Getting Your First Book Published: A Beginner's Guide


So you want to write a book?

You’re not alone, my friend. A few years ago the British public were surveyed on their dream job. What do you think they picked? Rock Star? Doctor? Astronaut? Kardashian? Nope.

The majority of respondents had secret dreams of being an author.

yougov poll author

Miners aren’t as sexy as they used to be

And it’s not just the British. Apparently 81% of Americans want to write a book.

It seems that many of us fantasize about sitting in our pyjamas at 1 in the afternoon, working at a beautiful oak desk, the smell of (bullet) coffee brewing, and our fingers poised over the keyboard as we  write our bestseller.

But not everyone gets there. When I say not everyone, I mean hardly anyone gets there. Literally a Donald-Trump-sized handful. Word on the internet is that 97% of writers never finish their novel.

WTF. Only 3% of writers actually realise their goal of finishing a book. How can this be?

Most likely problems with motivation, unrealistic expectations and/or commitment.

To start and finish writing a book, and then to get it published, you need motivation, commitment and realistic expectations – all are required. It’s that easy and it’s that hard. But I believe that it’s within your reach and in this guide I'll arm you with the tools you need to give yourself the best possible chance of becoming part of the 3% who make it.

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This is how you do it; you sit down at the keyboard and put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.
- Neil Gaiman

How to get the most out of this guide

Getting your first book published can be a minefield. Parul is a pro and has a heart of gold. Trust me, you’ll want her on your side when writing your book and navigating the publishing industry Michael Serwa,

Who am I and why am I writing this guide?

I have too many ideas, where do I start?
Should I self-publish or find an agent and go the traditional route?
Should I pay for an editor before I submit my book to agents?
How much should I pay an editor?
How do I get noticed by agents?
Do I have to spend hours on social media?

I get asked these questions a lot. In this guide, I want to answer these and other key questions that writers face as they seek to get their book published. If after reading this guide you have questions that I haven’t covered, email me and I’ll try to help you find the answer.

My name is Parul Macdonald.

Parul headshot

I'm an editor and book coach, working with writers who either want to submit their story to agents as they attempt to get a traditional publishing deal, or get it ready for indie publishing. I work with writers who have nothing more than an idea, as well as writers who have written their first draft (fiction) or fleshed out a proposal (non-fiction), raising ‘big picture’ questions and giving advice (this process is otherwise known as the structural edit) to help writers prepare for submitting their work to an agent or a self-publishing platform.

Eccles Fisher AssociatescornerstonesRandom House logo quercus

I've worked at Random House (part of Penguin Random House), Quercus (part of Hachette), a literary scouting agency (Eccles Fisher Agency) and Cornerstones Literary Consultancy. I've worked with award-winning authors and household names like Andy McNab and Bear Grylls. I’ve learned first-hand about the art of publishing from the teams that publish world-famous authors like Christopher Paolini, Terry Pratchett and Stieg Larsson. As a literary scout, I advised editors at the largest publishers across the world on the hottest books publishing in the UK that they should be interested in for their territories. I've personally worked with published authors, first-time authors and everything in between. The youngest writer I’ve worked with was  fifteen years old and the oldest was 92.

I love writing back cover blurbs, and some of my happiest times are after an editorial session with a writer. I work with writers to make a positive difference to their book and ease their journey to getting published.

I love what I do, and while I don’t know absolutely everything about writing, editing and getting published, I’ve helped many writers over the years, and if you’re starting out, I’m keen to share as much information as I can about the industry with you.

Two quick notes to help navigate this guide:

  1. There is a lot of information in here and some is specific to the kind of book you’re planning to publish. Please look out for where I’ve marked chapters for Fiction or Non-fiction as there is a difference in the advice for these broad genres.
  2. Sign up to download the guide as a PDF so that you can read this at your own pace, wherever you are

This is a large blog post so I bet you JK Rowling’s hourly royalty cheque that you have a million other browser tabs open and will get distracted and not finish this guide online. I don’t blame you, I’d be the same.

Rowling Smiling


  • You’re starting out and want an understanding of what your options are for getting published.
  • You want to be able to check on the health of your book.
  • You want to write a kickass blurb for your book.
  • You’d like to submit your book to agents.
  • You are focused on getting a traditional publishing deal.
  • You want an editor’s perspective.


  • You’re a pantser and will throw something at me if I mention the idea of planning . . . !
  • You have already written your book and want to understand the mechanics of uploading your file to a self-publishing platform.
  • You already understand the path to getting published, understand the different types of edits your book will need, and know how to submit to agents.

Is there something you’d like me to cover in the next version of this guide? Drop me a line at

Traditional Publishing vs Self Publishing - what’s the difference?

If you already understand the difference and know about your options, skip this section. Otherwise read on.

self pub vs traditional Infographic

Despite what people say traditional publishing is not dead but it’s evolving. The large houses whose names you’ll recognise from books you’ve read are slowly adjusting to the new landscape in which they no longer control the means of distribution of ideas. Of course, unless you’ve lived under a rock you’ll know that self-publishing has exploded in popularity and it’s more accessible than ever before (thank you Jeff Bezos). And new platforms are popping up left, right and over all the page.

But which ones should you care about?

The Publishing Houses and Indie Platforms you should know about

UK Publishers (and their imprints)

Largest Publishers in the UK*
*(source: Wikipedia, ordering based on market share)

What’s an imprint?

Imprints are subdivisions within a publishing house. As an author you’ll be bought by one imprint or sometimes two e.g. you might be published on both a children’s and adult imprint. Each imprint is, in fact, a mini publishing company that provides editorial, publicity, marketing services for authors, Each imprint has its own editorial identity and remit that stems from the imprint's heritage and history. If you want to learn about imprints read this article at the Guardian.

  1. Penguin Random House Penguin Imprints: Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, Allen Lane, Michael Joseph, Viking, Rough Guides, Dorling Kindersley, Puffin, Ladybird, Warne

    Random House: Random House, Century, Hutchinson, William Heinemann, Arrow; Chatto & Windus, Jonathan Cape, Harvill Secker, Vintage, Pimlico, Bodley Head, Transworld, Doubleday, Bantam Press, Black Swan, Bantam, Corgi,Ebury Press, BBC Books, Virgin Books, Black Lace, Nexus, Cheek, Andersen Press

  1. Hachette Livre (UK) Headline, Hodder & Stoughton, Sceptre, Quercus, Little, Brown, Abacus, Sphere, Piatkus, Orbit, Virago; Orion, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Gollancz, Phoenix, Everyman, John Murray, Octopus, Cassell, Hamlyn, Mitchell Beazley, Philips; Orion Children's Books, Hodder Children’s Books, Orchard Books, Franklin Watts, Wayland, Hodder Education, Chambers Harrap
  1. HarperCollins HarperCollins 4th Estate, Avon, Voyager, Collins, HarperPress, Blue Door
  1. Pan MacmillanPan Books, Picador, Macmillan New Writing, Macmillan, Boxtree, Sidgwick and Jackson, Tor (UK), Kingfisher
  1. Pearson Education
  2. Oxford University Press
  3. BloomsburyBloomsbury, A&C Black
  1. Simon & Schuster
  2. John Wiley & Sons (UK)
  3. Faber Independent Alliance: This is a group of smaller publishers who have banded together to share sales and admin costs, led by Faber: Atlantic Books, Canongate, Icon Books, Profile Books, Short Books, Granta Books, David Fickling Books, Pushkin Press, Scribe Publications, Lonely Planet, Murdoch Books, Daunt Books, New York Review BooksPavilion Books

And if you didn’t know, Amazon has a publishing arm as well… Amazon Publishing (not to be confused with Amazon’s self publishing offering).

US Publishers

Largest publishers in the USA*
*(source: Publishers Weekly, ordering based on units sold in 2016)

  1. Penguin Random House
  2. HarperCollins
  3. Simon & Schuster
  4. Hachette Book Group
  5. Macmillan
  6. Scholastic
  7. Disney Publishing Worldwide
  8. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  9. Workman
  10. Sterling
  11. John Wiley and Sons
  12. Abrams
  13. Dover
  14. Candlewick
  15. W.W. Norton

Here’s an interactive chart of the Big Five US publishers and their imprints from @alialmossawi.

Self-Publishing platforms

Your choices fall under 3 categories.

  1. Direct to ebook retailers: These are platforms that sell directors to the reader. Guess what? 95% of ebooks sales are through Amazon (80%), itunes take 10%, the Nook 3% & Kobo 2%*
  2. Aggregators: These are platforms that allow you to upload and distribute to all three of the large retailers (see above), plus the small ebook retailers and libraries.
  3. Offbeat: These are what I would classify as alternative platforms. They include Gumroad, Leanpub, Kickstarter and Unbound. They are platforms where you can crowdfund, publish and sell your book. They don’t suit everyone but for some authors they work particularly well. See this  Kickstarter success story & this author's happy Leanpub journey).

Many authors I researched seemed to combine going to Amazon directly + using an aggregator for all the other platforms. This is a good place to start, but opinions seem to vary from author to author. If you’re selling technical work (e.g. a book about coding), I would consider suggest a platform like Gumroad where you can add a bundle of digital products easily.

The 7 most popular places to sell your ebook

Click here for a more detailed analysis of the different self-publishing platforms

Number 1: Amazon KDP
Tag: Publisher, Online Retailer
Amazon accounts for 80%* of ebook sales across English-language countries.

It’s no wonder that Kindle Direct Publishing remains the most popular platform for authors selling ebooks. Here you can convert and sell your book for free to millions of potential readers.

To sell your books abroad in Amazon, you’ll have to create a central author account and upload to these individual sites: Amazon Spain, Amazon Japan, Amazon Brazil, Amazon China, Amazon Canada. If you’re based outside the US, but would like to publish on Amazon US — read this. 

Number 2: Apple iBooks Author
Tag: Publisher, Online Retailer
Apple is growing and gaining more market share. They account for 10%* of all ebook sales. Small? Yes, but the popularity of Apple products makes it an enticing platform.

Number 3: Kobo Writing Life
Tag: Publisher, Online Retailer, Global
Kobo has only 2% of the ebook market at the moment, but there is a good reason to still consider this platform — international sales. Upload your files onto Kobo Writing Life to make your book available in 190 countries.

Number 4: Smashwords
Tag: Publisher, Retailer, Aggregator
Smashwords is the original and oldest aggregator site with a larger reach than Draft2Digital. It allows you to distribute your titles to the many smaller ebook retailers like B&N, Baker and Taylor as well as library networks like OverDrive and Gardeners.

Number 5: Draft2Digital
Tag: Publisher, Retailer, Aggregator
Draft2Digital has been recommended by Kindlepreneur Dave Chesson, this is one of the top ebook aggregators.

Number 6: Gumroad
Tag: Ecommerce Platform
Gumroad is popular with both artists and coders for selling books and digital products. This is particularly useful if you want to sell bundles of products to go alongside your book like audio, videos and additional documents. It was used by Nathan Barry (founder of Convertkit) to sell over $500,000 of products and books.

Number 7: Unbound (UK) or Inkshares (US)
Tag: Crowdfunding, Traditional Publisher, Distributor
Eric Ries ran a famously good Kickstarter campaign for his second book The Good Leader. If you have a tribe or a following, then you might consider these publishing-only crowdfunding sites.

Click here for a more detailed analysis of the different self-publishing platforms

Chapter 1: Becoming part of the 3% that finish writing their book 

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Why do you want to write?

Everyone has a public answer and private answer. Publicly you might tell me that you just love writing and you’re really keen on your idea. But if you were being totally honest, what do you really, really want?

Some decent pocket money?

money snow angels

This reaction when you tell people you’re an author

scarlett WOW

Praise from your family

mothers pride

Who wouldn’t want this? I would be the first to admit that I would love to have all three! These are valid dreams. As motivations go however, they’re pretty useless for helping you write your book.

Remember, 97% of writers never finish their book. Why is this?

Because it’s a tough journey.

Once you put your nose to the grind, it’ll probably hurt and you have to REALLY want this, enough so that when the pain gets intense and you feel like quitting, you must remember why you started.

I do believe that writing has the power to change lives, not least a writer’s life, and that it can play a critical part in doing work that matters. If you want to share your ideas on entrepreneurship, or know that you have a chilling thriller up your sleeve, well, I believe you, and as Seth Godin would say, it’s your turn.

I believe there are two mindsets that will help you be part of the 3% . . .

Mindset #1 Become an author with your eyes wide open

3389“Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” – Stephen King, bestselling author of Carrie, The Shining, It

Seth Godin in 2009“First off, writing books is a terrible revenue model for authors. Precious few books sell more than 25,000 copies, so it’s unlikely you’ll make even $75,000 a year from book royalties. In rare cases, you might have a perennial bestseller, but this is less than 1% of all books sold and not a good bet to make." – Seth Godin, award-winning author of Purple Cow, Tribes, Icarus Deception

(FOR NON-FICTION WRITERS): Seth is basically saying, look don’t do it for the direct revenue, consider the speaking opportunities where you can command 5-6 figure fees if you target Fortune 500 audience and the ability to grow your reputation and establish yourself as a thought leader.


Mindset #2 Focus on this one INCREDIBLE idea

“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” - Gary Keller

LIFE can get in the way of the things we want the most. When I say life, I mean jobs, families, children, dates, parties, procrastination and Netflix.

Here’s a novel idea from Gary Keller. So simple that we ignore it. His advice: Focus on one thing.

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You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once - Gary Keller

In an age of distraction, most of us are juggling several projects, tasks and goals. But if you want to complete a book you must focus.

RULE  1: Identify what’s most important in your life and dedicate yourself to completing that one goal.

You might have more than one personal goal in your life. Is your desire to be an author competing with your desire to learn a language? I’d like to invite you to focus on just ONE goal and give it your undivided attention. If writing a book is the most important thing to you, you will need to sacrifice other goals while you focus on this.

RULE 2: Free up your time in all aspects of your life.

Ask yourself: What’s the ONE thing I can do or change so that will make my day easier?

For example, can you get up an hour earlier to make sure you fit your exercise in so that you have more energy? Or could you hire a babysitter twice a week to allow you to have time to write?

Bear in mind the Pareto Principle, which suggests that 20% of work gives us 80% of the results. Which elements of your life that are not the key 20% can you cut out to help you focus on the right thing?

RULE 3: Add good habits to support your goal.

To help you focus, there will be ‘good practices’ you can implement to help you sleep better, have more time, be more productive. Rule 2 will have given you some ideas about routines in your life that you can afford to  let go, but which ones can you add? What practices would you like to become your habits?

Apply these rules to your life right now.  Make yourself a cup of tea, sit down and take 5-10 minutes to answer the following questions:


  1. SOMEDAY GOAL: What’s the ONE writing goal I’m working towards?
  2. FIVE-YEAR GOAL: Based on my Someday Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do in the next 5 years?
  3. ONE-YEAR GOAL: Based on my Five-Year Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do in this year?
  4. MONTHLY GOAL: Based on my One-Year Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do this month?
  5. WEEKLY GOAL: Based on my Weekly Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do today?
  6. DAILY GOAL: Based on my Daily Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do today?
  7. RIGHT NOW: Based on my Daily Goal, what’s the ONE thing I can do right now?


Chapter 2: Fiction writers: Know how to plan your story, then sell your idea to anyone

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There is no ONE way to write, and there are writers don’t like to plan. If you’re one of those writers, skip this section. However if you’re open to trying something new and you’re comfortable with the idea of a little planning before writing, or want to revise your work, you can use any or all of the following three steps.

By the end of this chapter you’ll KNOW: 

  • How to pitch your book to anyone
  • How to identify and amplify the key tension points in your book
  • How to create a rough outline for your book

By the end of this chapter you’ll FEEL: 

  • Comfortable describing your book
  • Focused and certain of your next move
  • Like you deserve a drink. A double.

I use some or all of the steps here with writers who can’t see the wood for the trees or are being haunted by writing demons.

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Writing demon. Model: Gollum. Previous credits: Lord of the Rings

I’ve worked on a number of different standalone and series books using some or all of the steps I’m about to outline. (It depended on what the book needed). Here are some examples of books that I’ve worked on:


This military adventure YA book reached the Top Ten in the UK ebook charts when released.


This series about the Scouts was sold throughout their network worldwide

It can be helpful to do the exercises in the steps below with an editor, or a fellow writer, to help bounce ideas around.

Fiction writers: Three steps to having a stellar book pitch, and a fantastic outline

Non-fiction writers click this and skip to Chapter 3

This is going to take you 60-90 minutes for each step, maybe longer. My advice? Read all three steps through and then dedicate your next 4 or 5 lunch breaks to completing each of them. It might hurt, but it will set you off in the right direction for getting your novel written.

With each step below, we will zoom in closer on the detail of your story so that you get can answer these questions:

  1. What’s the reading experience, what emotional beats do you need to hit? (blurb)
  2. What’s the shape of the story (Synopsis)
  3. What are the layers within your story (Outline)

Step #1: Learn how to sell your idea by creating an irresistible blurb
Step #2: Assess your story’s health by writing a synopsis
Step #3: Can you deliver? Write a rough outline of what happens in each chapter

Then it’s time to start writing!

Step #1: Learn how to sell your idea by creating an irresistible blurb

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At this stage you need to have an idea, even just a rough one e.g. a reader who is obsessed with a writer and deluded.

If you have already partly written the book, that’s fine too. You can still run through the exercise.

Now, I want you to write a blurb.

1.2 Why should you write a blurb?

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In short, I believe it helps you think about the drive, the pull, the why, the magical elements that entice a reader to keep turning those pages. A good blurb will help you consider whether you have the right oomph in your book, and it’s helped my clients get noticed by agents.

Once you have your incredible blurb (that can stand up to competitors in your niche), it can act as your North Star. It’s your guide to understanding the direction of your writing. As you’re writing you can ask yourself: am I delivering the story I promised I would write?

1.3 What is a Blurb?

A blurb is simply the copy you find on the back of a book, a sales pitch. The back of a book might also include a pitch and quotes from reviewers, and potentially information about the author. At the moment, we are only interested in the blurb.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We are using the concept of the blurb to help us plan your story. We are aiming for a draft, not the final one. If you self-publish, you will want to make tweaks before you upload to Amazon, and if you go down the traditional route, you will have input from your editor and publishing team.

Here’s the back of a paperback edition of Stephen King’s book FINDERS KEEPERS:

StephenKing backcover

1.4 Blurbs deconstructed

At the core of a blurb, you’re answering two questions:

What’s happening to who?
And why do I care?

Broken down step-by-step, it looks a little like this . . .


Here are two of my favourite books to show you how they’ve done it.

 EXAMPLE 1: PAULA HAWKINS pasted image 0 46

EXAMPLE 2: LEE CHILDpasted image 0 34

1.5 How to write a blurb using the ‘Mood Board’ method

This is the best method I know for starting to construct a convincing blurb. For this you’ll need to access Amazon. Of course you can use other websites, but seeing as it’s the biggest bookstore in the US and UK, it’s what I use when working with a client to create an irresistible blurb for their book.

Step 1) Go to Amazon, find 3-5 similar books that you like, and copy the blurbs onto a word doc. It’s like a mood board but for back covers.

This is an example of a blurb mood board I created for a client:

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Step 2) Use the steps outlined above (Blurbs deconstructed) to write at least 3 versions of a blurb for your story. Don’t overthink it, just let the words flow.

Questions to ask yourself: Is this pitch intriguing? Is there anything in there that doesn’t appeal?  How does it compare to books in the same genre?

Step 3) Show the blurb to someone who doesn’t know the story. They don’t have to be from your readership or know a lot about your subject area (unless it’s very technical or esoteric).

Ask your reader for specific feedback: Which description appeals to you? What sentences or concepts attract you? What confuses you? What are you indifferent to?

STOP when you have a draft that you are reasonably happy with. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it should represent your story  AND be able to hold its place amongst your competitors.


Step #2: Assess the health of your story by writing a synopsis

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It’s like a health check by George Clooney in ER. Only for your book.

From writing your blurb, you know the key tension points in the novel, and you know what kind of emotional impact you’ve promised to deliver (this will be the mystery ahead, unresolved problems). Now it’s time for some more details. You need to work out if your story has the pull that you’ve promised in your blurb. To do this, you need to write a synopsis.

2.1 What is a synopsis?

A synopsis is an outline of your book. You’re not holding back the punchline but nor are you detailing every movement that a character makes. It’s like telling a keen friend the key parts of the book. Fill up a page or two maximum.

2.2 Why do I need to write a synopsis?

You don’t have to, and doing this work upfront might not be for you. However, if you’re open to brainstorming your book, this is a good way to breaking through writing any barriers you might have.

2.3. How to write a synopsis

Don’t overthink the first draft, just write it down then go back and edit it.

Here’s an example of what a synopsis of The Girl on the Train might look like:

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Summary from Shmoop. Shmoop style humour optional.

It’s important to note that the synopsis you’ll need when you are submitting your manuscripts to agents will be slightly different (it will need a different format) but this version could serve as a draft for the synopsis you’ll need later.

Step #3: Write a rough outline of what happens in each chapter

Now we’re going to push harder into the details of the story. If you can’t outline at this level for every chapter, that’s OK. Outline what you can, and use this to kickstart the writing process. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, write a paragraph per chapter.

Here’s an example of a detailed outline of the first chapter of The Girl on the Train taken from Schmoop.

The Girl on the Train

Chapter 1 Detailed Outline


  • It's the morning of Friday, July 5, 2013.
  • Rachel looks out the window of a train.
  • Now it's the evening of the same day, and Rachel is riding back home on the train, drinking gin and tonic from a can
  • She remembers her first holiday with Tom in a way that we assume means she's not with Tom anymore.
  • Rachel recalls fishing villages, beaches, making love in the sand.
  • On Monday, Rachel's back on the train.
  • Many days the train stops outside her favorite house, number fifteen.
  • Rachel imagines the couple she often sees hanging outside the house on their lovely terrace as Jason and Jess, "a perfect, golden couple" (1.14). They're what Tom and Rachel maybe used to be, but definitely aren't now.
  • In the evening, Rachel tries to see Jason and Jess from the other side of the track.
  • She doesn't, but she has her imagination to fall back on.
  • On Tuesday, Rachel tells us that she used to live at twenty-three Blenheim Road, a few houses down from number fifteen.
  • Now Tom lives there with Anna, and they've had a baby together.
  • In the evening, Rachel is riding back home on the train.
  • Home is now a room she rents from a friend, Cathy. Cathy is nice, but Rachel feels out of place there.
  • On hump day, Rachel is disappointed that she catches neither hide nor hair of Jess nor Jason, so she imagines their perfect (to her) life yet again.
  • That evening it's hot and sweaty, and Rachel feels gross. She's put on weight and she's puffy from all her drinking.
  • A man at a computer looks at her and she thinks that he thinks that's she's gross, too.
  • On Thursday, Rachel sees "Jess" looking sad, and she thinks about a bunch of stuff that makes her sad too: being a drunk, losing Tom, drinking, drinking, drinking, (and drinking).
  • That night, Tom calls and tells Rachel to stop bugging him: "These constant calls are really upsetting Anna" (1.47). But she didn't even tell us she'd been calling him. Does she not remember?

When you’re writing your outlines remember:

  1. A chapter can have its own arc, but it might contain more than one scene.
  2. Scenes are mini-stories that show a clear shift in value from the beginning to the end.
  3. A strong opening and a cliffhanger or intrigue at the end of each chapter will keep a reader interested.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Is there a story within each chapter?
  2. Does every scene in this chapter move the story along? A book I read recently had a teenage boy gardening with his grandfather, which was nice, but didn’t really move the main plot (it was a thriller), another client had a weak story to illustrate a management principle, it was taken out.
  3. Ask yourself: would the story suffer without this scene?

Now it’s time to write

Some guidelines to help you . . .

  1. The blurb, the synopsis and the outline are living documents. They will change as you write.
  2. If you get lost, go back to the outline. If that’s not inspiring, either change the outline or the synopsis.
  3. If you’re still stuck, troubleshoot with a fellow writer. Or shoot me a message I often offer free book strategy sessions, and if I have slots, I’II brainstorm with you – it’s a part of my job I particularly love.

Chapter 3: Non-fiction writers: How to move from TOO MANY ideas to a killer outline for your first book

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“Understand that a non-fiction book is a souvenir, just a vessel for the ideas themselves. You don't want the ideas to get stuck in the book... you want them to spread. Which means that you shouldn't hoard the idea! The more you give away, the better you will do.”  Seth Godin

By the end of this chapter you’ll be able to: 

  • Pitch your book to anyone.
  • Understand exactly what you must deliver in this first book.
  • Have a guide to writing a book that your readers want.

I don’t believe that cranking out content at full pelt is always the best way to go.

Tim Ferriss worked for a year full time on his first book The Four Hour Work Week.

Ramit Sethi spent 6 months planning his first book I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

Both books are not only bestsellers but books that continue to be read a decade after they were first published.

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Slow and steady can win the race.

I do believe that for some people pushing through to the first draft quickly can help slam through your self-doubt and avoid procrastination. The steps below should help you identify hone in on 1) where your book belongs and 2) what message you are delivering.

4 Steps to help you work out what your book is about

Step #1: Identify where your book will sit on the self by answering these questions
Step #2: Create your North Star by writing a Blurb & Strapline
Step #3: Creating an irresistible Viral Title
Step #4:Know exactly what to write using a Table of Contents

Step #1: Identify where your book will sit on the shelf

These questions are crucial to be able to understand where you book fits into the market. Knowing this will give you a razor focus in your writing, and help others to be able to talk about your book easily.

What you DON’T want is a woolly, garbled string of words that make no sense: my book is sort of about management and spirituality but also about accountability and leading a good life.

What you DO want are bite-sized, focused statements that capture the essence of your book.

E.g. My book showcases 50 case studies of people with ordinary skills who have turned their passion into a profitable business, allowing them to escape the cubicle and lead fulfilling lives. Perfect for entrepreneurs and 9-5’ers who want to live life on their terms.

Answer these questions to help you clarify your positioning:

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Q1. Which 1-2 Amazon categories will your book fall under?
Q2. What are the top ten books in those categories today?
Q3. Who is your audience? What similar books might they read?
Q4. What unique value are you providing your reader?
Q5. Fill in the blank. ‘In this book, readers will learn ________________’

Example using Taylor Pearson’s End of Jobs

Q1. Where will your book sit on Amazon Categories?

Business & Finance > Economics
Business & Finance > Small Business & Entrepreneurship

Q2. What are the top five books in those categories today?

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Top 5 books in Business Economics vs Top 5 books in Small Business & Entrepreneurship

Q3. Who is your audience? What similar books might they read?

The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss
Hack the Entrepreneur by Dan Norris

Q4. What unique value are you providing your reader?

An insight into how to futureproof your career, with scientific backing and practical examples.

Q5. In this book, readers will learn:

— Why the century-long growth in wages came to a halt in 2000.
— Why MBAs and JDs can’t get jobs and what that means for the future of work and your job.
— The scientific research on how giving up balanced living leads to more money and more freedom
— Why a 20th century world view to career search questions like “What career is right for me?” and “How do I find a career?” could be the source of your frustration (and a better way to think about it).

TIP: Check Amazon reviews of your competitors –do readers ask for something that the authors haven’t provided?

Step #2: Create your North Star by writing a blurb and strapline

What is your North Star? It’s your blurb, your book pitch. Having a blurb that reflects your offering means that you have an understanding of WHAT and HOW you’re writing. It’s your guide when you’re lost. As you’re writing you can ask yourself, am I delivering the story I promised I would write?

This doesn’t have to be done immediately if you really can’t face this. However, the exercise will help you clarify what your sales pitch is. This is supposed to be messy and a little tough, but you will eventually find a diamond in the rough!

2.1 Your Strapline

You have 4 seconds of your reader’s attention. What’s your pitch? (how does your book benefit readers?). Your strapline should explain this in one punchy line.


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Tribes: We need you to lead us.
The 4-Hour Work Week: Escape the 9-5, live anywhere and join the new rich.

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2.2. Your blurb

Go pick up some of your favourite non-fiction books, turn them over and take a look at how they are sold. There is no ONE way to write a blurb, but there are few popular ways to sell your book.

You’ll find the following elements:


3 Examples of Non-Fiction Back Cover Blurbs
(Back Cover) Tribes by Seth Godin

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(Back Cover) The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss

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(Back Cover) The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau

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Step #3: Creating an irresistible title

A good title is like a memorable motif, a viral phrase (think The One Thing, The 4- Hour Body, Tribes), that perfectly describe what the book is about, stay with you long after the book and help readers spread the word.

If you're stuck, you can return to this later, however it can be helpful to start thinking of an emerging theme. Something that can be brought up throughout the book. Think of Seth Godin’s Purple Cow or Tribes or Tim Ferriss’ The Four Day Work Week or Four Hour Body or the The Chimp Paradox.

A good title makes it easy to remember, and easy to share.  

3. 1 Create a title scrapbook


Create a creative board with titles you like, and use this as inspiration to start brainstorming titles for your book. What you're looking for is to draw out a theme that you can bring out in the book.

Here’s an example of one I’m doing with a writer who is writing about Management principles.

Go wild, dump all ideas on your long list. However stupid they are they will help you narrow down ultimately to the killer title.

3.2 Brainstorm


Once you have a longlist, take a few days out and return to it to and pick out your top 5. These you can test out on your target audience (the larger the sample, the better) or run a Google Adwords campaign.

Step #4: Know exactly what to write using a table of contents

Creating the skeleton of your project gives you some great insight into the flow of your book. Of course you can tweak this as you go along. Your table of contents will outline the journey that you want to take the reader on.

4.1 Pour out all your ideas onto a page

Start with writing down every single topic that you might like to include in the book. You might want to mind-map or concept map. Here’s an example of a concept map for Elizabeth Shassere’s upcoming book The Fearless Leader.


At this stage, you know what the book is about, and what you’ve promised to deliver.

4.2 Your chapter headings: the shitty draft 

Choose roughly 6-10 topics that could be chapter headings. Put the headings in a rough order, but don’t worry about order just yet. This version is going to be pretty shitty and that’s OK. It’s supposed to be.

This is when you will need feedback and testing. But first here are some quick ways to help you shape your first shitty draft.

4.3 Use Amazon for comparison and inspiration

You’re not the first person to write about your topic.  Learn from your fellow writers and hop onto Amazon to check out the table of contents in similar books. To do this,  go to a book in a similar category, and find click on the Kindle edition of the book. Click the ‘Look Inside’ link.

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Once inside the book, you should be able to see the table of contents. You can use this for inspiration.

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4.4 Start reaching out to Beta readers for feedback

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Beta reader critiquing your book. Model: Samuel Johnson. Age 308-years-old.

While you don’t want to spend 6 months in this phase, I don’t recommend whipping through it either. At this stage you have a handful of topics and if you’ve followed through the other exercises you have a blurb (your north star).

I now want you to start talking to friends and potential readers of your book. This could include:

  1. friends
  2. family
  3. former clients
  4. mentors
  5. people at work or in your field.

If you are adventurous you can use meetups groups or forums like reddit and quora but we won’t be covering those here.

Show your readers your work and ask for very specific feedback. These are the types of questions to ask, after you’ve shown them the title and blurb:


  1. Which topics appeal to you the most?
  2. Which topics are less appealing or confusing?
  3. Is there anything here that isn’t covered that you think I should cover?


Watch & listen. If you are with someone (in person or on the phone), notice which topics they are immediately drawn to or ask about. Don’t impose your thoughts or ask them ‘do you like this?’. Most people want to be nice and are likely to give you platitudes. You don’t want a generic ‘yes’, you want to try and spot enthusiasm, indifference or confusion.

Aim to get feedback from at least 10 people. People who are enthusiastic and/or supportive can be recruited into your beta reading group for when you finish your first draft.

4.4 Moving from shitty first draft to a killer outline

The feedback and research should help you understand what you might cut, add or polish. Here are some other ways to get mass feedback.

Testing using blogs
During the writing process, you can test out your ideas as blog posts and gauge the feedback on each post. If you don’t have a social media account, now is an excellent time to start. You will need to have some following, no matter how small, for your non-fiction work. A wordpress or medium account is a good platform.


Case Study: Table of Contents for Zero to One


Case Study: Table of Contents for The Four-Hour Work Week

Toc 4HWW

By now you should have a strapline, blurb, title and table of contents. Half the work is done. The next half is writing. Using your table of contents to guide you start writing your book and refer to your blurb to keep you on track.

Chapter 4: Finding and working with an editor

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Do you need an editor?

Let’s start with what an editor can do for your book.

Typically there are 4 stage of editing.

  • At a publishing house, your book will go through all four stages.
  • As a self-published author you can decide whether you would like all four.
  • If you’re unsure about your storyline or need help with your plot, you will probably only need help from a content editor.

Do you need an editor? The answer depends on where you are in the publishing process, whether you’re self-publishing and whether you feel you need help. Let’s take a look at the different types of editing.

There are four types of editor, which one do you need and when?
Stage 1 Editing: Structural edit (also known as Developmental or Content edit)

Taking your story to the next level

This is when an editor would look at the bigger picture, with an eye on plot structure, character development, symbolism, pacing and tension. Here are some suggestions that a structural editor might make:

Developing a character further
Cutting out an entire scene or chapter that doesn’t add to the plot
Questioning whether the hero’s quest is engaging enough
Suggesting increasing the tension between two characters in a scene
Revising a novel’s opening
Toning down a gruesome scene to fit the audience (e.g. if it’s a young adult audience)

(Non Fiction)
Tweaking the tone of the book to match the audience
Adding summary of topics discussed at the end of each chapter
Adding or tweaking action points for the reader to make them more impactful
Merging two chapters that have similar topics

Stage 2 Editing: Line-editing

Taking your sentences to another level

As you submit your work to a line editor, there will be no more changes to the storyline. Now you can watch as a line editor tweaks sentences to make them flow better and points out any inconsistencies, e.g. if a character was drinking a cup of tea, and in the same scene picks up a bottle of beer. In short it your work will come out of this process reading much more smoothly and sounding more professional.

Stage 3 Editing: Copy-editing

When grammar and punctuation errors are rooted out

This is the last edit before your book goes off to be typeset. The copy-editor will check the manuscript word by word, line by line to root out errors in spelling, grammar or punctuation, ensuring that the typesetter has all the required information to format the pages of your book correctly.

Stage 4 Editing: Proofreading

A final check after the pages have been typeset

Human error is inevitable.After a manuscript is ‘converted’ or typeset into the book format with all the design work in place to show exactly how they’ll be printed for the finished book, it’s possible that a word has been lost, or a space can appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

I was working at a publishing house when a whisper went around the floor. We had discovered a typo on the spine of a book. The book had already gone to be printed, and the author was a worldwide bestselling author so the print run wasn’t small. The worst of it was that 18 people had checked the cover (from sales staff, editors to the MD), and somehow we were all blind to it. In the end, the print run had to be pulped, and after the spine was corrected, the book was reprinted.

ERRORS WILL HAPPEN, but having at least one proofreader (best practice is to have two proofreaders whose corrections can be cross referenced) check your manuscript after it’s been set, will root out most of them.

Do you need an editor if you’re self-publishing?

If you’re self-publishing, I would say YES. Think of the time and effort you’ve put into creating your content, wouldn’t you want to now make sure it’s presented as professionally as possible?

If your budget is really tight, and you’re happy with your content, I’d suggest investing in a line editor to make sure that the language and sentence sentence structure is looked over. If you can stretch it, I would invest in a proofreader to make sure that the final product really delivers.

If you’re asking a friend, make sure you choose someone who is passionate about words and ideally a grammar enthusiast.

Bottom line: If you’re tight on money, go for a line edit. If you can afford it, I would suggest getting a structural editor (unless you’re very confident that you don’t need one) and copy-editor as well.

How much does an editor cost?

business money pink coins

This really depends on the editor. And the type of edit (structural edit, line edit, copy-edit or proofread).

Most editors will charge by word count anywhere from 0.01-0.05 cents a word. For a 50k word book that is between $500-2500.

Structural edits will normally be the most expensive and proofreading might be cheapest within this range. It’s expensive, true, but that’s because of the sheer work needed to read and comb through a novel. An editor who can improve your novel and help you see the wood for the trees is worth every penny.

Do you need an editor before you submit to an agent?

If you’re heading down the traditional route, you will get editorial input from your agent and editors. So generally speaking, no, you don’t need an editor of any kind.

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An editor can help make sure you’re heading in the right direction.

However, there are times when a writer does need help untangling the storyline or pushing past the first draft to feel confident enough to submit their story to an agent. If this is the case for you, you might want a structural/ developmental editor to ensure you are heading in the right direction.

If you’ve had any of the following thoughts, you might need a structural/developmental editor:

I don’t know if my book is good enough.
Something feels wrong but I don’t know what.
I’ve been rejected multiple times but I don’t know why?
I have written a first draft but I don’t know where to take it from here.
Is my book ready to submit?
I don’t know anything about the writing process and I’d like someone to help me on my journey.

If you’re looking for a publishing deal, I would probably not suggest a line edit, copyedit or proofread unless you’re very worried about how you write or your grammar. Your manuscript will change once you are accepted by a publishing house so it’s very likely that all line edits etc could be undone.

Should I use a writing group or friend to help me edit?

To save money: If you trust that someone you know will do the job well, I would try that first to save you money.

To save time: If you’re looking to save time, I would use a professional editor who should be able to quickly guide you and save you months or even years of procrastination or making the same mistakes.

Bottom line: Invest in a developmental editor if you are feeling stuck or need specific answers that your friends/writing groups can’t answer.

Editors for hire a resource list

Yes I do offer editorial services, and I would love to consider working with you, but I’m not the only editor in town. And it’s important that you find an editor who has experience working in your genre and that you feel a connection with. I encourage you to look around.

Here are a list of resources that I would use if I was looking for an editor.

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Philippa Donovan at Smart Quill Editorial

I would also consider the editors on Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman’s resource list

2 red flags to avoid so you can find a freelance editor who’s perfect for you

This applies to all four types  of editors

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Red Flag 1#: They charge too little

At the extreme end, you have book enthusiasts who charge a fiver to read your book (on and give you a critique. But further up the scale you have people who will charge under the market value. See below for rough rates from the Editorial Freelancers Association.


As a rough guide, a full developmental (structural) edit for a 50k word (200 pages) manuscript might cost in the realm of £500-1700 or $800-2500 depends on the genre and how light or heavy an edit is needed. 

As an editor, I would love to help more people and charge less. But I know how much work editing takes.

However, there may be legitimate reasons why an editor charges a modest amount:

  • They are just wonderful people who are happy to charge below market rate despite having the ability to command more.
  • They are starting out in their career, building a specific portfolio or trying to win over new clients.

Case Study: When an editor charges less, my story.

A few months ago I was approached by an entrepreneur who wanted me to help her with non-fiction. While I have worked on non-fiction projects, I haven’t worked on management books, so I charged substantially below my normal rate. Why? Because I’m looking to build my portfolio of non-fiction projects and I’d like to be able to feature my client as a case study. I was transparent about the situation with my client and she was happy to go ahead and work with me. To compensate for my lack of experience in non-fiction, I brought onboard a non-fiction editor from Random House to act as a consultant on the project.

As long as the editor is transparent about their experience, and their ability to deliver, they can charge what they like. Choosing an editor because of their lower price, IF they don’t have the experience to help you, could end up wasting you time and money.

So be open-minded, but curious when searching for your editor.

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Red Flag 2#: They’ve only worked on their own books:

Not all writers are good editors, and vice versa. I have met people who can juggle both, and I admire them hugely.

For example, I can edit content. I love immersing myself into a story and working out what needs to be ironed out. Writing on the other hand doesn’t come naturally to me, and I have to treat myself to copious amount of coffee to find the motivation to sit down and write.

I’ve seen writers online who have self-published a book or two, and maybe even hit the ‘bestseller’ status through gaming Amazon niches. They then offer themselves up as editors to other writers.

Writer, be careful. I know of authors who have gamed the system to reach ‘bestseller’ status despite not actually having made a single cent from book sales. While they could probably tell you how they self-published, I’m not so sure that they could help you edit your manuscript and make your book the best version of itself that it could possibly be.

Three things to ask for when you think you’ve found an editor
#1 A Recommendation

This could be testimonials on their site, or word of mouth. If they work for a reputable organisation like NY Book Editors, Golden Egg Academy or Cornerstones I would have faith that any issue I ran into would be dealt with by the company. So I’d feel protected.

#2 Previous work

Try to find out which published (and unpublished books) they’ve worked on. It’s hard to see what input they actually gave on those books (for example I’ve been an editor on book that have needed minimal input) but through seeing the types of books they gravitate towards you will get a sense of where their passion lies.

#3 A phone call (if you want structural edit) or sample edit

I would want to know that I trust the editor who is going to have input on my story, and that I like their approach. The smartest thing would be to ask for a 10 minute chat, to talk about your book and to understand how the prospective editor might approach your work. I don’t think it’s as essential to have this with a line-editor or a proofreader as they simply make the changes directly to your manuscript and it’s a case of accepting or rejecting the changes they have suggested. With a structural editor, you are more likely going to be talking about significant changes to the shape of your story on the phone, so personality will likely come into play.

If you can, pay for a mini-critique of a chapter that would also help you see whether the editor is taking you down a path you’re happy with.

How to make the most of your editor-writer relationship (including what not to do)

#1 Don’t take your ego into your relationship

So many people want to write a book, few get to the point of completing a first draft.

You’ve beaten millions of people to come this point, to actually have a draft to show an editor and be able to take it to the next stage.

Get the most out of this relationship by listening to what the editor is saying and leaving your ego at the door.

Your editor might not always be right, but do try to listen with an open mind, and remember that an editor is on YOUR side. They want you to succeed. If your book gets does well, they look good and would be thrilled to be able to say that they worked with you.

I’ll give you an example.

A client of mine hates dialogue, and the story is rather light on dialogue. During our coaching we discussed why dialogue might be important for his book, and I gave examples of how he could incorporate dialogue to advance the story.

Three weeks later, he calls me to ask whether I think that dialogue really HAD to be added.

Now, I’ve heard of books out there that don’t have dialogue and they work. I’ve not read any and I was certain that his narrative simply didn’t flow without dialogue. My advice to him was based on what he had written. The truth was that he didn’t want to hear what I had to say, because it would involve a lot of work. The choice was his to make, but I couldn’t help feel that his ego was standing in the way of him progressing his book.

Now, an editor at a publishing house could refuse to publish a book that wasn’t changed as they saw fit (I've seen this happen a few times!) however, a freelance editor can only suggest and hope that you take on board their suggestions.

I know that writing, and rewriting is a long, painful, and also wonderful process. But please, when you’re given advice, just at the start at least, listen and leave your ego at the door.

#2 Challenge

Listening to an editor doesn’t mean that you have to accept everything.

A good editor will not force you to change your voice, and should encourage you to grow.  A good editorial session should end with an author feeling inspired and equipped to make the necessary revisions. Yes, there might also be a feeling of ‘Holy Shit, I’ve got so much to do’.

On the flip side, I’ve seen writers who want the editor to make all the hard decisions for them. They’ll ask: ‘So I should add this amount of tension to this scene and then what?’

Where do you think I should take the story after this?

An editor can certainly suggest options and should send you in the right direction. But in the end you, the writer, are the magic maker.

Chapter 5: So you want to get traditionally published? Avoid this mistake.

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So you have your manuscript ready, maybe you’ve had some professional editorial input, or feedback from friends and reading groups. It’s time for the world to see the book. And maybe you’re wondering:

Should I submit directly to a publishing house? To the editor?

Perhaps you’re thinking that the agent is just a middle person who you don’t necessarily need.

For most writers out there, I would advise that they DON’T submit directly to an editor. For some, more niche writers, it might makes sense to submit directly to an editor at a publishing house that caters directly to that niche. The other exception is if the publishing house explicitly invites unsolicited submissions.

These are some exceptions worldwide that you might want to check out, as they accept direct submissions:

Random House India

HarperCollins India

Penguin Australia

Random House Australia.

Who are the Big Five?

Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster.

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P.S. These guys account for around 34% (Nielsen 2015) of book sales in the US. Next largest is self publishing at 17% and the rest are the smaller publishing companies.

Why you shouldn’t submit directly to the Big Five - notes from an ex-intern

When I was starting out my career, I interned at four London publishing houses over six weeks: Faber & Faber, Macmillan, Egmont Group and Quercus (part of Hachette). It was a chance for me to see what publishing was all about. At all four publishing houses I was asked to rummage through the ‘slush’ pile of unsolicited manuscripts and pick out anything that seemed promising.

Unsolicited means that the writer hadn’t asked for permission to send, but simply sent the manuscript, on spec.

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Looking back now, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and anything I thought was OK was actually terrible. Later when I got a job in publishing as an editorial assistant, I realised that the standard of ‘slush’ pile submissions was a lot lower than the manuscripts received from agents.


Agents provide a good filter to publishing houses. They have extensive market knowledge and it is their business to get to know editors publishing books in the area they’re interested in. Then they take on a select number of authors and work with them to make sure that they have the best possible chance of being matched with these editors.

There are exceptions where unsolicited manuscripts have been picked up by an editor, but from my experience this really doesn’t happen often.

If you’re interested in a publishing deal from one of the Big Five publishers, an agent will definitely give you the best chance to get in front of the right editors.

Submitting to smaller publishing houses and niche publishers

If you think that your material is more specialist (architecture, business, academic, professional, esoteric (raising sheep) then you might be able to submit directly. Why? Because often agents might not cover smaller, less commercial titles (because they won’t make much money from the deals!). Check out the submission guidelines on the publishing house’s website to be sure.

Also be sure to check out which books a niche publishing house is showing off on their site - it should be a good indicator of the types of books they’re proud of and potentially want more of. Ask yourself if you could you see your book sitting beside those books on their home page.

Some more top trade and indie publishers to check out

List of top 20 US trade publishers

List of top 10 UK trade publishers

13 indie presses you should know about in 2017

12 independent publishers every Londoner should know

What does a literary agent do?

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Agent on a Frankfurt Book Fair High. Model: Some guy called Leo. Previous credits: nothing you’ll have heard of

In a nutshell: An agent is the middle person between you and a publishing house. They source manuscripts in their niche, and have relationships with editors across the various publishing houses, and send editors manuscripts according to their taste. The stereotypes of a literary agent can sometimes be true - they are good at networking, can be very sociable and are the best socialites at the bookfairs, award ceremonies, complete with cocktail/whiskey in hand.

Types of agents

A literary agent can vary from a person setting up business as a part-time job through to a head honcho at a large agency able to attract award-winning authors, presidents and celebrities.

Authors like JK Rowling set up her own agency (The Blair Partnership) to handle all her film and entertainment rights. They now also represent other authors.

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Agents can be sole operators or part of a larger agency. They normally represent authors in their home country, and will either have a person/team to sell international rights.

Don’t discount the solo operators or small teams, they will have a hunger for new talent that a larger agency might not. It takes around 2 years for an agent to start making money.

How agents get paid

Agents work on commission and only get paid when the author does.  Typically an author will be paid in 2 or 3 installments for example:

1) on signing a contract with a publisher

2) on submitting the final revisions to the manuscript

3) on publication of the book

Knowing what an agent does will help you understand how to submit to them

An agent will pitch your manuscript to multiple editors  in a similar way that you will pitch to them.

The difference is that they are likely to have a relationship with the editors and will be able to pick up the phone and say ‘I think you’ll like this. It’s X meets Y and I’m expecting a lot of interest this week’.

As an editor working within a Big Five editorial team, I would get a number of calls every week from agents ‘pitching’ a manuscript before they sent the email proposal. They would then chase for a response.

On the flip side, as a literary scout (watching the proposals from all agents), I would watch as editors would all uniformly reject a manuscript, or where everyone was desperate for the same manuscript. If the publishing industry was a pond and the editors were fish, this is what it would look like.

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The publishing pond

The thought process of an editor considering a submission

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  1. Which agent has sent me the manuscript? Are they known for having good taste? Do they already have clients who are important to the niche I’m publishing the book into?
  2. What is the pitch? Is it immediately exciting to me? Should I peek at it? Once having a quick read of a few pages, am I interested enough to want to keep reading right now, even though my inbox is about to explode?
  3. If after reading more am I still interested?
  4. Am I excited enough about this to start talking to colleagues about it? Or should I go back to the agent to politely reject it?
  5. If I am interested, should I start talking to the agent and invite the author to meet the team?
The thought process of an agent considering a submission is similar
  1. Good first impression?
  2. What is the pitch? Am I interested?
  3. How long will this hold my interest? Does it make me want to read to the end?
  4. Should I contact the author for more information or the full manuscript if only a sample has been given?
Put on your rejection-proof armour before submitting

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Depiction of preparing yourself for the submission process. Mental helmet essential.

An email from my client made me realise how submitting to agents can make even  the most mild-mannered writer want to smash something or howl at the moon. This is a line from an email a writer sent to me, a month into the process of submitting to agents.

"It’s a good thing I love writing otherwise I’d be tempted to walk to Bloomsbury with a pickaxe"

This writer is talented, laid-back and charming. The email reflects his frustration not his personality. Submitting to agents can bring out the Mr Hyde in all of us.

You’ll probably be rejected by many agents. It’s almost inevitable. You might feel a number of these emotions in the process:




It’s a little like dating, you only need the the ONE right agent.

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Role play of your email meeting your agent’s inbox. Model: Romeo and Juliet. We hope your agent relationship won’t end as tragically as theirs.

What you’re looking for is the right match, someone who ‘gets’ your work and is willing to work with you to get it published and in the hands of readers.

Go in with your eyes open, this WILL be difficult and annoying and tedious at times, so prepare for it. Expect it. And move on from the rejections.

Do I need an agent?

If you’re going down the traditional publishing route, you most likely will need an agent to:

  1. Fight your corner on the contract (alternatively, you can hire an external person to do this) to ensure the best royalty rate, payment schedule and other terms and conditions such as audio and digital rights.
  2. Have the financial conversations with the publishing house so that you can keep your creative relationship with the editor separate from any negotiating.
  3. Help you make smart decisions about selling rights

As an editor in a publishing house, I often saw that unagented authors had negotiated worse deals on their contracts than those who had agents who are very experienced in negotiating and potentially have the benefit of working with multiple authors and publishers so have the clout to push for the very best deals.

Your future agent is looking for these 4 things - are you doing them?

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Your future agent’s inbox

Another client of mine is submitting to agents at the moment. To give him the best chance of getting his submissions looked at, I called up a former Literary Scout-turned-agent: Sinead O’Heneghan (she’s open for submissions so check her out). She has a great black book and currently receives hundreds of manuscripts a week. I asked her for advice and she told me the four things that she looks for in a pitch.


  • Personalisation – show the agent it’s not a cookie-cutter query



Yes you might be applying to a hundred agents, but show each agent that you know exactly who they are. Address the right person. Use the right title. If you can, explain why you choose to submit to this agent. In other words, personalise your query.


  • Present the agent with a killer pitch



This is the key part of the query. This is what you’re selling. This is similar to a back cover blurb, it should lay the context of the novel and add in intrigue about the tension in the book. If you created a blurb in chapters 2&3, this is a good draft to start with.


  • The Bird’s Eye View



In addition to the blurb, you’ll need to position the book, by referencing the genre and word count. You might also give comparisons of similar writers.


  • Give them a headline of who you are



Give them the headlines, don’t bore them with details that aren’t relevant about where you were born, raised, educated unless it’s relevant to the story. Non-fiction writers will want to expand on this. If you are a first time fiction writer, you might not have much to say, and that’s ok.


Ordering: For the story pitch and bio, there is no strict order

How to construct a query letter, step-by-step

Step #1 Know who you’re addressing

You’ll be surprised how many people don’t do this.

  • Draw up a list of agents to target. Query tracker is a handy tool for keeping track of who you’ve submitted to and the responses. Pay attention to the type of submissions they prefer.
  • Use Twitter and social media to find out the agent’s interests, submission openings, and follow their latest news (but be careful you don’t come across as a stalker).

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Use Writers and Artists’ Yearbook UK

Or Query Tracker for UK & US

  • Spend time researching each agent before you submit (this should take you about 10-20 minutes) to understand whether or not they’re open for submission (if they’re not, it’s not likely that you’ll get the response you’re looking for from them), what they talk about, and know who you’re addressing: Sinead mentioned how many submissions referred to her ‘team’ or Dear Sir, when a 30 second glance at the website would have made it clear that she was a solo agent and female.
  • Use the correct name/title and, if you can, personalise the first line - something related to the agent’s clients or if someone they know has recommended you. I don’t think you always have to do this.
    • Here are some examples of first lines in queries letters that have led to representation

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Step #2 Submit a killer story pitch

You need to dedicate some time and focus to creating your perfect pitch.

  • At some point mention make reference to the genre of the book, and the word count.

Example of mentioning the genre and word count.

mark miles agent pitch full

Example of writer referencing genre

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  • Unleash your powerful blurb

I ran this exercise with a writer and she got a response from an agent 24 hours after her query. A second writer got responses using this exercise, when previously for the same submission he had zero interest in his book.

I also used this technique to help writers get responses from agents, like these ones:

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For more details on creating a kick-ass blurb go to

Step #3 Write a Short, Sharp Bio

A bio should give the agent a sense of who you are.  If you write too much about yourself, you’re at risk of boring the agent with irrelevant detail, they simply won’t know what to focus on.

Here’s an example of a bio I worked on with the help of an agent and a marketing director. We started with two pages:

After tinkering with it, guess how much we used?

I’m a primary school teacher from xx, and run a popular book review blog (with over 5000 monthly followers).

That’s it! Why so short? Because most of her bio wasn’t relevant to her book. In this case her blog had a good following. So we included it. This query letter (currently ongoing) has resulted in three requests for the full manuscript over a month.

What should you include in your bio?

  1. Headline’ of what you’re about: Tell me who you are in a line e.g. I am a teacher, from Dorset and this is my first novel
  2. ‘Sticky’ facts (optional): Memorable details of your life that are relevant to the story e.g.  if story was inspired by a true event. Something that is memorable and makes you stand out e.g job, lifestyle, experience.  If you mention social media, include stats about followers. Include national or prestigious press coverage if relevant.
  3. Credentials (optional): If you have won a writing award that is nationally recognised, attended a well-known writing course, or had recommendation from a famous name, include it. If you have a following online, add the website and links. If you have previously self-published with success, mention sales to date.

p.s. Being a parent is not a credential for writing children’s books. Testimonials from friends and family won’t pass muster either.

Here are some more examples of bios in query letters:

Fiction bio example - writer includes awards and inspiration for the book

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Fiction - self-published writer mentions press coverage, and sales figures

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Fiction bio example - writer adds the word count in bio

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Non-fiction bio example - writer includes credentials

including stats on her website

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Non-fiction bio example - writers include social media validation

 (it would better to add stats if possible)

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Step #4 Closing your letter

My advice here is pretty simple, don’t overcomplicate it, don’t ask the agent out for coffee. Standard lines such as: Thank you for your consideration or Thank you for your time do the job.

There is no need to ask them to contact you, they already know that they can and have should have your details at the top of the letter.

Step #5 Contact details

This should be at the top of your query, in the header section. Include your address, phone number and email address as you would for a formal letter.

Chapter 6: Why you should stop wasting time on social media

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Social media is only useful if you’re using it to be productive

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Social media is an amazing curse. You have the world at your fingertips, but the minute you engage, well, the minute can turn into hours of wasted time.

Here are some common questions I hear from authors. This is an editor’s take on approaching social media as a writer.

Q: How much time should I spend on social media?

Social media is a black hole for time. Only spend what you can afford to give.

The 2 most important things about social media are:

1) Be consistent in engaging on your selected channels

2) Be efficient by timing it. Allocate regular time day to respond and engage. I'm a huge fan of the Pomodoro Technique to keep you using time well. In the end, it's the quality of engagement rather than aimlessly scrolling through newsfeeds that matter. Don’t fall into the trap of using social media vacantly because you don’t want to write! Limit your time every day, but consistently engage.

Q: There are so many social media platforms - which ones do I focus on?

I trust Gary Vee on this one, he’s the undisputed king of social media marketing. Here’s the gist of what he says:

Answer these two questions:

1) Where is your audience?

2) How do you talk to them there?

Is your audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat? Have a look at writers in similar genres and see where they get the most engagement.

“Weird example to illustrate what I mean: if you sell adult diapers, Snapchat isn’t going to cut it for you, even though it is a massively popular platform at the moment. On the other side, if you sell selfie sticks that are only made for fifteen year old girls, Facebook is starting to become a place you could debate is not really for you. As that platform ages up, it might be a place better suited for those diapers I mentioned earlier.” Gary Vee

Investigate the platforms and work out where to invest your time.

Q: How many followers do I need if I want a publishing deal? (Non-fiction)

I just emailed my friend who is a non-fiction editor at a large UK publishing house to double check this — in fact I asked: ‘How many followers would you need a non-fiction writer to have, for you to be interested in them? 10k?’ Her response: ‘That’s way too low’. She said it depended on the project, how topical the subject is was but at least 50k+. It’s a competitive market for non-fiction.

Q: How many followers do I need if I want a publishing deal? (Fiction)

Fiction editors are WAY less concerned about how many followers you have.

As an editor, I played up ‘the social media card’ when trying to convince a sales team to let me acquire a book, but it was always the cherry on the cake, not the cake itself. Unless the writer had a ridiculous number of followers, it wasn’t worth mentioning.

Yes, it’s smart to start engaging with your community, but worrying about the number of followers you have is unnecessary at this stage. Focus on writing, and set aside 25–40 min a day on a social network (Not sure what to do on social media? Read this and this), but don’t worry beyond that.

Now you might point to Grace Helbig or Zoella or some YouTuber who won a huge publishing deal because of their social media following. Now, that’s different. In my mind they get deals because of their followers, they are social media stars first, writers second. Unless you’re interested in making social media your priority, focus on the writing.

I can think of a number of unpublished, about-to-be published, still-early-in their-career writers I followed when they had small numbers, and it grew organically as they published. Nikesh Shukla, Cat Clarke, RJ Palacio, Patrick Ness have a healthy number of fans today but five or ten years ago, it was very different!

I personally like using the Pomodoro Technique to be strict about time spent on tasks. The advice I give all authors, and try to follow myself is to show up daily but don’t obsess.

Q: Do I need a marketing and publicity plan if I want a publishing deal?

I read this advice online and had mixed feelings about it. In today’s publishing houses, it’s a guess as to how much help you’ll ever have from the publisher. Smart authors, whether self-published or traditionally published will consider the Long Term Launch. At some point it’s smart to have a publicity plan and if you’re in a position to choose between multiple publishing houses, then knowing what a publicity plan should look like will help you decide on the publishing company. However as an editor, at the stage of reading a manuscript, that was never on my mind.

By all means start researching marketing and publicity (you can find inspiration by reading 6 Lessons Seth Godin Taught a Literary Novelist, and 12 lessons learnt by Tim Ferriss’ marketer). If you’re at the stage of writing and submitting, spend some time reading about how other writers are helping themselves, but for now, focus on the writing.

Q: What should I say on social media?

First work out where you want to get to. You want to build a following? Then start putting out content for your potential readers. Some of what you write will be ignored. Some will stick, some might go viral. Experiment and be patient.

Ideas for content:

- Review your favourite books in a blog

- Document the frustrations and joys of being a writer

- Interview your favourite writers on Facebook Live

- Create inspiration photo posts for other writers

- Critique your favourite and least favourite covers on pinterest

- Post the music tracks you listen to every week when you write

Choose what suits your personality and try it consistently for at least 6 months. Whatever tricks you need to help you enjoy the process (music, chocolate, coffee) bring 'em out. Get your 25 min a day in.

But whatever you do on social media, please, please be strategic, so that your precious time can be used for helping us escape into your fictional world or helping us learn something new.

Chapter 7: A resource list for writers

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Essential books for writers
Insider perspectives on how to approach writing

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott (also a Tim Ferriss favourite)

On Writing by Stephen King

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Enhance your writing practice

Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass - Delving deep into how to move your reader, and breathe your character to life. This is a brilliant, essential read.

Deep Work by Cal Newport - Cal is a professor and author who shows you how and why focus is the new IQ. Essential reading for writers who want to write more.

The One Thing - If you really want to finish that book, consider Gary Keller’s insightful writing on how insane focus is necessary for results.

If you’re short of time, you can watch this brilliant 5 min video review.

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Books and  tools to help you submit to agents

Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK focus)

Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK Focus)

Guide to Literary Agents 2018 by Chris Freese

Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market 2018

Querytracker - awesome online tool for tracking submissions and responses

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Essential blogs to follow

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Joanna Penn - the undisputed Queen of Self Publishing. Her blog is a goldmine of information about writing and self-publishing. I’m particularly fond of her advice on marketing and tools for writing

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman: Heaps and heaps of answers to almost every publishing question you’ve ever had.  Persistent, responsive and knowledgeable, Jane bridges the gap between traditional and indie publishing.

Essential articles from bestselling mavericks

Tim Ferriss: How to Write a Bestselling Book This Year
Joanna Penn on the importance of the long-term launch
James Altucher’s 12 steps to self-publishing
Gary Vee (Best seller, entrepreneur) on how he markets his books (video clip)
Charlie Hoehn on how he marketed Tim Ferriss’ 4HWW
Ryan Holiday: Forget Viral, here’s how to create work that lasts forever
Ramit Sethi on publishing remarkable content (useful for blog posts while marketing your book)

Understanding the publishing industry

Interactive Overview of the big 5 publishers and their imprints
What an Editor at a Publishing House Looks For: 6 Myths & Truths
International Rights and the Global publishing Market - how it works

Editors for hire – a resource list

Yes I do offer editorial services, and I would love to consider working with you, but I’m not the only editor in town. If you’ve decided that you would like to engage the services of a freelance editor, it’s important that you find someone who understands your genre or niche and with whom you feel a connection. I encourage you to look around.

Here are a list of resources that I would use if I were looking for an editor.

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Philippa Donovan at Smart Quill Editorial

I would also consider the editors on Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman’s resource list

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