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Archive for publishing

Quick Tips to create better query letters

Fly your flag high for your book

The Bookends Literary Agency posts videos to lead authors through the submission process. The agents at Bookends suggest these to-do’s for your query process.

  • Use your book’s title and a word count range
  • Use the right agent’s name; don’t query “Dear Sir” or “To whom it may concern”
  • Create a bio for yourself with an item that relates to your book.
  • Send your own query, not one that’s been written for you by a service. (It’s fine to have your query reviewed by outside eyes.)

There’s an obvious list of query do-nots

  • Don’t query an agent that doesn’t represent your genre
  • Don’t berate an agent or criticize their clients
  • Don’t query without being well-read in your genre

There’s one more crucial item to consider. A query is an essential in any submission. An agent may or may not ask for a synopsis. They might ask for 10 pages of your manuscript. They might request a proposal. But every agent will want to see a query letter.

Parts of a query

A query is a one-page document. Working from the advice of former agent Becka Oliver, now the director of the Writers’ League of Texas, a good query letter is comprised of

A Connection paragraph, showing how you know the agent’s clients, or any mention of how you chose the agent. If there’s an in-person meeting you enjoyed with them, bring it up here.

A Context paragraph, establishing context for your book by referencing a genre, a writing style, a voice, or the specific author or book that your writing is similar to. “For readers of [            ], my book…” is a good way to go. “In the spirit of” is another good phrase. This shows you know your readership and your genre.

A Compel paragraph, or even two, that highlights the most compelling elements of the book. This is not a synopsis, so beware of “and then.. and then.” The compel section should leave the reader wanting more. End it on a note of uncertainty or danger to increase tension.

A Credentials paragraph, which is often a bio of your life’s events and experiences that relate to your book. If you have something unique in your life, it’s worth a mention here, just to give an agent another handle to remember you by. If you’re writing nonfiction, this is a crucial segment of the query.

Use the Ws

Oliver, who has pitched books for an agency and acquired rights for a press, says a query will always contain the Ws of a story:

  • W for Who, the main characters of the story
  • W for What, the journey of the story
  • W for Where, the setting of the story, which can include a time frame
  • W for When, the starting point of the story

Compel paragraphs are the hardest to write. Creating a one-page synopsis of the book makes creating the Compel section flow more easily. Expect to write many drafts of your Compel section.

How to pitch, and why

Pitching in person can be exhilarating and scary. You’re really at the conference or event to connect in a personal way, though. If this agent is the right match for your work — meaning they can carry the book into submissions and get a publisher’s offer — you’ll have a good sense after a pitch. You’re more likely to get an agent’s request for pages by pitching than emerging from the Unrequested Submissions (slush) pile in an agent’s inbox.

But an in-person pitch is won’t make it more likely to get a deal any more than a query, according to the agents at Bookends. They still want to see that you can write. That moment — seeing an agent pull out a business card at a pitch event, inviting you to submit after a pitch — is thrilling. Presenting your book, via pitch or query, gives you a hidden benefit. Sometimes pitching or querying helps you discover the theme, structure, or tension that your book still needs. Find a pitch event and help your book get a publisher.

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How not to behave blindly as an author

Marketing and PR is a dark art. Authors can behave badly when they expect such work as part of a contract. But behaving badly isn’t very accurate. Authors behave blindly. Many expect publishing pros to just do their jobs, somewhere out of the author’s sight, thank you. The authors who take an interest in marketing and PR’s details, as practiced in traditional publishing, often have a book in the wings, or recently released. They are sometimes asking around because the discovery and sale of their books hasn’t been what’s expected. Or they already have a book and know they’re not getting a service that they know will make a difference to discovery.

I’ve worked in publishing all my life, and the lessons don’t vary (in spirit) from what we learned as periodical editors. Connect with your readers. Raise your flag. Pitch everywhere. Build a following.

So, get onto YouTube. Post on Instagram. Whatever you do, keep it short. It’s 2021 and the noise out there is profound.

Making an effort to get explanations, in full, is probably going to mean a professional engagement to extract the wisdom, like the kind a lawyer delivers as an attorney. If you’re already paying a PR and marketing pro on your own, good for you.

Where to go to learn publishing

Do you read the books or attend online classes from former Writers Digest editor Jane Friedman? How about Anne Trubek, publisher at Belt Press? Maybe you’re a reader of an industry veteran like Mike Shatzkin, or others who are selling, even giving away instruction and practices about marketing and PR. David Gaughran gives away so much instruction about building mailing lists. Asking how to do this work for yourself is a wonderful inquiry.

Asking a pro how marketing and PR is done, customarily, delivers the process which the publishing pro practices, or sees the industry applying. You may not get the full range of possibilities if you ask, “So how do you do your marketing job?” Better, consider what the responsibilities of the author are after getting a big contract with a swell agent.

Jamie Brickhouse wrote a memoir, after he went into recovery after living the high life of a publicity pro for the Big Five houses. He led us through the basics of PR in a talk at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference. Jamie said, “You should know that you’re the only person in the world who gets up every day and says, “How is my book doing?'” Even with publisher help available for PR, he advised us all to help ourselves, so we could give our books every chance they deserve.

Paths to publication

Some authors like publishing. Others just like books. Some just like storytelling. The wide range of publishing paths is mapped in Jane Friedman’s annual report, Key Book Publishing Paths. The 2021 edition contains a new path: hybrid publishing. These are companies that package services authors need in one bundle. Friedman’s report only gets better with each year.

Its wisdom is always close to my keyboard when I consult with an author who’s had an edit. When I do an evaluation edit or a development edit, it includes options for getting the book into the world. The steepest path requires an agent for a traditional deal, including payment in advance and a sales force. The gentlest slope gets a book into the world on the Web, or through social posts, where the primary concern is how professional it looks.

Hybrids sit just about in the middle on Friedman’s chart: Professional work, always with no advances to the author, higher royalties, and marketing that’s almost completely on the author’s shoulders. Many hybrids don’t judge what’s worthy of publishing, while some do vet the books they produce.

I recommend Friedman’s free annual report to every author who brings me a book. It can be hard to judge what you’ve created. Some authors write enough to call the work a manuscript but aren’t even sure if they have a book yet. The path from manuscript pages to publication can succeed if authors know the bends in the road. The steepest path is at the left edge of Friedman’s table. The closer to the left you want to tread, the harder the work.

Know if you’ve got what it takes to be published?

Sometimes, in the course of coaching an author, they ask if they’ve got what it takes to be successful. The harder question is whether their book that we’ve development-edited can be published. Everyone who’s ever written a book has this question, asked every time. Asking it is the way you know you’re serious about your life as an author. When your writing is a hobby, you won’t be asking if you’ve got what it takes.

The answer rides on how much an author will work to improve their book. Multiply that by the number of months you’ll spend developing your book’s market plan. That development is outside of the work to make the book the best one you can write. The best way to give that market plan a chance of helping is to learn about the market and industry you’re trying to crack.

Authors visit the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference with varying degrees of love for publishing. They’re locked in on their love of storytelling, plus the wordcraft that makes a book easy to enjoy. The business? Not so much, for some authors. They will leave this to their publisher. Embracing this part of the author’s life is more fun when you have an avid curiosity about how books get sold. The selling of books is the business heartbeat of publishing.

In a nutshell, that’s what it takes to be a success in publishing: curiosity. Learning how to write more clearly, how to craft great characters, how to introduce suspense and write endings that are spoiler-worthy and inevitable — those are simply the Publishing 101. Graduating into making a profit on a book means understanding the industry, driven by curiosity.

Figuring where to learn

You can be reading Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, a good blog like Jane Friedman’s, or a teaching publisher like Anne Trubek; she runs a press in Cleveland and has a terrific book, So You Want to Publish a Book? Mike Shatzkin’s The Book Business is another bible that I savor.

Your query letter offers the easiest early steps to see if you’ve got what it takes to succeed. Part of your query that you can serve you fastest are your comps — the recent books like yours that have succeeded in the market. Or books that succeeded in the market and are sort of like yours, but they left one part out. Your query helps an agent, or a publisher, imagine the success of the book.

Publishers have to make a case to whoever sells their books. That might be a distributor, which is a sales force not working strictly for one press, but for many presses. Or it might be an in-house sales force, if you got to a big enough publisher. Whether your book gets picked up, or doesn’t, is going to be in the hands of the people who sell books. Knowing about their trade makes it easier to know if you’ve got what it takes.

Your reputation should precede your publication

If you’ve ever self-published a book, then you’re likely to get a phone call from a publishing house. At least that’s what the caller will tell you they’re representing. The call might well come from Author Reputation Press, like the one I got this week. They’d heard that my 2012 novel Viral Times was for sale at Barnes & Noble. “How’s the book doing?” In a few minutes, the caller was ready to help my self-published novel from nine years ago get better published.

All it would take was $6,799 and my willingness to send the book to the company for fresh editing, cover, and a marketing package. I’d get 45 printed copies, too. The reputation of my book was already nine years old on the afternoon I was called. They have “book scouts,” a mythical set of creatures like wood nymphs, who scour the world for good books that can be better published.

I had to invite the caller to connect with me through email. I was on deadline, I explained, and didn’t have time to talk about my first novel. That’s a conversation to have before your book is published, not years afterward. A quick look into Author Reputation Press shows a thick sheaf of complaints and warnings.

The publishing world is full of corporations that want to dig deeper into the vein of self-publishers whose books already have a reputation in place. By some industry estimates, four of every five books fail to earn back their advances. The books themselves might be fine efforts, but they didn’t find an audience and sell enough copies.

When you’ll see results

There’s a much better time to talk about getting your book the reputation that it deserves. That’s when the book is still developing. Re-releasing a book is a noble mission, of course. The movie business used to re-release good films, in part because the studios controlled the theaters where the movies were distributed. The movies didn’t get a makeover, though, like the promised ones from Author Reputation Press. The studios turned the crank of marketing to find a new audience for the films.

Author Reputation Press doesn’t control any distribution avenues. This is a hybrid publishing operation, one where the author arrives with a budget and the old books get spruced up and refined. I’d hope that any call to attract your expenditures might start with a better opening line than “How’s your novel doing?” If the caller doesn’t know that, you wonder how they’d know enough to get the book selling better? Some of the Author Reputation packages don’t even include editing services.

There’s nothing wrong with buying a package of services to get your self-published book into the world. Try not to pay for a lot of printed copies. The distinction you’ll seek from a hybrid publisher is how well they’ve done to publish other books. That’s publish as in “sell.” You’d like to see the specifics for marketing and sales beyond a bullet point for “Professional Sales and Marketing Package.”

What’s on offer for your hybrid payment

I’ve worked in publishing since 1981, editing and marketing stories in periodicals and books. Creating a great book is a thrill, just like it was nine years ago with my first novel, or in 2019 for my memoir. Across the 40 years of publication work, I’ve learned that selling and marketing a book might be the hardest step on the way to carrying the story onto the landing of success.

When a press calls to offer you an improved reputation, keep the conversation focused on what they will pay you for your self-published book. If you’ve had professional editing and design, the next best step is to improve the chances of your book’s discovery. That’s what an accomplished press does with a good book.

Write for the fireplace? How to write to publish

If you like running a publishing business, then being a genre author could make some money. I like to tell authors who self publish it’s probably not going to deliver as much money as you want, for a while. You shorten the time to significant profits if you have money to invest, plus the nerve to wait on sales to arrive. That’s the period where you create art (the books) and then see if you have an audience. In the meantime, the advertising bills for your book must be paid.

Art is subjective, of course. It’s a matter of taste whether somebody unleashes their $6 for your latest ebook in your series. With the right investment in advertising, and no desire to make paper books, you could earn your way to getting paid for writing your books. Here’s a good question to answer for yourself. Would you rather wake up one morning to have a book in the world, and have no memory of creating it? Or would you rather revel in the making of the book, then finish it and throw it in the fire?

Everybody says they want that making of the book experience, plus the waking up bit. You can make your book and revel in it, then do the publishing work. The publishing has little to do with creating stories, with one exception. You need to write about your book, marketing-style, to get a readership.

You summon a savory taste of your book. We’re all in a hurry these days. Maybe less so since the pandemic, but there’s still a lot of noise out there. Be succinct and believe in selling. Master the book summary that some people call blurbs. Then make the first 10 percent of your book so riveting that readers decide to buy it from Amazon — or Kobo or Apple or Barnes and Noble — after your audience has read your teaser of 10 percent. The Making It Riveting part is where you revel in creating the book.

How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.

Self-publishing, self book marketing: How to tips

So you’ve finished your book! Good news, if you’ve already invested in editing and purchased a pro cover. Now is the time to shoulder the wheel of marketing and distribution. Self-publishing is not real publishing until it includes self book marketing. My concise list gives you tasks to accomplish.

You need to write sales copy. That’s the brief and enticing copy you will find on every book’s page at Amazon. You will also use this copy in a fact sheet (sometimes called a tip sheet in traditional publishing). It’s not all words in a fact sheet. A photo of yourself is essential in one. You send the fact sheet out to reviewers and bloggers you’d like to cover your book. You send the sales copy to Amazon and any other retail outlet you’re using. For example, IngramSpark needs this copy. So does Bowker, where you registered your ISBN numbers for the book.

Try out promoting at Goodreads. You set up an author account there (mostly by “claiming” your book as your own.) Once you have an author status, Goodreads promo tools like giveaways and book feeds (think Facebook-style) will be in your grasp. In the meantime, tell your tribe to review your book on Goodreads. They can put it on their to-read lists, too. Goodreads is the best place to encourage your fans to post their reviews. Of course, if they’re buying from an outlet with a website, a review is good there, too.

Make your website your hub

Double down on your author website. Bare minimums: a fun About Me page (tell a story or two about how you came to create your book, how you decided to be a writer) and links to the places your book is on sale. A blog is super useful to create writing you will offer for free to interested readers. Have links on your website for the social media accounts you will be feeding with delicious snippets. One big plus is a way to take orders for your book from your website. There’s an easy way to take these kinds of orders using Aerio, a service run by IngramSpark. They print your books on demand and fulfill orders. You can also hand-ship signed copies to your greatest fans if they order through your website.

Not only do you make more money per sale by moving books through your website, you also connect to readers (more on that in a minute). Amazon will never tell you anything about who reads a book you’ve written.

Create Advanced Reader Copy files (called ARCs) to send out to reviewers and allies of the book. Digital files should be in PDF, EPUB, and Kindle (MOBI) formats. Have your cover designer help out. You need these copies to help you land some endorsements of the book. Those are sometimes called blurbs. They give your book some validation, and praise, if you’re lucky. Don’t leave home without a few blurbs and endorsements.

Get those ARC files into the world for automatic download. Bookfunnel is a good and inexpensive service to use for this process. In some cases, places like Bookfunnel can even round up a few reviewers. Bookfunnel is like NetGalley but less costly. They both have promotional offers.

Make your outreach

Create and feed an author newsletter. This can be an email with just three links to interesting webpages where something happened that relates to your book. It’s much better if you write a snippet about your writing life and an aspect of your story. It’s best of all if it links to your blog. You create an emailing list of your own to send this newsletter to. Simple ways to build email lists are to swap with other authors in your field or genre. You will be doing a lot of asking with humility while you market. It’s not so bad once you’re used to it

Your author newsletter connects you to fans and readers of your books. Again, Amazon will never do this so you can see who your fans are.

Build a reader magnet to build your mailing list. You might have had good stuff from your book that just didn’t make it into the final cut. Revive it. Write histories of your characters. Write an author’s guide to the best books from your genre. If you’re unsure what a good reader magnet looks like, seek out authors like you who are creating this bonus content. Look over what they’re doing.

Develop posts for social media. People use various kinds, but you’re never far away from connecting to readers and potential fans when you use Instagram and Facebook. Create a Facebook account for your author life, not just your personal Facebook account. Your book is represented by a Page, which lets you attract Likes. Those Likes are a way of pushing your news into the Facebook Feeds of your readers. Instagram works differently — hashtags and listing the accounts of others gets you into feeds.

There is more, always more

Some of the rest will cost you more. Contest entries are the least expensive. Paid reviews will be more, and some people don’t think they’re that important. There is advertising at Amazon and at Facebook you can purchase. Take great care with that, and measure and test as you go. For more connection, you can use YouTube or Facebook for chats with fans: tell them when you’ll be live by putting the date and time in your newsletter. You can even record a little video for use on Instagram, or post one on your YouTube channel.

What, you don’t have a channel yet? It’s easy to set up. Use it to get the word out. Buy a ring light to illuminate your smile for the camera. Tell the world about your book. Then you can revel in the life of a self-published author who is doing their self book marketing.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Put proofreading into books after copyedits

Ah proofreading, the finish carpentry of editing. Many authors who create their own books think they can skip it, leaving the proofreading work to a copy editor.

Pro publishers do not do it this way.

These are the kinds of things I never thought I’d care about while I was traffic director at Graphics Express in Austin in 1984. Inside that typesetting shop, though, we had a dedicated proofreader who read every bit of type that was set. The mission was, and always is, to find typos.

I have a funny story about proofreading. In a bit of maximum irony, it comes from a writing coach. In a PDF handout, the coach writes this…

“Wikipedia says copy editing is ‘the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.’ ”

Then she adds, “There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.”

I’m going to tell you there’s a typo in the coach’s advice, and let you have a little sport in finding it. Hint: it’s only two letters long and is a missing word.

Just to be thorough, that coach’s advice from that PDF uses two different styles of copyedit. The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes only the verb without a space between copy and edit. So copyedit, not copy edit.

And the person doing the work? They can be a copy editor, or a copyeditor, according to the Third Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the British Oxford Dictionary of English. (These are the flesh and bone of Apple’s Dictionary app.)

So clearly, any advice that you don’t need to get an MS both a copyedit and a proofread depends on who’s doing the proofing. It’s safe to assume the coach had her writing copyedited. Not so much for the proofreading.

With all credit to the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s what the CMOS says about proofreading:

“Proofreading here … applies to the review of the manuscript after it has been converted to a format for publication but before it is published. Usually, this format consists of the typeset and paginated pages of a book or journal article (referred to as proofs or proof and read either on paper or as PDF) or the full text of a book or journal article intended for publication in one or more electronic formats other than PDF.”

Go the extra step and get your book looking professional. Even if its only format will be digital. Pro advice: have proofreading follow your copyediting. Try to get two pros here — or if you love your copy editor, give the copy a week or two to rest before that person gives you a proofread.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Agent intelligence flows from Writer’s League

I took a deep class this month on attracting a literary agent. Offered by the Writers’ League of Texas, it was provided good intelligence on getting books considered for representation. It might have been the single best $52 I’ve spent as an author and coach. For example, I learned that some agent businesses are a “solo shingle.” That’s a single agent, successful at a larger company, who starts their own business and finds books to sell to publishers.

In another example, the instructor Becka Oliver (director of WLT, she worked at William Morris as an agent) had advice about writing the Compel section of a query letter. Despite all the other options of contacting agents, the query letter remains the lingua franca of agent pitching. By crafting your Compel paragraph, you try to lure the agent into requesting pages they might agree to represent.

Some agencies permit the submission of sample pages with your initial outreach. The agencies nearly always request a “cover letter.” No surprise, that’s your query letter. In order of materials requested for fiction, the readers at an agency dig into the query letter, then the writing sample. If they request a synopsis, Oliver said that agents are likely to look at it only if they’re well along in the book and need a map to see where the story’s headed. Nothing is absolute about this process, of course.

In another example, a query’s Context paragraph is the best way to assure an agent you know where your book should live on the shelves. One phrase that I’ve used in query letters is, “This book is for readers of [commercially successful book like yours] and [critically successful book like yours].” Both these kinds of books like yours help the agent place your book prospects.

There was plenty to learn. Oliver drew out maps of the Big 5 publishing empires, plus independent presses like Coffee House and Dzanc. Both of the latter group will consider non-agented projects. They do prefer agented submissions, though. Lots of authors don’t remember to check up on the indies while querying. Those kinds of queries to the indie presses can go straight to publishers. The Big 5 imprints — and there are so very many of them — demand agented material.

Query letter advice was only a part of the WLT class. What to expect to hear when you get a call from an agent. What questions to ask an agent when you’re offered representation. Ask them what they specifically love about your book, for example, just to see if they really read it. How to follow up: Wait for something significant to happen — a contest, a publication of a short story. You want more good news to add to the submission.

You also will wait “as long as it takes” to hear from an agent. After a matter of months, it can be permissible to send a little email saying, “I know you might be just getting ready to read, and…” The submission of your book for consideration is a humbling affair. But agents, acting as gatekeepers, are a very good means to get a professional publishing contract.