M A R T I N   O W T O N
For writers

I've been writing and selling fiction since 1995 and learned some lessons along the way. A few of those lessons are discussed here.

For short story writers
Where to sell short fiction:
I've sold somewhere over 20 short stories, some to markets that are long gone, some to markets that only paid in copies of the magazine, a few for hundreds of dollars. Here are a few of the markets that have bought my work:
Black Gate Magazine - top class US reviewsite with some excellent fantasy stories (and some of mine) in the archives;
Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine - excellent Australian magazine that takes a wide range of SF/F;
Beneath Ceaseless Skies;
Heroic Fantasy Quarterly;
Black Static.

There are a couple of excellent websites that list hundreds of markets for short fiction:
For SF/F I rely on Ralan;
The Submission Grinder has lots of market information including response times;
Finally, Duotrope casts its net wider and covers many (mainly US) markets for general short fiction but requires a monthly subscription.


For novelists
It took me a long time to get an agent and I learned a lot in the process, so if you're in the process of trying to find an agent this should help you.
Do I need an agent?
Yes, if you want to be traditionally published.

How do I get one?
First off finish your book. Then rewrite it, then get a bunch of people who are familiar with your genre to read it and listen to what they tell you. Then rewrite it again. Yes, really. The more people who read it the better. Join a writers' group if you can, online or face-to-face and preferably with some writers who are further along the curve than you are. And no, no-one is going to steal your idea. Ideas are plentiful, it is how you execute the idea that matters.

Done all that?
OK, you're ready to start the long and painful process of querying. If you are sending to a UK agent most of them will want to see your first three chapters, a short (1,000 - 1,500 words) synopsis (yes, you need one and yes, you do reveal the ending) and a brief covering letter. Here is a list of UK agents I put together (Acrobat PDF). I try to keep this reasonably up to date but things change and sometimes I don't notice, so check them for yourself.

There are also some lists on UK agents on the Net though some of the information is out of date so again it is advisable to check any that you are interested in.
Literary Agency Directory
Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.

Most UK agents are OK about you phoning them if you are unclear about their submission guidelines or if you want to know if they are currently taking a particular genre - but don't phone US agents! If you are sending to a US agent the process is rather different, but the good news is that there are loads of resources to help you. Query Tracker has an excellent listing, searchable by genre, of US agents as well as articles on drafting query letters and synopses. AgentQuery.com also has a lot of listings though once more you need to check that an individual listing is up to date. A similar database is available at Manuscript Wish List. If you join Absolute Write (and why wouldn't you - it's a great site) there is a section where you can get feedback on your query letters and your opening chapters; there is also an extensive listing of US SF/F agents.

Most agents have websites where you can check on their submission requirements, which you should always do. It is a good idea to Google "Agent name + interview" to see if you can find out more about what they are looking for and how they operate. The standard approach to US agents is with a query letter mostly by e- mail or Submittable. There is a great art to the writing of these, and plenty of examples out there; the letter I used for 'Exile' is here.

I like the Queryshark blog run by agent Janet Reid, where she critiques queries that people have sent in. Best-selling writer Jonathan Maberry has a load of useful things for writers, including a sample query letter and sample synopsis here. Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford also has some great guidance on query letters and other agent-related stuff. There is some debate about what constitutes a standard query, but I got into the habit of sending my first five pages along with the query letter UNLESS the agent's guidelines specified "send a query letter only". It mostly worked out OK; I got a lot of requests for more material. There has been a growth in the regrettable practice of agents only replying to queries they are interested in. Some are clear about this in their submission guidelines, others just do it. Querytracker premium members get access to a database of agent response times - worth it in my opinion.

A few more notes about agents.
Folks, there are scammers out there and there are useless waste of time people who call themselves agents but cannot sell your book. Do your due diligence, check out anyone you are considering querying at Absolute Write. If they haven't sold books to advance-paying publishers and do not have a background in publishing/agenting, don't send to them. DO NOT EVER PAY AN AGENT UPFRONT.

A note about new agents.
One of the best ways of getting an agent is to approach someone who has just joined an agency or set up on their own. Provided they have a background in publishing (were an editor for a major publisher), or trained at another agency, then they are an excellent prospect as they will need to take on 20-30 clients fairly quickly, whereas an established agent may take on only two or three new clients a year.

Can I approach an agent in the US/UK when I don't live there?
Yes, I know many authors who have agents in a different country. All that matters is that your work is right for the market the agent is expert in.

Can't I approach publishers direct?
The majority of publishers do not look at unagented submissions; those that do take a long time over it. It is possible if you can establish a connection with an editor (going to conventions is good for this) to submit to them direct, but you will always have less priority than an agented submission.

An agent rejected my first thirty pages without explanation, can I ask them why?
No. Just don't.

Should I hire an editor to edit my novel before submitting it?
Have you explored every free option of beta readers, critique groups etc? If you have, and after multiple rewrites you still feel it isn't good enough then you could consider it. There are a lot of editors out there from former editorial directors such as Julie Crisp and Jonathan Oliver, to writers who offer editing. You should get a trial edit of a few pages and see if their comments are helpful before committing your money. A reputable editor will not be cheap. I used John Jarrold for 'Exile' and was very happy with the outcome.

Aren't there smaller publishers that take unagented submissions?
Sure there are. I'm with one Crossroad Press. They put out a nice product but they don't do any promotion. There are a lot of other small publishers out there, some do an excellent job, they edit and promote but they can't take many new books a year (e.g. Elsewhen, Luna, Telos). Others turn out lots of books but the standard is ... variable. You need to look carefully at the books they've put out and ask yourself if they are doing anything you couldn't do yourself.

Which brings us to...

What about self-publishing?
There is no question that self-publishing has become a much better option in the last decade. There are great novels and authors selling serious numbers of books. Check out the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off competition organised by Mark Lawrence. All of the finalists are high quality books; I've read several and they are comparable to the books published by major trade publishers. Despite my Nandor Tales books now being self-published I do not feel I know a lot about self publishing, but I'm happy to pass on what other people have told me.

Can I just type "The End", slap on a cover off the net, then upload it?
You can, but most likely you will not like the results. Your book needs to go through the same process as getting it ready for submission to an agent. That means critiques, rewrites and preferably an editor. DO NOT CUT CORNERS ON THIS. The reviews will burn you forever if you do. Spend money on the cover art too; a good cover sells the book. Be aware that if you buy a cover off the Net and do not pay for exclusivity then the artist/photographer has the right to sell it again. You could see your cover art on someone else's book - it happens. I also paid someone to format the book, you can do this yourself but I wanted it done right quickly. If you are planning on publishing a lot of books it is probably worth learning how to do it.

Done all that. How do I get people to read my book?
Not sure I'm the best person to ask. I can only tell you the things that I've done that seemed worthwhile. The most effective thing for me has been joining a bunch of fantasy-related Facebook groups. These are good places for finding recommendations for editors, cover designers etc. Some allow self-promotion once a week so I do that, others allow me to interact with other authors, participate in group promos and alert me to fantasy review blogs. I have also been able to organise review swaps with other authors through them. Reviews are important, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and, as an independent author, it is a continual struggle to get them. I participate in the Goodreads Community Groups and interact with reviewers there. Much like querying agents, get used to a lot of rejections and requests that never get a reply but keep asking.

How about Facebook/Amazon ads?
I haven't used them myself but have participated in group buys. The results have been mixed as are the reports I've heard from other indi writers. They have worked for some people.

What about setting up a mail list?
I see this suggested by a lot of people. I haven't got one myself so cannot comment. A lot of the advice offered seems to be directed to writers who are going to put out 3 or 4 books a year. That's not me, sorry to disappoint.