Will you read my manuscript?

No, I'm afraid not. There are at least two reasons for this. First, I don't have time, and second, my opinion is of no practical value to you. If your story or book is good enough that you should be sending it out to strangers to read, the strangers who should be reading it are agents and editors and other professional publishing readers. If it's not good enough you should keep working on it, or write something else to continue the learning process from another angle, or burden friends and family with requests for input -- people who love you will put themselves out for you, and can be of very great service to you, but try not to abuse the privilege -- or join a writing group (on line or off) where everyone reads and reacts to everyone else's work.

Once it is good enough, don't waste time with people who aren't connected to the practical side of publishing. You want to get into print, don't you? Or why else would you want me to read your story? But I'm not an editor or an agent. What I think doesn't matter a bean -- and I have no particular sense of what is 'commercial', either, so something I liked a lot might be impossible to sell and something I loathed might run a million copies. Publishing is, yes, a business, and commercial may be a dirty word, but it's a dirty word about the bottom line: an agent can't afford to take you on and an editor can't afford to offer you a contract if they don't think you're going to earn them money. Fewer and fewer of the big houses or the better small houses—if any, any more—accept unsolicited manuscripts; you are these days best off to start with trying to find an agent.

You find lists of publishers and agents and agencies, with descriptions of what they publish or take on and what they are looking for, in annual books and ebooks and a variety of magazines. Ask at your library, or, if you can't bear to ask, poke around in the reference section yourself—and there’s more and more good advice on line, where you can follow your nose to something that feels right for you. Do your homework. Especially since almost everyone has his, her or their own web site these days, there is no excuse for sending your space opera to someone who specialises in military history, no excuse for sending your ms blind to an agency without specifying an agent (and if you do it will probably be blindly sent back to you), and no excuse for sending it out in anything other than the preferred format. If an agency says it wants hard copy of an outline and three chapters, send them that. If they want a CD of your entire ms, send them that. Get it right. And don’t depend on your spell- and grammar-checker: software headmistress equivalents are all possessed by demons of perversity. I leave mine turned on for the laughs, not the help. Getting your first publishable manuscript noticed as quickly as possible is still all about making a good, professional first impression, although when I was starting out it was about using your Whiteout or Liquid Paper neatly, and retyping any page with more than three errors on it.

After that it’s about how good a writer you are.

I know all of this is gruelling and horrible. Turn your writer’s mind off, do your research, make a list. Then send your very, very, very best story, the one you’ve nearly killed yourself to make perfect, to the first person on the list . . . then get to work writing something else, and try not to think about it. If your little darling comes home again, get that list which you have already made of who you're sending it to next out of the bottom drawer with the envelopes and the address labels you also have ready, take it out of its old envelope, put it into its new one (with the SASE and a fresh copy of your cover letter, and if the first few pages of the ms or the sleeve of the CD is beginning to look a little draggled, replace them too) . . . and send it out again. Do not think about it. Thinking about it will only depress you, which is counterproductive. Agents and editors have finely tuned antennae for what will sell, but they're not infallible, and their opinions are still subjective and individual. What you're looking for is a subjective and individual positive opinion that matches what you've written. So if you think your manuscript is good, keep sending it out. But go on writing something else. Breaking into print is an enormous, glorious, intoxicating triumph, but the only, the only thing that makes you a writer, is writing.

And by the way, it is a myth that you have to 'know somebody' to get read by a professional. It's true that if you write a cover letter saying that you're Robin McKinley's best and oldest friend and send it with your book to her agent, yes, her assistant will pass it on to her instead of reading it herself (although this wouldn't do you any good, because my agent is one of my best and oldest friends, and she'd ask me about you, puzzled that she'd never heard of you, and I'd say, Who?); but agents' assistants are professionals too, and they only reject things they know their bosses won't want. Read the descriptions on the web sites and in the magazines, find out who agents your favourite writers; maybe, if you can, go to a book convention and attend an agents’ panel . . . and tailor your list of possibles and what you send to each of them accordingly.

And if you ever need to cheer yourself up by remembering that acquisition editors can be really amazingly stupid, look at what one of them wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin.

So get on with it and good luck.