The secret to getting a book published, according to agents

BY Madeleine Milburn

10th Jan 2024 Books

5 min read

The secret to getting a book published, according to agents
Getting your book published is a slog, but you'd be surprised by how many successful authors had to push through rejection and burnout before writing their hit
If you’re reading this then I imagine you’ve thought about writing a novel, are in the process of writing a novel or have indeed written one.
Having been a literary agent for well over a decade, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s now much easier to get your work published—it just takes some perseverance.
Many writers are riddled with self-doubt, haunted by negative feedback or rejection, and give up on their dreams prematurely.
The problem lies in the fact that the business of reading is subjective and therefore it’s not only a question of your book resonating with readers, but getting your book into the right hands at the right time. This takes commitment, persistence and also an element of luck.
"Writing is a trade and it takes time to hone your craft"
Most of my authors spent years trying to get published before they came to me.
Some were simply writing in a genre that was unpopular at the time or writing in an area that was too saturated, so it was difficult for their agent to find a publisher who’d invest in them.
Others weren’t able to find an agent and became so frustrated that they took matters into their own hands and self-published
The fact is that writing is a trade, and it takes time to hone your craft. As with most creative endeavours, the more you write, the better you get. Many of my most successful authors didn’t get published with their first book, but each book in the drawer enabled them to hone their craft. 

Struggling writers who found success

Elizabeth Macneal holding copy of her published book The Doll Factory
C J Tudor, the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Drift and The Burning Girls, spent well over a decade trying to get published. She even had a former agent who wasn’t able to find her a publisher as anything with a supernatural edge was not popular at that time.
Having written countless manuscripts and short stories, she was reluctantly about to pack it in and concentrate on her dog walking business.
I was just back from maternity leave and read the opening chapters of The Chalk Man, called her up to London, and told her I was going to change her fortunes. I ended up negotiating publishing contracts for her “debut” novel with over 40 publishers around the world, and she went on to become a bestseller in multiple countries.
Another of her books, The Burning Girls, was recently released on Paramount+ as a six-part TV series adapted by Hans Rosenfeldt, creator of The Bridge. Writing has literally changed her life, but after years of rejection and piles of unpublished manuscripts, it took courage to pursue her dream. 
Tudor is not alone in the challenges she experienced before hitting the shelves. Elizabeth Macneal, author of the bestselling historical fiction novel The Doll Factory, also out on Paramount+, had a former agent for two young adult novels she had written that never found a publisher.
"She had no idea that her protagonist would end up resonating with readers all over the world"
With so much rejection, she was also close to giving up on her writing and putting all her energies behind her other creative endeavour, ceramics.
With one final try, she entered a writing competition that I happened to be judging and I snapped her up, offering representation and proceeded to get her first adult novel translated into over 30 languages.
It became an instant Sunday Times bestseller, a Radio 2 Book Club pick, a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and a Waterstones Book of the Month
Another author, Emma Stonex, who I’ve worked with from the start of my own career, had several books published under different pseudonyms over the years, but only became a Sunday Times bestselling novelist with her most recent novel, The Lamplighters, the only book she felt proud to publish under her real name.
The idea for Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, one of the biggest selling books of the past ten years, came to Gail Honeyman while working as an administrator at the University of Glasgow.
This was her first attempt at writing fiction, and she had no idea that her protagonist would end up resonating with readers all over the world, selling multiple millions of copies.
She entered a writing competition with the opening 50 pages, and I was so transfixed by these chapters alone, that I encouraged her write the rest.  

How to get a book published, from page to agent

Writers group
Sometimes you just need encouragement to get something down on paper. Even getting up half an hour earlier and committing to 800 words a day can get the creativity flowing.
Once you’re on your writing journey, I’d recommend joining a local or online writing group for feedback, and to learn how to critique other writers’ work.
There’s so much help for aspiring authors online, for instance The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is an excellent resource to find literary agents that is updated every year.
Writing festivals and local writing groups cater for writers all over the UK, offering meetings with agents, panel events, advice from published authors, tutorials and mentorships to provide encouragement and insight into the publishing industry. 
"There is a reader for every book"
Agents are eager to find new authors, and I generally find I’m competing with multiple agents for a compelling manuscript.
Research each literary agency well, find an agent who represents authors writing in a similar area to you, practise pitching your novel in person, refine the cover letter, work on an attention-grabbing title and pitch.
Read the blurb on the backs of books in a similar space to yours, and never take no for an answer.
There is a reader for every book and, if you don’t manage to find success down the traditional route, explore self-publishing. It’s a great education in digital publishing and can be extremely lucrative.

Keep writing

There are so many stages in an author’s pursuit of publication, and the one trait that links them all is that they never give up. They persevere after each rejection and concentrate on doing what they know best…writing and honing their craft. 
If you have a burning desire to write, listen to that voice. Try getting something on paper each day. Read more, write more.
The saying goes, “everyone has a book in them”, and though writing can begin as a hobby, it can become an extremely rewarding enterprise both creatively and financially. It is free, you can do it anywhere, and you might just get addicted.
Madeleine Milburn is one of the UK’s leading literary agents, representing multiple Sunday Times and New York Times Bestsellers, and is the director of Madeleine Milburn Agency
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