Getting Published - An Essay
If you’re looking to have your novel traditionally published in Ireland, there are a dozen to fifteen publishing houses on the island as a whole that publish works of fiction. If you want to spread your wings and set your sights on the British market, the arena broadens considerably. But that doesn’t actually make getting traditionally published any easier.
Getting published in Ireland or Britain, or anywhere else for that matter, can be the easiest thing in the world, depending on your definition of ‘being published’. If you believe that self-publishing your novel or collection of short stories through the likes of Amazon or Smashwords is the way to go, then all you really have to do is go through what can be a somewhat convoluted process of formatting and submitting your completed opus and see it up there, titled, priced, and most important of all – with your name attached. Job is done.
Does this mean your work has been published? Released? Off-loaded? There is differing opinion depending on your view. Some writers are perfectly happy to see their novel out there in the virtual world, maybe a million miles down in the Amazon rankings, but still there, available to be bought and downloaded to your Kindle bookstore, or better yet – bought as a hardcopy edition and delivered to your door. Brilliant, I’m a published author!
Ok, I may not make a million, or even enough for a decent holiday, but I’m out there, sharing space with the great and good of the literary world. And it didn’t cost me an arm and a leg, or even a pinkie. And I can always say, at parties or the like, that I’m working on a sequel to my just-published first novel. How many can stand there with a straight face and a cocktail and say that?
A lot, seemingly. Probably a few million at this stage. And because it’s so easy to ‘release’ your novel, or its electronic version (e-book), there are no safeguards or requirements beyond the most basic formatting. No editor required. No critiquing watchdog. No workshop time or brainstorming sessions over your cover design, apart from your time on Google Art or some such like plaything where you can lift images for free.
Of course, there are many works of integrity released to the e-world, where material has travelled the long and often arduous road of repeated peer critique, several complete rewrites, the scorched touch of a professional editor, and long hours spent on cover and format design. These are the works that are slowly pulling the e-publishing world out of its ‘anyone can do it at the blink of an eye without any kind of editing’ trough. And people are making money, some substantial amounts. But isn’t that the nature of all publishing, where only the few rise to the top and earn a gazillion before teatime? The rest of us are happy enough picking up the change, content to see our work out there, even if it’s not being bought as much as we’d like.
And then there’s the ‘real’ world; traditional publishing where, if it happens - if my work is accepted - I can, hand on heart, stand there with my cocktail and say that I am a published author - my work has gone through the process of being polished to the nth by me and submitted to a literary agent who has liked it enough to look for my full manuscript, and who has then decided to take me on and put my work through the hard squeeze to get it just right to be able to bring it to the publisher’s acquisitions’ team where if accepted it will be put through their editing and proofing rigmarole before the design team get to it to make it ready for the shelf. Phew! My book on a shelf. How did it get there? Here we go…
There’s no point approaching a publisher unless you have an ‘in’. The majority of them simply won’t look at unsolicited submissions. From my experience, they rarely look at any submissions unless the author is already established; has a track record, or is personally known by someone within the company who basically has clout.
Why should a publisher take on an unknown, especially one who hasn’t been ‘vetted’ by a literary agent? Publishers know that when an agent approaches them with a prospective ‘sell’, the work will have been put through a rigorous evaluation process before it is deemed ‘ready to go’. It will have been one of thousands submitted, making up the fabled ‘Slush-pile’, and when deemed of merit by a team reader will have been moved up the reader line until it got the initial seal of approval from the agent and her/his editorial team. In doing this, many many more aspiring novelists will have received their rejection letter because, well, everyone can’t be accepted, can they?
Rejection, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean your work is sub-standard. Yes, it may very well mean that, but it’s often the case that agents\publishers can only represent a certain number of novels in the same genre, or that follow a particular theme. It’s a relatively small market out there, and everyone can’t be represented or published. That’s were self-publishing comes in, but we’ll get back to that later.
The accepted manuscript, before submission to the publisher, will have been worked on and developed by the agent’s team, and if the agent doesn’t have an in-house editor, they will go out and source one who will collaborate with the author and agent in bringing the best out of the prospective novel. That’s how it works, and publishers know this, which is why it’s in their interest to consider submissions from agents rather than untried authors.
Anyway, the publishers will put the manuscript through their own development machine, which is another reason why it’s in their interest to take on a work that has already been edited and developed. Literary agents know the score, and will have their client’s best interest at heart because, when it comes down to it, they receive 15% of the author’s advance, and up to 20% of foreign rights.
On average, and it’s important to remember that genre has a lot to do with it, 80 to 100 thousand words is the recommended limit for a first-time novelist. You will, however, find other opinion with suggestions that the likes of Fantasy and Sci-Fi can go up to 150K, but first-time novelists will rarely be accepted above 100K words. Established writers, especially those with a series, will have more clout within their publishing houses, and publishers are easier to convince when projected sales are in the positive end of the grid. Thriller writers, my own genre, target the 80 to 90K mark.
As a writer looking to be traditionally published, I’ll research the list of available agents and decide who would better suit my genre. No point sending my thriller to an agent who focuses on Chick Lit, Romance, or Horror. I’ll send the agents a query letter, providing succinct details about my project, and depending on the agent’s stated submission requirements I’ll include the first chapter to give them a flavour of my writing style, which will hopefully help them decide if they want to see more. Some agents are fine with an initial submission off a synopsis and the first three chapters, but it’s better to just send in the query and cover letter, and maybe that first chapter. It’s the query that counts anyway – first impressions, and all that. I’ll have about three paragraphs to sell my book, so I’ll have done my research to ensure my query is the best it can be. If the query piques interest, my submission skips the slush-pile.
If the agent likes what you’re proposing, they’ll ask to see the full manuscript, and if they like that, so begins the journey up the development ladder. This doesn’t mean you’ve been accepted, but it’s a start. The agent will make suggestions on improving the work, and depending on how those suggestions are received and acted on, the agent will decide whether or not to represent you. An editor will then be recruited and the real work begins, though this is all simply to have the work ready to submit to prospective publishers, but no-one knows the scene like an experienced literary agent, so you’ll at least know that the right doors are being tapped on your behalf.
All this will take time, of course. The normal response time from an agent is about three months, but it can take much longer. And that’s just the beginning of the journey to the shelf. All in all it’ll take about two years (or longer) for your first novel to get to the bookstore. When everything’s ready, the publisher will allocate a specific month for your launch, along with other books in its stable, and so begins your published journey. You’ll have the best shelf space for that month and its location after that will depend on your sales.
While this is happening, in a sliding-door world, the other me has decided to self-publish. I’m sick of waiting while so many of my writer friends are getting their work out there. I know self-promotion is the name of the game if I’m to enhance my chances of selling my ebook/hardcopy to the public so I’ve become a member of an Indie (Independent) promotions forum on Facebook where everyone shares their platform-developing expertise. I need to create and build on my author profile, setting up a website, with an active blog; a Facebook author page – connected with the ever-growing list of other Indie authors, and a Twitter account dedicated to my upcoming book, and also connected to the Indie network. I will guest-write on other blogs and reciprocate on mine, spreading the word and building my author profile with established and experienced authors.
I will develop a pre-publishing team of peer writers, critiquers, editors, blog-experts, who operate on a ‘tit-for-tat’ basis, much like a co-operative. With their assistance, and through thorough research, I’ll ready my manuscript and set a launch date. Then I’ll push it like there’s no tomorrow, using all the contacts I’ve accrued over the previous few months. I’m not here to sell to friends and family, and I’ve learnt there’s no point rushing this as ‘regret at leisure’ is a hard lesson to learn when your new book slips, at speed, into the abyss that is the wider e-book world.
I’ll have my pre-published novel reviewed by established and selling authors, sharing on my blog and Facebook page, urging my followers to share them and pump up the energy of expectation before launch. I’ll also target local and national newspapers and radio stations, sending them positive reviews from other authors. Then I’ll hit the Publish button and release it on Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, or Barnes and Noble’s Nook. Both companies also practice efficient POD (print on demand) so my book can be bought and delivered as a hardcopy version. On release, I’ll push constantly for positive ‘high-star’ reviews on Amazon, getting my Indie network to vote up 5-star, and knock down low-rate reviews. It’s how things work and it’s imperative that it is exploited by a new author. No reviews, or low reviews do not sell books.
As all this is happening, I’ll be working on my next novel because the self-publishing route is one where quantity and not just quality counts. Traditionally published novels fade away after a certain amount of time, whereas e-books can be boosted and kept in the author’s back catalogue, easily accessible to all with the internet to hand.
There are other self-publishing avenues, but they all cost money and so must be thoroughly researched before committing yourself and your finances. I could have paid to have my e-book formatted, but that would have cost me up to six or seven hundred Euro, when all I had to do was research the process and rely on the willing assistance of my Indie friends. I could have gone the Vanity route, paying hard cash upfront for printed copies of my novel, but why would I do that when I can just as easily upload to Amazon, publicise my novel, and have anyone interested simply order it from them. No, it’s difficult enough to make a profit, especially with the huge numbers of e-published material out there now, so it’s best, in my opinion, to do the research, train yourself up on whatever needs to be done, and…do it.
The one thing I agree to forking out on is the services of a professional editor, but this needs to be properly researched at well. You need to be sure you have the right one for you. A good editor will provide a sample edit before money comes into it, so it’s worth sending them an excerpt before committing.
If you’re not ready yet to publish, or if you want to develop your profile further in the hopes of enhancing your chances of being traditionally published later, you can always send excerpts of your novel (stand-alone chapters/scenes), or your short stories to online literary journals or literary magazines (many of the latter will pay to carry your work). Lists of these can be easily sourced on the internet. As with any kind of submission, it’s not a guarantee, so it’s important to have your work polished and ready-to-go, and also to make yourself aware of the target’s submission guidelines.
Another way of showcasing your work is to submit it to discerning fiction blogs that receive high reader levels. These blogs are generally genre-based, which tends to make it easier to find your excerpt or short story a home. You need to be careful, though, as many publishers will view such work as previously published and there may be a problem with first-publication rights. If it’s just an excerpt, there may not be a problem, especially if the agent/publisher really wants your work.
So there you go, there are several avenues to explore in aspiring to bring your work to a published status. You can pursue the traditional route; submit to an agent/publisher and play the waiting game. You can develop a strong author platform, using the internet and other media, before self-publishing. You can outsource to a self-publishing company, or a Vanity press, but make sure you know what you’re getting into. You can submit your short stories or novel excerpts to online or print competitions and literary journals. Many choices, but the one thing you must ensure is that your work is in the best condition it can be before it is released. Once it's out, there’s no going back.