Writing a book is a monumental feat, which in itself has been known to take years. But that’s only half the battle. Once your manuscript is ready, the struggle for publication is where even harder work begins!
There are industry hints and insider know-how that can help you on your path to publication. However, the only thing that will assure you get your work into print is the quality of your writing. Even the greatest writers have to spend time honing their craft, producing many drafts before sending their work to a publisher. The Australian book industry is highly competitive so it is essential that you present your best possible efforts when approaching a publisher. For this reason the NSW Writers’ Centre strongly recommends reading our Resource Sheets on Drafting and Manuscript Development before you consider submitting your work to a publisher.
Finding a Publisher
The Australian Writers’ Marketplace contains a complete list of publishers in Australia and includes key details about the type of books they publish, whether they accept unsolicited manuscripts and how they prefer to be contacted.
Identifying the Right Publisher
To cut down on your rejection rate, it’s essential to know what a publisher is looking for. Find books of a similar genre and style to yours and approach the publishers who produced them. If you’ve got a few publishers in mind, check their website for what’s already in their catalogue. If your novel is a love story set during the Second World War and the publisher you’re approaching is already releasing a wartime romance, you might be better off approaching one of their competitors.
Subscribe to trade publications like the Bookseller+Publisher to familiarise yourself with the market. Identify what’s popular, what isn’t, and if there are any niches you might be able to fill. Publishers want something fresh and new: a distinctive voice that hasn’t been heard before.
Networking can also be an invaluable tool on your quest for publication. Attend festivals and workshops where you can talk to like-minded writers with similar goals.
Such events can give you access to publishers, agents, editors and published authors who can offer you advice and industry tips.
But beware how many writers there are out there looking for help getting published. You’re more likely to get help – and for that matter get a publisher’s attention – if you can prove you’ve got talent. Winning competitions for short and extended fiction or poetry and having shorter works published in reputable journals will help you stand out from the crowd. Also, unpublished manuscript competitions such as the Vogel Award can lead winning and commended writers directly to publication.
The NSW Writers’ Centre’s free weekly electronic newsletter, Newsbite, lists competitions and literary journals with upcoming opportunities for publication.
Solicited and Unsolicited Manuscripts
A ‘solicited’ manuscript is one that comes to a publisher by a known contact, in most cases a literary agent or sometimes an established author or assessor. An ‘unsolicited’ manuscript comes to a publisher without the recommendation of an industry professional. Many of the larger publishing houses in Australia do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. This information will be available on the publisher’s website.
Because of this, many new authors prefer to pursue representation by a literary agent who can approach publishers on their behalf. Finding an agent can be as difficult and competitive as finding a publisher but, should you succeed, will give you access to a greater number of publishing houses. For more information see our Resource Sheet on Literary Agents.
Writers without agents can also have their manuscript professionally appraised and then send a query letter along with the assessor’s report to a publisher. However, be aware that because manuscript assessment is a paid service, not all publishers and agents will trust the objectivity of such reports. On the other hand, the Australian Society of Authors does recommend assessor’s reports as a useful tool for getting your foot in a publisher or agent’s door. But it is important to use an industry recommended assessor if you intend to use their report to approach publishers and agents. See our Resource Sheet on Manuscript Development for more information.
In the spirit of giving everyone a go, some Australian publishers outline time periods where they will throw open their doors to unsolicited manuscripts as a way of finding new material.
For example, Penguin Books Australia runs The Monthly Catch, Pan Macmillan Australia has Manuscript Monday and you can send your submission to Random House any time. Each publishing house will still have certain guidelines to follow and may sometimes exclude particular genres. Visit their websites for further details on submission.
Presenting Your Manuscript
Most publishing houses have strict guidelines for submissions and failure to comply with these could lead to your manuscript being overlooked. You may be able to email your manuscript, and some publishing houses may prefer or only accept digital submissions so make sure to check. Even if the publisher doesn’t provide guidelines, be sure to follow industry standard layout:
White A4 paper
Double line spacing
12 point font
Times New Roman font
Wide margins (at least 3cm)
Do not bind or staple
Manuscript in wallet-type folder secured with a heavy-duty elastic band, cloth tape or a fold-back clip
Most publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts so if you want a quicker response the Australian Society of Authors advises sending the first few chapters rather than the whole book. If the publisher likes what you’ve sent they will ask you for the rest.
Another advantage to this method is that you can send off samples of your manuscript while you are still writing it, allowing you to incorporate a publisher’s feedback – should you receive any – into your manuscript as you draft.
Proper spelling and grammar are also very important. Publishers have so many manuscripts to read that often things like poor grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes can be the difference between your manuscript being read or thrown away. Get yourself a book on grammar and punctuation, take an editing course or even hire a professional editor to give yourself a better chance of getting beyond the slush pile. See our Resource Sheet on Editors for details.
Along with your manuscript you should provide a brief cover letter including:
Your name, address, telephone number and email address
Your writing experience, qualifications and details of any published work or awards
The genre, length and target audience of your novel
Two or three sentences summarising the plot
The Australian Society of Authors suggests that you also include an outline (a single paragraph introducing your book, the broad themes, comparable books, potential readership, etc) and a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your manuscript. Keep this clear and precise, not much more than a page. The outline is for selling your book to the publisher. The synopsis is there to tell them exactly what your book contains. Don’t hold back on plot twists and surprise revelations – the publisher needs to know them all.
It may take three to six months, or sometimes even longer, to hear back from a publisher after submitting your manuscript. Three months is a decent interval between submission and follow-up. The Australian Society of Authors recommends mentioning in your cover letter that you will be phoning after three months. Make a note of it in your diary so you won’t forget. When you phone, keep the conversation businesslike and brief – you are finding out whether or not the publisher is interested. If they haven’t had time to read your manuscript, ask for an estimate of how long it might take and contact them again after that period.
The Australian publishing industry is a highly competitive marketplace so rejection is likely even for the most talented writers. The key to success is persistence. If you are lucky you may receive criticism and feedback from a publisher – perhaps even an invitation to submit a revised draft of your book. Use that criticism constructively and redraft your manuscript. Then send it to that publisher again – quickly – you’ll want to catch that same person who took the time to give you feedback in the first place.
Once your manuscript is accepted, you will sign a contract with the publisher. If an agent represents you they should review and negotiate your contract on your behalf. Many authors have successfully sold their manuscripts to a publisher without an agent. However, it’s important to get advice on your contract before you sign.
In many cases publishers are not willing to spend money on publicity for new writers and may not provide you with a book launch. However, there is nothing to stop you simply organising your own provided you have some money set aside. If you have never been to a book launch, it might be an idea to attend a few to see how they are run before organising your own.
A Decent Proposal by Rhonda Whitton & Sheila Hollingworth
Arts Law Centre of Australia <www.artslaw.com.au>
Australian Publisher’s Association <www.publishers.asn.au>
Australian Society of Authors <www.asauthors.org>
Bookseller and Publisher <www.booksellerandpublisher.com.au>