how to get your first book published

5 steps to getting your book published for the first time, according to an expert

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So, you’ve written your first book. The next challenge is getting it published. Here’s everything you need to know about getting published for the first time, finding an agent and working with an editor.

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So, you’ve achieved the huge feat of writing your first book. Now, it’s time to look at getting it published. Submitting your book to a publisher can be a confusing process and the industry works in very specific ways you might not be aware of. 

Fortunately, Clare Povey, who works at the heart of the publishing industry as the editorial and communities manager for the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook – an annual publication sharing expert industry advice for writers and artists – knows a thing or two about navigating the tricky world of publishing. 

Here, Clare shares everything she knows about turning your finished manuscript into a glossy hardback you can buy in your favourite bookshop

How to find a literary agent

Major publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning you can’t send your story directly to them. Although it’s still possible to send your manuscript directly to certain smaller, independent presses, the majority only accept submissions via a literary agent. Here’s Clare’s advice for finding one:

What is a literary agent and why do you need one?

“A literary agent will represent you and your writing, and they are responsible for submitting your book to publishers and ensuring that you get the very best possible deal,” says Clare.

Agents work on commission, meaning they take a percentage of what you earn from your book, usually about 15%. 

“They are the very first champions of your book and will support and develop your writing career.”

Do your research in order to find the best literary agent for your work

Every agency has a website and each agent will have their individual profiles, showing the list of writers they already represent as well as their own interests and tastes. 

“Agents are usually transparent with what they do and do not represent,” says Clare. “There is no point wasting your own time submitting a horror story to an agent who might not represent that genre. The better prepared you are, the less stressful you will find the process.”

Clare advises thinking about what is important to you. Would you prefer to work with an agent with a smaller client list who can dedicate more time to you? Would you like an agent who is more hands-on editorially? Do you want to write across all genres; if yes, does the agent in mind represent them all?

“The majority of agents will have some sort of social media presence, so it is always useful to look at their Twitter profiles and see what they have read and loved recently,” says Clare. Alternatively, there are lots of writing events – both online and in real life – where you can meet and listen to agents. 

“Look at the acknowledgements in the back of your favourite books,” says Clare. “Writers will usually name-check their agents. This is a useful way for you to know which agents would be most suited to your own tastes.”

Organisation is key 

Use a spreadsheet to track which agents you have submitted your work to and make a note of their estimated response time. Agents have a busy job and they will often read submissions outside of work, as their day-to-day is filled up with work for their existing clients. 

“The waiting game can be hard,” says Clare. “So try to resist refreshing your email every day! Start work on a new project or take some time off to indulge in other hobbies.”

What the submission process looks like

Each agency has its own submission guidelines, so make sure that you follow them. Fiction writers will send the opening chapters of their work (usually up to the first 10,000 words), a synopsis detailing the overall storyline, and a covering letter.

What should a covering letter include?

  • The title of your book, genre and word count.
  • Elevator pitch: describe your book idea in a couple of sentences.
  • Blurb: much like the ones you see on the backs of books. It should give a broader overview of your story. What is your book about? Who is the central character? What is at stake for them?
  • Summary of appeal: where do you see your book sitting in a bookshop? Are there any comparative titles? Would your book appeal to fans of other authors? If so, who?
  • Writer’s profile: include some information about yourself and if you have any relevant writing credentials like being shortlisted in a competition. 

The process is slightly different for non-fiction writers who will need to submit a writing sample of the first few chapters and a proposal. 

What should a proposal include?

  • Elevator pitch: describe your book idea in a couple of sentences. 
  • Longer pitch: give a broader overview of the book and the idea behind it. 
  • Your profile: an opportunity to talk about your background and explain why you are the right person to write this book. 
  • Outline: similar to a chapter outline or a synopsis, but it needs to have a clear breakdown of the entire book idea and its structure.

There are exceptions to these rules, and some agencies may differ in their guidelines, so don’t assume each agency follows the same format.

Clare suggests submitting in batches of about six to eight agents each time: “An agent might come back with some useful feedback and it could be useful for you to revise before reaching out to more agents.”

How to choose the right agent for you

If an agent is interested in your story, they will ask for the full manuscript. “This is an exciting stage, knowing that you have hooked an agent’s interest,” says Clare. 

If you’re lucky enough to receive multiple offers of representation from literary agents, then this is your decision to make. Clare suggests meeting up and speaking with each agent to see if their vision for your book aligns with your own.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions about their career and other clients,” says Clare. “You are entering into a long-term professional relationship together, so it is essential you feel comfortable with them.”

A request for a full manuscript doesn’t necessarily guarantee representation. Unfortunately, rejection is a guaranteed part of the submission process. “It is hard not to take it personally, but remember you are in good company,” says Clare. “Nearly every writer has experienced rejection.”

If you receive rejections from a number of agents, Clare recommends revisiting your story to find out what isn’t working.

What does working with a publisher look like?

How the writer, agent and editor relationship works

Your agent will send your book out to a number of commissioning editors at different publishers. If an editor loves your book and thinks it has market potential then they will need to convince their wider team. This happens at an acquisition meeting where all of the different departments will meet. 

“This is a crucial meeting where everyone must come to an agreement about the book’s selling potential,” says Clare. “So many factors can be involved in the final decision, and this is where smaller independent presses come into their own as they can often take more risks on books that mainstream publishers would perhaps say no to.”

Once your book has been acquired, your editor will send over a contract to your literary agent who will double-check the terms and make sure it’s the best deal for you. 

How the editing process works

Once the contract is signed, you will begin working with your editor to get your story into the best shape possible. You will have an editorial meeting where your editor will give their recommendations for improvement.

“Editorial suggestions are always a conversation and by no means solid instructions you must follow,” says Clare. “But, always remember editors are there to help you make the best decisions, to make your book the best it can be. They have a wealth of knowledge and industry expertise and you should thoroughly consider everything they suggest.”

Once the final version of your story has been agreed upon, it will be copyedited and proofed, checked for style, consistency, structure and accuracy.

How cover design works

While you are working on your edits, your editor will write up a cover brief to send to the designers. Your editor will share the proposed cover with you and your agent for your thoughts.

“The next stage is to typeset the manuscript and turn your book, which has been a Word doc for so long, into a set of printable pages,” says Clare. 

What to expect on publication day

A few months before publication day, your book will have gone to the printers and the sales and distribution will be working hard to get physical stock into bookshops, supermarkets and retailers.

“Marketing and publicity campaign activities really ramp up in the month or so before publication,” says Clare. “You might have a launch party where your friends and family all come together to celebrate with you.” 

You can read more writing advice from authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Charly Cox at Stylist.co.uk. You can also buy a copy of the 2021 Writers and Artists Yearbook for more up-to-date writing advice and tips.

You can also enter the Stylist Prize for Feminist Fiction for the chance to win £1,000 and an offer of representation from Rachel Mills Literary. To enter, you need to submit a full story outline and either first three chapters or 50 pages of your book by Monday 5th July. 

  • Clare Povey, editorial and communities manager at the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook

    Blonde woman wearing brown polka dot blouse and glasses in front of bookshelves
    How to get your first book published with Clare Povey

    Clare is the editorial and communities manager for the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as well as the author of the forthcoming children’s book, The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre

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Images: Getty and Clare Povey

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