The path to publishing your novel: a step-by-step guide to the publication process for first-time authors
Step 3. Researching agents & publishers to build your submissions list
The world of publishing can seem like a confusing, forbidden landscape to emerging authors. It’s filled with bewildering terminology and an overwhelming set of rules that you’re just expected to know, on pain of instant rejection.
But it doesn’t have to be intimidating. Over the next few months, I’m going to go through some of the key steps involved in navigating the publishing process and discuss how you can give yourself the best chance of success. In the previous couple of posts, we looked at the pros and cons of traditional publishing versus self-publishing, and how to make sure your manuscript is looking its very best before sending it out into the world.
Now it’s time to start looking for places to send it.
How to find literary agents and/or publishers for your manuscript
In the first post, we looked at the key considerations when deciding on a direction of travel for your publishing journey. If you’ve chosen to self-publish, best of luck to you, and your path to publication is going to look very different from the steps outlined below. For writers who choose the traditional publishing route, however, it usually begins with a submissions list.
The process is broadly the same whether you’re approaching an agent or going directly to a publisher, so I’m just going to refer to it under the general umbrella of submissions. You can assume that whatever follows applies equally to both approaches.
One thing to note before we get started, though, is that submitting directly to publishers can limit your appeal if you then begin submitting to agents, as you’ve closed off a couple of markets that they might otherwise have queried on your behalf.
Generally speaking, this step involves a little bit of financial investment. And I do mean a little bit — the rule that money flows from a publisher/agent to the author and not the other way around still applies here. And, theoretically, you could probably start building your list armed with nothing more than a spreadsheet and a well-crafted Google search term. You’ll probably want to do that anyway. But there are a number of more curated options that, for a small fee, will organise potential markets for you into a much more manageable list.
And if a paper-and-ink resource is a bit twentieth-century for your taste, the folks who publish the Yearbook run a searchable database on their website for an annual subscription fee of (at time of writing) £22.
You could also try The Association of Authors' Agents, whose Members Directory is a great starting point for getting to grips with who’s who in the world of UK literary agents.
Publisher’s Marketplace is another powerful tool, this time with a geographical focus on the US and north America. It’s pricier than Writer and Artists, at $25 per month to subscribe, but they offer a limited Quick Pass option at $10 for 24 hours’ access, if you’re just keen to have a look around the site before committing.
Also worth noting is that if you read a novel in a similar genre to yours, or with thematic similarities, check the Acknowledgements section at the end. Chances are good that the author has thanked their agent – and now you have the name of an agent who definitely represents the sort of thing you’re writing.
The first thing you’ll notice when you start looking for publishers and agents is this: there are loads of them. That may very well feel overwhelming, but don’t panic: with a systematic approach, you’ll increase your chances of finding your perfect match.
Researching Literary Agents and Publishers
I’m a massive spreadsheet nerd, so I’d highly recommend that you set yourself up with one of them before you start. This is what mine looked like when I was querying:
Comparables, by the way, refers to possible comparable titles that I could include in my query letter — more on this in the next post.
You should format your document in whatever way makes most sense to you, but I can’t stress enough that this process will get very confusing very quickly if you don’t keep track of who you’re sending to, when and why.
Once you’ve got your shiny new spreadsheet waiting to be populated, the first item on your research agenda will be to narrow your search by genre. Especially if you write SFF or horror, you’re going to find that takes a huge proportion of agents and publishers out of the running. And you absolutely cannot skip this part: there’s no surer way to let an agent or publisher know that you’re sending out mass submissions than to submit your cyberpunk horror MS to someone who only takes historical romance.
This will still leave you with a lot of options. And remember: you don’t have to limit yourself to your own geographical location. I’m in Northern Ireland and my first agent was in the US. We’ve never met in person. The internet is a wonderful thing.
Not all agents, agencies or publishers will be open to submissions when you first come across them, which will also move them off your submissions list – at least for now. (If you have a “To Send” tab on your spreadsheet, you can pop them in there, with a note to remind you of the date they’re reopening, if they give one.)
Would you rather shoot for the stars and get rejected, or play it safe and discover that the agent of your dreams would have snapped up your novel up in a heartbeat?
This document will remain a work in progress until you sign with the agent or publisher of your dreams, but I’d say a good 30 names is a decent starting point. Now, you’ll want to move to the next layer of research. Who have they represented that you recognise? What titles have they published that would also appeal to your target audience? Who has an ethos that resonates with you? How much support do they offer for authors relative to how much support you want to receive? Remember that this will be a business partnership: you want to make sure that you’re approaching organisations that you’re comfortable to do business with.
Now it’s time to pick your top ten. Don’t be afraid to go big with this. Mostly, major publishers and indie presses will only accept submissions from literary agents, but sometimes they’ll open up a limited open submissions period, and, if they do, don’t talk yourself out of sending them your work. Maybe they’ll reject you — and maybe they won’t. And if you could have got an acceptance from your ideal publisher, why would you give anyone else that chance ahead of them? I know it’s tempting to start small and work your way up, but getting published isn’t like applying for a job. Your (relative) lack of publication experience won’t count against you here. They’re interested in your writing and whether they think they can sell it, and that’s as true of the big companies as it is of the small.
Think of it this way: would you rather shoot for the stars and get rejected, or play it safe and discover that the agent of your wildest dreams would have snapped up your novel in a heartbeat? You have as much right to be in their inbox as anyone else.
Tips for finding the right agent or publisher
Remember: this is very likely to be a marathon, not a sprint. But there are some things you can do to make the process run as smoothly as possible.
Taking the next step
Now you’ve got your list in order, it’s time to put it to work. Believe me, there’s nobody knows better than I do how comfortable it feels to get stuck in the research rabbit hole, but this isn’t a list that’s meant to grow. It’s a list that’s meant to evolve. And that can only happen if you start using it for the reason it was created.
Over the next few posts, we’ll look at putting together your submission package, starting with how to create a cover letter that makes you stand out from the crowd.
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
Blog updates on the first of every month.