The following isn’t a list of dos and don’ts for you, but rather it’s an explanation of a few things we look out for, and our attitude to them.
Firstly, when we take on a client’s book as a project, we don’t simply flood all the UK publishers with its details. We start by looking through publishers’ details on firstwriter.com or in our 2011 copy of The Writer’s Handbook – that’s the last year it was published, but it still contains interesting information – or through a few other handy sources we know of. We make a selection of likely publishers and prepare an approach to them. Amongst the hundreds of publishers out there we find:
Publishers who say “We do not deal with agents”.
This is okay in the case of small poetry presses. We’ve always said that agents tend to get in the way when it comes to poetry submissions. However, in the case of mainstream fiction publishing, for example, obviously we won’t contact someone on your behalf who states specifically that they don’t want to hear from us. We do have our doubts, however, about why they would encourage an author not to have someone to look after his or her interests. Go into deals with such publishers with your eyes open, and if there is anything about the deal they offer that doesn’t strike you as being 100%, don’t let them put you off seeking impartial advice, or from bringing in an agent at that stage.
We will not deal with them at all. There are so many of them with listings at firstwriter.com but most of them can be filtered out in a search. However, they are good at disguising themselves, and it’s often necessary to read the feedback to find them out.
Publishers who offer packages which include author-subsidised ones.
Many smaller publishing houses do include such packages, in order to finance wider publishing; if they also offer outright commercial contracts then that’s fine by us – we consider such publishing houses to be legitimate, and in fact our South African partner P’kaboo falls into this category. However, our prime concern is to get commercial contracts with for our clients, and that’s what we’ll push for.
Publishers who charge ‘reading fees’.
Again, many publishing houses do offer other clearly defined services, such as reading agency or editorial services – that’s fine. For a publisher to charge simply for reading a submitted manuscript is another matter. It’s not something we like to see, even though some perfectly respectable publishing houses have been known to do it.
Publishers with genuine bad feedback from authors.
firstwriter.com gives authors the opportunity to comment on their dealings with any business that has an entry. We always look at those. It’s easy to dismiss those that simply display pique at rejection – many rejection slips are curt and that’s that, it goes with the territory – but other comments are very valuable in pointing out both problems and good points. It’s amazing how many ‘publishing houses’ there are out there that exist in name only, that seem to offer the chance of a commercial contract, but then send a rejection along with a suggestion that you try their ‘sister company’, which will always be a vanity publisher!
Publishers who expect authors to be pro-active in marketing and promotion.
This isn’t unreasonable, particularly for smaller presses. However it’s a matter of degree. Disabled authors, including one with ‘unseen disabilities’, or someone living remotely, are unlikely to be able to do much direct selling themselves. A few book-signings and readings are fairly standard, but we would discourage a client from committing to widespread travelling at his or her own expense. There’s nothing unreasonable about being asked by a small publisher how many of your own books you would be prepared to buy; being expected to buy a minimum, particularly if that ‘minimum’ is fairly large, is almost tantamount to vanity publishing, and should be approached carefully.
Publishers who reply to an email enquiry with an automatic “We do not accept submissions by email” message.
Yes, we get some like that, even were we to put “THIS IS NOT A SUBMISSION” in the subject box of our initial email! We make a note of publishers who don’t even read the first line of what they’re sent.
Strangely, publishers seem to be split evenly between those who don’t accept submissions by email and those who don’t accept hard copy. Each group has its own reasons (and they sound similar!), but when it comes down to it we wish those who don’t accept submissions by email would realise that this is the 21st century.
There are, of course, exceptions to all the above, and some set-ups suit some authors but not others. Mainstream publishers can’t afford to take on every hopeful author – probably less than 2% of everything submitted is published – and the other businesses are there to accommodate the 98%. Many authors decide to self-publish, and some do so quite successfully, which brings us on to another topic.
Do we represent books that have already been self-published?
We tend not to. That’s not an absolute, but by and large we see that a self-published book brings along its own problems. Most publishers, if they’re taking on new work, will prefer that it is entirely new. The sales figures from your self-published book are a two-edged sword. If they have been meager, then that is sometimes seen as an indication that the book is unsellable; if they have been comparatively large, then that is sometimes seen as eating too far into potential sales. It can be a lose-lose situation.
So please don’t expect miracles from us if we take on your work as a project, and don’t assume that if we report back to you that we’ve met with no success that means we haven’t been doing our job. Nothing could be further from the truth. Above all, be very proud of the fact that you have produced a book – a work of art, if you like.
firstwriter.com publish a couple of very interesting articles on how to spot a scam literary agent, and how to choose a good one. We don’t appear to tick any of the boxes in the first article, and only miss a few in the second, mainly because we’re not a ‘big’ agency. So far so good.