jeudi 14 décembre 2006


An amount of royalties paid to a writer before the product is released.
A specialist sales person trusted by publishers to filter out bad or
uncommercial writing. Agents will handle all contractual negotiations,
chase royalty payments and take a percentage of the author’s income
for their troubles.
AI sheet
Advance Information sheet. A single page document produced by
publishers to alert the trade to a forthcoming title.
Back list
Titles already in print by a particular publisher. These should be
studied, together with their front list, before submitting proposals to
The short description of a book that is usually printed on the back
cover or in the jacket sleeve.
This refers to the outer layer of paperback books only. Hardbacks have
A stage in the life of a manuscript. The first draft is the first complete
(or almost complete) version of the manuscript. Early drafts are
sometimes called rough drafts because they’re not fully developed or
polished. A final draft occurs many drafts later when the work is
deemed to be finished. Differences between drafts can vary from just
a few spelling corrections to a fundamental rewrite of the entire body
of the text.
A version of a book designed to be sold as an electronic download
from the Internet.
Front list
The list of books a publisher is planning to launch in the coming year
or so.
International Standard Book Number. This identifies every edition
of every book to enable efficient ordering and stock control in the
The loose paper jacket that wraps around some hardback books.
Literally means a handwritten book, but the word is in general use
today to mean any unpublished work whether typed or in a word
processed format.
A suggestion of a book idea made by an author to a publisher. Similar
to a submission, but sometimes relating to a book not yet in existence.
Carefully reading a manuscript to look for errors.
A payment made to an author based on sales quantity or sales income.
Self publishing
When an author arranges and pays for the publication of their own
book, either in print or on the Internet, and in effect becomes a
publisher in their own right.
Slush pile
The pile of book proposals, samples and manuscripts that sits on an
editor’s desk. Usually it refers to unsolicited manuscripts which hang
around for longer because they are a lower priority than submissions
that the publisher has actually asked to see.
A bookshop shelf can display books either face-out with the covers
showing, or spine-on, where only the spines are visible.
Typically a covering letter, synopsis and a couple of sample chapters
submitted to a publisher.
A summary of a book or other written work, usually not much more
than a page in length. Typically a book chapter would be summarised
in no more than one paragraph in the synopsis.
Refers to an unpublished book in typed form, although usually
synonymous with ‘manuscript’.
Vanity publishing
When an author pays a publishing company to publish their book.

Why books get rejected

book I mentioned that publishers
reject about 98% of book proposals and
manuscripts. It sounds like it must be almost
impossible to get published with statistics like
that. Actually, things are not so bleak. Many of
the rejections will be for reasons that are entirely
avoidable. This is a list of reasons for rejection
that need not happen:
The author fails to read the publisher’s
website and submits the wrong genre of
The author fails to follow the publisher’s
submission guidelines.
The cover letter is photocopied or generic.
The cover letter contains spelling or
grammatical errors.
The envelope was sent without sufficient
postage and the publisher had to collect it
from the sorting office in the rain, and had
to pay for the privilege.
6. The sample chapters are not sufficiently
edited and checked.
7. The author angrily demands a response a
couple of weeks after submitting the
8. The author phones the editor and talks too
much or too slowly, so the editor decides
against initiating a working relationship with
an author who seems likely to take up too
much of their time.
9. The author fails to mention positive factors
that might influence the publishing decision,
such as guaranteed sales, self-publicity,
related external events or previously
published books.
10. The author’s envelope and cover letter
displays evidence that they are clearly mad.
Using a purple felt-tip pen to address the
envelope is a sure sign of this!
11. The proposal is hand-written.
12. The proposal is typed on a typewriter.
13. The author doesn’t have an e-mail address.
Authors without e-mail cost more to contact
and cause delays in the editing process.
The cover letter quotes praise from other
publisher’s rejection letters.
The sample chapters have obviously been
submitted elsewhere and returned.
The author has not obtained permission
to use photos or quotes taken from other
writings, and the publisher shies away from
the administrative hassle and additional
cost involved in buying those permissions.
Quality of writing
The rejection rate is always going to be the same
regardless of the quality of the books involved.
Even if every author was able to write at a
professional level there is no way that publishers
have the infrastructure or cash to sign up every
good book that comes their way. It’s similar to
the exam qualifications needed to get into a top
university: even if all the candidates achieve the
entry grades it doesn’t mean the college has more
places to offer. Poor quality of writing is only one
of the factors in the decision to reject the majority
of book submissions, and still the high rejection
rate will always remain whether or not quality of
writing improves.
How to avoid rejection on the grounds of
quality of writing
From a publisher’s point of view, top quality
writing is surprisingly hard to find in new
submissions. Rejecting the bulk of them is easy.
Selecting for further consideration the rare gems
that really sparkle is easy.
The tough part of the publishing process is
selecting the books in between: submissions that
are not badly written, but are not brilliant either.
Working hard at your craft to improve your
writing can make a difference here.
It’s not hard to avoid being instantly rejected
for absent literary skills. OK, for some people it
can be hard to write moderately well. It depends
on your writing skills at the outset. Anyone can
eventually write at a professional standard, but
whether it takes one year or twenty years of effort
depends on your starting point.
Read plenty of books that are similar to your
own kind of writing. Join a writing group and
get feedback. Above all, just write and keep
Improving the statistics
The 98% rejection rate doesn’t mean you only
have a 2% chance of getting published. Actually
the odds are better than that because you have a
2% chance every time you submit the same book
to a different publisher. Assuming your book is
appropriate for every publisher you send it to and
that your writing is good enough, if you submit
it to ten publishers then your 2% chance is
multiplied by ten, giving you 20%.
The logic doesn’t quite extend as far as giving
you a 100% chance of getting published if you
submit to fifty publishers. The odds definitely
get better for you, but it’s unlikely that there are
as many as fifty publishers for whom your book
is suitable.
Even if there are that many out there you could
still trip up each time on the other factors that
come into play each time a publishing decision
is made.
Automatic rejection
Many book ideas are rejected on the phone or by
e-mail before the author even sends in a proposal
or manuscript. Sensible authors call or e-mail the
publisher before submitting to ask if their idea
for a book is something the publisher would like
to look at. If the idea is entirely inappropriate then
the author can be told immediately.
Usually this will be due to the book’s genre: a
novel suggested to a publisher that doesn’t want
fiction; poems offered to virtually any publisher
other than the handful of specialists who actually
handle that kind of work; trade books offered to
a science publisher. These are all examples of
automatic rejection. Nothing is read or considered
in these cases. The genre of the book is enough
for the publisher to say no. This shouldn’t really
happen in the first place because the author
should carefully research potential publishers
before calling, but sometimes a change of policy
will mean a company that seems promising from
examination of their backlist will not be
interested in your type of book after all.
Rejection by mistake
Authors like to assume that their book proposal
was rejected by mistake, due to the idiocy or lack
of foresight of the publisher. Mistakes are a real
problem, partly due to the mass of material that
flows through a publisher’s offices. It’s hard for
them to track and
evaluate the piles of
submissions and ideas
fairly and evenly.
The top people in all
but the smallest
publishing companies
pressures on their time
to be able to look at
every submission that is
received. They have to
employ editors to look
at the proposals and filter them so that only the
best ones come their way (perhaps 5% of the
total). It wouldn’t be possible to publish books if
senior publishers did nothing but read
manuscripts. A side effect of this inescapable
reality is that the most junior people are making
rejection decisions. Sometimes unpaid work
experience staff make rejection decisions in order
to clear slushpile backlogs. Inevitably mistakes
get made and potential bestsellers are overlooked
by inexperienced staff.
As an author there are only limited things you
can do to minimise the effect of mistakes. Firstly,
you can send your proposal to as many publishers
as your research indicates could be interested.
Secondly, you can
attempt to leapfrog the
most junior editorial
assistants by phoning
company and asking
for the name of the
commissioning editor
or other editors and
proposal directly to a named individual. They may
pass it on to a junior editor, but if they glance at
it and the title grabs their attention they may ask
for the submission to be given careful consideration.
A final option open to an author who thinks
they may have been rejected by mistake is to re-
submit to the same publisher. Larger publishers
keep databases of authors and book titles, so
they’ll know if something comes back again. So
if you do re-submit, be honest about it and say
so in your letter. It doesn’t impress a publisher
to see an author sending a proposal back that
they’ve already rejected so you have to work extra
hard to win them over, otherwise they’ll think
you’re wasting their time. So how can you avoid
annoying them?
1. Rewrite the book in accordance with any
constructive criticism you may have received
in the original rejection.
2. Inform the publisher that some external
factors have changed since you first
submitted your proposal. Perhaps a similar
book to yours has become a hit and you think
the publisher could compete by taking on
your book.
3. Inform the publisher that your public profile
has increased or is about to increase due to
publicity you have achieved.
Rejection letters
If they contain constructive criticism, should you
follow their advice? The value of a rejection letter
as a free critique depends on whether anyone in
the editorial office has actually read your
submission in full, or whether your book’s
concept alone triggered an automatic rejection.
If the letter seems genuine and refers to specific
aspects of your writing (and the same comments
could not be applied to any other book) then you
should take notice and consider those comments
in a rewrite. Ideally you should discuss the
feedback with other members of a writing group
before committing to massive changes in your
Some rejection letters actually express an interest
in seeing the proposal again subject to changes
being made. These are always worth following up
and you should do everything they ask you to do.
Dealing with rejection
People drive different cars, wear different clothes
and eat different food. They also watch different
films and read different books. There’s never
been any product or literary work that manages
to please everyone. If everything written appealed
to every reader the world would be a pretty dull
place. I mention this purely to give you a sense
of perspective when you receive the inevitable
rejections to your writing. I use the word
inevitable because rejection is part of the learning
process as well as part of the selling process.
Negative feedback with constructive criticism can
help you to remould your writing into a product
that someone with influence in the market likes.
It’s not enough that your dentist thinks you
should be published: you need to convince a
The problem for all writers is that even when
your writing is perfect and your manuscript is
professionally presented you may still encounter
rejections. When a publisher tries to sell a new
book into the bookshops many of those shops
will reject it. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect
any inherent flaw in the book, which may still
go on to be a bestseller amongst those shops with
the sense to stock it.
Part of the reason for good manuscripts to be
rejected is that most writers create their works
of art in a vacuum, with little regard for what the
publishers actually want. They then waste
valuable time trying to hammer a triangular peg
into a semicircular hole that’s probably boarded
up anyway.
For the average new writer it’s not easy to find
what publishers are looking for. They certainly
won’t get a phone call asking if they can come up
with a book on X by Y date for Z amount of
money like some established writers. A writer
who comes up with the apparently brilliant idea
of a novel written entirely in rhyming couplets
with twenty bonus recipes at the end is going to
be highly disappointed by the rejections that will
follow. Although you don’t have access to a
publisher’s editorial meeting in which they
discuss what kind of books they want to look out
for in the next season, you can be sure they won’t
be looking for rhyming novels with recipes. The
way to be sure is easy. Go to a bookshop. Look at
the shelves and how they are labelled. Where is
the shelf that says ‘rhyming novels with recipes’?
Exactly. If the book doesn’t fit squarely on one
particular shelf, the bookseller won’t know where
to place it. And if the bookseller doesn’t know
where to place it the buyer doesn’t know where
to find it.
The only thing you can do is to look closely at
the actual labels of the shelves, look at the books
on those shelves and see how similar they are
within each genre. Commercial writing is not
about art for art’s sake. It’s about creating a
product that can be marketed and sold as easily
and quickly as possible in order to create a profit
for the publisher and the bookseller. Without that
profit they can’t survive, and they’re looking to
you to provide them with the raw materials for
their next slice of profit.
So learn what you can from each individual
rejection. Try to re-read your work from the point
of view of the person who rejected it. (And
remember they rejected it, not you.) If they
provided any feedback it’s vital to read the work
with their comments at the forefront of your
mind. Are they right? Can you think of a way to
fix it?
They may not be right, of course. Your writing
could be rejected for a number of reasons aside
from its inherent quality. During many years as
a publisher I’ve rejected books because they were
similar to books that had just flopped, and I didn’t
want to risk losing more money with another
book like it. I’ve declined books on the grounds
that my acquisition budget is fully allocated for
the foreseeable future (which meant that we’d
run out of money and couldn’t pay any more
advances or print bills for a time). I’ve said no to
writers because despite my personal interest in
the book others in the company have persuaded
me not to publish it. I’ve had to reject authors
who are quite clearly mad and unprofessional in
their approach and who would be too much
effort to deal with. Sometimes the rejections have
been because we had already decided to produce
a similar book either in-house or using our
existing author contacts. Or it could be that I’d
decided on a change of direction and was no
longer interested in commissioning new titles in
a particular genre which I felt wasn’t right for
my company. I’m sure there are editors out there
who have rejected books simply because they’re
having a bad day and want to take it out on
someone. And don’t forget, of course, that most
books are rejected because they are simply not
good enough to publish.
Laugh off the rejections. Frame them and
mount them on the wall of your bathroom. When
you’re a bestseller they’ll be priceless. And
remember you’re in good company – the
company of virtually every other writer on the
Visit my website for reassurance – I have
links to rejection letters received by other
Should authors ever give up?
Writing a book is such an intense and personal
experience that it’s hard to be objectively critical
about your own work. No matter how hard you
try to make it a great work of literature there may
be fundamental reasons why it will never sell.
What I’m about to say is going to sound harsh,
but it’s true. If you’ve written your autobiography
and you’re not famous then it will never sell. If
you’ve written a book of poems or short stories
it will never sell. Your efforts to bring fictional
characters to life in a novel may fail despite your
opinion that they succeeded. Perhaps you write
fiction with no sense of conflict or drama, or you
write non fiction with no sense of authority.
Publishers see these weaknesses but you don’t
because you’re too close to your pride and joy.
I’ve seen it happen far too often and it’s a shame
that some writers reach a skills plateau beyond
which they do not progress, or they put an
enormous amount of effort into writing books
that fundamentally have no market.
The paradox is that if you are aware of any such
shortcomings in your writing then you are in a
position to do something about it. There’s no
need to give up your dreams if you can recognise
what needs to be fixed in your work, even if it
means starting a brand new book in another genre
altogether – a marketable one this time. It is only
those who are not aware of the problems who
should give up, but they won’t stop trying to get
their book published because they don’t realise
they have no chance of success.
There is another way out of this situation,
however. Self publishing is a means for books
with insufficient commercial market to get into
print. Your autobiography, poems and short
stories can only be self published. Don’t waste
your energy trying to get someone else to pay for
getting them into print. Do it yourself so that
you can enjoy seeing your name on the front
cover, and sell it to friends and family. You won’t
make a profit but it doesn’t cost much more than
the price of a holiday to get a few hundred copies
printed and it’s a fun process.
Self publishing is also a way for books to show
their potential. An author with just one book to
sell can achieve better sales figures than a
publisher trying to promote fifty books at once.
All you need is the time and energy to travel and
meet bookshop staff plus the courage to ask them
to buy it and to remind them to reorder when it
If you self publish books in genres that could
potentially be taken on by other publishers, this
isn’t giving up: it’s giving your book a leg-up to
the point where you can impress those publishers
with genuine sales figures that might entice them
to sign you up.

Specific points to negotiate

1. The royalty rate
It’s normal for a publisher to offer a low rate to
first time authors. If your attempt at asking for it
to be increased doesn’t work for your first book,
you should ask for a higher royalty rate if you are
subsequently contracted by them to write a
second book. Suggest an increase of one or two
percentage points on their offer.
The basis for calculating the royalty rate is
either a percentage of the book’s cover price or a
percentage of net income from sales. Basing the
rate on cover price harks back to an earlier age
when bookshop discounts were small and
consistent. The last twenty years have seen shops
demanding ever higher discounts, but the old
royalty calculation system meant that authors
received the same amount of money per book
sold regardless of the price at which it was bought
by the bookshop. This can lead to the ridiculous
situation where the publisher makes a loss
because it has to pay the author more than it
received for the sale of the book. This is usually
avoided by switching to a reduced royalty amount
when discounts hit a certain level, usually 50–55%.
Royalties based on cover price have
traditionally averaged 7.5% for a paperback and
10% for a hardback (profit margins are higher
on hardbacks). But from the publisher’s point
of view it’s much fairer to give the author a
percentage of whatever they earn. Since they give
away up to half of the book’s cover price in
discount this means the author receives a slice of
a smaller cake, so to make up for it the percentage
is usually higher, ranging from 10–15%.
Modern publishers don’t bother
distinguishing between rates for
paperback and hardback editions, but
traditional ones may still offer a higher
percentage for hardbacks.
Some contracts include an option clause giving
the publisher the right to acquire the author’s
next book on the same terms. Don’t agree to this
if you want to keep your negotiating options open
for the next book.
2. The threshold at which the royalty rate
A book has a break-even point. This is a number
of copies that need to be sold before the publisher
has made any profit.
It isn’t possible to say that the first copy sold
has a profit margin of 10%, for example. The first
copy sold has a loss of 10,000%! But the losses
decrease as sales increase until eventually enough
copies have been sold to cover the costs of editing,
design, printing, marketing, a share of the office
administration and rent, and the author’s
advance. Depending on the publisher’s overheads
and the price of the book this break-even point
can happen at sales of between 1,000 and 10,000
To reflect the greater financial exposure the
publisher faces prior to reaching the break-even
point it’s normal to offer a lower royalty rate on
the first few thousand sales. The rate will increase
by one or two points once sales exceed, for
instance, 5,000 copies, and may then increase
again if sales exceed 10,000 or 20,000 copies.
Having covered the initial investment, the
publisher’s only significant ongoing costs are the
reprints, which are cheaper per copy for
successful books due to economies of scale. The
bulk of printing costs are incurred in setting up
the presses, and once they’re running it’s cheap
to keep them going a little longer to produce
more copies.
So publishers should always offer a higher
royalty for books once they have broken even,
unless they were generous enough to start on a
high rate at the beginning.
If you don’t get offered a rising scale of
royalty rates, ask for one. The publisher will
have a figure in mind of how many books
they expect to sell, and if the royalty
increases above this amount then they won’t
mind agreeing to it because they won’t
expect sales to trigger it. But if you have
written a surprise bestseller then the financial
reward will be significant.
3. The royalty advance
An advance is not money paid in addition to your
royalty: it is your royalty. The publisher takes a
chance that the book will sell by paying a chunk
of your royalties to you before the book is even
printed. You won’t get any more money until the
advance has been earned back through sales.
Once this has happened you will receive
payments once or twice a year. But it’s common
for an author to receive nothing from the
publisher after the advance. This happens when
the advance was particularly high or when the
book didn’t sell too well.
The advance is usually split into two or three
payments. A chunk is paid upon signature of the
contract, followed some months later by another
chunk when you deliver a complete manuscript
of acceptable quality, and then you’ll get the rest
when the book is published. If the book is already
complete at the time of signing the contract then
the full amount is split between the advance on
signature and the advance on publication.
It might be worth asking for the percentages
paid on each occasion to be weighted towards
the earlier dates so that you get most of the money
sooner, but for business cashflow reasons it’s
unlikely that the publisher will agree to give you
the entire advance immediately.
Size matters when it comes to royalty advances.
Indirectly, a large advance means that the book is
more likely to be a success. By ‘large’ advance, I
mean an amount that is large for the publisher
concerned. It could be a four, five or six figure
sum, depending on the size of the publishing
house. Books do tend to sell better if the author
is paid more up front. Hooray, you’re thinking –
surely that’s in everyone’s best interests and so
you’re bound to get a high advance for your first
book? Ideally that would be the case, but
publishers would quickly run out of money.
By definition, not every book can be a
bestseller. Not every book can be hyped up by
the publisher as the next Harry Potter. They have
to select a small number of lead titles to focus
their sales campaign on. And the lead titles are
usually those for which the highest advances were
paid. Publishers will only offer large advances on
books they think have the potential to be their
lead titles, and having committed so much money
it’s in their interests to work hard to make sure
they earn it back.
If a publisher offers you a low
advance, it might reflect the low
priority they have set for your book.
Their risk is lower so they have less
incentive to push your book hard. If
you can persuade them to pay you
more then they will have to work
harder to earn their money back and
you have a greater chance of being a
bestselling author.
4. The percentages for rights sales
The contract will usually contain a long list of
rights that the publisher will try to sell for your
book, together with the amount you will receive
from any such sales. The rights include large
print, translation, film, extract, merchandising
and others. You shouldn’t receive less than 50%
of the publisher’s net income from any of these,
and depending on the size of the company you
can potentially go far higher with your share of
some of the rights: ‘first serial rights’ can be as
high as 90%. But bear in mind that most books
don’t sell most of the rights in the list. The most
likely ones to be sold are translation rights, but
unfortunately those rights tend to offer the lowest
5. The accounting period
This is the length of time you will have to wait
between royalty payments. If this is set at one
year you should ask for six monthly reports, at
least for the first couple of years of the book’s
6. The number of free copies sent to you
This is usually set at ten free copies. It’s a
reasonable quantity for an expensive hardback
book and for larger paperbacks, but if your book
is a small or cheap paperback then it’s worth
asking for the contract to be changed to allow
you to receive twenty copies instead of ten.


haggle over their first contract? Will
it seem ungrateful or egotistical if you ask for
better terms? Will it put the publisher off
The answers to these questions all depend on
how desperately the publisher wants your book.
If they are in any way indifferent to whether they
get you signed up or not then your negotiating
powers will be nil. The deal will be take it or leave
it. If they think your book concept is gold dust
then they’ll play along with your requests for
better terms.
The problem is that you have no way of
knowing how much they really care about your
book. You don’t know if they see it as central to
their growth for the next financial year and are
planning for it to be a lead title, or whether it’s
just one extra book to add to the list that may or
may not sell and they’re wondering if they’ve
already signed up too many books for their staff
to cope with anyway.
The only way to test the waters in these
instances is to read the contract and suggest a
slightly higher royalty rate, a slightly lower sales
quantity threshold at which the royalty rate
increases, a slightly higher advance, slightly better
percentages for rights sales and a few extra free
copies. If they want you badly they’ll agree to
everything. Chances are they’ll agree to some,
but not all, of your requests. They might meet
you halfway on some items. Just ask nicely and
you might be lucky.
Publishers often begin by negotiating the basic
terms of a contract before the author actually gets
to read the contract itself. These terms are
outlined in the following chapters. If you receive
a full contract make sure you take the time to
read it carefully and ask questions about any
sections you don’t understand.

What to submit to a publisher

a book proposal will
vary according to the publisher. Most companies
state clearly on their website what would-be
authors should supply to them.
You’ll find that some of the largest publishers
actually say they won’t even consider submissions
that don’t arrive via agents. This is an unfortunate
obstacle for unpublished, unagented writers but
it’s a fact of the industry that cannot be avoided.
The smaller publishers will usually ask for a
single page proposal or a covering letter, a
synopsis and between one and three sample
Your sample chapters must be cleanly printed
on fresh paper. If your toner or ink is running
low make sure you replace it before printing
anything. Publishers don’t want to read weak and
smeary text.
That’s straightforward enough, but it doesn’t
tell the whole story. The purpose of a proposal is
to give enough information to an editor about
your manuscript for them to make a judgement
as to whether they would like to read more.
But there are other ways to tantalise a
publisher, as we’ll see later.
Accompanying the submission with
a large envelope and sufficient
postage for the sample chapters to
be returned is actually a pointless
thing to do because you should
never re-use those samples anyway.
It’s far better to enclose a postcard
(with a stamp on it) addressed to
you so that the publisher can
acknowledge receipt of your
submission. If the proposal is
rejected the sample chapters can
then be thrown away or recycled
by the publisher. Make sure your
e-mail address is included in your
covering letter so that the
publisher can send you a reply
without incurring any costs.
What to put in your covering letter
Three things should be in your covering letter:
Your book
Reasons to publish it.
When writing about yourself, aim for a paragraph
summarising relevant points about what qualifies
you to write this book. If you want to say lots
more about yourself constrain the extra words
to a separate C.V. to make sure your covering
letter isn’t so long that it gets confused with the
book itself.
The publisher needs to know if you have had
any publishing successes before, if you have any
relevant qualifications for writing your book, and
if you plan to write any more books on the same
Your book
Describe the book in one short paragraph. There
is plenty of space to explain its intricacies in more
detail in the synopsis. Here is where you write a
short ‘teaser’ that will intrigue the editor
sufficiently to make them want to know more.
Imagine you’re writing the publisher’s blurb
that they will use to describe your book on the
back cover, in their catalogue and on their
website. There’s no need to give away the full
plot – leave it open for the editor to wonder how
it resolves.
Then add a short line to describe how you
envisage the book in its printed form. For
example you might see the book as a bargain
paperback or a lavish hardback.
If the book is similar to a bestselling book or
to another book by the publisher you’re writing
to then make that comparison. It makes it easier
for an editor to visualise the kind of book you’re
Reasons to publish it
List any significant reasons why the publisher’s
risk will be small in taking on your book. Perhaps
you have contacts in the media who have
promised to help you publicise the book. Or
you’ve done some research into the likely level
of demand for your book and can demonstrate
that the market is crying out for it because there
is a gap in the market. Maybe you’re involved in
a society whose membership is sufficiently large
to create enough guaranteed sales to justify a full
print run. Or you’re a lecturer on a subject and
are sure the students at your college and others
will all buy this book. Or you have the ability to
sell the book through your own business.
Taking this principle further, imagine you
planned to purchase a substantial number of
copies of your book at the author’s discount
(usually between 35% and 50%) for selling
privately to friends, family and colleagues or to
sell in your own shop.
You mention to the publisher that you think
you can sell 500 copies of the book, should it get
into print, and that you would make a firm order
to buy those copies, non returnable, so that they
can be delivered direct from the printer.
If your book is up against similar, equally well-
written manuscripts for consideration, this kind
of offer could clinch the deal for you. It won’t
help you if the book isn’t good enough, or it’s
wrong for the market, or the publisher doesn’t
specialise in that kind of book, but it can make a
difference in the right circumstances.
What kind of a difference does a guaranteed
sale of 500 copies make to a publisher? Actually
quite a lot. It depends on the size and price of
the book, but in most cases it’s enough to cover
as much as half of the printing costs and therefore
reduces the chances that the book will lose
How to write a synopsis
Generally speaking, one paragraph per chapter
is adequate. As long as the synopsis fills one or
two pages and no more then it’s the right length.
It’s not easy to distil your masterpiece down to a
few hundred words unless you’re clear in your
mind as to what the important themes and
concepts are.
Leave out all unnecessary detail. As with the
‘blurb’ you wrote in your covering letter, don’t
feel the need to answer all questions – leave some
things hanging tantalisingly in the air so the editor
wants to read the whole book to find out more.
10 ways to leapfrog other submissions
Call the publishing company and ask for
the name of the appropriate editor for
your genre of book.
Ask to speak to that editor. If you get
through to them, summarise your proposal
in a couple of sentences and ask if they’d
like to see it.
Make sure your submission is personally
addressed to that person.
The covering letter inside must not be a
generic, photocopied ‘Dear sir/madam’. If
you’ve already spoken on the phone,
mention it.
If you have enough relevant experience and
qualifications, include a separate C.V.
Otherwise, don’t bother. Leave out jobs,
swimming certificates and exams that have
nothing to do with your book.
Think of a stonking title and subtitle
combination, or an enticing tag line if the
book is fiction.
Schmooze with publishers at book fairs,
launch parties and award ceremonies.
Use ‘friend of a friend’ contacts mercilessly.
Offer to buy a chunk of the print run.
Prove to the publisher that you can attract
publicity for yourself.
Submissions are often made to publishers in a
gimmicky way. I’ve seen a proposal written on a
scroll wrapped up in a cardboard tube,
submissions printed on expensive coloured paper
(a gold cover page is the worst offender), and
ideas for books packaged with ribbons and bows.
Needless to say, all were rejected.
You might think a gimmick is an effective way
to get noticed in the slush pile – it will get your
proposal noticed, but for the wrong reasons.
Editors sigh at the sight of coloured paper and
fancy packaging. They know from experience
that authors who wrap their submission in such
a decorative way are, either consciously or
unconsciously, trying to divert attention from
weaknesses in their writing. Such attempts have
never worked and never will. Keep your proposal
looking professional, and that means print it on
standard 80gsm white paper. If you need to bind
a few pages, use a staple in the top corner. If there
are more pages than a stapler can manage, bind
them in a simple and plain way that won’t attract
Generating a cover design
Some authors go to the extent of designing a
cover for their book when sending in a proposal.
This can help the editor to imagine your book in
print and how attractive it would look, but only
if your design is of a professional standard. If
you’ve never designed a book cover it might be
advisable to avoid attempting one to send in with
your idea. Instead, you
could commission a
design from a local
graphic designer or art student. If the design turns
out to be stunning, giving the book a similar style
to a bestseller in its genre, then things could start
to go your way more easily. You should supply
the designer with any high quality photos or
artwork you possess that might be suitable, advise
them on the target audience and show them
similar book covers that you like. This will help
them to understand the style of drawing or design
they should aim for.
A mock-up of your book cover is not essential,
since most books that are published do not come
from illustrated proposals, and the wrong kind
of design can actually put editors off. But if you
can get a design that excites a publisher in the
same way that customers in bookshops get
excited by attractive designs that make them want
to buy books, then you’re a little further on your
way towards being a published author.
How long to wait for a response
Wait a reasonable period before chasing the
publisher for a response: this means at least a
month. It takes time to make publishing decisions.
Books aren’t picked on a daily basis. Even after a
month you may not get a very satisfactory answer.
Finding an editor who knows about your
submission (or pretends to) is a challenge in itself.
Many rejections occur quickly, as do requests to
see more of a book if only a sample chapter was
received initially. But the wheels of publishing turn
slowly because so many factors besides the quality
of the writing have to be taken into account before
making a decision. It’s better to think of your
submission as planting a seed that may bear fruit
after many months. Don’t sit around waiting to
see if it grows: keep making and planting new seeds
all the time.
Copyright protection
Anything you write is automatically your
copyright and will remain so until seventy years
after you die. But if someone tries to steal your
work that’s of no help to you unless you can prove
that you wrote it. Digital technology is making
theft of writing texts much easier than in the past,
so if you want peace of mind just follow these
basic procedures:
Keep copies of all your different drafts. They show the
progression of ideas as you developed the writing. The
person who stole your writing would not be able to
show the court any evidence of how the writing evolved.
Mail a completed copy to yourself and if it arrives with
a clearly dated postmark leave it unopened. It’s not a
failsafe system, but if you open it in front of the judge
it can help to demonstrate that at that date you were
in possession of the writing.
Register your work with a copyright protection agency,
either online or with a physical copy of the manuscript.
Clearly write your name, contact details and copyright
date on all copies of your work that you send out.

Why it’s vital to target the right kind of publisher

not just a book. Publishers’ reputations
are not built on the fact that they can simply
publish books. Their skills, expertise and
reputation are all based on the kinds of books in
which they specialise. Even the larger publishing
houses, whose lists cover many genres, are
usually divided into internal ‘imprints’. Each
imprint can be a specialist division with their own
editors who are experts in their subjects. These
imprints are sometimes created by the parent
company, but often they are the remnants of
smaller companies that were swallowed up
during a takeover or merger.
So you’re not going to send your book proposal
to every publisher you can find. It’s a waste of your
time and money, not to mention theirs. You’re
going to find the right publisher, a company that
from the outside appears to be a perfect match for
your book. And then you’re going to find lots of
other firms that would be equally good matches.
Do publishers sometimes commission books
from genres in which they haven’t published
Yes, they do. If no one occasionally tried
something new the industry would be very static
and dull. But the jump from one genre to another
has to be fairly close, otherwise the publisher will
lack the courage to attempt it.
You might be able to persuade a publisher of
local history books to take on a military history
title, but you’ll be wasting your time asking them
to sign up a historical novel. This is because local
and military history are both subsets of the same
genre and will be sold to the same bookshop
department manager. But a historical novel is
fiction and will be sold into the fiction buyer.
That can mean an extra appointment for the sales
rep, which isn’t cost effective for a single book.
Fiction is also an entirely different and
challenging market that the average non fiction
publisher wouldn’t enter without first imbibing
a stiff drink to steady their nerves.
Generally it’s not worth the effort of trying to
tempt publishers away from their comfort zones.
The decision to try something new is not always
in reaction to specific book proposals anyway
(often it’s a managerial choice). There are already
enough publishers specialising in whatever genre
you want to write and those are the ones you need
to target.
Compare your book to others
Read other books by each publisher on your
target list and think about what those books
contain that may have encouraged an editor to
sign them up. Would your book fit in well
amongst them? If you don’t think your book is
in the same calibre then go back to the re-drafting
stage. If your book matches the quality but not
the genre, look for different publishers.
Writing for an existing series
If your aim is to write a book that stands
completely alone from other books already on
sale then it will be statistically more difficult for
you to get it published than if you were to write
for an existing series, style or subject area.
Publishers of non fiction series are always looking
for new writers to help them expand their list, so
if you have the expertise and ability to assist them
in that process you just need to tell them. Writing
a novel that fits a precise and identifiable sub-
genre such as one of the Mills and Boon romantic
fiction imprints will make it easier to get
published than writing a novel that can’t be
compared to anything already out there.
Sending your proposal to more than one
publisher at a time
Authors are often nervous about this. It seems
discourteous, unfaithful even, to send out a
proposal to more than one publisher. The trouble
is that it can take three months to hear a reply,
even a negative one. Ironically the more they like
your submission the longer it will take for them
to reject it because it will get read by various
people, talked about in meetings, forgotten about
for a bit while the publisher gets ready for a book
fair, and then found again and finally decided
against. If you go through this process with one
publisher at a time it
could take ten years for
the book to fall into the
right hands.
Take care to inform a
publisher of any genuine
interest from rival
companies at the earliest
possible point. No one likes to spend hours
debating the merits of a manuscript only to be
told it has been sold to someone else.
Bidding wars
A bidding war is the main way in which a first
time author can achieve a six figure advance (the
other way is for them to be a high profile
celebrity). When an agent is really excited about
their newly signed author – usually we’re talking
about a novelist – and they successfully manage
to convey that excitement to more than one
publisher at a time, a situation arises in which
publishers try to outbid each other in order to
sign up the book. Their normal caution and
powers of reason melt away amid the heat of
excitement and suddenly a new author is fast-
tracked to superstardom.
Bidding wars where agents are not involved
tend to be at a more mundane level, but still result
in higher than average royalty advances for the
How to find the right publisher
Most authors identify one publisher that they
think might be appropriate for them and they
pin all of their hopes on that one submission. As
often as not, this publisher isn’t actually
interested in that kind of book anyway. The
author receives a rejection letter and gets
disillusioned by the whole business of being a
writer. They give up.
But that won’t happen to you. You’re going to
be systematic and professional in your approach.
First, you need to create a target list of publishers.
Aim to send your proposal to no more than ten
of them at a time in order to keep things
You can find suitable publishers for your book
using the following methods:
Browse among the shelves, noting the imprints and
addresses of books that are similar to yours.
Search the book’s subject to see if any publishing company
names crop up.
Search for comparable books to yours then look up other
books by those publishers to see if it is a one-off or
something in which they specialise. Note whether the
similar books were published recently or not.
Book fair
Walk around the booths looking for displays of books that
appear similar to yours, then stop and chat to the
publishers about whether they’re interested in seeing new
books in that genre.
Listings in writing guides
Publishers are sometimes listed by subject category, but
since these can be vague it’s worth double checking on
the Internet or in bookshops.
Personal contacts and networking
An editor develops a working relationship with
every writer they commission. We all want to
work with people we like, so it’s only natural for
editors to want to work with authors they already
know. And this doesn’t only mean authors they
have already published – it could be friends they
have made at a party or business event.
Networking is about finding ways to meet the
right people who can help you in your career.
Introductions made at social events where editors
are relaxed (and preferably intoxicated) are
perfect ways for authors
to quiz them about their
publishing programme,
what they’re looking for
and whether they would
like to see your efforts. It’s
a way of forming
friendships that will
develop into working
relationships in the
future. Getting a personal
introduction to a publisher at a party will more
than double your chances of selling your writing.
Even if they don’t buy it from you they may be
prepared to give you their expert opinion for free.
I’ve been known to give my opinion on books
submitted to me via friends of friends. If it’s not
suitable for my company I sometimes pass it on
to other publishers who might be interested. This
wouldn’t happen for a submission that arrives
from a stranger.
Use any legitimate tactics you can think of to
gain access to the inner circle of publishers. It
isn’t an impregnable fortress. They’re nice people
who live ordinary lives. If you’re not in the same
town as they are, travel. Find out where they hang
out. Go to their offices for a quick chat, even if
it’s just with the receptionist: you might learn
something valuable (remember not to waste
anyone’s time, though, because there’s a fine line
between a brief business-like conversation and
being a nuisance). If you can’t get to their location
use the phone. People often phone me out of the
blue for advice or to ask if I’d like to see their
book. It takes courage to do that, but what’s the
worst that will happen? A brush-off is all you’ll
get if they don’t want to speak to you. It won’t
end your career.
Go to the international book fairs to meet
publishers. Chat to the people on the booths.
Find out what kinds of books they want to
publish next year. Take their cards. Hang out at
the parties in the hotels – the networking
opportunities really begin when the wine starts
to flow. Flirting skills are a bonus here!
Working in publishing or bookselling
I’ve emphasised in this book the importance of
understanding the publishing and bookselling
industries in order to assist your attempts at
entering this literary world on a professional level.
Writing the book is just the first step: a basic
grounding in the terminology and procedures of
the business you’re trying to become a part of
will help you to get the deal in the first place. It will
also enable you to maximise sales and to increase
your chances of being asked to write a follow-up.
But will it help you to get published if you go
the extra mile and actually get a job in the book
industry? Absolutely it will, provided you choose
your employer carefully and are prepared to
exploit your position.
Working for a publishing company is your best
bet, but it stands to reason that the company you
try to work for should be one that already
publishes the kind of book you’re writing.
When I attend editorial meetings at which the
editors discuss the submissions recently received
and the kinds of books they would like to publish,
I know that if I were an undercover author I would
be able to go home and prepare a proposal that
would get them very excited the next day. In fact
I once did this as a joke – I listened to what my
editors were saying that they would like to sign
up, then went home and prepared a couple of
proposals in a different name and sent them to
the commissioning editor. He came to see me the
next day looking very excited and proceeded to
show me this proposal which was miraculously
what he had been looking for.
Access to the inner sanctum of a publishing
house is a great way to generate book ideas that
will have a guaranteed positive response. But it
doesn’t have to involve subterfuge because many
publishers come up with ideas for books in-
house and ask their editors to find a suitable
writer. Sometimes editors or other staff within
the company will offer to write the book
themselves, and even unpaid work experience
staff have been known to make contributions to
the odd book or to assemble collections of
quotations for anthologies during their
Getting a job as a bookseller has different
advantages. Your contact with publishers is
limited to their sales representatives, but you have
the opportunity to quiz them on whether they
think your idea for a book has legs. Their opinion
is part of the publisher’s decision-making process
so if you can quote a positive response from a
rep in your proposal then your book can at least
avoid instant rejection.
Working in a bookshop you also have the
chance to study sales patterns, noting which of
your potential rivals is selling the best and talking
to customers and colleagues about whether they
like the sound of your idea for a book. And of
course it wouldn’t hurt to tell the publisher to
whom you submit your manuscript that you
might be able to influence your employer to
order large quantities of the book when it comes
What to do when your proposal has been
despatched to suitable publishers
If the book is not written, start writing it. If you
sent just a book outline with no actual samples
then you should aim to have three chapters ready
within the next month or two in case a publisher
asks to see them. If you have already sent three
chapters then crack on with the rest of it in case
they want to read the whole thing.
If your entire book is already complete and has
been re-drafted sufficient times then use your
waiting period to give it a final proofread.
The next thing to do is to prepare your target
list for the second batch of publishers you want
to approach. Start collecting names, numbers and
addresses, call them all to find the name of the
appropriate editor and to ask if they are interested
in principle in viewing your proposal. Then as
soon as you receive a rejection letter send out a
proposal to someone else.
And when that is done? Keep up the writing
routine. Think up a new book idea, but don’t
write the book. Just the idea.
Then think of another idea.
And then ten more.
Make some of the ideas fit a series theme if
Don’t write any of those ideas into full books,
just type them up in no more than a hundred
words per proposal and send them to some
suitable publishers asking if they’d like to see
samples of any of them.
Rejection at this early stage is relatively
painless. It’s also less likely because you’re
offering a range of potential products to each
If they ask for samples then write them and
send them off. This route is far less likely to lead
to rejection because you’re virtually writing to
order. You know the editor is already interested
in the idea and the only thing that might trip you
up from then on is if your execution of that idea
differs from how the editor expected it to turn
On many occasions I have asked to see samples
from a list of excellent book ideas, only to be
disappointed when those samples arrived. But
I’ve also received samples from idea lists that have
led to published books.

Self publishing

in your own right is a
legitimate way of getting published. If your book
is an autobiography, poetry or short stories then
you have practically no other option anyway. You
don’t need to know about typesetting, cover
design or printing – just employ one of the many
firms who specialise in providing these services
for authors who want to get into print. When
the books are delivered to you they belong to you,
so all the income from sales is yours to keep.
Don’t expect to make money from printing
your own book. You might get back some
of your investment, but it isn’t possible to
make a real profit from a short print run
(less than a thousand copies) of a book.
Selling more than a thousand is possible
and I’ve seen plenty of self published
writers do so, but it takes dedication to
achieve it.
Self publishing can be a step towards getting a
major publishing deal. Some editors prefer to see
a bound book because it helps them to visualise
what their edition could look like, or they might
like your impressive sales figures. Others,
however, might be put off by the fact that your
book has already appeared in the shops and may
be concerned that you’ve tapped the market for
yourself and there’s nothing left.
There’s a new trend amongst the bigger
publishing houses towards looking at self
published books in the hope of finding a gem
that they can take on. A Year in the Merde by
Stephen Clarke and The Sea on Our Left by Shally
Hunt are both examples of self published books
that became bestsellers when taken on by larger
publishing companies.
Vanity publishing
This is when authors pay a publisher to take on
their book. The vanity publisher makes a profit
out of the author and therefore doesn’t need to
sell any copies of the book to make a living. Any
copies they actually print belong to them, not the
author, so if the author wants stock to sell to
friends and family they have to pay for it (again).


provides a filtering service for
publishers. They select only the best writers and
attempt to sell the work of those writers to the
major publishing houses. Agents develop
working relationships with the publishers in
order to ensure they are able to supply the right
kind of book each time.
The largest publishers will only look at book
proposals submitted by agents, so if you want to
get published in a big way then you need an agent.
They’ll take a percentage of any earnings you
make, but they’ll probably be able to negotiate a
better deal for you in the first place so there’s no
doubt that they earn their money.
The trouble is that getting a deal with an agent
is just as hard as getting one with a publisher.
They won’t sign you up unless they are confident
that they can sell your writing. In order to
continue to provide a good service to all of their
existing client authors, an agent won’t sign up
too many new writers.
Realistically, then, the top agents present a
closed door to most new authors. You won’t have
so much difficulty getting signed up by a new
agency or one that is based in a small town, but
their clout with publishers won’t be much
stronger than your own.
Agents are listed in the same writing directories
as the publishers, and usually they want to see
the same kind of proposals. Bear in mind that
agents like to nurture long-term relationships
with writers, so if you can persuade them that
you will be a full-time author with a string of
exciting forthcoming books lined up then the
proposition becomes more attractive to them.


printed version of a book, the
eBook offers several benefits:

The eBook can be downloaded instantly
from a website into a computer, mobile
phone, PDA or soon into an iPod.

The text is searchable.

The eBook can contain hyperlinks to
relevant websites for further information.
In the same way that people are ‘ripping’ their
CD collection into their iPods, boxing up the old
discs and putting them into the attic, we now have
the same option available to us for our book
It’s not a concept that appeals to everyone, but
the ability to carry an entire library in your pocket
will at least lighten a few holiday suitcases that
were previously stuffed with heavy novels.
Internet publishing
There are publishers who only produce eBooks.
Their investment in each title published is much
lower than in the traditional model because they
avoid print, storage and delivery costs for their
products. Therefore they can publish more books
than other firms and do not need to reject such
high percentages of the submissions they receive.
But most authors don’t want to let go of the
dream of seeing copies of their book on the
shelves of a bookshop and are reluctant to accept
publication only in eBook formats.
I’ve published books that have gone
straight into eBook editions for sale on the
Internet. No printed copies were ever
made. This was done because the market
for them seemed too risky to warrant any
investment in a physical print run. Internet
publishing eliminates 90% of the costs
associated with bringing out a book, and
therefore enables more authors to have
their work read by readers than would
otherwise be possible.

The business of bookshops


an author to understand the
workings of the high street bookshops in order
to have a realistic sense of what publishers have
to do to sell books and how you can help them
to develop the products they need.
Buying decisions
Bookshop staff need to make commercial
decisions regarding which new and old books
they want to stock in their shops. Some will meet
regularly with representatives of publishing
companies and wholesalers to be shown
information about forthcoming books; others
will buy from catalogues, customer requests or
the Internet. Choosing which books to keep in
stock is a tricky art. The bookseller needs to be
aware of the social class and ethnicity of its
customer base, who the ‘hot’ authors of the day
happen to be, and whether there are local reasons
why particular titles need to be stocked such as
those related to courses at local colleges. The track
record of an author, publisher, or series of books
is also taken into account together with the
limitations of a monthly purchasing budget.
I spent many years ‘repping’ new books
into bookshops, and it was often a struggle.
It could never be guaranteed that every
book I published would be stocked by
every bookshop. Frequently as many as
half the shops I visited would say ‘no
thanks’ to a forthcoming book. Some shops
would be sufficiently excited to order
enough copies to create a pile on a table
or a ‘pocket’ on the shelf (where the books
are face-out instead of spine-on), but
others would reluctantly take a single copy.
Buying decisions appeared arbitrary, so
each book’s coverage of the country would
be patchy at best. In some towns it would
be impossible to find our books. In others
we’d find everyone was buying them.
Some of the problems I had in persuading buyers
to stock the book in their shops were related to
personal opinions or prejudice. Understandably,
we all tend to make purchasing decisions based
on what we like, and booksellers are no different.
It’s their job to be objective and to select books
for their customers, not themselves, but
inevitably personal preferences get in the way.
Many bookshop workers I encountered were
poorly paid and not sufficiently motivated to care
too much about being objective. But this is
understandable because profit margins for
bookshops are very tight and, like publishing, it’s
a risky, investment-heavy business.
When a publisher attempts to sell their new
titles to a bookshop they face a similar challenge
to that of an author trying to sell their book
concept to a publisher. The publisher, like the
bookseller, should be objective and neutral in
their commissioning decisions. But that isn’t the
way the world works. Publishers have
preferences and prejudices too and they will reject
books they simply don’t like or don’t approve of,
even though other readers might like them. But
in the same way that a publisher simply visits
another bookshop after failing to make a sale, an
author must try another publisher as soon as the
book proposal is rejected.
Shelf space
Go into any bookshop and the chances are that
every shelf and table is full of books. It makes
sense: the shops are trying to offer the widest
range of books possible in order to attract the
most customers, so all the space in the shop is
used to its fullest extent.
Many authors and customers assume that what
you see on the shelves is just the tip of the iceberg
of a shop’s available stock, and that for every copy
at the front of the store there will be ten or twenty
hidden away in their stockroom out the back.
Bookshops do have stock rooms, but they are for
processing incoming
parcels and outgoing
unsold books. Only
exceptionally fast-selling
books will have spare stock
kept out of sight of the
So if the shelves are full,
how can they order new
customers buy books each day. That creates just
enough slack in the system to be able to slot in
the new stock. It’s a difficult balancing act,
frequently requiring older books to be returned
to the publishers in order to make way for the
new ones. And that is why a newly published
author is often shocked and disappointed to
discover that their book is not in stock in all
bookshops and where it is stocked there is only a
single copy available.
Subject areas
Bookshops have to divide and label their shelf
space according to standard subject areas. This
enables the customer to find the right kind of
book easily. History is on one shelf, cookery is
on another. Easy.
Complications arise when a book is published
that is about the history of cooking. Which
section should it go in? The bookseller may make
a random decision between the available options,
which means a customer who reads a review and
comes in looking for that book only has a 50%
chance of finding it unless they visit both shelves
(which might be on different floors of the
building). For this reason it is vital to write a book
that will fit into a pre-existing genre. Don’t try
to invent a new genre: there won’t be a shelf for
it and it won’t sell.
Time given for a book to sell
Bookshops have agreements with the publishers
whose books they stock allowing them to return
unsold books after a certain minimum amount
of time. Books fail to sell for a number of reasons.
It could be that the shop arranges a particular
subject alphabetically by the author’s name,
resulting in books by a writer whose surname
begins with a Y being placed on the bottom shelf
where no one can see it without getting down
on their knees. It could be that the book is wrong
for the kind of population in the bookshop’s
catchment area. Maybe it received bad reviews
or didn’t get any publicity at all. Thin books
placed spine-on can get lost amongst larger
books. The bookseller may have placed the book
on the correct shelf only for a browsing customer
to pick it up and place it on a different shelf so
that no one finds it again.
These and dozens of other reasons explain why
at least a fifth of all books sold into bookshops
by publishers are returned some months later.
This can have interesting effects on royalty
statements, because the author is paid when a
bookshop makes a purchase but if the books ‘sold’
are subsequently returned and there are more
returns than sales in a subsequent royalty period
then there could be negative royalty due. This
will be carried forward to the next statement –
the author won’t normally have to hand the
money back.
If a bookshop was not able to return unsold stock
they would gradually clog up with books, forcing
them to cut back on purchases of new books until
their business ground to a halt.
Prime space
Certain areas of bookshops are regarded as prime
selling space: the till points, the entrance, the
windows and the tables on the ground floor.
Prime space represents less than 1% of the
available space for books. Most new authors
imagine that their book will automatically be
positioned in prime selling space and feel let
down by their publishers when this doesn’t happen.
Prime space in the large bookshop chains is
often allocated for in-store promotions, such as
‘3 for 2’ (buy two books, get one free). Publishers
are asked to pay a share of the cost of the
promotion and to give extra discount to
compensate the bookseller who is effectively
giving away some of their stock for free. But
however keen a publisher may be to promote a
particular title in this way, the bookshop’s head
office will make the final decision as to which
titles to include. That’s one reason why your book
may not appear in the promotion. Another reason
is that the costs to the publisher of including it
are simply uneconomical and the publisher
refuses to take part.
Bookselling is a seasonal business. More books
are bought as gifts for others than are bought by
people who actually want to read them
themselves. So gift books and humour books sell
particularly well as Christmas stocking-fillers.
Little romantic books sell in early February just
before St Valentine’s Day. Travel guides sell in
huge numbers in early summer as people prepare
to go on holiday. Exam guides sell prior to any
exam dates.
To make the most of this seasonal effect,
booksellers sometimes have to clear out books
in order to make space for the big seasonal titles.
As an author, this means you might see your book
disappear from the shelves only to return a few
months later.
Very few books sell evenly
throughout the year, and
this is primarily due to the
huge market distortion
caused by Christmas.
The difficulties of being a bookseller
A typical bookshop stocks 70,000 titles (out of
almost a couple of million currently in print).
Many of them are steady backlist sellers that any
customer would expect to find, such as
Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen novels and
Wordsworth poems. In order to stock new titles
a bookseller has to drop old ones. Making
decisions like that whilst dealing with customer
questions and operating till points and unpacking
stock parcels is not easy. How many new titles
should the shop take on when there are over
100,000 new books published each year?
In order to be able to keep in stock the range
of backlist titles that customers expect the choice
of new titles is limited to as little as 5,000. So
95% of new books will not be stocked and the
bookseller has to reject new titles presented to
them every day.
However, it’s not quite the case that 95% of
new books are turned down: many books are not
intended for sale in high street shops in the first
place and the bookshops are never told about
them. Specialist text books, for instance, are sold
to libraries and through other channels. Some
publishers don’t have reps to show the books to
the shops. Some of the ‘new’ books are, in fact,
new editions of older books and don’t need to
be re-sold into the trade.
A wholesaler stocks books from all publishers,
thus providing a useful service for any shops that
want to lower their administration costs by only
dealing with one supplier instead of hundreds of
publishers. The publisher sells books to the
wholesaler, and the wholesaler then sell the books
to the shops.
The Internet
Currently the dominant player in Internet
bookselling is Amazon, which has sites catering
for several countries. Its drawbacks include the
inability to hold a book and flick through its pages
before buying and the delay between purchasing
the book and its arrival by post. But the
advantages of this business model are
considerable. Firstly, every book in print (and
even those not in print) is listed on the website.
Armchair shopping is an obvious bonus, and the
listing of reviews by readers of each book adds a
dimension that high street shops could not
Amazon buys some of its stock from wholesalers,
but many of its titles are kept in its warehouses
‘on consignment’. This means that publishers
deliver stock to them without an invoice: Amazon
only pays the publisher once the books have been
sold. This can create a distortion in royalty
accounts if the author knows the initial print run
and the current stock levels because significant
amounts of stock can disappear from the
publisher’s warehouse without the author
apparently receiving royalties from it. The royalties
from Amazon sales will appear in later statements
once Amazon has provided its own statements to
the publisher for books sold.

The publishing process in a nutshell

vary according to the size of
publishing company involved, but the following
twenty stages are fairly typical of most companies.
Manuscripts are submitted by authors and
agents to the editorial department for
consideration for publication.
Some are rejected instantly, others are
discussed at editorial meetings.
In-house or external readers will read and
report on the merits of the manuscript.
If the reader’s report is positive, the sales
department will be consulted regarding
the book’s selling potential.
Many factors are taken into account when
comparing manuscripts shortlisted for
An offer to publish may then be made,
usually with a view to printing the book a
year or two from that date.
This gives enough time for the editor to
work on the manuscript, suggesting
rewrites, re-structuring and correcting
Meanwhile a designer will work on a cover
The publicist will request a photo and
biographical information from the author
to help create the press release.
Other editors will write a blurb for the
book’s jacket and will register an ISBN
from which a bar code can be generated
for the back cover.
The sales department will create an
Advance Information (AI) sheet consisting
of the cover design, the ISBN, the title
and author details, the blurb, and the
book’s price, dimensions, binding, release
date and selling points.
This AI sheet will be duplicated for the
sales reps to take into bookshops in order
to achieve advance orders.
The company website will be updated to
include details of the forthcoming book,
and an entry will be included in its next
printed catalogue.
All of the book information will be
submitted to the publisher’s warehousing
company and to the industry databases
from which Amazon and high street shops
obtain their computer book data.
A small number of uncorrected ‘proof’
copies of the book may be quickly typeset
and printed some months ahead of the
publication date and sent to key reviewers
and book trade buyers.
The book will be typeset.
A final proofread is done.
The book is sent to the printing presses.
A month or so later it arrives in the
warehouse with a few weeks to spare
before it is delivered to the shops.
In the couple of weeks following the
publication date the publicist will attempt
to get the author interviewed as widely
as possible.
After that, there is little the publisher can do. The
book has to make its own way in the harsh world
of retail bookselling. The publisher has given it a
strong push, but doesn’t have the resources to
keep pushing it forever. After all, there are other
books coming along which need its attention.
If a publisher releases fifty titles a year, that’s about
one per week going through its system. Every
person working on that book must get their job
done in less than forty hours, otherwise they’ll fall
behind schedule. That’s why as an author it’s
important to be realistic about what a publisher
will be able to do for you after the book is printed.
You will only be the number one priority for forty
working hours!
The most senior editor is usually the
commissioning editor. The choice of which
books a company should publish is crucial to its
success, so that role tends to be reserved for
experienced individuals. Editors nurture
relationships with authors and agents, sometimes
working with the same authors for many years.
Editors work on manuscripts through various
stages. Initially there may be structural editing,
involving the rearrangement of the order of
chapters or the elimination or addition of an
entire theme. Usually suggestions are made and
the author carries out the actual restructuring,
but sometimes the editor will do the work.
Following the structural edit comes the copy edit,
in which the text is examined at a closer level.
An editor may recommend rephrasing of
paragraphs with repetitive vocabulary, for
instance, or they may identify inconsistencies of
style. Zooming in still closer the editor finally
comes to the proofreading stage. This often
happens after the typesetting of the book has been
completed, enabling them to spot layout errors
as well as spelling and grammatical errors that
have slipped through the net.
The sales department consists of a sales manager
and teams of national and international sales
representatives. The sales manager will ensure
the reps on the road are kept supplied with up-
to-date sales literature and samples, and may also
visit the head offices of key accounts such as
wholesalers and major bookshop chains. The
reps themselves visit individual shops and other
head offices to show the buyers what is coming
out in the next few months and to take orders.
The orders are then sent to the warehouse to be
entered into a computerised invoicing system.
Long before the publisher sends the book to be
printed they know the number of orders already
achieved and can adjust their print run
Normally the number of advance orders
will be multiplied by at least three to take
account of late arriving orders and
reorders from shops where the initial
stocks of the book sell through quickly.
Publishers aim to print about six to twelve
months’ worth of stock at a time.
Warehousing and distribution
Publishers normally employ third party
distributors to handle their book storage,
invoicing and despatch. This tends to be more
cost effective than doing it themselves because
distributors can take advantage of lower postage
costs by bundling orders from various publishers
into the same box to be delivered to a bookshop.
So when books are printed only a small quantity
of them is actually seen by the publishers: the
rest are delivered into a warehouse many miles
away from their offices.
Selling a new title into the bookshops is only
halfway to making a genuine sale because unsold
stock will be returned for credit. The best way to
avoid returns is to make sure the public hears
about the book and makes the effort to visit the
bookshop specifically to buy that title. Publishers
employ in-house or freelance publicists to liase
with press, radio and television media in order
to get coverage for the book or the author in the
form of reviews, competitions, interviews, news
stories, extracts or features. The process begins
with a press release that is posted or e-mailed to
suitable recipients, and may be followed by a
launch party and schmoozing lunches. Don’t
assume all new books are celebrated by launch
parties, though. It usually doesn’t benefit sales
very much, so unless you’re prepared to fund and
organise it yourself the chances of your first
published book having the honour of a launch
party are only slightly better than the odds of
getting published in the first place.
The design department has the crucial task of
typesetting attractive pages, creating irresistible
covers, designing trade catalogues, adverts,
leaflets, posters and press releases. This work is
sometimes outsourced to freelancers or design
companies. The success of a book product hangs
almost entirely on its design. Over-eager authors
have been known to put pressure on their
publishers to use their own artwork despite its
inappropriateness for the market. Publishers, too,
make mistakes in the design of their book covers.
It’s an art, not a science, and it’s very easy to get
the look of a book so wrong that it doesn’t sell.
Publishers appreciate ideas for cover designs from
authors, and it’s useful when the writer provides
quality photos or artwork that can be used on
the front cover, but ultimately the publisher must
decide whether it is in everyone’s best interests
to use those materials or not.
Authors who receive royalties for their books will
be sent statements of sales either annually or
every six months. In larger publishing houses
there will be a department that deals with these
reports and their subsequent payments. Editors
and owners of smaller publishers tend to work
out the royalties themselves. Most contracts will
state that the publisher is obliged to pay any
royalties within three months of the statement
date. My publishing company always tries to pay
royalties with the statement, which usually means
the author receives their money more than two
months early. But I’m aware of other companies
(which I won’t name) where the unofficial policy
has been to prepare a royalty statement only when
the author chases it.
Keep a note in your diary as to when the
statement is due and don’t be afraid to chase late
payments. It’s also vital to keep the publisher
informed when you change your address because
royalties often get sent to the wrong place.
Publishers have two ways of earning money from
books. One way is to sell copies of the book,
either printed or electronic, and the other way is
to sell rights. The kinds of rights that are
commonly sold are translation, large print,
extract, serial, film options, and overseas English
language. No physical product has to be
produced by the publisher when these rights are
sold, so their profit margin per transaction is high
and that is why the author usually receives a
higher percentage of the income than they do
for the sales of the printed book.
What happens to the books?
It’s not quite as simple as saying that all the copies
printed will be sold and the author will receive
some money for every one. Let’s say an author is
told by their publisher that 3,000 copies of their
book will be printed. How many copies are likely
to be available for sale?
The following numbers are typical of what could
• For technical reasons the printer is not obliged to
deliver the correct amount – it can vary by about 5%
up or down, and in this instance only 2,900 books are
• The publicist will send 50 copies to reviewers.
• The sales manager will send 30 copies to key bookshop
• The author will receive 10 free copies.
• The sales reps (let’s say 8 of them) will each have 3
copies to show off to the bookshops.
• The rights manager will send 30 copies to publishers
in other countries who may be interested in buying
translation or territorial rights and will keep 20 copies
available to take to book fairs.
• The publisher will also keep a small stack of 20 copies
of the book in their office just in case they receive
enquiries from other reviewers or potential customers
in the months after publication.
• 10 copies will be damaged in transit or in storage.
• 6 copies will be bound incorrectly by the printer.
That amounts to 200 copies that are not available
for sale, plus the 100 copies that the printer
delivered short, which comes to 300 copies in
So in this example, 10% of the stated print run
never makes it onto the author’s royalty statement.
The percentage can be much higher if books are
lost, the warehouse is flooded, half of the print
run arrives with the covers bound upside-down,
or the publisher decides to spray free copies of
the book at every reviewer in the land. They, not
the author, own the books after all. The publisher
pays for the books and can give away as many as
they like. But they have the same interest as the
author in selling as many as possible, so however
many they give away it’s probably in the
expectation that the freebies will lead to extra sales.
What happens when a book stops selling?
Most publishing contracts permit the publisher
to remainder unsold books if they deem it
necessary, usually not less than two years after
the date of publication.
They will only do this if they consider your
book to be no longer commercially viable. Sales
will have dropped to about zero (or may even be
negative due to returns) and the cost of storing
the books will outweigh the income from them.
Remainder dealers buy this kind of ‘dead’ stock
at knock-down prices, often just token amounts
of money, and sell the books in discount book
stores. When this happens, authors are normally
entitled to purchase as many copies as they want
at the discounted remainder price.
If no buyer can be found for the stock then
the publisher will offer it to the author for free.
If the author is not excited at the prospect of
clogging up their house with dusty boxes of
unsaleable books then the publisher will arrange
for them to be pulped.
In the past, the sale of stock to a remainder
dealer or the pulping of every last copy meant
the end of the life of the book. But new
technology has created other options for books
at this stage of their life.
Print-on-demand means that a book is
officially available as far as Amazon and high
street bookshops are concerned, but the publisher
holds no stock at all. When an order arrives it is
automatically diverted to a specialist printer who
holds digital files for that book, from which they
can print and despatch one copy direct to the
This sounds so simple that you’d expect
publishers to do that automatically so that they
can do away with their warehousing expenses,
but unfortunately the cost of printing a single
copy of a book is many times more than the unit
cost of a print run of several thousand.
The other ways in which a book can continue to
live beyond its physical print run are as an eBook,
an audio book, or as an edition published in
another country.
Book fairs
Publishers get together at trade fairs to meet with
each other and agents to buy and sell book rights.
The London Book Fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair
and Book Expo America attract the highest
attendance, but there are also many others around
the world.
A publisher based in one country may choose
to sell the right to translate (if necessary) and sell
one of their books in another country. It’s possible
for a book published in one country to be sold to
a dozen or more publishers in other countries,
each of which will arrange their own translations.
Authors do well from foreign rights sales, usually
earning at least half of the net income received.
Book fairs are ideal opportunities to chat with
the smaller publishers and if you’re lucky you’ll
be able to pitch your book to them. But
publishers aren’t there to sign up new books –
they’re there to sell rights to their existing list
and they hate being cornered by an author who
talks for so long that a potential rights customer
walks away. So publishers are often wary of
catching the eye of any passing writer.
You may feel anonymous walking around a
busy book fair but actually it’s very easy
for a publisher to spot an author amongst
the suits. Apart from the fact that authors
have to wear a badge with their name and
the word ‘AUTHOR’ on it, they tend to
wear hats, carry small rucksacks and dress
in a way that is uniquely authorian.
Publishers have been known to pretend to
be in a meeting simply to avoid having to
talk to them.
At a recent London Book Fair one of my own
authors came up to me wearing a suit and a badge
with his company name on it, rather than his own
name. He told me it was easier to get to talk to
publishers when hiding behind a company name
(albeit the company consists solely of him)
because they prefer talking to perceived
professional business people rather than writers.
He wrote humorous books – I don’t think this
approach could be applied to weightier books like
novels. If you want to take advantage of trade fairs
to get useful networking time with publishers,
just remember three things: editors of larger
companies don’t always attend the fairs, so you
might not meet the right people; dress like a
publisher (smart, but not too smart); leave your
hat at home.
Creating a (fake) company to hide behind is
simple. Just call it something like YOUR NAME
LITERARY SERVICES and explain that you
write books to order. I know it’s silly, but for some
reason it can open more doors for you than
simply calling yourself an author.

The perils of publishing

is a new product, so
publishers have to keep on finding, developing,
perfecting and releasing new products. New
products are inherently risky. No one knows in
advance how many copies will be sold or whether
the readers will like it. It costs money to get the
new product known to the public. So publishers
are gambling large sums of money with every
book they bring out.
Compare this to other industries, such as
producers of food or drink. They can rely on sales
of the same product for decades. Customers will
buy the same beer, orange juice, bread or
chocolate all of their lives. But no one (in their
right mind) buys the same book more than once,
and certainly not every week for sixty years.
Publishing is a tough business, but it does have
its rewards. After years of struggling, a publisher
can release a surprise bestseller and its profits
can go through the roof. But this success
brings its own problems. Firstly, there is the
disappointment that comes the following year
when there is no bestseller and the company’s
income drops back down again. Secondly, if extra
staff and financial commitments are taken on
during a period of success, this can act like a lead
lifebelt when that run of success is over. No
books remain in the bestseller charts forever, and
no one can guarantee to publish books that will
duplicate the success of previous winners.
The cashflow of a publishing business is
challenging at the best of times. Almost three
quarters of all book sales occur in the run-up to
Christmas. Therefore during most of the year a
publisher’s income is limited. When an author
is paid an advance on royalties, that money comes
out of the publisher’s pocket up to two years
before any income is received from sales of that
book. If too many expensive authors are signed
up in quick succession, the negative effect on the
publisher’s cashflow can be devastating.

The publisher

the publishing company make
the decisions that will determine whether your
book is to be printed or not, and these people
consider not only the book, the author and the
market but also internal factors such as the size
and direction of the company, its state of financial
health and issues of internal politics.
1. Size of a publishing company
The size of a publishing company will affect how
many people are in each department and whether
it even has any departments. One person can run
a small publishing company, either doing
everything themselves or using freelance workers
as needed. Large publishing houses employ
hundreds of staff.
The larger the company, the greater the
number of people who need to be convinced of
the viability of your book in order for it to be
accepted. The Assistant Editor has to convince
one or two more senior editors, who in turn have
to convince an Editorial Director that your book
will be right for their list, will increase the
company’s reputation and will earn it money.
Offer it to a one-man band and there’s only
one obstacle in the way of publication: the owner
of the company. The trouble is that the amount
of money on offer from a large company will
usually be much
higher, as will the
chances of the book
being a success.
So how does the
size of a publishing
house fit into the
process? On one
level, the size
affects the number
of titles they are
able to release in a year. Budget and human
resource restrictions will mean that some small
publishers would be spreading themselves too
thinly if they signed up more than ten books a
year. Of those ten books, typically two of them
might be by authors who have already been
published by that firm and one will be a new
edition of an older book. Two more might come
from publishers in another country (rights
purchases). That leaves just five books to be
selected from the slush pile each year.
Small firms receive fewer submissions than the
big boys, perhaps ten per week instead of a
hundred, but that still means they have to reject
about 98% of everything they receive, regardless
of its quality or suitability. Do the odds get any
more favourable for the author when looking at
the statistics of large publishers? Actually, no they
don’t. Very roughly, 98% of submissions will, in
fact, be rejected from all publishers.
2. Direction of a publishing company
Managers at the helm of a publishing company
normally want to take the firm in a particular
direction. That’s because publishing isn’t just
about the money; it’s also about the branding.
Publishers won’t take on any old book that they
think will make money, regardless of genre. They
are constantly thinking about the ‘direction’ in
which their company is going. That is to say they
are conscious of the kind of book they publish,
the kind of readership they attract, and the profile
of their brand in the trade. OK, so branding is
also about money, but in the wider sense than
the profitability of individual titles. Strong
branding helps to increase the value of the
company, which keeps the shareholders happy.
The idea of a publisher worrying about their
brand perception seems a little odd to the average
book reader who would be hard pressed to name
any publisher other than Penguin Books. But to
overseas publishers who regularly buy translation
rights, to freelance sales reps who have learned
how to sell that company’s products into the
shops, and to the bookshop workers who know
which companies have made a reputation for a
certain kind of book, the branding is essential.
Gaining a reputation in a particular subject area
enables a publisher to attract better-known
authors. It makes it easier for them to sell their
books into the shops and it makes direct
marketing more cost-effective. This book, for
instance, is part of a series of books on various
aspects of writing. This is more cost-effective
than having just a single title of interest to authors
because it costs the same to promote ten books
as it does to advertise one.
The direction in which a company is led means
that certain kinds of books will be off-limits to
its editors. The directors may decree that a genre
of books is to be dropped. Perhaps fiction is to
be their speciality and all non-fiction titles are to
be phased out. Equally they may actively
encourage their editors to sign up authors in a
particular genre. On a whim or for carefully
researched commercial reasons a publishing
director may decide to add a science list, a range
of gift books or a children’s list. Editors will know
in what direction their company is headed and
will consider this factor when commissioning
new books.
3. The publisher’s financial health
It’s possible for a company to shrink as well as to
grow. Publishers can suffer cashflow problems,
especially in their early years, and the financial
state of the firm can influence publishing
decisions. When times are hard there has to be a
reduction in the number of new books signed
up. Lower royalty advances will be offered. It’s
even possible for books already contracted to be
postponed or cancelled.
A publishing house riding on the back of recent
bestsellers will have enough cash in the bank to
be able to take risks with new books. Risky books
can bring greater than average rewards if
successful, but can also flop disastrously.
Publishers can afford a few failures every year so
long as they have enough hits to cover the losses.
But when a publisher is suffering from too many
misses and not enough hits, they analyse potential
risk very carefully before signing up a new title.
The following list contains the most important
factors they take into account when deciding on
the relative risk of a title.
How a publisher perceives risk
High risk
• New author
• Author has no agent
• Author has no reputation in the subject
• Author is paid an advance on royalties
• Book is expensive to print
• Book comes with only single country rights
• Book has no chance of sub-rights sales
• Book requires higher than average editorial input
• Book needs marketing campaign
• Book subject is outside of the publisher’s experience
• Potential readership is disparate
Low risk
• Established author
• Author has an agent
• Author is an acknowledged expert in the subject
• Author works for flat fee (or for free!)
• Book is cheap to print
• Book comes with world rights
• Book has potential for many rights sales
• Book requires little editing
• Book sells on the back of pre-existing publicity or demand
• Book is similar to previous titles successfully published
• Potential readership is easy to target
4. Internal politics
Editors are trying to build a reputation and a
career in publishing. They want to get noticed
by their boss for being the first to spot a potential
bestseller. The last thing they want is to make
the mistake of overlooking your proposal if you
subsequently send it to a rival publisher who
turns you into a celebrity author. Internal
publishing company politics is on your side from
this perspective. At the same time, editors want
to protect their positions by not signing up too
many books that don’t sell. To safeguard their
jobs they try not to take too many risks with new
kinds of writing. Sticking to a writing formula
that works or to subject areas or authors that they
know will work for them is a safe option that
many editors will take.
Also, individuals have agendas. They know the
prejudices and foibles of their boss and may try
to sign up books that they know will earn that
boss’s respect and appreciation. Or an editor may
disagree with an author’s world viewpoint
sufficiently to reject a book before anyone in the
company has a chance to see it.