How to Approach a Publisher

Now that you’ve got a manuscript that, with all your writing experience, you think may have a halfway decent chance of being accepted, how is the best way to approach an agent or publisher? (You might like to read my page on To Agent or Not? and More about Agents as well.)

There is one major rule in approaching publishers: BE PROFESSIONAL. If you think that’s a pretty obvious statement, then you’d be appalled at the number of aspiring authors who are totally unprofessional, or who even approach publishers as if they are doing the publisher a great favour. I have seen some horrifying examples of complete unprofessionalism: death threats sent to editors, agents and even me (how dare I be successful when X out there knows his rejected manuscript is much better than mine?), bizarre threats of retribution from God sent to agents or editors on the receipt of a rejection letter … if you want to be a professional author, then you’ve simply got to leave the hysteria behind you if for no other reason than the recipients of these threatening letters and emails generally share them around colleagues in the publishing industry. Threaten one individual, and word gets out. Don’t do it. Everyone is rejected (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told my work would never sell), and you must learn to deal with it and move forward. So…

How to Give a Decent Impression of Professionalism

Whatever you do, do not send your entire manuscript off to a publisher (or, shudder, five or six of them at once) without first sending a letter of inquiry. Getting accepted takes time, and you’re not going to do it in one month, or even three. Think six to eight months … if you’re lucky. I’d finished BattleAxe in April of one year at the latest … and it took until September to be accepted by an agent, until November to be accepted by a publisher, and contracts were not signed until December, no cash until January of the following year … and I was fairly zoomed through the system. Often it takes years to get a sale on a book.

Be patient.

There are two ways to approach a publisher. By yourself, or through an agent.

Approaching Publishers Personally

I’ll talk you through the personal approach first.

Do some research. Find out which publishers are publishing in your field. It’s beyond useless to send a letter, or the manuscript, off blind to a publisher only because you vaguely know their name.

Also take the time to find out the publisher’s submission guidelines. Now that most of the major publishers have a presence on the web they often put their submission guidelines on their websites, so read them before you send anything in.

Once you’ve found a publisher, or two or three, who are currently publishing in your genre (if you can find a publisher who is actively searching for manuscripts, i.e., they’ve just started a line up, then you’ll have a better chance), send in a letter of inquiry to the editor (please, please type it … see below re presentation). Briefly tell them something about yourself (editors are going to be as interested in you as your manuscript; if they accept your manuscript they are, after all, going to have to work with you), what experience you have in writing and publishing (if you’ve not had anything published yet, that’s okay), and give them a brief synopsis of your book. A page, maybe two. No more. No one has time to read a twenty-page synopsis. Your letter and synopsis has got to catch an editor’s eye in under two minutes, so don’t waste this chance in waffle, and whatever else you do, don’t try to be cute in an effort to catch their attention — people who try to make themselves out to be the most witty or mysterious people on earth (hoping thereby the publisher will take up their manuscript) only succeed in making themselves look silly.

It’s fine to send letters and synopses to several publishers at once, but if more than one writes back and to say they’d like to see several chapters, then send the chapters to one publisher only (again, see below for presentation). These people share gossip, phone calls, lunches … they’re going to find out if you send it to two or more … and you will be dropped so fast by all of them it will take you ten years to recover the lost ground. So if more than one wants to see a sample of the book, then send it to whoever you think will be your best bet, and send the others letters telling them what’s going on. It won’t damage your chances at all; in fact, it will increase your aura of professionalism. If the first doesn’t want it, then you’re still going to have a good chance with the others. (The first Australian publisher to read BattleAxe rejected it as unpublishable …. so editors do make misjudgments, and if one rejects it, it doesn’t mean that the next won’t welcome you with open arms, an unstopped bottle of sherry, and a fat cheque.)

Okay, several chapters have gone off to an editor, it looks promising. Now you wait. And wait. Sometimes you will wait several months. Give the publisher two months … then write a friendly letter asking what’s happening (don’t think to be clever and say there’s someone else who wants it … the editor is just as likely to respond with, “Oh? Well, let them have it, then”). After three months you’re perfectly within your rights to send the manuscript somewhere else. A publisher should be professional as well, and if they’ve said they want to read a manuscript, then they should manage to do so within a month or so at the outside.

Above all, and I’ll keep saying this until I’m blue in the face … be patient. I have a theory that editors sometimes linger over reading not only because they’re busy (which they are), but because they’re also testing you. If you bother them with constant calls and letters asking when they’re going to make up their mind, then chances are you won’t be accepted. Editors like to know that the authors they’ll be working closely with are sane. Believe me here. If you irritate them, or insult them, you’ve blown your chance. Not only with the one publisher, but if you’ve acted badly enough, with the entire industry. Be patient. Take to drink, eat chocolate bars until you’re twice the size you used to be, but leave the editors alone for a decent period.

And don’t get despondent at the first rejection. In fact, get used to them. Everyone gets rejected more often than they get accepted. Deal with it. Learn from it. Listen to any constructive criticism that comes your way. If you’re really serious about writing, then rejection is going to become a way of life for you.

Unfortunately many would-be authors are unable to accept criticism or rejection. Please do not become one of those who resort to abuse, or even death threats, to overcome their disappointment. Accept it. Shrug your shoulders. Learn from it. Try again. Remember, every one of the famous literary names alive has been told at one time or the other by a publishing house that they might as well give up the writing game and go earn a living waiting tables. But these famous literary names hung in there, learned, and … well … are now famous literary names.

Using an Agent

According to the Australian Society of Authors, more and more Australian publishers (as publishers around the world) are refusing to accept manuscripts, or even consider them, unless they come via an agent. This is almost entirely due to the fact that editors are increasingly unable to deal with the thousands of manuscripts that are sent to them each year. Literary agents act as a buffer for the publishing industry. If something is submitted via an agent then the editor can be reasonably sure that both it and the author been vetted and are not completely unworkable. Publishers trust agents in a manner they will never trust the general public. (Also read my pages To Agent or Not? and More about Agents)

My advice on approaching an agent runs along much the same lines as approaching a publisher. First of all, find out what literary agents there are, and what type of genres they prefer to handle (it’s no use sending a popular fiction ms to an agent who deals only in literary works). In whatever country you live in there is usually an association of writers or authors who can help you with a list of agents (or, do as I did, and check the Yellow Pages! However, before you grab the phone book, be warned that some agencies don’t list in phone books and you’ll get a more comprehensive listing from writers’ organizations). In Australia you can write to the Australian Society of Authors who should be able to give you some idea of what agents there are, who has their books closed, and who takes what for a minimal price. The address is:
98 Pitt Street,
Redfern, NSW, 2016.
Phone (02) 318 0877

When approaching an agent, send a letter of inquiry and synopsis first, enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope. If the agent wants to read your work then they’ll discuss prices etc. at that point. But an agent shouldn’t charge the earth to read your work unless they’re going to offer a written criticism of it. Agents will take some time to read your manuscript. They’ll read it first, then they may well send it out to someone else to read and comment on. This may take months. So, be patient. Remember what I said above about not annoying or abusing editors … the same applies to agents. Agents will be as interested in you (and your reactions) as your manuscripts. They will never take on someone they don’t like or don’t trust. Remember, they’ve got prospective authors (almost literally) camping on their doorsteps. They can pick and choose.

If an agent does take you on, then you’ve got a real chance, and your agent is going to be in a good position to get you the best possible terms on your contract. I don’t begrudge the slice of my income that goes to my agent. Without her, there would be no income at all.


The best way to create an instantly favourable impression with either publisher or agent is with a professionally presented manuscript. Typed, or preferably word processed. Never handwritten. The manuscript should have a minimum of handwritten corrections (if there’s a large number of them, then print it again, but you can get away with a few). The manuscript should be presented on A4 paper, one side only, with 4 cm margins (at least). The text should be double-spaced, and the font and ink should be sharp and clear (don’t get cute and use a ‘cute’ font; be professional!). Each page should be numbered, and it’s a good idea to put your name at the top right-hand corner of each page. Pages should be loose, not bound. Keep a copy yourself, or at least make sure that you have it on disk (or on several disks, all stored in different places!).

Well, I’ve run out of helpful hints. I wish you luck. But remember, practice, patience and professionalism will always give your work the best possible chance.

©2000 Sara Douglass Enterprises

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *