How not to get published

Posted on Nov 9, 2012 in Writing

Telling writers how to get published is a boon industry. More than 4 million web pages offer advice on writing the all-important query letter. They’ve left out some important points though. Here are my own top tips, collated during my years as a commissioning editor. True stories, people.

The opening gambit

Do not start by telling the editor that angels told you to approach her, and only her. Especially if she publishes books for primary schools, and you are pitching an adult self-help book dictated by said angels. Do not get cross when the editor suggests that the angels were wrong, and that you might have more luck with Mind/Body/Spirit publishers. Tell the angels to hold back on the publishing advice until they have consulted the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

My shelf of wishful thinking – literary & otherwise!

About the book

Do not refuse to disclose key details of the book – such as the title, or contents – on the basis that a rogue publisher might steal your idea.

Why I chose this publisher

Flattery only works if it’s grounded in fact. If you mention existing books in your query letter, be sure to look inside them first. Or you might find yourself praising a 15-year-old flop that lingers in the catalogue in an attempt to shift vast volumes of unsold stock, and is frequently a source of embarrassment to sales reps.

About the author

When writing your author bio, concentrate on the positives. Four dark pages detailing your recent road accident – with strange hints that you may have actually, accidentally, killed someone – will not win you the sympathy vote. There is no sympathy vote. It’s all about the book. (Not that editors are heartless. I can identify with the badness of a car crash, having previously been kneecapped by my own ignition key. But I rarely use that experience to win over an acquisitions meeting.)

The unique selling point

Do not make your USP “it has never been done before”, based on the contents of your own bookshelves and a ten-minute browse in Waterstones. Remember the famous biblical quote: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing on Amazon.” (ish)

The memorable sign-off

Do not tell the editor how grateful you will be if she were so kind as to publish your humble little book pretty please with a cherry on top. If your book is good, the editor will be grateful to have found you. And no, it’s never a good idea to surround your signature with animated flames.

In summary

Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show.
And never, ever, ever ever, ever even think about using Comic Sans.

Publishing types, leave a comment and tell me about the memorable query letters lurking in your filing cabinet!


  1. Crumbs & Pegs
    November 9, 2012

    Nothing specific I could possibly make public (!) but, my god, you do learn to sniff out a loon a mile off!

  2. Leoarna
    November 13, 2012

    Good advice for the unpublished but hopeful amongst us…. Thanks!

  3. Life isn’t like a box of chocolates but searching for new writers can be. | Writing about Writing for Children
    November 16, 2012

    […] “Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show” – For this and other insightful tips check out Isabel Thomas’ blog on how not to get published […]

  4. Jayne
    January 25, 2013

    Hee! I have had every single one of these – most of them multiple times. And I remember the car accident one!

    Some extras in no particular order:

    Author biog should not contain details of your loving spouse/kids/pets. I don’t care. Really. And including pictures isn’t going to swing the vote.

    Don’t try and be whacky in your covering letter – you just come off as a loon.

    Do not, for the love of god, say your book is the next Harry Potter/Hunger Games/Twilight/whatever. It isn’t. Even publishers don’t know what the next big thing is going to be – we wish we did. In the immortal words of William Goldman “nobody knows anything”.

    Don’t include your full mss. A synopsis and sample chapter is more than enough.

    Don’t include drawings you did yourself. Seriously. Unless you are a professional graphic artist and even then it’s dodgy.

    Don’t send in your only copy – especially if you want your lovely drawings back.

    Don’t ring up every week to find out when we’re going to publish your book.

    Covering your envelope and letter in cute stickers is not going to make me publish your book.

    Threatening to take it to someone else if you don’t get an answer within 7 days is not going to make me publish your book.

    Do not “pop into the office” to discuss your submission – we’re not going to see you. Especially if you’ve just got out of prison.

    Avoid felt tips. And pencils. And crayons.

    I’m sure your grandchildren/nieces/nephews/neighbours have told you this should be published. Because what else would they say?

    A covering letter in iambic poetry doesn’t help. Maybe try a haiku.

    And finally, Isabel’s not joking about Comic Sans. Just don’t…

    • Isabel Thomas
      January 26, 2013

      This is brilliant Jayne! I think they should draft you in to liven up the W&A Yearbook!

  5. Jayne
    January 27, 2013

    Have you seen ? Some splendid examples of what not to do with felt tips, pencils and crayons!