How not to get published

Desk of Moira Forsyth at Sandstone Press
Category: Writing

Moira Forsyth, author and editorial director at Sandstone Press, shares her insights into attracting a publisher’s attention – for the right reasons!


These days it’s easy to submit your work to agents and publishers. The age of electronic communication has made it simple – and free. When I started, you had to post your work to a publisher with an SAE for reply. I always sent the whole thing: surely they must read all my novel to appreciate it? The double postage cost a fortune and this was completely unsuccessful! However, at that time most publishers had a ‘slush pile’ and were willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. Now most don’t.

We had to stop accepting author submissions for fiction at Sandstone Press, even though we found some wonderful authors that way. We were overwhelmed and didn’t have the resources to consider all of the manuscripts properly. We’re still talking about how we can have the best of both worlds and hear from talented authors while still keeping the workload manageable. 

All those hours sifting and considering submissions were not wasted. They also taught me that most people get it wrong, just as I did. I was lucky to be picked up by a publisher who liked what she read and passed me on to an agent. Soon after that I got my first publishing contract with Hodder, who gave me a two-book deal on the strength of my first novel, Waiting for Lindsay.

You don’t have to trust to luck. You can help yourself.

When you do get that rare chance to submit to a publisher directly, you don’t have to trust to luck. You can help yourself. First, be confident your books is as good as you can make it. Then start by doing some research. Check publishers’ websites and use The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. Don’t waste your own time or the publisher’s by sending your work to the wrong place. At Sandstone we’re sometimes offered poetry and children’s fiction, though we’ve never published either and don’t intend to.

When you’ve decided where to submit, check the guidelines – these will be on the website. And stick to them! Then write a good covering email briefly describing your book. This is your pitch and the publisher’s first impression of your writing. Keep it short and to the point – no need to include your life story. Most publishers want to see a synopsis, which should also be short – around one side of A4. Writing a synopsis is a skill not all writers have.

Be sure to show in your covering email that you’re aware of the publisher. I’ve had quite a few covering emails which were clearly a cut-and-paste job and referred to a completely different publisher from ourselves!

These are all things you should do, but over the years I’ve also developed a substantial list of things not to do. Most publishers will ask to see a few chapters. I was wrong to send my whole novel – and waste money on postage. A few chapters and a synopsis would have done just as much good. I suppose I imagined the synopsis would give away the ending and spoil it for whoever read it. I didn’t understand how different a professional reading of your text is from your best friend reading it.

It’s important to send out your latest and best.

It’s important to send out your latest and best work. Not the old novel languishing in a folder, not the one you like but no-one else does, but your absolute best. The publisher will judge you by this, and might be unwilling to look at anything you send in future if they’ve rejected it as poor work. If they do like what you send, but think it’s not quite good enough for publication, they’ll tell you. I have several times taken on an author whose first novel I’d rejected – but I could see they’d taken care, and had the potential to write a better one. Most debut novels are not first novels.

Finally, something obvious – but lots of writers fail to do it. Check and check again that your opening pages have no errors. I’ve had submissions in the past with spelling or grammatical mistakes on the first page – I didn’t read further. I’m also put off by someone throwing up on the first page, and descriptions of other bodily functions…

Publishers all have likes and dislikes and you can’t know these in advance, but it’s surprising how quickly we’ll get over these when we’re sent something outstandingly good. I usually print the first twenty or so pages of a text to read for my first assessment. If when I get to the end I say ‘oh, is that all I printed?’ and feel disappointed – that’s a very good sign!

Moira Forsyth

Editorial Director at Sandstone Press and author of several novels, the latest of which is Tell Me Where You Are. Find out more on her Live Literature Author Profile.