Ficition - How Publishers Select Manuscripts

By Rob Johnstone

The UK fiction market is hugely competitive. There are currently 1,573,066 fiction titles available in Britain (according to and many millions more that have never been published. Therefore, standing out from the crowd is crucial. Potential book purchasers want to be sure that they are going to get value for their money. If a book has been written by the same author as other books that they have previously read and enjoyed then that is often enough to persuade them. For less well known (and, indeed, completely unknown) authors the challenge is considerably greater. With such strong competition there is no room for bland, unoriginal writing. Every publisher has its own process, but, for the purposes of this article, I shall explain the process used by us at Knightstone Publishing. When we are deciding which fiction titles to take to publication there is only one consideration that matters: quality. There is an important caveat here though, as our view of quality refers to commercial potential rather than literary finesse which unfortunately has little to with ultimate sales (as a quick look through the bestseller lists will confirm!)

When looking at fiction manuscripts we apply a simple test. We try to articulate the essence of the book in a couple of sentences and then consider if that short paragraph (or a very similar one) could be used to describe any other book. Here are some good examples extracted from the blurb on the backs of some successful novels (unfortunately not published by us or we would be living in a tropical paradise by now):

The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett: "The [disc]world travels through space on the backs of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant turtle. Don't worry about it. People don't talk about it, any more than we say, 'wow, we're standing a few thousand miles above a ball of molten iron!'"
The Hitch Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: "One Thursday lunchtime the Earth gets unexpectedly destroyed to make way for a new hyperspace bypass."
1984 by George Orwell: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. In the Ministry of Truth, protagonist Winston Smith is a civil servant responsible for perpetuating the Party's propaganda by revising historical records to render the Party omniscient and always correct" (Perhaps not so original now, but in 1948 when it was first published it was revolutionary - and banned by several governments around the world who felt it was a little too close to the truth.)
In short, the basic concept must stand out from the tens of thousands of other titles available in any large bookshop (and the millions that didn't even make it that far) and grab the attention of book buyers enough to persuade them to purchase it.

I was rather dismissive of literary qualities earlier in this post but there is one exception. If the book is well written enough to be a serious contender for a major award (by which I mean one that people outside writing and publishing circles have heard of) then we would of course snap it up straight away. Such titles can be a commercial as well as literary success. However, some are not and careful management by the publisher is essential if these are to realise their potential.
Our commercial focus might be a little dispiriting to the average author who quite rightly views his/her manuscript as more art than a product. However, this approach is the one that we believe best serves the interests of writers as much as it does publishers. Books can only be appreciated if they are read and usually this means that they have to be purchased. A focus on sales ensures the widest circulation and therefore the greatest number of readers benefiting from the writer's effort. This does not mean lowering quality, merely an understanding that quality should be measured from the viewpoint of readers rather than writers. Readers value originality. Not just the words used but the whole concept.

If you have written (or are in the process of writing) a work that passes this "couple of sentences" test then please send us a sample chapter. We would also be very keen to hear the couple of sentences you used. Visit our submissions page to find out how.
This article will be followed by an examination of the slightly different thought process used for non-fiction titles.

This article was written by Rob Johnstone - the Creative Director at Knightstone Publishing Ltd. The article is an adaptation of one that was published on the Knightstone Publishing Blog which contains regular articles on publishing and writing. To see more articles like this one, go to