The Truth About Publishing

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell
Let's face it, trying to secure a publishing deal is the holy grail of every author and not just because it promises a chalice positively overflowing with royalties, screenplay options and film deals. Being published is the ultimate self affirmation: somebody likes your work and believes that others will like it too. The outpourings of your heart and mind are your currency, exponentially inflated through publication.

But it is also a dangerous, soul-destroying quest that would have Indiana Jones retiring into academia before the first trial.

In the event that you haven't already traversed the route of the aspiring published writer, it goes something like this:

  1. Find an agent currently accepting submissions in the genre of your novel. If you fail here, go straight to step 3.
  2. If you actually manage to succeed in finding an agent, then congratulations! You've beaten odds akin to those of winning a national lottery jackpot. Just do as your agent says and hope that they have at least some of your best interests at heart. Hopefully a publishing deal will materialise at some point in the near future and you may even make a few pence along the way.
  3. Find a publisher of novels in your specified genre who is currently accepting unsolicited submissions. If you fail here, then you could try just sending them anyway, which, at best, will probably result in a terse response explaining that the publisher does not accept unsolicited submissions and a recommendation that you find yourself an agent. See step 1.
  4. Assuming you are 'going it alone', send off manuscript samples as per submission requirements of the publisher(s) - usually the first three chapters plus synopsis and covering letter - A4 single side, double line-spacing.
  5. Wait impatiently for responses from publishers. These initially come in 2 forms: a 'thanks but no thanks - keep up the good work, you cheeky lil writer, you'; or a somewhat more optimistic request for the full manuscript (usual presentation conventions apply). If all you get is the former, then return to step 1 or step 3, depending on how you're feeling about the whole sorry saga. Alternatively, bob out of the publishing rat race and go for broke.
  6. Once again, wait impatiently for responses from publishers. They've got your manuscript - it'll take a while, so perhaps take up crochet or pottery in the mean time - it may even blossom into a whole new hobby to fill the void of writing once the publishers reject your manuscript and thus, you conclude, reject you as a person worthy of occupying space and time. On the off chance that your novel fits their current schedule, looks like it might sell a few copies and doesn't need too much work, the publisher might send you THAT LETTER, in which case you've well and truly beaten all the odds, defied nature, achieved the impossible. Warn your family to expect your recommendation for a sainthood some time after your dear departure.
If you are one of the lucky few to find a publisher for your novel, then it is worth bearing in mind that your trials are probably far from over. Depending on the type of deal you secure, you may well find yourself repeating the submission nightmare over and over again. Not only this, but your royalties (and this is the best case) will amount to around 15% of the cover price of each copy sold and if it's not selling, then it's the bargain basement for you and the publishers are cutting their losses.

Why Self-Publish?

Why not?
You really do have very little to lose and everything to gain by taking the self-publishing route. For one thing, you avoid having to deal with all those 'important' people in the publishing industry who couldn't care less how you feel when they reject your work. However, there are still a few points to consider before you dive straight in, the most important being an objective assessment of the work you intend to publish.

Take a step back
The first assessment has to be your own: write your book, edit and spellcheck, then leave it alone for a while. This creates some distance between the process and the final product, allowing you to look at it in a slightly different light.

When you're ready, read it as if it was written by somebody else (i.e. don't edit or think too hard about what you were trying to achieve). If you do spot any mistakes, make a note of where they are and edit later.

Find a friendly (but honest) proofreader
The best person to give your work an honest review is somebody who knows you well enough to tell you what they really think, but will spare your feelings in the process. Of course this is only one opinion, but it should at least give you a sense of whether the thing works at all. If, for instance, you have written a novel, then give your proofreader some instruction - ask them to read it in the same way as they would read any other book, then ask questions:
  • Are the characters believable?
  • Which character did you like best?
  • Does the plot flow?
  • Can you follow the plot?
  • Are there any obvious holes?
  • Does the writing style detract from the story / subject matter?
  • What was the best bit?
  • Did you forget it was mine when you were reading it?
This last question might seem like a strange one, but a good novel should encapsulate your reader and if it does so on a first draft, then this is a really good sign. And even if it doesn't tick all of the boxes, it might just need a bit of an edit.

Make some comparisons
Most authors are also avid readers of books, so you probably already have a clear idea of what a good / bad publication looks like. That said, it is worth taking a trip to your local supermarket to flick through some of the mass market publications on display - there's a very strong possibility that your work will kick the ass of most of these dreadful books and if they can sell copy, then so can you!