Posted in Publishing, Traditional Publishing, Writing, Writing books

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/ ]

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Posted in Publishing, Traditional Publishing

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!

Posted in Book publishers, Pitching books, Publishing

The ‘Dreaded Rejection’: Scourge of the writing-publishing cycle

[The following piece is an excerpt from my upcoming book Who Will Read Your Book?: The Unknown Writer’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing]

rejectionWe’ve all been there: we’ve all been rejected for something.  Perhaps you didn’t get into your first-choice college or university.  Perhaps you tried out for a play and didn’t get the part.  Maybe you applied for a job and didn’t get it – even after a fantastic interview.   But that’s life, isn’t it?  Why then do writers seem to feel especially slighted when agents or editors pass on their work?

My own work has been rejected numerous times by agents, publishers, and I suppose by readers who decided not to buy the books for whatever reason.  But I’ve also had successes – that first publisher said ‘yes’, I received the odd royalty cheque so some readers have said ‘yes’.  What do these rejections look like?  And how do you cope?

In my view, rejections come in three packages: the total-lack-of-response rejection, the form-letter rejection, and the almost-form-letter rejection. Let’s look at each one in turn.

 

The total-lack-of-response rejection

I think this is the most frustrating kind of rejection – because you’re never sure when it has kicked in.  In my experience, this happens most often with literary agents.  Publishers will usually at least send you a form letter.  When a publisher’s or agent’s web site says, “If you haven’t heard from us within three months, you can consider that we’ve passed on your project,” I see red.  Although it is true that publishers are swamped with queries and manuscripts from wannabe writers, it seems to me that the writers who took the time to contact them at least deserve a form-letter rejection.  After all, if you’re a publisher or a literary agent, you signed up for this.

Providing even a form rejection would allow the writer to move on.  This kind of rejection is especially galling when they have also asked that you not submit to more than one publisher at the same time: the multiple submission.  The time it then takes to move on is unacceptable.  This is just disrespectful.

 

The form-letter rejection

The form-letter rejection is so ubiquitous that some writers paper their walls with them. In the old days (and still today for some dinosaurs of publishers and agents), the submission requirements would indicate that you were to provide a SASE (self-addressed-stamped envelope) with your submission so that they could send you a photo-copied form rejection.  Not for a single moment did I believe that if they really intended to accept my manuscript they would object to footing the bill for a stamp, or even better, a telephone call.

These days, the form-letter rejection is really in the form of a form-email.  It goes something like this:

“Thank-you for your query.  While we feel that it might be a worthwhile project, we don’t think it is right for us.  Good luck.”

What’s interesting about this, is how when tweaked a bit, it can make you believe you have received a personal note of rejection, when it’s really a form. But don’t kid yourself.

 

 The almost-form-letter rejection

Just a tweak here and there, and you have the and the almost-form-letter rejection, which sounds like a personal note, but is what the agent or publisher always says to soften the blow.  In fact, that is the purpose of this kind of a rejection: to make you feel less bad about being rejected.  Here are several I received from agents about a current book project:

“Dear Patricia Parsons: I appreciate the intention of this work but regret I simply don’t think I would be the best match. Best of luck. Sincerely, RR

Or how about…

This isn’t right for me, but thanks and good luck. Best regards, MH

Or…

Dear Patricia, Thank you for the opportunity to review your project. While I appreciate that you thought of me for your work of nonfiction, I’m not sure that this project is the best fit for me. Thank you again, and best of luck in finding the right literary agent for your work. Best, Maria

So, the work just wasn’t a good fit.  I feel better now.  Not really.  There is nothing in any of these to suggest that the work is good, bad or indifferent.  And I wouldn’t expect it to say that.  What you need to understand about these rejections is that they do not reflect any kind of assessment of the value or quality of your work whatsoever.  They simply mean the agent doesn’t want to represent you.

Occasionally, you do receive a much longer letter from an acquiring editor whose interest was, at least, momentarily piqued.  These are much longer letters that often even suggest other publishers or agents that might be a better match or who might actually be looking for your kind of work.  If you don’t receive a note that is longer than three or four lines, understand that it is what they always say – even if the work is a piece of crap and they think so.

So, you might wonder why editors and agents do this.  Sometime editor Jenn Glatzer put it this way: “…when…we…would like to be honest with the writer, some of us bite our tongues anyway. The reason? Not all writers know what it means to be a professional. And not all of them can take criticism.  Whenever I sent constructive criticism with a rejection, I knew there was about a 75% chance I’d hear nothing back (which was fine), a 5% chance I’d get a quick “thanks for your consideration anyway” (which was nice), and a 20% chance I’d get an argument (which was not fine).[i]

It would never occur to me to respond to an editor in any way – especially not in an argumentative one.  In the future, I might want to submit a different project for one. The second reason I wouldn’t is that it would be a waste of my precious writing time.  Just don’t do it.  (Go to the endnote and read her entire blog post – it’s worth it.)

If you want some more information and another perspective on interpreting what publishers and agents really mean in their rejection letters, you’ll enjoy reading the Writer’s Relief online post titled How to interpret rejection letters from literary agents and editors.[ii]

If editors or agents are truly besotted by your work, they’ll say so, and they’ll ask for more.  Continued rejections, however, should make you re-examine your work before running screaming into self-publishing.  Once you’ve determined that it’s truly your best work,  then go for it — take control and self-publish.

 

[i] Jenna Glatzer. Why you get form rejection letters.  http://www.writing-world.com/life/form.shtml

[ii] Writers’ Relief. How to interpret rejection letters from literary agents and editors. http://writersrelief.com/blog/2011/01/how-to-interpret-rejection-letters-from-literary-agents-and-editors/