You sit back, confident. The final corrections made to your manuscript. You’ve self-edited yourself to bits. You’ve asked friends and family to give their feedback and adjusted accordingly. Now what? How do you get it published?
Preparing your work for submission
Step 1: check if you meet everyone’s needs
- The publisher needs you to fill a hole in their production line.
- The editor needs your manuscript to have commercial appeal and preferably not be a pain in the ass to edit.
- The store needs you to increase traffic in their shop.
- The readers need to be entertained by the book.
Can you put into words how your story meets these needs? If yes, move on to step 2.
Step 2: Finding the agents and publishers.
Buy the annual copy of “Writer’s Market“. It gives information on what you need to do to make your piece ready to submit to begin with. The book also lists the publishers, their associated editors and what sort of material they handle. If you’d rather go through an agent, it also lists them and the type of material they handle. Other sources of information of this kind are Writer’s Digest yearly “Guide to Literary Agents” and Lori Perkin’s “The Insider Guide to Getting An Agent“. You can also find a lot of information online:
click deals > set category > browse > scan info for agent names OR click dealmakers> agents > set category
search for “acknowledgements” and names of authors in your genre
Aspiring authors should find at least 50 agents who are appropriate for their novel. Give each agent about 2-3 months of exclusive reading time before you try someone else.
Step 3: Preparing your package.
- If you don’t have a finished manuscript, you can write a book proposal.
- Enclose a SASE, which is a self-addressed stamped enveloped that the agent or publisher uses to return your material if it is rejected. Don’t kid yourself, not including the envelope doesn’t change the odds of anyone buying your story, it only increases the odds of the paper being put in the recycling bin. Include the SASE, and recycle the pages yourself by sending the package to another publisher or agent instead.
- Select a portion of the manuscript as a sample. For example, act I.
Tips: Introduce a major character, setting and conflict within 300 words. If possible, open with multiple characters as this puts the in direct conflict from the start. Skip ‘life at rest’ even if you want to show a normal day before the world is turned up-side-down. Do not open with a mystery problem (e.g. a man runs away but from what? the reader has no clue!), this is a technique of false suspense used by amateur writers.
- Provide a description (chapter synopsis) of the rest of the story.
It is no less than one page and no more than five pages long. It should tell your complete story in prose, in present tense, from beginning to end. Present the point of view along with the names and descriptions of all major characters. Write the broad story rather than a detailed description of events, but include a summary of all major events. Skip dialogue unless absolutely essential. Reveal just enough to create interest in your script. Write it as if it’s a short story.
- Write a cover letter (aka query letter) addressed to each editor personally. Most editors prefer a query letter with synopsis before reading a manuscript. However, do not query if (1) the topic is a hype that might be over in two weeks time or (2) you’re sending in short filler pieces.
The query letter is your audition for the part of writer. It’s proof that you can write. It is a one page document in which you introduce yourself and your manuscript. Format this letter like a business letter, address it to the editor in question and provide your contact information.
First paragraph: Introduce yourself, explain the purpose of your communication. Quote any contacts you might have that are relevant. Introduce the manuscript by providing the title, the word count and one-sentence hook (your angle) describing the story. The hook shows the originality, provides confidence that the story will not disappoint and prompts him to read the story. He can then use it to convince others within the firm. Tell them the style of the story and your suggested length for it and what you expect to get paid (e,g,m 30-100 per 1000 words). Inform the editor of the sample and the synopsis sent along with this letter.
Second paragraph: Tell him what sort of writer you are, inform him of achievements such as won contests and publications. This establishes your credit as an author. If you haven’t been published before, that’s OK. A first-time best selling author would be equally welcome anyway and there is a thrill in discovering the next big author. Be forth-coming, admit to the lack of publication and/or education in literature and inform him that this is your first work. There is no way to hide any lack of credentials. Agents will see right through the fancy language that attempts to make up for it.
Third paragraph: Thank him for his time and attention. Ask for the editor’s feedback and inform him of the self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) he can use to communicate back to you.
Ways to get yourself rejected by default
Not sticking to the format. However special you or your work might be, it will not get read if you don’t stick to the required format. It won’t even make it into the slush pile. Stick to the required format! This point cannot be stressed enough. Play by the rules, use the white paper, use double spacing, check your grammar and spelling. This process of selection wasn’t designed for the benefit of writer, it’s designed for the benefit of editors, to make their job easier. Deviating from the norm doesn’t get you noticed in a positive way, it gets you rejected. You’re on their turf, so play by their rules.
Lying on your cover letter. Just don’t. It doesn’t make you more interesting. It makes you more of a problem. These things will get fact-checked and nobody wants to work with someone who lies to them.
How to give yourself an advantage
Create an online following. When an agent or publisher has to chose between two authors, one with and one without an online following, he will prefer the author with a fandom. This fandom will come in handy while promoting the book launch with word of mouth advertising. A percentage of these people will be interested in buying the book and help kick-off the sales.
What happens to your package when it’s received by the publisher/agent
If you have a personal connection, then the package goes directly to the person in question and he or she will read it him/herself. If you do not have a connection, especially when you are not a published author yet, the package first reaches the hands of assistants. They open it up and take a glance. When the manuscript isn’t provided in the required format, the work is automatically rejected and either sent back through the SASE or thrown in the recycling bin.
If the right format is followed, the manuscript goes onto the slush pile. This is the pile of submissions with low priority. Assistants hoping to become editors one day might browse this pile in hopes of finding a gem and then proudly presenting it to the editor. Some editors might grab a copy from the slush pile for entertainment when they go to lunch or have a boring train ride ahead of them. You get the picture. They will start reading the story and the minute it doesn’t hold their interest any more, the second it stops working for them, they tag it for rejection and put it away. If the story is solid all the way through, it will get read till the end.
Do not take it personally. They get a ton of manuscripts sent in, there’s always a big pile of manuscripts not read yet. Like in all jobs, the agents and publishers have quotas. The work might not be the type of story they’re looking for. They might already have similar stories in the pipelines already. Getting a rejection, doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t like your work. Liking your work also doesn’t necessarily mean they can publish it. Due to the large number of submission, they must reject most of the books they receive and they don’t have time to personalise each and every rejection.
The more elaborate the rejection, the better. The critique they provide tells you the reasons it didn’t make it past that point in the publishing process. This tells you what you can change to improve it, after which you can try again. Do not confuse rejection letters with revision proposals though. Only revise based on specific feedback when explicitly stated the publisher/agent would like to receive the revised work. If this request isn’t made, consider the feedback, revise your work as you see fit and send it to others instead.
Acceptation: The processes towards publication
You are offered one of the two routes:
Getting commissioned: the editor promises to pay, this is a guaranteed buy. A letter confirms the agreement black on white with subject, deadline and price.
On spec (speculation): this is a sales opportunity, not a guaranteed buy.
The selection process is designed to weed out incompetent and uncommercial writing. Now your piece is written and accepted, it continues through the next process. The editing process exists to strengthen the writing. The design process provides visual aids to assist the text in reaching its goal. The marketing process lets the public know that this book is worth reading.
The publication process
The agent takes a percentage and exclusive rights. What does this percentage get you, the writer? It buys you the agent’s connections, his negotiation skills, his editorial suggestions and his business advice. The agent helps you negotiate the contract with the publisher, protects you from getting scammed and generally protects the business well-being of the writer. If you hope to get your story published abroad some day, using an agent might be cheaper than using a publisher, as agents also handle foreign sales and generally require a lower cut than publishers. The agent can be your best friend and best gladiator.
Using an agent helps your chances of getting read by the publishers because they have a connection. The agent has a good idea of which publisher is most likely to appreciate the manuscript and have an opening for such a work for printing. Having a good agent, improves your chances at finding a publisher that buys your work.
If you did not go through an agent first, now is the time to get one. The publisher will offer you a contract, which probably won’t mean much to you as a writer. Now you can jump for joy and blindly accept whatever they offer, but no publisher will be offended (or retract their offer) when you explain you’re new to this and want an agent to check the contract for you. Luckily, it is much easier getting a good agent, when you’ve already poked by a publisher.
Also a very good friend. Whenever possible, chose editors that look at details of a work (not just the big picture). This type of editor helps you catch mistakes and inconsistencies in the story, as well as identifyingholes and such. As a writer, knowing the full story in every shape and from every angle, it’s easy to forget telling readers certain things (thinking it’s really obvious, cause everything seems obvious from hindsight). The editor offers a true objective take on the story. This offers essential feedback. An editor that provides much feedback is a sign of commitment and support. In the end, it’s up to you whether you accept or reject the proposed changes.
This is your last chance to find and correct any fuck ups. The copy-editor checks spelling, grammar, punctuation, repetitions and contradictory details. Whatever mistakes managed to get past you up to this point, now face the wrath of the copy-editor. This is your saving grace, as it is your last chance to make any necessary corrections before the work goes to print.
The writer’s tasks when the book goes into stores
The copies make their way to the shops. Promotions make the public aware of this amazing piece of work which they would surely all love to read. Part of the promoting might involve book signings. During this time, people write reviews and the publisher produces promotion material.
Handling the income
Now you earn some pennies. You receive quarterly reports on the sales and your cut of the money made. In the eyes of the tax man, this income is self-employed income. Do your taxes accordingly. Keep in mind that any expenses to do with writing (buying a computer for example) can be tax deductible if you saved the receipt.
Create an archive
Grab a box and toss the old drafts in it. Collect the reviews and promo materials and toss those in there too. They may come in handy some day.
What to do with the copies that didn’t sell
At a certain point, sales drop and the books take up more space than they provides sales. The books then go onto the sales pile, as a last ditch effort to push sales on the book before the shop gives up on it all together. The stores usually offer the unsold copies to the author with a heavy discount. Buy them. Buy them all. Box them up safely and put them aside. You can sell them yourself on your personal website, on e-bay or save a few copies for a future day. When you’ve become better known as a writer, people will regain interest in earlier books written by you. These left-overs suddenly become quite valuable, collector’s items (first editions especially). You can sell them for a pretty profit then.
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Lukeman, N. (2010) Ask a literary agent
Morrell, D. (2008) The Successful Novelist
Scalzi, J. (2007) You’re not fooling anyone when you take your laptop to a coffee shop