Know when the time is right
Before submitting your writing anywhere, make sure that you’re not rushing ahead before you’re ready. If you’re submitting a novel, this should usually be finished or close to completion if a publisher or agent is going to move ahead with it. Sending your writing to a publisher or agent too early is unlikely to lead to you receiving any constructive feedback and may be hugely discouraging. Take your time.
If your manuscript isn’t complete, you still have options for support. You can consider entering the Northern Writers’ Awards, or similar opportunities elsewhere in the UK, which actively support work in progress and professional development. Alternatively, you may feel your writing would benefit from mentoring, a manuscript report or another kind of developmental opportunity. If you’re at a very early stage, then a short course might be an appropriate option.
When you are ready to submit, always make sure that your work is as polished as you can make it. It’s important that you self-edit, looking for such elements as inelegant prose, implausible plot developments or characters who have no clear purpose. Proofread carefully to eliminate mistakes that may act as a barrier to your work for the editor or agent assessing it. Remember that the person at the other end will have a stack of many dozens of manuscripts to look at in a very short space of time, so avoid giving him or her anything that might make it easy for your work to be rejected.
Do your research
If you’re approaching a literary agent, a small independent publisher or a huge conglomerate, you need make sure you’re sending your writing to the right place. If a publisher says that they don’t accept unsolicited submissions they won’t make an exception just for you and your writing is unlikely to be returned. If an agent’s list is full and he or she is not looking for new clients, then there’s no point getting in touch. If you’re writing children’s fiction then look for a children’s specialist and if you’ve got a memoir to place, find a publisher with a track record in that area. Look at authors already represented by agents to see if they are writers who you identify with and go into bookshops to scan the shelves for publishers who you would like to be taken on by.
Always follow the submissions guidelines listed on agent and publisher websites as failing to do so can mean your work doesn’t get over the very first hurdle. Additionally, the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook provides a comprehensive listing of agents and publishers in the UK.
Sending off your manuscript
Novelists and authors of creative non-fiction usually need to send their writing to a literary agent. If an agent agrees to represent you, he or she will try to find you a publishing deal and negotiate a favourable contract. Finding an agent can take a very long time but try not to lose confidence during that period – you just might not have found the right person yet. The relationship between an author and an agent can last for many years and is based on mutual trust and respect, so it’s worth taking your time to find the right match.
Some publishers, notably independents, accept unsolicited material though this is rare. Remember that if they do look at unsolicited work they are likely to have an enormous pile of submissions to get through and so yours needs to get noticed amongst this. Be professional and courteous, and explain why you think your writing belongs on their list.
If a publisher or agent has shown an interest in your writing and asked to consider a longer sample, you shouldn’t at that stage send your writing away to anyone else. If you find that you have been waiting for several months for a response then there’s no harm in sending a short enquiry email. Long periods of silence are not uncommon and don’t necessarily mean it’s time to give up – it’s more likely that the person looking at your work is just very busy.
Look at all the options
There are multiple options available now for authors looking to find ways of putting their work out there. There are many forward-thinking independent presses, innovative crowd-funding structures, the option to upload your work online, publish on a blog or self-publish in digital or print. You can even combine the different options, perhaps building your profile online in the hope that it might open the door for you to follow a more traditional pathway with an agent and publisher. Having so much choice is a good thing, but these options require extensive research so that you make the right decision and don’t end up with regrets about the direction you take. Consider carefully where you are and where you want to be, think of your long-term writing career and seek advice from professionals, writers and supportive organisations.
Build your profile
As well as looking at your artistic output, publishers and agents are also interested in your writing-related achievements. Submitting your work for magazines and anthologies, entering short-story prizes and developmental opportunities can all help to build your writing profile, as can a positive online presence.
Poetry is different. Poets rarely have literary agents and tend to go straight to publishers. Many poetry presses accept work directly from poets but may have specific windows when they are open for submissions. When submitting to a poetry publisher, keep in mind that they are massively under-resourced and will be inundated with submissions. It’s not unusual for a poetry press that publishers 4-8 collections a year to receive as many as 50-70 submissions each week, and these will often be going to a single editor. Poetry publishing is therefore highly competitive and it can take a very long time for manuscripts to be taken on and published.
Many poets begin by sending work to print and digital magazines before gathering together enough work for a pamphlet (a short collection of poems), before looking to publish a full collection of work.
There are several high quality poetry lists in the UK, such as Carcanet, Bloodaxe Books, Picador and Faber and Faber, as well as innovative smaller presses like Penned in the Margins and Seren. Many excellent poetry publishers are members of Inpress Books, whose website features new publications. The most effective way to see which publisher is for you is to read the books they produce and familiarise yourself with contemporary poetry in general.
There are also many poetry magazines to explore. To get a taste of what’s out there you can begin by visiting the websites of The Poetry Society and The Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre. In the North of England the Northern Poetry Library in Morpeth has an extensive collection of books and magazines.
If you are interested in digital publishing and opportunities in this area The Writing Platform is a very useful site. It is run by The Literary Platform whose own website is also a very useful site for information on digital writing projects.