A Dire Flirtation

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.

Novel Quest

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. 

Independent Publishers

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.

Lots of books. Photo by Hans-Jürgen Weinhardt on Unsplash.

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.

The Long Wait

Patient waiting is not all that easy. But as faithful readers know, I’ve got a blog to post every week. And I keep busy writing my second novel. Not to mention living the mandatory life of a Literary Lion

A literary lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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.

Editorial Notes

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. 

Authors’ Guild logo

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.

Declination

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.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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