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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Query Process Part One: Publishers and the WBW

Hiya blogfans! 

Yes, I'm back to the plural because I expect this post topic to be interesting to more than my usual reader or two. If you're new- hello. If you're a faithful reader =D Hi! It's nice to have you back. *A new definition has been added to the glossary: wbw= wanna be writer.

Last week I asked for post suggestions and, lo and behold, a terrific one has fallen at my feet. The topic suggested was essentially this: How do you feel about submitting five pages instead of fifty pages to a publisher?

I know this person so I will answer the question as asked and then write the post that the question inspired.

 My advice, gleaned from about a million websites, publishing for stupid people, trade publications and blogs, by authors, agents and editors (and not a small bit of personal experience)? If the publisher asks for fifty pages send them fifty. If he or she asks for five send five. What's the big deal? You should NEVER! EVER! start the query process before you've finished your fiction manuscript (the query process for non fiction is different. I will not get into proposals. I simply will not do it.) That's a n00b mistake. Researching the process before you start writing is a good idea though because you will be asked for things like detailed synopses or outlines and it's so much easier to write a synopsis while you're writing (or editing) your ms. That's a lesson I learned the hard way. Fortunately, through about a thousand thorough edits, I pretty much know KMS by heart so it wasn't too hard to write when it was called for the first time. 

And, by the way, why are you (not the person who suggested the post specifically- you in general) querying publishers anyway? It's a really bad idea to query the big publishing houses yourself. That's why Dog made agents (although, at times, I think maybe agents were made by Cat) Indie publishers should probably be approached through an agent as well but if you've decided to go indie, and agentless, follow the submission requirements posted on the publisher's website. It's a respect thing.

"Why is it a bad idea, oh subtly hubristic one?" you ask. 

(1) The publishing industry is small. Very small. And the players who matter to you, the wbw, talk to each other. If you submit to a publishing house and make an ass out of yourself by ignoring requirements etc. they could, potentially, talk about you. And the next time your name comes across their desk they may not necessarily remember why they know your name but they'll know they remember for a bad reason. If you want to be a professional writer, behave like a professional. It's a real job. The conventions may suck but rebelling is just going to make you look like a loser. Be different after you're an established and valuable asset to the company. Better yet- behave like a professional all the time. Have some respect for yourself and the people in your chosen career. Trust me and Mr. Sheen here- no one is irreplaceable. Unprofessional behavior isn't cool.

(2) Most big publishing houses will not take unsolicited submissions. They just won't. Maybe a paper submission might slip through (I doubt it though- see below) and get read but, in the age of email (and most of your submissions should be via email,) a quick click o' the mouse will  take care of the problem. Nobody wants to open attachments from strangers or spend the day slogging through crap from people too whatever to follow the rules. Do what the publisher suggests on their submissions page. Here's an example for those too overwhelmed, lazy, or uninterested to do their own research. This is from St. Martin's Press:

"Submitting a Manuscript

We do not accept any unsolicited material, or responsibility for loss or damage to, or return of, any unsolicited materials you send to us; unsolicited materials will be recycled or otherwise discarded. To find a literary agent and other industry information, please visitLiterary Market Place Online."
Did you think I was making it up? I love the "otherwise discarded" part. It paints a picture of an office full of paper airplanes or really scratchy toilet paper. Me? I'd make 1000 origami cranes from the unsolicited MS pile but I'm not the one who deals with all these unsolicited MSs. 
"So," you ask, "how do I get my complete, throughly edited, painstakingly peer reviewed manuscript into the hands of the big time publishers, Ms. Know it all?"

(3) You are probably not a lawyer who handles publishing contracts exclusively. Publishing contracts are tricky and require an expert in the field to know what is a reasonable element in a contract and what is negotiable. A good agent will be able to hook you up and negotiate a contract that's in your (and/or the agent's) best interest. A bad agent is someone to avoid at all costs but you'll learn how to tell a good agent from a rotten agent because I'll share some sites with you.  
(A) Find an agent. Did you catch that? Find an agent. Agents take 15% (give or take) of your income- sure. But they have connections and, hopefully, a knack for selling what the publishing houses (both big and small)  are looking for. 

Do you know any editors? I sure as bologna don't. Agents are (or should be- not all agents are created equal- that's part of another post in the series) very motivated to sell your ms because they don't get paid if they don't sell stuff. Is this a ridiculous, archaic, stifling system? Probably. If you want to go the traditional route this is how the game is played. 

If you want to keep all your (largely hypothetical) money, and artistic integrity, intact- by all means self, or indie, publish (the two terms are not synonymous btw and honestly if you self publish you will, more than likely, be forever unable to sell your ms to a big publisher or enter it in reputable contests- that's just how it goes.) Don't get me wrong, many established writers are indie publishing their stuff and making money at it too. Read up on the biz. It's an exciting and volatile time for publishing and the options for new writers are vastly different than they were when I started researching the biz four years ago.

I believe that the process of agent hunting is vitally important to the growth of a wbw (you may follow my crazy thinking process from the beginning of this blog to see how much I've changed.) There's more room to screw up and you *will* screw up. I don't care if you're a stay at home mom like I happen to be right now, or a lawyer, or a teacher. Unless you've found a way to have editors or agents contact you (and this is possible but a whole post on its own), you are going to have to query and you will have to figure out how to do it. You can pay money for query classes etc but each agent has his or her own requirements and you're going to have to interpret them and customize your Q-letter to each agency. Sometimes you'll hit 'em head on and sometimes you'll really blow it. It's a process of learning. It's also somewhat painful and very time consuming.

Shame on you if you decide to have a spouse or "professional query service" write your query for you. If you can write a whole book you can manage a query letter. It's difficult and it's frustrating (and even the best Q-letter in the world won't sell a book that isn't salable) but the information is out there and you need to write it yourself because you, and the way you write, should shine through in the letter subtly. It took me three months to write my first 278 page book. It took six months to write my first one page query letter. Take a class. I'm cheap and utterly contactless (ie: I haven't been able to go to agent meet and greets etc) so it took me longer and I screwed up more. Buy a *recent* publishing guide (think computers- that's how much the industry is changing right now.) Visit the list of useful sites I'm going to publish at the end of this series. Search blogs. Respect your goal, and the professionals you are *submitting*  to enough to query the right people well. 

That's the conclusion of part one. Please visit this site again next Wednesday (or Thursday depending on what kind of writing week I'm having) for part deux : Writing a Query Letter for Fun and (Potential) Profit.

Until next week blogfans. 


P.S. Thank you Catherine for the post suggestion. 

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