your background, your book and why you think they’d be a good fit for you, then a sample of your work and often a synopsis which is an overview of the novel. If they love the sound of you and your book, and think editors at publishing houses will too, they will offer to represent you. Often, they will then work with you to fine-tune your novel with their expertise and knowledge of the market in mind, then they will submit it to editors at the imprints of various publishing houses. Each publishing house has an ‘imprint’ which focuses on particular types of books. So my UK publisher is HarperCollins, and I am published by one of their imprints, Avon Books, which focuses on commercial women’s fiction and crime. A good agent will know the editors at these imprints and will compile a list to submit to. They won’t necessarily just submit to the big publishers. They may also submit to smaller independent publishers who are often just as great to work with.
Your agent will also be able to negotiate translation deals and more for you. Mine advised me to retain translation and world rights, meaning I've made a really good income from getting book deals in in the US and translation deals around the world. This is more than what I might have done if I'd sold world translation rights to my publisher as publishers will often sit on these rights and not do much with them.
Getting an agent doesn’t guarantee you a book deal straight away. But a good agent is in for the long-term and will advise you what to write next then submit that novel for you too. If you do get a deal, then your agent will then take a cut of any advances and royalties you receive. You should NEVER pay an agent upfront. In my view, a good agent is worth this cut. This is not only because it's the only way to get your novel read by editors at most publishing houses but many agents will edit your novel with you before it goes out out on submission. They can also help you make a lot of money via translation deals. Plus they can offer amazing advice and be a brilliant sounding board. Honestly, my agent Caroline Hardman is a bloody godsend!
Is it hard to get a literary agent? Yes but then it’s not exactly easy to get published. Many authors will get dozens of rejections before they land an agent. Rejection is part of this business.
For more information on the process of querying agents, I think this article is pretty useful.
The direct submission route
There’s not a great deal to add here on top of what I talk about above. The process of submitting your novel direct to a publisher is much the same as querying an agent. Just know that without an agent, you won’t have help deciphering contracts and it will be difficult to make money with translations deals and more. Of course, there are advantages of submitting direct though: one less hurdle to jump over and also, no 15% commission to pay to an agent.
However, it’s worth noting that publishers who take direct submissions will often not pay advances and are digital-first publishers, meaning your book will be out as an ebook first unless is sells brilliantly. But your royalty cut will generally be higher, more like 40% for digital sales instead of 25%.
The same word of warning applies here too: you should NEVER have to pay anything up front for a reputable publisher to publish your work. There are publishers out there who will ask for payment for things like editing and so on, but usually these are vanity presses who you should avoid at all costs. Some authors who can’t get an agent or a publishing deal but hate the idea of doing it all themselves through indie publishing could seek out a reputable business who can help them get their book out there. But I think you're better off publishing it yourself… or writing another book. Sometimes, it takes a few books to hone your craft and finally hit the jackpot.
For a list of publishers who take submissions, see this website. My publishers take submissions for their digital-first imprint, click here for more information. Bookouture, who publish me in the US, also take open submissions. Click here for more information.
The indie publishing route
Hands-up, I used to be a bit of a snob when it comes to indie publishing, or self-publishing as it’s known. But the world has changed and authors are doing some seriously exciting stuff in this area. In fact, JK Rowling is an indie author in many ways. She retained the digital rights of her novels and is publishing them herself via Pottermore, after all.
If this option appeals to you, you need several things: a business mind, a bit of money for the initial outlay (I really wouldn't recommend designing your cover yourself and getting a professional editor is key) and some savvy when it comes to marketing. You also need to accept it’s very unlikely you’ll see your books on the shelves of high street stores. The outlay of getting books printed can be high, and then convincing stores to stock your novels near on impossible. So this route really suits those happy to publish digitally.
Don’t assume your novel will get noticed if you publish it yourself. You need to put a lot of effort in without a publisher helping you with their contacts at the retailers, their knowledge and support. But if you do manage to get heard above the noise, the benefits can be amazing, not least because you get a much higher % of the profit. However, you really need to weigh this up against the fact the trad publishing route gives you a better chance of being heard above the noise. People may argue this isn’t the case but in my experience, I really believe it is.
To start exploring this area, visit the guru of indie publishing Mark Dawson’s website at https://selfpublishingformula.com/spf-resources/ and the Creative Penn is fab too: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/resources/
To sum up, the market can be a tough one to crack, regardless of what route you go down. But talent, grit and perseverance is key and whatever route you choose, the rewards can be wonderful. If you live in the UK then I am running workshops to help with all this. Click here for more information.
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