This is not a post about writing computer code or database queries, for the record. It’s about talking to literary agents.
I was reviewing a query letter this morning, as a favor to someone important to me, not because I’m some kind of expert in writing query letters to agents. The letter was fine in some ways. It was personally directed at the agent and demonstrated that the writer had researched the agent’s specific interests. Good. It connected the dots between the agent’s interests and the book in question. Good. It described the gist of the book coherently. Good. And finally, it explained the writer’s relevant credentials. All good.
The thing is: when I got to the end of the letter, I wasn’t sold. I had to spend some time pondering what wasn’t working for me to realize how on point that description of my reaction was: I WAS NOT SOLD.
The writer had taken the approach of trying to use the letter to demonstrate their narrative style…which happens to be lyrical and indirect in that Jane Austen sort of way that sneaks up on you from behind and smacks you in the back of the funny bone with a killer punchline you weren’t expecting. The style is brilliant for delivering gentle-yet-sharp observations on society, and it’s a gem of a choice for the book in question. A query letter, however, offers neither the space nor the communication objectives for this style to do its best work. The result? The letter was passive and confusing.
The fundamental problem in the way the author was thinking about the letter was that they weren’t focused on the question of selling. I want to reiterate here that I’m not any kind of expert on talking to agents…I’ve been intentionally exploring the indie thing and have literally never queried an agent in my life. I’m a writer, though, with a lot of writer friends and a few agents I pay attention to peripherally, and what has stood out to me from watching the ones who actually make money at it (unlike me) is that the point of a relationship between writers, agents, and publishers is TO SELL BOOKS.
Agents might take on the odd risky passion project when they’ve got time and money to burn, but by and large, when they take on a new client, it’s because they see in that person and their work an opportunity to make money. This is not because they are cynical or hardened or sellouts: making money at selling books is what allows them to continue being employed in their much-loved and extremely competitive field.
What this means to me is that the primary job of a query letter is to make it crystal clear to a prospective agent that your book will be easy to sell. They read huge numbers of these letters: if they have to do the work of extrapolating the quality of your writing style in its best context and then imagine for themselves how they can turn that work into a consumer-friendly pitch, they might just move on. A query letter has to do that work for them.
The other thing I’ve observed is that agents want to see that a new client is going to be a good partner for the time-intensive work of bringing a book to publication and selling it. If a query letter requires an agent to wander a garden maze of misdirection to hunt down the point, it suggests that professional communication with the given writer is going to be time-consuming, exhausting, and full of misunderstandings. In short: it would be a pain in the ass. Your query letter needs to you as a business partner as much as it sells your work.
We must be able to codeswitch with our writing, to use the right words for the right context. If you’re writing poetry, write the best poetry you can. If you’re writing a query letter, get out the scalpel and write a business letter.
For the curators of, The Final Summons we encountered a lot of firsts. While none of us are slouches when it comes to publishing and the written word, taking on a leadership role provided a unique insight into the world of submissions. We received more submissions than we originally anticipated and the caliber of writing ranged from poetically perfect to rough draft at best. However, we poured through them, discussing the merits of each story and how it would combine into a cohesive anthology. We fought passionately for the stories we loved and had to make tough decisions. There were victories, many of them, but there were also a series of eye rolls that had us asking, “What were they thinking?” We wanted to provide some insight into this newly discovered world that we think will help authors in submitting short stories for anthologies.
Follow the Guidelines.
It sounds simple, but we were shocked by how many people didn’t follow the guidelines. We clearly stated you must be a member of the New England Speculative Writers and located in New England, yet we received submissions from across the United States. We asked authors to include some basic information such as word counts and a tag line. While we were able to fill in the gaps as necessary, the extra work made us move these titles to the bottom of the slush pile. Imagine a publisher receiving hundreds of entries? The fastest way to get rid of the muck (even the best written muck in existence) is to see if an author did these basic steps. If they haven’t, it’s a way to be stricken before you’re even read.
It gets trickier when it comes to “theme” or the anthology “vision.” We left our topic extremely broad to give writers the most latitude possible. However, some of the stories were so off topic it was obvious they were written for another anthology. Some of the stories never even came close to reaching the theme. We got aggravated when an author wasted our time with a story that had no business being submitted. Now unfortunately, those authors’ names are associated with that aggravation. It means the next time they submit, they walk in with a strike against them. So when submitting, make sure it hits the theme squarely enough that you leave a good impression. Previously submitted stories are welcome, even encouraged, but they need to be on “brand.” This might require a little bit of rewriting or tidying up a plot. The extra effort shows.
Short vs. Epic.
The most common thing we said while reading the submissions was, “This isn’t a short story, it’s a condensed novel.” There were some great stories to be had, but some of them weren’t short stories, not even by a long shot. Epic tales are amazing, but they need the room to breathe, develop, and flush out an intense plot. We sent several stories back with notes suggesting that the author take the story and use it as a building block for a lengthy epic tale. The stories were good, some even compelling and wonderful, but they need more than 7,000 words.
With such a tiny word allotment (and let’s be honest, some of us write 100,000 novels that only touch the tip of the iceberg) these epic tales won’t work. In a short story, the world building has to be done in a manner that works alongside the story and not a heap of information at the start. Submissions that started with an uncanny amount of “info dumping” put us on alert. We didn’t need to know the background of the world, how it came to be, or why magic/technology was at its current incarnation. Sometimes the mystery of not knowing is even more alluring. We need a single character (or perhaps two) to exist in a world that we experienced through them. If they don’t meet elves along their journey, there’s almost no point in mentioning them (even if you know they exist in this world.)
Listen & Digest.
We decided at the start that no matter what we read, we’d provide positive feedback to the author. We believed this to be an essential part of the process with New England Speculative Writers. Sometimes we focused on mechanics, sometimes it was centered around plot, it all depended on the author and what their work needed. Never once did we feel that a story was unsalvageable.
We understand that veteran authors have resources, such as beta readers, critique groups, even editors working with them when they prepare to submit short stories. We are not them. We are a set of virgin eyes, exploring your world (and often your writing) for the first time. We come in without bias wanting the very best of your characters and your plot. We aren’t on the hunt for perfection (not a single story was accepted without feedback) we are on the hunt for potential. With work, passion, and an open mind, even the flattest characters can be rounded and rocky stories can be smoothed. When an author criticizes our feedback, it says two things instantly: 1) I’m difficult to work with or 2) I’m incapable of being a team player.
Having submitted to dozens of anthologies, we know that most often, you receive a form letter. This goes for agents and publishers as well. So when an agent/editor/publisher gives you advice, you don’t have to take it, but you do have to stop and consider it. Are they speaking accurately? Truthfully? Are they offering words to uplift your story? Many people wrote back when they resubmitted saying, “I liked your first two points, but I tried your third and it just didn’t work.” We’re not perfect either, but when we get responses saying somebody has attempted our suggestion we see “TEAM PLAYER” and it excites us to build a relationship. Don’t burn your bridges.
This is a double edge sword. You need information, but you don’t want to pester. We found both sides of this happened while we were open for submissions. We had forthright questions, “Do you see any gaps in your submissions?” all the way to, “I have a pitch, can I get feedback?” We responded to as many as we could with as much information as we could. But there came a point when some of the questions stopped being about needing information and turned into needing validation.
Ask a question if you must. But remember you are one of dozens of emails each day. When it became obvious some of the emails were essentially asking us for a plot so they could write the story, we ceased communication. Needing facts is very different from needing creative energy. Ask facts. Be specific, be clear, and be concise. If time allows, you’ll receive a similar answer. However, if your answer requires time, energy, and especially creative energy, you might be overstepping boundaries.
Ask questions through the proper channels. Yes, we have twitter and Facebook which allow us instant access. Some of the authors even have our cell phone numbers. Text and you’re dead to us. Shoot a fast message on Facebook, we’ll try to respond. Put it in the official email, then it feels like business and we want to foster professional relationships, so that gets the fastest (and most thorough) answers. Seeking out on social media is okay if you’re tight with the editor, but don’t abuse it. Some of us only use Facebook to swap recipes with our moms. Social media is still not considered a professional line of communication (your mileage may vary with this statement.)
Patience is a Must.
In the fast paced world of self-publishing, an author can finish writing a book and have it published in days. Even micro publishers move within months where the old model of traditional publishing can take years. Times are changing and with deadlines and quick production, there is a sense of urgency. “Did I get in?” “Any word?” “When will the decision be made?” The more these questions are asked, the more stress/pressure goes on the publisher. We’re not saying don’t ask, it’s important to your livelihood to know these things, but give it time. Even with forty submissions, it took us nearly two months to read and provide feedback. As each of us have full-time jobs, as do many small presses and free lance editors. We spent every available moment reading and making comments. The editorial process takes time.
With many self published authors simply putting their book online and wondering why sales aren’t taking off, it needs to be a constant reminder that success takes time as well. Curating and providing feedback is only half the job. We spent countless hours preparing a marketing plan on how to fund, produce, and market our anthology. We set the publish date a year into the future to allow time for editing, cover production and pre-orders. Always feel free to ask what the “plan” is, but be aware, the time-table might not be a mad dash to the finish line.
We debated on what should go onto this list. We had many other thoughts and considerations, but these we felt were a universal truth with our anthology and beyond. As always, we want to watch our authors flourish, so we hope this bit of insight behind the scenes of The Final Summons, helps guide your hand in future anthology submissions!
BAM! You’ve written a book. A contract is on the table. A pen stroke later your fate is sealed. If you’re lucky, an agent is acting as a resource, making sure the terms and conditions work for you. They’re explaining the fine print and in the long run, their commission should include making you aware of what the document you’re about to sign contains. In the world of indie publishing, agents are a luxury and often times authors navigate the legalities on their own. Contained within that contract are a list of rights being requested by the publisher. Let’s demystify the complex terminology.
The story you’ve written is yours for the moment. When you give away rights, any rights, you are giving away pieces of ownership to your story. These actions might be partial, whole, temporary, or permanent. It’s up to you as the author to keep track of your rights and what you have to give away. Failure to do so could result in something as mild as being black-listed by a publisher to legal ramifications.
Copyright – You are the copyright holder. This is your creation, born from your imagination. It might also be referred to as originator or the assignee (which means you legally have the ability to sign documents on behalf of this work.)
Exclusive – A contract will almost always include the word exclusive. The publisher wants to be the only person able to reproduce your work in a particular medium. They may only ask for exclusive digital rights, meaning they are the only company who can produce your work for the duration of your contract.
Non-Exclusive – You are allowing a publisher to print your work, but retain the ability to print it with another publisher at the same time. This is common in anthologies. They may ask for exclusive rights for a set amount of time and then revert to non-exclusive allowing you to reprint it elsewhere.
First Option – The publisher wants the ability to offer you a contract for your next work (usually in the same universe as your originally contracted work) before you send it other publishers or self-publish. This can work in your favor to help you skip the typical submission process. Make sure it has a termination date if no offer is made so you can publish it elsewhere if your first publisher is not interested.
Print – You are giving away the physical rights to your story. This means the intent is to produce a physical, tangible material. It can include magazines, novels, novellas, or anthologies, but it only means the physical product.
Digital – You are giving away the digital rights to your story. Often this means eBook or digital magazines rights but can also include content on a website. However, now with the advent of audio, some contracts lump them together. It is best to make sure your contract explicitly states digital AND audio in that case.
Audio – You are giving away the digital and physical rights to audio. Physical and digital you ask? Yes, some places still produce CD’s for audio books. Some publications include podcasting in with their audio rights as it is still voice actors interpreting your work.
Worldwide – This means rights for the entire planet, folks. If they say “worldwide print,” this means they own print rights everywhere from India, to Croatia, to the United States. Some contracts use this as a blanket statement because they want everything despite having no intention of printing in international markets. Unless the publisher has a reputation for doing outstanding international work, this should be narrow as possible. Worldwide rights and only printing in the U.S. market removes your ability to print in French.
Language – Can get a bit more complicated than a simple territory. English rights is the most common (for U.S. residents) but without clarification in the contract, does this include English rights in the United Kingdom? Do Portuguese rights mean Portugal and Brazil? Make sure language is not the only thing dictating territories. For smaller presses it is extremely common that only English Language Rights are requested. If you are giving away your language rights for foreign territories, be sure the publisher has an established track record in that market.
One & Done
First Rights – You are giving away the “firstness” of your story. Nobody has ever published it before (including yourself.) This often includes if you’ve given away a story for free to your mailing list or on your website. First means first ever. Some publishers will split first into first print and first digital. Look for this specifically.
All Other Rights – Buyer beware. This phrase in a contract means the publisher is asking for rights for everything beyond the book as well. Television? Movies? Audio? Stage-Play? Comics? This phrase will rob you of every right to your book. This phrase should be a contract killer. If your book is highly successful, your publisher will have the ability to negotiate the television adaptation. Unless you’re certain you know what you’re doing, avoid at all costs.
Is this everything? Absolutely not. But it will help you start making sense of the open calls put on by publishers. If something in a contract or request appears vague, ask for clarification. If the publisher isn’t willing to provide it, that is the red flag necessary to move on. Even if you are approaching publishers without an agent, have somebody with legal expertise examine your contract. There are professional organizations that will assist authors. It’s stressful, it’s exciting, but be sure you are worrying about your long-term career as you put ink to the contract.
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Let’s face it, publishing is not like it used to be. Thanks to innovations in ebook and marketing technology, literally anyone can upload a book and become a published author in hours or even minutes—but not everyone wants to do that, and frankly, not everyone should.
Whether or not the relative ease of self-publishing is good for the industry is a can o’ worms for another post. What we’re going to talk about today are the three broad categories of authors that the rise in self-publishing has created: traditional, indie, and hybrid.
Disclaimer: for the purposes of this article, I’m referring to publishing a novel-length work. Practices differ for other forms, therefore I advise that the writers of such works research accordingly.
If you’re a traditionally published author, that means that after you finished your manuscript you queried agents and/or publishers directly, sent submissions, bit your nails to the quick while waiting for a response, and eventually signed a contract to have your work published. There are many pros to being traditionally published, including broad distribution, bookstore placement, professional editing and cover art, and possible marketing assistance.
But with the good comes the bad, or at least the inconvenient. Since your publisher is bankrolling this project, they (usually, check your contracts for exact wording) get final say on all story decisions, including characters, word count, and cover art. There can also be communication issues; depending on the size of your publisher and it may be difficult or nearly impossible to get answers about your work, where you are in production, and even when you can expect your first royalty statement.
At the other end of the spectrum is the indie or self-published author. The best part about being indie is that the author controls everything about their work, from initial edits to cover art to marketing. The worst part about being indie is that the author controls everything, as in no one is helping you fund this literary masterpiece. And publishing isn’t just expensive, it’s EXPENSIVE; it’s not unheard of for edits to cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and that’s not including formatting, cover art, and the bazillion and twelve other things you need to pay for. Suddenly, sending out queries doesn’t seem so bad, huh?
Having said that, when you’re indie you have the freedom to write whatever you want, with no editors or agents telling you it’s not what the market wants, or that such-and-such genre just doesn’t sell any longer. For many authors, indie is the only way to go. If you have a good head for business, and aren’t afraid to invest time and money and do the work, indie publishing might be right for you.
In the middle of the road we have the hybrid author. This can mean one of two things: an author that has some works traditionally published, while others are self-published, or an author who has signed on with one of the smaller ebook publishers that have been popping up like dandelions. If you’re considering an ebook publisher, bear in mind that while they will assist you with editing, formatting, and cover art, you won’t have a large (or any) presence in bookstores, and their marketing assistance tends to be limited to a few social media posts. However, some works are well suited to ebooks (romance in particular), so if you’re willing to take on the brunt of marketing, but aren’t quite ready to round-up your own editor and cover artists, a hybrid publisher might be your best option.
There you have it, a very high level overview of the three main forms of publishing. Clear as mud, right? No matter how you choose to publish your work, I encourage you to do your research. Read industry news, follow agents on Twitter, get out there and talk to other authors. If you’re presented with a contract read it thoroughly, ask for assistance on any and all unfamiliar terms, and for all that is holy do not sign anything you don’t fully understand and agree with. Believe me, I understand the desire to get your work out into the world, but no contract is a million times better than a bad contract.
And after you’ve successfully navigated the minefield that is modern publishing, take time to celebrate. Getting published is a huge deal regardless of what road you took to get there. Cheers!