To the average writer, the publishing industry may as well be fairyland. It’s easy to imagine that publishers are faceless gatekeepers that only care about what sells. But that’s totally not true. Most of the time, publishers are truly passionate about writing and writers, and they’d love to give your manuscript a chance—as long as you approach them in the right way.
Because most writers don’t know a lot about the industry, it’s easy to believe things that aren’t necessarily true. Here are six myths that people commonly believe about the publishing industry that could actually damage your chances of getting published.
It’s impossible to get published without an agent.
In Australia, agents totally aren’t compulsory, and whether you get one is up to you. Many successful writers don’t have agents, or didn’t get them until later in their careers. Having an agent does have its benefits, but several of them (such as contract negotiation) can actually be done on a consulting basis for a set fee if the author does not find the right match or only plans to publish one book.
Agents are essentially career partners. When they take on a new writer, generally they have the view that it will be a long-term relationship. Other than pitching to publishers and negotiating contracts, agents will search for other money-making opportunities for the writer, such as speaking engagements, be a sounding board for the author when thinking strategically about their writing and their career, and some may even assist with the development of the manuscript.
That being said, it’s totally possible to get published without an agent, and even without hiring a consultant! Australia has several organisations that act as advocates for writers, which you can go to for support or for a contract assessment, and most of our publishing industry accepts unsolicited submissions.
Breaking submission guidelines will make my manuscript stand out.
This is almost always a no! Publishers set their submission guidelines for a reason. Many receive hundreds of manuscripts a year, so if you’d like them to truly consider your work, it’s best to respect their requests. If you can’t take the time to double space your manuscript, why should they strain their eyes trying to read it?
The best writing shouldn’t have to rely on gimmicks, like scented paper (looking at you, Elle Woods) or strange fonts. If you’re confident in your writing, let it stand on its own merits. This will also show the publisher that you’re courteous, pay attention to detail, and have actually looked at their website, which can only be a good thing.
Another thing is to be careful that the publisher actually publishers manuscripts like yours. Sending a sci-fi manuscript to a literary fiction editor isn’t a good idea—if they don’t publish your genre, they don’t have expertise in publishing your genre. They may be missing important contacts, or be unfamiliar with tropes, or not understand the market you’re trying to reach. For your sake (and theirs), only submit your work to publishers who work in your genre.
Agents and publishers don’t read unsolicited submissions.
Again, wrong! As long as you submit within their guidelines (noting that some publishers only accept unsolicited submissions on certain dates), most publishers in Australia do read unsolicited submissions, and do encourage writers to submit. Penguin Random House actually has a monthly meeting where everyone in the organisation goes through the manuscripts in the slush pile. It can be a little bit harder to get published, but if your writing is truly great and it is right for the editor reading it, it will stand out.
Writing an excellent query letter and synopsis is essential here, as well as making sure that your manuscript is truly developed. If you’re unsure whether you’re ready to submit, contact your state writers centre to see if there are any development programs you can apply for or if you can get a manuscript assessment. Look at joining a writer’s group, or go to workshops. There are lots of ways of getting feedback on your writing, which will either show you what you need to work on, or give you the confidence to move forward.
Self-publishing is the easier option.
Self-publishing is a huge investment, and you should be really sure that it’s the right step for you before getting started. It is really like starting a small business, and there’s a lot of work involved. All the stuff that a publisher would normally do falls to you, including editing, designing, printing, distributing, marketing and selling. You need to be sure that you can do all of these things sufficiently, and that you won’t be losing money in the process.
Particularly important here is the distribution: you should have a plan of where your book will be sold and how it will get there before you invest any money. Especially when self-publishing a print book, this is the area where many authors struggle. Even Hugh Howey made a deal with a publisher for the print edition of his books. That’s not to say it isn’t possible – many independent bookstores stock local self-published authors, and some distributors may be willing to work with you.
But, before you spend any money, beware of vanity presses and publishing scams! Always be very sure of what you’re spending money on, and what you will receive in return. If you’re paying someone to do a service for you, such as editing your work or marketing your book, take a look at the projects they’ve worked on previously beforehand.
Agents and publishers are terrifying beasts that cannot be approached.
Publishers are more accessible than ever, and most love talking to writers—especially if they’re at a writing event, like a festival or workshop. Having the courage to chat to a publishing professional at an event could get you a business card, some sage advice, or the chance to submit.
They’re just people who love books. Nowadays, it’s ridiculously easy to connect with publishers. Between Twitter, easily guessable email addresses, writing events and conferences, it’s easy to reach out to professionals from all over the industry.
As always, it’s important to be professional and polite. Make sure to respect their time. If they’re on the phone or eating their lunch, it’s probably better to wait. Don’t demand they read your manuscript or tell them that you’re the next J. K. Rowling. Perfect your elevator pitch, chat to them about their work and the kinds of things they publish, and ask them any questions you have about the publishing industry.
If an editor doesn’t publish my work, that means that it wasn’t good enough.
There are many reasons that writing gets rejected, even good writing. Editors don’t usually get the final say on what they publish—often they have to pitch the manuscript to representatives from every department in the publisher. They have to convince their colleagues that each manuscript is the most viable for the current market, and that’s not always possible.
Keep in mind that publishers aren’t gods of taste. Every publisher has passed on something fantastic, whether it be because they weren’t in the right mood when they read it, there wasn’t room in their list, they weren’t sure how to sell it, or it just wasn’t right for them. And many bestselling writers weren’t accepted at the first place they submitted to.
Don’t take rejection personally. Do take a step back to look at your manuscript with fresh eyes, and do what you can to get feedback on your writing to make sure it is the best it can be, but don’t let it fester. Often the best thing to do is just to send it out again to someone new.