Writer: Know Thyself!

I was perusing my bookshelf this morning (in truth I was looking for a couple of books with the right spine width to wedge under a door my husband was re-installing – but I digress), when I happened upon one of my favourite old books. Over the years I’ve culled my book collection mercilessly, but there are a few that still remain on my shelf. Written by literary agent John Boswell, this one has remained one book that I do re-read from time to time, just to keep me grounded as a writer.

the awful truthIt is titled The Awful Truth About Publishing: Why they always reject your manuscript – and what you can do about it. In spite of its age (it was published in 1986 by Warner Books), and the concomitant fact that it was published long before the advent of the eBook era and the avalanche of self-publishing, it remains one of the best reads to help a writer with her head in the clouds to keep her feet on the ground – which is the only place to be if any real success is to follow.

As I cracked the cover (hard cover at that) I opened the book at Chapter 4: “The Awful Truth About Yourself.” And it does seem to me in these days when the “cult of the amateur” shrouds just about every facet of artistic endeavour (movie-making, music production and, yes, you guessed it, writing) it might be worthwhile for aspiring and other writers to do a bit of navel-gazing. Are we always aware of the truth about ourselves? Based on some of the drivel I’ve read recently, coupled with the book-marketing noise on the Web, it seems that many “writers” are, indeed, blind to some truths about themselves. And I put myself in that category from time to time.

Boswell offers this: “Writing, for the gifted few, is an art, and the chances of reaching this level are about as good as they are of becoming a prima ballerina or a major league second baseman” (The awful truth about publishing, p. 41). I love to be reminded that writing is indeed one of the arts, a factoid that seems to be forgotten by those among us who harp on ‘authorpreueurship’. While I’m all for the notion of self-help even in writing, let’s be clear that if you’re writing a book with the clear objective of making money, then this isn’t art.  It’s content creation and it’s okay. But it isn’t art. Some of my own work – or at least work in progress – seems to bend in that direction, while other work is simply seeing if I can create a piece of art that will entertain and perhaps even provoke.

He then goes on to make a statement that, had he been able to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future of publishing as we know it today he would have realized is even more profound. “Fortunately,” he writes, “…writing is also a craft and one which can indeed be learned by almost anyone. But…it is still not something that can be learned overnight, or a skill that pops into your head, fully honed once you ’get around’ to putting your publishable thoughts on paper…” (p. 41). And here is where it gets really muddy these days.

Boswell poses a question that I’ve often asked my own students – and use to ask myself. Do you want to be an “author” or do you want to write? It’s much the same question as do you want to write, or simply to “have written”? And these days we might also ask: do you want to be a writer or a content creator? One is not fundamentally better than the other, but they are different. They have different objectives, processes and audiences. In my view it’s really only a matter of knowing yourself. I’m trying.

[I’ve written about ‘content creators ‘ here  https://backstorywriting.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/are-you-a-writer-or-a-content-creator/ ]

Finding that right publishing ‘fit’

publishing word cloudI am constantly amazed at the kinds of questions wannabe writers pose on online writing discussions.  The ones that appear with the most alarming frequency are related to finding/choosing a publisher for a book.  These are the kinds of basic questions that any serious writer would find the answers to after even a modicum of research.  And, in my view, they will find a lot more useful and accurate information if they do their own research.

For example: I’ve seen numerous newbie writers pose the question as follows: Should I self-publish or find a publisher?  What these posters need to understand before asking this question is the processes for each.  It is not a simple question with a simple black or white answer.  The sad truth is that for most of these posters, the answer will – of necessity – be self- publish because most of them wouldn’t be able to even find a publisher.

rejectionI am what my long-time readers will already know: a hybrid author.  In less polite terms, I’m what you might call a promiscuous writer.   Most of my books have been published by traditional publishers, relying on that old and often annoying query-submission-rejection-submission-rejection- until-you-find-the- right-fit process.  I have, however, also dabbled in the underbelly of the publishing world – vanity publishing – and recent self-publishing ventures.  I think that most writers today would really like to be published traditionally if they could, despite the moaning that goes on about losing control.  There is really something satisfying about receiving that letter or email from a publisher that says, “I’m delighted to let you know that we would like to publish your book…”  If nothing more it’s a bit of an endorsement for all that hard work.  At least one person (or the publish committee) actually liked it.

All of that being said, finding the right fit for your work requires a bit of work, as I’ve learned through the years.  And make no mistake, finding the right fit for going it alone also takes work to get it right.  This week, I’d like to suggest ways to find the right fit when you decide to go the traditional route.  These are processes that have actually worked for me.  Next week, I’ll take on finding the right route to self-publishing.

I’ve been published by a variety of publishers – types, sizes and countries (USA, Canada, UK), and along the way, I’ve learned a few things about finding that important right fit.  The first two steps I recommend are as follows:

  • Find a publisher that actually publishes in the genre that you want to pitch to them. This seems like a no-brainer to me. The very first time I wanted to sell a book to a publisher, I knew that it would be pointless to send it to a publisher with no interest in books about health-related topics. Publishers usually do make a statement on their web site (on the prospective author page) about what they do and do not publish.
  • Find a publisher whose books are targeted toward the same reader that yours is. And forget about writing to the publisher’s needs rather than the audience you intend for the book. When I first started writing, I was clearly focused on health-themed trade books. I had an idealized notion that I would “educate” the public about health issues, so I had to find a publisher whose books reflected that. I had to examine their current and back-list to see what they’d done before – because publishers are not likely to see your book as the one that pushes them toward a different audience.       If they only publish children’s books, then forget about your romance novel!

Now that you’ve narrowed your search and have a list of publishers whose list reflects the type and readership of your own material, you still have a few more steps before you can submit your work.

  • Research their submission requirements. This is very important. It is the packaging of your ideas and if it doesn’t conform to their particular guidelines, it means that they are likely to reject your work. If you’re submitting non-fiction, you’ll need to determine exactly what they’re looking for in terms of a book proposal – the format, content & length. Not all publishers want the same things, but all for them cover some important bases: Can you succinctly state the purpose and market for your book? What is it about? Why are you the right one to write it? How is it structured? What’s in each chapter? When will it be finished? How long will it be? If you’re submitting fiction, do they actually accept unagented books? How much of the novel do they want to see? If you send too much, they might not read it.
  • Make sure that your query conforms exactly to their requirements. This is a non-negotiable issue for unpublished writers. And, frankly, why would you not follow their guidelines in preparing your submission? It shows that you are professional, you are smart and you are interested enough in them as your potential publisher that you took the time to educate yourself about them.
  • Submit the query in precisely the method they prefer. Do they accept email submissions? If so, should it be an attachment or a query in the body of the email? Or must you fill out an online form? Must you send a hard copy? How many copies do they need? Do they want a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a response and/or return of the materials? When I first started writing and sending materials out to publishers, this latter approach was the only way they could be submitted. That meant making photocopies and sending large envelopes with folded envelopes inside and waiting months for a response in the mail. (Truth is you might still wait months even with an emailed submission.)
  • Send your query to the right person if at all possible. Do a little research and find out which of the editors actually acquires (and therefore presumably enjoys) the kind of material you are sending. Then you can address your query to the right individual which is far preferable to sending it to the info@ email address on the web site.

Navigating the road to the right publisher is often circuitous and time-consuming, but if this is where you’re headed, you just need to get started!