re•vise . . . 1 to read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary [to revise a manuscript, a revised edition of a book] 2 to change or amend [to revise tax rates]
—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
Webster’s second definition, “to change or amend,” suggests a process that may be nonchalant, whimsical, or mysterious, as when the legislature metes out taxes.
The first definition, which applies to a manuscript or a book, specifies a careful reading and only necessary corrections, improvements, or updates.
Friends, Romans, and countrymen—I am not here to raise your taxes. But I do have a manuscript to revise. (See last week’s post.)
The Varieties of Revision
Among literary lions, there are some who actually revel in the process of revision; who feel more comfortable and capable when improving a story than when thinking it up in the first place. Happily, I am one of those.
Revision, however, comes in different flavors:
There is the final polish, when you go through a solid manuscript to weed out extra spaces, an occasional poor word choice, or potentially embarrasing typos.
There is a thorough stylistic edit, where you change a lot of words, phrases, and expressions, with the aim of making the prose a joy to read.
But there is also another kind of revision. The term “structural” comes to mind. That is, a serious revision of the story itself.
My dictionary says “revise” comes from Latin re, meaning “back” plus visere, “to survey” or videre, “to see.” (“See vision,” it adds, helpfully.)
I am now embarked on what is sometimes known as a tooth-to-tail revision of Freedom’s Purchase. It’s clearly a case of re + vision.
More than simply supplying a few missing commas, it’s an attempt to supply what is missing in the story, and in the narration of the story, so that it will become a riveting read. It’s a re-working of the original vision.
What Will Change
Some characters will be lost in the shuffle. Many scenes will be redesigned or omitted entirely, and new scenes will be added. The main character will become more clearly a protagonist—the person who drives the developments in the story. Whereas the original manuscript had long sections of pastoral description or complex explanations of the historical context, my aim for the new version will be to put conflict or tension on every page.
It should be a book you’ll not want to put down, for fear you might miss something important while you’re making a sandwich.
The late Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for his vast success in producing major novels and screenplays throughout a long career: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
That, Gentle Reader, is what I’m trying to do, so that when you buy my book, you won’t have to skip any part of it.
The process reminds me of Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and chipping away everything that’s not a horse.
Keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:
In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase—a historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.
It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.
Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.
Ups and Downs
It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript.
Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)
I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:
I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.
It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.
Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.
What to Do?
A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.
Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.
So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?
Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read.
It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t.
He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.
“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.
Even without all this wealth and fame, I would still be a writer.
Writing is a form of therapy for me. I have not always appreciated my blessings. I have cherished slights, nurtured grudges, and entertained low opinions of people, simply because I did not understand them. Harboring resentments against those close to us can become a life-long way to avoid developing a more mature and understanding attitude.
Sometimes, writing gives me an unexpected window into someone else’s world—an opportunity to get outside myself and see a larger picture.
A recent medical concern curtailed my writing for several days. When the ability to write returned, I penned this little memoir that showed my own father—a man I did not always appreciate—from a different perspective.
I thank God for the opportunity to discover my own story in writing.
Writers know that when pen touches paper, magic happens. But if we have any sense we deny it. We do our best to ward it off. Far better to develop a craft—a set of skills that give us a place to go and a map to help us get there—than to blithely follow the Muse.
So we plop our best writing pants in our best writing chair four hours each day. We bat out five hundred or five thousand words per session. We outline our story. We biograph our characters.
And, Lo! the magic happens.
“Naturally,” we say, explaining: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Were we to admit that writing is what Red Smith said it is—sitting down at the typewriter, opening a vein, and letting it bleed—we would abandon the quest altogether, for few could bear sitting down to write with no surety that anything at all would come out.
We cling to our practical, scientific methods because we think they will at least yield a concatenation of words on paper. From there, it’s only a matter of revision.
When something halts the magic, even when something blocks the flow of those humble superstitions we use to summon the magic, we plunge into despair. We can’t get the juicy stuff out of writing, because we can’t even rattle the dry bones from which the magic is to sprout.
Last week I went to the hospital and got my left hip replaced. I have been through this with my right hip, and, earlier, with both knees. The surgery is traumatic but not beyond endurance. The problem it causes for a working writer is the operating room anesthesia and the opioid drugs prescribed for post-surgical pain. These divine formulae wipe out, for days, the mind’s ability to concentrate.
Nothing now impedes the fresh flow of literary magic. But an ineffable fuzziness keeps my brain from forming a few simple sentences to get the ball rolling. I’m stuck.
There is nothing to do but wait it out. Sooner or later the drugs will wear off.
Or start the presses. At any rate, do something with the presses.
This week I will miss the regular Tuesday unveiling of my latest short story for your comments and critique. You’ll see the story—I hope—on Wednesday. Maybe Thursday.
“So what’s such a Big Deal, New Favorite Writer, to interrupt the stream of new stories? You can’t just feed the chickadees and then leave off in the middle of a cold, dark winter, you know. We want our stories! Rumble, rumble rumble! Mutiny, mutiny, mutiny!”
I beg of you, Dear Readers, get hold of yourselves. Chill out. Keep your collective shirt on.
Though my historical novel, Freedom’s Purchase, has yet to secure a locked-in publication contract, it has come close more than once. I made the momentous decision, about two-and-a-half months ago, to decline a publishing contract that was offered, because I just didn’t feel the contract, and the business relationship which would develop around it, were a good fit.
Since then, I received another request for a full manuscript read. The publisher in question ultimately passed on my manuscript—but they gave it a chance and gave me some reasons for their pass. I set about improving it, moving from fourth major draft into fifth major draft.
Late last week I got another full manuscript request from an independent publisher. It looks like a good company to be published by, and their request was cordial and businesslike. But, yikes!—I was in the midst of the latest revision. With no time to spare in filling the publisher’s request, I had to rejigger page numbers and such, so my book would appear smooth and professional, even though it’s not yet fully revised. An editor is never pleased when she finishes Chapter 13 and immediately bumps into Chapter 15, with no Chapter 14 in between. I had to make sure there were no little oversights like that in the manuscript I sent.
The time spent responding to this new read request could not be spent working on this week’s story. That’s why I’m running behind.
The Silver Lining
I cannot predict whether the new publisher will like my book well enough to offer a contract. Only time will tell—probably a month or even two. But one thing that’s apparent is that my query materials, synopsis, etc., are becoming increasingly fine tuned. That’s why I’m getting read requests. Sooner or later, one will result in a published book.
The manuscript itself is one of the query materials. Publishers and agents want to see the first chapter or two, to help them decide whether they’d like to read further. My manuscript is stronger now than it’s ever been.
Meanwhile, I write these weekly short stories as a way to sharpen my narrative skills, which remain rudimentary. None of this comes easy. At least, not to me. I have to work at it.
Putting in the Time
Which brings up another topic: Time spent. Nothing writes itself. The only way to get it done is to sit in one’s chair and bang away on one’s keyboard. I believe my esteemed spouse thinks it foolhardy to spend as much time writing and revising as I do. And I’m positive it’s giving me a more sedentary lifestyle, which is not good. But you do have to put in the time. For me, it’s urgent that I do it now, before my literary impact becomes posthumous.
So I’ll put in the time to finish the first draft of the next story, which is about an old man and a little boy. You won’t want to miss it.
Once it’s posted, I may not have a chance to post another before Tuesday, January 13, when I am scheduled to have my hip replaced. If all goes well, that may slow me down for a few days.
But have no fear, Gentle Reader: I’ll be back. You can’t get rid of me.
“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926
When Your New Favorite Writer began blogging nineteen months ago, his declared purpose was to “cultivate my author platform . . . so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published.”
The blog was an auxiliary to my budding late-life career as a fiction writer. It was supplementary, not central, to my calling as a teller of tales. Therefore I proposed to fill it with ancillary content such as:
“Ruminations on ‘the writer’s life.’
“Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
“Mentions of good books recently read.
“News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
“Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
“Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
“Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.”
Every Tuesday since then, I’ve been approximately hitting one or more of those targets.
But a funny thing happpened on the way to literary lionhood.
I started to take fiction writing as a serious challenge. The smug conceit that I was just around the corner from stardom wore off in the literary ball mill of submissions and rejections.
What remained was this: A passion to keep on making up stories and pitching them until somebody noticed.
I had completed two novels not yet published in book form. I vowed to take Ray Bradbury’s advice and write a short story every week for a year. (His explanation was: “If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”)
And, Gentle Reader, since you’ve been with me these nineteen months, it seemed churlish not to let you in on the fun part.
So I’ve been posting those stories, in first draft form, for your comments and suggestions. I am serious. Help me out. Let me know what you find appealing and what you find boring or distracting or otherwise off-putting in these stories. We’ll have this fun together.
Which brings us to the next news item: The website has been re-jiggered.
To make it easy to navigate straight to the short stories, or straight to the ancillary content if you prefer, I’ve set up separate tabs on the top menu for Fiction in Progress and Commentary. If you want to see both, mixed in together, just click on Blog.
As an added bonus, I rearranged the other tabs so that the Home Page now introduces what this site is all about, and the About Page has bio notes on me, Your New Favorite Writer.
Dear Reader: Last week, Your New Favorite Writer had a close encounter with Fame and Fortune.
Don’t worry, I escaped.
Here’s how it happened.
In 2016, I began to write a book, a fictional saga of Norwegian immigrants farming the Illinois prairie just before, and during, the Civil War. Two years later—after I had written “The End” at the bottom; had sought and received input from a squad of beta readers; had revised and polished my way through innumerable drafts—I titled it Freedom’s Purchase and set out to get it published.
If writing a novel is hard, it’s harder yet to get it published by a traditional contract. By that I mean an agreement where the publisher pays the author, not vice-versa.
You need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to one of the “Big Five” or their many subsidiary imprints. These publishers seldom, if ever, consider a manuscript from an unrepresented writer.
Yet it’s very difficult to get an agent. There are thousands of literary agents, but there are millions of new writers.
After querying dozens of agents, a process in which I am still engaged, I chose to focus more attention on independent publishers. These are the smaller presses—often regional or specialized—that are neither the Big Five nor their wholly-owned offshoots.
Most independent publishers will accept a query directly from a writer without an agent. Though smaller than the Big Five, they are perfectly fine, capable publishing businesses that print and sell thousands of books every year. In aggregate, millions of books.
If such a publisher could be found, one astute enough to recognize the quality of Freedom’s Purchase, it might be exactly the right match.
A Full Manuscript Request
In querying a publisher, one must follow that publisher’s submission guidelines precisely. They will want some combination of (1) a brief query letter, (2) a one-page plot synopsis, (3) an author biography, and (4) a small sample of the actual text, usually the first chapter or two.
Every author hopes that a publisher will respond by asking to read the whole book. A full manuscript request means your book is under serious consideration. They would not waste time reading it unless something about your initial submission hinted at a successful collaboration. Right?
Last April, I received this email from a small publishing house in the Mid-South:
Your query for Freedom’s Purchase interests us, and we would like to see more. Please send the full manuscript as a Word document, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Music to my ears!
I sent the full manuscript and settled down to wait for “as soon as possible” to arrive.
So I found ways to pass the time. Nevertheless, my patience had gone threadbare by the time I received this message in early July:
Freedom’s Purchase showcases an interesting plot along with a realistic presentation of life in America during the 1800s. The characters are intriguing and readers can become invested in them. There are several weaknesses, some of which render the novel unpublishable.
“Unpublishable.” Oh, no!
However, at the top they had said:
Thank you for sending Freedom’s Purchase for consideration. We would like to see it again after the suggestions below have been addressed.
To sum up: My novel was unpublishable, but they’d like to see it again.
I took this as a strong buying signal. However, “the suggestions below” were terse and incoherent to the point of being bizarre.
“They’re toying with me,” I thought. So I wrote back, asking ever so tactfully for clearer instructions.
Two weeks later, the publisher sent clarifying comments. Even these were terse and slightly mystifying. But they were just specific enough that I could infer some clues on how to proceed.
After a week of marathon revising, I sent the new, improved manuscript on July 22. I included a cover email cataloging the changes, just to make sure they noticed.
The Long Wait, Part II
My re-submission must have gone to the back of the queue again.
I wrote more blog posts, added chapters to my new novel, and did all the standard Literary Lion activities—such as chewing my fingernails down to the quick.
Two weeks in, I asked how the review of my new manuscript was coming.
The original reader is still reviewing the updated manuscript. We will get back to you as soon as possible.
Okay. Sit down and shut up, Larry.
Six more weeks passed.
The Contract Offer
On September 23, the publisher sent this:
We would be happy to extend the offer to publish . . . . If you wish to move forward please send the contract back with everything filled in except the signatures. We will send the document for signatures via DocuSign. When sending the file back to us it must be all pages in one file (no individual pages) and can be scanned or emailed or it can be faxed to (XXX) XXX-XXXX. We look forward to your reply.
Oh the joy in my heart, Gracious Reader, at the words, “We would be happy to extend the offer to publish.” On that basis alone, my wife and I went out for a nice celebratory feast.
Now that the publisher had taken five months considering my manuscript, they seemed ready and eager for me to send back the signed contract right away.
I wrote back very cordially, reserving a few days to consider the six or seven pages of single-spaced boilerplate they had sent for my signature.
The Fine Print
Aside from the perishing hope of a lieutenant colonel to don the silver eagles of a “full bird” before retirement, there may be no desperation more desperate than that of an unpublished author to become a published author. It is fully abject.
One would do almost anything to be published. Therefore, caution is advised.
What one really needs is the advice of a literary attorney, but their services are expensive. However, the Authors’ Guild gives its members a free contract review by experienced literary lawyers. One of the perks of membership. Immediately I joined the Authors’ Guild and sent in the proposed contract for review.
On the second business day, I got a detailed reply, covering each section of the contract, singling out many paragraphs and sentences for particular attention.
The contract on offer was substandard in many ways. But I felt if the publisher would give way on a few essential points, I could live with the rest. Especially if they seemed to be okay people to work with.
I compiled a list of questions about the contract, and a separate list of questions about the publisher’s business practices. I then proposed a Zoom call to explore all these questions. The publisher asked me to send the questions so they could prepare their response. I did so.
About a week later, the publisher replied, in writing. The terse remarks I now recognized as characteristic. But they were more than brief; they were dismissive. The message was: We want your book. Shut up and be happy.
It is hard to turn down any offer to publish your first book. But I’m glad I did so.
The last laugh is mine, because this publisher helped me improve my book. The process also helped me polish my query letter, synopsis, and biography. The product I am selling just got better, and some other publisher will make a better offer.
It’s a big world. I’ll find the right publisher for Freedom’s Purchase if I just keep at it.
My apologies, Dear Reader, for making you wait longer to read Freedom’s Purchase, but I promise you—when published, it will have been worth the wait.
Christine DeSmet, guest blogging recently at the Blackbird Writers’ website, raised the topic of typing.
Not keyboarding. Typing.
Way back in the twentieth century, every high school taught “touch typing,” with students achieving speeds of sixty words or more per minute, error-free, on manual typewriters. Nearly all typing students were young women, because typing was a secretarial skill.
The crewcut lads who hung around the malt shop after school, you see, would become executives and have secretaries to do their typing; the girls would be those secretaries.
Yes, Dear Reader, of course we understand that not all boys became executives. But those who did not would become farmers or mechanics or shopkeepers and would have no need for typing. Only large businesses and government departments could possibly need their writing to look like printing. Ordinary folks could, and mostly did, get by with cursive scrawls in pen or pencil, as long as the numerals were legible.
Today, all children, male and female, learn “keyboard skills” at a young age. The process by which they learn these skills is a mystery, but it seems to involve thumbs and cell phones.
When I was growing up—and even when Christine DeSmet, who is much younger, was growing up—there was no word-processing. There was no spell-check.
Nothing was virtual. Everything was real. Every tap on a key was answered by the whack of a steel typebar planting its face in an inked ribbon to strike a letter onto the paper beyond.
If you made a typographic error you had to manually remove it from the paper by one of three or four clever methods—none of them quite satisfactory. Important documents had to be perfect ab initio: one errant keystroke and you started over from the top.
The mere act of typing strengthened your fingers, because you needed to hit the keys with strong and uniform force.
As a young man, I did not take a touch typing course in high school. Fortunately for me, my mother taught me the rudiments on our old Underwood machine. Thus I gained skill enough to type term papers in college, where, by the early 1960s, typed papers had become the required standard.
Later, the United States Air Force improved me. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Mandarin Chinese; then on to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio eavesdropping techniques. The Air Force gave me a class to bring my typing speed from about 20 WPM up to 35. This standard achieved, they sent me out into the world of international espionage.
From a windowless compound surrounded by tea fields on a Taiwan mountaintop, we listened in on Chinese Air Force pilots and controllers across the straits. We made sketchy intercept notes in real time but went back later, listened to our tapes, and transcribed all that traffic in verbatim English translations, banging away on manual typewriters. The clunky old Royal of those days, purchased in thousands by Uncle Sam, was a nearly indestructible machine. I ought to know; I tried hard.
The transcripts we made of Chinese military air traffic ultimately went into a huge, room-occupying computer at the National Security Agency in Maryland. How they got there I never learned. But at some point, they must have been manually re-keyed for electronic entry into the Big Daddy Computer.
Therefore, our typing did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, you just struck over it. As long as the person typing the traffic into the computer could make out what you had meant to type, it was good enough.
I still type about 35 words per minute. I still make lots of mistakes, but on a modern laptop it’s not that big a deal. Corrections are easy.
Today we wrap up our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
The final step is to build what is called an “author platform.”
Step Six: Build Your Platform
Suppose, Dear Reader, you have written a book. You have sold your book to a publisher. And your publication date is fast approaching.
Now comes the fun part. You and your publisher will strive to sell your book to hundreds—no, make that thousands—no, make that tens of thousands of people.
Sounds like a big job, doesn’t it? And one which is not much related to the skills and urges that led you to write the book in the first place. (Unless, God help you, you wrote a book on how to market, platform, and sell a book.)
But do not despair, Dear Reader.
There is a time-honored way to do this.
Have your publisher send you, a publicist, and one or two assistants on a junket called a “book tour.” You will ravage all the major cities in the United States. Your publicist will have paved the way by arranging dates with the biggest newspapers, radio outlets, and TV stations.
You will sit for magisterial interviews at each outlet and come back at the end of each triumphal day to a fine dinner, followed by exercise, massage, and sauna; after which you will retire to your well-appointed suite in a four-star hotel—a suite freshened with a new bouquet of roses and several bottles of Dom Perignon to celebrate your—well, let’s face it—to celebrate your celebrity.
We are only kidding, Dear Reader.
In the actual, dystopian world of today, your publisher will spring for exactly none of the aforementioned flourishes and furbelows. If you are lucky, the publisher will buy cookies and ginger ale and will help you arrange an indoor venue for your official book launch party, which will be counted a smashing success if two digits’ worth of loyal supporters show up to munch the Lorna Doones and a few of them buy copies of the book, which you will smilingly autograph for them. Unless, of course, you hold the darned thing on Zoom and refer attendees to a website where they may buy the Kindle version for the special introductory price of $0.00.
About this, we are NOT kidding, Dear Reader
And, by the way, about one week after your book launch, the publisher will be off to the next book launch, featuring some other up-and-coming author.
But we repeat, do not despair. After all, we are here to help you through this dark valley.
It helps to have a long-term strategy. Pause for a moment to reflect that most of a book’s sales do not occur at the launch party, or even during the first week.
Any book, successful or less successful, scores most of its sales weeks, months, and years after publication. And a prime factor in the strength of those sales, which can generate increasing royalty checks for you year after year, is, wait for it . . . dumb luck.
That’s right. You may get lucky and some random, unpredictable factor may cause people to buy your book. Or maybe not so much.
Because another, completely separate, prime determining factor is your own strategy, skill, and persistence in raising the profile of your book by building your author platform in the months before publication and the years after publication.
What is a platform?
Here’s an example: Suppose you commit a string of sensational murders before being caught by the police after a highly-publicized and hazardous high-speed chase in a crowded tourist mecca like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon—or, better yet, Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons (the ones on Long Island, not the nationwide motel chain that offers free and usually satisfying breakfasts).
Yes, make it the Hamptons, by all means. Because thereby you add snob appeal and a dash of carefree wealth to the revolting barbarity of your crime spree.
As soon as the police allow you to do so, call your lawyer. And make sure your lawyer calls an agent. Because there’s a sure-fire book in this.
We kid you not, Gentle Reader. Millions of people will shell out real U.S. simoleons for a book, almost any book, written by a notorious serial killer nabbed in a glamorous high-speed chase in a well-known playground of the rich. As long as your book has some tenuous connection with your celebrity. For instance, The Long Island Murder and Mayhem Guaranteed Weight Loss Cookbook. Perfect.*
* The asterisk to this particular achievement is that in most jurisdictions, crime is not allowed to pay. So the court will confiscate your million-dollar advance and distribute it to the families of your victims. (The Hamptons may be an exception, for all we know, Fair Reader. But don’t say we offered you any legal advice, because we will deny it. We would never think of doing such a thing even if we were allowed to, which we are not.)
But our point is: This would be a platform.
So now, to translate it into something where you are allowed to make money: Let’s say your crimes are only political. You are a major party candidate for president or any other high-profile political office. Perfect. Feel free to cash in by writing a book.
It’s a reliable platform—at least in the sense that the effete eastern snobs and nattering nabobs of negativism who run the Big Five publishing houses will pay you a million bucks up front—before a line is written. Whether any copies of your books get sold is surely beside the point.
“But what,” we hear you say, “what if my political appeal is limited and I can’t get on the ticket? What else might be a platform?”
Well, perhaps you are a leading national authority on welded joints. You make fifty speeches a year to state welders’ associations. It’s an average of two hundred attendees per conference, and they all love you. Now suppose you write a book about about your favorite subject: Spot Welds, Brazes, and Heliarcs I Have Known; or, What Are You Doing in a Joint Like This?
You can probably sell twenty or thirty books after each speech, if you carry them with you in a cardboard box. You’ve got a platform. Your fame as a welding expert is your platform. In that case, we’d advise self-publishing, as long as your book is professionally done. Why split the profits with a traditional publisher?
You see how it works?
“What if I’m just the author of a book I enjoyed writing and want lots of people to read? I mean, I’m not a celebrity or a noted speaker with a built-in sales base.”
Then, Dear Reader, you will have to build yourself a platform, plank by plank.
There are lots of books and articles on how to build an author platform. Most of them recommend the heavy use of social media. We will not gainsay that. Social media can help you build a nationwide, even worldwide, coterie of friends who will encourage you. A few of them may even buy your book.
But you don’t have to be a whiz at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or anything else like that to build a platform.
Unless there is something else you are widely noted for, your book itself will be the main plank in your platform. Once you have a book in print, you have something you can flog. You can, literally or figuratively, hold a copy up to the camera and say, “Buy this book!”
The existence of your published book gives you a perfect reason to call podcasters and arrange to be interviewed about your book. Why podcasters? Because they are among the most powerful influencers in America today. Noted book marketing guru Dan Blank says, “Again and again, I hear from authors how they would get an appearance on a major TV morning show, and saw barely a blip in book sales. But that a podcast appearance would cause a huge ripple effect in their book sales.”
For some reason, readers get attached to podcasts and give them their trust. So when you and your book appear on their favorite podcast, they are likely to buy the book.
Podcasters are known in the marketing business as influencers. The same is true of bloggers. If you get the opportunity to do a guest blog, take it. What will it cost you? A few hundred well-considered words, that’s all. And those words can and should be about yourself, your passion, and your writings.
Also, get yourself invited to every local book club you can. Now that we are all hooked on Zooming, you can even make this a national quest. If your book is chosen as book of the month by a book club, x readers will buy it just so they can take part in next month’s discussion. When you, The Author, appear and answer their questions, some of them will talk up your book to their friends, and you’ll get additional sales.
Lastly, whenever you do one of these “influencer” gigs—a podcast, a guest blog, or a book club—mention it prominently in whatever social media posts you routinely do. In this way, with a little thought and careful coordination, you can build yourself a brand.
If you have written an RGB (Really Good Book), then your efforts in the first year after publication will pay off handsomely down the road. Many books with sluggish but persistent sales in the first few years suddenly reached a take-off point purely by word of mouth after three to five years, much to their authors’ surprise.
When your first book has sold thousands of copies, that itself becomes another plank in your platform. People who liked your first book will be more likely to buy the second.
With chagrin, Dear Reader, we must admit that what we have just written is, well, theoretical. In other words, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But we wouldn’t know, because our first book is yet to be published. We’re still working on that part.
Today we resume our series, “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”
Step Five: Submit
Previously, we urged you to embrace your role as literary lion, to write something, to seek honest feedback from readers that you can use to improve your text, and to form supportive friendships with fellow writers and others in the literary community.
But sooner or later, you will wish to submit your work for publication.
So here, in Step Five, we offer tips on getting your work accepted and published. Of course, you may choose to publish it yourself, as Walt Whitman and others have done. However, we shall leave self-publication for others to address.
Here we will focus on traditional publication, a process in which you need somebody—most likely a stranger, and often more than one stranger—to say yes.
Fiction and nonfiction take somewhat different paths to publication, but in all cases there are certain overarching principles you should observe.
Submit only your best work, in its most polished form.
Research the publication, publishing house, or agent to make sure you are submitting an appropriate piece.
Address the editor, publisher, or agent by name, not “Dear Editor.”
Find the applicable submission guidelines and follow them. Every periodical, book publisher, and literary agency posts submission guidelines on its website.
Communicate cordially, courteously, and professionally. Never whine.
Now let’s look at the submission processes for fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction is usually written before it is sold. You have an idea and you develop it into a manuscript that says what you want it to say. Then, with completed work in hand, you begin to shop around for a publisher.
If you have written a short story or a short-short story (“flash fiction”), the process is simple. You seek out magazines or literary journals that publish fiction, or contests that award prizes for short stories, and you submit.
Pay close attention to submission guidelines. Usually they’ll want the complete manuscript with a cover letter stating something about yourself. Most contests, and some publications, charge a small reading fee, but plenty of others do not.
Some journals and magazines pay money for short fiction, but many highly respected literary journals pay nothing. You write for the prestige of publication in their pages. But that feather in your cap may pay big dividends later.
With a whole book—a novel or novella—the process is more complex. You will pitch to a publisher, usually to an acquisitions editor at a publishing house; or you will pitch to a literary agent who might agree to represent your work to publishers.
“Why do I need an agent if I can submit directly to publishers?”
Almost all books accepted by the Big Five publishers and their many subordinate imprints come to them through established literary agents. The only practical way to sell your book to Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, or Macmillan is through an agent. That’s why you need an agent.
But here’s the Catch-22 of the publishing industry: It’s difficult for an unpublished author to get an agent.
Not that you shouldn’t try.
But while you are pitching agents, you can also pitch directly to many smaller publishers—independents, regional publishers, and specialty publishers. These presses are just as real and legitimate as the Big Five. They are more numerous, and they may be more responsive. Many books, perhaps yours, naturally “belong” with a smaller publisher.
Note: Make sure you know whether you are dealing with a traditional publisher, who will own the publication rights and pay you a small royalty on each book sold, or with a fee-based publisher who charges you money up front to publish your book.Either arrangement is okay, but a publisher who tries to take money at both ends may not be your best partner.
Whether you pitch your book to an agent or directly to a publisher, follow the submission guidelines. You will need three well-honed documents:
A one-page query letter, briefly and powerfully characterizing the contents of your book and telling a bit about yourself as author.
A synopsis of your book’s plot, about one page single-spaced—no more than about four hundred words.
The first part of your manuscript. Most publishers or agents will want to see the first ten pages; or they will ask for the first chapter or the first two chapters.
Some agents and publishers want to see only the query letter. On that basis alone, they will decide whether or not to ask for more. So make sure your query letter is great.
Some want you to send the synopsis along with the query letter. Some want the query letter, the synopsis, and the first ten pages. Send what they ask for—no more, no less.
Do not throw these documents together casually or on the spur of the moment. Put as much work into their composition as you gave to the manuscript itself.
It will seem unfair that, having spent a year or more writing an 80,000-word book, you must now encapsulate the same story in a synopsis of 400 words! But remember, Dear Reader, life is not always fair. And a great 400-word synopsis may get an agent or editor to read your 80,000-word book. So get to it.
Since agents and editors may take their first impression of your work from its first ten pages, you might think it’s a good idea to go back and revise the first ten pages one more time, to make them as compelling as possible. If that’s what you think, you would be correct. Make it so.
Oh! And then, by the way, go back one more time and make the rest of the book as good as the first ten pages.
Remember, we said these steps to literary stardom were simple. We never promised they would be easy.
What if you write nonfiction?
If your nonfiction is of the special kind known as personal memoirs, the submission path for most agents and publishers will resemble that of fiction.
All other types of nonfiction follow a different path.
The model for nonfiction is: Pitch the work first, get a deal—or at least an understanding—and then write it.
If you’re thinking about a short piece like a magazine article, send the editor of the magazine a brief query letter—usually by email—describing the content of the article you hope to write, pointing out its timeliness and likely appeal to readers, and stating your qualifications as its author.
Give the editor a fair amount of time to respond—at least a couple of weeks—before following up with a cordial note reminding her or him of your original query.
If the editor says no, say “Thank you” and move on.
If you get a positive response, it will come in one of two forms. You may receive a definite assignment, which is an offer to buy the article, provided you write and submit it by a given deadline. The editor will specify a “kill fee” to be paid if you deliver the piece as promised but for some reason it is not published.
Formal assignments usually go to established writers. The next best thing is a general statement of interest, such as, “Yes, we’d like to see it.” Such a statement does not guarantee your piece will be bought and published, but it means the editor would like to publish a piece like the one you have proposed, if it’s well done.
If an editor says, “Yes, we’d like to see it,” your best move is to get back to the editor right away to seek further guidance. Is he or she looking for any particular angle? What is the preferred length? Is there any sensitive area where you should tread lightly? When the editor answers even one or two intelligent questions of this nature, you now have a blueprint for the piece. Write the article as specified in that conversation, and how can the editor say no?
What if you want to write a whole nonfiction book?
The same approach applies. You pitch the general idea and get a commitment before you write the work.
Instead of a magazine editor, you will pitch to a book publisher or a literary agent.
And instead of a simple query letter, you will submit a book proposal—a multi-page document outlining the book’s scope, organization, potential audience, and marketing possibilities. The publisher or agent may give you a very specific format for submitting this information. If not, there are good books and articles readily available on how to prepare a book proposal.
A successful proposal will result in a publishing contract. You will then need to write the book and turn in the manuscript by a date certain. Contract provisions will cover what happens in the event of non-performance by you or the publisher or in the event of creative differences with respect to your execution of the work.
“Can I submit the same material to multiple publishers or agents at the same time?”
Yes, or no.
Pay close attention to what you read on the publisher’s or agent’s website, and use common sense.
Agents receive thousands of queries. Even the most conscientious agents are sorely tasked to respond to all of these queries. Many say, right on their website, “If you do not hear from us within eight weeks, consider that a pass.” If you are an unrepresented author sending a cold query, you need not wait for an agent’s rejection before querying another agent. However, do not query two agents in the same agency at the same time.
Some journals want to have time to read your short story before you submit it elsewhere. They don’t want to invest time and effort evaluating your work, only to learn someone else has bought it. So if they promise to respond within a period you can live with, submit the piece and respect the editor’s prerogative.
Other publications are okay with simultaneous submissions, asking only that you let them know promptly if the piece is accepted elsewhere.
Book publishers live in a world of simultaneous submissions. In fact, some agents, when in possession of a great manuscript, will try to start a bidding war between two or more publishers. If you’re querying publishers directly, you may do the same.
Keeping track of what’s okay with whom is part of your job as a writer. Let your conscience be your guide. Treat others as you would like to be treated, but remember that you and your work work have value.
A Final Thought
Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, short pieces or books, the process of seeking publication is frustrating because (1) there are thousands of worthy manuscripts seeking publication and (2) the market for literary content is highly specific and differentiated.
Each agent or editor has a particular list of wants and preferences, which your piece may not match. That does not mean your work is worthless.
Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance scored 121 rejections. Both of these books became classics and sold millions of copies. Persist. You only need one agent or editor who lights up when reading your work.
But here’s something to think about. If it will take 300 submissions to get your work accepted, what would happen if you went back over your query letter, your synopsis, and your manuscript itself, and made them even better than they are now?
Maybe you would cut that down to 100 rejections. Just sayin’.