How To Break Into Print Publishing


The big question. Do you submit directly to the publishers, or doyou find an agent who will do that for you? Based on anecdotalevidence I've heard, it can work either way. The bottom line is,if a publisher reads what he can sell, he'll buy it. It doesn'tmatter if it comes from an author or an agent. The trick isgetting him to read it. That's always your focus.

Some people swear by agents because they're the ones who will getyou larger percentages and advances. I've decided I don't carequite so much about that. In the case of a new author, Isincerely doubt that'll happen anyway. I'd hate to lose my firstsale because some greedy agent asked for too much money. Not thatI believe that'll happen either.

There are also those who swear by agents because many publisherswon't look at an "unsolicited manuscript." That's true enough.They ain't got time. They're using agents as a preliminaryscreening process.

Someone recommended that once you've selected some potentialpublishers, phone each one and ask how they would like to beapproached. Ask whom specifically you should address your workto. Then you can honestly call it a "solicited manuscript."(Always be honest in your correspondence.)

If this doesn't work, because you can't call or the secretaryrefuses to cooperate and tells you things like "we only acceptmaterial from reputable literary agents," then mail your queryletter, bio, synopsis, and sample chapter(s). They can only sayno, or they can say your query looks interesting and they want tosee the rest of the manuscript.

If you hook a publisher this way, odds are the publisher willlike for you to have an agent. So this is when you call one,after you've hooked the publisher. The agent gets 15% for doingpractically nothing, so he'll take the job. The publisher willbecome more interested when your agent phones saying he's (orshe's) looking after your interests in this matter.

The most important step is to get your presentation looking asprofessional as possible. No mistakes. None. Zero. Nada. The vastmajority of rejections aren't because the story is bad, butbecause the Acquisitions Editor concludes that it'll be too muchwork to make it "ready to read." With new authors, publishersusually lose money. Advertising, print inventory... don't askthem to invest a great deal of editing time as well. They won'tdo it. It's just that simple.

** THE SELECTION PROCESS **

The most important part of getting your error-free manuscriptpublished is choosing the right market. The best way to do thisis to read books that are aimed at the same target audience asyour own. If you want to approach publishers directly, look atwho published those books. Preferably one who publishes lots ofbooks in that genre, not just one or two authors. Their marketingmachine is already positioned to announce your manuscript to yourtarget audience, and they want more books of the type that youwrite. They are your best bet.

(HOWEVER, keep in mind that you don't want to be exactly like thoseauthors. Then you're competition. You want to target the samereaders but with something different than those currently targetingthem. Does that make sense? No? Then we understand each other.)

Some authors thank their editors. If you're going straight to thepublishers, note the editors' names and use those, preferablyafter a phone call to ensure the editor still works there. If youcan, just phone the publisher and tell whoever answers the phonesomething like "I'm writing a letter to so-and-so, and I want tobe sure I'm spelling the name correctly."

If you want to approach an agent first, look in theacknowledgements sections of those books. Some authors thanktheir agents. Look up those agents and start with them. Tell themhow you found them. This might impress them by making you seemprofessional, or it might not, but it can't hurt. You know they'vegot a track record in your genre. They know how to sell topublishers who are aimed at your target audience, so let them doit.

http://www.allaboutliteraryagents.com/articlep1003.html offerssome additional advice on selecting an agent.

Whichever method you use, go in fully prepared. Meaning, workthrough all the steps below before you submit anything.

** OVERVIEW **

Your aim is to convince someone who not only does not know you,but does not want to know you, and has read too many bad books,that your book is different. For this you need a cover letter,bio, synopsis, and sample chapter(s) of such sublime wit, wisdomand genius that even the most jaded and cynical editor can takepleasure in it.

Take your time. Don't just whip up something in a day and send itout. You're probably looking at a one or two year gap betweenacceptance and publication. So in the grand scheme of things,taking the time to make your presentation really shine won'tmatter. EXCEPT, that it'll ensure you get published in the firstplace.

Every publisher has "writer guidelines." Get them. Read them.Follow them. They're using the process of elimination to get outof reading these submissions. The first step in that process isto bump off everyone who can't follow the guidelines. Don't beone of them.

** PREPARING YOUR QUERY LETTER **

This will be the first impression they get of you. Make it a goodone! Edit that letter as hard as you would a manuscript, and makeit perfect. Make it good writing. Sum up your book in such a wayas to make the recipient of the letter say, "Wow, I want to readthis."

The first page of your book, along with the jacket text, are whatusually determine whether a browser buys your book or puts itback on the shelf. As you write your query letter, think of whatyou'd put on that book jacket, and work that concept into yourletter.

Never address your query letter To Whom It May Concern, DearEditor, or any of that. Get a name. When you find the books thatyou really like, and are searching them for potential publishers,call those publishers. Ask who edited those books. If you want toapproach the publishers directly, write to those editors.

You can find advice on writing your query letters etc. at:

www.adlerbooks.com/
www.allaboutliteraryagents.com/article1002.html
www.fearlessbooks.com/PublishingGuide.html
www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/writing_marketing_fiction
www.wga.org/craft/queryletter.html
www.writergazette.com/articles/article299.shtml
www.writing-world.com/query/query.html

The "query letter clinic" in the 2001 WRITERS MARKET is wellworth reading. If you're not going to buy the book, go to thelibrary and read that section of it.

(I don't know if it's in subsequent editions, since I live inChina, but I hope it is.)

With a simple bit of good writing, and we all know you can dothat since you've already written and polished your manuscript,you'll make it past this first hurdle. The editor reads yourletter, sees nothing in it to stop him from continuing, and hasno choice.

What would stop him? Typos. Grammar. Spelling. Boredom. Oranything that says "I write so much better than Stephen King thathe's not fit to hold my jock strap. Buy my book and we'll bothget rich."

** WRITING YOUR BIO **

Don't lie. That's the first rule. The second rule is, don'tforget any writing credits. List everything relevant you've got.Publications in decent magazines or newspapers. Credits in TV,films, theaters. Any literary prize you've managed to get inadulthood. The fact that you're a Professor of English or aneditor on a sports journal.

If you have no literary background, no education, or norespectable publications, but you spent fifteen years in solitaryconfinement in a Siberian Work Camp, that might indicate that youhave a story to tell. But if you're writing about cuddly koalasto entertain the under-five crowd, this piece of information maybe more than anyone needs to know.

You can list your credits either chronologically or from mostimpressive to least impressive. Just whichever puts you in thebest light. You want to look like you're already a successfulauthor. You don't want to sound arrogant, but you do want tosound confident. Keep it to a single page. You don't want towaste anybody's time. They don't have enough. (Who does?)

If your bio is so bare of details that it's more of a liabilitythan an asset, forget about it. Maybe your "bio" equals only asentence or two, in which case you can work it into your queryletter instead of a separate document.

Your goal, remember, is to get that editor to read your synopsisor manuscript. To judge it on its own merits. If he reads yourwriting and rejects it, you gave it your best shot. Try a fewmore, and if they all reject it, then think about improving yourwriting. But you don't want that editor to stop reading yoursubmission before he gets to your writing. So, take the time todo the query letter and bio correctly.

** WRITING YOUR SYNOPSIS **

To quote one agent, "There is no such thing as a good synopsis."And how can there be? How do you sum up 50,000 or 100,000 wordsin a page or two? I'll tell you how I do it. Very badly.

Having said that, this is your first chance to show the publisherthat you can write. Some publishers want a minimal amount ofinformation on first contact (query letter, bio, synopsis).Others want to see the first chapter or two as well. Nobody wantsto see the whole manuscript at first, except those who say so intheir writers' guidelines. If you include sample chapters, thechance of them being read depends largely on the quality of yourquery letter and synopsis.

Keep your synopsis short, two pages maximum unless the writers'guidelines say differently. Shorter is better. Pick out the themeand the strengths of your book and, in as clever a fashion aspossible, relay these qualities in a brief chronology. Thechronology is less important than the theme because, in truth,your only hope with a synopsis is that your theme or concept willstrike a chord with the editor or agent reading it.

If your story is funny, your synopsis should be funny. If it's aromantic story, then your synopsis should be a romantic synopsis.You're a writer, and here's where you can be creative.

A lot of the great works of literature do not have easily definedstories, just fine writing and good characters. If you have nostory, then you have to sell your idea. The synopsis must havefine, clear writing. Say how your book starts, how it ends, andwhat's interesting in the middle. This isn't the time for cliffhangers.

Your sample chapter should do the main talking, but your synopsisshould offer up those clever memorable sound bites that willlinger in the editor's mind and convince him to read the samplechapter.

** PREPARING YOUR MANUSCRIPT **

Did I mention that your manuscript must be flawless? I'll mentionit again. Your manuscript must be flawless. Especially be surethat the first chapters, the "hook" which you will submit, willbe the type that grabs the reader and makes him/her/it wonderwhat happens next.

Beyond that, some mechanics:

If the publisher you're submitting to lists all this informationin its guidelines, you're in luck. Do what they say and they'llread your manuscript. Fail to do so and they'll set it downunread, even if you're the next John Grisham.

Remember, they're budgeting their time and trying to get out ofreading this stuff. Once they read it, they'll be fair. (If not,you don't want them.) If it's good solid writing, you're in. Butuntil they get to the writing, they expect the worst. If you'dseen some of the crap that comes their way, you'd be just aspessimistic. But in the end they do love good writing or elsethey'd quit that job.

If the guidelines don't tell you how to prepare the manuscript,consider the information below as a "generic template."Otherwise, ignore my guidelines and use theirs.

Fonts - UK publishers prefer Courier New 10pt, US publishersprefer Times New Roman 12pt. Both are trying to ease theireyestrain, so don't be fancy.

Paper sizes - This one's easy. Letter (8 1/2" by 11") in the US,A4 in the rest of the world.

Binding - US publishers prefer none at all. UK publishers preferthat you punch two holes in the side and use simple brassfasteners to hold it all together -- ugly but effective.

Use one type of paper throughout your presentation, preferablyplain white. (If you have personal stationery that's not toofunky, you can use that for your query letter.)

The title need not appear on the beginning of every chapter, butit's a good idea to put it on each page, along with your name andthe page number, in case the manuscript is separated or mislaidat the publisher's.

Double-spaced text, unjustified right margins, one-inch marginsall around. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (or selfaddressed envelope with IRCs) of the appropriate size if you wantyour manuscript back.

Package it so it's easy to open but not all wrinkled and nastywhen it arrives at your publisher's office. No folded manuscriptshastily stuffed into a manila envelope. No envelopes that scatterhundreds of little brown paper shavings all over the desk.They're opening far too many of these things, and anything thatlooks "amateur" gets bumped unread.

** PUBLISHER LIST **

http://www.chinarice.org/howtogetpublished.html contains thewebsites of almost 100 publishers. I recommend visiting this afteryou've gone through the selection process, from books you readand/or from a book such as WRITERS MARKET.

** AGENT LIST **

Here's some advice from the Agent Research and Evaluationwebsite. They define an agent as:

"...someone who makes a living selling real books to realpublishers. No one representing himself as an agent should alsoclaim to be a book doctor, an editor-for-hire, a book'consultant' of any kind. They shouldn't charge any type of'upfront' reading fee, marketing fee, evaluation fee or any otherfee apart from a commission on work sold.

"With the possible exception of certain MINIMAL office expenses,legitimate agents NEVER handle [the expenses connected withsubmitting manuscripts] as an upfront cost. Only as a billableexpense after being shown to have been incurred.

"Remember, real agents live off the commissions they make fromselling their clients' projects. Scammers live off up-front feesfor unnecessary, inadequate, or non-existent services."

This is excellent advice. Anyone can call himself an agent, gethimself listed somewhere, and tell every author who sends him amanuscript "This is excellent. Send me some money and I'll sellit." Then he can pocket the author's money and do absolutelynothing.

Agents work for a percentage of your sales. It's usually 10%-20%.An agent's source of income must be the books he sells. If theauthor pays him before he closes a sale, where is his incentiveto close the sale?

Insist that your agent send you copies of all rejection letters.A great agent should offer this without you asking, and thoserejection letters shouldn't all be undated "Dear author" or "Dearagent" letters that don't mention you or your agent or yourmanuscript by name.

Your agent should also involve you in the selection processwithout you asking, even if that just means telling you "I'msending to this, that, and the other place." Don't let him/hersend your gothic romance to a children's publisher, etc.

If your agent is sending your stuff to the right places and it'sstill getting rejected, you've done all you can do, except writebetter.

http://www.chinarice.org/howtogetpublished.html contains myresources for finding an agent in the US or the UK. If you'vebeen reading my other advice, you're already talking to otherauthors. If you know one who's made it into print, especiallyone who writes in your genre, ask which agent (and whichpublisher and editor) he or she used.

** WARNINGS **

Once you have narrowed down your list of prospects, visit thefollowing sites to learn about the latest scams and such:

Bewares Board
http://www.absolutewrite.com/forum/index.html

Editor Report
http://www.geocities.com/editorreport/

National Writers Union
http://www.nwu.org/nwuhome.htm
Be sure to look at "Writer Alerts"

Preditors and Editors
http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors

Writer Beware
http://www.sfwa.org/Beware/

Copyright 2005, Michael LaRocca

Michael LaRocca's website at http://www.chinarice.org waschosen by WRITER'S DIGEST as one of The 101 Best WebsitesFor Writers in 2001 and 2002. His response was to throw itout and start over again because he's insane. He teachesEnglish at a university in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province,China, and publishes the free weekly newsletter WHO MOVEDMY RICE?


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