Before you start worrying or searching Amazon, DON’T, because I personally haven’t written any books and have no intention so everyone can breathe deeply but… I get asked by so many aspiring authors and wannabe writers how to get published. The simply answer is “don’t ask me as I haven’t a clue” but a more helpful answer would be “let me ask my mates who are in the industry and I’ll get back to you.”
So with the help of my publishing friends, my best selling author mates and the wonders of Facebook, Twitter and Social Media I put out a call for helpful advice for those of you who have written your first book and now have no idea what to do with it. But, more importantly I wanted to give you honest and impartial advice as what NOT to do with it as so many inexperienced authors are jumping at their first offer, so desperate to be published and this post has been written to stop you making hasty decisions you may later regret.
Some of my contributors have asked to remain anonymous in this post and I will respect their wishes and some are delighted to share their advice, so I have plugged their books accordingly.
Hopefully you will find some useful links and advice below, but first here are some very important facts you should know before you read on.
- JK Rowling’s pitch for Harry Potter was rejected 12 times.
- Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers.
- William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 21 publishers.
- Agatha Christie had to wait four years for her first book to be published.
- John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before finding an agent who eventually rejected him as well.
- The Diary of Anne Frank had 15 rejections.
- James Patterson’s first book was rejected 31 times
- Lisa Genova, the author of Still Alice had over 100 rejections from agents.
- Kathryn Stockett, the author of The Help was rejected by over 60 agents.
- John Le Carré’s first novel ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ was rejected by a publisher with a despondent remark to his agent, ‘You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.’
- Louisa May Alcott: ‘Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.’ Those were the words of one publisher who passed over the manuscript for Little Women.
So if you haven’t actually been rejected yet, don’t worry as it’s apparently par for the course and if you have been rejected then CONGRATULATIONS and don’t give up.
OK, so let’s assume you have written your first book. You’ve asked your parents, neighbours, partners and kids to read it and they think it’s brilliant so let’s go get published right? Nope, sorry there are a few more things to do before you can start spending your advance, so let’s look at what to do next.
One of the best places to start is to purchase the WRITER’S & ARTISTS YEARBOOK 2021, the bestselling guide to all you need to know about how to get published, which is packed full of advice, inspiration and practical information. The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook has been guiding writers and illustrators on the best way to present their work, how to navigate the world of publishing and ways to improve their chances of success, for over 110 years.
It is equally relevant for writers of novels and non-fiction, poems and scripts and for those writing for children, YA and adults and covers works in print, digital and audio formats. If you want to find a literary or illustration agent or publisher, would like to self-publish or crowdfund your creative idea then this Yearbook will help you. As well as sections on publishers and agents, newspapers and magazines, illustration and photography, theatre and screen, there is a wealth of detail on the legal and financial aspects of being a writer or illustrator.
But enough from me, let’s ask the experts – these are people who have experienced the best and worst side of publishing a book and therefore know exactly what they are talking about:
Karen Sullivan – Founder & Publisher – Orenda Books:
Don’t underestimate the importance of being a debut. This gives you an edge and added opportunities in a very crowded marketplace, wth retailer and press interest, and multiple awards exclusively for debuts. You get ONE shot at getting that first novel right, so don’t waste it. As difficult as it may seem, poor sales or, indeed, a poorly reviewed book will mean that you are unlikely to get shelf space in future, or any real press coverage. If you leave or are dropped by your publisher, subsequent publishers will look at your sales history and review coverage and very likely decline to publish.
Consider your options very carefully. Grabbing the first opportunity is always a mistake. A good book will not ‘date’, and you should be prepared to wait until you find the right publisher, and wait until your book is as perfect as it can be. Being poorly published by a less-than-reputable publisher can be cataclysmic for your career. There are some authors I simply won’t touch because of their association with publishers I do not respect. Ask questions if you are offered a contract. What is the marketing spend and how much marketing will be done, and by whom. PR? Print copies? Links with ethical/key retailers? Sales team? Awards? Editing? How much input do you get on things like jackets and marketing visuals? Royalties and advances? All of this matters.
Hone it until it is absolutely perfect. Don’t think that because a publisher or an agent will edit means that you don’t have to polish it before they see it. Use as many independent beta readers as you can and take onboard all criticism and advice. You don’t have to follow it all, but you should be aware that if everyone is expressing the same concerns or picking up the same things, there is likely to be an issue. Seasoned authors will tell you that edits can be painful, but the most successful writers are prepared to make changes.
Similarly, if your submission is rejected by agents or publishers, think carefully about the reasons given. As much as you may disagree with any comments, you have to respect the fact that these are industry experts and know the market well. All publishers – big and small – have particular interests and tastes, and their list will reflect that, and the same goes for agents. Do your homework and make sure you ONLY send to the appropriate companies/agents. An early rejection for the wrong reasons can mean that your book/s will not be looked at again in future.
Criticism is designed to help you, and it’s important to take it onboard.
Being turned down by big agents and publishers doesn’t mean your book will never be published. Many are very commercially minded and less likely to take on something that is a little different. A good independent might be a better home for your book, and many indies are bold, very hands-on and hugely successful. Again, however, choose carefully. There are a LOT of publishers out there who do little more than slap a jacket on your book and provide an ISBN. This will harm your career. You need a publisher who will edit, market and sell-in your book with passion, intelligence and enthusiasm. All publishers are not equal.
Sam Eades – Publishing Director Orion Fiction.
Don’t write for the market, write for you
From toxic marriages to vampire/werewolf love triangles to small town mysteries – the book industry loves a trend – and when starting a novel it can be tempting to anticipate what publishers are looking for by hooking into trends and writing for the market.
However the publishing cycle is long – you might sign a contract but your book won’t hit the shelves until two years later – which means the zeitgeist has moved on and your book has already dated.
Think long-term not short-term when writing a novel. You are your book’s first reader, and are going to read your novel several times before it will be published. Fall in love with your characters and your stories, not the market – and your career will have longevity.
A new beginning
When writing it can sometimes take some time to feel your way into the story as your characters and the world develops. When editing your novel, forensically examine your chapter openings. Have you started the story in the right place? Could you plunge the reader straight into the action at a later point? Cutting your opening paragraphs can make a story more dynamic and hook the reader from the get-go.
Make your characters count
Having too many secondary characters in a novel can be confusing for a reader as they try and remember everyone’s name and role. Write a character list and be ruthless, who deserves their time on the stage and who could be cut? Sometimes amalgamating characters can really raise the stakes – and allow your protagonist to have more interactions and opportunities for drama. A protagonist’s dentist? Boring. A dentist who is also the protagonist’s husband’s mistress? Much more interesting!
Clare Mackintosh – British Author, Sunday Times BestSeller, Over 2 million copies of her books sold worldwide.
Firstly: CONGRATULATIONS! Finishing a book is no mean feat, and you should be really proud of yourself. Secondly: brace yourself – now the hard work starts. It’s really important to stay objective about your work, and accept that it’s very likely you’ll need to rewrite at least some of it. Unless your friends and family are professional editors (and unbiased ones, at that) they might not be the right people to give you feedback, so consider finding a critique partner or writing group, in which to share your work. Stepping away from your manuscript for as long as you can bear is really helpful; you’ll have fresh perspective when you come back to it, and feel less precious about changing elements.
When it comes to editing, it can be helpful to imagine a series of layers. Look at the structural side first: the plot, pace and tension. Once you’re happy with that, do a character edit, looking at motivations and emotional arcs. Finally, a language edit to tighten and polish your prose. When you’re ready to submit to agents, resist the temptation to mention that your mum loved it. Of course she did – she’s your mum.
Vaseem Khan – Bestselling Author – Winner of 2021 CWA Daggers Award
It took me 7 novels and 23 years to get a publishing deal. (I wrote my first book aged 17!) I’ve since written 7 novels, published by Hachette, had bestsellers, been translated into 16 languages, and won various awards including the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger 2021 for Midnight at Malabar House, a historical crime novel set in 1950s Bombay.
I mention all this to let you know that I understand how hard it can be to keep going. But you have to persevere! Here’s my best advice about the industry:
The first 5 pages of your submission are critical. Good agents are busy agents and busy agents won’t even make it beyond these if they aren’t gripped by the opening or the prose.
Edit to a professional standard before submitting – Six. That’s how many edits my novels go through before they finally hit the stands. These include two draft edits by myself, then structural and line edits by my editor, and then copy and proof edits. Polishing and refining your draft is incredibly important, especially when you’re an unpublished author and don’t have a publishing editor or agent to work on it with you. You want your work in the best shape possible before it gets in front of an agent.
If you pay for editing, select carefully – these days there are many online paid-for editing services that could really help your manuscript. But beware of inexperienced or fraudulent practitioners. Always check to see if the editor selling their expertise has a track record with a good publishing house or with published authors who have achieved some level of recognition or critical acclaim.
A good synopsis and covering letter are essential – plenty of advice can be found about these online. But the main thing to remember is that agents and editors need to see a viable market for this book. So be clear who this book will sell to and why. Compare it to similar successful novels/authors. Provide some details about yourself and convince the agent that you are serious about a writing career.
Pick agents who are actively seeking your genre. You can find this information via the print or online version of the Writers and Artist’s Yearbook, on social media or other writing festivals and events, in the acknowledgements sections at the back of recently published novels, and on the profiles of agents on their websites. Check out the sort of books they’ve represented before. If you’re writing golden age crime look for someone who has a track record of taking on golden age crime. (Note: There is a potential downside to this. Some agents may not want too many similar books.)
A career is based on multiple books – Agents and publishers rarely back just one book. That’s why most new deals are for two books. This is because they want authors who will be long term ‘sellers’. So if you do attract the interest of an agent be prepared to discuss your future plans. Do you contemplate a series? Have you got multiple standalone ideas? For an agent/editor the initial (heavy) investment of time in you has to pay off over the long term. And don’t be afraid to ask them how they see your career panning out, based on what you’ve said so far.
Don’t believe the hype – a lot of hype in the industry is generated by the bright new thing/ flashy debut. The truth is that most debuts fail to meet the targets set by publishers. So be realistic in your expectations. There won’t be any limos parking up in your driveway to take you to the Bookers. Instead, work on creating the best book you can and supporting your publisher’s marketing with whatever you can do on social media, etc.
Louise Beech – Bestselling Author:
Once I’d written my first novel way back in 2007, and had friends and family read it, I got a Writers’ Handbook (that famous red book we all love) and wrote to all the agents in there who might represent my kind of book. Got nowhere. Tried publishers then who would accept unsolicited submissions. Everyone rejected it.
Over the next eight years I wrote another three novels, did the same, and they were all rejected by every single agent and publisher. Got my deal with indie publisher finally in 2015 for the fourth book I’d written.
The lesson? You can’t give up if you want it. Since then all those rejected books have been published. This year I finally got an agent because I’ve written a memoir and a dystopian book that wouldn’t fit my current publisher. It was STILL tricky getting an agent even with six books behind me. None of my journey has been easy. You have to have a thick skin and absolute self belief. You have to be able to take criticism and then use it to improve your work.
Stephanie Butland – Best Selling Author
My journey to publication, once it began, was short. I submitted my memoir of my dance with breast cancer to an agent, via a competition in 2010. That agent – Oli Munson – took me on and since then he has found homes for my 2 memoirs and 6 novels to date. When I write that sentence I realise that all my childhood wishes have come true. (I didn’t wish for cancer, obviously, but I did wish for a shelf full of books with my name on the spine.)
Looking back over a decade, here’s what I’ve learned, and what I wish I’d known starting out.
As a writer, the only thing that’s truly under your control is: words on the page. That’s what deserves your time and energy and passion: that’s the place to focus and to strive. So long as you’re writing the best book that you possibly can, you’re doing the most important thing.
Writing isn’t fair. Though most books on tables in bookshops, and on prize lists and bestseller lists, deserve to be there, there are more factors than fine writing at play in the publication industry. Terrible books do well and brilliant books go unnoticed. Accept that this is the world you’re operating in, and don’t take failure – or success – personally.
Identify your champions – agent, editor, bloggers, reviewers, other writers – and trust them. Talk to them, ask their advice, believe them. You don’t have to do everything on your own.
Writing is a long, long game. Although a lot of energy and column inches go on debuts, chances are your debut won’t make your name. That’s okay. Most writers would say that their first book is not their best book.
Writing isn’t a competition. Readers don’t choose only one writer/novel/genre. Fellow writers are your companions-in-arms, and the best ones are your supporters and your champions too. When you’re published, aim to be a supporter and a champion to others yourself.
Writing is craft. Keep learning. Read, analyse, think. Push yourself to have one more look through your draft before you send it off. Listen to your editor, and believe your early readers when they tell you what doesn’t quite work. Strive to do better.
And remember – how I wish I’d known this! – that the best thing about a writing career is… writing. Yes, bookshop signings are great, and your book in your hand is amazing, and an appreciative email from a reader will keep you warm for weeks and weeks. But sitting down at the page and making things happen… that’s the joy. I implore you not to overlook it.
Bernie HellIer – Self Published Author:
A is for advertise until you can advertise no more.
B is for beta readers, you will need lots.
C is for a copyright page that is needed at the front of your book.
D is for the fabulous designer who will create your dream cover.
E is for editing, line, copy, developmental.
F is for urgh… formatting. Learn how or pay someone!
G is for Grammarly to check as much you can yourself.
H is for hybrid publishers if you can’t do it all alone.
I is for ISBN you’ll need one of these.
J is for the juiciest blurb. Do not give the story away. Create a hook.
K is for KDP, Fi here and download ‘Build Your Book’ a step by step idiot proof guide to self publishing.
L is for the launch team that you will create.
M is for marketing a necessity.
N is for Nielsen where you can purchase your ISBN.
O is for the online presence that you simply must build (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and maybe a website.
P is for proof readers who will check for mistakes.
Q is for question and answer opportunities. I like podcasts for this.
R is for reviews, just think of them as getting g blood from a stone
S is for signings. Go to your local library and sign a few copies.
T is for typos, leave them out
U is for up skilling, there is so much you can learn to do yourself.
V is for visibility, get yourself out there!
W is for website. You can sell directly from there if you like.
X is for absolutely nothing to do with self publishing that I can think of.
Y is for You Tube. Everything you need is there!
Z is for zzzzzz time to sleep if you’ve done all of the above
Steph Broadribb: Blogger to Author
I started blogging a few months before I started writing the book that would become my debut novel. I’d recently signed up for an MA in Creative Writing and I’d decided to blog about the classic and contemporary crime fiction I was reading from the course reading list. As the blog (www.crimethrillergirl.com) became known in the crime writing world I was offered ARCs to review and branched out from the reading list to reviewing new releases, interviewing authors and going to crime festivals and writing about the events. It was a lot of fun. It also enabled me to meet a lot of authors, agents and publishers and learn about the industry from people in it – something that was really helpful when I had a novel ready for submission.
After a false start with my first agent (see advice below!) my debut novel was bought while I was un-agented and was published in 2016. Later, I signed with my brilliant agent Oli Munson. Since 2016 I’ve had four books out with Orenda Books and two with Trapeze Books (as Stephanie Marland). In March 2022 the first book in a new series for Thomas & Mercer – Death in the Sunshine – will be released.
The advice I’d give anyone looking to get published is:
Be ultra picky when choosing your agent. One of the pitfalls for an author aspiring to be published is to jump at the first offer of agent representation. You hear so many stories about how hard it is to get an agent that as soon as one is interested it’s super tempting to sign immediately. My advice is to make absolutely sure you and the agent you’re thinking of signing with are a good fit. Can you have an honest, direct conversation with them (when things are going well and badly)? If you want your agent to have lots of input to your drafts, is that how they work? If you don’t, how hands off are they willing to be? And, most importantly, do you have a shared vision for how you’d like your books and your career to be?
Don’t expect overnight bestseller success. Sure, it’d be nice, but it’s rare and most authors’ careers are more like rollercoaster rides – high highs and low lows – than a permanent upward trajectory. When you’re having a tough time, remember this. Keep writing and don’t lose heart – good things will happen.
Make connections. The crime writing community is a hugely friendly and welcoming one – many of my best friends are people I met at writing festivals. While the author might write the book there are a lot of people who help that book along on its journey to publication and into the hands of readers – your agent, editor/s, the proof reader, cover designer, PR and marketing people, graphics creators, reviewers, booksellers, bloggers, and readers. It’s a great idea to go to writing festivals and events as a writer aspiring to publication so you can meet other authors, agents, publishers and all those involved in the industry. This way you’ll get a sense of who you’d most like to work with (but don’t try to hard sell them your novel or pass them a manuscript under the toilet stall door – I didn’t do this, but I’ve heard it’s happened more than once before!) and meet other writers at a similar point on their journey to you. Be professional, polite and kind – and enjoy yourself.
Luisa A-Jones – Self Published Author:
My experience so far is in self-publishing… You can learn a lot through networking, including author groups such as 20booksto50k. There are Youtubers such as Reedsy, Bryan Cohen, David Gaughran, Alessandra Torre who cover marketing, or you can pay for a course such as Mark Lawson’s Self-Publishing Formula.
Expect self-publishing to be an expensive hobby at first, with cover designs, editing costs, building a website, marketing etc.
Marketing is the least enjoyable aspect, and a new skill to learn, but unless you’ve already got a big profile in a different career, it can be difficult to persuade people to read your books without it. Writing blurbs is harder than writing the book – you can pay someone to do it or learn how to write your own – another skill to collect on your way towards publishing successfully.
You don’t need to pay someone to publish your book for you – you can do it via Amazon for free, but if you want to see your books in libraries and bookshops you’ll need to look into publishing “wide”. If you go with Amazon only, you’ll need to decide whether to enrol your book into Kindle Unlimited. You can learn all about that and how to upload your book onto Kindle Create on Amazon’s own KDP pages, which take you through the process step by step.
Finally, make sure your book is the very best it can be. Most self-published authors will pay an editor, and you can also get a team of beta readers together – ideally people who you can trust to be honest. Hone your craft – I learned a lot from a book called “The Word-Loss Diet” which highlights mistakes made by many new writers. Expect to be learning all the time, and expect to have to work hard for success.
Tracie Podger – Self Published Author
After family etc etc – Read your book aloud, it helps to pick up any errors. It then goes to beta readers and it’s advisable not to have too many. Tons of ‘opinions’ isn’t helpful. Make a list of what you want your beta readers to look out for. Then read it again in a different format – print it out, or make a mobi and send it to your kindle. You’ll be surprised that by reading in a different format you’ll spot things you missed. After that it’s off to editors and proofreaders. That’s when the hard work of marketing needs to start.
Decide if you want to do a pre-order or not. Get posts up on social media, start to send out details to your newsletter subscribers. Make a decision if you’re Amazon (KU) exclusive or wide (all retailers). Look at organising or paying a host for a virtual tour, make a media packet (a google doc folder with all the relevant information and teasers the bloggers will need), and get them all sent out at least a week prior to release.
If you want early reviews, again, the tour host can organise that or simply canvass your readers (if you have any already) and ask if they’d like an arc and get those out (they can be pre-last round edits) a couple of weeks prior to release. Add all the details to your Goodreads author account, and once live, add the details to your Bookbub account. Market, market, and then market some more. Raise a glass of something to yourself on release because, no matter what, you did something many wished they could and plenty haven’t.
Finding an editor – look at the acknowledgements of your favourite indie books, check out the editors and contact them. Don’t be afraid to ask for prices and send a sample to see how they edits. A good editor doesn’t make the book theirs, just improves your words and your style.
Finding a tour host – when you see your favourite bloggers posting about books, see who hosted the tour. They are usually mentioned.
Connect with other authors through author groups on social media. Don’t bombard with requests, sit back, listen, learn, don’t take every single comment as fact, and then make friends. The indie community, the professionals among us at least, are always willing to help a fellow author providing you are respectful, not draining, and return the favour.
Always do the best you can. Don’t expect people to pay for crap. You might have a degree in English, but you are not an editor. Your mum might be an English teacher, but she is not an editor. An editor is a specialised profession, use them, pay fairly for them. If you don’t have the funds, save, borrow, trade.
Look on Amazon and check out your genre, that is who you are competing against. You might love your cover, but it isn’t for you. It’s to sell your book and if it doesn’t fit, it won’t. Take your personal self out and put in your professional author/reader self. Be critical, be tough, and don’t be afraid to change things if they’re not working. Wrong cover? Change it. Wrong language? Change it.
And lastly, Bank over Rank. Rank is vanity, you want a return on your investment so you can produce the next book. Ignore anyone who tells you the next book alone sells the first. There are over five million books on Amazon, unless you market, you could have one hundred but if no one knows who you are, you’ll sell very little. Have fun. It’s hard work, lonely at time, exhausting. It screws up your hands, wrists, back, but you’ll have done something amazing
Kiltie Jackson: Author
The best piece of advice I was given when I was starting out was to get a GOOD professional editor. There are many crap ones out there so its worth looking around and checking. I have a wonderful editor who is worth his weight in gold. He’s taught me a lot, gives excellent advice and never shouts at my crap grammar!
Stuart James – Best Selling Author:
So after your family read your work, well, sometimes if they can be bothered, it’s the beta readers stage where a few people who love reading pick out any holes in the plot, anything confusing and anything they think does not work.
Also, it really helps to get a couple of professional beta readers.Once you’re happy with the manuscript, I usually get it edited, then proofread and then it’s time to let it fly.
That’s how I work anyway.
Madeleine Black – Author:
I tried to get an agent but wasn’t successful. However I am traditionally published, most people think that needs an agent.
I got the “Writers & Artists Handbook” and sent emails to every agent/publisher that dealt with my genre Also went to Waterstones and sat in the memoir section and wrote down all the name of publishers
Eventually I asked a friend who had published her memoir and I discovered my publisher’s accepted direct submissions from authors I made a spreadsheet to keep track of what I had sent and when/to who! I think I was lucky as it only took about 3 months to get a contract
Robert Scragg – Best Selling Author of Porter & Styles Series:
My first effort to bag an agent didn’t go anywhere, and the thing I think made the biggest difference second time around, was I paid for a full manuscript assessment through The Literary Consultancy. MS assessments in general aren’t cheap but the TLC one was reasonably priced for what it was, and really helped shape the MS into a far better piece of writing before it went out to agents.
Alan Jones – Author:
Beta readers: I usually have a few reading the book at key stages in the editing process to gauge progress. Then hire an editor. The type of editor will depend on how far down the road to publishing your book is. If you can’t get an editor, get a proofreader. You will not find all your own mistakes. After that, you’ll need to get someone to format your book for kindle and paperback, or read up on it and do it yourself. The Smashwords guide is free and it’s a brilliant step by step guide to publishing an ebook. I still use it. After you’ve done all that, read up on marketing your book, and get in touch with as many book bloggers as you can. You should have joined a few online book clubs and posting about books you have read etc.
ADAM HAMDY – BEST SELLING AUTHOR
Pendulum was my third novel and by the time it went out on submission I’d given up hope of ever being traditionally published. My first two books were cross-genre and the big publisher who expressed an interest in them said they’d be difficult to promote, so I thought I’d always be in the ‘close but no cigar’ category. To my surprise, Pendulum was published and did quite well, and now, seven books in, I’ve accepted it wasn’t a fluke. I was a ‘wolf at the door’ writer, too busy hustling for a living to spend time on proper industry research, but here are the ten things I wish I’d known then.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
It goes without saying that you should always read widely, particularly in your chosen genre, but spend time finding out about the industry. Follow your favourite authors on social media. Follow their agents and editors. Keep track of which books are being sold and what agents and editors say they’re looking for.
KNOW YOUR BOOK
Know your book inside out. Find people you can trust and talk to them about your story and characters until they can’t stand it anymore. Then find new friends and family and plague them with plot and themes. Explore your book until you can describe it succinctly and feel confident you really know what it’s about.
TAKE YOUR TIME
Time is an author’s friend. Time to think, time to reflect, time to explore. Don’t rush. Make sure the work you present to people is in the best shape possible. Linger over your edit. It’s a chance for different perspectives, and, like a painter considering a piece of work from afar, you’ll see opportunities for improvement simply by taking your time over a different view.
Don’t just stalk people on social media. Interact with them online and in real life. Go to events at bookshops, libraries and literary festivals. Get to know other writers, published and unpublished, and find your community. Authors will support each other with cover quotes and publicity, and will often make a special effort for debuts, but we can’t do that if we don’t know you exist.
Get a website and start building a mailing list. Today. Social media can be a fulltime job, so decide which platforms you can manage and do the best job you can of letting people know about your work. There’s a fine line between effective marketing and over promotion. Learn how to walk that line from the authors you admire.
ENGAGE WITH READERS
Readers are the lifeblood of publishing. Keep in touch with your readers through social media or via your newsletter and don’t be afraid to let them know when you’ve got a new book coming out. Always be polite, and try to acknowledge readers when they get in touch or want a chat at a literary event.
IT’S A MARATHON
Hopefully you will write and publish more than one book. Successful authors can have careers that span decades. Their popularity and success will rise and fall and it’s not always the ones who shoot to fame with their debut who stay the course. Don’t judge yourself by the success or achievements of others. There will always be someone selling more books, winning more awards and making more noise. Keep writing and enjoy such success as comes your way.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
You’ll get a lot of advice from your agent, editor and other professionals involved in the publishing process and sometimes it can be overwhelming. Some authors react by becoming very defensive and battling to protect their vision. Hone your instincts. Learn to recognise when you’re getting good advice and when to hold your ground. If you start by assuming you won’t always be right, the challenge is no longer to prove your point, but to figure out when you have a point to prove.
Most people start writing because they want to explore an idea or character. Authors tend to be interested in the world and ask searching questions of themselves and others. Keep that fascination and it will provide you with material for your books. If you want to build a career as an author, keep learning about the industry too.
KEEP THE SPARK
Almost every author started writing as a hobby. We did it because we enjoyed it, because it sparked something within us, or because we felt compelled to put words to paper. Hold on to that motivation. Writing can be a slog at times (usually 60,000 words in), but overall it should be a positive, satisfying experience. No matter how much success comes your way or what tribulations you face, remember it is a great privilege to be an author.
Richard T Burke – Author:
I started writing about 6 years ago. It took me over 2 years to complete my first book, The Rage. I recently completed my 6th novel, which launches on 12th September . I picked up several valuable lessons along the way. Here are my top 10:
1. I have heard people say “write what you know.” Whilst this is undoubtedly good advice, I would perhaps modify this to “write what you would enjoy reading.” After all, if you wouldn’t want to read what you have written, why would anybody else?
2. To plan or not to plan? Writers are generally classified as pantsers (who don’t bother with plans and write by the seat of their pants) or plotters (who plot the outline of a book before starting on the individual chapters). I class myself as somewhere between the two. I plan the theme and the major plot points in detail but keep the rest of the planning relatively light. Characters need room to breathe, and some of my best plot twists have come about when a character deviates from their planned path. Ultimately, any budding author needs to decide what works best for them.
3. Set targets. I keep a spreadsheet that calculates roughly when I will complete a book. I keep track of progress and can see how I am doing against my expected timeline. An author friend of mine once told me that the longer it takes to write a book, the harder it will be to knock into shape afterwards, and I think that’s good advice. Getting a first draft out quickly enables a writer to spot potential issues with plot or characters early in the process.
4. Typing “the end” in the last line of the first draft is definitely not the end! In fact, it’s probably nearer the beginning than the end. Editing and reviewing is very time consuming. I use automated tools to help with some of the initial review work. I have used ProWritingAid (PWA), Grammarly (free version) and Autocrit. I find one important feature of such tools is their ability to spot repetition. One thing guaranteed to jolt a reader out of a story is repetition (did you see what I did there?).
5. Beta readers are an essential. I am lucky enough to have a small group who read my books at an early stage and provide feedback. Several of them are authors themselves. Friends and family are fine for a first look, but a critical reviewer is far better to improve the quality of a book. Another piece of advice is to be selective about what feedback to accept and what to reject. As an author, you can choose whether to implement a suggestion or not.
6. I have to admit I’m not great at the marketing and social media side of writing. I would much prefer somebody else to do that for me, but the publishing industry is hugely competitive. I dreamed of being snapped up by a big publisher. As I soon discovered, the chances of finding an agent, let alone a publisher, are extremely low. The agent query letters for my first book met with a barrage of rejections (if I was lucky enough to receive a reply at all). I continued to submit to agents for my second, third and fourth books and received several manuscript requests without being offered representation (I got as far as a telephone discussion with one agent to talk details until it became clear she was a total nut job!) My fifth and sixth books were sequels to my second book, so I took the early decision to stick to self publishing for these and saved myself a lot of heartache.
7. I designed the cover for my first book myself. Frankly, it wasn’t very good! It’s definitely worth paying a professional cover designer unless you possess graphic design skills. After spending hours on my own poor attempt, I have since paid somebody to design some my book covers, most for less than £100.
8. Develop a thick skin! That first one star review will hurt. Authors must understand that not everybody will like what they write. Hopefully the five stars will greatly outnumber the occasional one or two star mauling.
9. Get advice and be prepared to learn. There are several Facebook groups for writers and a vast array of books on the subject. There are also thousands of page on the Internet that deal with the art of writing.
10. Finally, persevere. The first time somebody leaves a five star for that book you spent hundreds of hours writing is very exciting, but it’s a long journey.
How I ruined by own career by Anonymous Author
I had written a book and I really wanted to share it with the world. At this stage, I wasn’t really thinking about a career in writing, I just wanted to be an author, my childhood dream. I saw publication as the final step, not the first. From where I am now, I regret not thinking further ahead. I started submitting to publishers. I didn’t have an agent, so it was the digital first and independent publishers that were my best option. I put the book out there, tried several publishers. My top couple of choices turned me down, and then I heard about a new firm who were actively looking to sign debut novels. This sounded ideal, so I submitted.
To be fair, the first publisher, who we’ll call “Start-Up Publishing” were not the wrong publisher at all. They were a gamble. They took a gamble on me, I took a gamble on them, I went into it open-eyed, as at that stage my one desire was to hold my book in my hand. I wasn’t really in it for the money, I just wanted to achieve that childhood dream of being “an author” and that is exactly what I achieved. I also wanted the confidence of somebody believing in my work – again, exactly what I achieved. Only with hindsight do I now kick myself for not wanting more – so I don’t necessarily think that signing with “Start-Up Publishing” was a bad thing. They gave me what I wanted, after all, and they were lovely to work with! So, first point of advice would be – don’t just think about what you want NOW, but what you will want in two year’s time – which of course is impossible, because who knows what you will want in two year’s time?
My only real problem with “Start-Up” was the publicity. I knew that I’d have to do most of my own publicity, and I was prepared for that – but I was naïve and I although I was prepared to do it, and I’d read a fair amount about HOW to create adverts etc., I didn’t know what, when and where to publicise. I think it says a lot that the authors who have done well at “Start-Up” came with an existing fan-base. They had either already published books with other publishers, or had an established blog following; they knew what they were doing. It isn’t enough to have even a couple of thousand passive followers on Twitter – you need a base of followers who actively support you, which I didn’t have. I was also naïve about how much publicity would cost, and that I would basically be spending money blind – with no immediate access to sales figures I couldn’t assess the effectiveness of any ads I placed on Facebook or Twitter. And as I wasn’t the publisher, I couldn’t advertise on Amazon or apply for things like Bookbub. Point 2 of advice would be learn more about publicity than I did!
When Book 2 didn’t do as well as book 1, Book 3 was rejected, which was a massive blow to my confidence, which evaporated overnight, and led to me making REALLY HUGE MASSIVE MISTAKE! Point 3 of advice would be don’t necessarily try and jump straight back on the horse, like I did. Maybe if your publisher has dropped you there’s a reason, and you need to work out what it is before you move forward. I didn’t really stop to do this, I just kept writing, and desperate to keep writing, I sold myself short. DON’T DO THIS!
My confidence had hit rock bottom, and I knew, I just KNEW that given that a small independent publisher dropped me, my work wasn’t worth anything. So I wrote another novel, just for fun really. What did I have to lose? I’d lost it all already, hadn’t I! It was romantic fiction based around my hobby – let’s say it’s “patchwork”, though it wasn’t really! Over the years I had bought several books about “patchwork” from an independent publisher who really knew their stuff. The content was great and the publisher knew all about patchwork. I considered them to produce quality products, and they had a long track record and lots of contacts in the world of patchwork. Anyone who was interested in reading books about it would eventually find their way to “Patchwork Books” website. I noticed that amongst the practical guides to the hobby, they also published some fiction where quilting featured in the stories. So did my book … I had seen (and purchased several of) “Patchwork Books” existing titles and they were decent quality. Was it worth submitting my novel? I did, and they said yes! I was delighted and signed a contract – I didn’t run it past the S of A but did get a knowledgeable friend to look it over – nothing unusual or any warning bells about it. It wasn’t the contract that was the problem.
The warning bells should have started going off when we got to the editing stage. We talked about technical terms used in patchwork when it came to editing, and differences between American and British English and whether I should set the book in the US because it was a US publisher. Nothing about structure, plot, character …Yes, it turned out that the editor was their normal non-fiction editor, didn’t have a clue about fiction, and with hindsight, the wrong decisions were made. Point 4: check WHO is going to edit your work, not simply that your work will be edited; although I don’t know how you’d do this! The editor hadn’t tackled any structural, plot or character issues – but I also wasn’t expecting a critical readership, but a small, niche audience who were desperate to read about “patchwork”, so I didn’t worry too much. As before he biggest problem with this publisher, however, was marketing. I don’t mean just doing the publicity myself – I expected that – and I don’t know how I could have avoided this disaster, because I just didn’t know how differently this publisher worked. If you can, I would advise any new author to look at how their publisher has marketed previous books and does it suit your market? Look at their covers, their blurbs, what information they put out before the book appears. I thought I’d done this – their non-fiction titles were all fine, after all – but, when it came to my book, because they were basically a non-fiction publisher who was having a go at fiction, the marketing wasn’t tailored to romantic fiction. The book (despite the joint decision to write it in British English and set it in England) was packaged as if for the American non-fiction market. It was priced (and publication geared heavily towards) the hard-copy rather than e-books, because craft books sell much better in hard-copy. But romances don’t, and I’m not sure that they knew that! I wasn’t given a cover reveal date (you don’t need them for non-fiction, it appears) or even an advanced publication date. All the lessons I had learnt about publicity with “Start-Up” went out of the window. It was an expensive disaster, I threw more money than I could afford at publicity, everything seemed to happen at the wrong time and on the back foot, and because of the very low price per e-book, I made almost nothing back. Both myself and the publisher made a huge loss on this book, and guess what? We agreed mutually that this was the end of it. The publisher voiced their unhappiness with the performance of the book and told me how much money it had lost them. I felt like utter shit, but I felt they were the ones who hadn’t done the market research; they blamed me for a failure at least partly due to their decisions!
If I had waited, would things have worked out differently? The second time, yes, without a doubt. However, let’s be honest here, “Start-Up” were probably my only chance at publication. They probably weren’t only the “first” to offer me a deal, but would have been the “only” because any larger, more experienced publisher would have known that I couldn’t do the publicity side of it. If I hadn’t signed, if I had looked for a bigger, better, publisher, it’s likely that I would be sitting here now, five years later, thinking, if only I’d signed that deal with “Start-Up” I might have been a published author by now, I might have achieved that dream. Let’s face it, I’m a reasonable writer, but I’m not outstanding, and I’m rubbish at self-promotion. It was the second publisher that was the real disaster. In the end, both roads (choosing a small publisher or waiting) would probably have lead to the same destination – disillusionment.
MA Comley – Indie Author
Why did I choose to go indie?
When I started out in 2010, being an indie author was a novelty. Every author ‘s aspiration is to obtain a traditional contract but it’s not for everyone. I put my first book out there with a publisher and they kept me hanging around for my rejection letter for six months. Most authors would have crumbled at receiving their first rejection but I just shrugged it off and found a different route to take.
It was a complete surprise to see my first book rocket up the Kindle chart to #37 with no publisher behind me. In my first year, I sold over 50,000 copies. My second book, Cruel Justice, hit the dizzy heights of #19 in the charts and remained there for over six months. With that success came a huge following on Twitter and Facebook, unfortunately all that following has gone now, since hackers attacked all my social media accounts almost two years ago. But that’s another story.
After six months of success, believe me it was hard work on my part, working a minimum of fourteen hours a day and seven days a week, I was contacted by a top New York agent. He offered me a contract. As with any contract, I would never sign or agree with its contents until I had a lawyer cast an eye over it first. When I employed an Intellectual Property lawyer it soured the relationship between the agent and myself. We tweaked the contract in my favour, he wasn’t happy and flung the accusation at me that I didn’t trust him. I was gobsmacked, we got over the hurdle eventually and I signed the contract. Except NOTHING, absolutely zilch, happened for a whole year. After which I wrote to the agent and asked him to tear up the contract, which he did willingly.
On the plus side, I can say that all my success is literally down to all my hard work. I’m currently standing at almost four million copies sold worldwide on all sites, and a NY Times bestselling author title to boot, nothing to be sneezed at I can assure you. I still work really hard to get my work out there, as well as being a full-time carer for my 84-year-old mother, which can be extremely stressful at times.
I would never have changed my journey though. Around four years ago, I signed with a new indie publishing house, who I’m not prepare to name, the only reason I signed with them was to get my paperbacks in the shops, something that is near impossible for indie authors to achieve. The day after I signed the contract, the publisher sent out an email telling its authors they were going to concentrate on the digital side of things only. It was a real WTF kind of moment for me. I released two books with the publisher, again, after they went back on their word, the relationship suffered. So much so that I didn’t feel they pushed my books at all. We agreed to terminate the contract after a year and my rights were reversed on those two books.
So, here I am, currently releasing a book a month, trying to regain the following I once had, it’s a lot harder this time around because I really can’t devote the time it takes to get seen in the charts these days because of caring for Mum. I’m happy with what I’ve achieved throughout my career and I’m forever grateful to my fans and the other people in this industry who have given me a helping hand over the years.
One day I’ll retire, but not yet. As it is, my characters rarely allow me to sleep. I don’t have regrets because I believe certain problems are intentionally put in our path to see how we either deal with them and strive to overcome them. If my mother hadn’t financially backed my first book, bought the cover and paid for the editing, and most importantly had faith in my work and me as a person, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Indies rock. Not every reader out there will give indie authors the time of day, believe me, I think those people need to give every author a chance. Put it this way, the great James Patterson had his first book rejected 57 times before a publisher finally bit the bullet. It proves how hard it is to obtain a publishing contract with a big six publisher. He’s now the biggest selling author to have ever lived and I bet all those publishers who rejected his work are constantly kicking themselves.
At the end of the day, I’m happy being in control of my own destiny.
Joy Kluver – From Blogger to Author:
After trying for a few years to get an agent, I managed to get one, and a publishing deal, within a matter of weeks in the summer of 2020. But rather than my agent submitting my book to publishers, my deal came through #pitmad on Twitter. There are quite a few book pitch events on Twitter, with #pitmad probably being the most well known. It’s mainly aimed at the US market but UK publishers sometimes look at the tweets as well. If you thought reducing your story to a one page synopsis was difficult, try writing a tweet about it! Seriously though, this is a really good skill to have. If you can tell the premise of your story in a few sentences (maybe even one), then it’s more likely to catch the eye of an agent, publisher and reader.
Back to #pitmad. There are rules and that includes using the right hashtags to indicate age of reader and genre e.g. #A for Adult and #T for Thriller. See #PitMad | Pitch Wars for the full list. These hashtags plus #pitmad, go towards your character count – so choose your words carefully! You have three chances to promote your pitch so be prepared to hone and change it if you don’t get any likes. If you get a like from an agent or publisher, then check them out before sending your MS to them. Do they publish books you’ve read or represent authors you know? Look at their social media and websites (especially an agent) to see if you might be a good fit. If you do submit and they offer a deal or representation, don’t feel you have to take it if you’re unsure about anything. Ask questions and make sure you’re satisfied with their answers. And never, ever, pay money to a publisher to have your book published.
In my case, five minutes after my tweet went up, I got a like from an editor at Bookouture. As it’s one of the biggest digital publishers in the UK, submitting was a no-brainer. It was a different editor though who came back to me and said the magic words, ‘I stayed up until one a.m. to finish your book.’ Chatting with her, I found she loved my characters and was really excited about the novel. I ended up with a three book deal. The first two, Last Seen and Broken Girls, came out this year and book three will be published January 2022.
So if you see a Twitter pitch event for an agent or a publisher or something like #pitmad, give it a go. You never know what might happen.
Sharon Bairden – From Blogger to Author:
1. Ask beta readers to go over your work, not your Aunty or your granny or best pal! They will tell you it’s the best thing ever and you are going to be famous! They are lying! Beta readers will give you honest, constructive feedback.
2. Take the feedback and re edit where needed.
3. If possible get a professional edit done – you want your MS to be in the best shape possible!
4. Research your agents/publishers – are they open for submissions? Do they accept your genre? No point in subbing your Dystopian Dino Porn if they are only looking for cosy crime!
5. Follow the submission guidelines to the letter!
6. Join online writer groups to connect with other writers for guidance, advice and support.
7. Create a social media presence – but don’t spam everyone with “me, me,me” Engage with the writing community, celebrate their successes, support works both ways.
8. Don’t give up and take time to enjoy what you are doing – it isn’t meant to be a chore
Noelle Holten – Blogger to Author
MY JOURNEY: From Probation Officer – blogger and publishing professional – to author.
I’ve been asked by to share my journey to publication and I thought it was important to talk about what I did pre- bookworld, starting with Probation all the way to published author. It’s been one hell of a journey and two years later, I still pinch myself each morning as I can’t quite believe it has happened!
I started in Probation after I finished my Masters in Criminology what seems like many moons ago. I joined as a trainee in a very busy office in the north of London. Despite the pressure, it was a great way to teach me how busy a PO’s caseload would be. Throughout my years, I had a range of cases – low to very high risk, drink drivers, shoplifters, dangerous offenders, murderers, rapists, sex offenders – you name it, I had it.
My favourite time in probation however was working in a multi agency setting – with prolific offenders, various risk, substance misuse issues and of course, domestic violence. In total, I spent 9 of my 18 years working in multi agency teams – and it was fantastic.
During part of this time – I had a lot going on in my personal life. Thirteen of my years in probation, I was also in an abusive relationship – I won’t go into details, but quite like my character Lucy Sherwood in Dead Inside, I lived two lives. Probation – my job, was my escape until late 2014/early 2015 I had finally had enough – I knew that if I didn’t make and stick to the decision to end/leave the relationship, the best outcome would be I may not mentally survive. The worst is not one I like to think about.
My life changed when I met a wonderful group of people – bloggers/readers who made me laugh on a daily basis, saved me from the darkness and encouraged me to share my reviews. One blogger – Best Crime Books and More – offered me an opportunity – she gave me a guest review spot on her blog and from there encouraged me to go it alone. In May 2015, my blog, CrimeBookJunkie was born! I never imagined the support from authors, bloggers, publicists and publishers I would receive – it was phenomenal. I had to find a way of thanking those people – the bloggers who initially rallied around me and made me believe in myself again – so I made them characters in my debut novel.
Probation around this time was going through significant changes – privatisation split us into a public and private sector and I ended up being in the private sector. This meant I had to manage two teams, a larger area and focus on targets rather than the people we were supervising. I loved my job, until I didn’t anymore and privatisation was the last straw fir me. I needed to get out for my own well being. I saw my colleagues and teams falling apart under the pressure – at times I had to do three or four people’s jobs, just to cover absences. It was debilitating. It was demoralising. And most of all, it was scary – where did public protection fit in all of this?
In 2016, I was approached by Kim Nash – Head of Publicity at Bookouture. I had been a huge fan of Bookouture and their authors for some time – taking part in blog tours and shouting out about their fantastic authors. Kim asked if I wanted to do some freelance work … I jumped at the chance. So in the evenings, after a hectic day in probation, I would organise tours for some of my favourites. David McCaffrey had also approached me as he and his wife had just taken over Britain’s Next Bestseller. He asked if I would look at some submissions and provide detailed feedback. So two guardian angels had given me an opportunity to work on a freelance basis in publicity and I couldn’t be happier. My dream of leaving Probation came true in July 2017 when I started FT at Bookouture.
In March 2017 I attended author Graham Smith’s Crime & Publishment – I had a story in my head and wondered if I could turn it into a book. I used to love writing, morbid poetry and short stories mainly – but stopped before University. Blogging and reading reminded me of that passion – and I wondered if I could do it. I wrote the prologue to Dead Inside and attended C&P – and my passion burned bright. I learned so much and felt so motivated that when I returned home on the Monday (March 13th) I wrote every day for an hour – by May 19th 2017 the first (rough) draft of Dead Inside was done! I let it sit for a few months to carry on blogging etc and then started editing it. Emma Mitchell (of Creating Perfection) then did a professional edit and when I attended Crime & Publishment in 2018, I pitched my book to Karen Sullivan of Orenda and she asked me to submit! I couldn’t believe it.
Karen’s enthusiasm encouraged me to think about submitting elsewhere. At Harrogate 2018 one of the fabulous (now former) editors at Bookouture introduced me to her friend, Finn Cotton – an editor at KillerReads (now One More Chapter) OMG! I gave a very nervous pitch and handed him a flyer I had made up with my details (at the time, the book was called A Perception of Justice – I had originally named it Dead Inside and then changed it – 🤷♀️) Finn contacted me the Monday and asked for the full MS. I had submitted to a few other places in the meantime. Within a week, Finn came back to me and said KillerReads would love to publish two books – Dead Inside and whatever followed. I cried and cried and danced and squealed with happiness…but I had been advised not to jump at the first offer, so I waited to see the contract and got some advice.
A few other offers followed – Whaaaaaaat? Other publishers were interested? I was floored! There was NO WAY anyone would want to read my book. I have to say, even the rejections I received were amazing – the book was not for them, but they would be open to further submissions because they liked my writing – REALLY!?! OMG!!
I finally signed with Harper Collins UK | One More Chapter in August 2018 and I am so glad I did. Before Dead Inside was published,
I was offered a further deal for three more books in the series. The whole team are amazing – even though my first editor left, I love working with my new editor Bethan Morgan – she gives honest and sometimes tough feedback also teaches me where to make things stronger. I’m learning still. I know that. I don’t think I will ever stop learning but I am so grateful that Harper Collins UK took a chance on me and believe in my writing. I really look forward to writing more in the DC Maggie Jamieson series and the standalone(s) I am working on too!
Here are some of my #toptips for aspiring writers:
- Read as much as you can in the genre you want to write in but also explore other genres to see what works.
- Network! Attend festivals, book launches, follow on social media – get to know authors, bloggers/readers, publishers, agents, publicists – everyone you can in the book world!
- Look at the bestseller charts in your chosen genre. You’ll discover what are readers are looking for.
- Seek out and take as much advice as you can, then find out and use what works best for you.
- Develop a thick skin – you’ll need it for rejections, reviews etc
- Join groups in your genre and get to know your readers/audience
- Get your butt in the chair and write
- Never give up! Everyone’s journey is different so don’t compare.
A huge thanks to everyone who has contributed to this post and I hope that some of this information helps you to being the next best selling author.