25 Apr 2011

Didn't You Get The Memo....A Newbies Guide to Book Publishing (part 1)

Hi everyone, hope you're having a good Easter Monday! After a long train journey home from Wales, I thought I'd do another Stuff-I've-learned-as-a-newbie post (see my blogging one here)....this time on what I know about the kerazzzzzzeeeee world of book publishing...

I decided to write this post because I used to work in bookselling and publishing. Not for a huge period of time granted, but just over five years in two internationally renowned publishers gave me a little insight into what happens in those ivory towers. So, I don’t make any great claims to know everything at all about publishing, this is just what I know and I thought I’d share it with you. As with any advice on the net, take it with a pinch of salt and a dash of common sense. Knowledge may be power but equally a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. So with that caveat, let us begin!

In my opinion informing yourself on the intricacies of the publishing world can be a big asset to a new/debut/wannabe author…. You might feel like finishing your ms/wip/greatest work of fiction is the hard bit over and done with, but in some ways your journey has just begun. Firstly, if you’re reading this and you’ve already gotten a book deal, many congratulations, that’s awesome – and indeed you may already know some of the below. On the other hand (like me) you might still be in your first draft but thinking ahead to submission and just feeling a little WTF about everything. In which case, this blog post might be helpful for you.

1) Money, money, money….
Okay, please don’t forget that, for better for worse, a publishing house is a ultimately, a business. If they buy a book, to a certain extent they are looking for a return on their investment. Admittedly they don’t always get it right, and they can afford to take a hit, but mostly they’re looking for books that will SELL. It might sound fairly obvious but remember this when you’re getting rejections, editorial criticism and so on, don’t take it personally. It’s the whole `business` thing coming into play. And ultimately the more you sell, the better for YOU – if you plan to make a living from this whole writing malarkey.

2) What flavour is your book?
It might sound like a total no-brainer but what is your book about? Have you got an elevator speech for it? If you can’t do this for your book, you need to be able to. I appreciate that not every book is classifiable or slots neatly into a genre – how else would we have gotten supernatural romance if not for Twilight + True Blood, or the boom in YA if not for genre busting novels like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. However, most books can – and do – fit roughly into a genre. So perhaps think about:
  • Where might your book sit in a bookstore? 
  • What sort of authors/reviewers would you want to write blurb for the jacket? 
  • What is your competition out there? (c’mon there’s gotta be someone!) 
  • What would the blurb on the back of your book say? 
This might seem initially challenging *but*, as I’ll come onto later, it’ll really help you when it comes to marketing and pitching your book. (NB not for your query letter though). It might also help you crystallize the core story of your book.

3) What the freakin frack is a list anyway?
A list (aka an imprint) is an individual part of a publishing house that publishes a particular genre or style of book. For example, Michael Joseph (Penguin) publishes commercial fiction/nonfic, Vintage (Random House) publishes literary fiction/non fiction, Dorling Kindersley (Penguin) publishes illustrated non fiction, Ebury Press (Ebury > Random House) publishes commercial non fiction (and now a little fiction).

Each imprint/list is a mini publishing house in its own right – who will target specific editors/agents/authors that fit with its ethos + `brand`. I would suggest perhaps looking at the many different imprints out there and kind of trying to get a feel for which one(s) your WIP might sit in or align itself with. Again this goes back to understanding what `flavour` your book is – it helps when an agent is pitching it.

4) How books get bought (roughly and in a dream world)
So someplace a poor, struggling author beavers away at their manuscript (perhaps in a candle-lit attic?). Eventually after many revisions, beta-reader comments and edits (which can be heart-breaking in themselves), the author psyches themselves up to write a query letter (and hopes that Janet Reid will not see it). Again after many revisions and edits of this also, the author then thumbs through their well worn copy of `THE ARTISTS AND WRITERS YEARBOOK` to find an agent that they hope might possibly, maybe represent them in the lottery that is manuscript submission. After kissing their laptop and every lucky item they possibly own, the (probably over-optimistic) author sends out the first of many query letters…. 

Sometime later, after the author has received enough rejection letters + emails to wallpaper their house (3 times), a long suffering and over-worked assistant plucks said query letter and sample chapters from the slush pile. Clasping the precious literature aloft, the lowly assistant enters the inner sanctum (ie the agent’s office) 

“Agent X, I have found it, the MS which shall make us rich beyond our wildest dreams. Do you think you could spare the time, busy as you are with 5-hour liquid lunches, parties and snorting coke off attractive editorial assistants, to look at it?” 

“Why yes I can lowly assistant, send it through – and then book me dinner at the Groucho, Ian, Salman, Margaret and Sebastian and I will dine there this evening.” 

Our bedraggled author duly goes for a meeting with Agent X “We likes your work dude, perchance I might submit it out to a few of those yonder publishing houses? The ones with the ivory towers….” 

The manuscript is packaged up and sent to several carefully selected commissioning editors across the town; within a week, not 1, not 2 but THREE houses are fighting over the great work and propose to take it into an acquisition meeting to see what those sharp of tooth and claw (sales teams) have to say…. after being convinced that the greatest-work-of-fiction does indeed have a place on bookshelves in shops across the land, the editor from publishing house number one gets back to Agent X....

"I believe, dear little author, that you now are the proud owner of a publishing deal......"

And after that they all lived happily ever after and danced off, into the sunset to the sound of cash tills ringing (but not before several rewrites, major plot restructures, 5 different title changes and 6 different jacket treatments)

Well - that's kind of how a book is bought, I think you get the gist....

5) Biggest bit of advice I can give a newbie writer….as a newbie writer.... 
This might seem a little hypocritical or patronising given I don’t even have a book deal yet or even a finished WIP but….the biggest advice I can give is DON’T STOP READING. Seriously, nothing compares to knowing your market inside out, understanding what works for other books (and what doesn’t work) and most importantly finding the motivation to keep writing – reading does this every time. Even when I did Nanowrimo in 2010 and hit my 50k deadline before 30th November, I was working full time, going rock climbing every Saturday (bloody husbando ) and yet I still managed to read around 6 books minimum that month. It is possible, you just have to make it so – oh and you might go a tiny bit insane too – no one warns you about that bit! So yes my advice is: 

Read lots, keep writing, don’t worry if you go a little insane. 

As ever thanks for reading, if you got this far, I hope that was interesting and piqued your interest.....the second half of the post will cover...
- Agents: just what exactly do they do?
- Jargon: what is an ISBN?
- Social media and self promotion
- Bookfairs and other party-like events that aren't
- Book covers + the urban legend that is `an author brand`

If you've got any questions or comments, please leave 'em below or tweet me @stupidgirl45

Thank you and goodnight

Stupidgirl has left the building

PS Have you checked out the blog's Facebook page?


  1. most definitely not a stupid girl..but only those true intellectual women can wear such a moniker with aplomb.

    great post. filled with book publishing knowhow and wanttoknowhow.

  2. Loved everything you said. Very authentic. but don't ALL agents require recommendations too? Don't they ask - Who sent you?....Which often means - Who's your 'cousin'? That seems to be the case here in the U.S. and Canada. Plus I kind of think that a nation capable of putting out something like The Tattler (not to mention other less lofty examples of tabloid journalism) is like-wise just as mercenary . So how do we go about (hororably) making friends in the business. THAT seems to be the $64,000 question........A very inspiring post, just the same!......Ever miss that world?...Jeez! How could you help it??

  3. Great post! But consider the revolution. E Pubbing is taking off. The list makers are losing control. Check out JA Konraths blog. I am an scented upublished writer who's been considered by the big six. I got tired of waiting and e-pubbed it now IRS selling. People are reading. This post is great and IRS relevant to the revolution. Now we are the publishers. Swing by NickColeBooks.com and say hi. Keep posting.

  4. Great post! You said something very important for newbies: keep on reading!

    In my opinion, it's very important to know what sells and what doesn´t but at the end of the day, a writer should be honest with his/her work.

    Take care,

  5. Hello lovelies, sorry for the slight delay in responding to your comments. Working backwards....

    Stilleto - I agree, I think keep on reading so you know what works but also keep on reading because you love it! There's so much good stuff out there, it's not always about the market so much as reading for pleasure - and writing shouldn't take that away....

    Nick Cole - thanks for your comments!I am not sure what I think about e-pubbing yet as I've only read a couple of e-published books and I could tell, if that makes sense. I can see the place for e-pubbing but I think I'm going to do a blog post to encourage some debate around this. I think it's quite a black + white argument at the minute....and will check out your site for sure!

    Will - yes and no in terms of nepotism. I think it depends what department you go into in publishing! I worked in sales which is seen as the less glamorous side (IMO). Do I miss it? No. in a word! I miss the free books and reading manuscripts and meeting hugely famous authors but I don't miss the pressure at all. It's a very tough, poorly paid industry. It is rewarding but after a long hard slog and I wasn't ready to commit to that. A lot of people love it though, so maybe it's just me!

    Thea - wow, thank you very kind of you to say so xx

    Thanks for taking the time to comment + read everyone