Getting Published - Stephen Leather

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First write your book. There’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being a writer and the difference is putting in the hours. You have to want to write; it’s hard work and it’s lonely work. I haven’t met a writer yet who actually enjoys the process. It’s lonely, it’s often boring, and it’s hard on the fingers if you’re as bad a typist as I am. I’m not saying that writing isn’t fun, it can be or I wouldn’t do it, but the process itself isn’t enjoyable. And it takes months, if not years, to write a book. I always tell aspiring writers that ninety per cent of writing is stamina and self-motivation.

It is possible to submit outlines, but unless you’ve a proven track record or you’re famous for something else (you’re a well-known comedian, for instance, or you’ve killed somebody famous) then an agent or publisher is going to want to see the completed manuscript before offering to buy it. So before you start looking for an agent or a publisher, finish the book. Read it. Polish it. Get it as close to perfect as you can. Give it to friend that you trust and listen to what they say. Maybe join a writing group and run it by the other members. Polish it again until you are absolutely happy with it. Then, and only then, start submitting it. You’ll only get one chance. It’s no good going back to a publisher or agent who rejected your book and saying ‘please have another look, I’ve improved it’ because they won’t.

Stephen Leather Rabbit

In the old days – when I started writing – manuscripts had to be submitted on paper and had to be double-spaced and typed on only one side of each sheet. These days most agents and publishers will accept submissions by email, which is a huge saving on paper and postage!

Buy a copy of The Writers and Artists Yearbook for information on how to submit your work, and who to submit it to. If you’re on a tight budget, most libraries will have copies. I was first published after submitting my book Pay Off direct to half a dozen publishers. Back then (in the 1980s) most publishers had what they called slush piles, where unsolicited manuscripts were put on a desk and either looked at by a full-time reader or by any member of staff who might be interested. I was plucked from the slush pile at Collins and writer Glenn Meade’s first novel came off Hodder and Stoughton’s slush pile. Even ten years ago most publishers were still accepting unsolicited manuscripts in the UK, but I’m sorry to say that’s now changed.

Pretty much all UK publishers will now only accept submissions from agents, or from writers they know. Personally, I think it’s unfair, but the publishers I have spoken to say it’s mainly because most of what was being sent in unsolicited was simply unpublishable. I have to say that new technology has a lot to do with that. When I first started writing fiction, the only option was to do it by hand and then type it out, sheet by sheet. If you made a mistake, you had to retype the sheet. And as publishers wouldn’t accept carbon copies, you had to type out a fresh manuscript for each publisher. I was lucky and had an IBM golfball typewriter but even that only had a five-page memory. I had to type in five pages, print out half a dozen copes, and then delete what I had written and type in the next five pages. It took me weeks of hard work to print out the six copies of Pay Off that I submitted. These days writing is easier, because it’s all done on computers, and you can print out as many copies as you want at the press of a button. As a result publishers have been deluged with manuscripts and they no longer find it cost-effective to read them. They have effectively subcontracted out the initial sifting to agents, hoping that they will separate the gold from the dross. The one exception to that rule would be if a self-published writer had been spectacularly successful in the world of self-publishing. In a case like that publishers might well deal with a writer without an agent.

Getting an agent

The problem now is that it is very, very difficult to get an agent. That’s partly because once the publishers stopped accepting unsolicited submissions, they started to pour into the agencies, and the agencies have even fewer staff than publishers. Unfortunately, in my experience agents are a lot less approachable than the publishers used to be. And I’m afraid that in many cases they lack basic courtesy. I wrote to five agents after I’d written my first thriller and not one even bothered to reply. Even when I had three books in print and was trying to get and agent for The Chinaman, only two agents out of six replied to my letter. If they won’t even reply to a published author and former Fleet Street journalist, what chance does a first-time writer have? I get emails every week from frustrated writers who are simply being ignored by agents. But because publishers won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts any more, I’m afraid you have no choice – you will have to get an agent. And you’re just going to have to accept that getting an agent is no easy task, no matter how good a writer you are or how good your book is. I’m sorry, but that’s the cold hard truth of modern-day publishing.

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Most agents these days have websites and on those websites they will explain their policy on submissions. There is no point in sending an unsolicited manuscript to an agent, no matter how good you think it is. They almost certainly won’t read it. If their submissions policy isn’t spelled out on their website, send an email or a letter, and maybe the first chapter. And make sure you sell yourself. Convince them that they need to read your work. If you’ve written a thriller, then push your military background if you have one. If you’ve written a book set in a school and you were a teacher, mention that. If you’ve written a crime novel and have spent time in prison, sell that. Push yourself as much as you push your book. If they like what they see then they’ll ask for more.

The Writers and Artists Year Book has a comprehensive list of agents in the UK, Ireland and the United States. Write to them all. Every one. That’s the beauty of the new technologies, you can print a hundred letters or send a hundred emails as easily as one. In your letter or email, promote yourself but flatter the agent. Find out who they represent and tell them what a great job they are doing for such-and-such a writer and that you think they’d be the perfect agent to handle your book. That’s how I got my first agent – I wrote Gerald Seymour’s agent a flattering letter and he took me on. He went on to sell The Chinaman and The Vets for a good six-figure sum.

Please don’t blame me if agents don’t write back. Most won’t even acknowledge receipt of your letter. They can be very frustrating people to deal with. Just keep trying. Keep pushing. Work your contacts. Do you know anyone who works for an agency in any capacity? Did you go to school with someone who works for an agency? Start asking all your friends and relatives if they have any contacts. If it’s any comfort, the publishers I’ve spoken to all tell me the same thing – that if a book is good then it will be published eventually. If you are rejected by every agent in town then there are two possibilities – either your book isn’t very good, or the agents are just incompetent. Either is a real possibility. But it might be worth having a closer look at your work, and try to be objective. Maybe the brutal truth is that your book isn’t as good as you think it is. Maybe it needs a total rewrite or maybe you need to start a new book. I think anyone who actually finishes a book deserves a pat on the back for that alone, but just because a book has been written doesn’t mean that it’s publishable.

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Don’t forget that every agency has several agents, so if one agent says no it’s still worth approaching other agents at the firm. Writing is very subjective, and what one agent hates another might love. So keep on trying!

If an agent does respond and asks to see the manuscript, they might well ask to see it exclusively. Ignore that. Send it to anyone who is interested. You don’t want to wait three months for a refusal before sending it out again. If an agent really wants to represent you, he’s not going to care who else you approached.

Having said that publishers won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts, it is still worth writing to editors. Just bear in mind that it is a long shot. Again, sell yourself and flatter them and maybe, just maybe, they might ask to see what you’ve written. But do bear in mind that your letter or email probably won’t get to the editor, it will almost certainly be intercepted by an eager assistant. And don’t try phoning them – that is a total waste of time. Again, it is worth working any contacts you have. But don’t ask me or any other writer if we’ll read your work – we just don’t have the time and also won’t put ourselves in the position where we could be accused of plagiarism down the line! I know it’s frustrating, but the thing to remember is that nothing worth having comes easily.

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One of the great unfairnesses of life is that once an agent has done a deal for you, he or she takes his or her percentage for ever, no matter how much he or she signed the original deal for. The agent might only get a few thousand pounds of an advance for you, but if the book goes on to be a massive bestseller, he or she takes their cut of the royalties for ever. I fell out with an agent who I thought wasn’t pulling his weight yet years later he still takes his percentage of all the royalties on the books he sold for me. And will continue to do so until the day I die – and beyond. I actually don’t think that’s fair, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

You must always remember that agents are the middle-men in the publishing world. They are acting for writers (their clients) but the actual money comes from publishers. A writer has only one agent, but an agent has dozens, often hundreds, of writers, and will be dealing with all the major publishers. At the end of the day, an agent is not going to jeopardise his relationship with a publisher for the sake of one writer. Publishers are far more important to agents than writers are, and the writer is always going to come off worst in any conflict unless you have the clout that comes with being one of the really big sellers. That’s a sad fact of life, and all writers should remember it. But, there’s no doubt that there are advantages in having a good agent in your corner. The agent can act as a buffer between you and your publisher, so that problems can be resolved without anyone taking it personally. It’s better to have a moan at your agent and let him or her negotiate with your publisher rather than you letting off steam yourself! And it’s definitely true that an agent is better placed to negotiate the financial arrangements – there’s more to a book deal than the advance, and often it’s in the small print that a good agent can really earn his commission. The trick is to find an agent who believes in you and who believes in your work.

Hand on heart, I have to say that good agents are few and far between. Most of them are less than impressive. I’ve sacked three of the biggest agents in London, and all three made what I saw as major mistakes, mistakes that cost me money. The worst agents by far are those that I have come across in the States. Awful people. I had one who told me he didn’t think he could represent me ‘because I don’t think I would walk through walls for the book’. It was a stupid thing to say – a good agent is a salesman and a good salesman should be able to sell anything. I had another agent from a large agency grinning with pleasure when he told me that he wasn’t going to take me on. They seem to take pleasure in belittling writers, an attitude I’ve always been unable to understand.

So, my advice would be to get an agent if you can. Once you have a deal, watch your agent like a hawk and if they start to take you for granted, sack them and get another. Most writers I’ve been are unhappy with their agents but few ever move. It’s like banks. People are reluctant to change banks but they should do so at the first sign of a problem. There are plenty of banks out there and there are plenty of agents.


Self-publishing is different from vanity publishing. There are companies around who will produce copies of your book just so that you can have the satisfaction of holding a copy in your hand or to give copies to your nearest and dearest. That’s fine for unpublished poets or for passing around your family history, but to self-publish you have to take a more professional approach. The Bridges of Maddison County started life as a self-published book, and Robert James Waller went on to sell more than six million copies when Warner Brothers picked up the title. Roddy Doyle self-published his first novel, The Commitments and he now has millions of copies in print. The Tales of Peter Rabbit was originally self-published by Beatrix Potter. If you are consistently rejected by every publisher and agent that you contact, it’s time to sit down and do some serious thinking. Is there something wrong with the book? With your writing? Is it something that can be fixed? Try to get impartial advice from friends, or join a writing group. If you are still convinced that you have a bestseller, then you might think about self-publishing.

Prior to the eBook revolution, self-publishing literally meant producing physical books yourself. As a self-publisher, you had to pay the costs of manufacturing your books, and you were responsible for distributing them. The big obstacle with self-publishing in the past was that it was very hard to distribute your book. You can’t just go to major bookstore chains and expect them to take ten thousand copies off your hands. But the eBook revolution means that self-publishing is now not only possible, for some writers it is the best (ie most profitable) way of selling their work.

Triplets - Stephen Leather

In the past, self-publishing meant placing your books with small local bookstores on a sale-or-return basis, or selling them through your own website or from the back of your car. But now you can download your eBooks to Amazon’s KDP platform, or the Smashwords platform, and within hours your work can be available on eReaders around the world. If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of eBooks, you can visit my ePublishing blog

Another great source of information on ePublishing is the blog of ePublishing guru Joe Konrath. Google him and read everything he has written about self-publishing.

Mark Coker at Smashwords also offers great advice to self-published writers. Click here for Mark Coker's advice on self-publishing

I have done very well with my eBooks. I was the first British writer to have the top three slots in the Kindle UK bestseller list, and my book The Basement topped the Kindle charts in both the US and the UK. So far I have sold close to two million eBooks and in 2011 the only British author to sell more eBooks than me was Lee Child, and he had the backing of major publishing houses while most of my books were self-published.

Self-publishing eBooks isn’t a guaranteed path to fame and fortune, it requires a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck if you are to succeed. But if you stick at it and produce books that people want to read, you will succeed eventually.

Useful reading

I'm not convinced that books that claim to teach you how to write a bestseller are worth reading. I've never read any and so I'm not in a position to make any recommendations. I always figure that if the authors were any good, they'd be writing bestsellers themselves, right? Hardly any do. One of the few exceptions is Stephen King who has written a book called 'On Writing'. It's okay, but is more of an autobiography than a 'How To' book. Most of his advice is common sense, things like 'write every day' and 'read a lot of books'. It's worth borrowing 'On Writing' from your local library, but it's not a book you need on your shelves. No, I reckon that the best way of learning the craft is to read those authors who are successful at what they do. Before I started writing thrillers, I read practically everything by Jack Higgins and Ian Fleming. Later I read practically everything written by Gerald Seymour, Brian Freemantle, and John Le Carre, three masters of the craft of thriller writing.

The same goes for most creative writing courses. They fall under the old saying - ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.’ If Jack Higgins or John Grisham were to hold a writing seminar I’d be first in line, until then, I’d rather read the successful authors and learn from them.

But that’s just my personal view - there are well-known writers - Michael Ridpath for one - who say that ‘How To…’ books were a big help when they started to write. Local libraries should have a selection of books on creative writing, and you can do a search on

One book that I can most definitely recommend is The Writers and Artists Yearbook.

Writers and Artists Yearbook

Recommended by The Writers’ Guild, the Writers and Artists Yearbook is the definitive guide to the world of publishing. It’s got full lists of all UK and US publishing houses, lists of agents on both sides of the Atlantic, plus details of newspapers, radio and TV stations. It’s more than a book of lists though, it has feature articles, at least one of which is usually by a famous author who claims that the Writers and Artists Yearbook was a key element of their success. There’s also advice on self-publishing and vanity publishing, creative writing courses, advice on preparing and submitting manuscripts, and advice on copyright, libel and tax.

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I was a journalist before becoming a thriller writer, as were Gerald Seymour and Frederick Forsythe. For anyone interested in knowing what it’s like to work on a national newspaper, Full Disclosure is a great read.


As a former journalist I love Andrew Neil’s account of what it was like working for Rupert Murdoch for more than a decade as editor of the Sunday Times. Whatever you think of Andrew’s editorship, he is a world class writer and it’s always surprised me that he’s never written fiction.

I worked for three of the biggest newspaper barons during my twelve years as a journalist - Rupert Murdoch (The Times, The South China Morning Post); Robert Maxwell (The Daily Mirror) and Tiny Rowland (Glasgow Herald). I met them all and they all had the uncanny ability to make you feel as if you were the centre of the universe while you’re in their company. Of course they’ve forgotten about you two minutes later, but that’s by the way. I spoke to Tiny Rowland just before I left to join the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, and he asked me to give him a call if I spotted any investment opportunities for his company, Lonrho. I think he was serious, too.

Robert Maxwell interviewed me for half an hour before hiring me to join the City office of the Daily Mirror. He was fascinated by my background in biochemistry as he made his initial money by selling translations of German scientific papers after the war. I met him again in Hong Kong and he remembered my name and told me to call him when I got back to London as there was always a job for me on the Daily Mirror. It was a nice thing to say, especially as we were in the middle of a press conference with some twenty other journalists at the time.

I only met Rupert Murdoch once, when he visited the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, but my life has always been connected to his News Corporation empire in some way. His publishing company, Harper Collins, published my first three novels, I worked for his papers in London and Hong Kong, and Sky TV produced two of my books - The Stretch and The Bombmaker - as TV movies.

Andrew Neil’s book is a great insight into what it’s like to work at the top level of British newspapers, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of becoming a journalist. I love it because it’s peppered with names of people that I know: Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail who hired me as a business reporter when I left the Daily Mirror; John Dux who hired me to work on the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong; Roger Eglin, the business editor of the Sunday Times who nearly offered me a job several times but who never quite made it; Eddy Shah, the founder of Today newspaper who gave me a bollicking for being rude to one of his public relations people and who went on to write thrillers himself; Elisabeth Murdoch, Rupert’s daughter and the then head of Sky, who had lunch with Anita Dobson, Leslie Grantham and me to tell us how excited she was about filming The Stretch. Elisabeth left Sky soon after to set up her own film production company, Shine, which has been spectacularly successful.

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