9 Tips on Submitting Novels for Publication

In this blog I’m returning to the mechanics of writing and getting published.

I’ve self published, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be published the old fashioned route. I’ve learned about getting published the hard way – by figuring things out as I went along. So I thought that a post for newer authors on the route to getting published might help. So here are my 9 tips on submitting novels for publication.

Tip one – get your work checked before you send it

As an absolute minimum, get someone to read your manuscript for typos and repeated words. Agents don’t mind the odd typo here and there – we’re all human – but if you send in work that’s littered with poor spelling, poor grammar, typos, repeated words, half finished sentences, and so on, it will be binned.

Tip two – use a professional editor

A professional editor is someone who understands how stories work, and can read your work and give specific feedback on its structure, characters, stories, and the central concept or ‘hook’ of the story. They can also identify typos and grammar issues if you ask.

Beware that professional editors tend to be self-employed and that this is their job, so they rightly charge for their services. A typical cost for a sample of your manuscript to be reviewed, and to receive a report, is £500. Check editors’ fees with them in advance, and make sure you identify your budget in advance. If you only have £200 available, tell them up front, and ask what you can receive for that. If you have £1000, you can obviously have more in depth feedback, or more of your work read.

Authors should consider this an investment in their work. But like all investments, it’s a gamble on the author’s side.

Tip three – ignore the publishers

This is a tip for newer authors who might not – yet – have much insight into the publishing industry. There are two ways to get published – the first is to self-publish on Kindle, Lulu, FeedaRead, iBooks, Nook or other platforms.

The more traditional route is to get published by a publishing house, like Random House/Penguin, Orion, Picador, and so on. But many first time authors make an unwitting mistake in sending their complete manuscript to these publishing companies.

If you’re approaching completion of your first novel or short collection, hold back. Here’s the route to take.

Literary agents are the people to focus on. They are like the gate keepers – they look for work and decide which books they want to publish. Publishing houses will approach agents for material, and also let agents know what kinds of books they’re looking for.

To be clear – in general, publishing houses will not accept direct submissions of work (there are a few exceptions, but this is the norm).

A literary agent acts as the first line of formal quality control in the publishing ecosystem. Their quality control includes identifying books they can sell to publishers. This means first time authors really need to write for the market. Identify what’s selling, and write a book that pitches to those successful markets. For example, crime books are still selling well, but the interest in teen vampire books is on the wane.

I’ve been to many talks by agents who talk openly and passionately about the many brilliant books they receive for consideration and which they choose not to represent. They talk with genuine regret about not being able to pick up books that have no existing market into which they can be sold.

Newer authors might think this is unfair – it suggests that the industry is conservative and favours existing authors, or stories very similar to what’s already sold. There is some truth to this. Authors like Neil Gaiman have spoken openly about the publishing industry needing to take more risks. But we also have to accept that we live in a world where people need to pay their rent or mortgage, which means they need to be able to predict sales from books they publish. Authors need to accept this is the case.

So, if getting a literary agent is the way in, how do you get one?

Tip four – getting a literary agent

The general approach for agents is this:

  • check their website first to see if they are currently accepting submissions from new authors. There is no point sending material to an agency which is closed to submissions. Your work won’t be read.
  • if they’re accepting submissions, send a query to them either via email or in print, depending on what they prefer.
  • Your query should feature: a cover letter giving brief details of your book; a 1 or 2 page synopsis of your book (with the ending!), and usually the first 3 chapters or 50 pages of your book. Do not send the full manuscript.

At the end of this post, under my sign-off, is a list of literary agents I’ve submit work to so far.

Tip five – writing a cover letter to agents

Here’s a cover letter I use when submitting to agents. I’m not saying it’s perfect, however I get responses from 90% of the agencies I contact, so I believe it isn’t putting them off. Please feel free to use the format if you think it’s useful.

  • Literary agent cover letter sample
Dear [name of literary agent],
please find attached a submission document containing a synopsis and the first 3 chapters of my novel “Backpackers”.

Escalator pitch: Skins meets Eat, Pray, Love.
Logline: In 2013, rock star Jack Wolf tries to track down Cath Pearson, a backpacker he fell in love with in south east Asia ten years previously. He traces her through the stories of other backpackers, but the more he hears about her, the more he fears she never survived her backpacker days.
Genre: General fiction / road journey
Target audience: 18 – 35 year olds
Full novel word count: 107,260
Notes: Backpackers is currently self-published on a number of platforms. It is my second novel.
Author biog:
My first novel, Planetfall book one: All Fall Down, is science fiction/space opera and has around 400 book sales or electronic downloads from self publishing sites (primarily Kindle). I am halfway through writing the sequel. (Note: published under a pseudonym)
I am currently writing a genre book about the antichrist coming to power in the UK, and her desperate attempt to avoid her fate (horror/political satire).
I attended City University’s creative writing course Towards Publication, and have previously self published a collection of short stories, Dark Things, and written a sitcom pilot Out Of Work.
I blog about my writing at www.astrotomato.com
I am 40 years old and work in the sustainability sector. I live in Surrey with a gay cat.
I hope you enjoy the material,
[your name]
So that’s the generic template I use. Notice a couple of important things here:
  • Escalator pitch – this describes your work using the format of 2 well known books or films (etc) crossed with each other. So for Backpackers, I’ve said it’s like Skins (young people having trouble growing up) mixed with Eat, Pray, Love (a woman goes on a road trip to discover herself).
  • Logline – this gives a one or two sentence description of the core tension within the book. Note that it’s not the same as a book cover blurb (although it is similar). It can be quite hard to produce loglines! It’s worth writing a number of these before you send off your first query. Don’t worry if you don’t get the hang of it immediately.
  • Word count – most novels should be between 80,000-100,000 words. My books are slightly over this. Including the word count allows the agent to judge if you’ve written to the industry standard. For example, if it was under 80,000 words, they may class it as a novella, which has a lower chance of sale to publishers. Significantly over 100,000 is also difficult to sell, unless you have a track record in the industry. (Would you risk your money on 1000 pages of a new author’s work? Or would you prefer to reduce your risk to 250 pages and less time?)
  • Notes – if your book is already self-published, you must say so. The vast majority of agents and publishers don’t mind, but they do need to know if your work is already on the market, or if it has a profile and sales record behind it.
  • Biography – tell the agent a little about yourself. What have you written previously? Are you a serious writer, with a number of works, or is this the very first thing you’ve ever written? Have you had a short story published anywhere? Also, bring yourself to life – give them some insight into who you are as a person, without divulging your life story.

Tip six – write a synopsis

Your work must be accompanied by a synopsis. This will be a description of the story, the main characters, the main dramatic themes or tensions, so that the agent can see what the whole book is about. Remember, the agent will only see three chapters of your work, and needs to make a decision about asking for the rest of the book based on those 3 chapters, and your synopsis. You must include the end of your book in the synopsis, even if there is a twist. Every important plot point must be divulged.

I’ve attached a file here with a synopsis of Backpackers. However! I know that writing synopses is a weak point of mine, so while I’ve included it for reference purposes, I would advise that you can find better examples on the internet.

The agent’s website will tell you how long the synopsis should be – as a guide, you should keep it under 2 pages, and aim for 1 page.

Backpackers synopsis

Note that the synopsis is at 1.5 line spacing. You should use this or double line spacing.

Tip seven – don’t send the whole manuscript

Most agents will ask for the first 3 chapters or about the first 50 pages of the novel. Make sure you stick to this. If you have long chapters, or no chapter structure, then stick to the 50 page limit. Certain agencies stipulate 10 pages only, so check carefully.

Tip eight – keep track of agents

Literary agents tend to take 2 – 12 weeks to read submissions and respond. If after 12 weeks you haven’t heard anything, it’s fine to send a polite query asking if the agent has any feedback. Phoning agents every day, or sending angry or impolite or hassling emails will get you blacklisted.

Remember that agents love literature but need to be able to sell your book. If they respond with a “this book is not right for us at this time”, don’t take it personally. Most of the amazing authors we all love had scores, if not hundreds, of rejections before they were published. And their “debut novel” might actually be the third, sixth, or tenth book they wrote. This is a journey.

When submitting to agents, it’s important to keep a note of which agents you’ve contacted and when. This allows you to check when to send a polite query asking for feedback (if you don’t hear from them), and also means that you don’t submit your work twice. I’ve made this mistake before, and I am sure it’s pissed off an agent (apologies to Janklow and Nesbit).

Tip nine – self publishing

What if agents keep saying “no”? Does that mean your work’s unpublishable or has no audience?

Not necessarily. Publishers only have statistics on what’s selling in the formal marketplace and which books have sold most. They aren’t psychic and can’t know how books might sell in unproven markets.

Self publishing is a great way of testing your material. There are millions of novels self published now, and many of them are very good, and of a quality that could be published in the traditional route. But they are in niche, unproven markets. Let’s be clear – the publishing houses are watching what’s being published and what’s selling. If a significant new market emerges – like with Fifty Shades of Grey – they will investigate and try to develop it.

Self publishing is also good for understanding the tasks involved in the publishing world: producing drafts, book covers, writing the back cover blurb, marketing, reaching readers, dealing with feedback, pricing, and so on. If you choose to self publish be clear with yourself that it’s almost a full time role, where you are Creative Director of a company. You will need to enlist the help of different people (readers, proof readers, editors, cover designers, etc). Books don’t sell by magic, so be prepared to learn about marketing, identifying your key readership markets, influential blogs… It’s a tall order.

So there we have it. Nine tips on the route to getting published. If you have any advice to add to this, think you can improve on anything I’ve said, or want to write a better synopsis of Backpackers which I can use, please leave a comment.

Bye for now,

astro x

Literary agents (most accept email submissions)

A M Heath (by post)
Ampersand Agency
Andrew Lownie
Annette Green Agency
Anthony Harwood
Blake Friedmann
Capel & Land (by post)
CarinaUK (publisher)
Caroline Sheldon
Conville and Walsh
Curiosity Quills Press (publisher)
Curtis Brown Creative
Darley Anderson
Ethan Ellenberg
Eve White
Felicity Bryan
Futerman Rose Associates
Greene & Heaton
Gregory and Company
Hardman and Swainson
HMA Literary Agency
Janklow and Nesbit
Jenny brown associates
Johnson & Alcock
Ki Agency (Donald Maass)
Kimberley Cameron
Knight Agency
Lindsay Literary Agency
Lutyens Rubinstein
Madelein Milburn
MBA Literary Agents
MCA Agency (Mulcahy Conway)
Mic Cheetham Associates (by post)
Prentice Beaumont
Rogers, Coleridge and White
Rupert Heath Agency
Sharon Ring (independent)
Standen Literary Agency
Susan Yearwood
Talcott Notch
The Susijn Agency
Tibor Jones
Toby Eady
United Agents
Viney Agency
Voyager publishing
Wade & Doherty
Williams Agency
WME Literary Agency