Friday, May 1, 2020

What A Publisher Can Offer (And What They Shouldn't Offer)

At some point, writers dream of publication. Maybe it's not the first dream and it certainly should not be the last, but the idea of getting your words printed, bound, stamped and sold to the public is a pretty amazing idea. This mean that not only would the public be reading your words, but they would willingly pay for the privilege. Libraries will dedicate space on their shelves for your words, people will hear about you giving a talk about writing and note the date, and fans who see you will *gasp* ask for you to sign their copy. Then are just some of the many joys of being a published author.

Now, how do you get there?

There are two main routes - conventional publishing and self-publishing, and this post will talk about the first one (Monday's post will start the self-publishing adventure). This is where you sign a contract with a publisher, they publish your book, and you take in a percentage of the proceeds. Simple? Kind of. Getting to that contract is the difficult part. Really difficult.

You can attempt to contact publishers directly, but I have never seen it work. Most people solicit a literary agent to work that angle. The agent is someone who has usually been in publishing for a while, specializes in certain genres, and knows the right contacts to reach out to when pitching a new book, anthology, collection of poetry, or what have you. And for 15% of your eventual royalties, they will provide this service for you.

(Side note: A trustworthy agent works off of future earnings, and the same goes for a publisher. If an agent or publisher asks for a stack of money up front, walk away. Cash up front puts the writer on the hook for the job the agent or publisher should be doing, when the reward should be from sales - the back end of the deal. Cash up front is usually a red flag.)

Now, soliciting an agent is not an easy task. There are thousands of agents but literally millions of writers potentially selling to all of them. An agent will pick and choose a select group of writers to represent, and it's not that many. Writers try to win that agent's attention through what is called a query letter.

The query letter is a 200-to-250-word audition. It follows a standard format, but within it you write about what you want to publish, its genre, points of appeal, target audience, and what makes you so cool. In this, you sell yourself and your work, and hope someone bites. This can be brutal. This is walking into a crowded singles' bar with one pickup line and going table to table, pitching that line. There will be rejections, snubs, and non-responses, but if you try and try and try, you will get someone to dance with you. So with something this brutal, you want to have the thickest skin, the best line, and enough knowledge on who to ask first. Dedicate a lot of time to the query letter, and Google around for query letter advice -- there are hundreds of sources to choose from.

Once the letter is done, it's time to try and snag an agent. The online Directory of Literary Agents (DLA) is my first stop. Sign up here (it's free) and you can sort through the listings to see who works with your genre, accepts unpublished writers, and email submissions. Each agent lists what a query letter to them should and shouldn't contain, and submission guidelines (if any). Follow these directions like gospel! You are competing with hundreds or thousands of emails every month, and the agent is just looking for a reason to delete those queries from unpublished writers who think they're good enough to ignore the rules.

Lastly, get yourself a copy of Writer's Market 2020. A new one comes out every fall, and there are also books for sub-categories. My fave is Novel & Short Story Writer's Market 2020, but they are there for most every genre. Not only do the Writer's Market books have agent listings, they are full of articles on perfect query letters, writing and publishing tips, inspiring examples, and author testimonials. Use the Writer's Market and the DLA to find out about the industry then chase down the perfect agent. And yes, you will need to chase dozens of agents, if not more, before you get a bite. So go for it. Run after that agent to take you down the path to publication. (And if they want money up front, run the other way.)


2 comments:

  1. Informative... do you have an agent?

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    1. I am searching for an agent for my next work, "Small-Town Monster," which is significantly different than my last one, "The Book of Cain." If you know an agent who works with unsolved crimes and multigenerational family relations, please send them my way.

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