They say that authors have a 500-1 chance of getting a first novel published. I don’t know how true that is, though I do know that having been published before in another field will at least get you read if your presentation is neat, conforms to the required submission guidelines and is accompanied by an appealing introductory letter. But when you consider that most publishers won’t take you without an agent now, at least in Britain, and most agents receive thousands of manuscripts a year and accept only a handful for representation, it isn’t hard to see why the odds are stacked against new writers.
I was lucky with my Mind/Body/Spirit books; the first publisher I tried was interested in my proposal. I chose them because they were one of the few at the time accepting unsolicited manuscripts (in my ignorance I didn’t know what unsolicited meant and didn’t realise I could probably have sent a letter and sample chapters to a lot of the others). I contacted the head of acquisitions, she liked my ideas and we commenced a friendly email exchange. Five books on and 11 years later, we are still in contact and she is one of my Facebook friends. My break came because I was writing about a subject that was very much in demand at that time,
Whether to go via an agent, a publisher or try both is the question that confronts many authors. I’ve tried both routes in the past. I had a wonderful rejection letter from Hutchinson when I was 14 years old and had sent them a novel about a herd of horses in Neolithic times (don’t ask!): they told me they thought I wrote well but that the content wasn’t right for them, though they would like to see anything I did in the future. Looking back, I realise how kind they were to encourage me. I’ve also had a very nice refusal from the editorial director of another major publishing house a few years ago, saying she liked the book and would have taken it but that her fiction lists were full for the foreseeable future. Agents too are very kind in offering advice and reassurance if they think you write well.
So…breaking into publishing is hard, you are one of thousands of would be authors, many of whom are being turned down even though their work is publishable. It’s tough, it’s competitive and it’s a business that is now reluctant to take the risk of publishing you unless you are likely to make them a reasonable profit. All this may seem very daunting, but you can narrow those odds by doing your homework, sending to agents or publishers who deal in your type of book, following their submission guidelines to the letter, writing a very good cover letter and being professional and courteous.
In the meantime, the best thing to do is keep writing – you can only improve!