Four ways to get published

January 2, 2010

1. Just write something and send it around to Publishers

We’re all doing it, so if you’re new, think twice about taking the route of obscurity to discovery in one step. It does happen, but its more likely to happen if combined with some of the other ideas below.

2. Develop expertise points and cash in

Expertise points come through original research, teaching, experience or practice that makes you immediately relevant to a defined audience. Take a look at who publishes material to service the desires of this audience and contact them if you see an opportunity to add to their line up.

3. Do something amazing

A sixteen year old Australian girl, Jessica Watson, is currently sailing around the world solo, non-stop.
There is no doubt her story will attract a book deal on her return.

4. Know the formulas

The world of books seems to reward writers disproportionately. Original talent can go unnoticed and formulaic work can be wildly successful. There is a good reason for this – Publishers are risk averse and like the comfort of precedent when it comes to investment. Books exist in categories (crime, fantasy, romance, picture books for example) because the formulas please large numbers of paying customers and this is where Publishers continue to invest. In this sense, being “formulaic” is essential. At the Olympic Games, the figure skater who serves up the expected elements with originality and a fresh twist ends up with the flowers and the gold. Its much the same with books.


This is the first in a series of posts centering on my experience as a Publisher at Macmillan. I am proposing to deal with the following over the series, focusing on what actually happens inside the castle of old-money publishing.

1. Proposals meetings
2. How to be a career author
3. Planning a brand vs planning one book

If you have something else you would like to hear instead or further to this list please comment.


2364722127_6bb6b1c867 Proposals Meetings run monthly or quarterly in most Publishing Houses. At these meetings the whole interdepartmental assembly (sometimes fondly called the “team”) comes together to choose future projects. These meetings look at proposals with:

A. One eye on the past and
B. One eye on the sandwich plate in the middle of the table.

The eye on the past is to measure your proposal against past failures and successes. For this reason your proposal must be across the detail of the other key players in your space. The eye on the sandwiches is due to the fact that in publishing, most of us work very hard for wages not commensurate with the other occupants of town’s big end. Most of us need very strong proof that taking on a book is going to help us continue to eat.

For the proposing author, the dual challenge here is to ensure you know your category’s history and have developed a fresh twist to help make its future look like the newest, sexiest model of a favourite automobile. If you are writing speculative fiction, you must know that beyond Rowling’s dazzling monuments tower Philip Pullman and Garth Nix in their own citadels. You must tip your hat, do your training and be prepared to run an original race along the very same track as those who went before you. The same applies whether you write fiction, non-fiction or textbooks.

Your proposal must have already sold itself to the Publisher you or your agent submitted it to, so at the point of the Proposals Meeting, they are your Sales Representative. The key to keeping all available eyes off the sandwich plate and on your very best assets, is to have your Publisher emotionally connected to your work. This means:

– Writing your precious heart out in the cold, dark and lonely hours and leaving nothing in reserve
– Being prepared to walk away and start again
– Trusting the Publisher will judge the work by:

(1) The current opportunity afforded by the category
(2) Your own platform as a professional person, and
(3) The intrinsic strengths of the work

– Trusting the Publisher will get every nuance you left for them
– Following the Publisher up in brief, polite, well worded emails sent between 8-9am, and finally, a phone call

So, over to you. Can I answer a question for you? Help explain an experience you’ve had with a Publishing House? / CC BY-SA 2.0

Read the rest of this entry »

97009376_39d20f6b18Commercial publishers have never been terribly enthusiastic about selling direct to audiences. Through relying on third party distribution, most have neglected their consumer brands so badly that today very few of their consumers are able to name them. Stocked in a sea of sameness, logos and values all bleed into one. Let’s be honest, how many people who loved Harry Potter know the publisher was Bloomsbury? Or who knows the name of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was published by Bantam Press? Heck, I wouldn’t know who published Stephanie Meyer without looking it up myself (like I did Dan Brown – and that was just to sound informed). In reality, there are probably only a handful of publicly-recognisable brands in the entire industry – chief amongst them the Oxford University Press dictionary range. In a cute reversal, now no-one can name the author!

In reality, authors become brands through the sales-success facilitated by their silent partner, a publisher. However, when you self-publish, you become the publisher and the author in one dynamic person. This means that, like it or not, you are the brand. Given that we’ve already demonstrated that huge publishers don’t always get recognised as such, this has its advantages. One of these advantages is not the ability to muscle into wide retail distribution. Doing so requires you to have written twenty books and hired a team of sales people to make any kind of go at it. This is the bit publishers are best left to do. A herd of books is required to crash through the brambles of retail.

Self publishing is an invitation to become a social networker par excellence. The free tools we all enjoy in this space means selling direct through our blogs and online resellers avoids the pitched financial battle of retail. Going forward, with or without a publishing deal, you’re going to be your best publicist, promoter and salesperson, and your best mechanism will be your own online and public activities. If you’re going to go there anyway, while a big publisher steamrolls you into retail, there seem to me to be good reasons to think about starting there and allowing yourself and your audience to grow.

CASH JPublishers, and Educational Publishers in particular, are spending big money by paying writers and illustrators upfront fees in exchange for the assignment of rights. This is an opportunity for talented writers and illustrators to make a living. But what are the traps? Here is a SWOT analysis from the point of view of a freelance writer/illustrator – with some insider Publisher tips.


Getting paid up front means food can be purchased and stored in the fridge. Rent can be paid. Cash flow is the key to every business. As a writer, you know that, but oftentimes creative people, for all their talents, find find basic commerce a drag. The ability to turn your hand to educational or other content to a specific brief, with narrow research time, no fuss and short deadlines is tantamount to cash flow. Further, every time you get a gig, your your name is in the public space.

TIP: Have a look at the major educational publishers’ websites. There is a wide range of products you could consider contributing to. These include children’s literacy-based readers, school and college texts, study guides and supplements. If you write well, or draw well, find an educator who knows something about a subject area, match your skills to a category I just mentioned and look for a gap in the market. The results could be surprising.


Assigning rights means you are forfeiting a royalty and copyright for cash up front. The metric for cash is usually a minimal, break-even print run x ARP / your contribution. This means, the fee equates to a publication not making a whole lot of money. As a result, you negate the risk of massive hours down the drain but miss the chance at bigger money that comes with higher sales.

TIP: If you assign rights, you should reasonably expect to retain the moral right to be named as the author of what you wrote. Look for this in any contract you may sign. There’s no point writing if you don’t get a mention.


One successful freelance gig=more offers. A good writer could reasonably expect to book a year’s work in around 8 weeks if they knew:

– the educational market as well as I do
– how to combine with educators with little commercial experience in order to supply Publisher needs.

This post is not going to unfold all of this but I’ll start with a tip.

TIP: Have a look at government departments in your country/state responsible for education and curriculum change. See what areas they are looking at. These are exactly the same areas the Publishers are looking at. Make enquiries to Publishers you find active in these curriculum areas to see whether they are seeking good all-round writers. Remember, your pitch will be strengthened if you combine forces with an experienced educator. You write the copy, they write the questions and activities. If you are an illustrator, combine with the writer and the educator to build value.


If you always write for cash, you may undermine your passive income opportunity. Royalty payments are a passive income opportunity in the sense that, with a successful publication, you continue to be paid while a book is selling. If you are only known as a freelance writer, you lose the bigger opportunity of becoming a capital A Author.

TIP A capital A Author will seldom write under any agreement other than a royalty-based contract, but an emerging writer fond of food and shelter will need to be flexible.
My advice is to build a portfolio of successful cash-based contributions and use this to help drive a royalty based deal over the line. Freelance gigs are always useful – try and keep both types of gig rolling out simultaneously, building your name and value one word at a time.

Photo by Franco Folini


In Part 2 of this look at the do’s and don’ts of approaching a Publisher, I have decided to be a little more practical, and actually to help emerging writers rather than amuse myself and my friend Robin Dickinson with further ironical statements.

6. Formatting

Know that editors are like elves in Tolkein or goblins in Rowling. They have terribly strict rules that they live by, and as a proposing author you must obey them. Failure to obey editorial rules around formatting brings immediate friction, or a slowing down of relevance. Consider a burp during speed dating. A fall in figure skating. The same applies here. The general rule is consistency in all your formatting choices. Beyond this, the basics are, choose a plain font, like Times New Roman (forget Comic Sans), and use double spacing. This assists reading at speed. Do number the pages and don’t plaster everything with copyright notices. Doing so is like telling the Pope you’re a Catholic too, over and over again. Publishers live by copyright, so assume they will respect yours.

7. Proposal document

Books have been written about the importance of this document, and people have bought these books to the extent that the subject is worthy of consideration. Here’s the rub. Its easier for someone at a Publishing company responsible for manuscript assessment (ie sorting between bin ’em, burn ’em and buy ’em) to read a proposal document of ten pages, outlining the intended market, the book’s distinctive relationship with this market and other successful books servicing it, than it is to read a complete manuscript unsupported in any way. A proposal document that includes a chapter breakdown and summary and is accompanied by three solid chapters is going to send a manuscript assessor to lunch on time, with a good level of engagement with your ideas. That’s the ballgame. The people at the other end of your writing journey are just like you: busy, easily bored and hungry.

8. Discoverability

As a proposing author, are you on anyone’s radar at all? Its harder to publish a writer who has 50 folllowers on Twitter than it is to publish one who has 50,000. Publishing is a numbers game cross bred with a value game. The more people you can reach, with a valuable piece of content, the more successful you will be. Make the effort to build an audience independently through the (amazingly) free resources of blogging (through excellent services like WordPress) and Twitter. If you are reading this, you probably already are. If not, consider these measures fundamental.

9. Communication style

If by some wonderful (or wonderfully random) series of events you receive a call from a Publisher or Agent, how will you decide to come across? Will you listen or will you gush? Publishers live in a sea of information, so they prefer to hear everything in summary. If they call you, they may have been touched by your story. Try not to prick the bubble by explaining how cleverly you created the illusion. Listen to the words the caller uses and, while responding naturally, give yourself a microsecond to adapt your response to the style of the caller.

10. Next book

A wise writing coach once shared with me his concern that many writers get so absorbed with the publicity and effervescence of their first book that the next book is not published until two or three years after the first. Consider your work in serialised formats before you finalise the first manuscript. Could it be a trology? A quartet? The twenty-one Famous Fives? Know that your lifespan as an author depends on you having a new book coming every one to two years.

Photo by Philofoto

3895914578_d95e5db3391. Write first, ask questions later

This is a key to remaining in obscurity. Follow your impulse, write your book and not only when you are drained of all motivation, seek feedback. When you seek feedback, start with learned friends. Avoid anyone remotely connected with the publishing industry. Ideally, find a bored English teacher who will judge your work alongside adolescents and curriculum writers. This will really ensure that your chance of connecting with a commercial book category is seriously diminished.

2. Send, send, send

Send your manuscript to as many publishers as you can find on the internet. Write one letter of introduction, and copy it to every recipient. Be careful to avoid any specific iterations of your project that take account of having studied a publisher’s business. Studiously avoid any kind of commercial proposal document unfolding the metrics of audience, previous success stories, marketing ideas and your availability to publicise the book. Send a stamped self addressed envelope to make it easy for the publisher to reject you without reading the manuscript.

3. Maintain radio silence

Never ever follow a publisher up with a direct phone call. Such an invasion of privacy could move your ideas into some kind of heightened relevance. Keep quiet. Believe that, if its meant to be, it will simply drop into your lap. Forget about any advice like “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” or the parable of the persistent widow. Just wait patiently. If this doesn’t work blog about unresponsive publishers.

4. Stick to your guns

If you receive feedback from someone in the publishing industry before you submit your manuscript, make sure you remain true to your original vision. Don’t even think about rewriting. Back into a corner and reiterate the feedback from your friend who is an English teacher. Stay focussed on your talent. Your ideas. Don’t compromise. Don’t listen.

5. Pitch hard

If you get a pitch meeting with the publisher, go hard. Lean into their personal space. Go for a knee-grab to reinforce your point. If you can, move around the desk to where they are sitting and really get in their face. Give them condescending looks when they sound unconvinced. Remember, if you don’t labor your points, how will the dummies ever get it?

photo by Lao P