I thought I’d do something a little different. As I’m getting my portfolio ready for the When Words Collide Conference, I suddenly remember that once this was all foreign for me, and when I talk to people in general about publishing, if they aren’t familiar, it can be intimidating.
And it really shouldn’t be. It’s actually very simple. I’m going to refer to both snail/e-mail queries in addition to a focus on conferences where you’re staring down the person who is accepting books in your genre.
Do Your Research
You may have the best book, hands down – but you need to find someone who publishes something like it. Why? Because someone who only does hard science-fiction isn’t going to take my steampunk rom-com. I’m not saying you can’t try if you’re still within that niche and they’re looking to expand, but if they are a literary publisher, you’re wasting their time and yours.
The best option is to go to the local bookstore and figure out where your book would probably go. That isn’t to say that Margaret Atwood belongs in more than one section (Is it literature? Is it science fiction?) nothing wrong with going to the library, but you want to know who’s putting out stuff now – so then you’re limited to New Releases and they might be hard to come by. Look on the spine, and look for DAW or EDGE and look in the first few pages, see who published the book in your hands. All that legal stuff you usually skip? Yeah, that tells you who made that book.
While researching Publishing Houses, the best way to know what they take is to read their titles. So if you’re sending out a general query – cater to them, especially if your title is a hybrid of multiple genres (DO NOT THINK YOUR GENRE COUNTS AS LITERATURE TOO. If you have elements that would have it in either the horror or science fiction setting, pick a place, and go from there, but if you straddle the line between cyberpunk and transhumanist, we’re talking about subgenre and the line is more fudgeable). If they want the first 20 pages or three chapters in attachments or bodies of emails, do that. Try to get the submission editor’s name. Put your contact information there – and if you send it by snail mail, add a SASE.
If it doesn’t state the format they want, in general you want a very easy to read font (When in doubt, I always use Times New Roman) font size of 12. I number the pages, and usually have something like Getty/[Title] in the header. That way, if we’re past the slush desk and the manuscript, bound by a paperclip, somehow ends up spilled on the floor, it’s easy to put back together. Why my name and title? The odds are extremely slim another Getty is on the floor in that mess, but make life easier on the poor schlubb sorting through papers. If it’s too much work, odds are the manuscript will just be rejected.
But let’s pretend you’re doing one on one pitch sessions, and you don’t have a lot of choices – whoever is at the conference is who you are submitting your work to. Do your research ahead of time, the internet makes it easy. Google the House, the Editor, whatever you need to.
When I sold Tower of Obsidian, I researched the house quickly (they didn’t post who was coming until, I want to say 2 weeks prior to the conference) and knew that ToO was my best bet. I brought along two other samples in case it went poorly or they wanted more. Did Ellen have time to read much of what I had before I met her? Nope – but she was polite and asked me to send in a submission package.
What’s in a Submission Package?
I’m going to keep this basic. The more you do this, the easier it gets. Break down three things you need: Introduce yourself and your book, a novel overview, and a sample of your writing, usually the first 20ish pages. Your introduction is the Query letter.
This is the first thing someone will read. I stick to a simple format, such as,
Dear Editor (Learn their name!),
Salutations. I write under Nom de Plume, and I would like to submit my [genre] novel “Title” to Your Publishing House. It is about [One Sentence Pitch]. It is approximately [X to the nearest 1000] words in length.
Followed by the Elevator Pitch. Elevator Pitch is basically, you have your editor’s attention for 10-20 seconds while you’re going between floors. Follow that up by “Please find my synopsis and manuscript sample” in whatever format you have, a SASE following.
Then there’s the relevant writing credits. I would say, “I have been published by Champagne Book’s Burst Imprint, my first novel is a historical fantasy entitled Tower of Obsidian” followed by if it won any awards. Don’t worry if you have nothing here. Write any other credentials, I like to add that I’m a paramedic, because it implies a skillset/expertise. Irrelevant to writing, perhaps, but oh the stories I could tell.
So basically fill in the madlib. Genre can be ‘Middle Grade Science Fiction’ or ‘Steamy Amish Bodice-Ripper’. If you’re having a hard time getting your novel down to one sentence, work on the elevator pitch. If that doesn’t work for you, think about if your book was made into a movie, and when someone hits the ‘info’ button, what would come up.
A Plot! – Synopsis
Depending on the publisher, they might want this under a page, during which time I cry into my keyboard a little. You have a limited time to tell what happens in your story, as well as hinting at the tone and world. These aren’t easy – and even if they say they’ll let you do 2-3 pages, this can be tricky in an epic story. Do your best, write, rewrite, and then take a break, start again and compare which one you like better. I swear, these get easier with time, but it took me a while to get good at a synopsis. To practice, take a different book, movie or tv series, and practice the synopsis, elevator pitch and one sentence pitch.
Your Actual Manuscript
Keep in mind their specific package information, but if it doesn’t say it’s usually first 3 chapters or about 25 pages (I’m aware that your first chapter might be more than that). Keep it as a sample. I went over this above – 12 point, Times New Roman if it doesn’t say is usually a safe bet. This is short and straight-forward, because by this point your manuscript should be as free of errors as you can get it. Talking about the manuscript belongs in a different post, usually the whole novel should be completed before you send it, but there are exceptions when you’re more experienced in publishing with a proven track record unless the editor is specific about ‘submission ideas’ and I see these only rarely, usually for anthologies.
Things to Avoid
Every article I’ve ever read on this subject basically says, “Don’t say you’re the next Harry Potter” or “My mom really likes it”. I got very little on this one, other than I’d tread carefully even if you are writing a parody of another work to reference.
Personally, I wouldn’t be off-put if, when I’m looking over someone’s manuscript, they said something along the lines of “I was heavily inspired by Avatar: The Last Airbender and tried to imitate the show’s quirky sense of humor” instead of “Fans who Love Airbender will love this” but it depends on your editor. I don’t think it’s harmful to think “this would make a great movie” but the person you’re submitting it to is probably thinking it needs to be a good book first, not whether or not they could cast Channing Tatum as the lead. When you’re listing your credentials, be aware that your editor wants things that are relevant – they don’t care if your friends and family like your book, most people will like a given creative work by their friend. I’ve never been referred by another author directly to a publisher, but I will say, “We met at When Words Collide. Here is the manuscript you requested”. Short, sweet, to the point.
I suppose I should list other things to avoid, but there are many ways to annoy whoever is on the receiving end I probably wouldn’t think of. I’ve read articles about editors saying they got small presents and rejections to their rejections. This isn’t the right time to try a fancy glitter font. Let the work speak for itself. If I snail-mail it, I paperclip the SASE to the query and paperclip the synopsis together if it’s multiple pages, then the manuscript sample. No string, no tape – and use a manilla folder. Email is so much easier, but not everyone accepts emails.
On a final note, some houses only accept submissions at certain times of the year. Personally, I log everything in my submissions spreadsheet, as seen below, and I’ll even mark it on my calendar if I’m genuinely interested. I’ve heard some people say it doesn’t hurt to try, but personally when I’ve heard editors speak they tend to get really snippy if you can’t follow their directions. Obviously, if they request it outside of their usual submission time, ensure you reference why you did that, lest it get deleted without being read.
Getting it all Together – But what of Multiple Packages?
Let’s say you’re like me and you’ve been at this for a while and have more than two items to get ready, but you can’t remember where stuff is because we’ve all waited well over a year for a quick “Not for us, thanks”. I make a spreadsheet on Excel to keep track of where I sent things so I know who’s rejected me, how long it’s been, and any other pertinent information. I blanked out the houses I submitted to, because I like to pretend I have class (and it’s nothing personal). This is a fairly new list, I usually start a new one around Christmas for year end.
I use the same idea when I’m getting my submission packages ready. I do this on a piece of looseleaf by hand, but I wouldn’t want you to see my chicken scratches. Establish what you need for each house – at a bare minimum, the query, synopsis and manuscript. You don’t have to use this format – use what works for you. If you have more than two manuscripts, this ensures you’re not forgetting a synopsis and you look more professional.
Personally, I like crossing out the box with a different color pen once it’s printed and together. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be out printing duplicate stuff, especially if I still have stuff from the last conference that didn’t leave my portfolio. I plan on leaving the laptop behind and bringing along a flashdrive so I can print more if I need, but let’s be honest: time running to staples is less time spent conferencing, networking, and learning. Everything here should be straightforward, besides ‘other’. If you want, you can have a character index or useful information – don’t get bogged down. I’ve been told time and time again don’t show your art as it looks unprofessional, but personally, I like seeing maps when I read epic fantasies, it gives me a better sense of place when we’re going to different locations.
Ode to Professionalism
I’ve posted about this before – to dress up in costume or not. I say, get a feel for the conference, but I for one like to be taken seriously. I treat meeting with an editor on par with a job interview. I know – the work should speak for itself, but there is a person on the other side of the table assessing not only your work, but the person they have to work with to get it to the customer’s hands. I’m not here to tell you life is fair, but maybe save your Slutty!Joker outfit for the rest of the conference.
While we’re on it, stay calm, even if the other person is totally out of line. Don’t waste your energy getting upset – if they’re like this now, how do you suppose you’ll be if you’ve signed a contract that means they get first dibs on any future work? Did you see the submission log above? What I don’t post is my impression of their house. I can only speak for myself – I haven’t had a bad experience in the industry, but my experience is extremely limited, but I will say that respect goes a long way with me. I generally prefer to not deal with toxic people. If you think that if you compromise now and you’re going to be treated differently down the line – well, good on you if you can manage.
Rejection is its own post – but don’t take it personally, even if the person across the table is a complete dink. Rejection can have nothing to do with the quality of your work and it isn’t a rejection of you – but stay classy and keep working. If you get a full manuscript request and subsequent offer, that’s also another post – but don’t just sign. Read the contract. Get someone else’s opinion.
That’s pretty much it. Most of your energy should be in making that sample of your manuscript sparkle, but spending some time coming up with a professional query and learning how to write synopsises has their advantages, as personally it helps reign me in during subsequent editing of the prose. That way, when I mention to someone I’m published and they ask, “What’s your book about?” I can easily tell them.