January 27, 2015
Here it is, a new year, and for sure in 2015 you are going to fulfill that lifelong dream (or maybe it just came to you recently on a particularly bad day at work) to write a bestselling book. You have an awesome idea already, so all you have to do is A) write the book, and B) get it published. The bestselling part will take care of itself.
Now to get to work. Writing the book... writing the book... writing the... Hmmm, not as easy as it looks. But still, it's a great a idea. The publisher can clean it up. Better jump directly to step B, getting published. Once you get the whole angle on the publishing thing - and maybe even an advance - you will certainly be able to write the book. You just need to know what font to use, where to upload the file, and when to expect your first check, and you'll be all set.
"Yahoo, Google, Siri, find me a publisher! Someone in my area code."
Surely there is one, and they will have operators standing by ready to tell you everything you need to know about writing a book, getting it published, and making it a bestseller, right? Oh, and movie deals, and...
...And my phone rings... I will spare you a full accounting of the most recent awkward conversation. Instead - just in case you recognized yourself a moment ago, I will list the questions you absolutely should not ask in such a phone call, and the answers you would get if you asked them.
1) I'm thinking about writing a book, what should I do?
Harry Willson, founder of Amador Publishers, had this all-time best answer to the first question:
Serious prospective authors do not call publishers on the phone to ask about publishing their books. Ever. Look on the internet or in one of many reference books in the library, which the librarian will happily show you, that provide information about publishers, their publications and their procedures.
Now suppose that you are fortunate enough to know or meet a publisher (if you consider it good fortune to have grumpy, overworked people in your life). Here's what not to say if you ever hope to make fruitful contact about your book; and, so you will not be remotely tempted to utter these things, I will include typical responses (shown in parens., polite version):
I have a book that will make a lot of money. (Go for it. Let me know how that works out.)
My book is so unique, I can't tell you what it's about; everyone is going to want to get in on this, and I'm not letting anyone see it until I have a contract. (Good luck with that.)
My book is going to make a great movie. (You mean it's not a great book.)
I want to publish so I can retire from [insert any profession with steady paycheck]. (You are deluded.)
No one's allowed to edit my stuff. (Plan to self-publish.)
It's already been edited/proofread by my [insert any relative] so it's ready to be published. (I seriously doubt it.)
I don't use a computer. (Plan to pay someone to digitize everything for you and handle your correspondence.)
I'm not interested in selling books, I just want a few copies to give away. (You need a print shop not a publisher.)
You'll really be missing out if you don't publish me; I'm going to be the next [insert any author or self-help guru you've heard of]. (Wow, missing out on dealing with you and your ego for the rest of my professional life? I'll try to bear it.)
Okay, enough snark! Thanks for bearing with me while I vented.
Now, with sincerity and sympathy, I will address the many aspiring authors who have worked hard on your writing and your manuscripts and have created original works of value and quality. You have followed all the instructions and played by the rules, but the only publishers you hear back from are those asking you to pay them to put your work in print, or (as I did until very recently) to even look at the work. It's discouraging, I know, but ask yourself these questions:
When was the last time you bought a literary book? (Cookbooks, picture books and coffee-table books do not count.) Who did you buy it from? What did you pay for it? Was it new or used? Was it a print edition? How much have you spent on books of any kind this year?
Think about the hours that will be put into prepping your book for publication (you hope!), and the additional hours and up-front costs for production and marketing (you hope!). How many copies would have to be sold to cover that? How long will it take to sell them? Small presses do not have that kind of cash floating around. Do you know that it can take 90 days to a full year to collect payment from our book distributors? (And the smaller we are, the longer it takes to get paid.) Publishers have to eat too. I know only a few who can make ends meet on their publishing business alone. Often, owners of small presses are writers themselves, as I am. I have my own books to write, polish, publish and sell, and each of the books that I have published has been a labor of love and a financial challenge.
Look at it this way: Publishing is the beginning of one's writing career and not the endpoint. Do not wait for one of the big seven (or are there only five now?) publishers to come knocking with a five-digit advance. It's never been easier to produce a book. Pick a way to publish and do it now, but do it well. Go for quality, starting with the writing. If you're serious about it, you will sooner or later pay others to critique, edit and/or proof your work. Your helpers need not be on staff at a publishing company, but a publisher can tell when a manuscript has had that kind of attention. It's unfortunate but not unreasonable that some of us must either ask for fees to get the material into shape or decline to work with it.
There is one thing an aspiring author can do before contacting any publisher, something which will always be appreciated and will be beneficial to both the author and the entire book industry: buy a book. You are about to approach a publisher about publishing your book, which some day you will hope to sell - so find something on their list that relates to it, or simply looks like the book you want to produce, or (radical!) that you would like to read. Buy it, and see if it meets your expectations. If you still want to approach the publisher, let them know you are acquainted with their titles.
But whatever you do, don't call.
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