Following the recent publication of her debut rom-com Finding Mr Perfectly Fine, in this three part series Tasneem Abdur-Rashid sheds light on the traditional publishing process – from the initial idea to the final product landing in bookshops.
I’ve always loved writing and telling stories, and have been doing so ever since I could hold a pen. It’s taken a long time to achieve my dream of publication here in the UK, though. The road has been bumpy, full of hurdles, and I’ve tripped up on numerous occasions. But Alhamdullah, through the grace of God, my debut rom-com Finding Mr Perfectly Fine recently hit bookstores all across the UK and the feeling of holding it in my hands, having people read it and spot it in shops, is really surreal.
A lot of aspiring writers have been getting in touch with me to find out more about the process, and while I’m thrilled to share my journey, it’s important to note that every published author is likely to have a publishing journey that is unique to them and their book. There are some generic parts of the process though, especially when publishing a book the traditional way. There are also variations between publishing non-fiction books, poetry and short story collections. In this article, I’ll go into the general process for writing fiction.
Sounds obvious, right? I’ve actually had a lot of people ask me about how to get a book published…before they’ve even written one! How to write a book is a topic worthy of its own article, so watch this space! I’ll put together a piece on that soon. Back to the point – before you can publish, you need to write your book.
Most mainstream publishers won’t accept queries from unrepresented writers, so unless the publishing house you’re interested in has specifically said that they’re open to unsolicited manuscripts – don’t spam them! What they want is for you to have agent representation, and they want your agent to contact them, not you.
So now you need representation. Back in the days, writers would buy the Writer’s and Artists Yearbook to find out what agencies there were in the UK, what books they were looking for and how to contact them. While the book is great, most of that information is available for free online if you do a little extra digging. Information online is also more up-to-date.
Agents usually have their own specific submission criteria. What I did was put together a spreadsheet of the agents/agencies I was interested in that represented books like mine so I could keep track of it all. And on that note, DON’T QUERY AGENTS THAT DO NOT REPRESENT YOUR GENRE! If an agent says that they’re looking for literary fiction, sending them your mermaid fantasy novel is going to annoy them and tell them that you either don’t respect their time, or you couldn’t be bothered to do any research about them.
Once you know who you’re going to contact, get your submission package ready. This is often a query letter, the first three chapters/50 pages of your novel, and a synopsis. Check the agent’s submission criteria, including what format they want it in (font size, spacing etc), and tailor your package accordingly. To make things easier, I had different word documents titled ‘first three chapters’ or ‘50 pages’.
The query letter is usually written in the body of your email, and it’s where you introduce yourself, your work and your writing credentials. Think of it like a cover letter to a job application. It’s not the place to be modest, it’s the place to really bring across who you are as a writer, what writing experience you’ve had, what your book is about (in a couple of sentences) and where you see your book sitting in the market. This is really important as it helps agents visualise how marketable your book is. For example, is it the Muslim Pride and Prejudice/Bridget Jones/Queenie? Are you the next Marian Keyes/ Monica Ali/ Stephen King?
In terms of writing experience, list any relevant education, anything that has been published before (including articles), any writing prizes or scholarships. The agent wants to know how committed you are to this process and how you’ve been developing your craft.
You can write a generic query letter and then tailor make it to each agent. For example, you can research which authors they already have on their lists, and compare your book to one of theirs.
At times, this felt like it was harder than writing the book itself. The synopsis summarises your book in just a couple of pages – from beginning to end, with no cliffhangers. Some agents want a two-page synopsis, some of them don’t specify the length, but that doesn’t mean you should write a 10-page one. The synopsis should succinctly go through all the main plot points chronologically, and should be written in a similar manner to the book. So if your book is fun and vibrant, or serious and dark, the tone of voice in your synopsis should reflect that. In short, the agent should be able to read your synopsis and understand what your book is about, what happens, what the conflict is, the climax and the ending.
- Send out your submission package
You’ve got your query letter, you’ve got your synopsis and you’ve refined your opening chapters to perfection – now it’s time to send it out to agents. But before you do – if you have any trusted friends who are good writers/readers who can read your submission before you send it – utilise them! They might spot mistakes or give you important feedback that will make a difference.
You want your package to be at its absolute best because if an agent says no, unless they ask you to come back, that’s your one shot with them gone.
The general advice is only to send submissions out to one agent at a time, but this can be a really long process as it can take months for agents to respond. However, it can be helpful because if an agent declines to represent you but gives you good feedback, you can incorporate that feedback into your work before it goes to another agent.
This sounds harsh, but I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been through more rejections than acceptance – J K Rowling’s rag to riches story being the case in point!
I was rejected by at least five agents before I found representation, and four out of five of them had requested my full manuscript before rejecting me! This showed me that my submission package was on point, but there was something wrong in the novel itself which stopped agents from wanting to take me on. I was lucky enough to be given priceless feedback from The Good Literary Agency – the agency I eventually signed with. They told me that my book had a good premise and they enjoyed the writing, but it was far too long and needed to be cut down significantly (more on how I ended up writing a book that was too long in part three of this series!)
This was the feedback I needed to whip my book into shape, and when I submitted it again upon their request, this time, I was accepted, Alhamdulillah.
All it takes is one person to resonate with your book to take you to the next stage of your journey towards publication. Writing is subjective and not everyone will like what you’ve created. Or they might LOVE IT, but if the agent can’t see how they can market it, or where it will sit in the industry, what genre it is, then they’ll reject you.
This often happens when a book is more than one genre, i.e. a historical crime novel with South Asian older teenage characters. This sort of thing confuses agents and publishers, because they can’t market it as a YA book as the characters are too old, but too young for an adult novel, as well as it crossing over into the crime and historical fiction genres. Often it’s easier for them to just say no, rather than try and figure all of that out, so that’s something to bear in mind.
In part two of this series, I’ll be going through the (often mysterious) process of what happens after you get an agent. Stay tuned!