Thursday, May 17, 2012

Goal Setting, Query Writing, and Picking Your Publisher

Last week, we discussed the three things you need in order to write an effective book. To recap, they are:
  1. Your book and/or topic must be UNIQUE to your platform and genre
  2. Your book--and definitely your topic--must be INTERESTING
  3. Your book must be WELL WRITTEN
In this installment of our "Get Published" series, we'll discuss how to approach the next step of the publishing process: finding an agent or publisher, or both.

You need to have goals. You need to have a specific goal for your book. It could really be any goal at all, but without one, you're not going anywhere. The goal might not even be attainable, but at least it gives you a place to start planning and deciding where you want to go when plying your manuscript.

Depending on your goal, you might want to go to a traditional publisher, get an agent, and take the time-honored and tediously rewarding path to getting your book published. Possibly, you could be better suited to an independent publisher that primarily focuses on niche publishing in specific genres for a specialized audience. Like thousands of writers, you may want to self-publish or find a vanity press.  Outlined below are the pros and cons of each type of publisher and which types of goals fit which group. There's a publisher out there for every writer, much like there's a book out there for every reader.

Traditional Publishers

There's something known as the "big six" in the United States, which refers to the six major traditional publishers. The group includes Random House, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Macmillan. Most of these are either subsidiaries of media conglomerates or have large international offices, or both.When people think of being published by a traditional publisher, likely they have one of these companies in mind.

Ideally, you want to be published by a big traditional publisher if your goals are a) make a ton of money, b) get famous, or c) reach a mass audience. Few authors do all or even one of these things, but the easiest way to have your book reach a large audience is through a traditional publisher, mostly because they only publish books they believe have this potential.

If you want to reach a niche audience, with targeted marketing, personal attention from publishing staff, and turn out a quality book--especially if you've already established a platform--traditional publishing is not for you. If you want your book published quickly, traditional publishing is not for you. If you want to have your hand held through the whole process, traditional publishing is not for you. And if you just really want to see something you've written in print, traditional publishing is not for you.

That said, the first thing you need to know about traditional publishers is that almost none of them accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can read their individual policies online, but for the most part they don't take them, which means if you send them one, it goes in the trash. If by chance they do accept them, the manuscript goes into the slush pile to be read by interns, slowly, over a period of weeks or months, depending on the size of the pile.

That means when you send an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher, it's going to get caught with possibly hundreds of others, and most of them won't be good. An unpaid intern is not going to read through your entire manuscript and make a decision about whether your book is worth sending on to an editor. If you're lucky, they'll read more than a page, and if you're very lucky, they might give you a chapter. But if that book doesn't hook the reader right away, it's out. So unless you're extremely confident that your book could outshine hundreds of others and not accidentally get overlooked, I wouldn't recommend the slush pile route.

If you're going to be published by a traditional publisher, you need an agent. The typical process goes like this: author sends agent query; agent requests partial, then full manuscript, then signs author for 20% of advance and royalties; agent sends manuscript to editors; editor gives an offer for manuscript; agent accepts offer on behalf of author; book gets published. Obviously, there are more steps than this, but first and foremost you need to grab your agent's attention and make them love your book. The way to do that is with a query letter.

It's a little known (or maybe oft ignored) fact that many agents don't accept unsolicited manuscripts either. The difference between an agent and a publisher is that if you send a query letter to an agent and they like the sound of your book, the will ask you to send more. If you send a query letter to a publisher, it will be shredded without a second glance.

There are blogs and books and articles galore about query letter etiquette and format. Rather rehashing how to write a query letter here, see the list of recommended sites below. A few tips include not comparing your book to major current or historical bestsellers in your query, addressing your chosen agent by the correct name, not dual-querying publishers and agents, and keeping your letter to ONE PAGE. Do your homework before sending a query letter.
  1. The SFWA Complete Nobody's Guide to Query Letters
  2. Agent Query
  3. Charlotte Dillon on "Writing a Query Letter"
  4. Fiction Writer's Connection, "Query Dos and Don'ts"
  5. Query Shark (highly, highly recommended)
Essentially, the key to getting an agent is having a killer query letter and then following it up with a killer manuscript. The rest should follow naturally, because skilled agents know how to sell books to the right publishers and they know what publishers like. End of story.

Pros of traditional publishers:
  • your book can reach a wide audience
  • they have wonderful editorial and design staff
  • your book will likely get more media attention
Cons of traditional publishers:
  • publishing process takes a long time
  • they have a lot of authors, so you may not always get the attention you crave
  • you have little to no control, editorial and otherwise

Independent Publishers

If your goals are to reach a niche audience with a publisher who focuses on a select genre and works closely with their authors through all stages of publication, independent publishers are where you should look. Some indie publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts, some will work with agents, and some will do both. At  Cosimo, we have online applications that authors can fill out in lieu of a query letter that tells us what the book is about and what your background and platform are.

Most independent publishers focus on specific genres, prefer publishing books that are inspirational and uplifting, and tend to gravitate toward authors with their own platforms and backgrounds in their field. If you want personalized attention and a publisher that will get your book to the right audience, check out independent publishers. If you want your book published quickly and want editorial and design expertise, look for print-on-demand indie publishers (like Cosimo). For other independent publishers with similar profiles, take a look at Evolve Publishing, whose first book was on Amazon's bestseller list; Chelsea Green, who focuses on sustainable living titles; and Persea Books, an independent fiction publisher.

Pros of indie publishers:
  • your book will reach a specialized audience that will love your topic
  • they have wonderful editorial and design staff
  • your book will get attention in your field
  • Fewer authors means more specialized attention
Cons of indie publishers:
  • publishing process may take longer
  • you have little to no control, editorial and otherwise
  • your book probably will not reach a wide audience


If you just want a book out now and you want it out fast, that's when self-publishing comes in handy. You do have to pay to have your book published, and editorial, design, and marketing services cost extra, but from start to finish the whole publishing process may take a month. There are so many self-publishers available, from CreateSpace, to Lulu, to iUniverse, to Xulon. They're all very similar, though some self-publishers (who also use print-on-demand technology) restrict themselves to a certain genre.

It's difficult to get your book noticed by an agent or a large publisher later if you self-publish unless the book reaches acclaim through the news and Amazon. Very few self-published books get offers from large publishers or agents or earn out on royalties. But if you just need to have your book in print, or the book will serve a very specific community and you have no reason to go a more traditional route, self-publishing is a useful tool

Pros of self-publishing:
  • your book is published quickly
  • you retain editorial and design control
Cons of self-publishing:
  • your book probably will not reach a wide audience
  • you have to pay both to publish and for extra services
  • often looks less professional than traditionally-published works

Your book should fit your publisher and your publisher should fit your goals. Obviously, the rules can be broken or bended, but in general these guidelines hold true. Before sending anything out, take a careful review of what you'd like to do with your book and how best to accomplish that. Then, query away.

Next up, what to expect from your publisher after you've been signed.

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