Sunday, January 31, 2010

Thinking of Publishing?

The joy of private writing is real, but what if you do want to publish? Where to start? A very important word, your new best friend word, is query. It’s both a verb and an adjective. It’s something you’ll probably have to do. That and research take on new meaning, new importance for you.

If you have an idea for a magazine article, you could just write it and send it around to see who will publish it; but that won’t do in most cases. You would better off to query, that is to ask, if a particular magazine would be interested. An editor is more likely to read a brief letter than a full article. Do your research by checking out submission guidelines on their website and follow them. When your parents gave you good guidelines, such as what time to be home, those weren’t helpful hints. They were rules. Treat publishing guidelines the same way.

If you are trying to publish a book, you’ll need to send a query letter. How that letter reads is very dependent on what type of book you are trying to pitch. Is it a collection of short stories or a novel? You’ll need to send a letter to tell what your book is about, who it is about, what happens to them and why would anybody read it. Then you tell about yourself and your previous successes. You do this on one page with preferably no more than about 400 words single spaced. If that is not enough space for you, then you are not ready to make the pitch. Practice until you can do it. Helpful hint: Do not say fiction novel. That’s redundant. Showing yourself to be that much of a novice is not good. It is bad.

If your book is nonfiction, such as your opinion or great knowledge of the current economic situation, be prepared to write about your platform. That does not mean you get to pontificate in a query letter. It means you had better have some experience and expertise, your platform, to stand on for anyone to consider taking on your work. In this case you will have to do a query letter to see if you could send them your book proposal. Be ready to explain why anyone should read a book by you on the topic and who those readers may be.

For narrative nonfiction, such as true crime stories or memoir, you’ll query much like you did for fiction. Here the writing has to be better than anyone else writing about the same situation. You have to believe that and get someone else to believe it, without bragging. For memoir you need an intriguing story and insightful experience – at least insight into your own experience that could be interesting or beneficial to a reader. Two stories, I used to do drugs but now I don’t and I had a sad childhood, have been done. You’ll need a really compelling query letter to get far anyway; but if you have either of those stories to tell, you’ve need extra effort.

Where do you send the query letter for your book? You could start with small regional publishers, particularly if your writing has some local flavor. You could also go right to the big boys, the New York City large publishing houses, but I wouldn’t. The best place to start is with an agent.

You don’t know any literary agents? No problem. Once you start looking they are everywhere. They blog, they teach workshops, and they get thank you’s from their clients in those client’s books. If nothing else has worked, goggle literary agent. That will get you going.

Research is crucial. Don’t start sending out a bunch of loosely woven queries. You can’t take them back. One good resource is the blog, Guide to Literary Agents written by Chuck Sambuchino. From there you can branch out to many recommend sites, like climbing a wonderful, never ending tree. I have subscribed for a few years. You can find it here: and listed on the right.

Once you’re ready to send a query to a particular agent, check their guidelines and follow them. Do not send mystery or romance to someone looking to represent memoir. Do not send your first three chapters to someone who asks to begin with a query letter. Do not email to someone who wants the first contact to be snail mail. Do not call. If they have any interest, they’ll contact you. Be sure, doubly sure, to put your contact info in your query.

Two more things, one is good news and one is a disclosure. The good news is that if you are trying to sell a book of poetry, you can skip the agent process. Query directly to the appropriate publisher with some sample poetry. It may seem easier, but sadly it is less likely to be profitable.

Now the disclosure, I am entering the "Dear Lucky Agent" contest on the Guide to Literary Agents blog, so I am mentioning that blog in this post as part of that contest. Everything I have said is true, though. I read that blog regularly and have found a wealth of resources there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the great information, Ellie!


from the desk of a writer

Ellie O'Leary said...

You're welcome. Hope someone finds it helpful.

Anonymous said...

This is great information, Ellie. I met with an agent last November and made many mistakes. Your guidelines are very concise and would have saved me some angst had I known. It was painful... but I learned a lot and what you write here is very useful.

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