You’ve written a book! Actually finished one! You’re no longer the person who’s working on a novel, you’ve written a novel. Truly, this is something to be proud of. The determination and dedication required to sit and write 80,000+ words (or there about) is not insignificant. As it turns out, though, that determination and dedication will serve you even better on the road ahead. Assuming of course you’re unpublished. After you’ve had your work edited, or at least read over by someone who will give you honest, helpful comments, your next step will be to find an agent, or a publisher who accepts submissions from unagented authors. As you begin your search, here are a few simple tips to keep your book from immediately going into the trash can, or slush pile, as it’s called in industry speak. While these tips are geared towards fiction, they are also helpful for nonfiction, but be aware the process is different.
Do your research!
You want to be a professional writer (be paid for your writing)? Well, now is the time to act like it. To be treated like a professional, you need to behave like one. This means spending a little time learning about the industry and how it works, including how to submit your work and what documents you need to write in addition to your manuscript.
- A Query Letter (also called a cover letter)
You should know what this is, and what one should look like. There are thousands of resources available to guide you. A quick Google search (0.30 seconds) turned up 22,300,000 results. Others might disagree, but once I had a good query letter written, I used it as a template for all the letters I sent out; key word being template.
- A Synopsis
To me, this is much harder to write than the book itself. Come on, boiling down your entire novel to a few pages is no small feat. Opinions vary on the correct length, but from what I’ve seen, three pages is generally a good goal.
My “aha moment” came when I started to think of my synopsis as the movie trailer for my book, though synopses also include the ending. I imagine a theater full of people about to see a movie, and the preview for my book comes up. For some reason, it’s always Don LaFontaine doing the voice over, but that’s just me. Start by writing it out just get it on the page and don’t worry about the length. Once you have it, then you can focus on whittling it down to reach your page limit.
Take a few minutes and learn what the generally accepted format is for your manuscript, query letter, and synopsis. By this I mean the font style (Times New Roman, Courier, etc), font size (point), margin size, line spacing, and page numbering. Again, this won’t take long and is something you should know. Though it varies from place to place, your name and manuscript title should go on every page. Though most agents and publishers work electronically, they might print out your manuscript, or a portion of it, and do you really want to be rejected because someone dropped the papers and wasn’t able to put them back in order?
Okay, so you’ve got your synopsis and query letter, and your manuscript is properly formatted. Now, you need an agent, right? Well, no, you don’t need an agent to publish your book, but having an agent does open up doors that otherwise are closed to you. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you need or want one. If you do, there are some things you need to look for.
Finding a reputable agent.
This can’t be stressed enough. There are countless people out there who are ready and willing to take from you every dime they can. Luckily, there are some common red flags to look for when screening agents. If you find these, does it mean they’re trying to scam you? Not necessarily, but you’re so much better safe than sorry.
- No agent should ever charge you anything up front. They make money when you do, hence their interest in your success.
- No agent should recommend an editing service, or insist on you using a particular service as part of representing you. This is a blatant conflict of interest. They might provide you with a list of editors or companies, but never push one above another. However, your work should’ve been edited before you got to this point.
There are several sites that will give you a much more extensive list of things to be on the lookout for. A few I’ve used are:
Absolute Write (Keep in mind this is a forum where people post their experiences, so you might get a wide range of opinions. Use your own judgment, but remember it’s always, always better safe than sorry.)
SFWA Writers Beware (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but even if you’re not writing in that genre, the advice is still sound.)
Association of Author’s Representatives (As you visit agents’ individual websites, you’ll probably see some who say they’re a member, or hold to their canon of ethics.)
Once you’ve identified a list of reputable agents, you’re ready to start sending out query letters, right? Wrong! Sit back down at the computer! You’re not done working yet, buddy. Yep, still more research.
Understand to whom you’re submitting. That’s right, whom!
Do you like spam? If you answered yes, well, you have bigger issues than I can address. If you are among the 99.9999 percent of the rest of us who hate it, guess what? Agents and publishers hate it too. Don’t let your submission be thought of as spam. Remember, these people are professionals in the industry you want to enter. Show some respect for that. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.
- Make sure the recipient of your query might actually be interested.
What are the odds the agent who deals in romance novels really wants to read your horror story? No, I don’t care how amazing it is. Most agencies, agents, and publishers have websites. This will tell you what genre(s) they work with and are looking for. Some agencies have multiple agents, with each agent interested in different genres. Read up and find out who would be most interested in your query. Using the person’s name in the query letter should be obvious. “To Whom it May Concern” may not land you directly in the bin, but it’s not a good start.
- Read the submission guidelines.
This will tell you what format they want you to use for your documents, and what you should send. Some will just want a query letter, others will ask for a sample, a synopsis, or a combination of all three. Once you know what they want, send them what they ask for, nothing more, nothing less. Also, make sure to send it how they want it. In these days of email submissions, you should know if they want the documents embedded into the email (the text copied and pasted in), or if they prefer the items as attachments. If it’s the latter, which more places are steering away from because of viruses and the like, make sure you know if they want separate documents for each item, or if they want everything in one document. Also, make sure you know what kind of file to send (.doc, .rtf, .txt, etc). Some agencies and publishers also have online submission “portals.” These will be pages where you’ll type in, or copy, the relevant text from your query letter and either upload, or paste in, the additional materials they want.
Of course, some places still want you to send it via regular (snail) mail. In this case, it’s REALLY important to send them only what they ask for. Don’t send your manuscript to someone who just wants a query letter. I know, I know, this should be obvious, but I’ve heard of people who’ve done just that. I’ve also heard in one instance of someone sending a handwritten manuscript to an agent who works solely via electronic submissions (and clearly states that on their website). The topper: it was the only copy. Yeah, take a minute to let that one sink in.
Will doing all this guarantee you’ll land an agent or publisher? Seriously? You’re not seriously asking that, are you?
No, of course it won’t. But what this will do is show the person to whom you’re submitting that you take this seriously. You understand that you’re not doing them some immense favor by gracing them with the chance to represent your masterpiece. You didn’t write up a generic query letter and sent it out (spam like) to everyone you could find. There’s no need to genuflect and kiss the ring, but at least recognize that this agent is reading your letter and giving you a fair chance to get them interested. Odds are they have clients, clients who either do, or they expect soon will, provide them with their income. You’re not doing them a favor, they’re doing you one. A simple equivalent to “please” and “thank you” isn’t really too much to ask in return. In short, think of it like a job interview, because in a very real sense, it is.
Remember, all I’m offering here are some things I’ve learned in my pursuit of publication that will help you put your best foot forward. Beyond that, it’s all up to you. Odds are good that you’re going to be rejected. But I hope all these things will at least make that rejection closer to, “it’s not you, it’s me,” than “no, it’s you.”