The paint dries

By on November 27th, 2010
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I’m in the waiting room of Operation: Get a Publisher. I sent out twenty query letters to small-to-medium-size presses and emailed four literary agents. All were contacted on September 17. Two months later, where do I stand?

2 literary agents said, “Thank you, it’s not my genre.”
1 literary agent never replied (I just emailed a follow up.)
1 literary said, “Sounds interesting, send me the first 10 pages.” That was on. 10/6. Nothing since. (I just emailed a follow up.)

12 presses sent me no response whatsoever. Not a word. Nada. Bupkis. Zip. Silent treatment. Cold shoulder. I’ll just shut up now. (Like them.)

2 presses sent me a polite, “Thank you, this does not fit our interests at this time.”

2 press sent me a polite, “Thank you for submitting, we’ll get back to you.”

1 press (Soft Skull Press) sent me an email on 10/15 saying, “Thanks for submitting. We changed our policy (and closed our New York office). We no longer accept un-agented submissions.” Skull-fuck you, Soft Skull. Just kidding.

1 press said, “We’re sorry, we’re not considering new books until 2013.”

1 press said, “We’ll take a look, but just so you know, we’re now looking at books for 2012.”

And 1 press responded on 9/22, “Thank you for your interest in XXXXXX Press. We’d like to take a further look at your manuscript. I love fairytales, and psychedelic ones are even more exciting. “ I’m censoring the name because I don’t think it would appropriate to publicize it here, but…yeehaw!!! I consider this quite a victory. Even if they don’t publish it, I’m still quite pleased that I got past the query letter with one of the presses. They indicated that they take about six months to evaluate a book so I won’t hear back until March.

In the meantime, I’m living up to my recommendation that a writer should never sit on her heels while waiting to hear from a publisher. I haven’t started my next book, but I am following the self-publishing path just in case I don’t land a publisher. I’ve managed to come to an agreement with a designer to design my novel for publication. He’s a friend who also designed this website. I got a friend discount, but at the same time, my book will be quite complicated to design because there are multiple fonts, visual text poetry, images, and a couple scenes where several conversations are occurring simultaneously. So it will be a bear to design. But if you’re wondering how much it costs to hire a talented designer, I’m paying $1500 in three installments—each time we’re done with 1/3 of the book, he gets $500. My book will be roughly 300 pages long, but I would assume for most authors interested in self-publishing, they could probably get a cheaper rate if they don’t have fancy formatting.

My goal is to have the book ready to send to the printers by May. If I haven’t gotten a solid bite from a publisher by then, I’ll be ready to pull the trigger and my book will be out by the summer. A great beach read. If you like to trip balls at the beach, that is.


To query or not to query, that is the query

By on February 15th, 2010
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My latest blog entry has been a bit delayed because I’m still waiting on the final illustrations for my book. But finally! I’ll be receiving the last two pencil drawings tonight, providing feedback, and then getting the inked version later this week. I’ll have all the images I need to add to the book so I can finally share it with a small number of readers/writers to get feedback.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on my query letter. For those who don’t know, a query letter is the preferred method of approaching publishers. It’s intended to be a single page cover letter that serves to introduce your book. It follows a basic structure. Deviate from the format at your peril … publishers and literary agents have little time for shenanigans. Any mailing that tries too hard will likely head straight for the recycling cabana.

The anatomy of a query letter:
Introduction
Synopsis
Biography and closing

That’s it. Deceptively simple. Yet quite difficult in its own way.

The introduction should include a few key elements. It absolutely should include the title, page count, and genre. Even if your genre is ambiguous, you should at least classify it as “literary,” or “literary fantasy,” “alien romance police procedural,” “cook-book horror novel,” whatever you can do to help the editor or agent understand what type of book it is. Beyond that, there are a couple other elements you might consider:

Comparisons to other existing books or authors (as long as you’re careful not to come across as too presumptuous: “My novel, Dumby Spanks the Monk, combines the poetic artistry of Baudelaire with the wit of Oscar Wilde.”)

Discussion of the period or setting. Showing your knowledge of the milieux will help give you cred.

Description of a key theme. This is a more sophisticated approach and shows your book may not be mediocre.

A dramatic leap into the story. This is a risky choice. Bold, but it must be done right or it will flop.

Awards received and significant author credentials such as previously published works.

The synopsis is probably the hardest part. You need to boil your story down to roughly two or three short paragraphs. If you think your synopsis is too long, it is. If your book features a main character, then let the evolution of that character drive the synopsis more than a plot blow-by-blow.

Biography and closing is where you provide relevant information about your writing experience and any details that help qualify you for writing your book. For example, if you were once tortured by an accupuncturist, then it might be appropriate to mention that if your book is set in a political convention.

The last thing I’ll note is that as much as you should get outside feedback on your novel, you should get outside feedback on your query letter. I took a $70 webinar from Writer’s Digest here, which was a nice overview of the query letter structure, and the editor personally critiqued every single query letter submitted. She emailed me a pdf with comments and editorial suggestions. It was primarily helpful to me for the synopsis portion where it’s easy to describe too much. You need to get to the heart of the story in the synopsis.

And that is the heart of the query.


Where am I write now?

By on December 6th, 2009
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I am write, my friends. I am write.

1) I’ve completed my first final draft! ?!?! (See 3 below)

2) I am waiting on my illustrator. One scene in my book is fully illustrated (without text), and I’ve reviewed about 90% of the sketches so far and received about 2/3 of the final ink drawings.*

3) I will be soliciting some feedback (as well as submitting it to a professional proofreader to help catch any typos–it’s so easy to read your own material a hundred times and miss something because what it’s supposed to say is actually more in your head than on paper) and then making revisions as I see fit. After feedback revisions, I will have my second (and hopefully final) final draft. I like to name these drafts because when a process takes six years to complete (as this one has), counting drafts has allowed me to feel like I’ve made some progress. It’s an affirmation. After a few years of writing story material without needing to shape it, I went through eleven drafts to get where I am

I believe it’s important to solicit feedback, especially as a self-published author. I’m quite happy with the book as it is … actually I love it … but I would like to get reactions from a handful of other writers and friends before I start sending out query letters to publishers. I will consider all feedback (What is confusing? What did they love? How did they interpret/misinterpret some parts of it? etc.) and decide what, if anything, I want to change from there. I am comfortable with quite a level of misinterpretation of my themes and visions, but there may be certain things (wait…I didn’t want anyone to think that) that I want to revise. This feedback will be limited but useful as a sounding board.

4) I am waiting for a friend of mine to build a single-page mini-website for me (based on my design) that will function to play a song that I composed with a sound engineer and three musicians. This is the last piece of my book puzzle. There is a scene in my book where several characters play instruments together … a web address is mentioned indirectly, and if you visit the website, you will hear the music that the characters are performing.

5) After completing the next draft, and adding the illustrations and posting the song, I will write query letters to publishers and literary agent and pursue the self-publishing process simultaneously. Onward, ho! (And stop calling me a ho.)

* I essentially worked with the illustrator as a writer of a comic book might: I wrote a description of every image in detail and even took photographs of friends posing in every position I wanted represented. Then I worked with the illustrator for about a month to get the character sketches to a place that captured my vision. She has sent me pencil sketches of each frame, and I commented on them before she did the final ink drawers. They have actually come out quite beautifully!


Some prose about the cons of publishing

By on November 17th, 2009
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Publishers are not charities. Publishing is a business. Yes, we all here (and by “we” I mean “me”) are artsy-fartsy artist types who don’t like to dirty our hands with commerce. But even anarchist-primitivists like John Zerzan had to print books, or no one would read them.

If an author writes a book in the woods that never gets published, does anyone hear it scream?

Everyone wants a big-name publisher. Here’s why:

1) Prestige
2) Little work beyond the writing
3) Could lead to a career of subsequent books being published
4) Prestige

What about a mid- to small-size publisher? They do take care of design, printing and distribution. Might be less likely to lead to a career, but it can help. Not as much prestige, but again, you can say, “I’m a published author” over cocktail weenies.

Cons of finding a publisher:

1) #2 above is not completely accurate. Believe it or not, publishers do NOT necessarily do a great job, or even a good job, at promoting your book. You will have to do a lot of your own promoting to get the word out.
2) Your book will disappear if it doesn’t do well quickly. (No reprints because you don’t own the rights—the publisher does.)
3) You may not control quite a few aspects of the design, such as the cover.
4) You may wait a year and a half after the book is picked up for it to be available.
5) Chances are, you won’t make much money. $.50 – $1.50 per book.

The pros of self-publishing:

1) You will make significantly more money ($5 – $10 per book and full cover price when you sell directly).
2) If you find a publisher, you will have to do most of your own marketing anyway.
3) You own all rights and control every detail.
4) You can keep it available via Amazon, your own website, and other venues indefinitely.
5) You can get it out in the world quickly.
6) If it does decently, a publisher might pick you up later.
7) You dance indie, DIY, non-corporate style.

Cons of self-publishing:

1) More effective for non-fiction.
2) You are responsible for every detail.
3) You have to invest money upfront on design, printing, distribution and more.
4) You need to work to get bookstores and libraries to carry it.
5) You have to teach yourself the basics of publishing and promoting books.
6) Still does not get a lot of respect.

Next up: Where I am right now.


I am but one of 20,000.

By on November 8th, 2009
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And that’s being conservative. I have heard literary agents receive thirty to fifty query letters per day while some publishers receive up to one hundred query letters a day. (Wondering what a query letter is? More to come on that front in future posts.)

These numbers represent my competition in a year. The odds are frankly not in my favor as an “unpublished” author. Yes, there is more respect for self-publishing today than there used to be—and I have read that publishers are scouting self-published work—but they will still consider me “unpublished” because I do not have a name publisher. I’m just one peon in the slush pile no matter how good my book is.

Is it hopeless? No. Do I have great odds? No.

Another sad note is that when pursuing a literary agent or publisher from scratch, it can take years to strike gold. You send out letters; wait to hear back. Send out letters; wait to hear back. They request a chapter; you wait. Rejected again. Some of them steam the stamps off your SASE and reuse them. Finally, someone picks it up! Oh, I’m on the docket another year down the road? How many years am I willing to wait to see print? I suppose that trenchant social commentary about Michael Jackson’s death isn’t so relevant any more.

So, what is my overall strategy?

I will pursue literary agents and publishers (both large and small) while simultaneously moving down the self-publishing path. That way, whenever I am ready to give up on finding an agent or publisher (that is, when I’m sick of looking and too frustrated to continue), I will be prepared to immediately pull the trigger and publish the book myself, using the same publishing company I established for Death by Zamboni (Bedhead Books).

Because I will be designing my book meticulously and planning the self-publishing process out thoroughly, it will likely take me about that long to start shipping books anyway. If I waited to start the self-publishing process until after I gave up on the publishers then it would likely take me an additional year before the book saw print, which defeats the purpose. Another benefit of starting the self-publishing process is that if I do land a publisher, I will be able to hand off the book designed exactly as I want it to be. So my vision will be developed more precisely, and it will also be ready for printing sooner.

That’s the high-level approach I’m going to take.

Next up: the pros & cons of self-publishing versus landing a publisher. (And there are quite a few.)