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I got to feel the most like an author I ever feel this week, when I went to London for a meeting with my UK publishers and agents to begin the publicity process for A Body Made of Glass. It comes out in just over six months’ time, which sounds like a long time away but is also not very long at all — time works differently in the book world, I have learned. The proof copies had coincidentally arrived at the office the day before, so I was able to snag one for myself to take home. This is the first time the book has physical form, albeit in this workaday, non-final design for advance readers like booksellers and reviewers. It’s both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to realise that the book isn’t just mine any more: strangers can hold it and read it now, too.
This is my second book with the same publisher, so a lot of what was unknown to me back in 2019 is now somewhat familiar. I know the basics of how we go about trying to convince people to take a chance on what I’ve written, but there are always new things to try and to learn from. As someone who has been reading and enjoying books for her whole life, the behind-the-scenes process of how they get from ideas inside people’s heads on to my shelves fascinates me. When I talk shop with other writers I always like to compare and contrast my experiences with theirs. This is also helpful for me because there are few definitive or transparent sources out there on the publishing industry, either for those seeking to enter it or those already afloat on its choppy waters in some way. When I hear from readers who are also writers, either via email or on Instagram, this is the most common theme of our correspondence: how are you supposed to find out these things that everyone already seems to know?
I’m very far from being an expert in all this. This is just my second non-fiction book for adults with a UK/US publisher, so if you’re publishing a different kind of work elsewhere in the world, my experiences might not apply to you. But people were very generous in helping me when I was trying to work this stuff out and I’d like to put that same energy out into the world in case it helps somebody else. I’d also recommend the Agents and Books, Counter Craft and Craft Talk newsletters for good insights. What follows is my take on the most common questions I receive about writing a book and getting it published.
How do I get started?
This may sound extremely obvious, but you have to write something. Pitching books is not like pitching articles, where you send a brief summary and, if they like it, take it from there. For books, you need to do some really time-intensive writing first. To my mind, this is the hardest part of all, having to take myself and my ideas seriously enough to show up and write it day after day even though nobody asked me to and nobody is paying me yet. If you are writing the kind of non-fiction book I do (narrative/creative non-fiction), you need to write a proposal. This usually consists of an overview of the book, an outline of your structure and chapters, some information about what the market for the book will be (what successful books have similarities to yours?) and a sample chapter. This last bit is the hardest part, but to get publishers to part with cash you need to show them how brilliant your book will be. All told, my proposals tend to be about 20,000 words. It’s a lot. If you’re writing fiction, you typically have to write the whole thing, or at least a very substantial part of it, before anyone will consider it for publication.
Do you have to have an agent?
No, but it helps. Most major publishers rarely work with unagented writers. In exchange for their percentage of any money you make (15 per cent is normal), you get access to your agent’s industry expertise and contacts, as well as having someone in every meeting who is there solely to represent you. Most agents have an online presence where they advertise if/when they are looking for new writers, what kind of writing they are seeking to represent, and how you go about submitting to them. My agent is currently open for submissions, for instance. In general, when agents have guidelines about what you should submit for consideration, follow them to the letter. Most people won’t; you automatically get a leg up just by showing that you can read and abide by instructions. Make it easy for them to pick you. My best tip for finding an agent is to look at the acknowledgements of books you love that are similar to yours and build a list of possible names to research further that way. If they represent writers you aspire to emulate, there’s a decent chance what you’re doing will suit.
Why won’t they publish my book?
Many, many reasons, not all of them fair or rational. If you’ve queried and submitted and obeyed all the rules and it still isn’t working for you, I’m sorry. Publishing is a capricious and changeable industry, built on something that is fundamentally unknowable at scale: precisely what people want to read at any given moment. To illustrate what I mean, here’s something that happened when my first book was sent out to possible editors. My agent sent it to 14 of them; four responded positively and ten said no thank you. Of that ten, exactly half rejected it because they felt the idea had been too much done before and the other half said no because they felt there wasn’t sufficient market for the topic. It’s all subjective: to some, my idea was too niche, to others it was over-saturated. I tried to learn from that not to take anything anyone says as the final definitive word on anything, and I would advise you do the same.
How do you pay bills while you write a book?
For the vast majority of writers (including me!), you pay bills while you write a book by doing other work at the same time. In 2022, the median earnings for authors in the UK was £7,000 a year, down 60 per cent in real terms since 2006. For reference, an annual living wage is estimated at just under £20,000. Other than a few celebrities and very successful authors at the very top, almost nobody is making a full-time living just from writing books. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, or make you feel ashamed about this.
Even when you do get paid what looks, on paper, to be a decent amount for your book, the payment structure and fees can catch you out. Commonly, a publisher will “advance” you a sum against the future sales of your book to cover costs while you write it. They then recoup this out of your sales, so you don’t earn any royalties until your book has “earned out” the amount of its advance. Lots of books never earn out, so the advance is the only money you ever receive. Out of this initial advance payment, you have to take off tax and your agent’s percentage. Also, you will probably be paid the advance in thirds or quarters — one instalment upon signing the contract, one when you deliver the book manuscript, one when the hardback comes out, and one when the paperback is published. There might be three or even four years between the first payment and the last. And publishers, like many big companies, can be slow to pay. I’m sure you can see how quickly even a relatively generous sum starts to feel like something you can’t really rely on as “income”.
So, what can you do? I’m assuming you’re not personally wealthy or the spouse of a rich person, by the way, although that is how some people square this circle. For the rest of us, maybe you have a full-time job and you write books in your spare time. Perhaps writing books is one thing in a portfolio of freelance work that sustains you. If you’re lucky enough to get paid sabbatical time from doing something else, that can be a good time to do the bulk of the work on a book without ending up out of pocket. Some people prefer their day job to be something totally unrelated to writing so that part of their brain is always fresh for their own projects. Others (like me) use the same skills involved in writing books to do related, more lucrative, jobs, like freelance journalism (ha!), newsletter writing, podcasting and so on. Each to their own. There are no wrong ways to go about this.
How many heinous a-holes have you encountered?
I loved the wording of this particular question too much to do a polite paraphrase of it. Honestly, only one truly, truly bad person has crossed my path in my journey through publishing so far, which I feel is quite a good average compared to the general population. I have interacted with a few less-than-sensitive people (and some of those do get called out in my new book, actually!) but they had their redeeming qualities too. In general, the people I work with in publishing are very nice and very hardworking. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I don’t think too many genuine villains spend their time crafting books in exchange for a middling-at-best salary.
I’ll stop now before this email gets so long that it cuts off in your inboxes, but if there are other questions you have or more details you’d like on any of this, just hit reply and let me know.