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The sure-fire way to getting your book published, according to one of UK's top literary agents

If you want to get your novel published finally, here's how you can go about it

How to make this the year you finally get publishedHow to make this the year you finally get published.

How to make this the year you finally get published. Illustration: Chris Bentham

The saying goes ‘everyone has a book in them’, and these days it really is possible to get published as there are multiple routes to seeing your book in the shops.

The traditional way to get your book published is via a literary agent like myself, who’ll endeavour to find you a publisher. Then there’s the self-publishing route, which is becoming increasingly popular and gives you ultimate control of your publishing journey. If you self-publish on Amazon, eBook sales can also be far greater than sales of a physical book and financially very lucrative.

Reading is such a subjective business and the digital marketplace means that the traditional gatekeepers are no longer blocking the way to publication. There’s a wealth of information online and in publications such as The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, an excellent source of literary agents you can approach and what genres they represent, updated each year. 

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If you’re reading this, you may be in the process of writing a book or you have written a book and are trying to get published. Agents prefer writers to have completed a manuscript before they consider representation, but initially we’re only assessing the first three chapters and a pitch, so these need to give us a good sense of your story. If you’ve written a first draft and have read it out loud without wanting to skim any passages(!) then this is the time to start sending it out to agents, but research them carefully.

The key to finding a good match is by submitting to agents who represent authors writing in a similar space to you, or who are actively building their lists and are on the lookout for new talent. Are you able to list two or three established authors writing in a similar space? Successful writers tend to be avid readers with a greater sense of who they are writing for. Some have drawers full of unpublished short stories and manuscripts that never found a publisher, but no word is wasted… they were honing their craft. 

Browse the shelves in bookshops, find the genre you are writing in and read the blurb on the back of these books. See how publishers refine their pitches to get a reader excited by a book before they’ve read a word of it and take note of the book titles that draw your attention – these are what get a reader to pick up a book. Make sure your own title is just as strong – choose one that resonates with someone who knows nothing about the story you have written. Practise pitching your book in the mirror or to friends and family.

Keep your cover letter conversational yet professional, and don’t start it with reams about yourself, get straight to the pitch and then include your bio further down. We read hundreds of covering letters a day and really appreciate a concise letter that gets straight to the point. Once we’re excited by the pitch, we’ll prioritise the opening chapters. It’s important to practise writing a synopsis, but most agents are drawn to the chapters first and will only look at the synopsis to find out where the story is heading once they’re intrigued by the opening.  

Really polish those opening three chapters – these will get an agent hooked so you want them to be as enticing as possible. Think about character – this is what typically draws a reader in before they get embroiled in the plot. Keep submitting to agents until you’ve exhausted every option. If you’ve had multiple rejections and haven’t heard back, then do consider self-publishing – there are so many opportunities through Amazon alone.

The writers I represent who originally self-published their book know more about the digital landscape than any publishing professional. It’s an amazing education and this extra insight bodes extremely well for all the writer’s future books and the growth of their brand as an author.

Whichever route you decide to go down, my main tip is to persevere. Most agents are looking to represent new talent, and we compete for new writers if we are compelled by the pitch and if their story feels right for the times. We know what publishers are looking for as we study the market trends, so timing plays an important part, and there’s always some luck involved. You need to be submitting to the right person at the right time.

Don’t pay attention to rejections unless they are specifically pointing out an area that can be improved. One of my authors was about to pack it in having written seven unpublished manuscripts, but now she’s a Sunday Times bestseller and her work has been adapted for screen. So many writers are riddled with self-doubt, even highly successful authors who’ve written multiple books – there’s anxiety with every manuscript. Don’t let those critical thoughts put you off. Persevere despite doubting yourself. Just keep going. 

Madeleine Milburn is one of the UK’s leading literary agents, representing multiple Sunday Times and New York Times bestsellers and is the Director of Madeleine Agency.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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