This lesson is one every author should know. We are artists at heart, which means we don’t often think about the business side of writing, but believe me, there is one. To us, our books may be about the art, but to everyone else behind the curtain they’re about numbers. To them it’s as much about how you market yourself as it is about how well you write, and that is where a lot of writers (myself included!) stumble. We expect others to have the same passion for our stories we do. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
Today I want to share what I’ve learned throughout the submission/publishing process in the hopes it will open some eyes and help some authors out. Fair warning ahead of time, it’s going to be a long post, but I think well-worth reading.
So let’s say you finished a book and are looking to get it out there for the enjoyment of the world. You now have a product. What do you do next? You should be thinking about two things: Strategy and Execution.
What you need to decide first is how you want to approach getting published. That decision will dictate how you proceed from this point. Keep in mind that every additional step between here and your book appearing on shelves can add months or years to the process (or, as people in business say, your time-to-market). I’ll take this from shortest to longest.
- Self-publishing: Near-instantaneous time-to-market. Theoretically, if you have your manuscript finished, you could be on virtual shelves tomorrow and in print in a week or so. This is where a lot of people get overexcited and don’t do their due diligence. No matter what, your book should be finished when you put it out there. Meaning you should have a fully edited, proofread, polished and formatted book with a marketable cover and an engaging blurb/synopsis. Until you have that, you should not be even squinting at the “publish” button.
- Traditional publishing without agent: Yes, this is possible. The days when the only way to get to a publisher was through an agent or an inside man are over. There are dozens of publishers out there who will happily accept submissions directly from the author. Depending on their size and how many submissions they receive, their turn-around time can be anywhere between 2 weeks and 8 months, so count that into your estimate. Do your research and check on the publisher’s website to make sure you are sending what they’re asking for, to the correct person, in the format they requested (see Execution below). Most will allow for simultaneous submissions, meaning you can submit to several publishers at once to cut down on wait time, but they will require you to let them know if you do this, and often times preference will be given to single-submissions.
- Traditional publishing with agent: For the classicists out there, this is still an option. A good agent might have better luck getting your work in front of some of the big names in the industry, but at the same time, a lot of hacks out there are just waiting for the opportunity to take you for a ride. As with publishers, do your research. The submission process for agents is pretty much the same as with publishers. It can take just as long to get an answer, and you are just as likely to get rejected (maybe repeatedly) so if you’re looking to be published in a year or less, this might not be the route for you.
At the core of each of these strategies is one very important tenet: Do Your Research. Whichever way you choose, make sure you’ve done your homework and know what you are getting into. Be on the lookout for warning signs that the person or business you’re dealing with is not legit. If they keep putting you off, if it seems too good to be true, if they ask for money up front, it’s a sign you should not be doing business with them. No one, publisher, agent, or self-publishing platform should be charging you upfront fees of any kind. All of these entities make money off sales, same as you, which means their focus should be on getting you out there, not getting your money first. If they ask for a deposit, it means they will not feel any pressure or obligation to support you or promote you once they get their money. Stay away.
Since most of my DIYDay posts have focused on self-publishing, and the process there is fairy straight-forward, this section will focus on traditional publishing processes.
As with any business transaction, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things. Once you make the decision to submit to an agent or publisher, you must always keep in mind that it’s not personal, it’s business. The good news is that in this digital age, you will rarely have to deal with snail mail and delivery times. The bad news is, it’s still not easy.
The above tenet of Do Your Research very much applies here as well. Make sure you know the steps that need to be followed, and you follow them as prescribed. If an agent or publisher spells out the submission process on their website and you choose for whatever reason to disregard them, it is a sign that you are unprofessional and not someone they want to do business with. You might get lucky and happen upon someone with an open mind willing to take a chance, but more often than not, that door will slam shut in your face faster than you can say Resubmit.
There are a few common elements agents/publishers will ask for. Send nothing more and nothing less.
- Cover letter: Make sure you are submitting to the right person/department. Be direct and to the point. Address to the submissions director or a specific person if you know their name, and include your contact information so they can get in touch with you. Tell them who you are, what you write, and what you are submitting. Your cover letter should be professional and take into account that the person reading it probably has a hundred more to read that day. Give them something worth reading, but be respectful of their time.
- Author bio/background: If they ask for it, give it. If not, just introduce yourself by name and genre. Your bio is not your resume and should not stretch more than two paragraphs. Maybe three if you have previously published or received recognition. This should be part of your cover letter, unless otherwise specified.
- Book Basics: This includes the title of your work, author name (real and pseudonym if applicable), series name, genre, subgenre, word count, and anything that might be a touchy topic (the last so that they are not surprised when they read it in your book)
- Blurb/short synopsis: This should be similar to a back cover hook. 1-2 paragraphs that will whet their appetite for more. Usually part of the cover letter.
- Longer synopsis/outline of plot: I’ve been asked to submit this before. This means a summary of your book, including plot twists, surprises, and the ending. This will usually be requested as a 1-5 page attachment to your query email. Give it some thought and make sure you write a fair representation of your work within the given constraints.
- Sample chapters: Be careful with this one. Some publishers/agents do not want any attachments with your query email and for security reasons will not open emails that have attachments unless they were solicited. If sample chapters are requested, usually it will mean first 3 or as many as it takes until all main characters are introduced. There is a reason for this: Publishers/agents want to know whether you can hook a reader in that limited page count. Most readers form an opinion based on the first chapter, sometimes even the very first page. If they don’t like it, they won’t read on. Do not send chapters from the middle of the book unless they’re asked for.
- Full manuscript: Some publishers/agents won’t bother with this until after the query letter and/or sample chapters. Others like to get right to the chase and ask for the full manuscript with your submission query. Make sure it’s properly formatted with chapter breaks and paragraph indents. Make sure you at least ran spell check and there aren’t 500 typos on the first page. Make sure you follow the guidelines if they are given (font, size, line spacing, and most importantly file format)
- Extras: These are things that might or might not be asked for, which you might be tempted to include. Use your best judgment. If you have an author website with a custom URL, a Facebook or Twitter account, include the links. As far as marketing goes, a website and social media sites are your most effective tools and having them already set up will show you are serious about this and involved in promoting yourself, which will help your sales and their bottom line. A list of previously published works is also a possibility, but keep it short and sweet. Give the titles and publication dates and leave it at that. Keep in mind this is not a job application, so do not send links to your LinkedIn account, job histories, references, etc., as these won’t help you and will only detract from the message you are trying to send. Author pictures are tricky. Your work should speak for itself, so a picture of you should not be necessary. If you have one and want to send it anyway, make sure it’s professional, not a selfie from your last Hawaii tankini vaycay. Include it as an unobtrusive part of your signature so that it’s there, but not the main focus of your cover letter.
You want to be as thorough as possible and give the agent/publisher what they ask for. It’s not a walk in the park. Summarizing a 300-page book in two pages is not easy. Writing an author bio for the first time when you would rather not talk about yourself at all is not easy. But if this is possibly your big chance to make it as a legitimate published author, then you owe it to yourself and your book to give it everything you’ve got.
What you have just read are basic good business practices when dealing with people who will possibly decide the future of your book. It’s mostly not fun. I know, I’ve been through it several times. Fun in writing happens while you’re writing, and afterward while interacting with your readers. Everything before, in between, and after is actually a real, honest to goodness job. It takes hard work and dedication, which tends to be forgotten in the spotlight of Bestseller Lists, book tours and movie options.
The above points are all good rules of thumb to follow and while nothing, not even these rules, will guarantee you an acceptance letter, it will show you to be a business-savvy person who can appeal to professionals as well as readers, and that will go a long way to helping your odds.
Always remember that how you present yourself and your work matters a great deal. Agents, publishers, or publishing platforms are all gatekeepers between you and your audience and you must pass through them in order to make yourself visible to the world. The good news is that if you write a good author bio and book blurb early on, you will be a huge step ahead of the curve later in the game.
Now, you’d think it would end with an acceptance letter, but it doesn’t. No agent or publisher will do the hard work for you. It will be up to you to make an entrance, emerge into the light, attract readers and show off your baby. And once you’re out there, no matter how big or small your spotlight, you are a public figure and will be judged based on everything you do, say, don’t do, or don’t say. Just something to keep in mind. 😉
Still want to be a published author? Check out my Public Relations post for tips about how to interact with an ever-present audience.