On Monday 10th December, I was invited to speak to a Creative Writing group in my local Library on the subject of Revision and Publishing. It was well received, so I thought I would reproduce it here on my Blog. It is a lengthy subject so I have split it into two parts. Here’s the first:Congratulations …
… if you are at the stage when you are thinking seriously about trying to get your work published. You Are A Writer – you have produced something unique and enduring. You are already a winner: Be proud of yourself!
So now – what do you do with it? Before I go into detail, you might like to consider this statement: Becoming a published author is not for everyone. It is not as simple as it might seem, there are hidden aspects that you don’t always find out about until it’s too late. I will talk about some of these in this post. Just remember; you don’t have to be published to be vindicated as a writer, or for your work to have meaning. If you still want to go ahead and explore the submission process, here are a few tips.
1: Make Your Writing as Perfect as it Can Be.
This might sound like an obvious thing to say, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t bother too much with this. I have often heard writers say, “I only need to have a good story/poem/novel, don’t I? Surely the publisher’s editor will correct any mistakes? After all, that’s their job.” WRONG!
Yes, if you are lucky enough to land a publishing contract, your editor will copy edit your work and help you do a final polish. But it is NOT their job to catch typos, silly continuity errors, bad grammar or spelling. That’s YOUR job as a writer. Think about it: If you were a painter, would you expect the gallery where you want to exhibit your picture to correct that wonky nose on your portrait? Of course not.To help you perfect your writing, you can use beta readers. Beta readers are people that you can persuade, coerce (or sometimes pay) to read your work with a critical eye. You can, of course, ask friends and family to do this for you, provided you think they will be able to give you an unbiased and honest response. They should also be competent in their use of the English language (or whatever language you write in). If you cannot find suitable friends, join a writing circle or find a writing tutor. You can even use a professional or freelance editor. You would have to pay one of these of course, and their fees vary widely. Research them well! You could even join ‘peer critique’ websites such as www.authonomy.com, which is run by HarperCollins, or www.youwriteon.com which was developed with Arts Council funding. These sites allow you to upload some or all of your writing and invite other users to read and critique your work. Editors of publishing houses might also trawl these sites, looking for good books to publish. Such sites can be hard work, but I think they’re worth it. My own first fantasy novel King’s Envoy achieved the top slot by being voted on to Authonomy’s “Editor’s Desk” back in 2008, and on the way I received many helpful suggestions as to how it could be improved. Sites like this also get you used to having people comment critically on your work, something you need to face if you’re going to try for publication.
My final tip for this section is: DO NOT rely on your computer program’s spell checker to proof your writing!
2: Decide.Once you have set your sights on publication, you have to decide whether to try for an agent, or submit direct to publishers. You can, of course, do both, although some of the bigger publishing houses do not accept submissions from unagented writers. There is also self-publishing to consider – more on that subject later.
If you decide to try for an agent – good luck! Personally, I think they are harder to get than publishers. As a general guide, agents will charge you commission of typically 15-20%, either direct or from your royalties. They may also charge you for phone calls, printing costs, mailing, etc. Do ask to have all costs explained and itemized before you sign any agreement. Read such agreements carefully, and if you are not confident of your skill in this department, find someone to help you. It would definitely be worth paying an industry professional to vet any contract before you sign. It could save you money in the long run.
Publishers shouldn’t charge you anything at all. I firmly believe that any publisher who asks you to contribute toward costs is not worth their salt. I am a champion of independent publishers (aka indie publishers, or indies) because they are likely to work harder for you and your book than a “Big 6” publisher that has more of a budget behind it. The indie will have more to lose than you if your book is not successful!You can expect to be paid royalties ranging from around 6% up to maybe 12%, but do remember that these will fluctuate depending on the publisher, and also whether they are selling a hardback print edition, a paperback, an audiobook or an ebook. You might get a chance to negotiate royalties, but don’t hold your breath. DO NOT expect an advance on your book – such things are largely in the past. If you are a celebrity of any sort then an advance is still possible. If you are simply a new writer, then generally it is not.
3: Do Your Research – and Beware!
Once you have decided which route to take, it is time to do some serious research. It doesn’t matter whether your writing is a letter to the editor, a short story, a poem, or a novel – you must find what you believe is the best home for it and make a list of the possible choices. At this stage, you should be regarding your efforts as part of a business – Yes, really! Be organized and keep strict records of where and whom you submit to. Some editors take months to reply to submissions and there’s nothing more embarrassing than sending the same submission to an editor you’ve already approached. They will not be impressed!You can do plenty of research online, or through books and magazines. Obtain or borrow a current edition of the Artists & Writers’ Yearbook – your local Library should have a copy. Make sure it is CURRENT because agents’ and publishers’ details change frequently. Ask other writers where they have submitted. There are websites which offer information on agents and publishers and who is accepting what – most of these will charge you a joining fee, although it is often small. I used http://www.firstwriter.com/ which I found to be extremely useful. Their current monthly subscription is £2.99 or $4.49 (as of December 2012), but there are other options available. Their site information says they update their database daily and they provide worldwide information. You can also use writers’ magazines; either buy a subscription or ask your Library if they keep copies. My personal favourite is Writers’ News, which also has an online version at https://www.writers-online.co.uk/, but there are plenty of other good ones out there.
If you are submitting short stories, or poems, or letters to magazines, either digital or print, do be aware that they often do not pay for your work. My thinking on this is that I would far rather get my work into print and start to get my name known than worry about being paid a few pounds. Once you have achieved that initial publication, you can then add this to your Query Letter (see below). Even having a Letter to the Editor published counts toward your publishing experience. So don’t worry if you are not offered payment for your smaller works.
It’s a sad fact that there are plenty of charlatans and unscrupulous people in the publishing world – just as there are in every aspect of life. The term “Buyer Beware” can be applied here too. This is why research is so important. Joining a writer’s forum can be a great way of learning where the baddies are hiding - http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/ is a good one to use. The website Preditors and Editors http://pred-ed.com/ is another good place to find out of your chosen agent or publisher has any black marks against them. Be a little circumspect here though – this website has a policy of not changing its opinion even if the agency or publisher concerned improves their game.
Also be wary of publishing houses that use Google ads or adverts on other websites to tout for business. Generally, the good ones do not have to advertise!
I will append my own sorry tale of woe here. There are still agents who charge a Reading Fee before they will read your work. While I am not saying that all of these are scammers (because I do not have experience of them all) I will advise you to tread warily. When I first began submitting my work, I was taken in by an agency that said they would love to read my novel provided I paid their reading fee. They gave what sounded like good reasons for charging for this service, and also told me I would receive a critique of my book. In my naivety I thought this was a good idea, so I duly paid. Time went by, and although I had several email conversations with the agency, I was always told that a decision was just around the corner. However, it was the agent who disappeared "around the corner" by absconding with several writers’ fees. She never reappeared. I was devastated, furious and felt like a fool - which of course, I was. I could only put the episode down to experience.You have been warned!
4. Submission Package.
So, having done your research and made your list of suitable agents/publishers, what should you do next? You can buy books on the submission process, and also books on what agents and publishers are looking for. You can also find a wealth of information online. Most agents and publishers also have websites, and these will tell you exactly what they are looking for and how you should present it to them. If you don’t have access to the Internet, you can always phone them and ask. If you do this, also ask for the name of the person to whom you should submit. The personal touch goes a long way. Just make sure you spell their name correctly!
4a) Query Letter.
A good query letter is a must. If you are not good at letters, you can find many examples online. Some sites will show a successful letter alongside an unsuccessful one, so you can compare and see where the writer went wrong. Do not make the mistake of copying letters, though, it will be obvious if you have. The general rule is to keep your letter polite, short and to the point. Introduce yourself and tell the recipient a bit about what you’re submitting. Give the title, genre and total word count. (As a guide, most agents/publishers regard between 80,000 and 120,000 words as a good length for a writer’s first novel.) Then give a brief outline of the plot. This is not a synopsis, so just pick out the salient points. List any writing credentials you may have such as qualifications, and mention any previous successes with publication. This should include competitions you may have gained a first, second or third place in or been commended for; a letter you have had published; exercises such as NaNoWriMo; a blog that you maintain; even essays or pieces in school newsletters, etc. Also mention if you have published any technical papers or similar texts. Then politely thank the recipient for their time. Include ALL your contact details, and do remember to say if you are intending to use a pen name.
4b) Synopsis (if appropriate)If you are submitting a non-fiction project you do not need a synopsis, merely an outline. It is also not necessary to have completed a non-fiction project before seeking representation or publication. For fiction, however, the rule is that the work should already be complete, and you will need to provide a synopsis.
Some writers dread synopses. If you’re having trouble deciding what to include try this: Write a short précis of each chapter, being as brief as you can. Ignore sub-plots for now. Using this précis, write down the main bullet points of your plot. Don’t forget the ending! Once you have your bullet points, flesh them out slightly so they are in prose form rather than list form. Keep to the present tense. Most agents/publishers will advise on keeping the synopsis to no more than 4 or 5 pages, but unless they specify a word count, this is flexible. Whatever your total page count, your synopsis must be brief and to the point. You can also use single-spaced lines and both sides of a printed page, rather than double-spaced and single-sides, as for your sample pages. Unless the guidelines state otherwise, of course!
Again, check your chosen recipient to see what portion of your work they want to see as a sample. It will typically be the first three chapters of a novel, so many pages, or perhaps 20% of a novel. DO NOT exceed what they ask for. The argument that 20% of your novel leaves the reader dangling in the middle of an action scene will not hold water. If that’s the case, send less, not more. If you are asked for 20%, you have some leeway with the page count – one or two more will not make much difference. Remember though, that you have to give the TOTAL word count as well. Your recipient will be able to work out if you have sent them 30% of the total rather than 20%! If you are asked for the first three chapters, send ONLY the first three chapters, not the first two and one really good chapter from later in the book. Your first three chapters must hook the reader or your novel is unlikely to succeed.
Tailor the format of your submission to the individual’s guidelines. DO NOT IGNORE THESE! Do not use fancy fonts, weird colours, bold type, fancy scene-breakers, etc. Remember the old adage KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid. Not all computers open word processing programs the same way, so you risk annoying your chosen target if you ignore their preferences.The same applies if you are submitting in print, via snail mail. Anything fancy puts editors off. Unless you are submitting say, a children’s picture book or photo book, do not include photographs. DO NOT include gifts! Include an SAE if they ask for one, and if you are submitting by email, remember to include your return email address and other contact details. At all times, be wholly professional.
I would say that multiple submissions are fine for a first contact. Many writers send out six at a time. If, however, you are lucky enough to be asked for the full manuscript (often abbreviated to ms, or mss), then give exclusivity.
I hope the above has given you something to work on. I will be posting the second half of this blog very soon so keep your eyes open!