How to Get Published - Part 1
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Aim for these selling points and you’re far more likely to land a publishing deal.
Before I get into the list, my top advice is: get an agent! It’s been said before and there’s a reason for that. It makes life infinitely easier to have an expert on your side with a ready-made network they can pitch your book to and someone experienced in vetting those complicated contracts. Just wait until you learn about royalties breakdowns. And I hear you say ‘But it’s not that easy getting an agent’. Very true, they get thousands of submissions a week (possibly a day depending on the agency). The reality is, however, that most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors. Publishers rely on agents to filter through what is likely to sell and condense a book’s sales points into something digestible without having to read an entire book - we simply don’t have the time to read every single submission. If you’ve been unsuccessful in finding an agent, then here’s a brief but comprehensive list that might help you get one. In this post I’ll focus on ‘the Book’ and in Part 2 I’ll offer advice about ‘the Author’.
Does the book have a unique but familiar voice?
Assuming your book has many of the essentials publishers are looking for (fiction: complex characters with satisfying arcs, believable plot and dialogue / non-fiction: has a compelling thesis and discusses specific subjects in detail) what will make your book stand out is the voice. You want your writing to be memorable, but for the right reasons, with a writing style that stands out from the crowd but doesn’t alienate readers. If your style is more avant-garde then that’s wonderful, we need more experimental writers to break the mould. But that’s an approach that doesn’t come without its risks. Some agents/editors might not ‘get it’ so your journey to finding a publisher could be in the hands of a smaller pool of presses instead of the wider industry. The issue with being too unique is that you get into uncharted territory and publishers are risk averse so they want something that reminds them of something else, but with a twist.
A helpful suggestion is to have your book read by friends/family/anyone willing and ask them: do you think this could have a wide readership? It’s a more specific question than the subjective ‘did you like it?’. The subject and themes also need to be presented so people can connect with them using the authors personal flair for making old ideas fresh. You may be writing a novel about personal trauma, experiences of poverty or racism or historical events (the thousands of books about the Second World War come to mind) but none of them will be written in your particular style, which is where an interesting voice and a unique take on a subject really matter the most.
Is the book timely?
A book that relates to current affairs, a new biopic or an anniversary year that will be widely celebrated are always in your favour. Publishers are perpetually looking for what’s hot because what’s relevant usually gets stocked front of shop to fulfil customer demand. So if the subject matter or themes of your book tie-in with what’s being talked about in the news then a publisher will spot the book's potential in receiving publicity through reviews, interviews and features. Publishers see the media possibilities behind these books and know that sales will follow.
Just as advantageous (if not more so these days in the era of social media) a timely book is more likely to receive word-of-mouth promotion through recommendations between friends and people whose opinions you value like bloggers, influencers, etc. Timing is also something not to be overlooked. Remember that the publishing timeline (which I’ll talk about in a future post) usually starts a year or more from when the book is signed. I don’t own a crystal ball so it’s difficult for me to say whether a topic will still be trending in a year but generally speaking the bigger and more international the conversation the longer it’s going to circulate, dip at some points and surge at other points in time. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a great example of a book that shot up in the charts on publication because it was timely, saw a decline in sales because other hot new titles were coming out that grabbed reader attention, then the resurgence of BLM saw the book shoot up again due to its saliency once more.
These things are difficult to predict but a publisher with a nose for understanding news cycles will be able to spot a book’s potential for sell-in and re-promotion months or years after publication, or what we like to call a ‘strong backlister’.
Does the book fill a gap in the market?
This is a tricky one because sometimes there’s a gap for a reason. Very few people ask the question: why isn’t there a book devoted to knitting patterns for slugs? The gap is explained by an absence of reader demand - nobody needs that slug book. On the other hand, a gap can also represent an untapped market that’s just waiting to be discovered.
One glaring example is that for most of publishing's history, black voices haven’t been championed by a mostly white industry producing books for a mostly white intended audience. But we’re seeing a shift now with books being published by black authors with black protagonists that revolve around a plethora of themes. This is a huge untapped market that has been just waiting there for someone to pay attention to.
You also want to address how wide or narrow that market is. If the book’s subject or themes are very narrow then it might be an untapped market but one not large enough to support the sales of the book. Amateur beekeeping wasn’t terribly popular 20 years ago, but nowadays we’re seeing an explosion of interest and memoirs and fictionalised stories of beekeepers (and in some cases books from the perspective of the bees themselves) are everywhere. Equally, there might be a bestselling book that opens up a market for other titles in the same genre. The Tattooist of Auschwitz led to the proliferation of Holocaust based fiction as a trending sub-genre within historical fiction. If you can demonstrate that demand exists, then a publisher is more likely to see the sales potential and want to sign up your book.
Is the book of local or national interest?
This one links to market appeal and forces you to think about which geographical areas are most likely to be interested in your book. In the author biographies that publishers use you’ll notice they often reference where the author lives. This isn’t by accident. We like to include this information to ensure booksellers at the local level are aware of a local author in hopes of receiving more support from them - a few independent bookshops hand-selling a title can make a huge difference. The same is true of a subject that centres on a specific region as local bookshops like to promote local subjects because their customers take interest in what’s happening in their part of the world.
On a larger scale, if a book is of national interest connecting with a country’s past or something specific that it’s dealing with culturally and politically (cue the Brexit books) then this is also a key selling point. And while authors usually think about their immediate surroundings - write what you know - publishers think globally. If they offer on a book they need to consider how it might perform in various different countries. Granted the main market for a UK-based publisher is usually the UK, but they’re also wondering how the book might sell in valuable Export territories such as Ireland, Europe, US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, South Africa, just to name a few. While you need to make sure your book appeals to a UK readership when pitching to a UK publisher, if there’s a particular Export interest in your book then that’s worth highlighting as it opens up the book to foreign markets and greater sales potential.
It’s crude to say but at the end of the day a book is a product that publishers need to bring to market. Everyone in the room can love a book beyond words but unless a publisher can find a way to sell your book successfully you’re less likely to convince someone to represent it. Do yourself a favour and follow these guidelines to improve your chances!
Next week I’ll cover the sort of authors that publishers are looking for, and while ‘bestseller’ is always much sought after, I’ll recommend some strategies for emerging writers. You can read Part 2 here.