Advice on how to get a book published…

Someone asked me yesterday how to get a book published by a reputable publisher in the UK.

My answer was to get a ghost writer – me – and pay me £156,000 + 98% of the royalties plus all the chocolate I can eat.

Sadly my offer was turned down, so my edited advice was this…

The conventional wisdom is that, to get a publishing deal, you need to have a literary agent but, to get a literary agent, you need to have a publishing deal.

In fact, you don’t.

It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Fiction sells better than non-fiction, but it is even more difficult to get published. Almost bloody impossible, in fact.

Either way, the best thing to do is this…

You need to write a one or two page outline synopsis of what will be in the book – beginning to end – so the publisher knows what he/she is actually going to get.

And write perhaps a 20-page extract. This does not have to be the first 20 pages, but it might as well be. The reason for providing this extract is twofold. It shows the publisher that you can write. And it shows them the style your book will be written in – the same facts can be written a million different ways. An extract gives them a feel for the suggested book’s style.

Plus you need to include a biography of yourself – maybe half a page.

You are a good prospect if you are young (ie under 30), attractive and already have some track record in some creative area. And it helps massively if you can speak fluently. Being dead is not a good selling point if you are trying to get a publishing deal unless you are Jane Austen or George Orwell.

I know someone who was a ‘reader’ for Penguin Books. He was given a translation of a Japanese novel which Penguin had been offered. After reading it with growing excitement, his report to Penguin said that it was the most brilliant novel he had ever read and they would be mad not to publish it.

They told him: “We are not going to publish it.”

The author had, unwisely, just died and would be unable to do any publicity for the book.

Publishers want someone, preferably attractive and certainly alive, who can do publicity interviews for the book and who is ideally young enough to provide them with maybe 40 more years of books. They seldom want a one-off wonder unless you have an absolutely cracking story like being held as a sex slave for 14 years by Prince Philip in a secret cellar under Buckingham Palace or cutting off your own leg with a fish knife while being held hostage by Saddam Hussein in a Paris brothel.

When you have your idea, outline, biography and extract together, you should then go to a bookshop and see which publishers are selling the type of book you want to write and approach them one by one, having looked in a copy of the annual Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook which gives contact names, addresses and publishing requirements.

One thing you do not do is this…

You do NOT write the book first and then approach a publisher.

You want to screw an Advance out of them.

That way, even if the thing sells no copies, you have earned something for your talent, time and heartache.

If you approach a publisher with a completed book you cannot, by definition, get any Advance from them to tide you over while you write the book. You would have worked for perhaps two years for no money and you may have written what publishers don’t want.

Also, publishers like to feel they are controlling the creative process. Most publishers I have encountered are wannabe writers who cannot actually write creatively themselves, so they want to write and/or re-write through you while getting cultural kudos with their friends at dinner parties in Islington.

Never believe that publishers know anything about creative writing. If they did, they would be writing books themselves.

Those who can, do.

Those who can’t, publish…

…and try to interfere with your writing to give themselves a creative hard-on.

The thing to remember is that, up to the point of signing the contract, they can cast you aside and they have all the power. But, after signing the contract, you have most of the power. Under a standard publishing contract, they control the cover, but they cannot change a single comma of the text without your permission and it is unlikely (unless your book is utter shit) that they will throw away the Advance they have paid you. So listen to their advice but stick to your creative guns if you disagree.

If (just to use round numbers) you get a £9,000 advance, you would normally be paid £3,000 on signing the contract. You then have to write the entire book with no more money coming in. You then get £3,000 on delivery of an acceptable final manuscript. And you then have to wait for 6-9 months and get £3,000 on publication. So any ‘Advance’ tends to mean you only get one third up-front in advance of writing the book.

The thing to remember is that it highly unlikely you will make any significant money from your book. Literally hundreds of books are spewing into existence every month to try to find space on the same limited shelves. It is like playing the Edinburgh Fringe. You are unlikely to get noticed and it is like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. In the case of writing a book, these are the £50 notes you could have earned by stacking shelves in a supermarket rather than starving in a small room earning no money while you toil away at your creative keyboard.

If your book is a paperback, you are likely to get a royalty of only 7.5% of the cover price. So, if your book sells for £10, you get 75p per copy sold. Roughly.

I believe most books sell well under 10,000 copies in the British Isles and fail to make a profit. Publishers live on their rare big buck-earners.

When approaching a publisher nowadays, you also have to take into consideration the new phenomenon of eBooks. Random House recently signed a big deal with Apple to put their back catalogue and future publications onto iBooks.

My 2002 contract with Random House for the anthology Sit-Down Comedy specified a 50% royalty on any future e-book version. A fortnight ago, they sent me a letter saying they want to only pay 25% instead of 50% on any eBook version because the contracted 50% royalty rate “was arrived at before the UK eBook market had begun to develop and before the extent of our digital investment was known. Since this royalty was agreed, the eBook market has moved on greatly but, in the process, we have found that 50% of net revenues is no longer viable”.

Well, lovies, my tendency is to say, “Tough shit, life’s a bitch and a gamble, ain’t it? Don’t come whining to me if you mis-calculated your own business.”

But, with Sit-Down Comedy, in fact, it doesn’t much matter because, although the contract was with the late Malcolm Hardee and me as editors of the book, we agreed to split the royalties between ourselves and the 19 contributors to the anthology. So we are talking miniscule sums even if it sold loads.

However, I know another author whose book has been in print for quite a few  years. It may soon go out of print. Under a standard contract, if a book is out of print for two years, all rights return to the author. So, for example, Malcolm Hardee’s autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake was out of print for two years and now 100% of all rights have reverted to me and to the estate of the late Malcolm.

However, if this other chum of mine’s book becomes an eBook, my understanding is that it will, in theory, never go out of print – the file will still be available for download from the Apple/Amazon/publisher’s computer – and so the publisher will retain the rights until 70 years after the author’s death.

If my chum, on the other hand, refuses to accept a royalty cut from 50% to 25%, then it will presumably not become an eBook, the paperback will go out of print and, two years later, 100% of all rights will revert to my chum. And there would then be the possibility of negotiating a new publishing deal or publishing via some print-on-demand operation like

We live in interesting times and that, of course, is the ancient Chinese curse.


Filed under Books, PR

8 responses to “Advice on how to get a book published…

  1. Mr Brian Higgins

    Brilliant little piece John, I’m already angry at the shite that is on the shelves in every book store. As I am about to sit down and finish what I hope to be a funny book, should I just print it myself and sell it at gigs or hope for a miracle and get published and earn fuck all.

    The decision is all mine.

    Thanks for the information about e-books I didn’t know that. I hope someone comes up with a system that can down load e-books to any computer or kindle unit and they along with the writer can make a fair wage.

    All the best Higgy.

    • My advice would be to approach several conventional publishers because then, at least, you would be guaranteed some money. If they are foolish enough not bite on your brilliant book, then go for print-on-demand. This is not the same as traditional self-publishing.

      There are some small initial overheads but basically, with print-on-demand, you only print books once they are sold and you decide the price so you know exactly what you will make in advance. You do not print any copies until you have a buyer for those copies, so you are not shelling out unnecessary money. do print-on-demand, as do several other companies including Amazon (with their Createspace). But you have to compare the deals, particularly over royalty percentage and who owns copyright.

      If you publish your own book via print-on-demand, you can also put it on iTunes, iBooks as an eBook and (if you buy an ISBN number) on Amazon.

      NB I have never myself done print-on-demand so have no personal experience of it, though I know people who have happily done it.


    • noel Faulkner

      Hi John good piece. You left out the part that if you are a shit comic with a crap TV show you will get it published straight away ?

  2. bigbangtrans

    What you haven’t pointed out also is to remember that if you do get published, you have essentially stuck your head above the parapet and people will start to shoot at it.

    And they will assume that, being a published writer, you are automatically rich.

    Just in perspective, my first book took me around 6 months to write, and earned me around £300. My second is still in print, also took about 6 months, and every half year I receive a royalty cheque which is usually between £50 and £75.

    I would, as you point out, have earned more working in MacDonalds.

  3. Anthony

    Hi John.

    I recently had a book published by a “print-on-demand” outfit, which is essentially a one man operation. I have since come to the stark realization that this wannabe does absolutely nothing in terms of PR, marketing, or distribution. I am terrified that my book, which took me nearly one year to write, will simply die on the vine on Amazon with nobody knowing that it evens exists. And it’s imposible for people to buy a book which they aren’t even aware of.

    I am scurrying around trying to find a way for me to break my contract with this sheister. I could then add to the original version of the book and come up with a “New Improved” edition. However, the contract says I can’t do that as long as the paperback and ebook are “still in print”. Well, there lies the dilemma. Technically, a print-on-demand paperback book and ebook will forever be in print. Surely there must be a way for me to free myself of this — the biggest mistake I have ever made in my entire life!

    I would truly appreciate your input and advice.

    • I think you probably need advice from a solicitor. The rule-of-thumb is that print-on-demand people only do the production of the book, not any of the marketing or publicity. I don’t know what the copyright situation is if you change some sections, re-title it and claim it’s an entirely different item. The “still in print” thing is – yes – interesting with e-books. We live in legally bewildering times.

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