Rebecca Gray is an editor at Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books. An independent publisher, their books include We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. She recently edited The Library Book, a collection of pieces by famous writers in support of The Reading Agency’s library programmes. Here are her tips on how best to get your book seen by an editor…
1. Have a story to tell
Write because you find it rewarding and because you have something to say; a story to tell. Not because you want to be famous – or even published – but because it’s in your bones. Remember the writing is the bit that’s within your control, so enjoy it and push yourself to be as good as you possibly can.
2. Get an agent
If you’re serious about getting published, you must take this route – do not send your work to publishers direct. Your work will be taken much more seriously if it’s submitted via an agent, and they will be able to work with you on it before it goes anywhere near an editor’s desk. Your agent will be your advocate, your ally and your way in, so find one you like and trust. Most agents, or agencies, get hundreds of submissions a week. Make sure yours stands out for the right reasons. You can find an up-to-date list of agencies in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – it’s updated every year and the essays are really useful, for example covering how to write a submission letter and how to present your work. Treat it like applying for a new job. Be strategic, thoughtful and don’t give up!
3. Take feedback seriously
There will be times when we like a book but don’t love it enough, or when we love a book but feel we couldn’t do it justice. An agent might like your work, but already have a similar writer, or have failed to sell a similar book. So sometimes a rejection doesn’t have anything to do with the book itself. However, if you are offered feedback, take it seriously. They’re busy people, and time spent writing an email means they care enough to want to help. So do write back briefly with thanks, even if you don’t like what they say, or you think they haven’t ‘got’ your book. You never know whose path you’ll cross later.
4. The editing process
If an editor reads and likes a book, they will take it to their acquisitions meeting – everyone there will read it and discuss whether they like it, how we’d publish it, what the competition is, how many copies we think we could sell and then whether to make an offer. Sometimes editors will ask to meet you before making an offer, either because they have reservations about the book they want to discuss, or they’re keen to get an idea of whether you’ll get on well and be able to work together. This is obviously very useful for you too – so do take the opportunity if you can.
"Write because you have a story to tell. Not because you want to be famous - or even published - but because it's in your bones."
5. Getting an offer
The structure of an offer is something your agent will advise you on. Agents usually decide which rights to offer before they send the book out, and part of it will depend on whether some rights have already been sold, and what the various rights are worth.
Here’s a very basic breakdown of the options:
World rights – including the right to publish the book, to sell it to other English language publishers (e.g. the USA), to foreign publishers for translation, to sell film rights, audio rights, radio reading rights – everything.
World English rights – all of the above except translation.
UK Commonwealth rights – this is the right to publish the book in English in that territory. Your agent will then try to sell the other rights.
A huge advance is a wonderful, though rare thing. Do remember that the larger the advance, the more copies have to be sold before the book is considered a success – this can be a good thing – bringing more attention to the book – or a burden – if the book doesn’t earn out, it might be seen as a disappointment even if it is a relative success. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t accept a large advance, but if you aren’t offered an enormous amount of money, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Your agent will negotiate the contract with the publisher and when the contract’s done, the publication process begins.