Lesson Two Author Submission Process

LESSON TWO: DO I HAVE WHAT IT TAKES

The second stage of the journey is figuring out the logistics. Do I have enough money, time, interest in the trip? Do I have the right apparel, vacation time? How do I follow the map? 

Just like the proper preparation for a trip, writers should lay the groundwork for the submission process. Last week we talked about why we write and how to find a destination; this week we’ll discuss the first step in the process of sending out your manuscript. We’ll learn how to follow the directions for the target publisher or agent and write sample query letters.


Kristin Billerbeck (http://www.kristinbillerbeck.com), has this say about proposals: "I think a bad proposal can nullify a sale. Most ideas presented are flat and the same, old thing.  Publishers are looking for the sparkle. Something special that will be new to the marketplace. Then, they're looking to see if you accomplished that in the accompanying manuscript. Does is live up to what you've promised? As a former advertising/marketing director, I know what you need is a quality sales pitch. You want to give them a reason to buy your product. I truly believe the proposal can make the difference."


Nuts and bolts are integral to the framework upholding your final product. In our case, “final product” is that published article, devotional, short story, novel, novella, play, joke, greeting card, poem, song…whatever you’ve written that’s been acknowledged and printed by someone who didn’t raise you. Money isn’t part of the equation yet. As in any building endeavor, there are directions to follow in order for the completed structure to stand strong. Publishers already know this. That’s why they’ve developed a particular strategy to weed out the weak. You can use this to your advantage. Practice is a good thing (that’s how we professionals look upon rejections – or “denials” as a good buddy calls them).


Remember, a publisher or an agent can’t say “no” if you don’t submit. They can’t say “yes” either.


Submissions vary according to individual publishing house rules. You must be very careful to follow the house rules, or guidelines. But there are some basic underlying documents to prepare and keep on hand that can be adjusted as needed. Even if you don’t use each document, it’s still good practice and being prepared helps when you get that publisher’s message “Send me your proposal and the first three chapters at your convenience.” The preparation will help you understand and bond with your project. Enthusiasm is important when pitching your project, both verbally and in writing. For most written work, you’ll put together a “submission packet” which will probably include some or all of the following:

·         Query/ query letter

·         Cover letter

·         Synopsis which will include a hook or theme or log line

·         Writing sample, which will usually be the first few chapters or completed piece

·         Writer’s Resume

·         Clips

·         Writing Plan

·         Marketing plan

·         Market analysis

·         Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope if sending by land


Only the above items should be included, and only on industry standard supplies which are noted later. Always write your very best, use appropriate punctuation and grammar, no typos, everything neat and professional. Keep in mind, though, that different companies have different requirements. You may be asked to include a resume or fill out extensive information about yourself and your goals and experience from forms they’ll send you or tell you how to download, or a questionnaire of some kind to fill out online.


We’re going to focus on writing the query letter this week. Again, there are a lot of opinions, guides, advice, even form letters out there. Find some other samples, get lots of advice, then tailor it to your unique style.


What not to use or include:

  • Fancy stationery of any kind
  • Perfume or scent
  • Gifts of any kind
  • Voice messages
  • Revelations from God or anyone else
  • Threats
  • Promises
  • Sob Stories
  • Excuses
  • Underwear, locks of hair, or any other personal items/parts


What should you spend the most time and effort on? Your first impression. The first thing the prospective acquiring editor sees will most likely be the greeting of your query. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get the name right. Don’t laugh. It happens. All the time. If you were an editor, how would you sort out three hundred random writers begging for the chance to fill one slot in your schedule? How far would you read if the first thing you saw was a mistake? Think about it. Ditch spell-check after the first pass and read everything out loud, including the punctuation. And then have someone else look at it, too.


Rule number one and foremost: Do what you’re asked to do. Double check the submission guidelines.


For now, think about you and your work. Who are you? What is your qualification for writing this material? Who do you want to target? A publisher or an agent? Pick out three targets from last week’s lesson that might be a good fit for what you want to submit, and carefully go over the guidelines again. If there are specific requests that must be part of the query letter or submission packet, make a note of them. If there is an online form to fill out, copy down the required information to use as a template in your word processing program.


Remember: everyone has an opinion about what works and what doesn’t. Listen to a lot of people, read a lot of information and then do what you think best to showcase your efforts and make the publisher say “yes! I want to work with this.” You have thirty seconds to make a positive impression.


Secret: The submission guidelines are not really guidelines. They are directions. You need to follow them in order to do it right. Sometimes they’re really vague. This is a clue—they want to see how up to speed, smart and creative inside the professional box you can be. Sometimes they’re very specific and helpful. They tell you to look and study what the company already puts out. (Another little tidbit of experience: it’s not true that publishing doesn’t cost any money. Writing doesn’t have to cost more than a piece of paper and a pencil, but getting published…well, you should try to purchase some books or magazines or whatever from the company that you target. Or at least read them in your local library. I’ll add here: save up and go to conferences to make face to face contacts. That’s really your surest bet.)


The guidelines may say exactly what kind of material/genre/length/proposal your targeted publisher or agent is looking for. They may say what time of year they accept submissions. They may even tell you how to format your letter and what to write. Do it.


Are you submitting electronically? Does the editor want an attachment or a message in the body of the e-mail? Is there a form from the website to use? Do they want queries by mail? Check the dates. Many companies have specific windows of opportunity during the year in which they accept submissions.


Chila Woychik, Publisher/Managing Editor of Port Yonder Press (www.PortYonderPress.com) says: Last year, I finally settled on a motto for Port Yonder Press:"Excellent. Evocative. Eclectic. We love the niche in you." In all honesty, I don't think we've yet achieved "Excellent" status.  In fact, I'm not sure we ever will, but that's my goal, and that's what I'll push for with each and every new book that comes out of this office. I may look at the ones I've published before with a greater degree of discomfort in doing so, but that's okay too. So what do I, Chila Woychik, personally look for in a submission? To repeat:  excellence, evocativeness, eclecticity. And niche:  something that not every other print publisher is looking for, and certainly not something an ebook publisher will snatch up and be content with when they receive a $50 lifetime gross return for their efforts on that book. In essence, I want bestsellers. I want the best and only the best. Our submission requirements are extremely unique and super-tough to get past.  If you follow those to a "T," I'll look. If not, you're sunk. My advice for whomever you choose to submit to:  read and study the publisher's website. You may only get one shot with them:  make it count.


Query/Query Letters

Publishers are over-inundated by the clamor of writers who want to be published. How to sort this out? They’ve often resorted to a query. Query, of course, means to ask.

The publisher or agent wants you to ask him or her if your project is a good fit for the publication. This is your first impression. You might be asked to submit a simple query of a paragraph or so to begin with in an e-mail, or you might be asked to submit a query letter. These letters almost exclusively are limited to one page. If you have a paragraph query in which to make your case, use succinct language to outline your project in a couple of sentences; add one sentence about why it fits the publication and finish with one or two sentences about why you’re writing this particular item. This is good practice for any time someone asks you what your book is about and what audience you expect to read your book, anyway, so this is a great practice exercise. If there are specific guidelines or samples on the editor's or publisher's or agent's web sites or blogs, follow those. There are numerous samples for you to follow that you can find online.


A whole page will seem like a feast after trying the paragraph query. The whole page, of course, includes the industry standard format of header, body of letter, signature. Don’t make it look too crowded. Industry standard asks you to use a seriphed (ones with little tails like this one I'm using) font like Times New Roman, 12 point. No odd type face. Black letters. White or buff stand-sized paper. One-inch margins around your entire document. Cheaters will be caught. Bleary-eyed editors can tell ¾-inch margins or 10 or 11 point font in an instant. Some care. Don’t give them any excuse to toss your letter. This format holds whether you submit electronically or through the postal service. Headers or business letterheads are cool, but take up room. If you use something like that, make it match a business card for a professional look, but don't include the card with the letter. A letter is a letter. One page is one page. If you’re sending your letter in the body of an e-mail, and it’s supposed to be one page, test it out by writing the thing on a page in your word processing program, then cut and paste it into the body of your e-mail. Don’t try to mess with funky formatting; html will just make it look messy, anyway, when it’s received by the editor who reads it with his or her own e-mail program which may not be the same as yours. Either paragraph format is okay, but hint: If you use indented paragraphs with a .3 indent instead of .5 you’ll get more room on your page than if you use straight paragraphs with a space instead of an indentation; but remember to make it look neat, not desperately over-filled. This is only a suggested format.


A letter starts with a Header. Upper left or right corner:

Your name and address

Space

space

(left side) target Publication

space

Date

Space

space

Salutation (Try to give a name if possible; I've run across the situation where I specifically asked the company for a name, and they responded "we prefer to be anonymous"; otherwise, address Dear Acquisitions Editor, or however the company has it worded.)

space



Body of letter: probably about three paragraphs for a one-page query letter.

In general, how to make your case would include the query information, just expanded. I usually use up a sentence starting out by thanking the editor for looking at this query. Do include:

  • Nature of your project, including the final word count. (Now here’s where I have to say to beginning writers – please don’t submit stuff before you have it finished. It’s just a bad idea. And yes, I have experience with this. You can ask me.) Pretend you’re looking him or her in the eye, and they’ve just asked you what your (book) is about. Answer in three-four sentences. Pitch one project at a time, even if you have a drawerful. If you've written a series, you can mention it. Give your hook, make it fresh and enticing; an invitation to read more. This is your sample writing style.
  • Who you are and your reason for tackling this project. The range for this paragraph is enormous. Just sticking with the facts is always best. Do not make any statements about what you think the scope of your project will be – that’s their vision. Do not compare your work to the big guns – although…some editors will tell you they like to know if you think you write like Jodi Picoult or Ted Dekker…it’s a tough call. You could probably be safe by sticking with genre instead of name dropping. Are you in any national organizations? Professional organizations? What’s your day job and does it have anything to do with your potential audience. This paragraph will mostly be a personality test and a potential marketing platform. Portray the best and most real “you” there is. If you’re a shy flower, ask someone else to describe you and use some of those descriptions. Again, you have three to five sentences. Bullet points take up room, but can be useful. Make them count. Definitely include writing credentials. “Don’t have any,” you say? Get some! “Um, how?” you ask? How ’bout this: Read any local newspapers? Most smaller rags look for color stuff or are crying for someone to cover a boring county board meetings. Same with smaller local magazines, which you can find at the library, but don’t be afraid to try a bigger niche one if you have a cool hobby or something, you never know. (Surprised me when Writer’s Digest wanted to publish an interview I had done as an assignment for a course I was taking.) Go to church with a national presence? Do they have a magazine or a website? That’s how I got my first creds. Are you familiar with any newsletters? Your library need a reviewer? How about your own blog or website?
  • Your third paragraph will probably be house-keeping stuff, like letting the editor know that you know who they are. Some general sentence about a recent release or article that affected you. A little repeated thanks. Let them know when you can be reached. Let them know you’re a hard worker and willing to do what it takes to be successful without sounding like you’re begging or groveling. Probably not a good time to mention that drawerful of rejections, either. You don’t bring up money or payment, or pleas to work on commission, or anything like that. You don’t ask questions about it. In fact, you don’t ask questions about anything. Not even when he thinks he’ll get back to you. If they accept your work and offer a contract, then you get to ask questions. You don't say your mom loved it, you don't mention that this may be your first book or your twenty-seventh try to sell this story; you don't say that you're certain this person will love your book.

Be professional, be courteous. A good story at a good time will usually get a look. If your query is denied, don’t burn bridges. No follow-ups inside a couple of months (unless told specifically otherwise), no arguing or sending you-hurt-my-feelings e-mails.


It should go without saying that you use your best language, strong active verbiage, hardly any “was”s, no typos


Practice is practice. Why’d you get denied the opportunity to make them money? It might not have been a good day for the editor. They might have already accepted something just like yours. Your story might not fit where they want to go next year, or the year after when they’re scheduling. Your story or your writing might need some polish. Keep trying. Most people have stories about how many  times they've been "denied," No whining until you've collected twenty. Per project. But pay attention if you receive any reason for a rejection. Consider reworking your idea, or putting it away for a few months while you work on something else, then get it back out and look at it with fresh eyes.

Assignment: Practice writing a biography and hook sentences. Practice saying what your book is about in three sentences; in two sentences. Then write it and memorize it. Now work on writing two or three sample one page query letters to some of those target publishers or agents from the last lesson, paying attention to any particular instructions they give on their websites.