home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

How to Get Published

I’ve written this fantastic novel. Can you help me find a publisher?

This question is asked frequently and the simple answer is no. However, many of the magazine’s contributors and editors have worked in London book-publishing for several years, and the following is their best, and most blunt advice on how to go about getting your novel published. We hope it helps and, given the fantastic response we’ve had to earlier versions of this section of the OAQ, we’ll be updating and expanding it frequently with more information about the realities of book-publishing – and the minimum of soft-soap. You may not like some of what you’re about to read, but we make no apologies for telling the truth as we see it

The Realities as We See them

If your novel really is fantastic, you will almost certainly find a publisher for it – eventually. If your novel is not as fantastic as you think, which is probable, there is a significantly lower, though unfortunately far from negligible chance that you will find a publisher for it anyway. There are potentially some billion living novelists on this planet. It’s not feasible to think that they will all be published, but the market for novels is far larger than the real talent-base can sustain – that’s why so many lousy novels are published and why there’s some, very small reason to hope your lousy novel could be among them

Prepare Your Typescript

There are a number of things you need to do whether your novel is fantastic or not. Firstly, the typescript of your novel should be clean – printed in a sensible typeface, double-spaced, on one side only of a sensible paper (white A4 80gsm general purpose paper is just fine; letter quality paper is contraindicated), with as few manual corrections as possible and bound only with one or two elastic bands. Any other form of binding, even a cardboard folder, is inconvenient to the publisher’s or agent’s reader – the first, probably only person you have to impress. Take a copy or two of the typescript and select two or three sample chapters – usually the first two or three will be adequate – and take some extra copies of these and bind them with a paperclip. Write a 300-500 word outline of the novel

Decide Where to Send It

Obtain a directory of publishers and agents (in the UK the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook [W&A] is ideal). Decide whether you wish to try to sell your work through an agent or directly to the publisher. This is not an entirely simple decision to make and we offer no opinion except to say that if your novel is fantastic you should bear in mind that a publisher will be paying you in order to exploit that novel for their own purposes, but you will be paying an agent to serve your own best interests. A good agency will serve your interests at the expense of their own (or stop acting for you), but an effective publisher may exploit your novel at your expense and burst into tears if you have the temerity to question their actions. Good agents are slightly less rare than effective publishers and treat weeping publishers, no matter how effective, with the contempt they deserve. There are many bad agents and many ineffective publishers. At some stage in the future we may be able to advise on the quality and effectiveness of given agents or publishers, but at the moment you’re on your own

Choose which agents or publishers you think might be interested in your novel. This choice is easier if you wish to submit directly to a publisher as their typical output will be obvious. Finding out what type of writing a given agent handles is less easy. The W&A does provide thumbnail information but this often reflects an agency’s ambition as much as their track record. You could try sending various agents an S.A.E. asking for a copy of their client list, but don’t hold your breath. If they tell you they don’t maintain a client list, they’re lying or incompetent. In any case, if an agent is asking for a reading fee, you should probably give them a miss; if a publisher is asking for money from you for any reason whatsoever, you should almost certainly give them a miss

What to Send and Where to Send It

Whether you choose to submit to an agent or a publisher, the practise is the same: don’t send a copy of your full typescript unless you’ve been asked to do so. Don’t be put off where an agency’s entry in the W&A says "no unsolicited mss" – they mean the full typescript, not the outline and sample you’re about to send them. Send your outline, three sample chapters and a brief covering letter (at least one London publisher has a "submission letter of the week" noticeboard where particularly extravagant literary pretensions are posted for the entire staff and any visitors to see) to the agents or publishers of your choice. Also send a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the return of your material. Some authors, who are particularly convinced of the brilliance of their book, feel that this last requirement is below them; it’s not: it’s good manners, plain and simple

Both agents and publishers prefer that you only submit to one agent or publisher at a time, and this may be partly for legal reasons. We’re not lawyers and we don’t know the legal issues involved, so we’ll just say that agents frequently submit clients’ works to more than one publisher at the same time – a "multiple submission" – and publishers rarely seem to have a problem with this (the exception being where they have been promised an exclusive first look). Normally an agent will state that the submission is multiple, but agents do also make under-the-counter submissions if they think it’s in their clients’ interests. Given that an agent or publisher is likely to take three months or more to respond to a submission, submitting consecutively could become a long process

What Happens Next?

Your submission will be placed on the "slush pile". If you don’t like the idea of your fantastic novel being described as "slush", tough. Get used to it. The name has stuck for the same reason that "eat shit" is generally regarded as a derogatory imperative. 99.9999% of unsolicited submissions to agencies and publishers are garbage, no matter how fantastic their authors think they are. More to the point, they’re unsellable garbage, and neither publishers or agents are interested in taking on garbage unless they think they can sell it

Despite the statistics, a good agent or an effective publisher will always make sure every submission is read and given due consideration – the key word being "due". Often a professional reader will be employed and it’s worth assuming that this reader will actually be reasonably good at their job and extremely conscientious – one significant find will ensure that reader’s salary for a year or two; missing a great book will result in redundancy. It is because that reader is probably good at their job that when your submission is rejected, the publisher or agent will either make a genuinely encouraging comment, or issue a standard rejection and, in either case, decline to enter into any discussion with you about the merits of your novel. Learning the difference between a "standard rejection" and "genuinely encouraging comment" can be one of the most difficult tasks for a new author, and comes only with experience

Most submissions are not worth commenting on, a very few merit brief words of advice, a tiny, tiny proportion result in the typescript being "called in". Here’s the good news if your typescript is called in: you don’t need to send return postage with it. More importantly, someone apart from you thinks your writing shows promise. Here’s the bad news: even if your typescript is called in, there’s still only a 5-10% chance the publisher doing the calling will want to publish the book – and a slightly higher chance the agency will want to take you on. More good news? The fact that a publisher or agent has called in your typescript at all suggests a massive 10-15% chance that you will find an agent or a publisher for the novel you submitted at some stage in the future and a truly gargantuan 15-20% chance that you’ll find an agent or publisher for your future output (figures invented for effect). This really is good news – thrive on it, enjoy it, gain confidence, but never forget you’re still in low-odds territory and it still doesn’t mean your novel is as fantastic as you think it is. Humility is a valuable quality for any artist to possess

You think it’s improbable that your fantastic novel could be judged on the basis of the first three chapters alone and that this judgement could be more or less correct? Your novel is probably not fantastic. A good reader could probably judge your novel on the basis of three paragraphs – asking for three chapters is just an extravagant way of a) making absolutely sure and b) letting you down lightly. If you don’t understand that every sentence in a fantastic novel is, well, fantastic, you should give up writing for publication altogether


Apart from getting famous for something else, there aren’t many alternatives to the submission/rejection grind, but the increasingly popular ‘electronic slush pile’, where a sample of your work can be posted for the wired world to see is worth considering – there are several of these now, some even run by publishers (which means Jack Shit when it comes to whether anything on them will actually get read)

Good luck!


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