How to get your novel published
Top publishers and editors on how to get your first novel published Discuss this article
Trained publisher; manager; and member of the Scientific Committee of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the German Book Prize Academy
Growing up in a family of booksellers, I have always been surrounded by books and loved reading. Originally, I wanted to become an editor of art books. I started my career in publishing in the early 1980s as a trainee at Herder Verlag in Freiburg, Germany. I became a manager instead of an editor, but I’m an avid reader and have always stayed in the publishing business. I worked at various publishing houses before I became the director of the Frankfurter Buchmesse in 2005.
“It’s not easy to get a contract with a publisher as a first-time author. Of course, your writing and the story need to be very good, and you need to be persistent. Nowadays, self-publishing gives writers the opportunity to take control of their own careers. However, acting as both author and publisher, self-publishers need to do a lot more work themselves.
“Novels are bought as completed manuscripts, so a book would already need to be finished before starting the process. Since most publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, you need to find a literary agent to represent you. The agents’ submission requirements are usually stated on their websites. Make sure the query letter is personalised, stating why you think this specific agent would want to represent you. Also include a brief plot synopsis, as well as information on the overall theme and your previous writing career.
“First, make sure that your work is as good as it can be. Read and write a lot. Writing is like exercising a muscle – the more you do it, the better you become. By joining a writing group, you can get honest feedback on your work. Then, remember that getting published is all about perseverance and finding the right place. So don’t give up easily, but try again and again when you don’t succeed at first. Ask for feedback when you receive rejections. Listen, take it to heart and adapt. All you need is one person to say ‘yes’ and take a chance on you.
“In publishing, content is key. Thus, in my opinion, devices that bring storytelling and good stories to a wider audience should be welcomed as a valuable addition to the printed book. Interestingly, digital publishing and new devices have not only influenced reading habits, but have also given new meaning to the printed book, elevating it from a device for reading to an object of art, to be owned and displayed.”
Favourite author: It depends on the genre. For instance, I like Karl Ove Knausgård’s autobiographical novels, thrillers by Lee Child, and Ann Leckie’s science-fiction books.
VP Analytics and Insight, Nielson Book Research; executive director of the Book Marketing Society; a former chair of the Book Society and the Book Trade Benevolent Society
My very first job was working for a literary agent, which I got quite by chance, but I then realised that I loved the book world, and I’ve been in it ever since – for 12 years as a publisher, and now 20 as a market researcher.
“Despite being a market researcher, I have to admit there is no magic bullet for achieving bestsellerdom – although you can do an enormous amount to help your chances by being clear about what audience you are hoping to attract and then honing every aspect of your publishing to appeal to that audience (cover, blurb, marketing, sales strategy, etc.).
“We can see up to a third of all consumer books being bought in the last two months of the year as Christmas purchases, though this is particularly for printed books. Other than that, there are peaks and troughs throughout the year. World Book Day is now a definite peak, and Mother’s Day, for example. Otherwise, the market peaks every time a big title is published – last year that was the new JK Rowling play script, The Cursed Child – and it can drop, for instance, if the weather is bad.
“I’ve been surprised by two things we’ve shown in recent research we’ve done. One is that digital books have not taken off in the children’s market in the way that they have in the adult market. The second has been the recent growth in audio books, which seems to be partly due to younger men – a difficult demographic for the book industry to reach.
“We’ve seen significant growth in the crime/thriller genre over the past few years. This is the number one fiction genre in the UK. It’s partly down to a proliferation of excellent writers, but also I think publishers are taking it much more seriously. Another genre that’s doing very well at the moment is comic and graphic novels – they’ve been around for a long time, but seem to be becoming more mainstream. And the children’s market has had an excellent couple of years, not just in the UK, but in other markets around the world.
“[A sure-fire way of publishing an under-selling book is by] ignoring who your consumer is! And overlooking getting it listed on industry databases such as Nielsen Bookdata.
“I think digital publishing is terrific. Apart from anything else, you can do meaningful experiments with pricing. It also means you can publish very quickly when you see a trend gathering momentum. As an avid reader, I love carrying my library around with me and never running out of something to read.”
Favourite author: At the moment I am reading Anthony Trollope. I will also read anything by Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, William Boyd and Lee Child.
President of the International Publishers Association; executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc; non-executive director of Institute of Physics Publishing; member of the International Advisory Board of the Frankfurt Book Fair; president of the Book Society
I wanted to be a journalist and needed to become a member of the National Union of Journalists. The easiest way was to get a job in publishing. Having started, I couldn’t escape back into journalism! Anyway, I sent off letters to fifty publishers, was ignored by most, rejected by a few, and then hired on a whim by a small family-owned business called George G Harrap, mostly famous for its French dictionaries.
“I started as their first science editor, publishing anything from primary school maths textbooks to heavily illustrated books on embryology, with academic treatises on the history of quantum theory in between. Of course, nobody else in the company was interested in science books (they’d all studied English literature), so I had to learn all aspects of the business, from commissioning to production, promotion, rights and even accounting. It was a great apprenticeship.
“It is estimated that there are around one million books completed in English and looking for a publisher at any one time. There is no point sending submissions to publishers now. An aspiring novelist needs a literary agent to represent him or her. It is a form of triage. If publishers were to review submitted manuscripts, they would spend 99.9 percent of their time rejecting books rather than publishing them.
“Self-publishing is a boon both to authors and publishers. For authors, it means one can bypass the whole dispiriting journey round literary agents and publishers and yet have a book to show. And, for publishers, it makes it easier for them to reject a friend’s wonderful but unsellable book. But, seriously, self-publishing can be a legitimate way of an author or publisher testing the waters, seeing if there is a market, seeing if one’s book really stacks up against the vast numbers of competitive books, learning the nuts and bolts of a fascinating
industry, and generating a visiting card in the form of a book.
“Buy a copy of Writers & Artists Yearbook or visit their website (www.writersandartists.co.uk). Learn patience and the ability to remain happy in the face of a barrage of rejection.
“I’m absolutely positive about all forms of digital delivery. It allows one to reach potential readers around the world rather than depending on, for instance, a small bookshop in Lima [Peru] having a copy of the book in stock. It allows readers to experiment at very low cost with new authors or new titles. It reduces the cost of publishing.”
Favourite author: Khaled Hosseini. Not only is he a great writer, he is also a great storyteller and a great human being.
Strategist, executive and serial entrepreneur in new and traditional media
As with many, I came to publishing by accident. I was a theatre director, working with a playwright who had a tiny publishing business. The company, called Soft Skull Press, ran into financial difficulties and I offered to help figure out how to keep it going. The owner left, and I ended up falling in love with publishing.
“More books are being published than ever. But, also, more people now dream of being published. In addition, it is now possible to publish oneself; however, by the same token, now everyone can, many are. Which means that merely being able to be published does not guarantee sales. It used to be that being published gave you access to distribution, but now anyone can get distribution – so the real trick is getting attention.
“I wouldn’t compare digital publishing to traditional, so much as, say, technology is deeply interwoven into publishing. Digital/network technology is one more tool that is part of it. The main thing it does is make what economists call the ‘marginal cost of reproduction’ free. It takes the same time to write, edit and design a print book as an e-book, but each additional copy of a print book costs money to produce – each additional e-book costs nothing. That’s the power of digital when it comes to books.
Once you’ve made the book, it is easier to make it more widely available.
“Here’s a global observation: as societies respond to changes, be they economic, social or political, the non-fiction category that responds most rapidly is ‘self-help’.”
“Self-publishing, I think, is a powerful tool for self-expression. In fact, the romance genre and the self-help genres – the ones I identify as being the most interesting in times of change – are also the ones that have benefitted most from self-publishing. But I would strongly warn anyone not to assume that success comes easy. More than 99 percent of self-published books sell fewer than 100 copies.
“Read, read, and read some more. Then keep reading! Just as you would tell a runner to run, and a soccer player to practice, a writer must read. The writing ‘muscle’ is really a reading muscle, and not only does reading help you write, it helps you gain context, helps you learn where your writing fits in, in the culture. You must become so intimately familiar with the kinds of books you want to write, with the world or the culture you want to write about, that the writing will just flow.”
Favourite author: Lynne Tillman, Lydia Millet and Vanessa Veselka. Google them. Read about them, then pick one of their books to read. Any one will blow your mind.
Interviews compiled by Katy Gillett Illustrations by Zubair Latief
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