Monday 23 June 2014

Novel Idea: Submissions

It's been a while since I gave an update on my forthcoming novel. I've been documenting it from inception to publication via the Novel Idea tab. The reason I went a little quiet was that I wanted to clear the submissions process before writing about it. When sending submissions, you often include your website and social media. It's one of those sensitive areas you don't really want to accidentally influence in the wrong direction.

That said, it's over now, with a really good result, so it's only fair to continue the insider's perspective on writing a novel by talking about what happens once you've finished typing.

Unless you're writing purely for your own pleasure, there's a fair chance that you're looking to get your work published. Rosy Hours is the fifth novel I've written and the fourth to be published.

Heck, every writer has one manuscript in their bottom drawer that will never see the light of day.

Even though I have been previously published, I still had to broach submissions. Here are my personal nuggets of knowledge.

Your MS (Manuscript)

My top tip with fiction is to finish writing your novel before you start submissions. There are a lot of writers out there, and everybody has an idea or twenty. Publishers are interested in the finished product, not the novel you might get around to writing in a year or two.

In fact, don't just finish it. 

Finish it, sit on it for a few months, re-read it, edit it, hire someone else to edit it if needs be, proofread it meticulously (definitely get at least one other - qualified - person to do that), sit on it a bit longer, read and re-read.

If anybody turns around and says 'yes' to reading your manuscript, you want it to glow.

No manuscript is perfect. I don't think I've ever read a novel, even a professionally published one, that didn't have at least one typo in it, but the more typos a publisher sees, the more work they know it's going to take to get your MS print-ready. 

There are plenty of reasons your manuscript will end up on the slush pile, don't let simple mistakes be one of them.

Who to Submit To

There's an international database called FirstWriter, which is what I use. It's a subscription service, but I've found all three of my publishers through it. They list both agents and publishers.

It's up to you which of those you submit to. There's really no harm in trying for an agent. Yes, they take a percentage, but that's a strong incentive for them to get you a good publishing deal. Better they take a percentage and you both make money than you go direct to a publisher and get to keep 100% of nothing.

Your chances of finding an agent off the back of your first novel are small. They have to be absolutely convinced it'll sell.

Small publishers, on the other hand, are more likely to take a risk. I'm proof of this. Both of my publishers, Green Sunset Books and Netherworld Books, are small publishers. Thousands of people write novels each year. Of those, very few will find their first novel published by one of the Big Six. To get in with them, you usually need an agent, and an agent prefers to see a track record - or something quite exceptional in a popular genre.

My best advice is to take a shot at the agents first. After all, you have nothing to lose. Then move on to the publishers. Always go for publishers in your own country - it makes tax and contract enforcement much easier. Plus, if you're a UK author publishing in the US, the exchange rather isn't going to work in your favour.

I strongly recommend reading Sex, Lies & Book Publishing by the Rupert Heath Literary Agency for an insider's guide to getting published.

How to Submit

Every agent and publisher will have a different submission process. Rule number one - find out what they want, and stick to it.

You will almost always find the submission process on the agent/publisher's website. Once you've found them on the FirstWirter listing, check out that website. Go there. Find the tab that says Submissions. If they're open to unsolicited approaches, follow the style guide to the letter.

If you're not familiar with the terms: 

  • Not accepting unsolicited submissions, means that they won't accept submissions unless they come from an agent or third party.
  • Accepting unsolicited queries, means that they will accept a sample and synopsis from anybody, but don't send them the full manuscript unless they ask for it.
  • Accepting unsolicited MSS, means that they will accept entire manuscripts from anybody.

Sending your entire manuscript to someone who isn't accepting unsolicited submissions will get you nowhere fast. Don't waste your time or your printer ink.

When using the FirstWriter database, you can narrow down your search by country, genre of book, and those currently open to submissions. The listing is by no means foolproof, so I'll say it again: check the publisher's website yourself.

Whichever way you do it, give your query letter the same attention you gave your manuscript. Watch out for typos, make it look presentable, use a standard font and format (avoid purple Brush Script - it ain't cute, and it ain't clever), make sure your contact details are on there.

When I first started out, I used to spend quite a bit of time writing lengthy submission letters detailing my experience, my hopes for the book, my interests... Nowadays, I'll be honest, I keep the cover letters short and sweet. Publishing is a business, they're interested in the synopsis and the sample. If they like them, they'll find out about you as an author soon enough. Keeping things short and succinct also gives the impression you know how this business works, and  that you'd be and easy person to work with.

Smart Strategy

Heads up - submissions can quickly become expensive if you go for the ones who only accept submissions by snail-mail. Even if you're sending samples, the first three chapters (or 50,000 words) can take up a lot of ink and paper, not to mention postage costs.

Although there's one school of business that says 'you need to spend money to make money,' I'd suggest a better rule of thumb, especially for artists, is 'don't spend money you ain't making.' 

Start your FirstWriter approach with the publishers and agents who accept queries via e-mail. It's a heck of a lot cheaper. It's also starting to become more common, as offices seek to cut back on waste and put their best carbon-neutral foot forward.

Sure, fire off some A4 envelopes if you happen to see a publisher you think is worth it, but push the rest to the back of the pile.

Keep a List

Most publishers no longer bother to ask whether you've submitted your work anywhere else. It's an unrealistic expectation to ask an author to wait three months for a rejection (if they get a response at all), before moving on to the next submission. Most of us would be collecting our pensions before we saw our work in print.

We've all got limited time and patience, authors and publishers alike. The submissions process is exactly that - a process - and we want to get it over with as fast as possible. There's no shame in sending out your MS to multiple publishers. In an afternoon you can make half-a-dozen submissions by e-mail.

What you don't want to do is forget who you've already submitted to, or when.

Whenever I start this process on a new book, the first thing I do is open an Excel spreadsheet. I list:

  • Name of publisher
  • Website (for contact details)
  • Date of submission
  • What I submitted (i.e. brief/full synopsis, first three chapters)
  • Name of contact (if it was sent to someone specific)

I then use a traffic light system. If I'm still waiting to hear, it's in amber, if it's a 'no', it's in red, and if it's a 'yes', it goes green. I also keep notes down the side. Sometimes you get a rejection with a 'try again in a few months' or 'try these guys instead'. 

If you don't keep a list, you'll get confused. You'll end up submitting the same work to the same publisher, which may annoy them, and you won't be able to keep an eye on the publishers who don't bother to respond. If they can't cope with their own administration, are they really the type of people you want to submit to again in the future? Not usually a good sign.

Watch out for The Clause

In my first publishing contract I was so excited that I agreed to sign a First Refusal clause. I questioned it, but not strongly enough to have it removed.

The Clause(tm) gives the publisher first right of refusal on anything else you go on to write.

Unless you've won a golden ticket with a big publisher, this is a major turn-off as an author. You can see why big publishers would do it, because they invest a lot in you and they want to protect their assets. But you really don't want to be signing away your future work to a small publisher. It's a no-brainier. The point of small publishers is to work towards bigger ones. 

That's not unfair logic, either. You publish a book or two with a small publisher. You get a bigger publisher. You get better sales. People start buying your previous titles - from the small publisher. Whereas if you stick with the same small publisher for life, and that publisher doesn't have a marketing budget or any connections, nothing you go on to publish is likely to sell.

There are ways around The Clause, but it can make things a little awkward. Rosy Hours was picked up by Ghostwoods via the submission process, but The Clause meant that my current publisher still had first refusal. I expected them to turn it down because of the genre, but they wanted it. We came to a very amicable agreement, because we have a good working relationship, but it was still one of those discussions you'd rather not have.

Realistic Expectations

Novels don't get published and appear in Waterstones. 

Not for 99% of new authors. There are thousands of books published each year, and only about two-and-a-half feet of shelving in your genre. It's an unrealistic expectation.

The only time my books appeared in Waterstones was when I did a signing there. The reason I was doing a signing there was because I was a guest at a literature festival. The reason I was a guest at a literature festival is because I knew somebody who knew somebody (through a writing forum) who wanted someone like me.

You get the idea here? You have to work at it.

If you have written one novel, and it's the only novel you ever intend to write, then I suggest you go all-out and completely exhaust every agent and publisher in the listing, in every country, in the hopes of getting the very best deal you can - or a very large pile of rejection slips.

If, however, you're playing the long game because you're a writer and that's what you do, then relax a little. You're likely to go through a few publishers in your career. Some might be good, some bad, some very small, some more impressive. Each experience moves you one space along the board, grows your social media following a little, sells a few more books, takes you to a few new events, inspires what you're going to write next. You may never hit Faber&Faber, but you can still build a respectable reputation and have some fun along the way.

Personally, I haven't found getting published to be particularly difficult.

Selling books, on the other hand, requires Sisyphean effort.

The Society of Authors suggests 300 sales of a single work in a year is good going. Even big names sell far fewer books than you'd expect, with most of them getting pulped.

The reason it's so hard for new authors is because small publishers very rarely have a marketing budget, and marketing is what sells books (unless you have an impressively extended and affluent family). The quality of the cover, online marketing, websites, advertisements, review sites - most of it costs money. 

A lot can be achieved on a small budget, but that requires a highly pro-active marketing strategy, and many small press don't have one of those either.

The reason I've accepted my current contract is because I believe Ghostwoods does have a strong marketing strategy and a very pro-active approach. I was impressed. They're also offering a 50/50 fair trade split on profits, which is completely unheard of (you're lucky if you get 12% net). 

Don't let the excitement of a contract eclipse what's written there. At the same time, we all have to start somewhere. If you're a committed writer, your first contract is unlikely to be your last.

I hope some of that is helpful. Provided you're happy with your MS and it's well presented, it's best not to think about it too much. Roll up your sleeves, open Excel, and dive in. The sooner you get your submissions in, the sooner you can start collecting rejection slips and - with any luck - that illusive 'yes'.

On average, I've had around 15 rejections for each yes so far. Opportunities are out there, and publishers are looking for new material.

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