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.
I want to get my novel published, and I keep reading that I need something called a “synopsis.” That sounds like a disease. What is it and and How do I create one?
In plain English, a synopsis is a summary of what happens in the book. Tell the story of your novel in condensed form, from beginning to end. You write it up in paragraphs , using present tense, even if the book is written in past tense. For example:
Tim Brady, a divorced high school math teacher in upstate New York, wonders how he can possibly keep going until retirement. Then, one day, into his classroom walks the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. “I’m your new assistant,” she says.
Okay, this sounds like a lame book, but it’s an example of how you start this thing. Paragraph by paragraph, you describe the main events and the characters involved, adding bits of dialogue and brief quotes from the text of the novel, working your way to the conclusion. Don’t try to put everything in, just the highlights, the most important things that happen, and don’t keep the ending a secret.
You can find two great articles on writing synopses at
Writing-world.com. “How to Write a Synopsis” by Marg Gilks and “Writing a Synopsis from the Ground Up” by Dee Ann Latona LeBlanc offer step-by-step advice on how to write a synopsis. Also, Writing-World.com publisher Moira Allen explains it all in The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals.
How long should a synopsis be? It seems like it would take a lot of pages to sum up a whole book.
It certainly could take a lot of pages, but it’s a summary, not a book. Opinions on length vary. I have heard of synopses going as long as 50 pages, but editors and agents generally don’t have time to read that much. Limit yourself to 10 pages maximum, and if you can do it shorter, that would be great. I’m not saying it’s easy.
What else do I send with my synopsis?
Your package, which could be sent by snail mail or by email, depending on what the editor or agent wants, should also include: a cover letter, briefly explaining what you are sending and who you are, the synopsis, the first three chapters, and–if using snail mail–a self-addressed stamped envelope for their reply. If you’re using email, make sure you include contact information, and use the subject line to describe what you are sending, e.g., “suspense novel submission.”
Got questions? I’ll be happy to answer them.