It’s every emerging writer’s dream to take the miry clay of their work and see it shaped into something polished and publishable. I used to (and still do!) wander through the aisles of bookshops, running my hands along the coloured covers and dream of my own name scribed down the spines of beautiful, tangible books.
So we write and write, dreaming of that breakthrough that will take our rough drafts and refine them into an established, sustainable career. The only problem is that it can sometimes feel that the publishing industry is an intangible entity.
Even though I was writing ferociously myself, I actually had no idea how to connect with publishers or promote my work. And so it remained an elusive dream - until now. If you too treasure a long-held desire to see your work in figurative lights, we’ve got you covered.
By talking to some of the most influential and respected publishers in the country, we’ve gained exclusive insight into the publishing world, helping you to navigate this next major step in your writing career.
The following tips were gleaned from detailed interviews with a variety of publishers; our aim to inform readers about everything they need to know regarding publishing industry etiquette. This information provides insights not normally known by the public, and we hope it helps you to know how to connect with publishers purposefully and effectively!
Tip 1: Know the publisher and their guidelines
It might sound like a no-brainer, but it is essential to understand the publishing house you’re sending work to. Whether they publish your genre, suit your style, or accept unsolicited manuscripts will determine your suitability to each other and avoid wasting both yours and the publisher’s time.
Meredith Curnow from Penguin Random House suggests that ‘a targeted submission is best for all involved. Be familiar with the books that publishing house has published. Reading some of their books would be even better.’ She goes on to suggest that a ‘succinct and targeted’ submission is key. It shows that you know your work and how it fits with the publisher’s focus.
The publishers we spoke to all agreed that following specific submission guidelines is an important, though often ignored, requirement to commence the publishing journey.
Though it can sound like an obvious instruction, many writers don’t realise that there can be big differences between the requirements of each publishing house. Ruby Ashby Orr from Affirm Press said that writers not following stipulated guidelines is a big no-no:
A big [pet hate] is writers who don’t follow the submission instructions. If the publisher only wants three chapters, send only three chapters (or equivalent). If they want a synopsis, send a full synopsis that tells the whole story of the book (remember, it’s not a blurb, so you don’t need to leave us hanging - it’s hard for us to make a decision about the work without seeing the entire narrative arc).
James Read and Lucy Bell of Pantera Press agree with this sentiment. They confirm that ‘guidelines are there for a very important reason – to ensure the process is smooth and easy for everybody involved.’
It might seem minor but it is a big deal for the people actually having to read your work. Basically, you look professional and pleasurable to deal with if you can follow what publishers ask of you, even before you begin working together. Small things like this make a big difference.
Tip 2: Follow up submissions, but within a reasonable time
Publishers are trying their best to get through the large volumes of material they receive. They will most often be in timely contact to let you know if your work is accepted or whether you need to look elsewhere, yet sometimes submissions can get lost in the chaos.
Different publishing houses have varying return times, but all encouraged a polite inquiry email if you have not heard back after some time. Pantera Press ‘make a priority to get back to authors in the shortest time possible, usually within 3-4 weeks,’ though others can take 3-4 months.
Regardless of waiting times, if you feel your manuscript might need following up, a simple email stipulating your name, your book title, and submission date will encourage a timely response.
Tip 3: Always put your best work forward
Make sure you only submit work that is completely ready to be reviewed. Penguin Random House’s Meredith Curnow suggests that to send in half-finished manuscripts wastes both your and the publisher’s time. Pantera Press’ Read and Bell support this idea by empathising with writer enthusiasm but encouraging patience:
We totally understand your excitement to be published as fast as possible and get your book on the shelves, but we want your book to be the best it can be and polished to perfection. So be careful you don’t rush your manuscript – publishers want to see your final draft. There’s no harm in letting it sit in your desk drawer for a month or two before revisiting it with a fresh pair of eyes.
By submitting your best work, Read and Bell say that you can ‘rest easy knowing you wouldn’t have done anything differently’ as you wait for a response. A polished manuscript shows publishers what you’re truly capable of, giving them a chance to more accurately know if you work suits their style and focus or not. A ‘rough diamond’ may never be uncovered if they can’t see through the murk of your unfinished draft.
Tip 4: Use waiting time wisely
Waiting can be excruciating. You hand over something in which you’ve invested so much of yourself to a stranger for evaluation, making you feel nervous and vulnerable. Publishers understand the tension of waiting for a response from them, but recommend you use this waiting time wisely.
They suggest doing plenty of reading and writing to keep yourself sharp and refine your skills in the interim. Affirm Press’ Ruby Ashby Orr encourages writers to ‘take a break from editing that manuscript, but do keep writing. See it as a chance to explore new ideas and improve your craft.’
Meredith Curnow confirms this, by suggesting writers ‘spend the time reading, or planning your next book.’ James Read and Lucy Bell imply that uniquely wonderful writing can come out of this sense of limbo: ‘use all that pent-up frustration to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, because when you feel strongly about anything in life, it’s always a great time to direct those feelings towards a new work.’
Focusing on reading and writing not only continues to develop your abilities, but can also be a nice distraction from the constant checking for a response from publishers - win-win!
Tip 5: Trust publishers’ experience and professionalism
You know your manuscript inside and out, which can make impartial perspectives hard to take on. Pantera Press understand how confronting criticism of something so personal can feel, but highlight the importance of trusting the unique expertise of publishers:
Believe in yourself as a writer, but remember to always work with your publisher. They are professionals who know the publishing game and want to see your success as much as you do.’
Publishers are on your side, and have insights into your work and the industry you might not be aware of. Meredith Curnow unpacks this concept a little more:
Be open to advice and guidance from all the professionals you will be dealing with along the way. They have experience in their fields and have done this before. They should treat you the same way of course, [and] listen to all the advice and knowledge you bring to a project.
Welcome feedback. Feel confident that your publisher knows what they’re doing. Learn everything you can along the way.
Tip 6: Embrace the editing process
Following on from the previous tip, the publishers we spoke to emphasised the importance of editing and choosing to see it is a positive aspect of the publishing journey, not a threatening one.
Thorough editing is necessary in the refining of your work, and the professional editing publishers offer can reveal aspects of your work you may not have noticed need polishing.
Penguin Random House’s Meredith Curnow encourages writers to open themselves up to the possibilities of the editing process: ‘it is a magic, consultative process with the aim of helping you make your book the very best it can be.’ Pantera Press’ James Read and Lucy Bell confirm the beneficial process of editing:
We know it can be tedious when a publisher continues to edit and re-edit your book, but don’t take it personally. Pantera Press has a dedicated team who want your book to shine just as much as you do!
We also know how precious and personal writing can be, and editing should be a collaborative process between editor and author, so we treat your work with respect and understanding. At the same time, authors have to remember that if they want their book to sell, it needs to fit into the marketplace at the right place and the right time.
This connects to the previous tip about trusting your publisher; whilst they will respect your work, you need to recognise that they edit your writing with a strong understanding of what your book could achieve and how the market works (in saying that, Read and Bell also warn writers not to lose their unique stories to meet transient market trends). So choose to see the way the editing process will enhance your writing, and embrace the (often finicky) journey of it!
Tip 7: Always be professional in your interactions with publishers
All the publishers we interviewed iterated the importance of engaging with publishers respectfully and professionally. Though your work could be excellent, acting in a demanding and entitled way will make publishers reluctant to work with you.
Meredith Curnow confirms that politeness is key, whilst Ruby Ashby Orr suggests that ‘as in any situation, aggression or an attitude of entitlement aren’t going to get you on a publisher’s good side.’
James Read and Lucy Bell advise writers to not ‘act like a diva,’ explaining that ‘modesty goes a long way, and your work will speak for itself.’ However, Ruby Ashby Orr also warns writers to not over think their interactions with publishers:
It’s important for publishers to get a sense of your personality. Our first priority is to find brilliant writers with interesting ideas, but it’s even better when brilliant writers are also good to work with and have a bit of spark to them (a big bonus for publicity).
Even though acting professionally should be common sense, it is surprising the amount of times publishers have to deal with detrimental attitudes. You’ll stand out by acting courteously, not from being demanding or inauthentic.
Beyond attitudinal advice, the publishers we spoke to gave some other important tips on dealing with publishers. Penguin Random House tells writers they shouldn’t send gifts. Pantera Press says that, whilst they ‘don’t expect writers to have an online presence, an established fan base on social media can be an advantage,’ proving that building connections and followers is a great way to develop your professional presence.
Although approaching publishers can be a daunting experience and shopping your work around to see if it appeals can be challenging, these tips will help you to engage with publishers professionally and effectively. Remember that publishers are incredibly passionate about their industry and are excited to find new and interesting manuscripts. Be confident in your writing and know that, though the process of finding the right publisher can be arduous, you will eventually find the right fit. Best of luck, writers!
Writer's Edit would like to thank James Read and Lucy Bell of Pantera Press, Meredith Curnow of Penguin Random House and Ruby Ashby Orr from Affirm Press for taking the time to provide us with their valuable insights.