A First Timer’s Guide On How To Get Published

The draft. The pitch. The royalties. Two publishing experts give you the only download you'll need to get started.

By Jamila Rizvi


The draft. The pitch. The royalties. Two publishing experts give you the only download you'll need to get started.

By Jamila Rizvi

So you want to write a book, eh? For a rather big dream, it’s one that an awful lot of people share. However, the idea of writing a book tends to be a lot more romantic than the reality. If you’re picturing yourself seated at a beautifully polished oak desk, perched beside an open window overlooking a garden, wearing a white floaty dress and sipping a cup of tea – then stop. While you might spend day one like this, day thirty will be rather different. By day 300 you’ll resemble a hungover Kath and Kim character, as opposed to a Victorian era piece of art.

I wrote most of my first book in a bustling café, complaining about intermittent internet connections and wired up on coffee. It was one of the best and most rewarding experiences of my life but also one of the hardest. And as it turns out, for most writers the actual writing is generally one of the easier parts of the “getting published” process. Finding someone to turn your ideas into a real life, hold-in-your-hands thing with a cover and all that jazz, is a complex and intimidating process. I sat down with two brilliant and experienced editors to give me the low-down on how it all works. Here is the long and short of what you need to know.

Getting the basics together: When making a pitch to a publisher you’ll need to include a cover letter, a brief synopsis of the book, and a copy of the manuscript. Also make sure you provide a brief biography of who you are with a particular focus on any relevant experience you have. Include any other relevant information that shows you’re the right person to write this book. You want to have a working title, subtitle and two sentence ‘hook’ for the book that will grab the publisher’s attention. It’s useful to have conducted a really basic market analysis, to provide an idea of where the book fits in the reading landscape. Think genre, potential readership and comparable books by other authors.

What if someone steals my idea? Don’t want to send your entire manuscript off to someone you’ve never met before? This is a common worry of first time authors but it isn’t one you need to get too hung up on. “Copyright is automatically established when you create the work so you’re covered – the publisher legally can’t do anything with your material unless you explicitly grant permission,” says Cate Blake, Senior Publisher at Penguin Random House. “And publishers want to read and fall in love with your work, so sending a draft for them to read is crucial.”

Wait, I have to write a WHOLE book? Actually, not necessarily. “Generally speaking, it’s helpful to have a full manuscript for fiction, and not strictly necessary for nonfiction, especially for investigative nonfiction or anything that requires a fair bit of research,” says Arwen Summers, Publisher at Hardie Grant. “But you should have at least a couple of chapters of sample material, alongside a pitch, a synopsis (and/or contents), and an author bio (which should demonstrate to a publisher how and why you have the chops to research and write that nonfiction book you’ve pitched but not yet written)”.

Don’t pitch too soon: “It can be tempting to finish a first draft and then immediately start sending it off to publishers,” says Cate. Her advice is to steady on girl, because “you’ll have a much higher chance of success if you take the time to sit with your work and then redraft it until you’ve got it as close to perfect as you possibly can”.

Talk to my agent: What’s an agent? What do they do, and do you need to have one? Excellent questions, my first-time author friend. “A literary agent is someone who is the middle woman between you and the publishing houses,” explains Arwen. “They’ll have a comprehensive knowledge of who is publishing what, and where to send your book; they will put together a killer pitch for you and then follow up and sell your book to the right publisher, negotiating the advance; they will advise you on the book contract and negotiate if necessary on any clauses; they will act as a bridge between you and your publisher and offer support to both; they will have your career in mind and may act as a sounding board for your next book. You pay them generally 15 per cent of your authorial income (and often 15 per cent of anything else book-related, like appearances at writers’ festivals) and in exchange they sell your book to a publisher for you”.

Show me the money: Before you go committing away 15 per cent of your author’s income, you probably want to know what it is – right? “Authors are paid in royalties (a percentage of the cover price of each book, usually around 10 per cent) and they receive an advance against those royalties as an upfront payment,” says Cate Blake. “For the most part, the advance is split into thirds – one third paid on signature, one third on delivery of the final edited manuscript, and one third on publication. Once an author has earned out the advance by selling enough copies to cover it, they go on to earn royalties in perpetuity.”

Arwen Summers, Jamila Rizvi and Cate Blake

Just how ‘royal’ will my royalties be? Don’t get super excited just yet. Generally, the book industry isn’t one to enter for job security or as a low risk money earning enterprise. “Authors in Australia earn an average of just $13k/year from their writing,” says Arwen Summers. “It’s worth considering what an agent will give you and whether you could (or would want to) do it yourself”.

How many people will read my book? “How many copies a new author can expect to sell is really genre-dependent, and to a lesser extent, publisher-dependent, explains Arwen Summers. “If your book is published by an Australian trade publisher, it could be anywhere between 300 (your friends and family) and 50,000+ (congratulations! You’re a bestseller, baby!). Smaller publishers will have smaller print runs and selling 500 copies of your 2000 print run is different to selling 500 copies of your 20,000 print run”.

Why you have to write and keep writing: Both publishers give me identical advice when I ask what aspiring authors can do to improve their writing. “Write. And write. And keep writing,” says Arwen. “Join a writing group or do a short course and seek feedback within these supportive circles”.  “Write, write, write,” echoes Cate Blake. “Writing is a skill like any other and you need to invest time and energy to develop it. And read, read, read – learn from those who have gone before you what does (and doesn’t) work to your ear, and what other readers are responding to.”

On getting noticed: Considering how to make your manuscript stand out from the pile? Don’t resort to the cheap and cheerful gimmick, is the firm advice of our experts. You’re a writer. It should be your writing that grabs people’s attention. “For the most part, publishers don’t like gimmicks!” says Cate Blake. “So don’t fill the envelop with glitter, or write in the voice of your main character, or pick a large, eye-catching (obnoxious) font… You’re looking to start a professional relationship and a publisher needs to know that you’ll be someone they’ll want to work with for the next twelve months plus”.

What’s hot and what’s not? “Australian crime fiction is really popular at the moment, with authors like Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Christian White selling really well,” says Cate Blake. “And it’s nice to see nonfiction with a feminist bent getting a lot of attention, including writers like Clementine Ford, Bri Lee and Jamila Rizvi (hi!)”. Arwen Summers responds to the same question with “narrative nonfiction is big and getting bigger, and I’m always looking for awesome narrative nonfiction! Sustainability, slow living, anti-materialism, minimalism – personal development generally – are all areas of growth for nonfiction too. While I don’t publish fiction I know every other trade publisher in Australia is looking for great, readable fiction”.

No, you don’t have to be an insta-celeb: It can be daunting to pitch a book as a first-time author, especially if you don’t already have a public profile but while established fame can be a plus, it’s by no means necessary. “A lot of published authors start out as totally unknown, so it’s in no way a deterrent,” says Cate Blake. “My excitement can be sparked by a million different things, such as voice, characters, story, ideas. I also like to feel that I have something to offer – that I’ll be the absolute best editor and publisher for a book, that I can see how I would work with the author to make their book and writing career as successful as possible.”

A big solid dose of encouragement: “I often sign totally unknown authors and often without agents,” says Arwen. “I’ve signed someone who pitched to me at Emerging Writers Festival, someone I met at a local council workshop, friends of other authors with great ideas. These people had a clear hook – they knew what their book was, what they wanted to demonstrate or investigate, and why people would read it, and they had done the hard work of writing (many, many redrafts, or blog posts for years, for example). I also look for engaged authors – those who are willing and able to be a partner not only in the editorial process but in the publishing process overall – especially marketing and publicity.”

Don’t be lonely. You are not alone. Many first time writers complain that even after landing a publishing deal, it can be a lonely process. They often feel isolated and the pressure to succeed can be overwhelming. Cate says to remember this: “Publishing is a team sport! Your editor and your publisher will be by your side through the whole process, but there’s a whole gang of other people working towards the success of your book as well, including publicists, marketing and social media folk, salespeople, production controllers, designers, etc. Get to know them and find out how you can work with them in the best possible way.”

Cate Blake is a Senior Publisher with Penguin Random House Australia and Arwen Summers is a Non-Fiction Publisher with Hardie Grant Australia.