Last week I announced in this space that my novel, The Maelstrom—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, would be published on July 26.
The good news is, the book is still going to be published.
The other good news is, it will have a better title. Better as in, not as confusing. Better as in, more harmonious with the art on the book’s cover. Better as in, making clearer to the reader what’s inside the covers.
An additional piece of news is: The publication date is moved back to August 23. This is not the publisher’s fault. It turns out that the original July date coincided with a long-planned family trip. And I, the author, wanted at least to be in the country when my book came out.
Please excuse these minor confusions, Dear Reader. I have never been an about-to-be-published book author before, and I seem to be mishap-prone. It will get better, I’m somewhat sure.
One way to keep up with the dizzying pace of developments will be to sign up for my electronic newsletter.
“What electronic newsletter is that, O New Favorite Writer?”
I refer to the newletter I am about to launch. Once it is up and running, you may rest assured I will publicize it unmistakably on this blog. So keep on tuning in, at least once a week.
I thank you; my publisher thanks you; and this wonderful story—which highlights the contributions of immigrants and slaves to the development of our country—this wonderful story thanks you.
Maybe, Dear Reader, you’ve been wondering what Your New Favorite Writer’s quixotic quest for literary lionhood amounts to.
Let’s take stock.
Just over six years ago, in January 2016, I undertook to be a full-time writer of fiction, after a lifetime of doing . . . well, other things.
In that six years, what have I accomplished?
Wrote a character profile of my superannuated Siberian husky and got it published in Fetch! magazine.
Wrote three “Izzy Mahler” short stories published by the Saturday Evening Post. The first two were published online as part of the Post’s New Fiction Friday series (here and here); the third won Honorable Mention in the 2018 Great American Fiction Contest and was published in the e-book anthology for that year’s contest.
Joined a monthly writers’ mutual critique group, Tuesdays With Story, and became a regular contributor in its proceedings. This interaction with my writing colleagues, more than anything else, has helped me learn to write fiction.
Attended the 2018 and 2019 University of Wisconsin–Extension Writers’ Institutes, fabulous conferences where I learned a great deal about writing, the publishing world, and the writers’ tribe. I signed up for the 2020 Writers’ Institute as well, but then COVID hit, deep-sixing that very valuable annual event for 2020 and ever after. On the bright side, I plan to attend a similar conference in Chicago soon.
Wrote an 83,000-word historical novel, The Maelstrom, which is being considered for publication by two different independent publishers. I plan to continue querying and submitting this work until I find a publisher.
Wrote a 41,000-word middle-grades novel, The Mulberry Rocket Ship, on behalf of which I am about to begin querying agents and publishers.
Have begun the first draft of a book-length personal memoir—tentative title: Reconnaissance: A Debriefing. I’ll keep you posted on that, Dear Reader, as it develops.
Have written more than a dozen short stories, which I consider “not ready for prime time.”
And in April 2019 I created this blog to share my thoughts, aspirations, struggles, whimsies, and literary creations—all around the theme of “seeking fresh meanings in our commmon past.” I have usually posted once a week, with only a few misses.
So, as you can see, I have been busy the past six years with my new writing career. And I have accomplished a great deal.
In case you’re wondering why there is not a published book, or more than one published book, to show for all these efforts, I must say: Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there.
Rome was not built in a day, nor Parnassus climbed in a similar timespan. Six years is but the twinkling of an eye in the Lit Biz.
You may know people who have already published their novels. Chances are, most of them are self-published. That’s wonderful. It means you can read their work earlier.
Self-publication is a great thing. It allows authors to get their work in print sooner by skipping the traditional publishing industry process.
I have chosen a different path, because there are only so many years ahead, and I have a lot to say.
The task of learning to write well and getting some things into decent form is so all-consuming that I cannot take time off to become a publisher as well.
I will just have to write the best I can and try to connect with a traditional publisher.
Remember, Emily Dickinson’s poems were all published after her death. Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. All of his critical and popular success were posthumous. If I should shuffle off this mortal coil before any book is published, at least I will have written as much, and as well, as I can. And I, for one, will still have both ears.
But fear not, Dear Reader. You may yet get a chance to purchase a deluxe edition of my works for yourself, not to mention extra copies for all your friends and family members. They will make excellent Christmas gifts.
On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.
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’.