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Circular Library

Publishing Fiction

Colin Will

Walking into a bookshop and seeing all the paperback novels on display compared to the meagre shelf space allotted to poetry, you might think it’s easier to get fiction published than poetry, but it’s actually harder. Look more closely at the covers of the mass market novels. The number of actual publishers is really quite small. Compare that to the number of poetry publishers, even on a single shelf. How does that work?


It’s down to market size and sales volumes. Only a large publisher can afford to deal with the risk involved in the printing, distribution, marketing and promotion of high-volume titles. On the other hand, with short print runs, and keeping sales and promotion in-house, it’s relatively much easier for an individual to set up their own publishing house, particularly for poetry. Admittedly the returns are on a much smaller scale, but it can be made to work.

Let’s look at novels first. How big is a novel? I suppose the average is around 60,000 words. Most novelists will write up to 100,000 words and then, working with an editor, cut it back to the smaller size. That’s the word count which will make for a reasonable sized paperback.


Word counts according to Wikipedia:

Novel: 40,000 words or over

Novella: 17,500 to 39,999 words

Novelette: 7,500 to 17,499 words

Short story :under 7,500 words


The short novel of 40,000 words will print at around 130 pages, and they are sometimes difficult to sell, unless you’re Ian McEwan. 60,000 is usually fine for a first novel and will come in around the 200-page mark. The novella is not usually published on its own, but in a collection. If you have a single novella or novelette, it’s probably better to self-publish. A printed version would be about the size of the average poetry collection.

There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing – it’s creative, it’s fun, and you are unlikely to lose more than a few hundred pounds. But the chances are that you will lose money rather than make it. All you need to do is to word process the manuscript, edit it, design it, design a cover, make a couple of PDF files, and find a printer. Then market, promote and sell it. Not easy. But it can be done. Or you can use an off-the-shelf print on demand service like Lulu or CreateSpace.

Most mass-market novels will come to a publisher via an agent. Agents are known to publishers. If they recommend a title, the publisher will look at it. Unsolicited manuscripts form a publisher’s ‘slush pile’. They may employ a freelance reader to skim-read the slush pile, rather like a threshing machine separating wheat from the chaff. With novels, there’s an awful lot of chaff, and not much wheat.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is the invaluable, annually updated, reference book for finding lists of publishers and agents, with notes on what they are looking for. If you don’t want to buy a copy, try your local public library – lots of them have it.

If you want to send a first novel to a publisher without going through an agent, you must research the publishers first, to see if their output is related to the manuscript you’re sending. Many publishers have submission guidelines on their websites. If it says ‘Don’t submit unsolicited manuscripts’, then don’t submit them. Some may require a synopsis and sample text – say the first four chapters. At any rate, read their guidelines and do exactly what they say.

For those who aren’t sure, The Literary Consultancy has a good page on how to write a synopsis and covering letter. Here’s the link: There’s lots more good advice on that site. They will also read your manuscript and give advice for a fee, and I know some people who have gone down this route and found it useful.

Some magazines may print extracts from a novel, maybe even a novel in progress. Get to know literary magazines and check out their guidelines. Others are happier publishing short stories. Again, follow the guidelines.

In a sense, short stories are maybe easier to place. There are several magazines which publish stories and poetry, such as Ambit, Gutter and The Interpreter’s House. There are also a fair number of short story competitions, including the Federation of Writers, Scottish Arts Club, Bridport Prize and the V S Pritchett Prize.

Some small presses, including Postbox Press, also publish short story pamphlets. These may contain five or six stories, with a total word count of 10,000 to 12,000.

Flash fiction is fictional work of extreme brevity, including the Six-Word Story, 140-character stories, also known as twitterature, the dribble (50 words), the drabble (100 words), and sudden fiction (750 words). (The drabble was invented by the Monty Python team in M.P.’s Big Red Book). Most flash definitions suggest 500to 1,000words.

Check your work carefully for typos, word repetitions, bad grammar and other gross mistakes. Nearly all editors will spike manuscripts that have major errors in them without reading any further. Editors are not English teachers. Edit your own work carefully. Usually it’s a matter of cutting back, paring down.

Don’t use fancy typefaces, type that’s too large or too small, coloured paper, or little scratchy drawings in the corner. 12-point Times, double-spaced is pretty standard.

Criticism by friends and friendly writing groups is too often like a cat being stroked by a favourite relative, and usually the same one each time. If criticism isn’t honest, searching, detailed and objective, it isn’t worth receiving. Give your work to someone you trust but who doesn’t know you all that well. Change your guru regularly, otherwise you’ll end up writing only apples for the same teacher.

Above all, read the work of other writers and try to see what makes them successful. As honestly as you can, compare your work with theirs. Don’t copy them, but try to be as good as they are.

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