I am a publisher, but I have been on the other side of the door…as a writer trying to break into the publishing arena. I have had an agent, I have had “yeses” and “nos”…I have optioned scripts, sold plays, poetry and articles, I have a few published books, and I have walked a book as an editor from The Day We Got An Agent to number twelve on the bestseller lists. I have been around the proverbial block. (I wanted to say “writers’ block” but stopped myself).
As a publisher, I am the one who has to say no once in awhile, and it isn’t easy. I don’t like crushing other people’s hopes and dreams, any more than I liked having mine crushed over the years. John Irving said if you’re going to be a writer, you’d better have a thick skin. If I didn’t have a thick enough skin to be a writer when I graduated college, I developed one by the time my kids were in high school. If rejections don’t kill you, they make you stronger. I recognize that my polite but detailed “no” letter can help a writer fine tune and polish so a “yes” will become a possibility. I keep seeing the same mistakes repeated by hopeful writers, so maybe pointing them out here will stop the rejection stream. Though I am first and foremost a writer myself, I can at least offer my advice as a publisher too in the hopes that it will turn some of your nos into yeses. These tips are generic; follow them with any publishing house or agent you submit to and I promise the acquisitions editor on the other side will be grateful, and your chances for an acceptance letter will improve.
Ten Simple Things a Writer Can Do to Get Published
1. This may seem obvious, but follow the rules! The rules for submitting your query/manuscript are posted on our very detailed website. There is a reason we want a certain subject line in your email and for your Word document to have specific words and abbreviations in it, so we can FIND it again. Many writers name their documents something like “fictionmanuscriptversion1” and their emails often are labeled “Submission.” Nice knowing you. Make sure your last name and book title are in the email subject line and in your document name. Also, check our webpage to see what genres we are currently accepting. Yes, we published a popular poetry book, but we aren’t taking poetry right now.
2. Use correct spelling in your query letter. Yes, we will notice if you wrote “our” when you meant to write “ours” or if you made other small errors. It is my job to edit! We assume if you can’t get it right in the letter, you will make our jobs harder because your book will need more editing, and that is already a strike against your manuscript before we have even seen it. Read your letter out loud before you send it to us; you’ll catch most errors that way.
3. Read up on cover letter writing. It is a skill that needs to be honed just like writing good fiction is a skill that needs to be honed. A wonderful cover letter speaks volumes for a potential author. Be friendly, keep it brief, tell us your background, describe your book, maybe even tell us how you heard about our company. One page. Two and I worry that your manuscript may be verbose.
4. Find us and introduce yourselves to us. If you hear that we will be speaking at a conference or have a booth at an event like the LA Times Book Festival, by all means come and talk to us. We accepted for publication many manuscripts from authors we met at a recent event. When we connect in person with future authors, we tend to give their books more time in our decision making process.
5. Get serious about being a writer. Don’t act as if this book you want us to publish is a one-off! We get a lot of submissions from “bucket listers” and we prefer polished writers who know their craft. It takes a lot of work to get a book from manuscript format to a quality book on the shelves. Show us how serious you are: Do you have a blog, perhaps one about being a frustrated writer? Do you promote yourself online? Have a marketing plan? Attend writing conferences? Let us know if you have a Twitter account or a Facebook page with friends who support you, or better yet, a self-published book. We look at all of these aspects of a potential author and appreciate veterans who have put in their time to make it in the publishing world.
6. Review before you send. So we agreed to read your manuscript, and…there are twenty “ly” words on the first page. ‘He quickly pushed his hands in his pockets. “Dang,” he whispered quietly, wondering what the lump in the road ahead could possibly be.’ Yes, when I read, I am counting “ly” adverbs. Adverbs in general equal lazy writing. We know you can do better, and expect you to! I won’t go into too much detail here, but quickly pushed could be shoved, whispers are quiet, and could possibly be is just ugly. Don’t get lazy, fry those “ly” words if they add nothing to your sentences. Avoid lazy verbs too: She was going to the store vs. She skipped to the store…much more vibrant. Wake your story up.
7. Watch point of view. I’m reading along and getting to know Henry, your engaging main character, and all of a sudden (notice I didn’t say “suddenly”?) Henry’s wife Madge shows up. The scene continues in Madge’s point of view: Madge looked at Henry’s craggy face and smiled, emotion filling her. But I was just in Henry’s point of view when you wrote Henry spread peanut butter across his bread, ignoring his rumbling stomach. When was the last time I ate? he wondered. So the scene with Madge should continue with Henry in his POV, such as: Henry looked into Madge’s eyes, and he could tell by the twinkle there, she was amused. Stay with one character at a time when it comes to POV.
8. Make your story believable. I am the first one who will call ‘bullshit’ on your story line if it is careening into unbelievable territory. I am one of those people who knows a little about a lot, so when you are trying to convince me a horse would behave this way when it wouldn’t, that tree would thrive there when it won’t, this law would bend in this circumstance but there is no way that is true…research it first so you get your facts straight. I write fantasy novels about things like fairies and time travelers. Those subjects take a lot of research because if I’m going to push the boundaries of reality with my science fiction story line, then everything else, from how the sun shines in October on Hollywood Boulevard to the flora and fauna of King George’s England, had better ring true. Make it real. I’ll go there with you if you do.
9. Don’t hound us. There are two of us making ALL the decisions for our fast-growing company, and we both do or oversee most of the jobs, so it takes time to respond to our own parents, let alone hopeful writers. There are whole months where we don’t even look at submissions and queries because we have events or book publishing deadlines. Once we do get to it, and we decide we want to see your manuscript, and you send it, the process is long. Any book we are considering goes through up to five readers, and sometimes our legal team. I recommend that you send us a query, and then send another one to ten or twenty other publishers. If you haven’t heard a thing from us in four months (rare but we have had some submissions disappear into that murky place where The Other Sock goes missing), send us a follow up email then. Contacting us two weeks after your query arrived makes us think that you’re too impatient to join us on the slow but steady path to publication.
10. Be ready to market. So you did it! We took your book, we are about to publish it next season: and you are doing nothing? Get real! We do a lot for our authors. We send out press releases, give them a launch party/book signing event, work to get titles in eBook format, put books into local libraries, saturate online markets, put books on store shelves, and set up individual book Facebook pages, get reviews, and give each author tons of marketing ideas. And some of our authors listen to the crickets and do nothing to promote themselves after the conclusion of their initial book launch. Be ready to hire a publicist, talk at local schools and bookstores, get yourself radio interviews, get reviews and mentions. Treat the publicizing of your book as a part time job, because it IS a part time job, and you will get paid in royalty checks! To give yourself a boost up in the publishing arena, mention marketing ideas in the cover letter. Learn the ropes. Be savvy.
The publishing world is changing every day, with more small publishers popping up amid the crumbling giant houses of the past. While it is unclear as to what it means for the future of book publishing, it does represent a window of opportunity for the writer who has had no way to “break in” (probably because he or she wasn’t a television personality-turned-author, an alarming trend in my opinion). Study the business, persevere, never give up. Even though Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is to do something over and over again and expect different results, we writers know that is not the definition of insanity, but the methodology required to toughen up the skin so we can enter the publishing world and find eventual success.