Gaining Access to the Publishing Industry

Novelist Richard T Kelly has also worked in senior  publishing roles, both as an editor of books and as a literary agent.  Here he offers a few tips from his experience for first-time writers looking to navigate the submission process and get into print.

The Citadel…

From outside, the publishing industry can resemble a closely guarded citadel; and the aspiring writer who seeks a home for their debut manuscript can be a bit like the countryman in Kafka’s famous parable who seeks admission to the Law. The gatekeeper he runs into presents him with umpteen obstacles, but the very first of these is that most maddening of rejections: ‘It is possible, but not at the moment.’

In the publishing business as I first came to know it, twenty years ago, unknown writers might still put a manuscript hopefully into an A4 envelope and post it to a publisher knowing it would sit in a ‘slush-pile’ of unsolicited submissions, which a keen editorial assistant might, at some idle moment, glean for treasure. (Legendarily, that’s how William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was discovered.)

Even then, though, literary agents were the key intermediaries for impressing a new writer unto a publisher. And soon the slush-pile ceased to be: assistants were too busy, and most big publishers decided to log only agented submissions. Thus the chief talent-spotting action now moved to agencies, and to a new type of slush-pile: the email inboxes of the agents, monitored closely by their assistants, who could perhaps be enticed to click and print a promising Word attachment.

So, these days if you’re trying your luck as a new writer you’ll be submitting to agents, hoping to persuade them you have a talent that could interest an acquiring editor. Much hard thinking, then, has to go into the question of what agents, as gatekeepers, look for in a submission.


Using your writer’s voice

I suspect most of them would say that, above all, it’s about ‘the voice’: a term so pervasive yet hard to define that it can sound like voodoo. ‘Voice’, for sure, is something distinctive in a writer’s style which you can hear as you read; a fluency that comes from assurance, underwritten by the writer not making any obvious mistakes.

Before the agent hears your voice, though, you must persuade them to listen – to read your pages. The standard etiquette is to write a careful covering email to attachments of a synopsis and sample chapters, asking if the agent might, on this evidence, be so kind as to look at the complete work? (It’s not impossible to interest an agent in a work-in-progress; but the evidence will have to be something very special.)

The covering email might feel like a formulaic chore; but it’s vital in making a good impression. Above all, be polite, making clear why you’ve asked this particular agent to read your work – so get their name right, and show that you know and admire the fine published authors they already represent. (Don’t cut-and-paste the same paragraphs you drafted along these lines for the other agents on your shopping list.)

Then, you need to say very succinctly why anyone should care about your book. This is because no-one asks us to write our first novels; but we have to believe somebody will want to read them. For that same reason, the first paragraphs and pages of your writing sample have to be as strong and engaging, as technically right and tight, as you can make them.


This could be your lucky day…

An agent likes to see – because it chimes with their own special way of thinking – some evidence that a writer understands whereabouts their work might sit in the shop-window of book publishing. You don’t have to be some massive showboat: some of the best writers I know are fairly retiring individuals. But no would-be debut novelist today gets to be Marcel Proust confined to his cork-lined room.

The other big lesson, wistful but vital, is this: put on your tin hat and get used to rejections pinging back at you. A lot of talented people come to the citadel and seek admission from the gatekeeper. As good as you are, you will need some luck: it could come down to the mood an agent is in at whatever time of day your manuscript lands before them. It might be that your book is exactly what they’ll want next year – only not this week. But you truly won’t know until you finish your manuscript and buy your ticket to the game. As a wise writer I know likes to say: ‘Every day, try your luck. You could be having a lucky day and you don’t know it.’

Photo credit Caroline O’Dwyer

Why YOU should go to the Winchester Writers’ Festival with Dai Henley

Dai self-published his first book B Positive! in 2010 which received excellent reviews. His passion for regularly visiting the Old Bailey visitors’ Gallery resulted in him self-publishing his first crime novel, Blazing Obsession, in 2014, which won several awards and received rave reviews. His equally acclaimed second book in the DCI Flood series, Reckless Obsession, was published in 2018 and he is currently working on the final novel in the trilogy which he hopes to launch in 2021. Dai is a great supporter of the Winchester Writers’ Festival having attended for the past thirteen years.


Whether you’re an accomplished writer or, as I was in 2006, a complete rookie, the annual Winchester Writers’ Festival is an A to Z guide to publishing. From honing your writing skills to learning how to steer your precious words to success. I’ve attended every Festival since starting out as a writer and discovered so much. From learning the difference between third person point of view and an omniscient narrator, to writing stunning synopses, composing compelling covering letters to agents and how to avoid the slush pile. All this and more from first-class tutors at the top of their game. Other seminars taught me how to write killer first paragraphs, create memorable characters and how to enhance emotional conflict. There was even a course on handling rejection, something everyone’s experienced, I’m sure.

But the Festival is so much more that attending seminars. Where else can you meet editors and publishers on a one-to-one basis to discuss your work? And who knows, maybe get a publishing deal. Despite the fact that critiques can occasionally seem brutal, constructive feedback from professionals is a vital link to enhancing your writing. I know a number of authors who have been signed up on the strength of their  submissions. At past Festivals, the organisers, ever mindful of the effects of a difficult review, have offered the opportunity to discuss the feedback with a counsellor.  A splendid idea!’


Another aspect of the Writers’ Festival is the competitions. Not only is it another chance to receive that all-important feedback but is also another potential launch pad. Winning one of these prestigious competitions has opened the door to publication for many entrants. The award has become a badge of honour and carries significant weight when included in covering letters to agents and publishers. There are no competitions in 2019 but I hope they will be re- introduced next year.

I don’t know anywhere else locally where you can rub shoulders with icons of the literary world. The speakers are top drawer. People like Carol Duffy, the Poet  Laureate, Terry Pratchett, Julian Fellows and Robert Goddard. I’m always inspired by them, not just from their keynote speech but, as a humble delegate, having the good fortune to meet many of them. Each one I’ve met has been generous in their support and encouragement.

The late, much-missed, Barbara Large, who initiated the festival over thirty years ago, once asked me to get a cup of tea for Carole Duffy as she was busy introducing her to other guests. When I returned with the cup, (milk and one sugar), Ms Duffy took time out to ask about my writing. I’m not a big fan of poetry but in that short time, I learnt that the creative input is much the same.

One year, I took a stand at the Festival to promote my first self-published crime novel, Blazing Obsession. Next to me, Terry Pratchett had a stand where people queuing to have their books signed stretched around the block. In between signings, he chatted to me about his experiences as an author and urged me to keep writing. I asked him how many books he’d sold. He said, ‘Oh, I think it’s up to around sixty-three million at the last count.’ I didn’t like to tell him that at this early stage of my writing career, I was pleased to have just topped five hundred!

Tips and Tricks from those in the know…

As a crime writer, I love Robert Goddard’s thrillers. I had a one-to-one session with him at one of the Festivals and became fascinated with his approach. He is the consummate planner. He told me that his outlines ran to 20-30,000 words. He knew, before commencing his first draft, precisely the content of the final page. He also told me that he’d tried to retire. It lasted three months. He said he could never relax – his head kept coming up with new ideas. I empathised with him completely.

Where else could I have received such a priceless education? It has given me a unique insight to realising the achievements of these literary five-star giants.

When I buy my diary at the beginning of each year, my first job is to ink in the third week in June, ‘Winchester Writers Festival.’ I consider myself fortunate to have such a superb resource on my doorstep.