One of the most common questions we’re asked at Exclusive Books is: ‘How do I get published?’ As a retailer, we don’t publish books, but we naturally work with the many South African publishers who do. Being in the industry, we get a good feel for what they look for, and the kind of books that make a match with trends and demand.
There is no guaranteed method of getting published, of course. Sometimes writers are published because they know the right people, or because their manuscripts landed in the right place at the right time. Most published writers, however, are the ones who never gave up, despite receiving a pile of rejection letters. Persistence pays in the world of publishing.
Here is a brief introduction to getting published through traditional publishers. It cannot cover all the aspects in depth, but may help point you in the right direction on your publishing quest.
Writer, Be Warned
It should be emphasised from the start that, unless you specifically intend to travel the self-publishing route (another story altogether), you should not pay to get published! The businesses that promise to publish writers for a fee have you, the author, at the centre of their business models, rather than your work. You can read more about the difference between legitimate self-publishing services and writing scams at the Writer Beware blog, here and here.
Where To Get Started
If you are writing fiction, and are just starting out, it’s best to have a complete manuscript before you begin submitting queries to publishers. If you are writing non-fiction, a table of contents and a few chapters are usually enough to secure interest. Publishers look for about 60 000 words for a novel but this changes from genre to genre and publisher to publisher.
There are a lot of guides to getting published, like this one, written by Basil van Rooyen specifically for the South African market: Get Your Book Published in 30 (Relatively Easy) Steps.
If you need help with writing, meanwhile, try these titles:
Getting Your Book Into The Right Hands
Getting published takes a lot of work, and there will be rejections. Rejection letters are not fun, but are also not necessarily an indication of the quality of your writing. Many of the most famous authors have had harsh rejection letters. Securing a publishing contract is nearly a full-time job in and of itself. The start is very much like applying for a job, in fact: compile the book – this is your CV – and write a basic cover letter. Next, research all the publishing houses to find the right person and the right imprint. Then send your cover letter according to the specification of the imprint’s website.
In South Africa, many publishers accept manuscripts directly from writers. Overseas, publishers often work exclusively through agents and will reject unsolicited manuscripts. See more on agents below.
Each publisher has its own manuscript submission requirements. Some will want a blurb and the first 3 chapters. Some will want the whole manuscript, a blurb, a synopsis and your CV as a writer, listing any qualifications you may have, such as creative writing courses or a publication list. Then there’s the usual three-to-six-month wait for an answer – if one comes at all. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, your manuscript will be rejected immediately for a thousand different reasons. Mostly, your work sits in what’s called a ‘slush pile’ amongst many other manuscripts, which the publisher works through bit by bit.
For a quick FAQ on getting published in South Africa, read this guide from The Publishers Association of South Africa.
Literary Agent: Should You Have One?
As mentioned, in South Africa, most publishers will accept a manuscript directly from writers – check their websites to see publishers’ terms and conditions.
However, working with a literary agent to sell your manuscript to publishers has significant advantages – one of which is increasing the likelihood that you will be published in more than one market, including the biggest prizes of all, the UK and USA markets. Agents work to sell your books into a variety of publishing houses, in return for a percentage of your royalty fees. Agents also negotiate better contract terms for you, and will generally know the publishing landscape better than you, acting as an advisor in a number of different circumstances (including, lately, the all-important question of how to handle the digital rights to your work).
Like getting published, getting an agent isn’t easy. This blog post from a published author offers some good advice.
When you do get published, we can’t wait to see your book on our shelves
For further reference, visit this list of publishing resources.