Beyond the Gatekeeper: The Road to Publication

You want to be published? Then you will need to brave the den of that mysterious beast—the publishing house—where chances are you will be facing down the Commissioning Editor. Gatekeepers of your dreams, they’re the Judge Dredd of the publishing industry. The numbers alone speak for their efficacy: hundreds, even thousands of manuscripts submitted a year; and only a few are judged worthy of publication.

This is how it appears to us on the outside, but is it really true?

We were lucky enough to convince one such gatekeeper to come up to the University of Warwick and talk to us about the publishing process from writing to agency submission to editing and publication.

Bella Pagan is a senior commissioning editor at Tor UK, and yes, that is as intimidating as it sounds. However, you know what? She’s also a fan and that’s pretty cool. Just like a certain Doctor’s bow-tie. She braved the den of the Creative Writing department where starving students roam and gave us an honest appraisal of what it takes to get published.

It’s not easy.

The first step is obviously finishing your book. Never query with an unfinished manuscript. Agents and editors have the memories of elephants and once you leave a bad taste in their mouth, it’s hard to get their attention again. Choosing your agent is also vital, as the right one will not only get your book to the right publishers, but actually get them to pay attention to it. Publishing is a small community and they all know each other. This is similar to any time someone suggests something. For example, if a friend tells you to watch Highlander II then you may question their judgment later on when they recommend something else, or if they’re really even your friend.

Your query/pitch needs to be good. Professionally done. Would you rush your cover letter and C.V. when applying for a job? No.

It is hard to reduce (in the words of Bella Pagan) your “magnificence of amazingness to three lines and two comparison points.” But do it. I was left a stuttering wreck when asked about my book, which is not a good place for a writer to be when talking to the editor of a major publishing house. Lesson learned.

Your online presence is also something that will be evaluated. You don’t need ten thousand twitter followers, but you should have some sort of online presence. Not only does this get your name out there, but also lets the editor see the personality of an author they may be taking on and working closely with for the next five years or more.

The need for an opening hook in your novel has become something of a weight around the author’s neck; the idea of quickly catching the attention of the reader (in this case, the agent and then editor) and keeping them hooked seems like an arbitrary rule. The cry of “it gets better” or “the story only really starts in chapter five” is rather common among writers of science fiction and fantasy, known for the tome-like novels that tend to get published. However, the need for the hook becomes obvious when you look at the statistics. Tor UK has over 400 manuscripts in its slush pile and only two editors. Take the average length to be 120,000 words. That’s 48 million words.

If every word needed to be read before a decision is made, one book would be published in a decade. So it’s understandable why the first chapters are so important. If only the first 10,000 words (2—3 chapters) are read that’s still around 5 million words or 40 novels worth of reading, all done outside of office hours. And it’s being added to all the time.

So, the first few pages are generally all you have. Make them good.


This post was originally posted on

The University of Warwick runs both MA and MFA programmes for Creative Writing, and for more information visit the Warwick Writing Programme. This year’s MA students produced an anthology of short stories, Inklings, available online here.

Craig Leyenaar is about to graduate from Warwick University with a MA in Writing. He is pursuing a career in publishing and is fascinated by all things speculative, fantastical, and just plain old weird. You can read more from him on Wilder’s Book Review or follow him on Twitter.


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