Writing: we’re all at it in these locked down days. Here’s how to see your work in print.

For some people, lockdown has meant slowing down. Not so literary agents or publishers. For, over the past year, both have reported a huge rise in submissions landing in their inboxes, all to be read and deliberated over. And it stands to reason. The old adage goes that everyone has a book in them and, whether or not the reliably acerbic Christopher Hitchens’ take that ‘Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay’ was right, we’ve nonetheless all been putting pen to paper with fresh fervour since lockdown began.

Whether it’s a passion project, a memoir, a history or a novel you’ve been burning to share, there is more than one way to get your book out there. Here’s what you need to know.

The Traditional Route

If you’ve dreamt not only of writing a book, but of seeing it gracing the tables of mainstream outlets such as Waterstone’s, then it is wise to start with the traditional route. We caveat this advice by cautioning that the competition is very, very fierce. On the flipside, if you never try, you’ll never know; indeed, many of the writers we now revere once started out by thumbing hopefully through the pages of Writers And Artists Yearbook (more on which later).

What Is A Literary Agent And How Do I Find One?

Literary agents are the gatekeepers and, for traditional publishing – which is to say, getting your book out with a major household name publisher – it is essential to have one. As with publishers, there are major literary agencies, such as Curtis Brown; much smaller boutique operations; and everything in between.

The first thing to do, as every good writer knows, is to research. The best way to do this is to get your hands on a copy of the aforementioned Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook 2021. It contains huge amounts of valuable advice from major literary figures – from agents to publishers to established writers – as well as a comprehensive, up-to-date list of every agency in the land, with a brief overview of the sort of projects they take on. There’s no point, for example, in sending your psychological suspense thriller to an agent who deals primarily in, say, first-person memoir, literary fiction, self-help books, or children’s literature. Once you’ve identified a few likely candidates, hop onto their websites to find out if they are currently open to submission, and to pore over the details of what they’re actively excited to receive right now.

As an alternative, do peruse this exceptionally useful and up-to-date list from Jericho Writers; sign up for a seven-day free trial to find what you’re looking for.

Why do you need an agent? Any agent worth their salt will know the editors in their field exceptionally well (and be aware, there are some charlatans out there, on which note, do know that no proper agent will ever ask for any money until they have sold your book). They are intimately familiar with editors’ tastes and will take writers on on the basis that they are pretty confident in who might buy their work.

For their trouble, expect to part with 15 per cent of any advance and/or royalties with them. And once your career is underway, they should be a sounding board for ideas for future projects; deal with TV and sometimes with press enquiries for clients; advocate for you; and negotiate the best deals with publishers on your behalf.

How To Get An Agent

Having an agent sounds pretty great, no? Well yes. But can also be hard to get one. If you have a strong contact, that may help to get your project onto the right desk and thus give it a fair hearing, but ultimately no agent is going to take you on that basis alone unless, for example, you happen to be extremely high profile already (it is, alas, the way of the world).

Most established agents receive between fifteen to twenty submissions a day – more depending on the agency. Of those, many agents will take on just three or four writers a year. The odds are, then, not good; do not be disheartened by rejections. They are more likely than not and, in many cases, are not an indictment of your work, but simply a case of limited capacity; being too similar to another client; or not fitting well enough on their list.

But on the positive side, some rejections – at least if there was a kernel of interest – will contain some feedback that you can use before submitting further (it is, therefore, important not to send out a hundred submissions in a day – not least because it’s exhausting). Feedback is, of course, just a matter of opinion, but if two or more agents give the same criticism, the likelihood is that they have a point.

Carefully check each agent’s guidelines for submissions. Most, however, will want your first three chapters (do note that you do need to have finished the book; if they do ask to read the rest of the manuscript, you do not want to have nothing to send). They will also want a synopsis of the story – factual, no cliff-hangers, not overly detailed – and a cover letter. In the latter, explain clearly and briefly what your book is about; how many words it is (generally speaking, few agents want anything over 120,000 words for fiction); why you’re the person to have written it; where it would fit in the current market; and why you’re sending it to them. Do, then, take time to research their other writers, say what you like about them and what might make you a good fit for their list.

The Non-Traditional Route: Self-Publishing

Self-publishing used to be a term uttered amid snorts of derision in bookish circles. No longer (ever heard of GP Taylor, the rights of whose self-published book, Shadowmancer, were bought for $4m to make a Hollywood movie?). There are many routes to go down, from crowd-fundeding to the straight-forward self-publishing to hybrid models.

Start Off With Good Advice

The world of self-publishing can be confusing. It is well worth a visit to ALLi Self-Publishing Advice Centre before you do anything. Here, self-published writers dish out their wisdom to those who want to carve their own path. As it says, ‘Here in the advice centre, you’ll find a daily blog, bi-weekly podcast, ratings of self-publishing services, contests and awards and a bookshop where you can purchase ALLi books directly from us, or from your favourite online retailer. Our #AskALLi campaign pledges to answer any self-publishing question any author might have–and this self-publishing advice center supports that aim. Just enter the keywords of your question into our search box to find all the authoritative advice you need.’ There’s also a great weekly podcast to tune into.

Self-Publishing Sites

Websites dedicated to self-publishing abound. If you’re looking for direct, no frills stuff, look no further than Create Space, an offshoot of Amazon, through which you can upload your work to made into a Kindle Book. It has a preview tool which allows you to get feedback on work, and its vast community is great for networking.

Lulu is another great option. Founded in 2002 after its founder had a bad experience trying to get his own book published, it is responsible for literally millions of publications. You can create, publish and sell your book through the site, and the fact that you do much of the work yourself keeps costs down.

Kindle Direct Publishing. Name recognition is all, right? Who hasn’t heard of Kindle, another one under the Amazon umbrella? As they say, it takes less than five minutes to get your digital book uploaded, after which it will appear in Kindle stores worldwide in 24 to 48 hours. You keep control of your rights and the price you sell for. Not bad, eh?

As a self-published author, you must produce the final draft, pay for the design, marketing, and distribution of your book. Do also note, that unless you pay for it, you will not work with an editor, which is usually considered vital even for long-established authors. However, you also keep all the royalties from your book. For more advice on self-publishing, do consult our feature which outlines all the best sites to work with.

Hybrid Publishing

What is a hybrid publisher? These are a newer phenomenon and, as such, encouter some suspicion in the industry. The idea is that these publishing houses occupy the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing, incurring some financial risk from the author but also shouldering some of it themselves. Whereas traditional publishers pay their authors in the region of ten per cent of royalties, having shouldered one hundred per cent of the financial burden, and self-published writers take all of the financial risk themselves and therefore take all royalties from sales of their books, hybrid books are somewhere in between. The thing to watch out for is the ratio – do make sure it is one you are happy with. Do note that this model does not, unlike with traditional publishing, guarantee that your book will make it into the book shops.

One such company is The Book Guild Ltd, which publishes both mainstream and co-funded books. They say, ‘We have an eclectic offering, publishing around a hundred new quality titles a year, under both traditional and partnership (co-funded) publishing models. We pride ourselves on publishing quality books, and on offering an efficient and friendly service to our authors, both established and new.’

Crowd-funded Books

Unbound is the major go-to publisher of crowd-funded books. Unlike self-publishing, there is an editorial process to go through; only those that meet high standards will make the cut. Authors then crowd-fund to create truly beautiful books (Shaun Usher’s gorgeous Letters of Note is, for example, one of theirs). They say: ‘Our crowdfunding model shifts the balance of power into your hands, and gives great ideas a way of making their mark on the world. Find a project that you love, and actually help make it happen. At the heart of Unbound is a vibrant community pulling together to make great things happen. Our community suggest features, test prototypes and give us constant feedback so we can make Unbound the best it can possibly be.’ The brainchild of the brilliant John Mitchinson, who helped to found the TV show QI and was Waterstone’s first marketing director, Unbound has been responsible for award-winners and bestsellers.

By Nancy Alsop
February 2021

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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.