So You Want To Be Published – Part 2: A Publisher’s Tips

Getting your book published is harder than ever.

Traditional format publishing is under increasing pressure from the rise of e-publishing and falling book sales, among other factors. This means publishers are becoming more selective about the manuscripts they buy and writers have to work even harder to be noticed.

If you’re in any doubt, ask straight-talking publisher Melanie Ostell.

No, you can’t just tap out a few words after dinner, pop the results in an envelope and expect an ecstatic publisher to drop by the next day with a fat cheque and some ideas for cover art.

Yes, you do have to work your backside off – often for years – with multiple drafts and plenty of research, not only into your own story, but your genre, publishing houses and the book-buying market. Even then, the chances of your manuscript being picked up are not great.

“It is very hard to get a literary agent,” Melanie says. “It is very hard to get a book published. Most writers won’t. That is the bad news. The good news is they still need something to publish so there are still opportunities.”

If you are committed to getting published, Melanie stresses the need to follow protocols for submission to publishers and agents. If you don’t, your words won’t catch a second glance.

So what is it that publishers look for?

“It is not just one thing, it is everything,” Melanie says. “It’s character. It’s dialogue. It is the story and the way it is told. You are looking for life. There has got to be a compulsion to turn the page.

“It is very easy for people who read a lot of manuscripts to work out what the ambitions of the manuscript are. They don’t have to be successfully there but you have to see that they are more than a rough diamond, they are nearly making it to the trajectory.”

How do we get them to look in the first place?

These are Melanie’s tips:

1.       Finish your manuscript

If you really want to find a home for it, whether it be a publisher or agent, you need a finished manuscript. It generally won’t be the first draft. You would have to have three drafts before you think about sending it out somewhere. It’s that refining and honing that is terribly important.

2.       Make it the best you can

It is terribly important that what you send to a publisher or an agent in the hopes that you are taken up by one of them is the best you can make it. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a writer who is worth being published needs to go out and pay a lot of money out of their own pocket for someone to dot the i’s and cross the t’s when it is still a high-risk venture. If they are good they will have done sufficient to go to a publisher or agent. Having said that, there are manuscript appraisal services that might charge $500-$800 and provide recommendations, but that won’t be a copy edit.

3.       Do your homework

For the writer who feels they have got a cracking story, whether it is high-end literary or commercial or chick lit or science fiction/fantasy, it doesn’t really matter. What needs to be done here is for the aspiring writer to do their homework. They have got to seek out a publisher where they feel their book would fit their list. Know what companies publish, what sort of books and what sort of books they feel theirs could sit next to. Proofread letters properly. You would be amazed how frequently people will submit their manuscript with someone from a different company on the address.

4.       Consider approaching an agent first

It is not essential for an author to have representation but it can help. If the supposed author has sent it (a manuscript) to publishers and they are sent back rejection slips, that can ruin their chances with agents.

Agents are a filter for quality. That is why they are there in many ways. Not only to work for the benefit of the author but as a filtering agent for the publisher. So priority will always be given to an agent as opposed to something in the slush piles.

5.       Follow submission protocols

Target a publisher, or three publishers, or an agent or two. You are quite within your rights to do multiple submissions, providing the publishing house accepts unsolicited manuscripts.

You must follow the protocols. Publishing is notoriously demanding, with very long hours and very tight deadlines, and people are busy.

It is not necessary to send the entire manuscript, just a synopsis and three chapters. If they like it, they will come back for more. Supply return postage.

Never, ever email your submission to a publishing house, even if they accept unsolicited manuscripts. It is incredible rudeness to do that. Print out a hard copy and send that.

6.       Cooperate with the publisher

Changes will be suggested, make no mistake about that. It is just the degree. It might be a case that the publisher thinks it might be 85 per cent there. Sometimes I suggest perhaps a couple of characters need to be conflated. It is too busy. It is just far too long.

Just because you have finally got to that point doesn’t mean you have finished at all. Once it is in-house, it is a whole different ball game. It will be professionally edited. It might be structural editing, substantive moving around or suggestions to create an extra chapter or two or a different ending.

These sorts of conversations will be had before the publishing deal will be offered, to check on the author’s willingness to take on board the comments and to work with the publisher. There has to be a tacit agreement by the author, if there are significant concerns by the publisher for significant changes to be made, to list it to the next stage and the author has to be willing to do that work with them. By and large, most of them (authors) are so fascinated by what the next stage is that they are willing to do that.

The most common submission mistake of novice writers is not doing their homework. “Not doing their research and targeting,” Melanie says. “Not focusing, perhaps trying to find the person in-house that likes your particular style of writing. It is also laziness – unfinished manuscripts, manuscripts half-baked.”

In short, do it properly or not at all. The submission process is a lot of hard work and you still might not see your name on a book cover at the end of it. As Melanie stressed earlier, in So You Want To Be Published – Part 1, you really need to think about why you want to be published before embarking on this gruelling journey.

A clear understanding of your own motivation, as well as perspective on how the industry handles novice manuscripts, might help reduce the sometimes agonising gap between expectation and reality.

And it might help if, like me, you’re the type to buy lottery tickets.


Melanie Ostell has just finished a 12-month stint as publisher at UWA Publishing and will return to freelancing, teaching and consulting in Melbourne. She was a senior editor at Text Publishing for more than 10 years and has worked with award-winning writers including Tim Flannery, J.M. Coetzee, Kate Grenville and Lloyd Jones. Melanie ran two publishing workshops, including manuscript assessment, at the Perth Writers Festival this weekend.

More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival >

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7 Responses to So You Want To Be Published – Part 2: A Publisher’s Tips

  1. Some great advice. Thanks 🙂

  2. Pingback: So You Want To Be Published – Part 1 | Waxings

  3. realanonymousgirl2011 says:

    It is great advice, but it makes the journey seem even longer.

    • Tamara Hunter says:

      True – it looks a little disheartening. On the other hand, look at all the authors who actually are published and who made it through the process! Including, I think we know, a lot of less than stellar books. I think good writing and good stories will always find a market. So if you have those, keep trying!

  4. romancingforthrills says:

    Thanks for this, really helpful advice, and a great reminder that editing and polishing is critical before even thinking about sending out.

  5. alphabetagemma says:

    Thank you for this insight – an interesting and very practical article. Makes me appreciate even more the writers who have managed to have their work published. They must be extremely flexible and, most of all, thick-skinned!

  6. Thanks for the good advice. I would just add that many agents/publishers now prefer e-mail submissions and may not accept paper anymore. It’s all about reading and following their particular guidelines.

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