Jun 7 2013 2:00pm

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.

David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Gah, the part that is always left out of these interviews is the reverse side of this; what if I want to be a commissioning editor instead of an author? I thus far have only the vaguest idea of how to manage that.
Cain Latrani
2. CainS.Latrani
There are other factors to consider as well. For example, some times, the publishing house has already accepted all the work they can for the year, or on occassion, the next two or three. This usually results in the dreaded photocopy of a form letter, which is a good way of knowing they didn't look at your proposal.

While it's easy to get angry about that, as the article points out, they get a LOT of manuscripts. It doesn't take long to eat up their budget for a year, especially when taking into account already contracted authors.

The cold, hard fact is that the liklihood of getting your work looked at is already very low. No matter how good it is, or how well you have put together your proposal, there is a high chance that the publisher simply can't take it on, even if it's amazing.

Which is why persistance is important. Keep sending it out, to different publishers. Try again every year. The rejection is hard, but if you really are good, then you'll get seen.

Agents, on the other hand, are a tricky matter. Some charge to look at your work, and a few want an up front feee before taking you on. This isn't something that some people can afford. Look for an agent that doesn't charge and hope for the best.

If all else fails, self publishing is always an option. It's an even harder row to hoe, believe me, but it is an option, and sometimes, you just get tired of beating your head against that wall.

I did it for 20 years before I said to hell with it and started self publishing. My work doesn't get the exposure, the market backing, or the high end editing, but at least it gets published.

In the end, it's going to be about what you want from getting published, what you want for your work, how hard you are willing to work for it, and what you can afford to do.

Consider your options carefully, commit to a course, and stay with it. If you are good, you'll get there.
wizard clip
3. wizard clip
@#2: Agents earn their living by selling manuscripts to publishers. Any agent that demands an up front fee from a writer before reading his or her manuscript and selling it to a publisher is a scam artist. No writer, regardless of whether they can afford this, should deal with such an individual.
Cain Latrani
4. CainS.Latrani

I know of a few legitimate ones that charge a reading fee, but avoid all who want a representation fee up front. Often, the ones who charge a reading fee are the ones who have an overwhelming number of manuscripts already. I can understand it from that view, but still avoid it.
wizard clip
5. Nicholas Winter
@3: No legit agent charges a reading fee, period. If they do, it's another scam. Beware anyone who asks for money in any form to represent you.
Cain Latrani
6. CainS.Latrani

As of the 2010 Writer's Market, the last one I got, there were still some that did. I guess that's changed. Duly noted.
wizard clip
7. Nicholas Winter
Your best source for everything writerly is which will not only assist you in finding a real agent but has forums that will make you a better writer.

I am not affiliated with them. They're just good folk worth knowing.
Bobby Stubbs
8. Valan
Thanks for this article! Any inside look into the industry is always welcome.

@Nicholas Winter - I will have to check that website out.
Bruce Arthurs
9. bruce-arthurs
If a story only really starts in Chapter 5, the first four chapters need to be dropped.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
Of course, one must always hope that after they get an editor's attention, the editor doesn't lose their job, or the organization they work for doesn't go bankrupt. That has happened to me on a few of occasions, and can be very discouraging.
Cain Latrani
11. CainS.Latrani

Had that happen a couple times, too. It's one of the most depressing things a writer can experiance.

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