It's not always easy, getting published; in fact, it's damned hard
by D. J. Herda
Let’s face it. Getting published is a God-awful adventure. The process of turning a manuscript into a published document is a long and convoluted one and can happen in one of several ways, some even deliberate. This process is nearly the same whether marketing a book to a publishing house or a shorter work, such as an article or short story, to a magazine or newspaper, although some practical differences apply.
First, publishers are notoriously slow in responding to queries or submissions. It’s not uncommon for an editor to keep a writer waiting for a response for from two or three weeks up to six months or longer. I once received a rejection slip from an editor nearly three years after the submission! I’d long since given up on hearing from him, assuming simply that he’d died. Who can afford to spend six months to a year working on a book—or even a couple of weeks on an article—with no income and no positive feedback to sustain himself?
Second, if you spend months of your life working on a project that simply has no market value (as in no one—and I mean no one—wants it!) and come up empty-handed, you’re not going to be a freelance writer for long.
Finally, even if you spend months working on a project, send it out, and have it accepted, you could still end up kicking yourself for not having marketed it sooner. Even the most receptive editor is likely to say something like, “Yeah, I really love this story. But I think Danny should be the murderer, and Rhonda should be the victim ... and she shouldn’t be a marine biologist, she should be an airline stewardess ... and you shouldn’t kill her off in Chapter 7, you should wait until the last paragraph. That way it builds suspense. If you can give me that, we’ve got a deal.”
Imagine how much more productive it would have been to have been told that right up front—before you’d spent a lifetime writing the entire book instead of producing a simple outline or synopsis to shop around. Get the picture?
Which brings up the approach that a really productive writer takes when writing a book: he starts with an outline, usually chapter-by-chapter. Then he condenses the outline into a synopsis, which is basically the entire story told in a few pages or less. Finally, he boils the synopsis down to a blurb—a few sentences that do the same thing as the synopsis, with less detail. The outline is for his own use. The synopsis will be sent to the publisher. And the blurb will be useful in creating an effective query letter—more about that later. But for now ...
Naturally, it’s absolutely critical that a writer fit the genre of his work to a publisher who is actively seeking that genre. A publisher who specializes in Romance will not, under any circumstances, even consider a Sci-Fi novel or a Mystery, no matter how good it is. Publishers develop specialized markets, called “niches,” into which their readers—and, even more importantly, their wholesale outlets, such as Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble retail stores--fall. Worse still, they stick to them.
One of the most successful examples of niche publishing is the Romance publisher, Harlequin (which is so associated with the genre that the name of the company was once Harlequin Romance). Harlequin now has several divisions, called “Imprints,” that specialize in different types of Romance fiction—Contemporary, Historical, Action, Fantasy, etc. For Harlequin even to consider a writer’s proposal, the novel would have to fit into one of those Romance subcategories. Miss the category, and the result is a sure, swift, and irrevocable kick in the ego. The same holds true with other, less specialized publishers.
Adding to the general difficulty of finding a suitable publisher, some houses change their “actively seeking” list more often than you change socks, depending upon the anticipated buying trends by the reading public for the upcoming publishing season. (Publishers usually produce new lists twice a year—spring and fall—when they introduce that season’s new work.)
For example, Publishers-R-Us might normally publish Action-Adventure, Sci-Fi, Mystery, and Western novels. But, because they recently hired a hot-shot editor who specializes in signing top-quality Literary novels or because the editor left his last job and brought four top-selling Literary novelists with him or even because Publishers-R-Us thinks that Literary novels will be the rage next season, they suddenly begin a search for the latter at the expense of the former. While they might not summarily reject an Action-Adventure or a Western novel that comes across the transom, they’re far more likely to pay more attention to Literary novels crossing their threshold—at least for as long as the in-house trend lasts.
Before submitting a book proposal to a publisher, then, a writer needs to be able to do a couple of things. He must first run some sort of search of all publishers seeking the same genre that he hopes to market so that he can eliminate the need to contact those who will reject his proposal outright (saving an enormous amount of time and effort in the process). Most writers begin their searches by checking the publishers’ market listings, the most popular of which is Writer’s Market, http://writersmarket.com.
The Query or Book Proposal
The writer then sends the query letter, synopsis, and SASE to the publisher and waits to hear some positive feedback. (By the way, novices send material UPS, Federal Express, or Special Delivery - Return Receipt Requested. Real writers send things First Class. Period!)
As an alternative to sending out a query letter and synopsis—which, as we’ve already seen, can take a lifetime to return and almost always results in a pre-printed rejection slip—some writers first contact an editor who seems a likely publishing candidate via e-mail, asking, in effect, if his publishing house might be interested in receiving a submission. The e-mail (which, of course, is much quicker to send and usually much quicker to receive back) might go something like this:
Although being quicker and less costly to send than a snail-mail proposal, the e-mail query is not acceptable to all editors. This is because most still live in the Middle Ages where correspondence and submissions are concerned and demand that hard copy be delivered via snail-mail. But for those editors who do accept e-mail queries, it’s the way to go in order to minimize wasted time and effort.
A word of caution: Don’t assume that, if e-mailing an editor is quick, telephoning is even quicker. It is, but only if you’re looking for the shortest route to the unemployment line. Unless a publisher’s market listing specifically requests that writers call with ideas, avoid doing so at all cost. Most editors are far too busy to take calls from hopeful writers looking for a quick and painless way into print, and they avoid those writers like botulism.