Getting on the first rung of the publishing ladder

How do you avoid the slush pile? Should you self-publish? Insiders give their advice on getting a first book to print

How do you avoid the slush pile? Should you self-publish? Insiders give their advice on getting a first book to print

Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin


What's the single most important piece of advice you can give to someone trying to get published?Keep at it. The more you write the better you get, and while there is a high level of rejection, the majority of writers find their rejections improving over time (bizarre as that sounds).


Learn from every rejection and keep working to make your writing the best that it can be. Writers also need to define their success – publication comes in many forms and there are now many more routes to the reader than before.

Is there a trick to getting to the top of the slush pile?Making your book the best that it can be is essential – a good strong covering letter helps, a well-written synopsis and a great hook in the opening chapter will get an editor interested in the same way it will capture a reader.

When you submit a book for publication, it’s like a job application, you are hoping to enter into a professional relationship with the editor or agent. You submission needs to be well presented, and you need to have done your research on the editor or agent your are sending it to. There’s no point in sending a picture book to an academic publishing house – you won’t even get on to the slush pile.

Attending events and seminars or book launches is a great way to meet editors and agents. This will help you get to know what they are looking for and find a good fit for your book.

Do you recommend self-publishing through e-books or otherwise?Self-publishing or independent publishing can be a great route to market for authors whose books cross genres, that aren't a commercial print length, or for writers who want to get their book out there faster than traditional publishing allows. It also gives writers complete control of their rights.

It all really comes down to the definition of success – if writers want to be read, it’s an alternative way to reach readers. It is essential, though, that anyone considering self-publishing ensures that their book meets industry standards if they want to sell well.

As an author you have a contract with your reader to deliver; poor editing and a dodgy cover let both you, the writer, and the reader down. And readers don’t hold any punches in reviews.

What's the biggest mistake writers make?Putting the last full-stop on a new manuscript and sending it off. When you finish your first draft, that's when the work begins. Writing is rewriting and the polishing and redrafting is an essential part of the process.

Sean O’Keeffe

Publisher, Liberties Press

What's your single most important piece of advice?Make sure the quality of the work is as high as possible, and that it is professionally presented. And consider writing non-fiction: too many people are writing novels.

Is there a trick to getting to the top of the slush pile?Working with an agent. If they recommend a book, a publisher will generally look more closely at it. Otherwise, be clear about what the book is, and who it's aimed at. And avoid gimmicks. I remember Caroline Walsh [the former literary editor of The Irish Times] saying that she was sometimes sent a bar of chocolate along with a submission.

Her comment was: what’s wrong with the book that you feel you have to do that? A fair point.

Do you recommend self-publishing?No. Like most things in life, it's possible to do it yourself (think plumbing your own bathroom), but the results are usually less than outstanding. It is better to work with professionals if possible.

The biggest mistake writers make?Thinking that having a book published will change their life dramatically. Overnight sensations are rare (and are often based on years of hard work, or a full, interesting life). Make sure your expectations are realistic. Having said that, publishing can be very exciting, and great fun.

Declan Meade

Editor, The Stinging Fly

What's your single most important piece of advice?Take your time. Concentrate first on getting the work done. Get whatever it is you want to write written to the very best of your ability before you even think of looking to get it published.

The biggest misconception writers have?That it's all a big lottery as to who and what gets published.

There may well be elements of luck involved but you can make your own luck, by having the work good and ready and by sending the work to the right people and the right places.

What's the biggest mistake writers make?Dealing with many new writers as I do, I would have to say it's the rush to get published. I understand the pressures but it's a really big mistake to send work out before it's ready.

First impressions do matter. And everyone working in publishing is pressed for time, so you are better off not wasting any of it.

I would advise people not to rush something off just so they hit a deadline, however good that might make them feel.

Paula Campbell

Publisher, Poolbeg Press

What’s your single most important piece of advice? Assuming you have done your preparation and your manuscript is the best that it can be and is submitted to the appropriate publisher following their submission guidelines – don’t harass, annoy or badger the publishing house.

By all means one phone call or email is acceptable; however, daily calls are not. This is a business relationship; your material is your CV.

The biggest misconception writers have?A Late Late Show appearance is a guarantee.

Is there a trick to getting to the top of the slush pile?No, but a well-presented and "clean" manuscript with an enthusiastic letter and detailed synopsis helps.

Would you recommend self-publishing?If you have had multiple rejections then self-publishing/e-books are a way of getting your book out there, but the experience and backing of an established publishing house with it's industry know-how is still the better option and worth pursuing.

The biggest mistake writers make?Not doing their research and submitting material that is incomplete

Michael McLoughlin

Publisher, Penguin Ireland

What's your single most important piece of advice?Focus on the work; don't worry too much about the market. Even if you want to write bestsellers, in the long run you'll succeed only if the writing reflects your passions and talents.

The biggest misconception writers have?That publishing houses are forbidding fortresses, hostile to new writers. The truth is even the most accomplished editors are always desperate to discover fresh talent.

Is there a trick to getting to the top of the slush pile?Not really. The good news is that all submissions to Penguin Ireland are considered by an editor. If you want to increase the likelihood of a publisher taking notice of you, put yourself about: publish in periodicals, enter work for prizes, make noise about your blog.

Do you recommend self-publishing?Self-publishing absolutely has its place in the age of electronic publishing but if you want your book to be edited, designed, marketed and publicised by a team of professionals, and sold in print and electronically through the full range of outlets, then "legacy" publishers are the only game in town.

The biggest mistake writers make?Sending out manuscripts prematurely. If you've never been published before, or even if you have, then your first draft is probably not good enough. Revise, revise, revise and then submit when you feel you will have no regrets.

All five contributors feature in Inspiration for Writers: The Dos and Donts of Getting Published on Friday at 1pm as part of the Dublin Book Festival, which runs from today until November 18th.