Sending it off
This is the only hard-and-fast rule Im going
to give you, as opposed to advice which you can take or not, as
you wish. The penalty for disobeying it can be as harsh as having
to rewrite from memory every word of your seven-hundred-and-fifty-page
potential Booker/Pulitzer Prize winner, so read my lips.
EVER SEND YOUR ONLY COPY OF ANYTHING AT ALL TO ANYONE
Got that? Publishers and
agents take care of the manuscripts they receive, but accidents
happen, and the post is fallible. Always, always, keep a
copy, whether its on paper or disk. And dont trust your
computer to keep it safe, either a power surge destroyed
my hard disk, and one could destroy yours.
So - who should you send it off to? Well, either a publisher
or an agent, so lets take a look at them.
Fewer and fewer publishers
accept unsolicited manuscripts, and those who do receive hundreds,
which go into what they call the slush-pile, so dont expect
an answer too soon. If you want acknowledgment of receipt, send
a stamped addressed postcard, and you might get one.
Some will only consider
manuscripts submitted by an agent, and well look at agents
next, but for the moment well stay with publishers who do
read unsolicited manuscripts.
Some accept the first two
or three chapters as a submission, and some prefer to have the whole
novel. Some prefer to have a query letter beforehand, and some dont
want to know about query letters. None of them wants e-mail queries.
In the UK, you can find out which publishers want what by looking
up their entries in the Writers and Artists Yearbook or the
Writers Handbook see What books do I need?
These entries will also
tell you if the publisher is interested in your kind of work; there
is little point in sending a novel to a publisher that specialises
in non-fiction. You can also check in the library for books of a
similar nature to yours, and see who publishes them.
The query/covering letter
should say quite simply that you have written a novel about such-and-such,
and would they like to read it? Only give information about yourself
if it is pertinent if youve written a novel about spying
in Russia, and you are/were a spy, or if you have been previously
published, theyll be interested. Otherwise, just tell them
your name, address and telephone number, and send them return postage.
Thats all they need to get back to you.
When your manuscript is
received, it will go into the publishers slush-pile where,
one day, someone will pick it up and start to read it. If he reads
a good opening, he will read on. If he likes what he reads, he will
put the manuscript on another, much smaller pile, to go out to a
publishers reader or readers, who will read the whole thing,
and if it is recommended by these readers, the commissioning editor
will read it. But even if he likes it, there is still no guarantee
of publication; there are many factors to be considered, and first
novels in particular are a gamble for publishers. Be prepared for
disappointment, even if after all that you are turned down.
If it has gone that far
through the system, you have written a good novel; just pack it
up, and send it off to the next publisher on your list. Remember
- even Harry Potter was rejected.
If it doesnt get
that far, it doesnt mean you have necessarily written a bad
novel, but it could perhaps be improved. If you are given any advice
about where you are going wrong, by all means kick the furniture
and call the publishers idiots for failing to see your genius, but
after youve done that, think about what theyve said,
and see if perhaps you should act on it before sending it out again.
The preliminaries are the
same as those for a publisher; agents too have entries in the books
mentioned, and will say what their requirements are and what sort
of books they agent. It is usual to send a query letter first.
The good news is that if
an agent agrees to read your manuscript, then thats what he
or she will do, and it will get read sooner and with less haste
than if it had been picked off the slush-pile. The bad news is that
some agents charge for this service, and some wont read unsolicited
manuscripts at all. Finding an agent can be more difficult than
finding a publisher.
But if an agent reads and
likes your manuscript, he or she may agree to take you on, and that
would give you a distinct advantage. Agents know the markets, have
the contacts, and will have publishers who trust their judgment
and are prepared to give serious, thorough (though not necessarily
very speedy) consideration to work submitted through them.
Agents, however, dont
have magic wands, so dont expect miracles, even if you do
get taken on. Newspaper stories about big-money auctions for first
novels are news because, like hurricanes in Hampshire, they hardly
ever happen. Just take heart from the thought that someone out there
believes in you and your work, and will be doing his or her damnedest
to find it a home.