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.
A couple weeks ago, we talked about the big commitment it takes to write and publish a book. Now, assuming you’re ready or at least interested, let’s examine the ways one can get a book into print. Several years ago, I wrote a booklet called “You Can Publish a Book.” I sold a lot of them, but now it’s out of date. Things have changed so quickly, but for the writer it’s mostly good. We have lots of options that didn’t exist back in the old typewriter days.
Don’t remember typewriters? Well, they were slower and didn’t make copies or make corrections without leaving a mark, but they never lost your files.
Anyway, the basic methods of publishing, all of which I have tried, are:
- Traditional print publishing
- Print on demand
- Independent publishing
We’re not going to cover all of these today, so let’s talk about traditional publishing. This is the deal we see in the movies, the dream we all want. In traditional publishing, a company pays you advance money to buy the rights to publish your manuscript, edits, illustrates, formats and does everything else needed to turn it into a book; distributes it to bookstores, online retailers, libraries, and other venues; takes care of marketing and publicity, and sends you a royalty check at least twice a year. All you have to do is write a fabulous book, make whatever changes the editor requests, and show up for the book-signings.
Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? There are some drawbacks, like it usually takes at least a year for your book to come out, and most publishers put minimal energy into publicity after the initial splash, but it’s still good. Being published by a name publisher gives you credibility and can boost your career in ways that the other methods may not. But there’s no guarantee. Traditionally published books sometimes fail, and books published in other ways sometimes turn into blockblusters.
I advise most writers to try for a traditional publisher first. It doesn’t cost you much money, and established publishers have resources far beyond what you and I have.
So how do you get in? Ah, there’s the rub. The biggest publishers are part of mega-corporations that will not take on a book that doesn’t promise to be a best-seller. It helps to be already famous. But there are numerous smaller publishers, independents and university presses, that will take a chance on good writing by relative unknowns. It CAN be done.
Show of hands: how many have heard of the slush pile? That’s the legendary pile of unread manuscripts stacked up at every publishing house waiting for some college intern to glance at the first page and reject them. We don’t want our books to go there.
Ways to avoid that slush pile include: sending exactly the kind of book they’re looking for in exactly the format they want it, pitching at conferences, and getting an agent to represent you.
We’ll get to pitches and agents soon, but let’s start with sending publishers what they’re looking for. Most of the books in the slush pile get rejected because they don’t fit what the publishing house wants. Sending the wrong subject matter, wrong type of book, or a clone of something they just published will win you a rejection slip–or no response at all. So will sending complete manuscripts when they only want queries or proposals.
The first thing you need to do when seeking a publisher is research the various publishing houses and find one that fits. Look at their websites, browse through their catalogs. You can usually sense a trend? Does you book fit in with this group? If not, move on. They’re not going to go off in a new direction for you. And sending things in a format they don’t want will just piss them off.
You can find publisher listings at Writer’s Market, Poets and Writers, The Writer, Writing-World.com, Funds for Writers, and many other sites. These listings will give a brief overview, which should lead you to the publishers’ websites, with their guidelines for submissions. If you think your book is a good fit, follow the directions religiously.
Usually a publisher will ask for a query, a proposal with sample chapters, or a complete manuscript. We’ll talk about these in detail next week. For now, look for publishers that might be right for you.