How to Approach a Publisher
by L. Sue Durkin
by L. Sue Durkin
As a writer I was in a world all my own.
Becoming a traditional, small-press (house) publisher knocked me out of that world. It took the blinders off.
Mainly new writers wear those blinders, though there are some old-timers who need to take them off, too.
Even with all the reading and studying about publishing I had done as a writer, I was no way prepared for what I experienced as a publisher.
The two worlds are so different, yet reaching toward a common goal.
If I knew then as a writer what I know now as a publisher, my book, Life is Like Making Chocolate Chip Cookies, would be different.
So I am going to share a little of what I have learned with the hope that other writers can avoid the pitfalls that others before them have fallen into.
Before you even consider sending a query letter, proposal, or manuscript to an agent or publisher, do your homework! This is very important.
An agent/publisher can tell if you have been diligent with this or not. It reflects in what you send them. It can determine whether you get a response or end up in the dreaded slush pile of letters, emails, and manuscripts.
What do I mean by homework? Choose your genre carefully. Make a list of only the agents/publishers that deal in that specific genre.
If in doubt, send an email asking if they accept a certain genre. Just ask the question. Don’t tell them about your book or you. At this point they are not interested, and it could hurt your chances later on with that publisher. Just ask the question with a nice salutation and closing. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Once you have ascertained this is who you would like to publish your book, check their website for submission requirements or contact them to find out.
Follow those requirements to the letter! If you don’t understand, then ask.
Nothing will get you rejected faster than an inappropriate submission.
Here is a case in point.
A publisher verbally told an author that sample chapters and proposals were to be in hard copy: meaning printed out and sent through regular mail. This was also stated on the publisher’s website.
After a couple of days the author emailed the publisher stating she was finishing a few last minute edits. She added she would be sending the sample chapters via email, not by regular mail, as she was green.
This was an insult and a total disrespect to the publisher. Needless to say, this author didn’t get published through that publishing company. As far as I know as of this writing, she hasn’t been published at all.
Publishers don’t care if you are green or not. They don’t care that it costs a fortune in ink to run that many pages, double-spaced, or about the amount of postage that entails. They want things a certain way. Give it to them, especially if you want them to publish your book.
Moral: Don’t mess with the publisher’s submission guidelines!
In a query letter or proposal don’t say how much you think they will like the book. Unless you have a celebrity in your field that has read and commented on your book, don’t state how others have liked it. An agent/publisher doesn’t care if your family, friends, or co-workers liked it. It only shows them how inexperienced you are. Plus, you have taken valuable space away from your pitch.
Make sure you address your queries/proposals to the person handling that aspect in that particular company. If you don’t know, find out.
You could hurt your cause if you don’t. It could end up on a slush pile, never to be seen again.
Most publishing websites tell you how long the process is when they receive something from you. Pay Attention to the timeline!
If you have to, mark it on your calendar. Don’t send a manuscript out on Monday, and then call or email the agent/publisher on Wednesday or Thursday to find out if they received it. You could be considered as an annoying author.
This is another sure way to end up in a slush pile or buried in an inbox. You could wait for three or four months before you hear anything from a publisher. Don’t push it!
Make sure your manuscript is crisp and clean. Have a new ink cartridge installed. If the manuscript can’t be read or it appears the printer was running out of ink, the slush pile receives another casualty.
There was an author who sent out a manuscript where only the top part of the type could be read. Needless to say, that manuscript got set aside. The author had to send a whole new one. The cost of sending it once was high.
Twice, was not necessary. Save yourself time and money and do it right the first time.
Make sure it is your return address on the envelope that holds your manuscript.
Your name should be prominently displayed. This seems trivial. It isn’t.
An author had someone else print and send out his manuscript. The return label was in the name of the helpful person. She turned out not to be too helpful though, because the manuscript went into an unsolicited manuscript slush pile for a month. That was until the author starting calling and bugging the publisher about receiving the manuscript. This one ended well. Most don’t.
I still don’t advocate calling and bugging a publisher.
Whether you believe it or not, your personality comes across through emails and phone calls. If an agent/publisher suspects you are going to be difficult to work with, chances are you will be rejected, even with a good manuscript.
I don’t believe an author needs to kiss an agent/publisher’s feet, but if you want to get in the door be respectful, not demanding. Don’t tell them how to run their business or what to do. Don’t tell them another agent/publisher does it differently.
If you don’t like the way they do business then you can always walk away and not sign a contract with them.
Speaking of contracts!
Everyone tells you to read the contract.
I am telling you to understand the contract! Ask questions on the areas you don’t understand. Take it to a lawyer. Negotiate it. Too many authors enter into contracts they don’t understand.
Then they blame the agent/publisher when it is themselves they need to blame. If an agent/publisher won’t discuss the contract then walk away. Better safe than sorry.
I could tell you horror stories of authors who have either not understood their contracts or not entered into one in the first place. Don’t be one of them!
If an agent/publisher agrees to read an excerpt of your work, ask them what they want and how they want it. Don’t send it unsolicited either. Make sure you know what you are doing.
A publisher asked to see an excerpt of a manuscript to be sent via email. Imagine the publisher’s reaction when a single paragraph arrived. In that paragraph was description combined with dialog between two adult males.
It wasn’t broke down at all!
The publisher emailed her back showing her how to break down the paragraph and recommending some books on writing. The poor author stated she had no idea the dialog was to be broken down like that.
So what must have the rest of the manuscript looked like? Last I heard the author took the critiquing to heart and is in editing mode.
This doesn’t happen very often: an agent/publisher taking the time to show mistakes to authors. So don’t count on it happening to you.
Make sure you know what you are doing before wasting the time of someone else.
Books on grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc. are a must.
There are many out there. Some are better than others. Ask other writers what books on writing they have in their library. You will find that a lot of the same ones keep cropping up.
Here are just a couple to get your started.
The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
The Everyday Writer by Andrea A. Lunsford
On Writing by Stephen King
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Cynthia Laufenberg
I would love to have you leave a comment with the names of the books you use.
Bottom Line: If you want a traditional publisher to publish your book, do your homework, be courteous, be knowledgeable, and be the person a publisher would want to work with.
[L. Sue Durkin is the author of Life is Like Making Chocolate Chip Cookies and has a small, traditional publishing company, Weaving Dreams Publishing. She does writing and publishing presentations. In the Fall, 2009 she will be teaching courses on writing/publishing for her local community college and park district. She can be reached through her website at http://www.weavingdreamspublishing.com ]
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