A dear friend heard that I had finished the manuscript for my novel and immediately wanted to know when she can buy a copy, as if it would be on the shelves next week. It’s a bit longer process, I told her. But I did email her a PDF.
Self-Publish or Not?
Once you’ve written a novel, or any book of prose, and revised it until you’re sure you can’t revise any more, it’s time to think about publishing. Many people self-publish their books these days. I have done that. I have also had books purchased and published by traditional publishers. The latter is better. They handle design, printing, and distribution, going far beyond what I’m able to do alone from my home office. The imprint of a traditional publisher gives your book credibility, gets it reviewed in important places,and gets you publicity and at least a few promotional events that you don’t have to arrange. Also, instead of having to pay to publish, they pay you. Even in these days when you can put out e-books or publish through programs like Amazon’s CreateSpace for almost nothing, that matters.
There’s another thing about self-publishing. Too many authors rush their books into print before they’re ready. I have read too many self-published books that need copyediting and proofreading. The writing might be good, but a little more time and the help of professional editor would have made them so much better. With traditional publishing, you get that.
So I advise everyone to try getting a publisher to buy their books. If that fails, if you have limited time, or if you have a small, specialized audience waiting for your book, then go ahead and self-publish. You will have total responsibility for your book but also total control. You can get it out quickly and into the hands of your eager audience. You will also spend a lot of time on marketing, money and other non-writing concerns.
Otherwise, let’s try the traditional method first. What does that mean? Querying agents and/or editors.
Do You Need an Agent?
Here’s the deal. Agents help you polish your pitch and your book. Then they offer it to the publishing houses they think most likely to publish it. They handle all the submissions and let you know what happens. If/when they get a yes, they negotiate your contract. They also make sure you get paid your advance and royalties and help you negotiate future sales of foreign rights, movie rights, etc. Plus they support and encourage you while you focus on the writing part instead of the business part. For these services, they collect 15 percent of the profits. A good agent is worth every penny.
Yes, but do you need one? The big publishing houses will not consider books that are not pitched by agents. Even smaller houses prefer agents for fiction and creative nonfiction. With straight nonfiction, you have a little more leeway, and no agent will represent poetry books because there’s not enough money in them. You can pitch your novel to smaller houses yourself, and you can also enter many contests that promise publication to the winners, but I recommend trying to get an agent.
How Do I Approach an Agent?
With agents and editors, the process is the same. Most want a query letter–aka your pitch–and sample pages from the manuscript. Click here for my previous discussion about writing your pitch. We hear tales of synopses, longer descriptions that describe what happens in every chapter. These are a pain to write, and most agents don’t want to read them. They just want a one-page pitch and a few pages (anywhere from five to fifty) from the book to see whether the story grabs them. If it does, they’ll request more pages or the whole manuscript.
In the old days, authors had to put together a printed package which they sent by mail. Thank God we can do it all online these days, but that means before we click “send,” we need to be absolutely sure that what we’re sending is the best we can make it.
We’ll talk next week about how to decide which agents to pitch and what to send them. We’ll also look at pitching in person at conferences and other events. Meanwhile, go work on your pitch and take another look at your manuscript.
Now go write.
Pitch, pitch, pitch. With some writing groups and conferences, the air is filled with that word. It has a lot of different meanings. We can pitch a baseball, pitch something into the trash, select a key for a song, pitch a tent or pitch a fit. The dog can get covered with pitch from the pine trees in my neighborhood. But for writers, pitch, as my Webster’s says, is “to make a sales pitch.”
Most of us are writers not salespeople, so it’s going to take some extra courage to start pitching, but it also requires writing skill, which we have.
The pitch is the basis of a query for a novel or any other kind of book, whether you deliver it on paper, by e-mail or in person at a conference. For a pitch, you need to distill your story into a few sentences that describe what kind of book it is, what it’s about, and who’s going to want to read it. Then, if you have time, you’ll describe, briefly, who you are and why you’re qualified to write this book. In writing, it should fit on one page. In person, you may only have a minute or two to spew it out before the listener loses interest.
The pitch is the most important thing you’ll write for this book, and you’ll use it long after it’s published for every interview, media appearance and conversation with book-sellers and readers. Even in casual conversation, if someone asks what your book is about, you need to be able to tell them in a few clear sentences. You can’t go into all the details of the plot. “Well there’s this girl, and she meets this guy, and oh, she only has one leg, and the guy’s a doctor and, um…” That’s not going to fly. What is the essence of this book? For example, I say that my novel Azorean Dreams is a Portuguese-American love story in which an independent newspaper reporter of Portuguese descent falls in love with a newly arrived immigrant who has old-fashioned ideas about how women should act.”
For good ideas about how to describe your book, read the descriptions on the back covers of books or the summaries on book sales sites. Check out movie descriptions online or in the TV guide.
Once you get the story across in a few lines, you need to know where it fits in the bookstore, whether virtual or bricks-and-mortar. Is it a mystery, a romance, historical, fantasy, literary? Can you compare it to other books? If you say it’s Stephen King meets Harry Potter, we know where you’re at. A little Anne Tyler and a little Ann Lamott? Okay, we get it. Now don’t go saying your book is better than any of these. No bragging. Just offer information and let the reader/listener decide that it’s fabulous.
Now it’s time to tell about you. If you have relevant experience, say it right away. If you’re writing about politics and you’ve been involved in campaigns or been elected to office yourself, that’s an important selling point. If you set your story in the Grand Canyon and you’ve worked there as a ranger for the last 10 years, say so. If some event in your own life drove you to write this story, put it in your pitch. And yes, if you have writing credits, if you have experience in the media, if you have developed a big following for your blog, tell it to help sell it.
A writer’s pitch is a sales pitch. Your book is the product, but you’re part of the package. Yours are the face and the voice that go with the book. Agents and editors want to know what they’re selling.
There’s a lot more to talk about: synopses, sample chapters, who to offer your book to and how. Stay tuned; it’s all coming up here at Writer Aid. I welcome your questions.
One of many helpful references on this subject is The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposalsby Moira Allen. I wrote the chapter on pitching to agents at a writing conference, but the whole book is filled with useful information.
Meanwhile, you can’t sell what you haven’t written. Before you pitch a novel, you need to finish it.
So now go write.
One of the most common questions asked by new writers is whether or not they should submit their work to more than one publication, agent or editor at a time. This is known as simultaneous submissions. Is it allowed, is it legal, is it wise?
Back in the days when I was typing my poems on a manual typewriter and sending them out by snail mail, the answer was nearly always no. Bad form. Bad idea. Don’t do it. With all that typing and retyping, it was just too much work anyway.
Now, when one can submit everything from a poem to an entire book with the click of a couple computer keys, things have changed. A glance at Writer’s Market shows that most editors accept simultaneous submissions. They understand that it can take months to get a decision on a submission and expect that writers will be shopping their work to more than one place. It makes sense. If you were selling shoes, would you only allow one customer at a time to look at them, especially when that one customer probably won’t buy them?
So yes, you can submit your work to more than one place at a time. It’s allowed—unless their guidelines state otherwise. Some editors still bristle at simultaneous submissions. If they say no, don’t do it. But most editors just ask that you let them know if your work has been accepted elsewhere.
But here’s the thing. Although most of the time you’ll be lucky if you get one acceptance, it is possible that more than one editor will say yes. And then you will have to withdraw your submission from one of them. That might piss them off or at least cause them not to trust you in the future. It’s awkward at best. Also the one who said yes first might not offer the best deal. It’s a gamble.
Each writer has to decide what works best in his or her own situation. What genre are you writing and to whom are you submitting? For example, I have no problem sending book queries to 10 agents at a time, but I’d rather send article queries to just one editor at a time because the odds for acceptance are so much higher with the latter. Plus article queries need to be carefully aimed at each market. I’d rather have 10 different queries out to 10 different editors.
Submitting work to several markets at a time obviously increases the likelihood and speed of publication. But it does have its risks. What do you think? Do you submit to more than one place at a time? Why or why not? Comment here and then . . .
Go write something.
I’ve got a new gig, writing for a local weekly paper called Oregon Coast Today. The editor knew my work, and when a need arose, she called me. All I did was keep myself visible, most recently at a free writing workshop she taught for our local branch of Willamette Writers. I honestly hate networking, but contacts will get you farther than anything else in the writing business. I know, we’d like to believe talent is the key, but it’s contacts.
We have agreed that I will write a minimum of two features a month for a pleasing amount of money. So, I already have the gig. However, I still need to pitch my ideas. Here’s where we come to today’s lesson. What the editor wants is extremely specific. The stories must be local, happening right here in Lincoln County or south Tillamook County. They must promote something that is happening in the foreseeable future or something that people can do anytime. Readers must be able to take that story and do something.
There’s no coverage of things that have already happened. There are no free publicity stories about local businesses or local artists. Articles must come with photos, either mine or pictures that I am sure I can obtain from someone else. The writing must fit the breezy, let’s-have-fun tone. Overall, my queries must be very specific.
I pitched a story on an upcoming Art Walk happening over Labor Day weekend. Because I’m personally involved, I had contacts, access to pictures, and a lot of details. She bought it. I also pitched a story on an upcoming set of events around Sept. 11 on the theme of peace. I didn’t have much information, mentioned what I knew and said there would be “other cool stuff.” I would call the person in charge if she was interested. She said: Try again with more information. In addition, I pitched a “glass pumpkin patch” being displayed at a local gallery. It’s a business. I failed to mention the raising-money-for-Food-Share angle. She said: No.
I remind you that I already have the gig. We have enough stories already lined up to keep me busy. If you’re querying a publication that doesn’t already know you, you need to work even harder to make sure your query matches that publication’s mission and is as specific as possible. You need to know exactly what that story is going to contain before you ask an editor to let you write it. It works better that way for both of you because the editor knows what she’s getting, and you know you can provide it.
So, before you send that query, take another look. If there’s anything vague about it, make it specific. If it doesn’t quite fit the publication’s mission, try again.
That’s what I’m doing today.
Back in the olden days when I was in journalism school, reporters were taught to write straightforward factual stories with no personal comments or artsy asides. Just give the facts, backed up by quotes from interviewees and printed matter. Well, the times have changed. Even the most hard-news articles require a little fictional flavor these days. If you’re writing about the budget mess in Washington, we want all the details, of course, but they’ll slide down easier if you add a touch of humanity. Did the president look unshaven and haggard? Did the Speaker of the House sound hoarse because he’s been talking so much and getting so little sleep? Do you tell us about how they waited right up to the point of disaster before agreeing on a compromise that will keep the government from going into default?
Narrative. That seems to be the buzzword these days. Give us a character and a story. At last year’s Future of Freelancing conference, held at Stanford University, one of the panelists urged writers to see their articles as stories. Their queries should lay out the scenes their stories will include. Think of it as a little movie. Get the editor’s attention, then tell how you will structure the story. As with fiction, show the editor why the readers will care about what you’re writing. Why will they be interested and what will they take away from it?
My MFA is in creative nonfiction, a genre which specifically calls upon the techniques of fiction to tell stories. We use characters, dialogue, setting, suspense and all the other facets of fiction, except that we’re not making it up. Visit the Creative Nonfiction website for lots of great information on this genre.
It used to be that creative nonfiction and journalism were completely different things. Now narrative nonfiction techniques are appearing in feature articles everywhere, not just literary magazines. In an article on travel writing in the May/June 2011 Writer’s Digest, L. Peat O’Neil writes, “Try to experience your time on the road not just as a reporter, but as a traveler–because the days of conventional travel writing in a distant passive voice are long gone. Today’s writer participates in the narrative, sharing stories with readers in much the way a newly returned traveler tells friends about the journey.” O’Neil suggests that travel writers focus on telling a good story, putting details about locations, prices, etc., in sidebars.
When you’re reading articles and books, look for the narrative elements in nonfiction. Look for a personal narrator, settings, dialogue, a story arc, etc. See how the writers tell their stories, then try to do likewise.
When I heard the word, everything just clicked into place in my mind. Nikki Price, editor of Oregon Coast Today, a local weekly newspaper and webzine, was speaking to our chaper of Willamette Writers. It was a Tuesday night, so she was in the middle of her deadline, and she roped us into working on headlines and cutlines for this week’s issue. But she also talked about her history of newspapering and what’s she’s looking for in stories for her paper.
They don’t take much freelance, Price says. One reason is money. They can’t afford to pay much. But the other–and this is the one that hit home–is that too many writers don’t understand their mission. Every story must be “actionable,” meaning it gives the reader information which enables them to take action, whether it’s to attend a show, visit an interesting site, check out a new business, take a class or whatever. News you can use, I often call it.
That doesn’t allow much room for creative writing, but that’s the reality of her newspaper and of many others. So, next time you get an article idea, think about whether it’s actionable. What can the reader do with it?
Continuing our series of sites where you can find writing work, have you been to fundsforwriters.com? Publisher C. Hope Clark offers two versions, plain old Funds, which is free, and Total Funds for Writers, which has more information and costs $15 a year. In addition to jobs, she lists freelance markets, publishers and agents, contests and grant opportunities. Give it a look at http://fundsforwriters.com
While you’re buying books, have you gotten your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers? It’s loaded with useful information for all kinds of writing.