Saturday, 31 January 2009


Having written a previous post with a title containing the words Part 1, I suppose I set myself up for having to write Part the Second, didn't I? Actually, it being such a gorgeous sunny day here in Scotland and the recessionary gloom engendering an unaccustomed what-the-hell type abandonment, I'm going to lay my head on the line or stick it above the parapet or something and say that I am sure there'll be a Part the Third. Scary stuff.

For readers who have recently joined this journey to success, I do suggest you read Part 1 first, because I will otherwise blithely assume that you are up to speed. You will remember that I banged on about how important the covering letter was. Well it is. And this post is going to focus entirely on it.

Oh and by the way, I should warn you: I am majorly in crabbit-old-bat mode today, despite the afore-mentioned sunshine (about which I was in fact lying).

1. Why is the covering letter so important? Surely it's the sample material that's important because surely it's the book and not me that's the main thing?
But if you can't write a brilliant letter, how come you think you can write a brilliant book? If you care so little for your book that you would send it out dressed in thin rags, why should a busy editor/agent care more about it? Or if you think it's so damned fantastic that you need say nothing about it, then why don't you self-publish it and see what happens when you can't persuade anyone apart from your parents to buy it?

Your covering letter is your shop window - it's the only way anyone's going to see what you're selling. Would you walk into a shop that had a load of rubbish in the window? Or a shop that gave you no idea what was in it? Or the wrong idea? And, for crying out loud, it's a FREE shop window. What's not to use? Trust me, only a complete idiot would not try to do the very best covering letter possible. Or someone who didn't fully appreciate the power of words. And if you do not fully appreciate and also bow down in abject worship of the power of words, then you don't deserve to be published.

If you don't believe any of that, believe this: many publishers and agents simply will not read on if you have not a) impressed them and b) whetted their appetites with the beauteousness of your covering letter. So, write a rubbish letter, and your utterly astonishing novel will never be read. Write me a rubbish letter and I will simply refuse to open the first page of your utterly astonishing novel. Your novel can be as secretly astonishing as it likes: I won't be reading it and, anyway, there are many other genuinely astonishing novels waiting for me to read, written by authors who care enough to spend a bit of time writing a little letter.

OK, I think I've made my point. And it's still freezing cold outside so the crabbit mood continues. Why don't I live in Australia? (Ebony, was it Melbourne where you said your chocolate-loving writing group hangs out? I have been known to reduce my already-reasonable speaking fees for warm climates.)

2. What should I put in this amazingly brilliant covering letter then?
You should put you in it, that's what. And your book. The covering letter should be the essence of you and your book, in fact. Distilled, purified, perfect, alive, compelling, capturing you both. My agent told me that another agent told her (sorry, brain frozen and have forgotten name but will get it to you when the sun comes out in a few months' time) that the covering letter should contain the book, the cook and the hook. (qv in COMMON WORDS YOU SHOULD KNOW)

If you look on the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook website (see list on the right somewhere) and click on the advice section, you'll find a sample covering letter. Because the W&A Yearbook is a serious, straight-down-the-line book and because they are giving very general advice, this letter a) technically ticks most of the boxes but b) lacks inspiration or "voice". To be honest, if I was a busy agent or editor I would probably find a surprisingly large number of much more interesting things to do than reply to it, let alone hang around waiting for the postman to deliver a synopsis / sample of such an unzingy-sounding novel. I might find myself suddenly desperate to enter a cream cracker-eating competition or something equally fun.

Good points about that letter: it's short; it's addressed to an actual person; it gives useful facts (eg length) about the book; it identifies what sort of book it is (contemporary, characters downmarket of Joanna T - hmm, sounds fab, I don't think - where was that cracker-eating comp?); it's polite; it tells the recipient a bit about the writer (incl that she has two other novels in mind, which is a useful place to keep them).

Bad points about the letter: it gives absolutely no reason to suppose that the writer can write (other than the ability to string some words together and spell/punctuate - which is a good start but only a start); there's no character, no voice; it makes it far too easy for the editor to ignore it and have a cup of coffee, during which time I am 100% convinced he/she will forget it and go off to find a cracker-eating .... Yes, I know, I'm labouring the point.

I urge you to read this recent post on the excellent and expert Behlerblog. In fact, you should have the blog on your regular reading list. In that particular post, you will see exactly what I mean by voice in a covering letter and a very good paradigm of how not/to do it.

3. Hang on a sec - didn't you once say we were supposed to send sample chapters + synopsis as well as covering letter? That's not what the W&A Yearbook letter is saying ...
Yes. Or even possibly no. Again, the W&A is trying to be very general and careful and to follow all the rules. My more specific and daring advice is that you should either a) follow exactly the guidelines of the specific publisher / agent whom you are approaching, if you are a rule-follower and/or like the rules they give or b) otherwise not. My advice on this is clear: all rules are there to be broken if you are clever and bold enough. Picasso didn't get where he is today (yes, I know, he's dead, but at least he's dead famous) by following rules. So, what I'd do is follow this clear 4-step plan:
  1. Closely research which publishers take the sort of book you've written
  2. You need two envelopes. One bigger than the other, but the smaller one big enough for 30 pages of A4, unfolded. In the smaller one, which has your address and sufficient stamps, but is unsealed, you place the first 30ish pages of your brilliant novel, and the brilliant synopsis (which is ideally one page long and never ever ever more than two - and no cheating by using tiny print).
  3. You put this smaller envelope inside the bigger one.
  4. You also put the brilliant (yep, you're getting the hang now) covering letter inside the larger envelope. This covering letter is so brilliant that it makes the recipient drool and gasp and cry out for more. The letter includes this : "If you are interested in reading my work, please consider opening the enclosed envelope, in which you will find a synopsis and the first ___ pages. However, I do understand how busy you are and that your list might be full - if so, I would be very grateful if you would post the envelope back to me." If your covering letter is brilliant enough and if you have targeted an appropriate publisher/agent, the smaller envelope WILL be opened.
4. For those of you who like rules and templates, here's mine: short para saying why you are contacting her/him; para selling/describing/distilling your book; shorter para saying who would the readers/market be, eg "readers who love Sophie Kinsella / Ian Rankin / Steven King (no, NOT all three); short para about you, including only info relevant to you as potential author - eg anything you've had published, other things you've written, how long for, whether any other ideas; snappy end para which shows that you understand the system and how busy the editor/agent is, thanking them etc etc etc and being polite and professional.

5. Are there some things I really really mustn't do in this covering letter?
I'm so glad you asked that. Yes, indeedy, there certainly are. First, please do read COMMON MISTAKES and THINGS NOT TO SAY. From that, you will learn, for example, about not being arrogant ("I've written an astonishing book"), or naive ("my grandchildren laugh out loud when I read it to them and are always saying, Oh, please read it again, Grandad"). Essentially, you mustn't be long-winded, boring, old-fashioned, hectoring, whittering, sycophantic or unnecessarily and irritatingly funny, though appropriately and delicately witty is fine if that's what your book is like. You mustn't negatively criticise published writers (unless you are the non-writing celebrity who apparently said she wanted to write a children's book because she thought children's books were all rubbish - and you wouldn't beLIEVE the slating she got on author message boards. If vitriol could be bottled ... Anyway, don't let me get carried away.)

Oh, and although it IS helpful for the editor / agent to know what sort of book / author is landing on the desk, here are some other things which do not go down at all well (except when the agent/editor meets up with other agents/editors and they all fall about laughing while regaling each other about the extraordinarily useless submissions they've received):
  • Some people have compared my writing to that of Norman Mailer.
  • My novel is Moby Dick meets On the Road meets Lord of the Rings. With, I feel, the occasional hint of an early James Joyce.
  • This could be the next Harry Potter. But even better.
That just about covers covering letters. However, it's really important that you've also read THINGS NOT TO SAY. And I'm betting some of you haven't. No, I'm not psychic but I used to be a teacher and I am a crabbit old bat who is still in quite a bad mood because of the cold weather and chapped skin which makes me look older and drier and grumpier than I'd like to. So, if you wouldn't mind, please go and read it now if you haven't already and then, as a reward for your diligence and patience, you can have some chocolate.

Sorry, not much left, but for me it's a case of Chocolate in a Cold Climate.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any author will at some point have an incredibly annoying conversation with a taxi-driver. There are many varieties of this conversation, and you will meet them all, and you will deal with them in different ways. I have no advice for these situations, since it would not be appropriate for me to recommend extreme physical violence, preferably involving dismemberment, on the pages of this sedate blog. I offer only the warning and the exhortation, gentle reader, that you prepare yourself.

(By the way, "gentle reader" is a cliché and modern editors hate it, so please don't use it.)

Clearly, I am not making this taxi-driver point entirely randomly. Percipient readers will detect a kind of gritted-teeth tone to this morning's missive. I am, indeed, holding myself back womanfully. I am calming myself, having taken a large number of deep breaths; I have restricted myself to three cups of hi-caffeine beverage this morning; I have spent the whole night forcibly self-administering Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I am doing my best - I really am.


It started in the usual way:

TD: So, what's your line of business?
NM: I write books.
TD: Really?
NM: Yes.
(As you can see, it's currently not rating high on the annoyance scale, but I know it's going to get there. I am expecting that we may be going for the regular, "They say everyone's got a book in them." To which my answer will be either, "If so, that's usually where it should stay," or "Yes, but would anyone want to read it?" Unfortunately, the situation we are in goes way beyond the paradigmatic version of Annoying Taxi-driver because this is how the conversation actually continues:)
TD: So, how do you get a book published then?
NM: (wondering where to begin with this one, but not actually needing to because the guy hasn't finished)
TD: Because anyone can write a book, can't they? (Stunned silence.) Not meaning to be insulting or anything, but anyone can. I've got a friend who's writing one. He says it's easy. Unless you're dyslexic or something.
NM: Actually, you could be a great writer and still be dyslexic.
TD: Well, that proves it - anyone can write a book. If they've got time. Like, I've often thought of writing a book but I've never had time.
NM (tempted to ask, "What about when you're waiting at a traffic light? Or your passenger has just decided she'd rather walk?"): Actually, it's extremely difficult. Real writers know that - we may make it look easy, but you've no idea of the incredibly difficult technical skills and spectacularly creative gifts that are involved.
TD: Well, I suppose you'd start by writing a children's book. Like, one of those ones with just a few words and mostly pictures. That must be really easy - most of the work is done by the artist, isn't it?
NM (starting to have palpitations, and wondering how much it would hurt if she flung open the door and threw herself out): Trust me, it's very difficult indeed. Otherwise, why do so many people try to get published for years and years?
TD (who is on transmit and not receive): Mind you, you'd be rich, wouldn't you? They earn a fortune, some of these children's authors. You read about it all the time.
NM (wondering why she didn't put a handy weapon in her bag before coming out): You don't want to believe everything you read in the papers.
TD: I don't have much time for books. Like my son - but that's boys, isn't it? Got more important things to do. My daughter now, she's a really great reader. She read the whole of the last Harry Potter book in about ten days.
NM (having lost will to live): Really? how old is she?
TD: Twenty-five. My wife and I, we always told her she could be a writer. Thing is, she doesn't have time. But they say everyone's got a book in them, don't they?

The journey ends fortuitously at this point, with the taxi-driver getting no tip and with me stomping down the street to my front door prior to off-loading onto my long-suffering husband who has many times in the past few years wondered when the pyschotherapy is going to work.

I tell you this story as a cautionary tale about the downside of the fulfilment of your life's dream. Not that I'd want to put you off - not that I could put you off if you want it as much as you need to. After all, we earn a fortune, most of us. You read about it all the time in the papers.

Friday, 23 January 2009


Following on from the most recent article (below) and inspired by the eager reader who enjoyed that vocabulary lesson so much that she suggested I explain some more common words, including blad, I have found this handy glossary produced by OUP - also now in link in righthand menu. It will tell you more and yet spookily less than I did. It's useful, but in a somewhat uninspiring sort of way. A bit like monosodium glutamate. Though it will also be good for you. So more like wholemeal flour, then. And absolutely nothing at all like chocolate.

Thank you, OUP, for being so useful. Meanwhile, could you all please read the OUP one first and follow with mine? Remember when you were a child and you had to eat your greens before you got dessert? Well, this is just like that.

Here 'tis:

Thursday, 22 January 2009


Your lesson for today, children, is vocabulary. There are certain words and phrases which you will come across in your journey and of which you may not ask the meaning without looking foolish and unpublishable. Some of them you may already have met in rejection letters.

Many of them may seem as though you won't need to know them until you have a contract, but a) I believe that the more knowledge you can have of all stages, the better chance you have of that contract and b) many of you have already been published once or even more often, and have discovered the inconvenient truth that being published does not mean that publishers will tripping over themselves to sign you up for the wonder that is your second /third etc book.

My teachings come in no particular order, as usual. You must by now be beginning to know the haphazard "creativity" of which my brain is capable. Some might say I should make such lists alphabetical but alphabeticalisation is the domain of librarians, who are incredibly good at it.

  1. List - as in "your book is not right for ours". A publisher's list consists of several lists. There is the entire list of its publications and there are lists within lists, such as the literary fiction list or the mind/body/spirit (MBS - there's another "word") list. One day, a publisher might have a literary MBS list, but this is hard to imagine - though I guess the Bible might be a contender. Anyway, the point is that the editors for that list know what they want on it. And, sadly, that is not your book. (Remind me to do an article on "What rejection letters are really telling you" - in fact, I'll put it on the list right now.) Thing is, suppose you had a shopping list - would you include an item "do tax return"? See? On the other hand, the item "anchovies" is a perfectly valid thing to put on a shopping-list and for you to say it's not right for your shopping list would be simply to say you don't like anchovies. Similarly, to say that your book is not right for the list can sometimes be a way for the editor to express not liking it.
  2. MSS - were you listening in the early lesson on "Inexcusable Ignorance"? MSS is in fact a misnomer, because your manuscript is not really a manuscript - ie hand-written while lying on a sofa eating peanuts and drinking nicely-matured grape juice - but a typescript - ie beautifully and clearly typed. (Please don't tell me yours really is a manuscript because if it is you'd better get it transmogrified asap). Pedants among you will want me to point out that also MSS strictly stands for manuscriptS, and that MS is a singular manuscript. But although agents and editors like careful authors, they don't like pedants, so please get with the lingo even if it's wrong.
  3. Agent - a person who quite rightly takes a % (10-15 and more like 20 for foreign/TV/film rights) of what they earn for you. (See the article on To Be Agented or Not ...). If you grudge this, don't have one. Trust me, they are not coming looking for you - it's up to you to show (show not tell) them that you are going to be so very successful that they will want their % even though it will be a long time till they get it.
  4. Acquisitions meeting - (forthcoming article alert) the crucial meeting held by your publishers, at which the editor who likes your book has to persuade everyone else to like it equally, and that it is perfect for their list (qv). In the US, I have heard it called a Decide meeting by by US publishers, but a comment (No 10 - thank you, Marissa) from one of you helpful expert readers suggests that this might not be widely-used. Mind you, the US is quite a big place, she says, with gentle understatement. And "Decide meeting" would be a very sensible term. Go for it, US, I say!
  5. Advance - an amount of money which is always much less than the papers will say. If the papers even mention it it means it was a lot, but still they are exaggerating. You don't get it all at once either. A common system is to get 1/3 on signature of contract, 1/3 on final delivery of MSS (pay attention at the back), and 1/3 on publication day. Or half on signature and half on publication, or some other system agreeable to you and your agent, though not as agreeable as getting twice as much twice as soon.
  6. Royalties - elusive things which only come when your book has "earned out" its advance. Most/many books never actually earn any. You have a royalty percentage (say 10%, but this varies hugely and for very good reasons depending on whether hardback, paperback, ebook, audio, serialisation etc etc and nothing to do with how amazingly brilliant you are) and essentially you get that % on each book sale (usually based on the publisher's receipts and not the cover price, which is where high/low discount (qv) comes in). I know, you've switched off but don't worry: only sad people understand their royalty statement.
  7. Returns - ugh. Bookshops buy your books "sale or return" and when they are returned they appear unpleasantly on your royalty statement and their previous earnings are deducted. And the books don't get sold again because too many customers had jam on their fingers when they picked up your baby - sorry, book - and fingered it before not buying it. (Please can we not talk about returns any more?)
  8. Publication day - OK, you you know what it means but do you know what it really MEANS? Often, it means two years from now. So I hope you've got some writing to do in the mean time. Or a paper round or something, because you're going to need it.
  9. Sales and marketing departments - two parts of a publishing company that sometimes might as well have offices on different planets, and on different planets from the editorial dept. And absolutely in a different universe from the author. (Note to my publishers - this is hearsay: of COURSE I don't mean you - you all communicate stupendously well.)
  10. AI - not A1, which is a very dangerous road between Scotland and more southerly parts of the UK, but AI (pronounced AY - as in May - EYE) - stands for Advance Information. This is a document which in the ideal world would tell that world accurate details about your book, and you, and why everyone should buy said book. Of course, this is not an ideal world, and as I mentioned in a previous article, the AI may be written by a 12-year-old who lurks virtually unpaid in a cupboard somewhere and who bases her description of your book, understandbly from her p.o.v., on your description of your book before you wrote it. Therefore, one of the first things you should do once you've signed your contract, is enlist your editor to ensure that what ends up on Amazon is something you can be proud of and that has a close resemblance to the truth. Otherwise you will have a hell of a lot of explaining to do when you are asked to talk to the Bognor Regis Women's Institute and they discover that the book they thought was an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery of a whimsical and traditional nature is in fact a post-surreal pastiche of American Psycho with shades of In Cold Blood.
  11. Hook - every book needs one. The sales and marketing departments need a quick phrase that sells your book, tells the potential buyers what it is in a pithy way that makes it different from anything else in the world and yet exactly like a book they'd love to read. I once went to speak at the publisher's sales conference before the publication of my historical adventure, The Highwayman's Footsteps - (that's called a plug by the way, which is a very important word and should always be preceded by shameless and yet performed with a pleasant smile so people don't hate you too much) - I had to speak for 10 minutes to the sales team, to enthuse them without teaching them their job; so, I wanted to make them want to sell the book and also give them something that would make it easy. They won't remember anything else I said that day except for my hook: "Robert Louis Stevenson on caffeine." My agent tells that story as an example of a hook that works. So, get yourself a hook for your book. (If you want to know a secret: actually, caffeine wasn't the word I used. But I write children's books so let's keep this appropriate, please.)
  12. Prelims - the pages at the front of your book before your actual words start. So, the title page, any foreword and acknowledgements, list of your previous books, little biog. Not a dramatic word but at least now you can respond sensibly when your editor asks you if you've got anything you'd like to add to them. (Your name is the most important bit, by the way.)
  13. Trade publishing - publishing of books that you can reasonably expect to find in a good bookshop. As opposed to eg educational or academic books, which will be sold in different ways and not usually through high-street bookshops.
  14. Trade paperback - I confess I've always been a bit mystified / bored by this distinction because it really only refers to the size/format of the book, which is a pretty boring thing to get too involved in. Essentially, your book will either be published as a hardback and later "go into" paperback (once the publisher thinks it's squeezed enough higher-profit sales out of it); or it will be published as a "paperback original" and not be in hardback. Sometimes the publisher will publish as a hardback while simultaneously (or almost) bringing out a "trade paperback" which is always for some odd reason fatter and bigger than the pb (paperback) original would have been. Absolutely fascinating, I am sure you agree.
  15. High discount - publishers sell books to retailers at high or low/normal discount. A powerful volume retailer like Amazon, or a big high-street chain, can command a higher discount, especially if they are going to put your book in a price promotion. And it matters, because you get less dosh out of it. But it also doesn't matter, because a) you can't do a damned thing about it and b) you're just ecstatic that anyone is buying your book at all.
  16. Editing / copy-editing / proof-reading - these probably need an article to themselves, but briefly: your editor is the one who helps you mould your book in major ways. He/she will suggest that a character isn't developed well enough, or your pace is not varied enough, or this bit doesn't work, or that bit was too short / long / shocking / boring. This then becomes a dialogue that you hope doesn't become an argument. Who has the last word? Hmmm. I play a tactical game with mine - I give way on things I don't care about so much, or which she might even (it happens, Chris) be right about; and I reserve the full power of my persuasion for the rest. I reckon I have the last word; she probably reckons she does. Which is a happy conclusion. Then she passes it on to the copy-editor, who picks up small things - not as small as punctuation but things like sentences that she / he doesn't understand, places where I've forgotten I said it hadn't rained for weeks and then have sunlight sparkling on the wet road (not that I would, as that would be a cliché) or I said someone was riding without a saddle but then I mention stirrups. Copy-editing can be a very painful process if you get a lousy copy-editor who thinks she/he knows best or a great process if the c-ed picks up really embarrassing things which an annoying reader might harangue you about in the distant future. Then, when all of those glitches are sorted, comes proof-reading, and you know what that is. It's skilled and picky and you REALLY want a good proof-reader because by that stage you've read your damned MSS so many times that you're starting to sleeptalk it and worms crawl across the page every time you look at it. Also by this time you hate your book and think it's rubbish and you go into a decline to which the only solution is chocolate. Luckily, chocolate solves everything.
Which seems like a good time to go and have some because I see that it's six minutes past midday, which is one of the many perfect times for chocolate. Also, I feel that on the one hand this article is too long and on the other I expect I've forgotten loads of useful words. If you have any others you'd like me to mention, please tell me - and if you are worried about seeming foolish in public you can email me through my website - (spot the second shameless plug of this article) - and I promise not to name and shame you or even make you feel slightly embarrassed.

Trust me: I'm a novelist. No, seriously, do.

Need chocolate badly.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


Everyone is wrong sometimes. (Don't tell me about spritual leaders claiming a hotline to a higher being - we're talking ordinary people here, and publishers are as ordinary as the rest of us. In fact, sometimes being ordinary is what makes them publishers and not writers. Hold onto that thought.)

But, more interestingly and relevantly, define "wrong". You will all have heard many stories of famous authors/books who were rejected 99 times before going on to be massive. So, does this mean that all the publishers who rejected them were wrong?

You will also have heard of authors who were serially rejected, then self-published, and then were picked up by a publisher and given a contract. (Thanks, Nick Green, for your comment to that effect on another article, because it gives me a chance to make an important point, not that my other points are not important, of course.)

So, the implication is that those publishers were wrong. And they might have been, not being infallible etc, but I'd like you to consider some other possibilities. (And nearly all of these apply to agents, too.)

As I say, define "wrong". If by "wrong" you mean that they have missed making a load of money because they too would have made a huge success of this book, then no, not necessarily. If you mean that they ought to have said yes because any non-stupid publisher would have recognised the commercial merit of the book, and since they didn't they must be stupid, again, no, not necessarily.

In order to understand, consider the reasons why a publisher may validly and sensibly reject a book that goes on to be a success. Even a good book. Even occasionally a really really good book.

Good reasons why a publisher might reject a potentially commercially successful / critically acclaimed / classic book and not feel like blushing afterwards:
  1. It's not the sort of book they publish and therefore they would not make a good job of it / wouldn't have the necessary marketing (eg) budget for it - different books do require different expertise. If they'd taken it on, we might never have heard of it.
  2. They have filled their list for the next year (or whatever) and can't take on anything else and commit time and money to it in a time-scale acceptable to an agent/author who might be knocked down by a bus before the next possible publication date 25 years hence - publishers tend to have a very small number (depending on the size of the company) of "lead titles" each month, scheduled up to 18 months (or sometimes more) ahead. If they have their max of lead titles and your book is important enough to require it to be a lead title (or your agent wouldn't have it any other way), then they can't rightly commit to it and would be doing you a disservice in taking it. Publishers have to take on only the amount they can deal with well. Remember that a lot of their costs have to be paid long before they can expect any income, so budgets are an issue.
  3. They are scheduled to publish another book which would be in competition with it. In some cases this might not be a problem but it easily could be.
  4. The editor in question just personally doesn't love the book enough. As you will agree, everyone has different opinions about books, and you DO need an editor who loves yours. If she/he doesn't, she/he can't speak up for it at the acquisitions meeting (of which more another day) and it simply won't get taken on, even if another editor in another company might have loved it. It really is and MUST be largely personal choice. The same hugely applies to agents.
  5. Some books that become huge commercial successes, are, in the humble opinion of yours truly, utter tripe, and have absolutely nothing about them that anyone who fulfilled the criteria of sanity and consciousness and wasn't drunk or stoned would ever detect.
Apart from that, yeah, publishers are sometimes "wrong" - in the sense that sometimes they say no when they should say yes and sometimes they say yes when they will wish they'd said no. But let's not get it into our heads that this whole business of saying which book is going to work or not could or should ever be an exact science. Luckily, it's a weird weird world out there, with beautifully unpredictable readers who can turn a dead-cert into a disappearing act or dress the Emperor in the most glittering new clothes.

For you, the poor author trying to deal with another rejection of what you must hope is a dead-cert, it is perhaps no consolation to be reminded that all that glitters is not sold.

All I can say is that perseverence is essential - so, do keep polishing your gold.

And by the way, over indulgence in metaphors is considered very bad style.

But you can start a sentence with "and". And "but". But you really shouldn't end an article totally off topic.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


OK. Right. A load of people have said, "Please can we have the tips for submitting to publishers and agents?" Look, I'm trying to have a life here. But I suppose I did promise it. So. Maybe this could be Part One, because I'm in a bit of a hurry to get packed for a worky trip. And then there will have to be Part Two, which will consist of all the things I forgot to say in Part One.

And by the way, while I'm here, thank you for the fantastic emails and other feedback I've had about this site. Seems as though publishers and agents are going to use it as required reading. One of them said, "Where have you been for the last ten years?" Well, here mostly. Just waiting to be appreciated.

Without further ado. (Oh, and I am assuming that you've already discovered the basics, as I've several times said you must. Like typing it on single-sided A4, black ink on white paper, normal sort of font, nothing to scare the birds, no confetti / glitter/ free condoms in amongst the pages etc etc)

  1. Write the right damned book. I've said that before. If you haven't written the right book, it really doesn't matter how you approach a publisher. You can paint him or her in chocolate and it won't make a blind bit of difference. Though I've never seen the attraction in that. With all respect to my publishers.
  2. Follow the instructions in the Writers' and Artists' yearbook etc etc etc and on virtually every publisher /agent website.
  3. People agonise over how much material to send. One really annoying person once made the point to me that "it" said he had to send three chapters but his chapters were each 30,000 words long - did this matter? Of course it matters - it's a rubbish book if the chapters are 30,000 words long. (Unless it's Anna Karenina in which case it's a classic with way too much farming detail). Look, just be reasonable: the agent/publisher needs to see a sensible but not boring amount. An amount which will show him how brilliant you are. So, something like 5-10000 words. Or a bit more or a bit less. Trust me - it doesn't hugely matter because they'll stop when they're ready. (Addendum: another common measurement is 30 pages - double-spaced, decently-sized font etc).
  4. Make your covering letter perfect. I don't mean glittery and, like, totally amAZing: I mean perfect. It should not be too long or too short or too boastful. It should not tell the story of your life or exaggerate or be coy or irritating or weird or gimicky. It should briefly (and if you can't do this briefly you are lost) advertise the incredibly interesting thing that is your book. It should say neither too much nor too little. It should show your potential agent or editor that you know your stuff, know the market, know the business, love writing, plan to continue to write after this book, are willing to learn. And it should convince him/her, in thought, word and deed, that you have written a gem. (I did say SHOW: you should not say this - it should speak for itself. "Show not tell" is something we may come to, though it may be in the section on "clichés that your creative writing guru may well come up with and which need to be analysed properly and taken in context" - and that's a long section, I can tell you.)
  5. Your synopsis should be no more than two sides of A4. And this does not mean squashing it into 4pt marginless text so that your reader can't read it without a magnifying glass. The synopsis should prove that you have finished the book and that it works. A synopsis is a really hard thing to do well. I could write a whole blog about synopses but I won't because I'd prefer a life. But be seriously warned about synopses: not that you perhaps care about this right now, but in your potential publishing company there dwells a person (probably female and probably about 12 years old) who will read your synopsis later and who will use it for the blurb for Amazon when your book is published. The synopsis, as every writer knows, bears no relation to the book you will eventually produce and the Amazon blurb, as I very well know, is there for ever and ever and ever and is copied by every website in the universe. So, one happy day you will get letters from people complaining that your book didn't actually feature a girl who was obsessed by turquoise boots (I'm getting suspiciously autobiographical here - never do this in novel-writing but do do it in blogging) and you will not know what they are talking about because you will have forgotten the synopsis you wrote before you were published. I tell you this not to teach you anything about writing synopses but to warn you about life as a published author, which I am determined you will know about, even though it is very weird.
  6. So you have done your brief and succinct covering letter and your amazingly inaccurate but fascinating and deliciously tempting synopsis; and you have printed off your first however many words of your oeuvre. You might, if the publisher/agent's website suggests it, and definitely if you are a non-fiction writer, include a brief and tidy CV, which includes (in the case of non-fiction) your credentials for writing about microfluidics. What next? You get a nice clean envelope, so as to look really professional, and you put the stuff in. You address it neatly - no, your hand-writing doesn't matter but you are trying to do everything right. Now, the thorny issue of return postage. Depends whether you want it back once it's been spat on. Frankly, I wouldn't. Frankly, I'd politely and sensitively suggest that they recycle it. But if you DO want it back, you must include a properly stamped addressed envelope. With enough stamps.
  7. Then you wait. And you wait. Oh I forgot, no you don't - you send it to some other publishers at the same time (saying to all of them that that's what you are doing). If submitting to agents, it's slightly different - for a large agency you can do multiple submissions, but for a small independent you can't. Well, you can, but they won't like you and if they don't like you they won't read your work. Which kind of defeats the object.
  8. And you wait.
  9. But meanwhile, you .... WRITE. Because you are, remember a writer, not a person who waits for the post every day.
  10. Oh, and by the way, you have not emailed your oeuvre, unless the agent or publisher has specifically said that's ok. Currently, it's not usually the preferred option but this may change. Things do.
  11. I will be back, trust me. Once I've checked that the Amazon blurb for my next novel is going to bear no relation to the synopsis I suspect I may have produced when trying to persuade my publisher that I knew what the hell was going to happen. Do as I say, not as I do.

Monday, 12 January 2009


I believe that if you can't say yes to all of these, you give yourself much less chance of being published and you deserve it less. Unfortunately, I can't guarantee that doing all of them will get you published, because that depends on what you have written and how well you have written it.
  1. Have you read lots of the most successful and modern books in your genre?
  2. Do you admire many of them?
  3. Can you say what you love about them?
  4. Can you name, easily, six authors whose books you admire in your genre? I don't know why I said six - I was tempted to say ten, but that seemed a bit tough and seven is not my favourite number. Nine would seem a bit weird. And I could have said eight - in fact, I will. Eight, then.
  5. Are you writing something at the moment? You should be. And if you've finished something and you're waiting for people to get back to you, you should be writing something else.
  6. Have you taken steps to have an online presence, such as a blog? It's a good way to practise writing and communicating, even if it's nothing like your actual work in progress. If a blog is not your scene, at least create a page somewhere, such as on a social networking site - people need to see you. You can't hide away as an author these days, unless your name is Salinger.
  7. Have you got lots of ideas in you? Train your mind to catch and play with ideas.
  8. Are you taking steps to discover all the rules about submitting to publishers / agents? As I say several times on this site, there's no excuse for not discovering these basics, such as how much to send and how to present it.
  9. Are you perfectly professional in your working life? Do you always do what you say you're going to do when you say you're going to do it? (And I do mean in your professional life - I'm not bothered whether you do the ironing when you say you're going to. In fact, if you do the ironing when you say you're going to, you've got too much time on your hands - get writing, for goodness' sake!)
  10. Are you keeping a list of ways to promote yourself - eg blogs, websites, relevant contacts. Do you keep a note of useful people's names and contact details? Do you contact people (politely and having a care for their personal space) on the right blogs and websites?
  11. Have you joined some kind of community in the writing world and found opportunities to network? Not everyone wants to be in a writers' group or something where you have to share your work (and there's no need) but if you join an organisation or webgroup/forum for unpublished/published writers, you will learn a great deal and make valuable contacts. And that you do need. Many people cringe at the word networking - so call it something else then, but still DO it. It's not creepy and crawly unless you are creepy and crawly. Just be friendly, open and sensible.
  12. Are you avoiding all the mistakes in the article on COMMON MISTAKES?
  13. Do you feel gutted and miserable and everything else unpleasant when you are rejected again? If not, you probably don't want it enough.
  14. Do you ooze green poison when you read in the papers of some idiot's 6-figure contract? If not, you probably don't want it enough.
  15. If offered the choice between a month on a paradisical island, all expenses paid, travelling 1st class, with silently gliding masseuses attending to every knot in your shoulders, bringing you iced mango whenever you feel like it, and an offer to publish your novel, would you choose publication? If not ...

Sunday, 11 January 2009


These comments, whether in the covering letter or any other part of your approach to a publisher or agent, are certain to do one or all of the following:
  • expose your lack of understanding of the whole business - OK, so you're not expected to understand it all, but there has to be a starting-point which suggests that you are taking the right steps
  • stop them wanting to read on
  • produce such a profound sinking feeling that they may not physically be able to draw breath to speak to you
In short, never say or write (even if these things are true):
  1. I am a wonderful writer. (Not for you to say.)
  2. I just know you are going to love this. (You don't. You really don't. If you think you can know what a total stranger will love, you don't understand books and reading at all.)
  3. My mum and all my friends love my writing. (They would.)
  4. I read my work to a writers' group / readers' group / school class / anyone, and had great feedback. (Utterly irrelevant. Totally typical. And stupendously meaningless. But very possibly true and deeply important - it's just that it is a total turn off at a time when you are trying to turn them on.)
  5. I've always loved making up stories for my children. (As above.)
  6. I started this novel five years ago but have only just found the time to finish it. (There is a distinct possibility that if it interested you so little, it will do the same for a reader. You have shown no commitment. There may be good reasons why you didn't have time but none of those reasons will appear good enough at this point. Essentially, a real writer is someone who simply cannot not write.)
  7. I haven't finished this novel but I thought I would show what I've done so far to agents/publisher and get some feedback. (You thought wrong. Anyone can start a novel. Few can finish it adequately. Besides, adequately is not adequate.)
  8. I have wanted to write this novel for so many years. It has burned inside me like a veritable burning brand and now I feel I can wait no longer to fan the flames of my burningness. (Oh, so you were that committed then? Frankly, the world is happy to wait much longer, especially if you write like that.)
  9. If I could get this one novel published, I would be happy for ever. (So, you don't envisage a career, then? You don't really burn to write? You just want to get it out of your system. Well do, but not at our expense. A one-book wonder helps no agent or publisher - you'll lose them money.)
  10. Rather than waste paper by printing out my novel, I have put it online - please visit (Why should we? You're the one meant to be making an effort.)
  11. It is your lucky day: I am writing to give you the opportunity to publish my book. (Sadly it's your unlucky day because I'm not reading it.)
  12. Just to give you a happier time, I've written my covering letter in rhyme; and then, to show you what I can do, I decided to versify the synopsis too. I know (of course) that that doesn't scan, but, just like you, I'm a busy man. So, Mr Bloggs, let me sing of a guy, who has given this novel his very best try. It's funny and frightening and chilling and stuff, And please please don't tell me it's not good enough.
(Sorry, yes, you can see this is sending me a bit batty. I'll stop there. Good excuse for some shocking poetry though.)

Saturday, 10 January 2009


Actually, the first question is whether you could be agented. This is not the same as asking whether your work is publishable.

Understand how agents earn: by taking a % of your earnings. (Usually 10-15% and possibly 20% for eg film/TV/foreign rights, because they often pay a sub-agent). So, if you realise that the average advance for a children's book is £1500, you'll see why many agents don't take children's authors, for example. You are also unlikely to find an agent if you a) are a poet b) only have one or two ideas in you c) don't appear to have a commitment to a long career or d) are really annoying. (Because really annoying authors tend to earn less. With the exception of Mr ... But no, I don't know you well enough to say more.) Non-fiction can be hard to get an agent for - unless, again, it's likely to be very commercial. Essentially, you have to have the ability to earn dosh. And ideally have a perfect personality. And never phone on Sundays.

But back to whether you want an agent. Well, put it this way, I'm not about to get rid of mine, despite the fact that I've had many books published happily with several publishers. Why do I hang on to her? For many reasons:
  1. I want to spend my time writing.
  2. She can mediate between me and the publishers if I'm pissed off with them - so they can think I'm sweetness and light and she can be the bad cop. Not that I ever am pissed off with them, of course ....
  3. She knows what all the other publishers are looking for and can tell me when she thinks I'd be interested.
  4. If I want to write something different or approach a new publisher, she's best placed to handle that and to know who to go to.
  5. She understands all the boring bits of my contracts and knows what everyone else's contracts say and what things publishers can be budged on.
  6. She regularly meets all the publishers and also other agents.
  7. She will fight for me to get the best deal.
  8. She has foreign sub-agents and TV/film agents and has regular meetings with them.
  9. She goes to the trade fairs and tells people about my work.
  10. I can run a new idea past her and she can tell me if it's rubbish, before I've embarrassed myself.
  11. She is an honest and expert second opinion when I've written something, and can tell me what to change before I give it to my editor. So my editor thinks I'm brilliant.
  12. She can nag my editor. So my editor thinks I'm calm.
  13. She accompanies me to all publisher meetings. And plays bad cop. So everyone thinks I'm lovely.
  14. She knows everything about the market, and tells me. So people think I'm clever.
And all that while I'm dossing around at home doing nothing. Er, I mean writing.

So, you work it out for yourself. If you want to do all that, then do it.

BUT. You need to know what you can expect from an agent. Not all agents do the same, so when you're looking for one, you must ask what that agent can and won't do. Some agents do PR as well, but this is not usual, so do not expect it. Just ask exactly what services you can and can't expect. I would also say do make sure your agent is full-time and professional, not just doing it as a part-time hobby.

Openness and honesty are very important. It becomes much much more than a business relationship and it can be tricky to tread the line between professional respect and friendship. I think I've been very lucky but I know many other authors who feel the same way (and some who don't). The main thing to remember is that your agent wants you to have the most successful career possible - because your success is her/his success. And income.

There are some authors who choose to have no agent and who manage very well. They are exceptional - either exceptionally clever and strong or exceptionally foolish.


In the article INEXCUSABLE IGNORANCE, I went fairly brutally through a few of the dire and fume-causing questions that are often asked. But lots of you ask very sensible questions. Here are some.

  1. Is it just the quality of my writing or does my appearance/age/personality matter? The quality of your writing comes first but it does not come alone. Let's take these one by one. APPEARANCE: being attractive does not make you more likely to be published, unless the editor fancies you, but even that will only get you as far as dinner. (Or maybe further, but let's not go there). Ditto being slim, blonde, sexy. (You need to look at the members of any group of published authors to believe this ... ) AGE: hmm. Well. To an extent not. But I have to admit that (according to publishers and agents I've spoken to) being above a certain age (say late 50s) does not help for a new writer or for an existing writer whose sales are diminishing. Without wanting to be insensitive about this, they need a career out of you ... But, it's really important to realise that if your writing is good enough, they will want it. So don't be put off, and don't (if possible) feel bitter. PERSONALITY: actually, I'd say that this does make quite a difference (though if your writing shines through your seriously objectionable and unpleasant personality, this should do the trick). It's just that, as I said in another article, your editor and agent and everyone in the publicity department (etc) have to work with you, and ideally your readers have to meet you and like you so much that they'll buy your books. So, please, be as nice and cuddly as you can. Not that agents or publishers actually want to cuddle you - I am being metaphorical.
  2. Can I submit my work to more than one agent / publisher at a time? Publishers yes, agents sometimes (if they are a large agency). But you should always say that you are doing this. The thing about an independent agent is that he/she simply doesn't have time to spend on something so speculative as someone who has submitted elsewhere, too. Apart from that though, ethically and practically there's nothing wrong with the approach. Many agents will tell you (eg on their website) whether this is OK for them or not.
  3. How much of my work should I submit? Actually, this is a BAD question to ask me because it forms part of the answers in all the resources I've mentioned to you in other articles; in other words, you can find it out elsewhere. However, it's important, so I'll tell you. The first rule is that you should see whether the agent or publisher specifies; and then obey. Failing that, send something like 3 chapters / 5000 words (whichever is shorter). Plus the covering letter and synopsis. See my article on SUBMISSIONS (when I have written it ...)
  4. Agent? See my article TO BE AGENTED OR NOT TO BE ... Or publisher first? Well, I'd go for both simultaneously. Why? Because they're both equally (arguably) difficult so a two-pronged attack makes sense. If you get a publisher, an agent is more likely to take you, and vice-versa.
  5. Why won't they tell me why they haven't accepted my work? Because either a) they don't think it's worth commenting on b) they simply don't have time c) they didn't actually read it, either because they didn't have time or because your covering letter was rubbish d) they have taken the view that because any feedback is often taken very negatively by the aspiring writer, it is easier to say nothing. You can't (and mustn't) do anything about this: why do you think they're more likely to respond just because you're angry? They hold all the cards. Just grit your teeth and when you DO get any kind of feedback, listen to it (even though it may contradict someone else's view) and be grateful that someone bothered..
  6. How long should I expect them to take to reply? Unfortunately, there's no good answer to this. Sometimes, agents and publishers DO take a long time. Often, taking a long time is a good sign. But six months is only a sign that someone has forgotten/lost/doesn't care about your work. I feel that it's fair to say that if you've heard nothing after 10-12 weeks, a polite follow-up is acceptable.
Off the top of my head, I can't think of any other good questions, but when I do, I'll add them. Actually, how about you ask me a question and if it's good I'll add it? If it's rubbish, I may add it to the Inexcusable Ignorance article ... But hey, you'll have learnt something. So you won't be a fool.


Excuse the random order of these. It'll keep you on your toes.
  1. A bad covering letter. It's your shop window and many agents and publishers will not read a single word of your work if they don't like your letter. Why would they? After all, if you can't write a brilliant letter, how can you write a brilliant book?
  2. Sending Chapter 28, 31 and 56 and in response to the question, "Why didn't you send chapters 1,2 and 3?" answering, "Because they're not as good." Get them good and then send them.
  3. Disobeying the simple rules of how to submit work to publishers/agents. Very often in this blog, I give you the solution to that. Go find!
  4. Not reading contemporary published books within your genre. It's arrogance and ignorance all rolled into one deeply unattractive and undeserving mess if you can't talk with passion and fervour about the authors and books that are being successful in your genre. Read. A lot. End of.
  5. Being old-fashioned. If you wrote a new Pride and Prejudice it would not get published. Nor would it deserve to. If people want Pride and Prejudice they'll read it. They don't need your imitation. You have to try to be new and you can't do that with 19th century prose, excellent though it was. You even have to be careful about the names you choose - someone once sent me a proposed children's story with the characters Bill and Sue. No, no, no.
  6. Having an inconsistent voice. If you don't know what voice is (and I didn't when I was failing to get published) then you need to find out. Find a creative writing class or blog or book. It really is a common mistake - to slip out of voice, or unintentionally disobey the rules of voice.
  7. Being unpleasant. An agent or editor wants to work with you - why would they want to do that if you are rude or inconsiderate or abrupt or if you insist on pestering them, questioning their integrity, phoning them at the weekend? An author nowadays has to have some kind of public persona, too, and an editor won't want you on her/his list if you are likely to frighten/bore/annoy/bemuse/offend the booksellers/readers/librarians/publicity girls/reviewers. Yes, it has not escaped my notice that some authors are poisonous and regularly boring or drunk, but they will have successfully hidden that during their first contact with agent/editor.
  8. Showing ignorance - you need to read the INEXCUSABLE IGNORANCE article. Just do your best to find out as much as you can about the business of becoming published. You're doing that already but keep going: go to talks by authors on getting published, or join organisations and writers' groups; subscribe to a writing magazine. (I'm going to investigate these for you soon - it's been a while since I read them but I used to get Writers' News and The New Writer and both were helpful. Actually, please let me know if you use/recommend them and I can put them on the list of links - please send me a website if possible).
  9. Not getting straight to the point in a book, whether fiction or non-fiction. You have to think of your reader - don't wax lyrical with your beautiful prose without ensuring that your reader is following. Often this means NOT starting at the beginning, but leaping into the action and then explaining as necessary later. Let your reader wonder - don't flood them with background at the start.
  10. A great beginning, followed by a floundering middle and / or unlikely ending.
  11. Coincidence which could happen in real life but just doesn't feel believable in a book.
  12. The feeling, obvious to most readers but not to the author desperate to force the plot to work, that the author was desperate to force the plot to work.
  13. For older children and teenagers, the feeling that the author is trying to teach a moral message. Even if you are.
  14. For younger children, a trite homely little story. Give it some oomph and orginality. But show that you care about your reader.
  15. I could go on but I'm stopping there ....


You will find the answer in one or more of the following:
  1. You have not written the right book.
  2. You have not sent the right book to the right publisher.
  3. You have not sent the right book to the right publisher in the right way.
  4. You have not sent the right book to the right publisher in the right way at the right time.
So far, so glib. But so true. The whole essence of being published is contained in those four lines. Most of it involves talent; some of it involves learnable skills or information; and some of it (but less than you might think) is luck. The less talent you have, the more luck you need. Some people have the most enormous amount of luck (and no talent) - I prefer people with talent and determination.

What is the right book? The right book is any book which the editor can convince the marketing department that they can convince the sales department that they can convince book-sellers that they can convince readers to buy. The right book is a great book or a popular book or a fresh-voiced book or a book on a topic so sensationally interesting that lots of people (or enough people) would want to buy it. Not in the opinion of you or your grandchildren or your best friend's friend, but in the expert (though not infallible) opinion of the professionals in the publishing industry. What you think doesn't matter - it's what you can make them think that does.

What is the right publisher? The one that publishes or wants to publish the sort of books you've written. Supposing you go to a bookshop to research which publishers publish books like your fantasy series about dinofairies, and supposing you find that Edgar Allen Pickles & Co never have, do NOT think to yourself, "Ah, they don't, so maybe they should - I know, I'll send them mine and they'll LOVE it." No they won't, because if they wanted to publish fantasy they would. So, research which publishers like your genre. This applies equally whatever type of book / reader is yours.

What is the right time? Ah, that's when luck comes in a little bit, though do try to avoid bandwagons when they've already passed in a flurry of dust. (And remember that your book if taken today is probably up to two years from hitting the shelves). You can be unlucky and send something to a publisher which has just filled its list, taken something similar to yours, decided never to touch dinofairies EVER again. Or you can be lucky and send just what they're looking for.

What is the right way? That's easy. That's the bit (see the piece on Inexcusable Ignorance) about reading all the stacks of advice on the topic, in places like the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and publishers' / agents' websites. Rules may be made for breaking but don't break their rules, except one: when they say they're not taking new submissions or unagented work, ignore them - if yours is great, they want it. I'm adding an article on submitting work soon, which will add to your knowledge. But get genned up first.

Many unpublished authors think that their work is brilliant and that the agents/publisher who have rejected them are stupid and ignorant. No, they're not. They can be wrong but even if they don't want your book, for good commercial reasons, they'll spot your talent if you've got it and they'll make suitable nice noises. If you haven't been accepted yet, you simply haven't written the right book (etc etc) or shown your talent, or perhaps found your voice, and you have to face that and decide what you're going to do about it. You have to deal with it, not by moaning about ignorant publishers but by ruthlessly and analytically working out what you are doing wrong. And putting it right. And if it can't be put right, you won't be published.

I strongly suggest you read the article on COMMON MISTAKES BY UNPUBLISHED AUTHORS.


You probably flinched at that word. Am I unfair to call it inexcusable? Of course, there's a huge amount that you can be excused for not knowing, including many things I didn't know and no doubt some I have yet to learn. But there are some things which are so earth-shatteringly basic and easy to discover that it is inexcusable not to have discovered them for yourself. Already. Long before you came across this blog.

Here are some questions which I have been asked at talks to unpublished authors, and/or which I have heard authors, publishers or agents being asked. And honestly, I am not exaggerating any of them. I will then, briefly and perhaps callously, explain why they are dud questions that you should never ask (or find a different way to ask them).

1. How long is a normal book?
2. Why should an agent have some of my earnings?
3. What is an MSS?
4. How should I approach a publisher or agent? What should I send them?
5. It seems to me that publishers are just in it to make money - is this right?
6. Does it matter if my grammar is not very good?

ANSWERS - well, sort of. In as much as I could bear it.

1. How long is a normal book? This is not exactly a stupid question but impossible to answer and therefore effectively stupid. And it betrays too much ignorance. (Even though there's no answer). A book is as long as it should be. The best way to judge is to find some books of the same sort / same market as yours and see how long they are. You'll probably find they are different(ish) lengths. A book is too long if it's too long and too short if it's too short. Think of your reader - how long does your reader want it to be?

One thing I would say is that it would almost certainly be better if you made it shorter. However long it is. Unless it's too short. See what I mean?

2. Why should an agent have some of my earnings? If you grudge your agent's commission, don't have an agent. But recognise that you will virtually certainly earn less and write less (unless you are already extremely successful and knowledgable about the market / foreign rights / ebook deals / territories / film+TV rights / option clauses / termination clauses ...). A good agent does many things that you almost certainly can't do so well and certainly shouldn't have time to do if you're such a committed writer - so you have to pay for it. A good agent undoubtedly increases your income by much more than the 10-15% commission. (I'll do an article on agents soon).

3. What is an MSS? The fact that, as with any question, everyone at some point did not know the answer does not stop this being a stupid question to ask, because if you can't find the answer yourself in 10 seconds, your brain isn't good enough to be a writer. If you are in the slightest bit serious about your ambition, you will have read lots of things about the subject already and you will at least know that MSS is a common and ancient term that is so frequent that you ought to discover the answer yourself, quickly. The point is that by asking the question, you reveal oceanic ignorance. It would be like someone who desperately wants to be a deep-sea diver asking what a wetsuit is. Really, really embarrassing.

4. How should I approach a publisher or agent? What should I send them? A very common and in many ways GOOD question, but so easy to find the answer that experts blanche or fume when asked it because again it reveals a total lack of prior research and common sense, which in turns betrays a lack of desire to learn. You can find the answers in the first three books (and others) on my book list, or on many publishers'/ agents' websites, in writers' magazines and a variety of online resources. The info is out there and so easily available that you shouldn't waste an expert's time by asking it.
However, I AM going to write an article about it, covering the finer points, but you need to find the basics yourself first. I suggest that you go no further until you have.

5. It seems to me that publishers are just in it to make money - is this right? No, they are doing it in order to go to heaven and because they love you with the crushing tenderness of a small child caring for her first pet rabbit. OF COURSE THEY ARE IN IT FOR MONEY! How else can they pay their staff, overheads, share-holders, gas bill? Seriously, if you really think there's a problem in them needing to try to make a profit on your book, then you need to take an enormous reality check. Oh, and when you're published and people ask you to write something or do an event for nothing, don't come crying to me.

6. Does it matter if my grammar is not very good? Do I have to answer this? It doesn't matter about spelling, or hand-writing, but grammar is language and language is your love, your craft, your trade, your art, your life. And if it isn't, please go away. (This question was asked at an event recently. I am not joking. And I hadn't been drinking.)

There are other bits of inexcusable ignorance but life's too short to go into them. My point is that you need to know something before you can ask questions that won't a) infuriate your questionee and b) reveal your ignorance. Picture me at a conference of microfluidicists - would I ask a question? Apart from, What am I doing here?