I realise that a lot of people who read this blog are writers or publishing types who have an expansive and detailed knowledge of the publishing industry. But I also have a lot of friends and family who don’t fully understand the process, so I thought a good blog topic would be to explain how a book gets to be published. That way, when I get rejections they can nod and tell me “well it’s a tough business” rather than look at me as if there must be something wrong with me.
So apologies if I’m going over information you already know here. Hopefully this will have some new insight for some of you.

So You Want To Write A Book
It’s said that just about everyone has wanted to write a book at some time or another. However, it’s one thing to want to write one, it’s another thing to be able to do it. And then to be able to do it well? Even some of the world’s best short story writers struggle with novels. For me, I’ve always been most at ease with novels, but that doesn’t mean it’s not been a massive undertaking.
Whilst there are programs such as NaNoWriMo which encourage people to write a 50,000 novel in a month, it’s a little more complicated than that. Most publishers are not going to take on anything under 80,000 words and anything over 150,000 words becomes troublesome to actually manufacture.
A big mistake a lot of people make is that those who actually finish writing a novel (it’s surprising how few that is – one final chapter left to write is still unfinished) think their work is done. Even the best writers need to go over what they have written and rewrite, redraft and gain others’ opinions.
The editing process probably takes longer than writing the actual novel itself and it’s common for a novel to go through several rounds of revision. At this stage it’s somewhat of a blessing to be an unpublished novelist as once you get a contract you’ll be expected to turn around a new book inside a year. The editing on my book took close to a year alone although a lot of the process was new to me and I believe future editing on books will take considerably less time.
Once the book is as good as it can be, it’s then time to try and find an agent.
So Why Do You Need An Agent?
It’s a complete oversimplification but an agent is something similar to a business manager. They handle a lot of the non-creative side of things such as contracts and foreign rights. They’re also a quality filter between new writers and publishing houses, in so much that many publishing house refuse to deal with unagented authors. If you want to get in with one of the major publishing houses your best bet is to do so through an agent.
The thing is with agents (and editors) is that they’re subjective. Even if you write well, have an interesting plot and well-rounded characters, it’s no guarantee. We’ve all read plenty of books (or watched films) that we’ve enjoyed but weren’t special to us. An agent is your biggest advocate and if they don’t love a book with a fanaticism they are not going to take you on. In that respect, it’s all a bit of a lottery. There are countless stories of writers who were rejected by loads of agents before getting a deal and going onto success. J K Rowling was one and Watership Down was also turned down a ridiculous number of times.
And it’s not that those agents that turned down Harry Potter or Watership Down were idiots. If it didn’t resonate with them, they were right to turn it down. You can’t be an effective spokesman if you don’t totally believe in the product.
This is the stage I’m currently at, sending manuscript samples to agents in the hope that it will pique the interest of one of them.
Why Not Self-Publish?
In recent years there has been a huge rise of self-published books. Print-on-Demand means that it’s easy and affordable for an author to run off just a handful of copies of their books. Gone are the days when the minimum number of copies you could order from a printer was a thousand or more. E-publishing has also had an impact. You don’t even need to print now. Using something about as complicated as a Microsoft wizard you can turn your story into an ebook and put it up for everyone to read.
For some, it’s their preferred option; cut out the middle-man and market to the customer direct. And I think for some projects with a potentially small but dedicated audience it’s ideal. No publisher is going to finance your book on the history of your village, but self-publishing provides the perfect avenue to get it into print.
When it comes to novels though, I have reservations. I’m not saying there haven’t been good self-published novels, but I think the majority have issues. You see, I think an editor is vital to the process. Part of me writes because I am a control freak, but at the same time I value the input of others. And I don’t just mean friends and colleagues but people who are paid to make the story everything it can be. Too often I’ve seen self-published ebooks that could have been good but lacked that vital critical input.
So whilst I’m not saying I’d never self-publish a book, for me my aim continues to be a contract with a major publisher. Why enter a competition and aim for second place?
Why Not Write What They Want?
I’ve come to understand where I sit in relation to my writing. I’m a fantasy writer but with a toe dipped into science fiction. There’s a part of me that loves the quest fantasy of old but wants to modernise it.
If you watched Game of Thrones on television you’ll see that fantasy has become very gritty in the last ten years. Magic is often minimal (or not there at all) and the magical races we’re used to from folklore and classic pieces of fantasy such as Lord of the Rings are no longer to be seen. I’m sure for many, Game of Thrones feels more like a historical drama than a fantasy.
At the same time, at the other end of the scale we’ve seen paranormal romances like True Blood and Twilight grow out of Buffy.
Both gritty fantasy and the paranormal romance are doing serious business in publishing at the moment but that shouldn’t mean I should start writing them.
First, if I started today it would take me at least several months to come up with the idea , plots and characters for the book. I then have to write and edit it. So it would probably be at least a year before it was with a publisher. It could easily take 9 months to a year for the publisher to decide they want it, and then a further year or more for it to be revised and polished for publication. So, you could reasonably be looking at publication in 2015… by which time the trends would have moved on.
Secondly, and most importantly, I truly believe you have to write a story you love. There are ways you can make your work more commercial but without getting all “arty” about it, I do think you lose some artistic vision in doing so. It’s a balancing act, but I honestly believe writing what you believe publishers want will just lead to sub-standard work.
So the alternative means you stick to what you want to do and hope someone likes it. It’s tough, because in taking risks in order to put your own stamp on the genre, there’s a strong risk that someone might not like it. It also makes you doubt yourself. You’re already dealing with those doubts about whether you can write or are as deluded as some of those auditionees on X-Factor who seem surprised they are rubbish. And then on top of that, you’re trying to deliver something different than what is on book shelves in the hope that it will appeal and stand out.
I cannot begin to tell you how difficult and doubt –ridden this is. It’s easier than it was for me, but there are still days when I question just what I am doing.
So Where Am I Now?
Well, the novel has been written. It’s been edited and I got a renowned author to professionally critique it for me. So the book is now done and I’m now at the stage where I am searching for an agent. The market is really, really tough right now so it’s a case of right book, right agent, right publisher, right time. I suspect that this will take me into next summer. It’s a case of perseverance.
In the meantime, I’m already working on other writing projects. My aim is to turn around these projects a lot, lot faster. It’s not unheard of writers completing several novels before finally selling one. In fact it’s very common. I think there’s that weird combination of someone growing into their style and the market shifting into alignment with it that means it sometimes takes a while for novelists to get a deal. In fact, there’s a joke in the industry that it take ten years to be an overnight success.
That said, I genuinely love my novel. I can honestly say that had this book been by another author, I would have been shouting about how great I thought it was. That’s all you can do really: write a novel that you are proud of and hope you can find an agent who thinks the same.