Publishing advice library


The webpage below contains our advice on publising and self-publishing, but if you want to explore further, please check out:

We would also like to draw your attention to the best book ever written on Getting Published. We know it’s good, because we wrote it.

Finally, you might also want to review some titles in our video library:


How to get published: know what you want

You want to be published, but what sort of publishing are you after: commercial publishing or self-publishing? If you don’t know the difference, then please check our self-publishing guide.

The vast majority of ambitious authors (and especially authors of fiction) will want to choose commercial publishing, meaning in other words, you will:

  • want a major publisher to pay you for the right to publish your work;
  • want that publisher to invest £15-£50,000 in all aspects of your work (editorial assistance, copy editing, production, warehousing & transport, sales, publicity and marketing);
  • want to secure national distribution for your books, not just online;
  • want to sell your work in multiple formats (hardback, paperback, e-book, audio, etc.);
  • want to sell a wide variety of rights (film rights, translation rights, etc.);
  • want a decent chance at making a go of being a professional writer.

If your work is more suitable for distribution to friends and family, or if it’s on a very specific subject (eg: A Manual of Beekeeping) and you’re very well connected in that area (eg: you run the Australian Beekeeping Association), then self-publishing may well be more suitable.

This guide below assumes that your interest lies in commercial publishing. If you want to go for self-publishing, then our self-publishing guide is what you’re after: we endorse the services of three self-publishing companies. We like Lulu (wonderfully cheap and cheerful), Matador (the best conventional self-publishing company in the UK), and of course the Amazon Kindle (best platform for e-publishing). We do not get a fee for referring clients to these companies.


Be realistic (publishing is hard)

Getting signed by a major music label isn’t easy. Nor is getting published by a major commercial publisher. If you want the grim facts, then here they are:

  • Almost no major publisher will look at new work unless that work is sent via a literary agent – which means you definitely need an agent.
  • And agents are very, very selective. A rough rule of thumb is that a good agency will take on 1 in every 1,000 manuscripts that come their way. That means it’s not enough if your manuscript is promising, or good, or even very good. It has to be dazzling. Nothing less will do.
  • If you get an agent, you have an excellent chance of being published – but although your odds are now very good, they’re not 100%. It still all depends on how much editors at the major publishing houses love and adore your work.
  • Because there are more people writing now than in the past, and because publishers have been publishing fewer titles, getting published is harder now than ever.

That’s the bad news, so we’d better balance it with the good news:

  • A good literary agency will look at and consider every manuscript they receive. It’s a core part of their business.
  • What’s more, nearly all agents are on the lookout for outstanding new work – because they know perfectly well that all the bestselling authors of today were total unknowns once.
  • New books by debut authors are published all the time. Publishers don’t care if you’re young, or if you’re beautiful, or if you’re going to look good on TV. All they care about it that your manuscript is amazing. If it is, they’ll want to buy it.
  • Some books by unknown authors do rather well. Just ask J.K. Rowling.


Getting ready to contact literary agents

Nearly all manuscripts that are sent to literary agents aren’t yet in a saleable state. The most common issues are:

  • The concept is not marketable. Loads of people create manuscripts that just aren’t the kind of things that will make money for publishers. Sixteen poems about your dead hamster. A literary novel where nothing happens for 300 pages. A ‘comedy’ where all the jokes belong to some 1970s sitcom. If you want to write for the sake of it, then fine – that’s a perfectly reasonable way to spend your time. But publishers will only publish work if they think it will make them money. So you need to make darn sure you are reading the market correctly.
  • The writing style isn’t strong enough. If you aren’t careful about the way you use language, then no one is going to buy your manuscript. You are trying to sell your skill with words, so you can’t afford to be sloppy or inaccurate.
  • The story isn’t strong enough. It’s no use writing beautifully, if your story doesn’t hang together, if it has weak spots, or patches where the tension seems to go slack. Remember that you are competing against 999 other writers, so you have to make sure that you start strongly and continue that way till the end.
  • Your manuscript is poorly presented. If a manuscript is poorly presented, that almost always means that its writer hasn’t taken enough care with all the other more important things. So an agent will be perfectly justified in rejecting your work simply on the grounds of careless spelling, weak punctuation, etc.

If you are 100% sure that you are OK on all these things, then proceed to the next step. If you’re not sure, then your manuscript is probably not yet ready to sell. So get help. Your options are:

  • Go on editing the manuscript yourself. If you feel there’s more you could do, then please do it!
  • Check your presentation. Our Quick Guide will tell you all that you need to know. You probably don’t need to pay for professional help, however. (The two major exceptions: people with dyslexia or similar, and people who are not native English speakers. These people may well need professional help, which we can supply at a reasonable rate. Just contact us.)
  • Get professional help. The Writers’ Workshop can give you tough, honest and constructive feedback on your work. We’ll tell you what’s working, what’s not working, and how to fix the stuff that isn’t yet right. You’ll get a long written report, plus the chance to talk to your editor about their comments. All our editors are professional writers themselves, so we know exactly what we’re talking about – and we have a fabulous track record at helping people get their work published. We’ve already notched up three bestsellers, and there are more on the way. Information about our critiquing services can be found here.
  • Give it time. Don’t rush it. Don’t send your manuscript to agents until you’ve had a chance to put it down, leave it a few weeks, then give it a cold hard reading all the way through. Almost certainly, you’ll find bits that need to be changed.


Finding the right literary agents

Before you start contacting agents, you need to know what you are doing. Agents:

  • Are salespeople. Their job is selling unpublished manuscripts to publishers.
  • Know all the major publishers and know their editors. That means when they come to sell your work, they’ll contact the right person at the right organisation.
  • Have their finger on the pulse of the market. They know what’s selling and what isn’t. If an agent advises you to edit your work, then you should listen very carefully indeed.
  • May well be there throughout your career. So you need to get on with them.
  • Will charge you a commission of 15% on any money they make for you. A good agent is worth every penny of that and then some.

You also need to know what agents are not. They are not:

  • On the lookout for potential. They’re looking for manuscripts that are ready to sell (or at least have very strong and obvious sales potential).
  • In it for love. They want to make money, which means that your work needs to command a decent price in today’s publishing market.
  • There to get your work into bookshops. That’s what publishers do.
  • There to promote your work. That’s also what publishers do.
  • There to promote you. Yep, that’s also what publishers do (via their publicity department).
  • Going to make a single penny out of you unless they can sell your manuscript. So they really have to believe in it – and that means it has to be excellent.

Agents are also nearly always generalists, not specialists. If you write for children or young adults, then you should get an agent who specialises in this area. Otherwise, most agents will handle both fiction and non-fiction, commercial and literary work. If they love your stuff they’ll take you on.

You can get names, addresses and brief descriptions of agents here:

When you send work out to agents you need to pick a list of about 8-10 names. Make sure you do your basic research. So don’t send your novel to someone who only handles cook books. But don’t get too hung up on trying to choose a perfect list of names. The perfect person for you is someone who adores your writing, and there’s no infallible way to find that person. We recommend that you approach all 8-10 agents at the same time, or break your submissions into two waves of 4-5 submissions.

There’s no point in going to many more than 8-10 agents. When an agent goes out to publishers, they’ll typically contact about 10 or so editors. If you can’t find one publishing professional in 10 who loves your work, then you probably won’t be able to sell your book even if you do eventually get an agent.


Preparing your agent submission pack

Don’t send your entire manuscript to agents – they don’t want it. At this stage, you just need to send:

  • Your covering letter. A short letter, no more than one page, that briefly introduces your book (1-2 paragraphs) and yourself (1-2 sentences, unless your own experience is highly relevant to the subject matter of the book, in which case you can talk about yourself a bit more). That’s all you need. Don’t waffle on. You can see some more detailed advice on a covering letter here.
  • A synopsis. A short one page summary of the book. Don’t get too hung up on this exercise. Loads of agents hardly use them. And you can check out our more detailed comments on how to write the perfect synopsis here.
  • The first three chapters of your manuscript. Or about 10,000 words all told, which might be as little as one chapter, or as many as 5-6 if your chapters are very short. Do make sure that your manuscript is properly presented. If in doubt, check our guide.
  • A stamped self-addressed envelope, unless your agent is one of the few who accepts submissions by email. If you live overseas, then say so in your covering letter and ask for a response by email.

Needless to say, everything you send out should be well written and well presented. If you want the Writers’ Workshop to review your covering letter completely free of charge, then just email it to us and we’ll get straight back to you with comments.


Preparing to wait (six to eight weeks)

Although agents do want to take on excellent work by new authors, it’s seldom their highest priority – after all, they have a whole host of existing clients to take care of. So be patient. As a rough guide, you might get a response in 2 weeks, but 6-8 would be perfectly typical. The length of time means nothing at all. A long wait didn’t mean they loved the book, or hated it, or anything at all. The person concerned was just doing other things.


When literary agents reply

When you do hear back, you may hear one of three things:

  • A standard form rejection letter. Alas, that’s by far the most common response that most writers get. And it’s pretty much always because of one of the issues talked about in Step 3 - (Is the concept marketable? Is the prose style strong enough? Is the storytelling powerful? Is the presentation OK?)
  • A ‘nice’ rejection letter. Anything with a personal note from the agent counts as nice. It’s still a rejection, but it proves you made a connection. There are some good things happening in your work
  • An invitation to send the rest of the manuscript. Needless to say, you accept any such invitation with alacrity.

If you are asked to send in your complete manuscript, then you need to do some more waiting. (Lucky you just had some practice, eh?) When you do hear back, you will hear one of three things:

  • I loved your work! I want to take you on as a client. At this point it would be appropriate to get drunk and kiss random passers-by.
  • I liked your work, but … If an agent comes back to you with some editorial reservations, then you probably want to do what you can to address those reservations and then take the revised MS back to the agent.
  • Sorry, but … A near miss, but wonderful encouragement that you’ve got this far.


Next steps and publication help

If an agent has taken you on, then congratulations. You’re away.

If you’ve done all this, and haven’t succeeded, then don’t despair. Writing is hard. It’s hard to do at all, but it’s terribly hard to do it on your own and without expert help. We’re here to give you that help. Our main service at The Writers’ Workshop is giving tough, honest and expert feedback on your work. The aim is to make it so strong that agents and publishers simply can’t turn it down. Of course we don’t always succeed, but we have notched up some wonderful bestsellers, and our clients do make a huge difference to their chances of success. We can do the same for you. If you’re keen to explore the idea (a full manuscript critique will set you back a few hundred pounds), then check out the website or just get in touch with us and tell us all about your project. If we can help, then we will.


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