3. Approaches to publishing

There is no ‘correct’ way to get published. There is no ‘formula for success’ – if there were, we’d all use it and we’d all be rich and famous authors, wouldn’t we?


Yes, there are traditional approaches to publishing, but it’s clear that things in the publishing industry are changing quickly. There is much more access and opportunity for first-time authors than ever before, but the routes in are less prescribed, obvious and signposted than they once were. In some ways publishing is more democratic than previously, but in other ways it’s more of an ugly fight. You will hear of first-timers becoming an overnight success, you will hear of first-timers being ripped off by unprincipled vanity publishers.


For what it’s worth, here is my experience. Here is what I know…


  1. The traditional approach to getting published is to send the first three chapters of your novel, a synopsis and a covering letter to a load of publishers. To find a complete list of publishers, you should consult the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (click on the ‘UK publishers and agents’ link to the right). Alternatively, if you just want publishers of fantasy, check the listing I’ve done on this site, complete with notes. Unfortunately, not all publishers accept ‘unsolicited manuscripts’ from unpublished authors, as the publishers do not  want to be inundated with thousands of manuscripts a week.
  2. What a number of publishers have (cleverly) done is shift all the work of sifting through manuscripts to literary agents. Many publishers now only accept new submissions from literary agents. Any other publishers that you find are likely to be either ‘small/independent presses’ (such as NewCon Press, Telos, Screaming Dreams, TTA Press and Subterranean Press for scifi/fantasy), self-publishing organisations or dodgy outfits.
  3. The question then becomes ‘How do I get an agent?’ Again, check out the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. You’ll find that agents (like publishers) specialise in particular genres. You should send your three chapters (etc) to all those who specialise in your genre. But don’t expect an answer quickly cos they get hundreds a week. If you’re a first time author, your chances of getting noticed are remote indeed. So what else can you try? Well…
  4. To quote the central sci-fi buyer for one of the national book chains: ‘”Publish-on-demand” and “self-published” are no longer dirty words in publishing.’ If you’re a first-timer, definitely consider the publish-on-demand (POD) option. What does that mean? Well, basically, there are loads of online businesses (e.g. Lulu) who will host your book, allow online customers to make an online payment and then send them a bound copy of your book. The online business will either charge you for editing and hosting your book or take a good chunk of every customer payment (and sometimes they will do both).
  5. The question might then be ‘Which POD publisher should I choose?’ Well, it depends what you want to achieve. If you just want to sell a few dozen copies to friends and family, then go with the cheapest you can find. If you want to get your book into book stores, you need to find a POD publisher who can offer that sort of distribution and will organise ISBNs for your titles. They will of course charge you for that sort of thing.
  6. Okay, so you’ve got your novel on loads of websites and in the odd book store. What do you do then? How do you ‘go national’? What you have to do is start phoning round book stores (asking for the store buyer for your genre or the manager) and saying, ‘Hi, I’m an author. My latest novel is on your website, it’s in your store in such-and-such-a-place, I’m local and I’m available to do book signings’. [Update, 2013: this approach is far more difficult now than it once was, as the credit crunch sees stores increasingly ‘risk averse’ when it comes to self-published books.]
  7. Store managers will then start asking where they should order the book from. You need to be ready with the answer to that question. You need to quote an ISBN for your titles first of all. Then, you either need to give your publisher’s details or you need to know whether your publisher distributes through Gardner’s, Betram’s or Ingram’s. (Best not to get into a situation where you’re supplying stores yourself – unless it’s for a big signing or something.)
  8. Make sure you start with local stores – they’re always more inclined to take a risk on you cos they know your friends and family will come in to buy the book (and the local press are always happy to publicise such a signing). When you’ve had a bit of success with such stores, you can then start targeting stores in bigger cities and saying, ‘My latest novel is on your website, it’s in this-many-of-your-stores-across-the-country, and I’m available to do book signings.’
  9. Once you’re in more than a dozen stores of any book chain, you’re then ready to get onto their national/central buyers to see if they’ll agree to a central order.
  10. Once you’ve sold 1000 copies of your book (or around 100 copies a month are being sold), you’ll find that most major publishers and agents are suddenly interested in you – simply because they can make money out of you. Why 1000 copies? It’s simply the unwritten rule of the publishing industry. It’s the point at which a book begins to cover all of its costs and move into profit. Then, boys and girls, you’re ready for the big time. Try and get the holy grail of writing: a three-book-deal contract.
  11. Consider attending a national scifi/fantasy conference, as you can network with agents, publishers, authors, fellow-enthusiasts, merchandisers and so on. You will get the opportunity to pitch to the odd agent and publisher, so go armed with samples of your books, business cards and a well-rehearsed sales pitch…oh, and a pen. Where to start? Well, I have considerately made a comprehensive list of conventions for you here.
  12. If you’ve read as far as here, you will probably be thinking, ‘What about e-books, Amazon’s Kindle device and the Sony e-reader?’ Yes, they allow aspiring authors to publish online directly (direct publishing). If you have the technical savvy to get your work onto one of these platforms (or the funds to pay someone to get the work up there for you), you can generate income and sales stats relatively easily. Be warned, though, that direct publishing doesn’t really sort you out with ISBNs and hard copies. Still, with good e-sales stats, major publishers might be interested in publishing your work in hard copy, etc. Treat this approach as just one tactic, however. I would recommend trying the more traditional ones as well. 


Be warned: it’s not at all glamorous. Giving up umpteen Saturdays to do book signings, only making enough on the books to cover your train fare and coffee – you do well if you don’t lose money. But every copy gets you closer to that 1000. And then you do get to meet some lovely people who really enjoy your book. You might even get fan mail. You see your book on a shelf. Your mum’s proud. And then (and this is the bottom line), any author will tell you that they don’t do it for either the fame or fortune. They do it because it’s a calling. They do it because it’s in their blood. They do it because they have to.


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7 comments on “3. Approaches to publishing

      • Hi Charlie!

        1. I tend to use a cover artist, who charges about £100 for the cover. I get them to do the book title on top of the art, too. You want them to provide a high-res (DPI – dots per square inch) image, obviously. Also, the art needs to have a fairly simple layout with high contrast, since it needs to work as a thumbnail image online.
        2. The WOMBO art (https://www.wombo.art/) website lets you produce your own image.
        3. A friend of mine puts out a ‘design brief’ to a particular artists’ online community and sees who wants the commission and what price they choose.
        4. It is standard that artists will keep redoing the artwork till you’re satisfied with it.
        5. Do understand, though, that the art will never 100% match your vision. So always ask yourself a) would I pick up a book with that cover? b) would I then buy it? If you get two ‘yes’ answers in your head, it’s good enough.
        6. People DO judge books by their covers – remember that.
        7. There is ‘open source’ artwork out there you can use for free in return for a brief acknowledgement within the book.
        8. Don’t mistreat your artist for short-term gain – artists generally make even less than the writer, and you may want to stay on good terms with a particular artist so they will do your whole book trilogy and so on. GOOD artists are NOT ten a penny.
        9. In terms of composition, you should try to have a human face or emotionally positioned figure – it improves the viewer’s emotional engagement with the image, often. It’s something to do with child psychology, and the desire to recognise the parental face when infants, blah blah.
        10. The dramatic composition of book covers is its own discipline – you want a concentration of image towards the centre point, obviously, but a margin and space for the title at the same time.


  1. Thank you so much for this advice.
    My daughter Anya is only 8 years old. She loves to read and has a very imaginative mind.
    One day she wrote a short story completely off her own back and you know what, apart from being a biased parent. It was very good.
    So I just wanted to see if and how I could possibly get it published. It might turn into nothing. But I am a great believer in, if you don’t try you’ll never know.
    Where do I start. How do I start. Is it easy or difficult to do.

    Thanks in advance.

    Richard Ordman

    • Hey Richard
      Where you start is by asking your daughter’s school – there are various writing competitions for your daughter’s age group, etc. If the school is no use, then search online for age-specific competitions. The best site to guide you in that respect is http://www.booktrust.org.uk (as it’s reputable).
      Good luck!

  2. Hi Richard

    My son graduated from University with a Degree in Creative Writing last year, and is realising how hard it is to get work as a writer, particularly fantasy genre fiction!! He is part way through his first novel, has lots of poetry finished, and we are both trawling through the internet for advice and info. Your website is fantastic, so much really useful and practical advice. He is working on his ‘lift pitch’ and killer covering letter and hoping to submit something to agents asap. My husband and I are not familiar at all with the publishing world and authors like yourself ,who are willing to share their tips and tricks, are like gold dust. Thanks again, much appreciated.

    Lisa Simmons

    • Hi Lisa
      Good to hear from you. My name’s Adam, by the way, as in A J Dalton.
      Poetry? Hmm. It’s the smallest selling type of literature in the world. No one except the Poet Laureate can make a living from poetry… and, even then, the Laureate (with whom I’ve worked, incidentally) has to teach on the side to make ends meet.
      On average, fulltime authors make less than £11K per year (official industry stat). Therefore, you will see that only household names can treat writing as their main job.
      If your son is an aspiring writer, his writing needs to be a hobby initially. He needs to have an alternative source of income until he’s had at least three novels published with a mainstream publisher.
      Trust me, I’ve been there and back again.
      Best wishes
      Dr Adam Dalton-West

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