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Publisher's view 1


What a publisher wants - The view from a publisher's desk No 1

This is the first in a series of articles by Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, giving a publisher's view of the submission process and what a publisher is looking for.


What a publisher wants from submissions and what a writer can do about it

One of the best things about publishing is uncovering a new gem in the submissions pile. However, with manuscripts pouring in on a daily basis, this should be happening more often and in the past I have thrown a variety of things at the wall in frustration at the good writers who waste their ability with errors that I believe can easily be put right.

Therefore, I would like to outline some points covering what a publisher looks for in submissions and what a writer should be looking to do if they wish their work to be published. Firstly is the most basic – presentation. Writers should send in 3-4 sample chapters and a short synopsis (preferably one page) along with a short covering letter.

It is probably the fault of the publisher, but having to drag a full manuscript onto the desk, or piece together a disorganised arrangement of papers immediately creates a negative frame of mind. Likewise, a neat, concise package, in a plastic wallet or held together, gets the process off to a good start. Also, while editors may well do some later tinkering, it shouldn’t be sent in unless the writer feels it is a manuscript ready for publication, in terms of both grammar and content. Lines like ‘I know it needs some work’, or ‘I think it’s nearly there’ show admirable humility but are an immediate put-off!

Next is originality. Everyone has influences, which are very important, though the writer has to show what they offer that no-one else does. There’s no point claiming to be the ‘next Philip Pullman’ when there’s already one there selling very well himself! The writer has to put their individual stamp on it and then it’s up to the publisher to decide whether there is room in the market for it.

Linked to this is edge. I like to avoid the term ‘x-factor’ since the advent of reality TV, though when reading through hundreds of submissions, there are many good works but occasionally one will just stand out. It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic or experimental, it is just a case of a writer going through their manuscript with a fine tooth-comb, sometimes after leaving it for a while, and making sure it has that edge. If it doesn’t, it won’t get picked out by a mainstream publisher, so writers should keep working on it until it does.

Again this sounds obvious, and maybe a little sad, but the publisher will immediately think about the possible market – they’d be crazy not to. So, while writers should never go to the effort of producing a series of pie-charts, nothing catches the publisher’s attention like a brief sentence in the covering letter stating to whom the novel will particularly appeal. It also puts the publisher in the right frame of mind for reading it.

Finally, I’d like briefly to touch on the issue of the author themselves. Especially as a smaller publishing house, it is vital that we have the same vision for the book as the author and while it’s not absolutely essential, I feel far more confident with authors that I can work comfortably with – I tend to view authors in the long-term and take them on to help progress their writing careers. Therefore, if the writer gives a good impression of themselves and shows a great attitude, they are off to a good start (and the same goes for the publisher).

I would also like to point out a few additional things the author should be looking for when submitting work, linked to the points above. Firstly is being happy. Some writers take two drafts, some fifty, the key thing is that when they’re packaging their work up, they should be happy with what they’re sending in. Take time away from it, show it to others, look at individual sections – whatever it takes, there should come a point when that feeling of excitement arrives. If the writer isn’t completely happy, the publisher is unlikely to be.

Secondly is making your own mark. Again I don’t like the word but it is about creating a brand – offering something that no-one else does. This is linked to the next point: don’t try too hard. I get constantly frustrated by this. The great writers only lay it on thick at certain moments – they are confident in their style and trust the reader to be with them. Rainstorms of hailing metaphors or lists of crashing adjectives only take away from good writing.

Next is something I always recommend – getting an agent. Legend Press has taken on two unagented novelists this year so it’s not essential, though good agents can have an eye for what is needed and may have the ear of good publishers. The most comprehensive listing I have come across is in The Writers’ Handbook or you could consult the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook listings on this site.

Finally there is practice and profile. Especially with the Internet, there are hosts of writing competitions, writing groups, useful organisations etc. It can make a nice change from slaving away at the writing desk and they offer good opportunities for progression in style. Sometimes a simple contact can lead to big things.

This is just a brief run-through, though often a few simple changes in approach can change a manuscript from getting no attention at all to standing out. For one of our authors, Luke Bitmead, I read his manuscript on a Friday evening in January, by February he had a contract and by May his novel was in bookstores all around the UK – so if it’s done right, and with a bit of luck, it can all happen very quickly.

No 2 Judging a book by its covering letter and synopsis

No 3 The writer’s X-Factor

No 4 The changing face of publishing

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Press, one of the five companies in Legend Times Ltd, which also includes New Generation Publshing.