Preparation Is Key

Publisher, journalist and blogger Jane Smith gives her advice on the importance of preparation before submitting to agents or publishers.

I've worked in publishing for years, on both sides of the editorial desk, and during that time I've seen many changes. The arrival of personal computers has made manuscript preparation so much easier; the internet has transformed both the way and the amount that we communicate. The end of the UK's net book agreement, over a decade ago now, has caused huge changes in how books are sold and has played its part in transforming our high streets as bookselling chains have dominated and overwhelmed many of the independents; and print on demand technology means that now anyone who writes a book can now hold a real, bound copy of it in their hands within a few days, for the price of a single book.

I have no doubt that publishing will continue to change as new business models are considered and new technologies make established practices redundant. But there’s one thing that won't ever change: the need for writers to prepare properly for everything that they do.

The slush-pile provides an obvious example. When I worked as an editor at a book packager I received submissions every day: and yet the nature of our business meant that we didn't accept submissions. This was stated quite clearly in our entry in the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, which is almost certainly where most of the writers who submitted to us found us: nevertheless, they sent their books in, only for me to send them right back out again.

I did read most submissions: I had a romantic idea that there might be something wonderful hidden among them, but the books were memorable only by their awfulness. We packaged illustrated, esoteric non-fiction; I edited books about retreat, Tantric sex, prophecy, mythology, religion and death; and yet I received proposals for car repair manuals, fiction of all genres, diet books, conspiracy theories, illustrated guides to wood turning, knot-tying and hand-spinning, poetry anthologies, and real life stories which even the News of the World would have recoiled from. My favourite submission was an illustrated children's book which I think was about trolls: but I couldn't be sure because it was written in Dutch, and no translation was provided.

Then there were the serial submitters who seemed to think I might just one day say yes despite my eight previous rejections of the same project; the proposals which were hand-written, some on scented paper with pictures of pretty pink kittens running up the side of each page. The ones which came with hidden extras like a sprinkling of glitter (I had four of those, I think) which exploded over my desk as I opened them and, unforgivably, filled my coffee with shiny grit; cheques made payable to me, which were cashable only on my acceptance of the manuscript; photos of the authors including at least five naked shots (the nakeds weren't as young as you'd imagine, and were never what I considered attractive: but one of them was eye-bogglingly flexible). And then there was the writer who sent me a bubble-wrapped banana, with no covering letter or return address. That particular writer’s approach was not as exceptional as he thought: I’ve since compared notes with a few other editors and between us we've been sent an entire fruit salad.

While my slush-pile showed a wide diversity of genre and form there was one thing which united all of the writers who contributed to it: their lack of adequate preparation, which extended to every aspect of their submissions. Their writing almost always needed more thought and revision; their presentation rarely even approximated industry standards; and their choice of market was entirely inappropriate.

This lack of preparation has a huge effect on the writers concerned, who waste everyone's time and money submitting often un-publishable work to inappropriate markets; and on the people within publishing who have to process their submissions: it has led to response times which can be measured in months rather than days; and to the larger publishing houses closing their doors to un-agented writers. If all writers were better prepared the volume of the slush-piles would reduce; turnaround would speed up; and the big publishers might well reconsider their stance on un-agented manuscripts. Everyone involved in the process would save money and time.

But this lack of preparation doesn't just have an effect on the submission system: it can have nastier, long-lasting effects on those writers’ future careers, and on their financial health.

Because so many writers don't fully understand how publishing really works, not only do they make inappropriate submissions: they fail to appreciate one of the basic principles involved in publishing, which has been summarised by the writer James MacDonald's now-famous Yog's Law: money flows towards the writer. The extension of this law is that writers don't pay to be published and yet almost every day I hear another horror-story about writers who have signed contracts with vanity publishers, and have paid to get their books published. Sometimes they've only handed over a few hundred pounds but just last week I heard of a writer who was planning on paying $150,000 to publish his book. While this isn't an outright scam, as these writers do at least usually end up with the boxes of books that they ordered, the lack of any professional editing and design means that the content won't usually stand up to close examination; and the absence of any marketing or sales support means that the writer is unlikely to sell even fifty copies of their book, let alone the thousand or more that most of the books which are published by mainstream publishers can expect to sell today. And this doesn't just represent poor value for money: it leaves people bankrupt and breaks their hearts.

So, what can writers do to avoid falling into all the traps I've outlined here? The obvious one is to write a bloody good book, but there’s little point doing that if you make mistakes elsewhere.

Write to the best book that you can, as well as you can, and revise it until it's nigh-on perfect. Read widely across all genres and read deeply in your own, so you know not only how your genre is working now, but how it has and will work. Discover which agents represent authors who write in your genre; get hold of their submission guidelines; and when you submit, follow those guidelines precisely. Don’t even consider submitting to agents who have no obvious track-record of success—which is measured by a good number of sales to established, reputable, advance-paying publishers, and a client-list with names that you recognise from your genre. Find out which publishers publish books in your genre, and what they’re looking for. When you are lucky enough to get an offer from a publisher, consider this: if you can't find their books on the shelves in your local bookshops, what proof do you have that they'll be able to place your books there? Find out how publishing really does work (my blog might just help you with that) in order to avoid making foolish or costly mistakes. And keep Yog’s Law in mind at all times: good agents don’t charge reading fees, and good publishers don’t make writers pay to publish their own books.

Jane Smith has worked in publishing for over a quarter of a century, written and edited many books, and had articles published by most of the UK's national newspapers and several magazines. Her blog, aims to dispel some of the many myths and misunderstandings which proliferate about the publishing industry. She is planning a series of pieces written by outside contributors which will examine the publication of single books from three different perspectives: one of these views will usually come from the writer, while the others could come from their agent, editor, publicist, sales representative, bookseller, accountant—anyone, so long as they're involved in the publishing industry and can show how a specific aspect of the publication process works, a challenge was met or a problem was solved. If you're a writer, agent or editor and you're interested in contributing, please contact her via her blog.