Guide to Publishing Your First Book

By Helen Townsend, author of over 30 books including:  visit Helen’s site to read short stories

Beyond the Starry Frame, Balancing Act and Curably Romantic.


Finding an agent to represent you

If you can get an agent, this is absolutely the best way to go. Many publishers won’t even look at unsolicited manuscripts unless they come through an agent or unless you are famous. That said, getting an agent is almost as hard as getting published.

To find an agent, look in the Yellow pages. Go for an agency near to where you live. To try and get the agent to take you on as a client, write a letter saying you wish to be their client. Briefly say if you’ve been published anywhere or even if you’re writing your employers’ in-house journal. Tell them your age and writing experience, professional and non professional.

Tell them if you’re writing fiction or non fiction and in one sentence what the book is about and that your submission is attached. In fact, one sentence will do for everything you write. Agents are smart and very busy people.

Your submission to the agent should follow the guidelines for making a submission which are later in this guide. Send hard copy by post and soft copy, by email if you can find it out. Otherwise enclose a USB stick.

However, don’t email the submission if it has pictures. They take too long to download and you’re likely to get deleted without ever being opened.

Don’t ring up agents or drop in.

If you don’t get an answer, phone. If you they say no, don’t hassle them. Believe me, it’s a no.

If they say yes, you’re very lucky. do what they say if you want the book published. Don’t quibble about changes. Don’t quibble about the percentage they charge. Be pleasant, friendly and on time.

For those of you who are famous, send a picture and how you are famous because there’s just a chance they don’t know of your fame. For instance, “I have a breakfast radio program in Melbourne that attracts 50,000 listeners every morning. I get considerable press coverage for my program because of my stance on crime. I’ve been described as  a hard-line crime fighter, a soft touch for charities…” etc. Keep it to a couple of sentences. There’s a bio to go in the submission.


Your submission

The first thing to do is to think very deeply about your book. What category of book it fits into – biography, autobiography, historical fiction, romance, contemporary fiction, literary fiction, mid market fiction, sport, health and fitness, children’s book…there are far more choices than these. Do think about it. Visit bookshops, browse on-line stores and think about your manuscript in relation to what you see there.

Think about your first paragraph, your first page, your first chapter. Make sure they are not only well written but they really draw the reader in. Please, don’t trust friends and family. Almost certainly they will tell you it’s great. They may be quite genuine or they may only be polite, but you’ll never know. If you know a professional author, editor (better choice) or a critic, ask them to read – but only a chapter. It’s too big an ask for someone to read a whole manuscript.

If you have the money, you could hire an editor. This is also time-consuming because they are often have a back-log. Search the net or  the Yellow Pages under Editing and editing service.

Think about who you are. Rather than just your age and occupation, think about your eccentricities, whether you live somewhere interesting – eg a crocodile infested swamp in northern Queensland, also,your personal life.- eg you’re blind, you spent your childhood on a boat sailing round the world.


page 1  A clear heading

Submission for a book, title, and your name and all your contact details.


page 2  What this book is about

First up a sentence or two that places the book in context. This is a romance fiction that tells the story of a young girl, alone in Paris, finding her first love. Or, this is a crime novel about a woman trying to find her child who has been kidnapped by her violent husband. Or, this is literary fiction that describes the struggle of a son to come to terms with his father’s homosexuality.

This needs to follow with an outline of the book. An outline of the book. This should not be a chapter by chapter.  What happens next outline. They are boring and bound to be too long.

For fiction, what you need first up is how the story starts, what dilemma your main character is placed in. This is the spine of the story. Secondly, in this situation how  your character deals with, the  internal and external challenges of their situation, what part other characters play, the challenges they face,, Third, the resolution of the character’s difficulties.

For non-fiction, sometimes you’ll be telling a story in which case you should be doing the outline in the same way as a fiction writer. If, for instance, you’re writing the history of a cricket team or an individual cricketer, you talk about starting out, then finding all the problems they face, and finally overcoming them – or not – and moving on.

For a how to book, write about the problem you are helping people with,and then the various steps you take the reader through. Make this brief, the emphasis being on your approach being novel in some way, how you manage to make each step clear.

Preferably, these outlines should be half a page only.


Next page:  Your first chapter.

You have to make this shine. It should be beautifully written, evocative, fascinating enough to draw the reader to read the rest of your chapter. Any professional reading a chapter won’t be waiting for the big bang at the end.


Next page:  Marketing.

Often this is best done in bullet points.

  1. Type of book. Fiction , non-fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, women’s fiction, travel, humour etc.
  2. The audience it will appeal to – young women, sports fanatics, elderly people, the literary market etc. Say why it will appeal to this group of readers. Don’t say everyone! It’s never true.
  3. How you see it being promoted. Have you got a website? Loads of followers on Facebook or Twitter – quick, get them, on radio, TV, newspapers, magazines. When you cite mass media, you have to think why they would want to devote space to your book. How does it stand out? How it will make readers feel? What is the story – not of the book, but for the media? More and more, publishers want this sort of information from authors. Only big names get book tours and in-store promotions and invites to literary festivals.

Do not suggest a cover for your book. Authors invariably get it wrong and it is a job for a professional, not the writer.

Mention if you’ve done media interviews or if you’ve done public speaking, presentations etc. It shows you’re confident talking in a public arena.


Next page. About you.

This is not about where you went to high school or list all the jobs you’ve done since you left school. It’ should say what you do, your age, sex and anything really interesting about where or how you live. Keep it short. And that’s it for personal stuff.   Then, there’s the important stuff. Why did you write this book? What was it that made you so passionate about it?

Put a photo on the page if you feels it adds something. Not necessarily, but a head shot, but something more informal. Not something with your kids unless your book is on parenting.

Keep this section to half a page.


Presentation – Make it look clear and professional.

Don’t single space anything. The manuscript should be one and a half spaces. Headings should be clear. Spell check. Proof read with care. This is vitally important. You are presenting yourself as a writer, not as someone writing their weekend shopping list.


On-line publishing

Many mainstream publishers are developing on-line production, but you can also look at self publishing. Amazon have a service which allows you to publish on line for a small fee. Some authors have web-sites which have had made good sales. Some on-line successes go to hard copy. It’s well worth considering if you’re a first time author. It is so hard to sell a book these days and the net is where the future is.


Self publishing services

Be careful. Very few of these services do what you could not do yourself and they generally charge a lot of money. Some people are happy with this, but check your contract. Sometimes there are not only upfront fees but further costs for which you may be charged are not obvious. Proceed with care.

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