Publishers and agents

Finding a publisher

So, you thought writing was hard. Here's an even harder part. You have to find a publisher.

There are horror stories here. Publishers receive massive quantities of unsolicited typescripts. They don't have time to read them; they can't even afford to pay someone to read them, because only a tiny percentage of them will be worth even considering for publication. They bung them on the "slush pile". So you don't want to send them an unsolicited typescript – ever.

First you should do a bit of research. Go to a bookshop. Find the name of a publisher that produces books in the same field as yours. Check them out on the Internet. Telephone them. Ask for the name of the editor; try to speak to that editor and be ready to tell him or her why your book is interesting and different. Send your typescript to that editor in person, with a short covering letter, reiterating why your book is interesting and different. Remember: you have to catch their attention.

You may not need to have written the whole book before you do this: a synopsis and perhaps the first three chapters may be enough.

Make sure that what you send looks businesslike and professional.

A very good – essential even – source of information, advice and lists of publishers and agents is the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, published by A&C Black, London:

Publisher or agent?

It is as difficult to find an agent as it is to find a publisher.

Getting an agent has several advantages. A good agent will know where to place your book among the dozens of publishers who might be interested. He or she will know how to handle contracts, and international sales, and complex negotiations for press serialisation and film rights – should you be so lucky. But agents take their cut: some 15% or more of your revenue.

You won't have to pay this if you go straight to a publisher, but then you'll be on your own in the negotiations. Some successful writers take this route. The important thing to remember is: you must not sell yourself short. In the thrill of finding a publisher who likes your work and who is willing to take the risk of publishing it, do not rush to sign a contract without proper consideration. If the book is a runaway success, beyond your greatest dreams, you don't want to have cause to regret signing away your rights in the heat of early excitement.

It used to be the case that publishers took responsibility for editing typescripts in preparation for publication; editors in publishing houses would spend long hours, and in delicate diplomacy with the author, massaging a novel into shape. This is less the case these days. Increasingly publishers rely on agents to do this work for them.

Having agent is therefore an intimate business relationship: for an agent, you need to find someone that you get on well with, who is genuinely enthusiastic about your work, and who will really fight for success on your behalf. Choose carefully.


There are several things you should know:

  • The best books do not always get published. Publishers have their own agendas, limited budgets, and tastes (which may be peculiar).
  • Receiving a rejection from a publisher or agent is nothing. Keep it. It is going to look good when the press discovers that your best-selling novel was rejected by 10 publishers before it found its home.
  • As soon as you have been rejected, send the typescript to a new publisher. You should have 10 rejection slips before you think about changing anything; and at least 17 before you consider any alternative strategy (such as publishing on the web). You need thick skin for this business.

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realise how close to success they were before they gave up." Thomas Edison

Comments on this article

michael downes 18 August, 2010

i have been writing for over thirty years, and i have had two shorts published out of the forty-five i've written, and one novel. I have had numerous rejections, but now, i write for my own pleasure. When i read some of the trash that gets published, you really wonder do publishers know a diamond from a rinestone---i think not.

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