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I’ve written a handful of articles in the past detailing the various aspects of publishing, but today I want to give an introduction for those who are just starting to think about this and are asking the question, how can I get published?

There are three main routes to publishing and your choice will be dictated partly by the type of manuscript you are writing, partly by your experience and partly by your own personal preference. I will give you a basic introduction to all three here, starting with the most popular and most complicated route.

Literary Agents

Many authors have agents, just like actors and singers. Agents are the middle-man between you and the publisher; they use their connections and experience to find interested parties and then negotiate the best deal for you. In exchange, they get an average of 15% of your domestic sales and 20% international.

So, why should you fork over some of your hard-earned royalties to an agent? If you are writing a mainstream novel, most publishing houses will not accept unsolicited submissions from authors. The sheer volume of manuscripts they would receive means that the process would be completely unmanageable. Instead, they use agents as a filter to bring them the gems from the slushpile.

No publisher wants to climb Mt. Slushpile to find their next bestseller! -Image by Keith Williamson

No publisher wants to climb Mt. Slushpile to find their next bestseller!
-Image by Keith Williamson

Literary agents are also experienced experts in the world of publishing. They will have a network in the publishing industry which they can use to your benefit, and they will be able to negotiate a good contract for you, free from red flags and vanity presses.

For those choosing to go down this route, there will be three important documents to prepare; a query letter, a synopsis and, of course, your manuscript. Usually you will only give an extract of your manuscript initially, as specified by the literary agent. If they like it, they will ask for more.

If you want to learn more about this option, check out my article on How to find a Literary Agent.

Submitting to a Publishing House

Although most publishers will not take mainstream works directly, there are some situations where this option is available. Smaller indie publishers may allow this, as their submission volume is low enough to make it manageable.

Also, publishers for more niche works such as poetry or literary fiction will almost always prefer to receive their submissions directly, although there are a few specialist agents who deal in this. The reason for this preference is that anything other than a mainstream novel will be likely to fetch lower royalties, which is not so appealing for agents.

The main benefit of going straight to a publisher is that you will not be paying commission to anyone in the middle, but this comes at the cost of negotiating your own contract and managing every aspect of your work, which can be hugely time consuming and somewhat risky for someone who isn’t experienced in the industry.


Self publishers, don't let your cover image be an afterthought. -Image by Craig Allen

Self publishers, don’t let your cover image be an afterthought.
-Image by Craig Allen

This route is becoming ever-more accessible in the digital age. There are countless reputable sellers who will help you self-publish your work as an e-book in exchange for a portion of the proceeds. With no agent or publisher standing between you and your readers, you will be in total control of the whole process. The down-side is that, well, you will be in total control of the whole process. Everything from the cover image to the price will be up to you to take care of and the work can really stack up if you want to do it right.

Another challenge you may face is that for every gem that is self-published, there will be ten under-edited, badly thought-out manuscripts to match. Readers will not have the same confidence in the quality of e-books as they would have in work that has been vetted and approved by a publishing house. And in the real world, the best work does not necessarily rise to the top by its own accord so you will have to put in the extra effort to get people to pay up for your work.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. If you are successful in self-publishing (in other words, you have sold around 20,000 copies – not free copies), you will have greater clout in applying to mainstream publishers and agents, if you want to switch routes.

If this sounds appealing to you, keep your eyes peeled for my next writing 101 article, which will cover self-publishing in more detail.