You are ready to publish? Congratulations! But are you prepared to face the literary gauntlet? The Herrick Library Get Published! 2016 conversation continues from last week’s fantastically titled Session I with insights from all the presenters on what constitutes the write right and wrong ways to approach a publisher or literary agent.
Above All Else—The Query
Query letters are similar to the cover letter which accompanies the curriculum vitae or résumé in a job application. How hard can a letter be? You may ask. The panelists caution that the letter is the first thing a potential editor or publisher sees of your work—some writers are rejected solely on the basis of a poor cover letter. Think of it like a dating profile—you’ve got to put forth the best version of you (and your work) possible. The best way to learn is by example…and here is a definite worst-case scenario:
Count the Mistakes in this Sample Query Letter
Dear Meow Mewo Productions:
I know you aren’t excepting submissions right now, but I have a number one best seller which will make the DaVinci Cod weep with envy. You would be a fool not to hear me out. I have thousands of pages of notes and all I need is a $50,000 advance to begin writing. I have sent my summary to several of your competitors, such as Harlequin Romance, Field-N-Stream, and Publisher’s Clearing House, so time is of the essence. He who bites first gets the fish.
I already have an idea for the cover art—think Angelina Jolie, naked, on a bearskin rug. Don’t worry about marketing this book—it will sell itself. Besides, I took an annex course in publishing it said all you have to do is set up a webpage and ask people to buy it a lot. My mom tells me I am a great writer; her number is listed in my references.
I know your readers are dyeing to meet Chet–a Spy Who Travels Back From The Future to set off a Anti-Nucular Weapon During the Civil War Killing Ullyseses Grant and Preventing The Rise of Hitler. This will be a work of non-fiction intended for the YA audience. The working title is: Yankee Goes Boom Boom. But you can change that, if you want.
I plan to call your office daily until I hear from you.
E. Gregio S’Clod
Master Writer Extraordinaire
But seriously, according to Jason Gilliken, an editor for Caffeinated Press, “There are standard works that require standard templating. But to write a successful query letter you need to give it as much attention as you do your writing.” Failure can be something as simple as not following the publisher’s guidelines. Jason speaks eloquently on the subject: “When writing a query letter, attention to detail is paramount. Most query letters should hold close to guidelines.” For example, at Caffeinated Press, “…we don’t open attachments. The letter must be in the text of the email.” Writers must pay attention to both small and glaring omissions in submission. Woe betides the author who sends a query letter without an attached work; publishers are not looking for an outline. “Don’t dangle the synopsis to the publisher. They want a complete novel or they can’t be bothered with it. Never tease the publisher.” When you have what you consider to be a bullet-proof query letter drafted, you can take it over to the snaggletooth reviewers at sites like Query Shark where they will rip it into bite-sized pieces of chum. Jason Gillikin’s parting advice on the subject: “Research is what makes a query letter!” Because you can’t make an omelet if you don’t know where to find the eggs, we now segue to advice on tracking down the wily chicken…er…publisher.*
HOW TO STALK AND SNARE A PUBLISHER
(and not be caught in a trap yourself)
It is ridiculously easy to find out exactly what a publisher is looking for nowadays. The internet has made the process of lurking at local coffee shops—hunched over a typewriter, wanly emoting angst, exhibiting the borderline starvation of a dedicated artist—a thing of the past. The digital age has taken all
most some of the worry out of your presentation. Sort of. There are still bottomless pitfalls to surfing the World Wide Web.
With a click of a Google-happy finger, you can find thousands of publishing options. All an author needs to do is wade through the pages to find their perfect match.** There are many sites dedicated to helping writers find their target market/publishing house. But even the most helpful sites may contain errors or outdated information. Don’t take any other source as a guideline over what the publisher or agent specifically states they are looking for. “You can use a publication like Writer’s Market to identify potential publishing houses to send your work, but you will still want to go to the publisher’s website.” Jason Gilliken says. In addition to errors and out-of-date information, the writer must keep an eye out for hucksters, charlatans and ne’re-do-wells.***
One panelist cautioned writers to be especially vigilant regarding choosing a publisher who comes with strings attached, recommending sites like Writer Beware—a cautionary website warning science fiction writers off bad publishers or publishing rackets. Scam artists may require you to pay up-front fees claiming expense for publicity or marketing costs, if someone offers such a ‘publishing contract,’ run! As Eileen Wiedbrauk put it, “There is one axiom to remember: The money flows to the writer!” Once you’ve found a reputable site you have to decide whether it is a perfect match for you…and equally that you are the perfect match for them!
There are many paths to getting published, but most works require the same leg work to get there. Step One, arguably, is to write something highly desirable. Bluntly put, you have to write something people want to read. As one panel member put it, “If you want to produce ‘Baby’s First Twilight Cookbook,’ fine, but be prepared to enjoy it alone.” Sue Ann Culp nixed badly conceived novel ideas as well, “You can’t expect success if your target audience and your content doesn’t go together.” [This is me, madly taking notes at the conference: Okay…no toddler vampire slayer Iron Chefs? Check. Write wildly popular master work? Check!] Step Two is to send it out for review—but only to someone who wants it.
If you have a fantastic historical romance novel, you can’t expect to catch the attention of a big fish if the publishers you are sending to only accept techno-thrillers. As award-winning writer, Jacqueline Carey, puts it, “look for books like the book you want to write. Find that publisher and tell them ‘This is why I think we are a good fit.’” Step Three: put your best argument forward. Tim Rohr outlines the key selling points of submitting: “In your query letter, you need me to know why this is the right story to tell, why this is the right character, why you are the right person to tell it, why is this the right time to tell it and why am I the right person to publish it. I want to be plunged in right away.” Tim Rohr pounds each ‘why’ like his voice is a hammer and he is nailing these points for emphasis to our frontal cortex. The prospect of sending work out to be judged is terrifying; the only thing scarier is not sending it.
Sidebar: Things to find out about the publisher:
- Is the publisher currently accepting submissions?
- “Track what you have submitted, how long ago you sent it and how long they will keep it before responding.” Tim Rohr
- Does the publisher allow simultaneous submissions? Tim Rohr warns, “Look out for simultaneous submissions. If the publisher says, ‘We are going to be a year reviewing before we get back to you and no simultaneous submissions.’ Maybe skip that one…or give them a work you don’t care so much about.”
- Keep track of your work!! It seems obvious, but it is very easy to forget where you’ve sent things when if you aren’t careful. Tim Rohr suggests using platforms such as: The Grinder or Query Tracker or even a site that will submit your works for you: Duo Trope.
Deciding to submit your work for approval is the hardest step—not the least of which is facing potential rejection. Do yourself a favor by eliminating one of the causes of rejection by writing the best query letter you can and send it to a publisher who wants your type of work. Jason Gilliken reminds us of his four deal breakers to remember:
“Number one: Guideline Conformance – read the instructions before submitting.
Number two: A Bad Cover letter speaks volumes. If an author can’t be bothered to write the cover letter well, I have no confidence in the work they can do in a novel.
Number three: Selectivity of your sample. If you submit a [badly paraphrased example follows] Parrot-themed Rogue Knitting Conventioneer Enmeshed in a Mystery Train Robbery Psycho Drama and submit it to Cat Fanciers Publishing, well, expect to be turned down.
Number four: Grammar. Do NOT make grammar mistakes in your submission.”
You have to write for yourself, but always with an eye on the goal of publication. You can tailor your work to fit the market to improve your odds of getting past the first rejection. But, don’t be cocky! The days of massive advances and six-figure deals on-spec are over. Have a finished work before you seek a publisher. It is important that you seek a publisher or agent who would best suit your work. Invest your time and energy in finding the right publisher for the right work at the right time. And finally, the mantra to remember: “The money flows to the writer!” When an author takes the time to tailor the query/cover letter to suit the publisher or agent a great query letter is the result. Let’s hope that, in this situation, your chickens definitely come home to roost.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Great transitions in article paragraphing is a topic for another day.
**Which is why I want to create a new dating app to match authors to their dream publisher…INSERT YOUR OWN FUNNY NAME FOR DATING SITE HERE.
***That’s right, bitches, I have a thesaurus and I’m not afraid to use it.
Check out Writer Beware – – a cautionary website dedicated to warning science fiction writers off bad publishers or publishing scams.
The Grinder is a submission tracker and market database for writers of fiction (non-fiction and poetry coming soon!). Use our extensive and powerful search engine to find a home for your work. With new features being added periodically we hope to provide a permanent and stable home for your submission tracking.
Duotrope is an established, award-winning writers’ resource, and we’re here to help you spend less time submitting so you can focus on writing. Whether you’re an experienced writer or just getting started… whether your creative leanings are literary or genre, factual or poetic… our listings cover the entire spectrum.
Ralan– It provides up-to-date listings of markets in the speculative and humor genres only.
Query Shark – This site will attack your query letter and rip it apart–eventually to put it back together in a better version.
Query Letter Guidelines – You can read an example of query letter guidelines specific to Caffeinated Press on their website.
Sue Ann Culp – playwright and author, writing professionally for over twenty years. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Wee Wisdom and Kaleidoscope. Her stage play is being presented at the Holland Civic Theater, “The Lies that Bind” was named one of the top 100 plays of 2009 by Writer’s Digest. She teaches fiction writing for children and teens. Visit her website at SueAnnCulp.com.
Jacqueline Carey – New York Times bestseller, author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Kushiel’s Legacy series, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy novels www.jacquelinecarey.com.
Eileen Wiedbrauk – a paranormal fiction writer and Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, as her bio describes, she is an editor, writer, coffee addict, cat herder, MFA graduate—among other things. Websites: World Weaver Press a mid-size publishing company andRed Moon Romance–a site that, by the look of it, just might warrant a sizzling NC-17 rating.
Kristina Wojtaszek (whose name I mangled in my notes) – self-professed former woodland sprite and/or mermaid growing up around the shores of Lake Michigan. She has a bachelor’s in Wildlife Management. Her focus as a writer reflects her interests in fairy tales, ghost stories, poems and YA fiction–published in World Weaver Press, in Fae, Specter Spectacular, and Scarecrow, and in Far Off Places, and Sucker Literary Magazine. Follow her blog at Twice Upon A Time.
Brittany Wilson – Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of Caffeinated Press is a jack-of-all-trades — writer, editor, finance ninja, and NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison. Brittany has a degree in investigative accounting and a minor in creative writing. She has earned a partial bachelor’s degree in Japanese.
Jason Gilliken – Director Editor for Caffeinated Press Jason earned a degree in moral philosophy and political science–apparently he is not adverse to irony–with minors in history, Latin, and comparative religion and is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in applied statistics from WMU.
Matthew Rohr (one of the Bookend Brothers, so named for their seating at the table)-writer and editor of short stories and novels in the Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Science Fiction, and post-modern, pre-industrial retro-futuristic steampunk haiku-funk fusion genres. (The last genre may or may not actually exist. He is still thinking about it.) He is a founding member of MiFiWriters and editor of various editions of the Division by Zero anthology.
Tim Rohr (The other Bookend Brother) – A graduate of Hope College, Tim is a writer and editor and one of the founders representing MiFiWriters – a Michigan Fiction Writers collective http://www.mifiwriters.org/ focusing on speculative fiction and producing an annual Michigan Writers Anthology entitled Division by Zero. He runs the Monday night writers group for Herrick Library. He can be found at his eponymous website.
AmyJo Johnson – Business leader and corporate trainer, personal trainer and enthusiastic participant in all things related to Minnesota athletics–Amy Jo leads CafPress’s marketing endeavors. Caffeinated Press