How to approach a publisher

I’m not an advisor, or a coach of any kind. I’m just a writer, looking for work, running my own business. I’m only giving this advice to counter all the bad advice that I see online, including the bad advice that relatives and in-laws forward to me.

Disclaimer: these observations cover the developed, Western world as far as I know it (The United States, Canada, Britain, Ireland, most of Western Europe, and probably Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.) The infrastructure I speak of may not exist in other places. However, I assume similar principles apply.

Step 0. Write something

I call this step zero because I’d like to assume that people complete it before searching for a market. Write what you like to write about: your passion is part of the “product” and you are part of a market.

Unless someone is commissioning you to write, they have no business telling you what you should write about. If they are commissioning you, then perhaps you’d put winning the commission and contract as your step 0 (it’s a-whole-nother process.)

All kinds of self-proclaimed experts pretend to tell you what “the market wants”, but anyone who has read widely (or watches a lot of movies) knows that the marketplace is extremely diverse. Tell me what you’ve commissioned and why, not what the rest of the market wants.

I can tell you what I want to read, but I don’t know what every market wants. Avoid anyone who tells you what “the” market wants like the plague, they are either know-nothings or charlatans. (Okay, maybe that was hyperbole. But, they probably won’t be able to help you.)

So, I’m not going to give you any guidance on what to write, or how to write it. Until you know who you’re writing for, that guidance would be useless anyway. Just decide upon an audience and write something they would like.

Step 0.5 register it.

In some places, you may be required to register copyright, or you may choose to register your work with a Writers Guild.

Step 1. Find out who to contact

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably read books, right? If you’re a screenwriter, I’m assuming that you can read the credits at the end of a film?

The people you contact are agents, publishers and producers, or those assigned by production companies, agencies, or publishing houses to read. In some cases, they may be others who have the power to start a project. They are NOT other writers or gurus, or even the animators at Pixar. Unless you’re commissioning me to write for you, it is NOT me. (I did apply for a head-of-fiction job recently, but my application was rejected.)

Sometimes directors, or “above the line talent” will also want to read your scripts, and you might go through their agents. However, if you’ve never heard of that director, and can’t find their work, my experience says that they will waste your time (especially if they moonlight as academics or outside the creative fields.) People who might want to read your work usually have a listing in something like “the writers and authors yearbook.” And there are usually instructions in that book on how to contact them.

Alternatively, look up the name of whatever writers you admire, and see “who represents” them.

The first choice should be agents who represent writers that you are familiar with and that you read.

If these aren’t accepting new clients, you might look at certain approved lists. In books such as the Writers Yearbook, agents who have signed agreements with writers groups (or who have joined professional bodies with ethical standards) often have a star by their name. These are the most trustworthy.

If you aren’t familiar with the agents’ work, read works by the writers they represent, and ask yourself if a person who likes that work would also like yours.

Step 2. The query letter.

For short stories, sometimes you can upload via an app like “Submittable(tm)” and bypass the whole query letter process.

As, as with resumes sent to large firms, sometimes short story submission is so automated that you don’t know who will read the work. If you can’t find a person to address, I’d be very wary of submitting work. An exception would be short story journals or contests, as these are often read by teams rather than individuals.

Note: most professionals don’t enter a lot of writing contests.

So, with most query letters, you try to find a name of a person, or at least write “dear editor” in the case where a journal doesn’t publish names.

Some publishers will ask for a query letter with the first 30 pages. Check their website for details.

Many (especially in the film business) don’t want to see anything except for the query letter. Any “unsolicited” manuscripts they receive will just be sent straight to the bin.

While most publishing houses give a little guidance on what to include, you can find sample query letters online.

Basicly, say who you are, what you want (please consider my script), what you have to offer (what your story is about), and make sure they know how to reply so they can contact you if they are interested (hint, give a real address or at least an email address, not a twitter handle). They may also want word counts or page counts, the details are usually on their website. Write this in a clear and professional way.

For short stories, sometimes the query letter is replaced with a cover letter. This might say something like “First UK serial rights.” If you don’t know what that means, do some research.

Step 2.5 The manuscript

For short stories, sometimes the manuscript is included with a cover letter. Otherwise, it might only be sent when the query is successful, when “they” request a manuscript.

The file name for the manuscript varies by publisher, but most I’ve seen ask for something like the following:


Sometimes the title comes first, but there is a more-or-less standard format.

So, if I’m sending something called “The Rejection”, the file name might be as follows:


(Note: Some will ask for a particular file format, such as docx. When they do so, it’s normally a “standard” format that more than one software program can open. You don’t need to buy any particular brand of software to be a writer. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to sell you that software, or may be unknowledgeable or untrustworthy in other ways.)

(Hint, this could also help with CVs, with job title instead of manuscript title. example: 10.10.2017_HeadOfFictionCV_deSousaVascoPhillip.docx. Don’t you think that would be easier to find than something entitled manuscript.doc or resume.doc?)

Using their standard naming helps people keep track of your file, and find it later.

If it doesn’t break their rules, you might clarify things with something like:


Of course, many publishers still want to see printed manuscripts. Remember, follow their directions, that way they’ll be able to find and read your work more easily.


If a publisher or agent does not ask for you to submit things in a professional way, beware. That publisher or agent may be too inexperienced or unknowledgeable to help, or worse, they may be part of a scam.

Be wary of universities, radio stations, and others who do not specialize in publishing, or whoever may be “looking for” writers in a non-traditional way. Some institutions may create contests as a form of self-promotion, and may not be interested in actually publishing the books that come in.

Or, Perhaps they are interested, but if they don’t know how to ask for things in the right way then they may not know how to communicate with printing presses, cover designers, book shops, the media, and others. Unfortunately, lack of communication skills will mean that they are unable to fulfill their promise to publish. (If they do manage to publish, they may not spend sufficient time and energy promoting your work, as it’s not their primary responsibility.)

Step 3 Wait and write some more

Many publishers can take up to 3 months to get back to you. These days, they usually send a confirmation of receipt within the first two weeks, and then reply after they’ve gotten around to reading your manuscript.

If they say “no thank you,” you are free to take your work to other agents or publishers. If they take too long, you might want to write them a polite note informing them that you will be taking it to other agents or publishers.

If they say yes, congratulations, but don’t celebrate yet. Read and follow the instructions they send you. (Assuming these instructions don’t involve doing anything immoral, illegal, or just plain stupid.)

But, while you’re waiting, it’s a good idea to continue writing, and to keep looking for alternative markets. Believe me, the rejection stings less if you have other manuscripts waiting. And it stings even less if you get a “yes” from another paying market.

Step 4 Try again

Just because one market doesn’t like your work, that doesn’t mean that other markets might not appreciate it.

JK Rowlands said she covered her walls with rejection letters. Dr Seuss had dozens of rejections before being signed. Catch 22 was called something like Catch 18, but they changed the name in honour of the fact that the 22nd market finally accepted the book. (See, I did learn something by reading all those books.)

You might want to read over your work a few times in the meantime, maybe there are small improvements that could be made that you missed before. Or, maybe you’ll get new ideas as you gain experience.

When you receive 23 rejections for the same work, if you still believe in it, that’s when you should consider self-publishing. If it takes 3 months for each rejection, and you allow a little time for postage in between, that could take a while.

But, if you give up at the first sign of rejection, then maybe writing isn’t for you.

Don’t get sucked in by so-called agents who charge a reading fee, or fake publishers who make their living off of desperate writers. Unfortunately, even the writers yearbook now allows some dodgy (or clueless) characters to advertise in it; which I why I said to look for the star (or asterisk*).

Okay, fine. Now, next time someone sends me bad advice about getting published, I can send them this and say “see what Vasco Phillip de Sousa says about that.”

Did you find this useful? Then give it a like on your favourite social media website, and spread the word to legitimate markets that I can write.

Did you find it misinformative and downright awful? I hope not, but if there are any typos then feel free to point them out to me in a nice and civil way.

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