A-Z of book publishing: help

There will be many times during the writing of your book when you need help. You may be stuck with a plot or character development or need manuscript feedback or assistance in employing services.

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.
— Margaret Attwood

Bear in mind that agents receive between 400-2,000 submissions a year and are often subject to lots of theories about their decision on who to follow up and what goes onto the slush pile and rejected. This is a shame because agents know their markets, understand if a racy plot matters more to the proposed reader than a complex metaphor. In non-fiction, an agent will appreciate that it's important to be accurate, with an expert tone and a clear book structure. 

When the manuscript doesn't sell, then the agent rejects thus one purpose of considering an agent is to check your work is up to standard. Only approach agents if you're absolutely certain you've had the best feedback. How do you do that? Here are a few tips:

  • Take a break. Put your book away and go on holiday or work on something completely different. This trick works well with design work, blog posts and all creative ventures as it allows you to take a sober and constructive view. When you review the words from cover to cover, be ruthless but avoid getting into editorial corrections which will distract you from your review.

  • Getting feedback for free. I'm never a fan of asking people to work for free on design work but you may be able to swap manuscripts with other authors. Be respectful of time and generous with your responses. Writing groups are a good source but do be mindful that all writers work has different needs. Be careful who you approach and what comments you take in. Auntie Ethel may have worked as an editorial assistant for an academic publishing house and could guide you on processes but she won't be used to seeing fiction work. By the way, agents never supply free feedback.

  • Getting professional help. Expect a serious review from consultants. If you've already had a manuscript rejected then there is a good reason for it. A consultant will explain via a report and may also offer online or phone follow-ups. Cornerstones, The Literary Consultancy (the first to open in the UK) and The Writers' Workshop are the most well-known. If you google this service, you'll find lots of listings too and if you picked from the results, check that the service has appropriate knowledge in your area. Remember that you can usually get a set number of words reviewed or a chapter as well as the whole book. The cost of 3,000 words may be £500 depending on the size of the agency and their experience. No professional consultant will guarantee you an audience with an agent. It's not a golden ticket but you'll have a better book. Some larger agencies may have contacts but be aware of what you're paying for. Consultants may report on improvements that could help you secure an agent, others may only look at your word if they think it has potential or deals with you in lieu of a percentage of your advance.

  • Workshops and conferences. The Arvon Foundation and The Guardian offer group workshops for all genres of the manuscript. As with all courses check your tutor is the right teacher for your subject and keep an eye on the ratio of students to teachers. Nanowrimo could loosely be described as a workshop, it's a great way to get practice on writing without fear and editorial constraints. There are also genre-specific conferences such as crime and romantic novels.

  • Learning. You may also find courses and events at literary festivals and universities during term times and run as summer schools. Occasionally fiction based publishing house have courses. Faber and Faber run an academy and I've completed several Open University creative writing courses.

Help you don't need yet

  • Copyediting and proofreading services. The purpose is to check the quality of the manuscript. Editing and proofreading can come later when you're happy with the content. It's not cost effective to pay money for editing when you may rewrite chunks of text.


Reviewing your manuscript is an important step whether you're self-publishing or looking for an agent. Taking time to polish your work before the review is time well spent.

Image: Jonas Vincent, Unsplash