I have been asked many times how I went about securing a publishing deal. The truth is, I had no idea how to do it when I first set out. I did not know anyone personally who had travelled down the publishing path; I had never even spoken to an agent or publisher before; and I hadn’t got a sense of how to approach them either. In fact I was completely in the dark. Daunted but not overcome, I determined instead to use the tools any good historian is gifted with, those good old bed fellows, curiosity and research mixed in with a good dose of determination. Armed and ready I set out on an adventure.
Like any good adventurer, I thought I would share some of my tales and best tips that I picked up on the way. I hope you find them useful.
Publishing House v Publishing Agent
Thousands of people attempt to get published every year. Publishers have a tough job of reading through endless submissions looking all the while for works that stand out to them, have a marketability and of course read well and fit into their brand. Publishing houses are now so inundated with material that the job of sifting through the vast piles of submission entries is enormous. To combat this, many houses will only take submissions from agents to help narrow the work load and heighten the chances of finding that all important gem.
Agents are the middle people, who if you are lucky and they take you on, sit between you the writer and the publisher. An agent in many ways acts like a publisher in that they will read through submissions and find clients that they know have a chance of being published based on the strength of their client’s writing. A good agent will work with a writer to prepare their work or project concept and will, for a commission on your final royalties, present your submission to a well chosen publishing house direct. They are in the business and so have endless contacts, know whose who, and where you are most likely to secure a deal, if any. They are also well versed in the minefield of publishing contracts and so can help with all the legal stuff when that comes along.
Nine times out of ten, an agent is the safest and most reliable way forward. Although agents take commission, you are paying for their expertise and access to a publishing house and so is a real investment.
I planned to go through an agent and prepared submissions to that effect. However, in the end, I was taken up by a publishing house direct. I rather miraculously was in the one in ten, but this in itself can be hard, as well as an exciting journey. You have to work independently with the publisher without an agent to bounce ideas off, understand contracts or negotiate your contract terms. However, any good publisher who wants to commission you and publish your work should work closely with you to ensure a mutually beneficial and highly rewarding relationship. It is in both parties interest to work well together.
Research, Research, Research
Choosing an agent or approaching a publishing house direct requires a good few weeks, or more reasonably, months of research. I started by using Google to find publishing agents who took on writers whose works fall into the non-fiction medieval history genre. I also looked through all my history books at home to work out who is publishing works of history at the moment which included the likes of Amberley, Penguin & Random House, Windmill, Yale and many more. The list quickly became extensive.
I then turned to their individual websites and spent many hours pouring over various pages to work out who they were, who worked there if a publishing house rather than an agent, what they specialised in, what had they recently published or helped to publish, and did they have any authors on their books whose works I had read or heard of. This is really important, because I soon got a feel as to whether my project would fit into their style of publishing. When it came to my publishing house Amberley, I was looking for a few pointers. Did they publish non-fiction? Did this include medieval history? Did they publish or specialise in biographies and lastly, did they publish both hardback, paperback and eBook? If the fit did not feel right I crossed them ruthlessly off my list. In Amberley’s case they went into my top ten publishing houses.
Some publishing houses are happy to take project submissions from writers directly. You will know when you delve into their website which is their preferred method; direct, through an agent or both.
Check the Submission Rules
All agents and publishing houses set out on their web pages a submission preference. A submission is where you send off a summary or project outline rather than the book itself to a publisher. At this stage, you may not even have started writing a non-fiction book at all. My advice is to follow the submission preferences to the letter. For historical non-fiction the rules were pretty simple although sometimes there were subtle differences between publishing houses. Essentially they requested;
- Have a clear project outline of no more than 3,000 words.
- Set out what you are writing – that is to say, set out in brief summary the book’s structure but don’t get bogged down in all the details. Keep it high level.
- Tell us why are you writing it. What is your approach to it?
- Tell us why your book is different from all the others out there.
- Why should we publish it? Who are the likely audience?
Take your time to think about all these questions. I spent two weeks drafting out my answers just for Amberley alone. Be honest and be true to yourself. However, keep everything relevant to the questions and succinct. Do not go off on a creative tangent. It will kill it. Lastly, its not a case of one size fits all. I would always start from scratch when I was preparing submissions because it is important my project outline was tailored to the individual requirements of each publishing house. Each house has its own feel and style and whilst you need to be true to yourself, cutting and pasting a load of answers between submissions is a risky and often poor attempt at time saving. A publisher will sense it and it will feel tardy.
It’s all about Business
Publishers are ultimately in it to make money. Publishing houses are after all businesses and although a publisher wants to publish works of quality that in themselves underline their brand, reputation and publishing integrity, publishers have to make money. I realised this from the outset and so when I set out to write my project outline, I was conscious to write with my business head on and not my writers head! They are distinctly different.
A project outline is really a business case. That is to say, how is the publisher going to make money out of your work as well as you launching your book. For me, my motivation for writing is not about money. I’ve wanted to write ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance’ for twenty years. For me I want to bring Edward II to the widest and most diverse audience possible and by doing so allow readers a step closer to better understand a man long maligned by history. I want my audience to form their own opinions about him and by doing so understand a man whose role in history had a profound impact on our nation’s story.
But in order to do that I needed to think like I was running a business. So in my project outline I set out who I felt would read it. I thought about how the publisher could market both the book and me. I talked about lectures I had given, my day job, things that make me tick so they got a sense of my personality. In another words I was trying to create a sense of me through my writing so they could think and answer their own questions even before we had spoken. i.e. could they stick me on the radio or in front of a TV camera, or at a book launch or literary festival and be confident that I could promote the book that they had invested considerable money into hoping all the while to make a financial return for their business. Getting this across on paper is key. In my day job at the National Trust I have done all of these things so I thought about how that could be relevant and outlined it.
Make it simple. Stand Out
Be succinct. In my day job as a General Manager at the National Trust, when recruiting staff I may have to sift over 100 job applications and CVs when people apply for senior jobs in my portfolio. The rules for setting out a project outline in some ways are the same as writing a CV. As a recruiter I am going to spend no more than up to two minutes reading your CV. If you don’t grab me in the first 30 seconds, I don’t read on. This may feel ruthless, but when you add in a 100 CV’s, without being ruthless means I could spend days reading just a piles of carefully crafted applications. As a business this in unsustainable. I assumed a publisher had similar approaches.
So to grab their attention, I made it easy for them to read my outline. I broke paragraphs up with headings highlighted in bold. The headings were in part taken from the questions set out on their submissions page: i.e. why I am writing? How is this project different? I also added in other headings including, ‘what was my media experience’ – TV, radio etc. This allowed them to scan read and quickly decide if it was worth reading on.
I tried to think of what a publisher was likely to ask as a business person at any given point during my submission. This way I was able to weave in possible answers to help them feel that I am right for them.
Much like sifting job applicants, it ultimately comes down to how many ticks you have on a list of things I am looking for. This is all before I actually have read any of your actual project. You have to sell yourself as much as your project in order to go forward to the next stage.
Lastly, take the time to proof your work. I asked family and friends to read my project outline before I submitted it. Listen to them and don’t get cross with their suggestions and amends. They are your future audience to. I also gave a week between writing it and re-reading it to ensure I could see as many of the errors as possible. You know that thing – writer’s blindness which comes when you can’t read your errors because you read what you think you see rather than what is actually written. Submitting a project outline filled with spelling mistakes is not going to win you a contract.
Be prepared for rejection
Once the time comes, be sure your project outlines sets out everything you and importantly the publisher has asked of you. Avoid the tendency to keep reworking the sentences otherwise you may go insane and it may loose its focus. Be brave and submit it.
Most agents and publishing houses will acknowledge your submission with an automatic email notification. Often they state that a response could take up to three months if you are successful in getting to the next round. There are many more rounds to go before a deal is a deal. No response often means you are not successful.
Here I was extremely fortunate. I was emailed 12 hours after my submission by the publisher to say they really liked my project outline and wanted to speak to me further. It caught me off guard as I was expecting a long wait. I was through to the next round. What followed was two weeks of intense conversations. I had to submit 7,000 words of my writing so they could see my work and understand my style. We talked a lot about marketing and selling. My project then went to a Publishing Acquisitions meeting, where it was discussed by my future editor and ‘sold’ to the rest of the publishing house who agreed to support and publish my work. After that we got down to talking about contracts. In the end I was awarded a publishing deal.
I did not expect such a response. Equally however, if I had been rejected first off I would have kept going. As gut wrenching as it must feel, you have to keep going if your dream really is, like mine, to see my book on a bookshelf at Waterstones or see people posting me photos on Twitter and Instagram whilst they are reading my book. Knowing people could be reading about Edward II is after all why I am writing in the first place.
Someone somewhere will want to read your work. How you set out your project outline is as important as the book you are writing. Unlike the book, your project outline is a business case. It’s sole job is to sell you and your work. It is not a condensed version of your book. Give full attention to your project outline and you have the best possible chance of going somewhere with it. Your project may just become a book. The adventure really starts here.
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