Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #5

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.

A lonely pen. Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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. 

FUNDAMENTALS

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

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. 

Short Stories

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.

Novels

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.

NONFICTION

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. 

Articles

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?

Books

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.

Caveat

“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. 

Robert M. Pirsig in 2005. Photo by Ian Glendinning, licensed under CC BY 2.5.

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’. 

Submit, submit, submit.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Six: Platform” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Regional Books: Shotgun Lovesongs and Cold Storage, Alaska

“DSC00011” by Neil Rickards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

One of the endearing things about experts is how much escapes their notice. I’m not talking about peripheral matters outside their sphere of expertise. Even things smack dab in their wheelhouse may elude them. 

Sometimes, the oversight may be merely geographic.

Take literature. In the United States, “literary fiction” resides in one or two postal codes on the island of Manhattan. The Big Five Publishers and most of their subsidiary imprints are located there—not to mention most of the editors, agents, reviewers, and listmakers (That’s you, New York Times!) who define the genre. 

Once, American Literature may have radiated from Concord, Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. But since the Civil War or even earlier, New York is The Place. Even otherwise sophisticated people seldom look beyond their own desk and dinner table. Ergo, “literature” is that which is written by people in New York City. Or at least, written by people who know the folkways of the Five Boroughs or could feel themselves at home there—and who write that way.

Kate Chopin. Public Domain.

However: A funny thing happened on the way to the twentieth century. New York critics discovered “regional” writing (also called “local color”). After the Great Conflagration of the nineteenth century, a few southerners (e.g., Kate Chopin), westerners (Mark Twain), and New Englanders (Emily Dickinson) wrote works surprisingly worth reading, despite their focus on far-flung American localities—perhaps, even, because of it. In view of the Recent Unpleasantness, the literary world recognized some kind of national duty to make believe that We Were All Americans, even though some of us were entangled in local allegiances. 

By the time I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the literati had digested this wave of regional literature and had reduced it to a few specimens in high school anthologies; a few required books, such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia; and a general recommendation to read works by Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, William Faulkner, August Derleth, Erskine Caldwell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett. The tacit assumption behind this neat packaging of regional literature was that its efflorescence had been temporary, and literature could now revert to normal.

Today, however—more than fifty years later—almost every bit of what’s called “literary” (meaning serious and well-written) fiction is regional, in one way or another. “Local color” writing turns out to have been a hardy varietal that could not be weeded out.

Take Shotgun Lovesongs, a 2014 debut novel by Nickolas Butler. It presents four friends raised in the fictional hamlet of Little Wing, Wisconsin. Three had left to pursue careers in the wider world; one, Henry, had stayed in town to work the dairy farm his parents left him. Now some years have gone by. Kip the Chicago commodities trader, Ronny the rodeo rider, and Lee the music star have all returned—each drawn back by the mystical lure of home. With lots of scenes set in the VFW hall and in the town’s once-derelict (now gentrifying) feed mill, the book has plenty of the familiar cheese curds-peppermint schnapps-cow manure atmosphere that says Wisconsin. But it’s less about local color, less even about the varied career paths the four main men have taken, and more about their loves and friendships—among themselves, with various neighbors, and with the women and children in their lives. So yes, Shotgun Lovesongs is about the glory of the Wisconsin life, but it’s also about the hard things that we Badgers can inflict on one another. It’s not just a Wisconsin book, it’s also a full-fledged “literary” novel in the usual sense, and a fine one at that. It may not be coincidence that the author was educated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has influenced so many other fine writers.

Another good regional book is John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska. Though just as “regional” as Shotgun Lovesongs—maybe more so—and just as deserving of the “literary” label, Cold Storage, Alaska is quite different in tone and approach. For one thing, it’s at heart a crime novel. Most of the characters who move the plot are crooks, writ large or writ small. At the same time, there is something worthy of redemption in each of them. The non-criminal central character, Miles, a health care provider in the Alaska village of Cold Storage, is more reactive than active—yet he’s the stable tentpole around which the whole circus revolves. His arc, though subtler than those of his brother and the other grand and petty crooks in this book, is also perhaps more profound. His great challenge is to remain human while also honoring his compulsion to care for others. Those others, in a place like Cold Storage, are not always easy to serve. If you like crime bosses who aspire to be screenwriters, rock bands who get paid in fish, and an innkeeper-impresario whom wild creatures address in English . . . be sure to pay a visit to Cold Storage.

These are but two among hundreds of books published these days—and in an unbroken train since the beginning of literature in America—with both regional attributes and unmistakable literary talent. It is a great time to be an author . . . or a reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author