Most articles about getting published insist that developing a polished manuscript is the first and most important step to publishing success. Although the quality of your manuscript is of key importance, however, it is not necessarily the best starting point.
Whether your goal is to write a book that will be traditionally published or whether you plan to self-publish, it is prudent to do some research about the book trade, and where your work will likely fit into it, before you pen chapter one.
If your goal is to produce a book rather than to get the book published, then by all means go ahead and write without any regard to commercial interests. You are free to do so and that process often yields beautiful results. If you’ve got your heart set on publication however, in today’s competitive market doing your homework is vital.
As writers, we often have an artistic vision for our work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is often an essential part of bringing our work into being. But we can’t afford to forget that publishing is a business.
Editors, agents and bookshops are working within a particular framework and, if you want your book to exist competitively within that framework, it makes sense to familiarise yourself with it.
Research the various genres
Often, the best first step on the road to getting published is to research the various genres on sale and decide which one of them your envisioned project fits into.
If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably spent plenty of time in bookshops or at online book retailers. But have you ever paid attention to how the books are organized? Where would your work be shelved in a bookshop?
By asking this important question, you set yourself up for publishing success in a variety of ways. If you are approaching traditional publishers and agents, you will be able to cogently explain where your book sits in the market. You will also be able to pitch yourself as an author that both an agent and a publisher can invest in long-term. ‘I am a thriller author with two books written and another three planned’ sounds much more professional than ‘I’ve written one book and I’m not really sure which genre it fits into; it’s got a bit of everything.’
This isn’t to say you have to pick one genre and write in it forever. There are tricks of the trade that allow authors flexibility - such as using different pennames for different genres.
If your main goal is to be traditionally published, however, it makes more sense to choose a specific kind of book to write and commit to writing several of them. Sometimes a book will be a one-off success, but publishers are usually more comfortable working with an author who writes for a particular audience so they can build their profile with that audience.
Even if you choose to self-publish your book, you will still need to know what kind of book you are writing so you can ensure it appears in the correct categories in online stores and guarantee that any advertising you put out is tailored to your audience.
Research your audience
Another reason to research first is that it gives you the best chance of writing something that your chosen audience will embrace. If you know what books have sold well in your target market, you can look at what they offer readers and contemplate how your work will offer these elements too. You will also be able to identify gaps in the current offering.
Is there a plot twist, a story element, a setting or a kind of character that hasn’t been explored yet in this kind of book? If so, this is your opportunity to do something interesting and experimental on the page. Or, if you are writing a non-fiction book, are you adding to the knowledge in this area or are you just regurgitating what has been written before?
If you know all this before you start your manuscript, you have the best chance of writing something that fits into an established market but also has something new to offer – a unique selling point that agents and publishers can use to market your book.
Building your platform
‘So step two is writing my book, right?’ Well, you could do that, or you could give yourself an even bigger chance of publishing success by building an author platform to grow an online following. This means
- setting up your own website
- building a mailing list
- creating social media pages or a Patreon page where readers of the genre or subject area can connect with you.
If you start your online platform before you start writing your book, any potential readers will be able to follow your writing journey. As they do this, they will emotionally invest in you and your work, which makes them more likely to buy your book.
The book market is tough. There is lots of competition and a potential agent or publisher is going to look more kindly on a writer who already has 5000 followers who engage with them on a regular basis than one who hasn’t got a following of any kind. If you plan to self-publish, those 5000 followers will be a great resource for you. You will be able to market your book to them directly and encourage them to leave reviews on the key book-selling websites.
Polishing Your Manuscript
Once you’ve got the above in place then yes, of course, your manuscript must be written and polished until it shines. Ideally, you will:
- Attend a writing workshop to get feedback and,
- Ask two or three readers to give you their honest opinion on what’s working and what left them cold.
If you’ve done all of the above before you contact an agent or self-publish your work, you will set yourself apart from many thousands of writers.
Getting a literary agent
Whilst the advice above will undoubtedly give you a head start in getting published, it’s important to remember that there is no one way of landing an agent and a book deal in the post-internet publishing landscape. Here are five avenues you could explore to connect with the right agent for you:
- #Pitmad:There are now quarterly #Pitmad events held on Twitter where you can pitch your book to agents directly via social media. You explain the concept of your book in 280 characters or less and the agents tweets in order to invite that author to submit their manuscript. This is essentially a process in which agents pre-register their interest in your work and is thus very much worth taking part in.
- Conferences and events:You could attend conferences or writing events that allow you to pitch your work to agents in person. Even if you’re not accepted the first time or receive some critical feedback, the next time you submit you will be able to reference your prior meeting with that agent. By re-submitting you’ll be showing your resilience – an essential quality for any writer.
- Build a strong social following:Some people start a blog or social media account, build it to millions of followers and then pitch to an agent or publisher purely on the strength of their following. Sometimes, agents or publishers voluntarily approach writers with a large platform. It’s not a guarantee, nothing is, but on the whole connecting with your readers tends to open doors for you.
- Competitions:You could enter competitions run by magazines and institutions, which award publishing contracts and representation to the winners. That way, the representation would come in the form of an ‘award’ which would no doubt generate a lot of media attention around your work. Alternatively, you could enter a range of short story and poetry competitions in a bid to get shortlisted and noticed by an agent. Agents do keep an eye on literary journals, if they like your voice you may well get an enquiry from them about a longer manuscript.
- Contact publishers directly:If none of the above works, there are several publishing imprints who accept direct submissions. If your work is accepted they can then recommend an agent for you. It’s unlikely an agent would turn down a client when a publishing deal is already on the table.
You could choose to bypass the traditional system entirely, hire an editor and self-publish your work.
Thanks to print-on-demand platforms developed by the likes of Amazon, IngramSpark, Kobo and Lulu.com, there are cost-effective ways of successfully publishing your work under your own steam. I don’t want to fool you: it is a huge time commitment to single-handedly organise everything a publisher would traditionally organise for you. But if creative control is important to you it might be the best way to get your work in front of readers.
Whatever route you choose to take, remember that old adage: knowledge is power. Writing a book is no small feat and if you’re going to invest your precious time in a writing project with the aim of seeing it published, then developing your professional understanding of the field you’re delving into will put you in the best position to achieve your goal.
City Lit offer a wealth of writing courses suitable for all levels - whether you're just starting out or ready to publish your first book. To find out more, please visit our Writing Courses page.
Helen Cox is a Yorkshire-born author and poet. After completing her MA in Creative Writing at York St John she self-published two non-fiction volumes before signing traditional publishing contracts with The History Press and Harper Collins. She currently teaches fiction and self-publishing at City Lit, and pens novels about a crime-solving librarian for Quercus Books.