How to find a publisher

A few days ago I was chatting to a writer friend who was saying she’d submitted to around 30 publishers and agents without success before self-publishing. Her book has sold a couple of hundred copies to date and has been widely praised, so why no traditional publisher?

If I knew the definite reason for that then I could probably retire on the proceeds but it occurs to me there are at least three elements:

The first is obvious – write a good piece of work and edit it until you’re happy it’s finished. It won’t actually be finished because the publisher will have their own views on the need for changes, but it needs to be as good as you can get it before you submit.

The second is also obvious if you think about it – you need luck. There are a limited number of publishers out there and they’re all trying to be a commercial success. Nothing wrong with that, they need to pay the bills same as anyone else. As I result, they will be cautious about what they take on and more likely to go with known names, famous/infamous writers of autobiography, or the current fashion. So the luck comes in at least three ways: either be famous, somehow hit the current trend (but don’t forget that the current trend was probably commissioned a couple of years ago and publishers have moved on to the next one), or hit on a publisher who currently has a space in their list.

Thirdly, research and focus – There’s very little point sending material to publishers who don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or who only accept submissions through an agent. Equally, there’s even less point sending your noir-crime novel, regardless of how good it is, to a publisher who specialises in literary fiction or science fiction. The internet enables us to both identify publishers with an interest in our particular genre and then research them in detail. When I started to submit A Shadowed Livery I looked through the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and highlighted all of the publishers who published crime fiction. Then I stumbled upon a list of these on the ‘net so added a few from the Yearbook which had been missed. There were, I believe, 63 on the final list. I then went through the websites of every one and weeded out those who were not taking submissions or who only took them via an agent. This left me about 13. Further research took out the ‘vanity’ publishers and those where their preferred sub-genre or target group didn’t match my novel. This left me with eight publishers I felt confident I could approach. The final bit of research was to be clear about the submission requirements and to then follow them to the letter. Virtually all of them were different. I was lucky enough to find three who expressed further interest and then went with one who definitely wanted to proceed. So, even with all the initial research, there was interest from less than five percent of the initial list – but if I had simply used a scatter-gun approach, firing off submissions just anywhere, I might not even have hit that figure.

On the other hand, I might have. What did I say about luck?

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