(i) SOMEONE TO RECOMMEND YOU
A fiction MS mailed to a publisher out of the blue isn’t likely to get read. Unless, of course, you happen to be a rock star, supermodel, Olympic gold medallist or TV personality. Someone with glamour and public profile can attract media attention and reviews, which are so hard to score nowadays. For everyone in a publishing house, that makes the job much easier—a publisher can’t help but be interested. (I’m not bitching about particular celebrities-turned-authors here; fame wins you an attentive reading, but you still need to have written something worth reading.)
The other exception I know of is Children’s Fiction. Some Children's publishers will read an MS sent to them completely out of the blue. (As always, check the publisher's website for guidelines.)
Those of us who aren’t celebrities need an extra boost. Publishers and their readers can’t deal with the deluge of all possible MSS, so they rely on other people to cull the field first. That is, they rely on recommendations.
For example, a literary agent ‘recommends’ an MS simply by sending it to a publisher. It’s passed the first level of approval if an agent is willing to put her name to it. (I say ‘her’, because agents in Australia are almost all female.) Of course, you need an agent to take you on in the first place—more on the next page.
A recommendation counts if it comes from someone the publisher trusts, in particular, a professional or ex-professional in the book business. Here are some possibilities—
(i) People who’ve worked in publishing, people who work freelance for publishing houses. (Sometimes they may do MS assessment.)
(ii) Established authors. (Sometimes they may run creative writing workshops.)
(iii) Reviewers. (Ordinarily, the last thing reviewers want is more books to read, but I mention them because that’s how I got my lucky break.)
(iv) Bookshop professionals. (Mainly, if they’re involved in book-promoting activities on a high level.)
Ideally, you’d like someone to submit the MS on your behalf, though a ‘reference’ or quote will be a boost too. But remember the size of what you’re asking, how many hours of someone else’s time. You may be sure that any reader will love your story and feel retrospectively happy to have spent time reading it; but they are more likely to be thinking ahead to the difficulty of handing out an all-too-possible knockback.
Three chapters and a synopsis is a more reasonable ask than a whole novel. And even then, it’s a big ask.
Asking people out of the blue won’t get you far. You need to network, attend conventions, go to workshops, join organisations, make contacts. (I offer this advice because I know it’s true, not because I’m good at it myself.) Of course, it makes all the difference if you can do something for people before asking them to do something for you.
Established authors often feel an irrational impulse to help aspiring writers. ‘Irrational’, because it multiplies the number of competitors; nonetheless, most authors remember back to when they too were newbies in need of a boost. But don’t expect authors to be interested in you if you’re not interested in them. You show you’re interested in them by reading their books—a lot of their books.
It helps if money is involved! If you’ve paid serious money to attend a workshop run by an industry professional or an author, then there’s a tiny bit of obligation, as well as personal contact and a chance of awakening personal interest.
Another possibility is to submit an MS for assessment. It’ll cost, but don’t try to do it on the cheap. Someone who has worked in a publishing house and/or is currently freelancing for publishing houses really does have the power to open doors.
However, there are shonky operators who promise the world without the power to deliver. Anyone who advertises their services saying they can give you sure-fire access to publishers is almost certainly someone who can’t. Those who have the power don’t make a show of it; they have a reputation to maintain, and can’t afford to promise that they’ll recommend every MS—or even most MSS—they assess.
Look through the ASA’s (Australian Society of Authors) list of assessors, and think long and hard about an assessor’s background. Have they worked for a publishing house in a relevant editorial position for a significant period of time?
This all sounds very calculating, and it is—way too calculating. If you think of MS assessments or workshops as just a means to an end, you’ll never achieve your end. If you give the impression you’re only in it for the sake of advancement, you’ll turn people off very quickly. Nobody likes to be used as a ladder. And most people in the industry can suss out a user at twenty paces—they’ve had plenty of experience.
Everyone needs to learn, and that’s what MS assessments and workshops are for. Other consequences are an accidental bonus. Be hopeful, be enthusiastic and put yourself in places where luck may come your way. Never act as though you have a right to anything.