What happens to get a book published?

Having a book published is an exciting process; it comes at the end of one journey – actually writing the damn thing in the first place – and begins another when you sign that contract. The writing is, by far, the more complex thing to do, but that doesn’t mean the road to publication doesn’t require effort or concerted thought; it most certainly does.

I’ve been fortunate to have been published twice with Inspired Quill, once by Pill Hill Press, and once by May December Publications. In fairness, the last two of those were American anthologies in which my short stories appeared, and I didn’t have to do very much on either; I got a flat rate payment from each publisher and never heard from them again – aside to see my name in the occasional review when either one of the anthologies gets rediscovered for a new generation of reader.

No, Inspired Quill have been my primary experience of publishing, and we’ve both learned as we go; I’m sure Sara, The Big Cheese, won’t mind me saying that, as it’s true. When I first signed with them, I was only the second author on their … aha, books, and actually the first to the published due to a quirk with the dates chosen. The moment when you get that email or phone call to say that you’re going to be published for the very first time remains indelibly imprinted on your mind forever; I was in a coffee shop in the middle of Broadstairs one Saturday afternoon, and the email came through to my phone – which, of course, I checked whilst in the middle of a conversation, because I’m vaguely anti-social like that. Yes, I understand the principle that it’s terribly anti-social, but don’t misunderstand me; I’m not in the slightest bit sorry, as I practically jumped through the ceiling of the cafe when I’d read the message seventeen times and got my friend to check it as well. It was, in retrospect, the right thing to do.

But then the hard work starts; whether it’s your first or twentieth book, you should be equally as engaged in the process, and so should your publisher. If either of those things ceases to be true – or is not even true from the beginning – then alarm bells should be ringing right from the get-go, and listen to those alarm bells. Both sides should be passionate about publication, and if that falls down somewhere, get out of the contract as quickly as you possibly can, with as little pain and difficulty as possible.

Oh, and while I think about it, don’t ever – ever – pay money to a publisher if they’re calling themselves “a vanity publisher.” If they’re demanding money, they’re a self-publisher or a vanity press; a traditional publisher would never demand money up front. In fact, the publisher shoulders a decent amount of the risk in that set-up, as the financial investment is all theirs. Publishers take a decent amount of the book sales, that’s undeniable, but they also have a certain amount of risk as well, so make sure that’s a consideration when you’re consulting the contract. If the words “self” or “vanity” never appear anywhere in the contract or the conversation, and yet the contract stipulates a particular amount of money to be paid into their coffers, call them out on it. You may be willing to go down the self-publishing route – I’m not knocking it; I’ve considered it myself for a book that’s not within IQ’s sphere of interest – but the company concerned should at least be honest enough to admit what they’re in it for.

But that is by-the-by right now. I can’t comment on self-publishing as I’ve never done it, and neither have I been published by any of the Big Five (as they are now – they used to be the Big Six before Random House and Penguin merged, and how I wish they’d renamed themselves Random Penguin). Instead, I went down a different – and increasingly popular – route, by being published through a small independent agency that employs some leaner, more innovative ways of working within its sphere of influence.

Inspired Quill is a social enterprise, for starters, which appealed to my sense of community, and it has plans – as it grows and develops its business model in line with more authors coming on board – to develop social action in communities and schools, so I’m all for that. I also like the agency, and I like the MD; I call her the Big Cheese for no other reason than I can, and she doesn’t express any irritation at me for doing it. I like that. I also get on with the other writers in the IQ stable; there have been occasions where we’ve been at conventions together and found ourselves selling each others’ books to interested readers, and it seemed like entirely the right and proper thing to do in that moment. There are writers I’ve never had the chance to meet in person yet, and despite that, I have developed connections with them over social media and discovered that they have such similar interests to me in some areas that it’s almost frightening. A love of good grammar being one such area. You know who you are.

I seem to have digressed slightly, so will return to my initial point now, but without apology for the long way round that we have reached it; I wanted to share those thoughts in any case, so why couldn’t I share it here? It’s my blog, after all. I’m verging on a “nyer nyer” there, but shall refrain; that would be awfully childish of me.

So, the actual process of publication varies slightly from agency to agency, is the point I’m trying to make, but the fundamental principles are still the same. How much input and involvement you have in each step depends on the agency concerned and its philosophy, as well as its ability to invest in different areas – after all, its budget defines how much it can afford to spend on everything to do with the book, and how many people are able to be involved with it. All I can talk about in that sense is what I’ve experienced with IQ.

When the contract is signed, a useful first step is to develop a timeline of events between now and the publication date. You might not religiously stick to it – heaven knows that the Big Cheese and I don’t often enough – so flexibility is key, but so is an understanding of your publisher’s priorities, and not being afraid to identify if any of yours are different; is there a particular publication date you want to aim for because your book marks an anniversary? Well, speak up, but also listen; that way, you understand the publisher’s reasoning, and they understand yours. A calm discussion means your reasoning gets heard as well.

I didn’t always get that memo; I was annoyed on just one particular occasion – I forget which book it was over, and what particular part of the process we were in – but I do remember that a Sunday morning chat became fraught from my perspective between I wanted to express my opinions in no uncertain terms. Sara was very patient with me, and let me vent my spleen, and then I deflated somewhat when I realised that I was spiraling round and round on the same treadmill.

I actually felt a lot better after that, and more so when the Big Cheese showed no sign that the frustration at something that wasn’t entirely within her control had affected her; in fact, she had an eloquence and an ability to show that she had listened to make me realise that I could have communicated my opinions and thoughts in a calmer, more rational way. But that was that, and what was done was done. Sara was calm, and we reviewed the situation together as we continued to focus on the same central point – that the book was the thing and was all that was important. I like to think that our relationship, already very solid, has become better with every conversation, because we talk to – and understand – each other, and I feel comfortable with the process to know my place in it as the author.

Because that’s the other piece of the puzzle you need to establish right from the get-go; what are you expected to be doing to contribute to the book’s publication? Bigger publishers have entire marketing, publicity, communications, and editing divisions that carve up so much of the work between themselves that the writer just has to answer a few preliminary questions, turn up at a few interviews (if they’re considered to have enough potential), and go where they’re directed to publicise it.

Smaller agencies rely more on the writer being as actively involved as they want to be – or as much as they’re able to be. It’s so often difficult to get tied down to many contributions as most writers have work commitments – it’s rare to find writers who can finally support themselves off their proceeds, and the well-known authors can unintentionally mask thousands upon thousands, as opposed who rely on a wage or partner to keep themselves out of a Dickensian poverty workhouse. That might well be stretching the imagery I’m trying to express here, but I trust you get my meaning. That’s always been my frustration – not being able to do more. I’ve always thrived on that engagement with the entire process, but know logically that there is a limit to my involvement. My emotions, however, continue to protest, and I accept that; it will never change.

The first thing you will encounter after that contract is signed and sealed is a discussion around the editing process. The best thing I say tell you about this is; embrace the editor as an old friend, and welcome the editing process as a positive, construct one that will help you improve as a writer.

The best editors are the ones who encourage, support, believe in the book almost as much as you, and ask questions to encourage you to think, consider, and look at the storyline and structure again to understand how it can get better. Do look at the storyline again, and do consider the questions the editor has put to you; they will help you learn. On each occasion I’ve had the good fortunate to work with an editor, they have been wonderful. When Fall From Grace, my very first book, was reprinted and reissued back in 2015, I worked with an editor to look at the story again with the benefit of hindsight now that its sequel had come out. I knew that I could expect a few notes from her, but I then received nine pages of notes. She’d really read my book, understood it, and seemed to care about it just as much as I did. That kind of editor is so important; when you find them, keep them on your side for as long as you can, as they are fighting for you and your book.

Peter Stewart, Antonica Jones, and Sara Slack (yes, indeed, I was recently edited by the Big Cheese herself) had worked as editors on my titles, and I am a better writer for each of them; they each picked up on my writing foibles well before I ever appreciated that I had got them, and I was able to improve as a result. Run on sentences is one of my foibles, so I had to put in a full stop there to give you a chance to mentally breathe – that was Peter who first picked up on that, and then Sara gave me a gentle nudge when I hadn’t entirely given up the practice a few years later. That’s what I mean about improving in the craft as a writer. Open yourself up to learning from people who know what they’re talking about, and never – never – be precious.

On the other hand, do stand up for things you feel passionate about, and can defend without getting angry or argumentative. If you resort to anger, then your argument might not be as strong as you think it is. Whenever I discuss an edit that’s been picked up in one of my books, I always ask myself first; Why do I want to defend this? What’s so important about it? I don’t often disagree with the Trinity – as I shall now call Peter, Antonica, and the Big Cheese – but I did robustly defend the ending to one of my books; I particularly wanted the last pair of lines to remain exactly as they were, as they really mattered to the integrity of the characters and defined their future paths, so I remained pleasantly immovable when we discussed it, and the lines remained entirely as they were.

Where I did need to change things, however, I did willingly; it helped me learn about improving the clarity and brevity of my writing. Somewhat ironic in an article of this size, but a different matter entirely.

Whilst you’re working on the edits, you’ll also have in the back of your mind what the book should look like; what’s the cover going to be? What about the acknowledgements? The dedication? The typeface? I jest on the last point; typographical details are down to the publishers, and you won’t need to get involved with anything like that. If you’re not sure what their house style is like, then just pick up any of their other titles, and that’ll soon tell you.

But the cover design of any book is so important in luring a casual – well, any – reader in. The first edition of Fall From Grace was a stylish, lovely photograph taken by IQ’s art director at the time, and it came all the way from America – it was a lovely gothic cathedral; I completely forget where precisely it is now, but it certainly looks like an imposing pile.

When its follow on – Leap of Faith – came out, and when Fall From Grace was then reprinted, we were fortunate to have a friend of mine, Lucy Lindsell, create the covers. This was a brilliant coup for us, as it meant two things; we had Lucy’s talent brought to bear on the covers, and it gave the duology a consistent, fresh look that united the two books in a funny sort of way.

Artwork is incredibly important, and you must contribute your own thoughts to the process. Your thoughts are vital, as you know the themes of the book, and understand that one image would work over another because of a particular reveal, or because of a need to keep something secret within the storyline. That said, the art director is going to have something to say about the direction it should take, and quite right now; they have a grip (or at least should have a grip – if they don’t, get rid of them immediately) on what’s current, on what’s appealing, and how the sector you’re writing in works. Consider half a dozen titles in your favourite genre, and try to remember what first attracted you to that book. Was it written by an author you already know and love? Or was it the fact that the cover was visually appealing, forcing you to pick it up and turn over to the synopsis? The cover is key, and make sure you’re getting involved in the process.

So, you’ve edited the book, helped design the book, worked on your acknowledgements and dedication along the way (do remember to mention your parents, your editor, and your best friends somewhere, and don’t worry if you forgot to name-check your primary school teacher – they’ll forgive you more quickly than your editor will; don’t forget who slaved away at the book for hours upon end), and are getting close to publication date. What’s next?

Well, there are two important areas to consider; the marketing and reviews of the book, and then the day of launch itself. Marketing and reviews first; I don’t need to tell you the importance of this, as you’re not daft. Without effective marketing, your book will disappear, and without solid relationships formed with effective book reviewers, then your book will languish in a quiet, dusty corner of your publisher’s website or in a far-flung corner of Waterstone’s.

I subscribe to the policy of “any publicity …” etc, and I’m certainly in favour of being as engaged as possible. I know of writers who can’t bear the thought of standing up in front of a room full of people to talk about themselves, their book, or anything even vaguely related to life. I personally don’t have a problem with having my voice heard; whilst I’m not a fan of my own voice, I’m personally in favour of sharing it as far and wide as I possibly can. I’ve had the opportunity to speak in front of library audiences, bookshop buyers, school children (probably the best talks I’ve ever done have been to students), and a lot of other places as well; it’s certainly very diverse, and does help sell the book.

As the author, the book’s marketing does rely on your ability to be a significant part of the marketing policy; the publishing house can – should – do a significant amount of marketing; organising the reviewers, getting out press releases, helping to organise photos and interviews, and so on, but don’t be passive as the author. If there’s something local to you that you know about which could tie in to your book, then connect with that something; a poster in a shop, a talk to a potentially interested group of people, a book signing, whatever it might be. I’ve attended some human library events across Kent, where I’ve been interviewed by members of the public, and taken part in podcasts and handing out books in the middle of Dover high street – all in the name of publicity, and I’ve grown in confidence by booking my own events sometimes when I’ve found the right thing to do.

Let me say a quick word on book reviewers as well; I utterly love and adore most reviewers. They are powerful advocates for fiction, whatever genre they prefer, and can talk intelligently about such a range of titles within their field. Those book reviewers, thankfully, are in the majority, and are well-read, well-thought of, and well-respected by their audiences.

There are others, however. You can tell the type I’m thinking of by the quality of their reviews, their websites, and their grammar. Oftentimes all three. It’s awfully depressing to see these sites, where reviewers will regurgitate the blurb and storyline but not much else; they certainly won’t give any opinions on the book beyond “it woz good” or some such ephemera. When I’m reviewed, I want to see an honest, constructive review; if someone doesn’t like part of the book, or even the entirety of the book, that’s fine – just say so in a constructive way and tell me why; give me reasons, and I’ll like you for it because you’re being constructive and thoughtful.

Anyway, enough of this, onto the last thing I want to talk about; the day of the book launch itself. What you do on the day itself is often up to you, although if you’re with a larger agency, you’ll usually find that they will have some ideas. Personally, I prefer to keep things comparatively low-key; despite everything I’ve written about, I’m not actually that naturally confident in being the centre of attention. I can cope with it when I need to, but it’s not my natural state of being, so if I can avoid it by having a meal out with some friends to celebrate the launch, then that’s what I’ll do.

I usually also have a book signing as well, because that’s a nice compromise; I get a chance to meet people who might be willing to buy my book – or are at least interested enough to talk to a real-life author who’s got a book out through the traditional route of a publishing house, and are usually willing to discuss the details of what makes up a good book to them; if you’re listening closely enough, I always think you can pick up a nugget or two of gold from another reader’s perspective.

I’ve been very fortunate to have friends come and support me during the book signing as well; to be fair, the majority of people coming to buy the book on that first day have been people I know. My mum is a great communicator, and will broadcast news of the book signing far and wide to family, the interweaving network of her friends, and people she’ll stop in the street to tell. Anyone, really. So I can usually guarantee a good number of people coming along to support me, and that’s such a wonderful feeling; to have a queue of people waiting for a signed copy of your book is so flattering. If you know them, that’s great, because people care enough about you to turn out support you. If you don’t know them, then the same principle still applies, and it’s exciting to meet new people who are fans of the same genre as you.

There’s stuff I’ve undoubtedly missed during this article, but that’s only because I’ve forgotten it (in which case, it might not be entirely important), or just had a blind moment of stupidity. At this stage, either of those is possible; I’ve written this over the course of a week or so when I’ve also been working on the final edits to my third book, which comes out very soon from the time of writing. My focus currently is the book signing and a meal to celebrate its release with a few friends; when I finish the creative output, I find myself struggling to then maintaining the focus on that storyline. From submission to publication can be around eight months or so, and in the meantime, I’ve moved onto a new book; in this case, a sequel, so my mind is elsewhere – and yet I then come back to the storyline when edits come through.

I was surprised, actually, as the edits really helped me when my editor gave them to me, as I was on the second version of my sequel and thinking (in the privacy of my own head) that the middle third was a bit weak and flabby. Going back to the edits of Elysium’s Shadow and seeing my editor’s comments inspired me to think differently about the next book, and I can now go back to that with a clear head … unless the Big Cheese comes up with anything this afternoon when we discuss the final round of edits. Watch this space.

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