by Jessica Dall
As annoying as it can be to wait the weeks (if not months) it takes to hear back from publishers, one unforeseen bonus of it is the fact that you can still get good news even months after you take a break from submitting. While in the midst of house closings and packing and half a million other things it feels like I’m busy doing right now, I got the good type of letter from a publisher about a short story I submitted back in January. I’m now waiting on a contract and a check for the story to be in an anthology this fall. As always, I’m very happy (always nice to make money off your writing!) but it got me thinking that I’d take a short break from packing to answer some questions about querying that bright new shiny (thoroughly edited) novel/short story of yours. I’ll start with some general questions, then go to a step-by-step.
Q. I was told you need a literary agent to get published. Aren’t you going to submit to them?
A. It depends what you want to do. Literary agents (good literary agents) can be worth their weight in gold. They will help you with the business side of things, and are all but your only shot of having your book published by one of “the big six” For many indie presses, however, you certainly don’t need one, and when submitting short stories I’d personally think of one as overkill.
Q. All of these publishers/agents want a bio with previous writing/relevant experience. This is my first time writing. Am I sunk?
A. It’s like the old job hunting problem, they only want to hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience until you have a job. I think the vast majority of us have been there, and truly it’s annoying as [expletive deleted]. After all, how are you supposed to get work experience if no one will hire you without it? When people start wanting to see a resume for your writing, it feels like to same thing (I have to have published something to get published…) The good news is, as a writer, all that truly matters is how good your work is. People like seeing a list of credits because it means you (most likely) aren’t a bad writer. Someone else has vouched for you. If your writing is amazing, however, not having a page long list of credits isn’t going to hurt you. A good book is a good book, no matter who’s writing it.
Q. Is there a way I can be sure I’ll be published?
A. Sure, self-publish–or pay a vanity press thousands to publish your book for you. Otherwise, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published is some combination of talent, perseverance, and luck. Yep, luck. You have to write a book that someone else thinks is good (which is entirely subjective) while they are looking for new projects (a publisher may generally like your story, but their catalogue is full right now, so not worth sitting on it…) Really, it’s about writing something interesting, and trying until the stars align for traditional publishing. If you aren’t going the self-publishing/vanity publishing route and someone is promising to get you published, be wary. They’re probably selling something…or, you know, scamming.
Before you submit:
1. EDIT. First drafts generally have some big problems in them. You fix these during the editing stage. Even if your book is perfect from the get-go (was dictated by some higher power or what not) still go over it. Nothing is quite so off-putting as seeing a dozen typos per page when going through submissions. Either it means you aren’t a very good writer (in which case, why keep reading) or you don’t care enough to actually fix your story up a little (in which case, we generally won’t want to work with you since we will be editing). Put your best foot forward, which means editing until it’s as perfect as you can make it.
2. Consider your goals. What are you looking for in publishing this work? Is it a short story you wrote to just try to get some writing credits? In that case, you still want a reputable publisher, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the top name publishers with giant paychecks. A nice college review would be a great place to look. Do you want your novel published by one of the big six and seen on every bookshelf? Your probably best off trying for an agent. Do you just want your novel published professionally and to see some royalties? Indie presses might not be a bad idea. It’s all about what you want from your work. There’s no right or wrong answer, just different goals.
3. Do your research. Sadly, with as many want-to-be authors out there writing for the first time, dying to see their books published, there are some disreputable “publishers” out there (I complied a list of some of them at the bottom of this post about publishing contracts earlier. Sadly there are many more). Before submitting somewhere that isn’t well known (not a big name or, perhaps, a university press) try looking at Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, or even just google [Press you're interested in] scam, and you should get any complaints that might be. For example, here is a google search for a publisher that is becoming known as a back-door vanity press (using “Press Name Scam” as the search criteria). Not the multiple threads about contract problems, scams, other things you don’t want to see surrounding a press you’re submitting to. On the other hand, here is a search for a very small, but generally good reputation indie press (again, using “Press Name Scam”). No complaints come up, and better it shows some of their catalogue popping up at Barnes and Noble. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re completely legit, but it’s a very good sign in that direction.
4. Put together a list of agents/presses you are interested in. Once you figure out your goals and know these presses aren’t scams, decided whom you are going to query. Also check if they allow simultaneous submissions (submitting to more than one agent/publisher at the same time). It’s good to stay organized so you don’t get into problems later on (including submitting twice, or even three times, to the same publisher…I’ve sadly seen it happen as a slush pile reader).
What you will need to submit:
Submission guidelines vary from agent to agent (and publisher to publisher) so always be sure to read guidelines on a site before submitting, but in general, you will need:
- A complete, fully edited manuscript. Non-fiction authors may find that they can get a publishing contract with just a book proposal, but I have yet to find an agent or publisher who is willing to take fiction (from non-established authors) without the author having the manuscript completely finished. For Short Stories, you probably will be submitting the full manuscript from the start. For novels, you will generally be submitting the first 3 (or so) chapters with the initial submission. This does not, however, mean you should only have 3 chapters edited. It may say on their website you won’t hear back from an initial query for 4-6 weeks, but always be ready to send a full manuscript the next day, just in case.
- A query letter, basically, your book’s cover letter. It will generally include a “hook”, a short blurb about your book, and a bio/why you are the person to write the book (it’s ok to skimp on the bio if you don’t have any other writing credits. It’s worse to try to fill it in with unhelpful information than leave it blank altogether).
- A synopsis. The full story, from beginning to end. You generally won’t need this for short stories (they have the full story, after all) but since you tend to only send in a bit of your novel as a sample, this lets the acquisitions editor know if they’re interested in how the story turns out. Do NOT try to leave it with a cliff hanger (“leave them wanting more”) outline in about one single-spaced page how your characters go from point A to point B and finally end up at pont C.
- Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). This only comes in to play if you’re mailing in your submission rather than emailing it (some publishers insist one form or the other, but more and more are turning to email-only submissions, in my experience). Still, you may see requests for a SASE on submission guidelines. This is so that the agent/publisher is able to mail you a response simply by sticking it in the envelope you sent and mailing it back to you.
- Anything else the press/agent asks for in their submission guidelines. The above three things will cover most places, but some want you to have written a cover blurb (what would be on the back of your book while it’s sitting on the shelf) a separate author bio (generally what would likewise be on your book [Jessica Dall is the author of... etc.]) a break down of whom you are targeting with this book (children, stay-at-home moms, murder-mystery enthusiasts, etc.) or other things of those nature. Don’t give out sensitive information (bank account info, Social Security Numbers, anything that feels scammy) but be ready for extra requests from some agents/presses.
Putting together your submission:
1. Read the full submission guidelines of the agent/publisher you are querying. Make sure they are currently accepting submissions (some agents/publishers have closed and open submission periods. Make sure you’re only sending your query while they’re reading them or the submission may possibly be deleted without being read), and make sure you have exactly what they want (Query, Synopsis, First Three Chapters? Just Query? Query and Full Manuscript? Query, Synopsis, First Two Chapters, Marketing Plan, Author Bio, Back-Cover Blurb?)
2. Put together your submission. If you are mailing it in, put everything requested in a manila envelope to mail. If emailing (and there are no guidelines as to attachments) it is generally best to have your query letter in the body of the email, and then attach the synopsis and first three chapters in an easy-to-open file format (generally .doc/.docx or .rtf work best). If there are no guidelines as to titling the files, it is generally best to structure them with all the important information up front, for example: LastName.PartofSubmission.Title (e.g. Dall.Synopsis.TheBleedingCrowd). Again, be sure to check guidelines about attachments and file names, some agents/publishers are highly specific.
3. Proofread your query letter a final time. It’s just as bad (if not worse) to have typos in your query letter. You want to come off as a good writer at all stages of your submission.
4. Mail/Send your submission to the agent/publisher’s prefered mailing/email address.
What Happens Next?
1. Wait. It’s possible for Agents and Publishers to get hundreds of submissions daily. It’s possible you’ll hear back the next day, or even the same day, if you just happen to send something in while they’re reading submissions, but it’s just as likely you won’t hear back for weeks (or months). Don’t try to read meaning into it, it’s just how long it can take to work through a backlog of submissions.
2. Hear back (maybe…) As much as rejections aren’t fun, it’s better than one alternative–not hearing back at all. While some agents/publishers are really good about getting back to everyone who submits to them, some you won’t hear back from unless they’re interested in seeing more/publishing you.
If you receive a rejection letter:
1. Brush it off. Yeah, rejection always sucks, but it’s part of being an author. Perhaps they’ll let you know why they weren’t interested, more than likely it will just be a form “due to the high number of submissions we receive, we must be highly selective… blah blah blah. We don’t feel this project is right for us at this time.” It’s possible you were rejected because your novel reads like something a second grader would do, but it’s far more likely they don’t feel the genre’s really right for them, they think it could use a little more editing, or simply their catalogue is full and they aren’t looking for anything more for the time being.
2. Move on to the next batch of submissions. If you’re querying one at a time (by choice, or if you are submitting to people who don’t accept simultaneous submissions), go to the next name on your list and prepare your submission following their guidelines. If you’re querying in groups, pick the next few submissions you’re going to send off and send those.
3. Repeat until you get something other than a rejection.
If you don’t hear back:
Like I said, it can take forever to hear back from some agents/publishers for a number of reason (I submitted the story that was just accepted in February I think…) but at some point it can be fair to assume you aren’t going to hear back. There are no hard and fast rules as to when to give up, but:
1. If the publisher has time estimates (you should hear back in 4-6 weeks, three months, etc.) feel free to follow up at the end of that estimate. For example, if it says 4-6 weeks for the initial query, and it’s been six weeks, feel free to write a quick “I emailed this query six weeks ago, I just wanted to make sure you had it” email. Hopefully they’re still working on it. If you still don’t hear anything in the next week or so, start feeling free to move on.
2. If there’s no time estimate as to when you’ll hear back, give the acquisitions editor 6-8 weeks, roughly, before writing them off. You may still hear from a long-lost submission much later on, but if 8 weeks have passed and you still have no answer, personally I find it safe to assume you won’t be hearing from that agent/publisher. And, again in my personal experience, I don’t find even people who don’t allow simultaneous submissions getting upset if they email back months later to find you’ve submitted elsewhere. There may be some, but if they don’t state you will hear back from them, after a few months it’s generally accepted that you aren’t supposed to sit around waiting to hear forever, especially those who know you won’t be submitting elsewhere while waiting for them. (For example, someone accepted a story of mine six months after I submitted to them once, which caused me to have to pull it from another “no simultaneous submissions” publisher. They were very understanding, as it had been long enough that I shouldn’t have reasonably expected a reply from the first press).
3. Submit to the next batch of agents/publishers. Once again, you keep going until you get something other than a rejection or no response.
You get a “we’d like to see more” letter:
1. First, be happy. Speaking from experience, approximately 95 percent of stories/novels (sent to reputable publishers) don’t even get this far in the submissions process. It means that you have a story interesting enough that someone wants to read it, and your writing is actually pretty good (in their opinion). You aren’t getting published yet, but it’s definitely something to be proud about.
2. Follow the guidelines sent to you in the letter or email to submit additional materials. Generally this is going to be the rest of your novel (if you only submitted a sample) but they may ask for other things as well. Make sure to follow their guidelines exactly (what file format, where to send it, what to include) and send off anything else they want as quickly as possible (if you keep them waiting around for a month after they request a full manuscript, you may have lost your chance. It’s possible they’ve signed someone else and their catalogue/client list is now full).
3. Wait. Yes, more waiting. And for possibly longer this time. It takes more time reading and judging a full novel than it does a submission for the most part. You also should not be sending out more queries/submissions at this point. It is good manners to wait to hear back from someone reading your full novel rather than keep submitting to others. If you don’t hear back for a while, feel free to follow up. As “fulls” (full manuscripts) are requested from fewer authors, it’s general practice that youwill hear one way or the other about the agent/publisher’s decision.
You get a “We liked the submission, but we aren’t actually going to publish you after reading the full” letter.
1. Be bummed, but brush it off. It happens. You’re trying to make it from the 5 percent who get fulls requested to the 1 percent that gets published, some times you are in the 4 percent who don’t end up with a publishing contract at the end of it, sadly. It’s a let down, but think of it positively. Someone liked you enough to put you in the top 5 percent. Hopefully you’ll find someone else who likes it just that little bit extra. All signs are pointing positive.
2. Go back and start submitting to the new batch of agents/publishers. If you run out of your first list, do some more research and look for more reputable agents/publishers to submit to.
You get a “We want to publish you” letter:
This can come either right after the initial submission (generally will for short stories, or can possibly happen if you send in your full manuscript to start with), or it can come after submitting a full manuscript. Either way, it is certainly the best type of letter.
1. Be happy. Jump up and down if you’re the type. Smile. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve made it to the 1 percent (and not the 1 percent that will have Occupy Wall Street after you). It’s a big accomplishment. HOWEVER, don’t write back/call everyone you know until you’ve calmed down.
2. Ask to review the contract. This is why you want to calm down some before responding/telling everyone. Publishing is a business. You need to protect your interests. Perhaps where you submitted didn’t come up with any scam reports, but there’s something fishy when you look at the contract. Read it fully, ask questions, and if you can’t work it out, walk away. Yes, it’s painful after all the submitting and work you’ve done to get this far, but it’s a bad idea to sign the first thing people put in front of you just because you want to be published. Make sure you maintain the rights of your work, that you aren’t paying for anything (you don’t pay agents or publishers, they get paid when they sell your book), and the contract terms are favorable. If it’s your first time looking at a publishing/agent contract, perhaps try to talk someone who might know what to look for. Publishing contracts, like any contract, are legally binding. You don’t want to hurt yourself before you even get your book out.
3. Negotiate. Even if you aren’t planning on walking away from the contract, you can always feel free to try to negotiate. Agents/Publishers do tend to have the upper hand (if they don’t publish you, there are another hundred people happy to take your place) so don’t be demanding/outrageous (I demand a 1 million book initial run with 75 percent royalties!) but you certainly don’t have to be a pushover. Really, if you’re being reasonable, the worst they can say is no. For my two books coming out this summer, one I negotiated slightly higher royalties, the other I negotiated having a print run at the same time as the ebook run, rather than ebook and then print later on. If the publisher/agent likes your book enough to want to print it/represent it, they’ll probably be willing to work with you a little on contract terms. If they aren’t just decide if it’s something you can live with, or if it’s worth trying to find someone else.
4. Sign the contract. Once you have a contract with any changes you’ve agreed upon, sign it and send it off to the agent/publisher. Some groups will accept electronic signatures/scanned signatures. Some want a hard copy/ink signature. The bigger the project, the more likely you’re going to be sending a signed contract in the mail. In that case, the publisher/agent should then likewise sign the contract and send a copy back to you.
5. Celebrate. Now comes the time when you call all your friends and family, taunt those who belittled your writing, whatever you plan on doing to celebrate. You’ll have edits, and covers, and who knows what else in the next few months in preparation of your book launch, but for now, enjoy it. It’s an accomplishment.