Writers seeking publication should be aware that the book market is a crowded one. Your writing may be of great personal significance, but it must compete in an industry that is both competitive and hard-nosed... but fascinating.
Publishers are businesses. They aim to make a profit. They may appear to take a risk with a less commercial book, but not without believing that there is a sufficiently robust market for the idea - both in the UK and elsewhere - to make it financially viable. They do this by trading rights with overseas publishers wherever possible - these negotiations are mostly centred round the major literary trade fairs in Frankfurt in the autumn and Bologna in the spring - and by ensuring that their local marketing and publicity energies secure widespread publicity leading to strong sales through as many outlets as possible. They also do their utmost to sell other rights including serialisation, film and audio rights, depending on the terms of the contract and the contents of the book.
Bookshops have traditionally had considerable influence on publishing decisions. Publishers often check jacket designs with them before they sign them off. In order to ensure that a book is a priority for a bookseller a publisher may pay for it to be included in bookshop promotions - buying window space or inclusion in special promotions.
Most books are bought by bookshops on a 'sale or return' basis. This means that if the book doesn't sell sufficiently fast, the bookseller has the option to return it. The last thing a publisher needs...
Booksellers can make a huge difference to a book's success. They have often built up a following of loyal and trusting customers - and there is nothing to beat a personal recommendation.
Librarians too are influential in terms of personal recommendations and deciding which books they want to include in their stock selection.
On-line booksellers use personal recommendations too - it's so easy to jot down your thoughts on a novel you've enjoyed and post it for others to see, and your views can be influential.
Publishers also promote books through the press and media. Although books receive quite a bit of coverage - both specialist and general - there is still terrific competition for airtime and review space.
It is a tough old world out there.
So here are a few pointers to help you navigate your way through.
So what steps can you take to break through into this tricky business of publishing?'My grandchildren howl with laughter when I read it to them. They keep telling me I must get it published. They've even illustrated it to save the publisher the trouble!'
As you would if embarking on any business - do your homework. Research your target market. It isn't good enough to say that your children love your story; it must be sought (and therefore bought) for thousands of children in the UK and ideally internationally if it is going to work for a commercial publisher.
Most publishers prefer hiring their own choice of illustrator, so don't go to the trouble or expense of commissioning illustrations privately.'For goodness sake, I could do better than that...'
Watch the trends but don't decide to write a book which has, effectively, been written already. Publishers are understandably bandwagon-jumpers, so there are always possibilities, but aim for originality - a unique selling point that acknowledges a trend but improves on it.'I haven't found any other books on the prehensile claws of the left-footed Mid-Atlantic Puffin so thought I'd fill the gap…'
Your specialist area of knowledge may simply be too narrow to support a book on the subject. But there are lots of examples of non-fiction achieving remarkable sales, backed by an enthusiastic publisher and inspired marketing and publicity. If you have a 'niche' idea, consider what specialist outlets there are for it - on-line or terrestrial, or the radio and tv programmes and journalists to whom it might appeal. Beware of understandable flattery and idealism from family and friends. How many copies can you envisage selling under your own steam? Publishers are increasingly reliant on authors and illustrators to market and sell their own books - alongside the more traditional sales routes.'I've loved writing since I was a child...'
That's all very well, but can you tell a story? We receive impressive examples of creative writing every day. Very few of them, however, tell a compelling story. You may have a real aptitude for language, and some great ideas, but without a narrative structure and storytelling skills - and this is true for both fiction and non-fiction - the likelihood of publication is limited.'So what's the point...?'
This rather gloomy preamble is designed to inject a modicum of reality into a world which is often about personal dreams, ideas and ambitions. It is perfectly possible that you have within you a publishable book. But the simple, if admirable, act of completing it is only the beginning of a long journey.
Explore some the books listed in the Useful Resources page on this website.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get dispassionate, objective feedback and many writers have found that critical, constructive support from a local writers group has been invaluable. Details can usually be found in your local library.
Consider taking a course with the Arvon Foundation www.arvonfoundation.org. Each Arvon Writers' course is tutored by two published writers - you may find yourself on the receiving end of feedback from a writer whose work you've long admired. Numbers are limited so it's an opportunity to make the most of the available expertise - and all the Arvon Writers' Centres are situated in beautiful parts of the UK.
Many, but not all publishers require submission via a Literary Agency like Fraser Ross Associates.
This practice reflects the large number of manuscripts publishers receive and the decreasing numbers of staff available to undertake the necessary reading, which is why the manner in which you submit is so important.
Acceptance and acquisition
There are lots of stories of multiple unsuccessful submissions before a bestselling novel found its publishing home. It can take a long time before a book is accepted, and the process of awaiting individual publisher responses can be a lengthy one too. A literary agent can speed the process up, but their enthusiasm for your book doesn't guarantee immediate success.
On acceptance, you will begin talking to the editor with whom you will be working. They will almost always ask for revisions. This is usually a healthy dialogue and though it can be alarming - especially for a first contract - it makes for a better book in the long run. Not everything the editor suggests will feel right, but your relationship should be sufficiently robust to survive any resulting negotiations.
A delivery schedule will be built into your contract. Try to keep to it. Publishers aren't all paragons of virtue where deadlines are concerned but they notice if their writers and illustrators fall behind.
It's important that you keep in regular contact with your Literary Agent during the writing process. Apart from the fact that s/he will be interested in how things are going, good communication means that if there are any glitches or delays, they can be discussed openly in order to prevent any nasty shocks on either side.
Respond as speedily as you can to all requests for information and changes.
The period of time between signing a publishing contract and finding your book in a bookshop can seem extraordinarily long. The intervening period is full of jacket design decisions, marketing meetings and publicity campaigns, sales meetings with national book buyers for the large bookselling chains, visits from local publisher representatives to independent bookshops and international trade fairs where your published will endeavour to sell foreign rights.
Publishers usually sell books into bookshops more than six months ahead of publication. And remember, yours will be one of thousands of titles sold in the same way. Good publishers will keep you in touch with proceedings and, of course, you'll have your next book well underway by that time…
So just keep writing.
There are always stories circulating of raucous launch parties and dinners in up-market restaurants, but most books arrive without such fanfare. Some publishers ask writers to undertake a launch tour of bookshops and libraries and if appropriate, schools. This is as much to establish you as a recognisable face to those in whose hands your life's work now lies, as it is about selling piles of books. But if the two go together, that's all to the good.
There is no doubt that an author who endears him or herself to the dedicated, but underpaid workforce behind bookshop tills and library counters will see that relationship reflected in better sales and higher borrowing figures. And these invaluable supporters have friends as well as customers. Word of mouth can be a powerful selling tool - perhaps the most powerful selling tool.
When your book is published, you should register it with the Public Lending Right scheme. This government-funded scheme makes an annual payment direct to authors and illustrators (not through their literary agent or publisher) which reflects the number of times each of their registered books has been borrowed over a twelve month period.