Monday, May 23, 2011

Dear New Writer (Who Probably Googled 'Book Publishers for New Authors' to Get Here)

This just landed in my inbox, and I'm going to publish it here because I get a variation of this letter at least once a month. It's starting to make me a little loopy.




Dear Jenna, I've completed my first manuscript a few months ago and have since received 7 acceptance letters, however 5 are from "self-publishing" companies. One from PA and one from Dorrance. PA has already sent me a sample contract and an Aug. 1st deadline but after reading your comments, now I more confused then ever. Bottom line, I have no funds for Publishing law firms nor Self-Publishing companies. I'm looking for the name of a legit company that can help me without costing an arm and a leg.


Okay, new writers, this one's for you. Let's dissect what's wrong with this question:

He says has received 7 acceptance letters, but five are from "self-publishing companies." (Which are not actually "acceptances," but rather sales pitches.)

Our first dilemma is that he sent at least five self-publishing companies his manuscript.

Why?

Unless you are seeking to self-publish on purpose, and you have a good reason to do so (we'll get to that in a minute), then there's no reason to send your manuscript to any of them. However, many, many writers think it's a good idea to find publishers by Googling things like "publishers that want new writers" and "book publishers for new authors." Even just Googling "book publisher" is a very bad idea. You know who works really hard on search engine placement to attract never-been-published authors? Vanity presses. (Or "self-publishing companies," whichever wording you prefer.) Real book publishers are not trying to get themselves on top of search engines to attract writers-- they have plenty of submissions as it is, and their business is to sell books, not to attract more submissions from inexperienced writers.

If you spent the time writing a manuscript, then do right by yourself and spend time doing the research necessary to find it a good home.

It's not difficult. It's moderately time consuming, but isn't your book worth a few days of research?

Okay, so onto our second dilemma. He says he has 7 acceptances, but 5 are from self-publishers. Am I to take it to mean that he has two offers from legitimate commercial publishers, but he's still trying to figure out who to trust among the self-publishing firms? Sorry, I don't buy it. I just plain don't.

But I'll skip over that. Here's the thing: PUBLISHERS ARE SUPPOSED TO PAY YOU.

You are not supposed to pay a publisher for anything at any time.

You're not supposed to worry about costing "an arm and a leg"-- you're supposed to worry about how to spend your advance money. If you're a nonfiction writer who can't get a real publisher to pay you a real advance, something is probably wrong with your submission.

Nonfiction is sold on the basis of a book proposal. I've written lots and lots about proposals; I won't get into it here except to say that even if your whole manuscript is complete, you STILL need to show a proposal first. It contains information that's not in a manuscript, such as your target audience, your marketing plans, an analysis of competing books, your qualifications, etc. Some agents will look at a book proposal unsolicited, but most prefer that you first submit a query letter the summarizes it first, then if they give you the go-ahead, you submit the proposal.

For fiction, you'll need to write the whole manuscript (but submit a query letter before submitting the manuscript or sample chapters). And I don't judge things the same way with fiction, nor am I an expert in this arena-- I know there's quality fiction out there that doesn't find a publisher for reasons unrelated to quality of writing. But I digress.

I suggest sending out your query to a small group of agents before anything else. This way, you'll get a little feedback before sending it to your next group. If your first group all reject the query, you'll know to rewrite it. If they reject the proposal/manuscript, try to learn from any feedback you receive and move on.

Over and over, I get e-mails with some variation of, "I'm a new writer and I don't know who to trust. Can you tell me the name of a company to send my work to?"

First, no. I've done my homework for 14 years and I'm not about to do yours for you, too. (Not you, of course. You wouldn't ask me to. I know.)

Look, here's who to trust: THE PUBLISHERS WHOSE WORK YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE ON BOOKSTORE SHELVES, AND AT WAL-MART, AND AT CVS, AND IN LIBRARIES.

Google is NOT the place to look for a publisher. Think about your goals: If your main goal is to get a book published and actually see it in Barnes & Noble, then go to Barnes & Noble. (No, I'm not speaking metaphorically. I literally mean: just go there. It's the least you can do if this is your big goal.)

Once you're there, look for books that are similar to yours in content or theme. Now write down the names of the publishers who published them.

Then look at the acknowledgments pages and write down the people you see thanked inside: editors and agents.

You now have a list of who to trust. How hard was that?

Those are the people who actually managed to get a book published and on bookstore shelves. Self-publishing/vanity publishing companies are not going to do that for you.

I'm not opposed to self/vanity publishing. I think there's a place for it and that it can peacefully coexist with traditional publishing. I think which way you go depends a lot on your goals...



  • If you just want to have something in print for friends and family, go for it. (I've used http://www.lulu.com/ for this.)


  • If you know you have a very limited market and publishers aren't interested, but you want to get it out there anyway, fine.


  • If there's a reason you need to get something out very quickly, it may be your only option.

  • If you're a published author who wants to get your out-of-print books back in print and you can't find a publisher to reprint them, it's probably better than nothing. (I say "probably" because poor self-publishing sales could hurt your chances of a new contract.)


  • If you have a built-in audience that you know you can sell to, then it may work out great for you. If you do a lot of public speaking or performing and you just want to have a book to sell from the back of the room afterwards, or you have a dedicated online following, then self-publishing may be the thing. It offers a higher profit margin per book, meaning that you need to sell fewer books total to make the same money as you would publishing with a commercial press.



But keep in mind that with companies like iUniverse, Xlibris, PublishAmerica (don't... just don't... whatever you do, don't go with this one), their average authors sell about 75 copies.

75 copies. In total. Ever. And all authors think they'll be the exception.

I can point to a growing number of self-publishers who did it right and have been successful at it, but it's nowhere near as simple as, "Write a book, send it to Xlibris, sit back and watch royalties come in." There's no way for me to even summarize all the relevant editorial, production, marketing, and distribution steps here. I'm not going to try, because what I really want to say is:

Slow down. Don't expect others to give you all the answers. It's awful finding out that you just signed over the rights to your manuscript to a company that's going to do nothing for you, that your book will never see the light of a bookstore, and that you're not going to get a second chance because a real publisher isn't going to look at your "Oops, I made a mistake" book that sold 75 copies.

You probably have one shot with this book. Get it right. Slow down.

Once you have your list of agents and editors, then is the time to run things through Google, and http://www.publishersmarketplace.com, and http://www.agentquery.com. Find out who's selling what and who's buying what. Find out which of those agents and editors have moved around since you read those acknowledgments. Find out their submission guidelines and follow them.

And our last dilemma from the letter: "I'm looking for the name of a legit company that can help me without costing an arm and a leg."

He's looking at it wrong. Publishers are not in business to "help" writers. They're in business primarily to sell books and make money... which, in turn, does help writers, but not in the way I suspect he means.

Legitimate publishers cannot afford to be do-gooders who pick up unknown writers' works just to be sweet and kind and make someone's dream come true. If they did, they'd all be out of business and those of us who've actually made writing our life's work would be furious. New writer, your work has to compete. If you can't compete with experienced writers, then you're not ready to submit yet. Publishing is a business with small profit margins, and publishers need to make smart investments. "Hey, this writer has potential" is not good enough. Publishers have to believe that your work is going to have an audience, and that audience is going to spend their hard-earned money on your book in sufficient numbers to warrant all the work and money that's going to go into producing it.

The cold, hard truth is that most new writers who are running around submitting like this don't have a chance of actually getting published. Whether they can change that with hard work, study, critique groups, etc., I have no idea. Some can, some can't. But many newbies overestimate their readiness and expect publishers to have some kind of soft spot for them. It just doesn't work this way. Most editors and agents are thrilled to help someone get their first big break-- but only if that person has earned it. You earn it by writing something great, and editing it until it's terrific, and submitting it to people who are appropriate for it.

And not PublishAmerica. Ever.

Are we at least clear on that?

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