How to get published: tips from the pros
Find your own voice, write from the heart, and know when to cut your losses. Writers and industry figures give their advice
Declan Hughes: ‘Writing is a confidence trick. You’ve got to keep on the right side of positivity.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Carlo Gébler. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Sinéad Moriarty. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
It’s the one question to which every aspiring author needs an answer: how am I going to get this book published?
Writing is an intensely private act: all that time spent sequestered alone with your manuscript.
Trying to get your work published makes the whole enterprise public. Suddenly your cosseted baby is exposed to scrutiny, criticism or, worse, indifference. Grim tales of rejection letters abound (even JK Rowling had to suffer 12 “thanks but no thanks” responses before the first Harry Potter novel found a publisher). So what exactly is required, apart from a stout heart and a thick skin, if you want to see your book in print?
That’s what two workshops in the Dublin Book Festival, which starts today and runs until Sunday, aim to answer. First, on Saturday morning, there’s the chance to speak to four people who know the Irish publishing industry inside-out: Michael O’Brien of The O’Brien Press; literary agent Faith O’Grady; publishing consultant Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin; and Eoin Purcell from New Island books. Then, in the afternoon, three well-established authors – Carlo Gébler, Sinéad Moriarty and Declan Hughes – will be talking about writing techniques, and helping prospective storytellers get their thoughts on paper.
According to Moriarty, a best-selling novelist, you need to approach the whole enterprise in the right frame of mind: a lesson learned after setting out on her own writing career, “full of vim and vigour”, as she says, but also “foolishly naive”.
“Eventually I made a decision that every wannabe writer makes,” she says. “Am I doing this because I love it? Or am I doing it because I want to get published?” Moriarty says that it must be the former, never the latter, because only then will the writing flow, and connect with potential readers. “It has to be because you love what you’re doing. If not, nobody is going to enjoy reading it. There’s no point trying to imitate other people. You have to go with your own voice, and trust in that.”
Playwright and crime writer Declan Hughes agrees. “What most editors want to read is a writer writing what they want to write, and it’s difficult to fake that. Besides, once you start trying to imitate what’s already been selling – whether it’s vampires, zombies or whatever – unless you’re super-fast, the moment will probably have passed.”
Write from the heart
Carlo Gébler, whose many published works include novels, short stories, plays and memoirs, says that “what works is what’s written from the heart, that authentic, deeply felt expression. Essentially, nobody knows anything: publishers are just as ignorant, confused and baffled as we, the writers. To write to try to please them – this way lies misery.”
Gébler recommends the benefit of a second pair of eyes, preferably a copy-editor (check the Writers & Artists Yearbook), or someone with good copy-editing skills, looking over the completed manuscript before it is submitted for publication.
“Cuts, emendations, additions – that kind of input cannot be underestimated,” he says. “You might think the book is complete, but you must be prepared to rewrite. All texts are provisional: there’s no piece of writing that cannot be improved by the application of the blue pencil.”
Useful feedback – as well as support and solidarity – can be found within creative writing groups, at least once you’ve got over the fear of showing your writing to other people. But Hughes warns that you need to be careful when choosing readers, and to take time before making work public. “There is something to be said for not getting it out there too soon.”
As for those almost inevitable rejection letters, it’s a case of taking them on the chin and moving on. Hughes was already a published playwright when he started writing crime fiction, but it still took time to find a publisher for his first novel. “I sent it to six or eight people, all of whom knocked it back for a variety of reasons. One particular editor said that he liked it, but he couldn’t get it past sales and marketing. I sent it around 14 more people until finally someone said yes.”
Remember that getting accepted for publication is not an exact science. “The biggest story in publishing last year was Donal Ryan, ” says Hughes. Ryan’s Booker Prize long-listed debut novel, The Spinning Heart, was rejected 47 times before being published. “You’ve got to think, if a guy’s that good, and every editor knocks him back, what is going wrong here?”
It might even be the case that – deep breath – the manuscript you are so lovingly working on will never be published. Moriarty’s breakthrough book, The Baby Trail, about the challenges of infertility, was the third novel she had written. “Let it go if it’s not working, and do something else,” she says. “You can always come back to it in the future.”
With all the effort required, aspiring authors could be forgiven for giving up before they’ve even properly started. But Hughes says there’s no place for despair.
“Writing is a confidence trick. You’ve got to keep on the right side of positivity. If you’re despondent, it’ll just drag you down. Maintain a sense of buoyancy. After all, when it comes to getting published, all you need is one yes.”
The Dublin Book Festival is on until Sunday, dublinbooks festival.com
How to get it in print: Dos and don’ts
l “Never send a manuscript to a publisher unless you are 100 per cent happy with it,” says Michael O’Brien of The O’Brien Press.
l Don’t send in a pitch describing yourself as a genius, or comparing your own efforts to those of famous writers from the literary canon. Random praise, however effusive, for material already published informally on online blogs also tends to be frowned upon. And you won’t get marks for claiming that your mother, teacher, sister or aunt loves your book.
l O’Brien recommends researching publishers carefully, and only sending your writing to those who already publish work in your area. He says it’s also worthwhile making sure they have some means of selling your book internationally.
l An agent is not a necessity: The O’Brien Press has published 2,000 books, and only six came through agents. Literary consultant Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin says that 90 per cent of Irish publishers will take unsolicited manuscripts.
l In order to gain perspective on your own writing, Fox O’Loughlin advises writers to put their manuscripts away for at least a week or two, preferably longer. “Then you come back with a reader’s eye, rather than a writer’s eye.”
l Be ruthless: don’t be afraid to wield the editorial knife yourself. As Michael O’Brien points out, “If you take 25 per cent of your novel and throw it in the bin, no one else will actually know.”