As a first-time writer, what chance do I have of being published?

Although publishing slots in Australia are limited – Aussie readership numbers are quite small compared to Europe and America – don’t be put off! Publishing houses do take on a small percentage of first-time authors each year. Desirable qualities are high levels of originality and good market appeal.

I’ve finished my manuscript. What happens now?

As G. K. Chesterton once said: “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” And for every good manuscript that lands on the publishers’ desks, there’ll be dozens of badly-written ones. Due to the large volume of manuscripts being offered to publishing houses, many don’t look at unsolicited work unless it comes from a reputable literary agent or is accompanied by a favourable report from a manuscript assessment service.

What’s a manuscript assessment service?

Manuscript assessment services are usually managed by professional writers or people who have been associated with the publishing industry, such as editors. For a set fee, the service can provide a fresh unbiased view of your work, and comprehensive feedback on topics such as style, plot, characterisation and dialogue. The Writers’ Centre in your nearest capital city can recommend an assessment agency, or check out your Yellow Pages Directory.

But my friends and family have read my book and they love it!

Of course they do! They’re biased! But family and friends aren’t professional writers, and what you need is an objective professional analysis.

So why do I need an agent and where can I find one?

A reputable literary agent acts as a go-between between you and your publisher, and is experienced at negotiating contractual arrangements such as advances, print runs and publishing rights. If you haven’t already had your m/s assessed, your agent will also advise you on the pubishability of your work. Agents also know which publishers prefer various genres. While they can’t guarantee publication of your work, if he/she agrees to “take you on” then you can safely assume you have a reasonable chance of success. Because most good agents already have large stables of writers, they are notoriously difficult to procure. Many have ‘closed books’ and, because of time constraints and the large volume of manuscripts being submitted for possible publication, others won’t look at your manuscript unless it has a favourable assessment report.

If you’re looking for an agent, try the Writers’ Centre in your nearest capital city, The Australian Writers’ Marketplace (available at most municipal libraries or bookstores) or the Yellow Pages directories, especially Sydney and Melbourne. A reputable agent never charges a fee for assessing a manuscript, but will command a percentage of your earnings if a contract is negotiated.

What if I decide to submit my work directly to a publisher?

Go for it, but be prepared. Publishers expect a certain professional standard and unless your work is exceptionally brilliant they won’t be interested in doing major renovations to a manuscript. Often the gap between the finished product of a first time writer, and what the editor is prepared to work with, may mean a rejection slip.

Do your homework and find out which publishers handle your type of work. For instance, the largest publishers of popular fiction in Australia are Random House, Harper Collins, Hodder Headline and Pan Macmillan. Penguin, for instance, generally handles the more ‘literary’ manuscripts, so no use sending your Jackie Collins type manuscript to them.

Take the trouble to telephone the publishing company first and find out the name of the commissioning editor. Then address your work to him/her personally.

Should I send the whole manuscript?

Never send a full manuscript – you could be wasting your postage. Your initial correspondence should include a 1 – 2 page succinct synopsis of the plot (for fiction) or a detailed chapter outline (for non-fiction), a title page giving the name of your m/s and a word count, plus sample chapters of your work – preferably the first three. Also include a covering letter, giving a brief account of the book’s subject, your background and qualifications for writing it, and the market you expect your book will appeal to. A CV will be helpful here also.

Should I finish my manuscript before sending out a query letter and three chapters?

You’ll have to weigh up the advantages of knowing whether there’s a potential market for your book against the possibility that a publisher may want the remainder of your book immediately. There are arguments for each case, and publishers have been occasionally known to accept a m/s for publication on just a few chapters and a synopsis. However I’d advise a first-time writer to have a finished manuscript ready before approaching a publisher.

Are there guidelines for setting out a manuscript?

Publishing houses require manuscripts to be presented in a certain way because it makes their work easier.

Pages must be typewritten with an easily-legible, medium-sized font. While there are many beautiful font styles available today, although they may look great in a 2-page letter, they can make rather tedious reading in a 500 page m/s. I use Courier New or Times New Roman, size 12.

Use A4 paper. It’s a good size for handling, it’s cheap and easily available, and is a standard size for a photocopy machine.

Print on one side of the paper only. This allows for clear copy as there’s no chance of ink showing through from the opposite side.

Text must be double-spaced – i.e. 1 line space between every two lines of text. This allows the editor to make minor corrections/suggestions above the text they are referring to.

Allow approximately 3cm for side margins. This allows space for the editor to make longer author corrections. It also allows the editor space to give written directions to the typesetter for the laying out of page proofs, should they decide to publish your work.

Number your pages consecutively. This allows the pages to be put back into their proper sequence if dropped, blown about by wind, etc. Also, by knowing the exact number of pages, the editor can estimate the size of the finished product. If you’re using a computer, this can be done by utilising the page numbering option – this automatically adjusts text if additions or deletions are done to the m/s. If not, it might be a better idea to number the pages by hand when the m/s is finished.

Some publishers also request that each page carry the author’s name and the title of the book. Computer writers can use the header/footer option on their word processing system. Manually typing in these details can cause problems when adding or deleting text. With my first novel I bought a rubber stamp and stamped each page when the m/s reached its final printout.

For ease of reading, pages must be left unbound.

All contact details, such as name and address, phone/fax number, e-mail address etc.) should be clearly stated on your covering letter and on the front page of the manuscript. Send hardcopy (paper) submissions only. Work sent on disk or via e-mail will not be accepted.

What if they want more?

Hurray! You’ve passed first base.

Do make a final check of your work. Oddly enough, mistakes that are difficult to see on a computer screen show often become glaringly obvious on a printed page. Re-print any pages where necessary. White out or inked-out words not only look unprofessional, they distract the editor.

If you want your submission returned (if it is unsuitable), enclose a suitably-sized stamped self-addressed envelope. If you’d like the publisher to acknowledge receipt of your submission, enclose a note to that effect and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Eventually, if the publishing company likes your work, they’ll be happy to start paying your postage bills.

Wrap your m/s in a large sheet of paper (I use brown paper) and secure with string/ sticky tape etc, so the pages can’t become loose in transit. Then put into a solid durable postal bag.

Send a copy only, not the original manuscript. Don’t include a floppy disk at this point. The publisher will ask for one later, if your work is accepted.

How long should I wait for a publisher to respond before jogging their memory?

Allow at least 10 – 12 weeks.

What about multiple submissions?

Though it’s tempting to try to circumvent the seemingly endless waiting that goes with submitting manuscripts, publishers don’t like multiple submissions and you might end up with egg on your face if more than one publisher shows interest. Take your time and be patient.

I’ve written a children’s story book. How do I go about finding a publisher?

Writing for children is easy, right? Not too many words required, and the inclusion of a few bright pictures. I wasn’t too bad at art when I was younger. I think I’ll have a go.

Think again.

For the majority of children today, television and computers are infinitely more entertaining than books. So the market is small and extremely competitive. Browse your local bookshops to see what’s selling and who’s publishing. You’ll probably be surprised. Fables and fairy stories are OUT. Innovative fresh ideas are IN.

However there is a steady market for teen (young adolescent) books.

My friend, who’s good at art, wants to illustrate my children’s book.

I usually advise that artwork be limited to one or two sketches. Most publishing companies prefer to use their own in-house artists for illustrations.

What about self publishing?

That’s a tricky one! I’ve self-published two books however they were local histories, relevant to the small area in which I live, and something that would never have been considered by a large publishing company because of their limited parochial appeal. Local histories, family histories, limited appeal memoirs definitely belong in the world of self publishing. There are numerous small publishing/printing companies that cater for this market.

However I’d never ever recommend anyone self publish a novel, or a non-fiction book that has more widespread appeal. Why? Simply because you won’t have the facilities for distribution, and bookshops are unlikely to stock them because they usually only deal with the major distribution companies and publishers.