Wednesday 19 August 2009


This evening, in the Edinburgh Book Fest, I'm doing my talk on "how to make a publisher say yes". And I decided to put the bare bones of it below, or at least to try to decipher my notes and then turn them into something that will make sense to you.

I've done the apparently same talk for four years now, but each time I say it differently. Each time, I guess I've learnt more in the meantime. Each year, I throw my notes away because I know I'll do it differently next time.

So, this was how I structured my talk for this evening. I'm sorry you're not there, but you at least have the luxury of being able to relax with wine / chocolate while you're reading it. On the other hand, you don't get to experience my shoes. And, writing this as I am a week ago, I can't predict which shoes they'll be, so spontaneous am I.

WHY DOES CRAP GET PUBLISHED? (I won't use the word crap, because you can't do that in front of a captive audience, some of whom have only come in out of the rain and weren't expect the crabbit old bat to be so rude).

This is the question that frustrated aspiring authors ask. Understandably. The answer is simple: crap sells. Every published book is a book the publisher thought would sell. And, since crap sells in shedloads, you have to admit they were very often right.

Getting angry about why crap sells will get you nowhere. Besides, you're not here because you write crap and want to sell it. You're here because you think you've written something damned good and you're wondering what on earth you have to do to sell it.

I can't (or not here) teach you how to write, but I can show you the most common things people do wrong.

The awfulness of the slush pile is reassuring - it means that good stuff shines. When an agent or publisher sees a jewel in a pile of crap, he will leap on it with enthusiasm and is quite happy to get his hands dirty in his efforts to retrieve that shiny jewel and clean it up so that the world can see its beauty.

Because the second comforting thought is: publishers and agents are desperate to find good books, great books, books that readers will love. If your book is good, they want you.

It's easy to get published: you just have to write the right book at the right time and send it to the right publisher at ther ight time in the right way.

BUT, in order to do that
  • you must understand what makes a right book
  • you must understand how publishing works, how commercial decisions are made
  • you must know (and obey) the rules for submitting your work

"How to make a publisher say yes" is not the best question.
The best question is "why do publishers usually say no?"

One reason only: they think they can't sell it. (If your rejected book goes on to be published elsewhere and even be a huge success, that does not mean that the rejectors were wrong. They may well not have been able to sell it, for reasons which you'll find below.)

Before we proceed, you need to understand about the ACQUISITIONS MEETING (AM). (Blog-readers, go here; people in audience, sit back and listen.)

These fall in two categories.
  1. Publisher-related - not in your power to fix
  2. Book / author-related - your job to fix
1. PUBLISHER-RELATED (If even one of these three things applies to your book, it will not get through the AM.
  1. book doesn't fit their list or their publishing schedule is genuinely too full. It might not fit their list because they've already contracted something too similar; or they've decided not to handle fairy books any more (thank the Lord). If it doesn't fit the list because they don't handle this stuff, that's your silly fault for not researching, but there are many other reasons that you had no way of knowing
  2. the necessary investment is too great. Publishers have to pay a load of money months and years before they have a chance of recouping it. They have to budget and if your fabulous wizard series comes along when they don't have the required budget to invest in it over many years, they should not take it on and you would not (should not) want them too
  3. the editor is not in love with your book. This may be because the book isn't good enough (in which case it's your problem) but it may be simply personal taste. Don't underestimate the importance of that. Liking or admiring a book is not an exact science. Hell, it's not even a science at all. And the editor must love your book otherwise she/he won't fight for it.
  1. The writing is not good enough - punctuation, grammar and basic techniques mark you as someone in control of words or not; you cannot expect the editor to overlook these; voice, pace and structure are essential to powerful story-telling and readable non-fiction; are you thinking of your reader at all times and have you avoided over-writing? (Those are the commonest faults which will make the publisher / agent say no)
  2. Book is not marketable, even though the writing may be good enough - publishers have to make money (they may make mistakes but they are doing it with their money); you need a HOOK - the hook needs to grab the Sales and Marketing team at the AM; you must understand the current market - read current successes in your genre and read them analytically. This does not mean selling out; it does not mean putting commericality before art: it means thinking of your readers
  3. Your submission is faulty - (there are loads of posts on this blog about submissions, so I won't go on about it here too much but here are the absolute bare bones and most common errors:
  • obey guidelines for each individual agent / publisher
  • write the perfect covering letter (a new post is coming up on 22nd August, during my workshop on The Perfect Approach) - you have 15 seconds to sell yourself
  • don't do anything wacky or cool
  • don't boast; don't say your kids / friends love it
  • show knowledge of the market and willingness to work hard for long term career
  1. every sentence counts and every word within that sentence must earn its place
  2. think of your reader
  3. read within your genre - but read like a writer
  4. miss no opportunity to improve your knowledge of the industry
  5. be very careful whose feedback you believe and whose you ignore. Believe experts before friends and writing group members
Instead of believing that you are hard-done-by and wrongly ignored or that publishers are stupid, accept that the likely reason is that you haven't yet written the right book well enough. Yet ...

FINALLY - regard the rejection of your book as the rejection of your book. Not the rejection of you. Write another one. Because if you can't write another one, you can't be a writer anyway.

(And then, after illuminating questions from the audience, the event chairperson thanks me for being so interesting and everyone flocks to the signing tent where they buy copious quantities of my book and we staying signing and chatting and generally bonding for about half an hour. Then, the chairperson escorts me across the summer evening grass towards the calming cavern of the Yurt, where I strengthen myself with a glass of wine and some dinky sandwiches and pastries. I then go out to dinner with my husband, older daughter and her French boyfriend and younger daughter who is working in the bookshop [putting my books face-out] and I tell them how a very kind blog-reader brought me chocolate and that three people commented on my shoes.)

I'll tell you if it happens like that.


Suzanne Jones said...

Thank you for posting this. Couldn't make this event, but I will be there to comment on your shoes at The Perfect Approach on Saturday. Can't wait.


Teresa Stenson said...

Really great post.


I blame you, entirely, for me having eaten a big piece of chocolate fridge cake as I read it. I already had a glass of wine, and had decided (powerfully) not to bother with chocolate tonight.

Then I read the word 'chocolate' next to the word 'wine' and realised it must be a sign.

Went to fridge and cut a piece of cake in half. Ate it on way back to computer. Sat down. Got up and went back to fridge for remaining half slice of chocolate cake. Ate it on way back to computer.

Entirely your doing.

(Great post though, thanks for posting. Hope it went well.)

Sam B said...

Hi Nicola,

I just got back from seeing your talk so thought I'd give some feedback.

Overall - I thought it was pretty good, and covered most things you'd want to know to start off.

I've been doing a lot of research on the topic, and therefore, I don't think there was an awful lot I didn''t already know, but there were some useful points including the "aquisition" meeting, and that you should always send the first 2/3 chapters, rather than 2/3 random chapters (for some reason this isn't always specified in submission guidelines.)

I thought you handled the questions brilliantly - I did feel a bit sorry for that old chap from South Africa (or was it Rhodesia?)!

One thing you didn't cover which I would be interested to know more about is: how much will your ability/willingness to help market your book be seen as a positive criteria to an publisher?

For example if you have experience in marketing (your job) and you're already up on blogging, websites, twittering (or is that tweeting), Facebook etc... should all this be mentioned in the proposal - or is that all the job of the marketing team anyway?



Sally Zigmond said...

I wish I'd been there. Your blog post is perfect. I'm sure the talk was even better. What shoes did you wear? What did you do to that poor South African man Sam B mentioned.

I think we should know.

Jane Smith said...

I wish I'd been there too: I'd have heckled from the back and pelted you with chocolates.

Joking aside, this is an excellent post and one I wish I'd written. Again. I hope you're now enjoying a lovely dinner with your family, having sold lots and lots of books.

David Griffin said...

Excellent post, Nicola. (Or is it a thread? I'm easily confused on that point!) I enjoyed reading this.

It must be stomach-churningly awful for authors who have succeeded in vaulting the first two major hurdles (i.e agent and accepting publisher) before a publishers' AM, only to fall at that fence (mixed metaphors, or what!) Although I understand now the possible reasons for why a publisher decides "no".

I wonder if some publishers of a first novel take a gamble in as far as guessing they'll only break even or possibly lose a bit of money; knowing that the author's future books need to built on some sort of platform, however small?

catdownunder said...

I get to read this first in the morning and not late at night. It is probably just as well. I would stay awake wondering why the bad stuff sells. I am not tempted to try and write romantic slush or bodice rippers or violent crime. I know I could not. Why? It bores me to read it. I do not understand why people want to read it...or do they just pretend to read it because of the marketing hype?

Solvang Sherrie said...

I know you love shoes. Which ones did you end up wearing? =)

Ebony McKenna. said...

Thank you Nicola.
Recently I've had two friends tell me they are writing a book and 'do I have any tips or general advice'.
I'm sending them your way :-)

Anonymous said...

That was a fabulous talk - so clear, so articulate! And you handled the questions brilliantly! Best talk on the subject I've ever been to.

Anonymous said...

I was the person who came up to you in the signing queue and said what a briliant speaker you are. I felt I should say it here too. Incredibly impressed.
Mark P.

Barb said...

I'm so glad to find you have posted this!

I had a ticket to tonight's show but I had to work at late notice. (I'm consoling myself with the sound of a distant ker-ching going into my bank account).

Damn, I missed the crabbit, boot wearing bat.

Steven Aitchison said...

Perfect post Nicola, I have been looking for guidelines on submitting to Scottish Publishers for a Personal Development book and came across your blog. Just what I needed for guidance on proposals and submitting. Wished I'd been at your event.

Sheila said...

Thanks Nicola - I found your talk clear and helpful, just as your blog always is. Great to see you're a real person!
Just as well you've written all this down as my notes will no doubt look as if they've been written by a dyslexic slug.

Nicola Morgan said...

Suzanne - see you on Saturday!

Teresa - it must absolutely have been a sign and it's very important to follow signs.

SamB - I don't think your research can have been very extensive if you hadn't discovered something as basic as sending the first chapters! Aghh, the guy with the "question" that was actually his life story! It was the first time in my life that being expected to be crabbit has actually come in useful. (for the benefit of the rest of you, i TWICE stopped him to ask him to get to the point and I THEN told him he had 10 seconds to make his point, which he failed to do, so I cut him short in his 91-year-old prime. Turns out he was in another talk earlier that day doing exactly the same. There's always one)

SamB - your question about marketing - it would be completely premature to mention this in a submission / query / covering letter. It will help later, but not now. Now, it's the book that counts (unless you're madonna)

Sally - cerise, suede and very very pointy.

Jane - and I would have loved you to be there and afterwards we would have shared the totally amazing chocolates I've just been given!

David - good question (about whether publishers except not to earn out on the first book) - in the ideal world, this is the attitude they'd take, and they used to, and some still do. In fact, you used to be allowed to build slowly - many fabulously successful authors did not break through until about book 10 (Ian Rankin, Jacqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman are egs). It's harder now, though, and they'll often not take another chance if book one doesn't do very well. It does depend on the genre and the publisher though.

Catdownunder - I do think we have to accept that different readers have different tastes. There's not much point in saying they shouldn't like something if they do.

Anon, Mark P and Sheila - thank you! Lots of people said lovely things and the queue afterwards became rather long!

Barb - I was looking forward to meeting you!

Stephen - thanks, too.

Debs said...

Nicola, I was at your talk - I had to come to see the crabbit old bat in action! You were amazing. (And so were your shoes, but I think you knew that!) I was gripped and I heard so many people raving about it afterwards. Thank you so much. I don't know how you managed to speak so long and so clearly and hardly seemed to use your notes. I am now going to look at my book in a new light.

Jane Smith said...

Just to pick up a small point that's been made: while around 70% of books fail to earn out for their authors (that is, they fail to earn further royalties in addition to the advance already paid), they don't necessarily lose money for the publishers, who will have made their money back quite a while before.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the publishers aren't taking a punt on many of the books they publish: just that it's usually a lot less risky than is imagined.

Having said that, I agree with Nicola that many writers are now being given less time to prove themselves now. Some are nurtured in the same way as before: but only the ones that the publishers feel very certain about. And they get fewer in number with each year that passes.

Sam B said...

Conflicting advice is one of the big problems I’ve found during this process.

I’ve read some submission guidelines that want the first and last chapters of a book, and regarding the marketing thing – again, there’s plenty of advice out there which says you should include anything about how the author might help promote the book in the proposal. (BTW: I’m talking about non-fiction here).

Anyway – thanks for the talk, just have to put all the advice into practise now!

Chrystal's Corner said...

A Twit by BubbleCow brought me to your post, reading your post made me add your blog to those I'm following, and I even gave your post a Stumble Upon Thumbs up.

Thanks for the post.

DanielB said...

Sorry I couldn't make it in the end. I wouldn't have dared heckle - well, not unless that Smith started it. A few disconnected points follow...

I was oblivious to all of this during the first five years or so of being published. Lots of people start with bad luck and get luckier - I started being very lucky and had all the bad stuff a few years later, which was why it all seemed so much worse. You almost expect to be treated like dirt as an unpublished writer - all the reading about it primes you for this. What nobody ever tells you is how it carries on after you are published.

(I've never quite understood the whole "willingness to market your book and be involved with promotion" being a major factor. Surely everyone is? Surely we are only dictated by how much the publisher asks us to do?)

Iain Banks was always my "breakthrough" model. _The Wasp Factory_ got a big advance but he was a cult novelist for the first years of his career - even his 5th book, _Canal Dreams_, just seemed to sneak into the shops under cover of darkness. Only with _The Crow Road_ did he really explode into the big time. These days he'd probably have been dropped after the disappointing _Walking On Glass_.

I'm always fed up by the number of students of mine who use the "yes, but look at the CRAP that gets published" as an excuse for their own moments of crappitude. They think the fact that people can read something as ghastly as _The DaVinci Code_ in their millions means that they can aim low. It doesn't do us any favours. I don't see slush piles but I do see and review unpublished manuscripts - and, my GOD, some of them are awful. You wonder if the writers have ever read a book in their lives, such is their tenuous grasp of syntax, narrative development and character!

Juliet Boyd said...

OK, I'm going to ask a really stupid question here - not that I'm anywhere near to submitting anything to anybody - but it's been bugging me.

We all know that the length of chapters in books is somewhat variable. So, what would you say is the maximum number of pages/words that should be sent with a submission? And if your chapters are very short, would it be wrong to send more than the first 2/3?


storyqueen said...

Hi Nicola,

I'm so happy to have found your blog, and I wish I could have heard you speak.

Very enlightening post, and humorous, too. You are the coolest Crabbit Old Bat ever!


R.A. said...

Thank you for such an amazing blog and sharing your wisdom! In this post you mention "over-writing" as one of the central problems with books that don't get published. Can you elaborate on what "over-writing" means. Do you mean sentences that are too wordy? Back story that is too distracting? Sub-plots that are too involved? Thanks for any clarification you can offer!

Catherine Hughes said...

I really do wish I could have been there!

Of all the points you've made, I identify most with the one about getting on and writing another novel. I've done that - twice - and, although letting go of the second novel (after around thirty submissions) was hard, I don't feel I have wasted time on it or the one preceding it. It's all learning...

Maybe the one I am writing now will also prove to be a bust but, even if so, I have a certain kind of security now that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. That helps to keep me going even in the face of a rather large number of rejections!

In a funny sort of way, I almost wish I could give up - but that's just not in my nature!

DanielB said...

R.A. - I don't presume to answer for Nicola, but in my experience it can mean all of those things and more. Stories which take too long to tell you something (anything!), which actually start after 9 pages of character description, which tell you the same thing twice... One thing a lot of my students do is to show something through dialogue then tell it again, unnecessarily, afterwards, e.g.:

"Oh, for God's sake!" shouted Chris. He slammed his book down on the table. Jennifer's actions had made him extremely angry and now he was showing it by having a fit of rage. Chris was very cross and his face started to turn beetroot red.

Nicola Morgan said...

Will answer recent comments tomorrow - knackered now!

catdownunder said...

Yes of course different readers have different tastes - just as well too. I just wonder sometimes about the 'best-selling' tag. Hawking's first book "A short history of the universe" was apparently a 'best-seller'. Now that has to be marketing. As a physicist said to me, it has to be 'one of the most bought and least read' books. Blog post for the day I think!

Douglas MacIlroy said...

Dear Ms. Bat.

Found your blog via BubbleCow and spent the last hour reading. I thoroughly enjoyed your writing and will return often.

If you ever find yourself in Hawaii I will buy you a beautiful pair of flip flops for you to look marvelous in.

Thank you very much for taking the time to distill and disseminate your hard won knowledge. I count myself fortunate to have been steered in your direction.


Douglas MacIlroy
Kamuela, Hawaii

Rocco Maiolo said...

Thanks for this post. After nearly 20 years of teaching writing I've finally decided to write a novel. I can't believe the accessibility of great advice in cyberspace such as yours; thanks again.
- rocco

Nicola Morgan said...

Douglas - I am coming to Hawaii right away. You must have the best flip-flops. Good to see you!

Rocco - thank you!

And now I have to go and check out this bubblecow person who keeps recommending me.

But first I need sparkly wine, as it's been a long week, and tomorrow I really will answer the other comments above.

Nicola Morgan said...

SamB - you'll seee I've now done a post on conflicting advice. Hope it helps.

Chrystal, Debs and Storyqueen - hello and thank you!

Juliet - not a stupid question at all. The 3 chapters thing is a guideline. If you think your chapters are unusually short or unusually long, then another guidles is roughly 10,000 words. But if it's a kids' picture book you send the whole thing. All these "rules" can be adapted if the occasion or book demands.

RA - re over-writing - that gives me an idea for a forthcoming post. Essentially what we usually mean is getting too self-indlugent, writing purely for the perceived (by us) beauty of the language, using two similes where one would do, or two adjectives when actually one might be more powerful. This doesn't mean you have to strip out your lovely description, but it does mean that you should be ruthless about what you leave in. Sometimes (often) one punchy, powerful bit of pith is worth five lines of detail. As DanielB said (and you're most welcome to answer for me, D, as you always give good advice!)

Catherine - good for you! A very important stage you've reached.

Hope I've answered all the questions now (or promised to blog about them later) - let me know if I've missed you out