Writing: Pursuit of Publishing

Getting your writing published is daunting set of hurdles

Getting Your Writing Published

Put on your helmet and break out the body armor it’s time to gird the publishing industry. Strap in, you’re in for a bumpy ride that can tax the will and winnow the spirit.

First and foremost, I want to stress that this business isn’t fair. It often isn’t logical. Most of the time is spent “breaking in”, after which point it usually (but not always) gets easier. Years ago you used to spend a lot on postage, now with the advent of email submissions, at least that pain is lessened.  (Not entirely, some dark ages publishers and agents still require hard copy submission (always read the query instructions carefully.) Email or not, expect frustration of the sort like sending out a script to an agent who holds onto it for six months and then returns it with a note like: “Sorry, but we’re taking a pass on this one.” Real helpful and informative isn’t it? Did you do something wrong? Is the script no good? Is there no market for it? Chances are, none of the above. However, that’s the way it goes. Publishing is the industry of broken promises and broken hearts. Painting a gloomy picture aren’t I? Yet, people still get published. Amazing, isn’t it?

You may have heard this but Stephen King had to submit the script of Carrie over sixty times before it was accepted by Doubleday. He had given up around fifty and his wife dug the manuscript out of a trash can—bless those understanding and supportive spouses in the world. She made him keep going and that extra bit was what it took to get his career started.

How is it that something good, can get bounced so many times? His story is far from unique. Many of the blockbuster books rebounded dozens of times before finding a home. Don’t these people know a valuable property when they see it?

Good question. I’ll give you an ancedote as an answer. It’s been several years back, but some writer folks conducted a test. They took four classic famous novels, put them in manuscript form, changed the titles and submitted them to various book publishers to see what would happen. These were classics like Gone with the Wind. Gone with the Wind, was not accepted in 50 tries. Only in four cases was the story recognized as being a retitled copy of the original book. In a couple cases, the author was advised that story needed serious work. In an extreme case, the author was told to give up as the story was unsellable.

I tell you this ancedote, because these are the same people YOU will be submitting your work to. You see how savvy they are at predicting the marketability of one of the most famous stories in American history? In one case, the author was being told to give up.

Your ego and your future are in the hands of these oracles. Does that mean everyone in the publishing industry is a boob? No. However, there are quite a few boobs who shall remain anonymous who make breaking into publishing the arduous chore that it is today.

What’s going on?

Why is it so hard? The decline of readership is at the root of it. Changes in bookselling and marketing are another reason. The fusion of media, and publishers being gobbled up by media conglomerates. Then there’s just the whimsical public itself and our shyness of trying new authors—especially with the skyrocketing costs of books. All of the above contribute to lack of opportunity and confidence in new and untried talent. Beyond these there are other, more insidious, forces at work…

The Chicken-Or-The-Egg Syndrome

Here’s one to make you scratch your head, heres how it goes: Because of costs, publishing houses now have less staff to look over submissions. As a kind of filter many now require that submissions only come from an agent. Because of the market drought, most agents now have less staff. So, many now want you to have been published before they will take you on as a client. Now, if the publisher won’t accept without an agent, and an agent won’t accept without a publisher, how do you get represented? That circular problem is just one of the issues that makes getting published the hair-pulling experience that it is.

Yes, there are agents who will take on new talent. Yes, there are still publishers who still accept “over the transom” or “unsolicited” manuscripts. You have to look for them. They are your way in.

Getting a foot in the door

Persistence. Ingenuity. Persistence. Research. Persistence. Networking and Persistence. Anyone see a pattern there? You need to have faith in your product and you need to go at it. I’m assuming here that you’ve polished that script to a rosy gleam. That an agent or an editor needs to dig thirty pages to find a typo. The work needs to be good. It needs to be better than the stuff on the shelf. It has to show a writer with promise. It has to show a writer with more than one book in him or her.

Start with research. Writer’s Market, the Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents, or the Guide to Literary Agents are three tomes of possible agents and book buyers. You don’t have to buy them, they are usually available in the local library research section. It’s more convenient if you own them though. You’ll spend a lot of time with stickies and a hilighter.

One thing about these guides. If an agent wants a submission package to consist of ‘thus and such’. For all that’s holy, follow the bloody instructions! Whenever I hear agents speak in conferences it’s always harped on—if people would just follow instructions… Some want the whole book. Some want a synopsis and three chapters. Others want an outline and random chapters. If you don’t want to waste your time, make sure you’re sending it in the format they want it in. It VASTLY increases your chance of a fair read.

A reminder, agents who charge fees are suspect. They should get their money from representing the works of their clients. If they can’t make a living that way—then maybe they aren’t such good agents.

Electronic publishing has changed the face of the industry a great deal. Printing costs are going down. POD (print on demand) is now in full swing and it is changing the landscape of printed books.  The little guys with their small print runs are becoming distributors and marketers because book inventory is death. Why, keep stock when Createspace can print and mail a single book when the item is clicked in the Amazon marketplace? It doesn’t take a genius to see how this isn’t doing good things for the brick and mortar book stores. Amazon itself is getting into publishing business, but selling to them isn’t particularly easy.

Here’s an anecdote, I sent out forty plus queries with book proposals to agents who said they were actively searching for new authors to represent.  My cover letter included the fact that I had sold roughly 30,000+ books (at that time).  You know what? Not a single one even nibbled.  I could say that my materials were written poorly or I just didn’t have the right mojo, but truthfully… it’s just that hard if you aren’t soliciting the blockbuster they are looking for.

I know I’m throwing a lot out here. There is so much stuff. It’s hard enough and then I want to make the target even smaller. It gets worse. Did you know that getting published in some instances can also destroy your career? Yes, that’s right, succeeding can be death. It’s called mid-listing. Publishers pick out certain books to “fill the gaps”. They don’t edit them well. They do lousy covers for them and they don’t market or push them. Obviously, the books don’t sell well. However, in the perverted world of publishing, this poor showing is the author’s fault. It can become a massive albatross around the author’s neck. Oh yes, they know who you are now. You’re that author that can’t sell any books. That’s WORSE than being unknown—now you’re infamous. After all, the bottom line is money and if your stuff doesn’t sell, you’re a bad investment. They really avoid bad investments.

Yes, even such dire consequences can be avoided and worked around. You just have to know in advance and be prepared to save your own neck which can mean peddling and marketing your own books, spending your hard-earned advance to make sure the book doesn’t sink without a trace.

I’ve given you enough pitfalls. Let’s talk success.

Courting Agents & Publishers

My experience has been that just sending off a manuscript to a black hole is inferior to putting a book in the target person’s hands. To that end, networking at conferences is one key thing you can do to boost your chances. If you’re a people person and can whip off a good pitch this is the inside track. Many agents haunt the bigger conferences, listening at workshops for people that might be new blood. Sometimes it’s just enough to shake their hand and talk about the weather, then follow up with a submission that mentions you talked with them at the conference. By doing this, this makes them associate the script with a face and a name. Assuming you made a good impression, this gives your script a better chance at a favorable read. The same goes for publishers. Sometimes you can get an inside track, someplace to send a script that doesn’t have to work its way through a gauntlet of over-worked and underpaid readers and assistant-editors to get to their desk.

I realize conferences are expensive and not everyone can afford them. Remember what I said about being fair?

The name of the game is exposure. You have to have your name show up in as many places as possible. If you’re a long-fiction writer, seriously consider taking up short fiction. Why? Much easier to market. No need for an agent. On top of that it is AWESOME discipline. If you land a few short stories in a 1st tier magazine market, editors will call YOU. Just getting a few credits to put on your cover page is a help. The higher placed the better. Look at contests and consider submitting to them. Winning a contest is great self marketing and a great credit for your “writing resume”.

On a side note, exposure is good—great even. Annoyance is not. I recommend against cold-calling an agent or publisher unless you are very confident in your material and your interpersonal skills. I’ve heard of it being successful, but the people I’ve heard preach the process are not ordinary backroom writers. Yes, publishers and agents are business people and they want to make money. Unless, you have something dazzling to present, they are going to feel their time is being wasted. I think I write well and I think people enjoy my material. I’m certain, however, I don’t have the chutzpa to call up a senior-editor and talk them into breaking their time-honored system an put my book in their to-do pile. Paint me yellow and spank my bottom, that’s just the wimp I am. Just understand, that if you tick someone off it can be bad. First tier editors move around a great deal, and they talk to one another. You don’t want a word of mouth campaign ruining your chances.

While we’re on the topic of exposure. Your cover letter is your first exposure to the agent or editor. It is probably the most important piece of literature you will write. There are entire volumes written exclusively on the ‘art of the cover letter’. For a quick overview of cover letter ettiquette check out Rites of Submission: Cover Letters and Query Letters by Jacqueline K. Ogburn. She gives a good warm up to the topic. Moira Allen, who I’ve had the pleasure of publishing with a few times has a more in-depth look at cover letters in her article titled Cover Letters: When, Why, and How to Use Them.

Since we’ve dedicated some space to cover letters, lets also talk about the synopsis. Undoubtedly, the biggest test of any book author’s literary talents. You will need multiple versions of it, so you will go through the pain no less than three times. You will need a blurb size, single page synopsis for the really busy impatient folks. A two pager is the most commonly requested size. The three-to-four page story summary is the most lenient synopsis requested. Marg Gilks talks to this topic in How to Write a Synopsis. Grumble if you want, but do it, and do it well. It one of the biggest selling tools for your book.

All of these things come down to one fact. Your book is a product. I apologize to the short story people. Guys, open up your Writer’s Guide, find some suitable magazines, write a good cover letter and send it in. Send it out until it sells or someone writes something to you that convinces you to stop.

Also on the list of agent / editor requests is an outline. This is usually for a book proposal, but a few folks out there want an outline that shows the salient flow of your book’s plot. The outline needn’t be some huge monolithic thing, just bullet points that show story cusps and the flow of the narrative. My understanding, and this may not be universal, is the outline of a completed book is requested by those folks who have no intention of reading the whole book. They are going a skim a chapter here and there to get a feel for the quality of the writing and make their decision based on that and the outline. Not optimal in my mind, but then again… that’s the business we’re in.

For short story people, put together a bio on yourself around 100 words. If you sell a story, frequently these are requested. It doesn’t hurt to attach this as a tail sheet behind the last page of the manuscript you are submitting. Most editors and readers will know what it’s for so it won’t work against you and will save the time of them prompting you for it.

About Simulataneous Submissions

Okay, you’re researching where to send and you see that reference to ‘no simultaneous submissions’. What does that mean? It means that the agent / editor doesn’t want another copy of your script out in the wild looking for a home while they are considering it. With response times pushing six months nowadays, I see this as increasingly selfish and ludicrous. Yes, there might be some confusion if two entities decide to represent and/or license a work. However, with the average number of bounces it takes to find a home for something up around 20… if you waited six months between submissions it would take ten years! Not realistic, not acceptable. My take, shotgun it out there. The last time I went hunting, I sent out 15 submission packages at one time. It took 8 months for all of them to come back. More obscene to me was out of 15, only TWO had actually been opened and reviewed. What is the point of an agent saying they are looking to represent people if they don’t open the packages sent to them? So, yes, send out a bunch. I know there are agents who hate me for saying that, but the market is too tough for all of us to serve their convenience.

Copy right issues

Okay, you’re sending stuff out but you’re afraid it’ll get stolen. Do you copy right your stuff? Well, to be honest, just because it’s copyrighted won’t stop it from being stolen. What it gives you is legal recourse. However, legal recourse does not depend on a copyright, it relies on some kind of proof that you are the entity who originally created the work in question.

If you pre-copyright material before you send it out you create potential snags in the sale of rights to publish and distribute the work. Not insurmountable snags certainly but potentially annoying ones for the purchaser.

If you question the integrity of an entity to which you plan to send your work in toto, I’d advise NOT doing it—especially if the work is a book. If you really need some piece of mind, an inexpensive way to show original creation is to enlist the services of a notary of public. Burn the entire contents of the novel onto a permanent electronic, non-rewritable medium—a CD-ROM works for this. It needs a label with enough space that the notary can stamp and date it. You will also need your book synopsis which describes the “literary content” on the CD. With these two is an envelope which will be sealed and stamped. The official notarized dates and stamps give dated witness to the material, and describe it in general and in detail. Because of the limited number of objects in the notorization, the CD, the synopsis, and the envelope this keeps the cost of the witnessing down (notaries often charge by the page). This method is not infallible, it could still be contested in court, but would certainly stand up better than the old myth of ‘sending it to yourself in the mail’. A recommendation from a lawyer to further shore up the above method is to have two independant non-interested parties view the script and synopsis and verify they refer to the same work and sign notorized affidavits to that effect. That way if there is a question of authenticity they can be called as witnesses in court. Of course, by the time you’ve gone this far you’ve probably spent the money for a copy right.

The last word on this is to protect your work, and track who you send it to. Be leary of sending out full electronic copies for any reason. If you must send out a full electronic copy try and use a protected format (such as PDF) that can limit editing of the material. In general, thieves are lazy, and they aren’t going to retype your script. If it isn’t easy to stick their name on it, they won’t do it.

One little thing that may put you more at ease. With as hard as it is to get published nowadays, how much better chance does the thief have of selling your script than you do? Unless, the thief is themselves an agent which, while possible, is reputational suicide if it gets found out.

Take precautions, research, and don’t fret—you have enough to worry about.

The Issue of Rights

Credit for this direct lift from ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) site. This is verbatim their material. The rights you sell to your work are important. There are “all rights” and “all rights in sheeps clothing” contracts that endanger your work. Even given the information below, I strongly advise a thorough understanding of such contracts before ever signing one.

Contract Terms

Here’s a primer on the difference between “first North American serial rights,” “all rights,” “non-exclusive [all] rights” and “work-made-for-hire” and their practical implications for writers.

First North American Serial Rights

As recently as the mid-1980s, most periodical publishers sought only “first North American serial rights” (FNASR) from the writer. Under a FNASR contract, the publisher licenses a one-time right to publish the article first in the North American market. The author retains all other rights to his work, including the right to re-license its use as a reprint (“second serial rights”), to publish it in foreign markets, to license a movie or product spin-off, and so on. Recently, however, publishers have begun asking for more rights (usually for the same amount of money).

“All Rights” Contracts

When a writer signs over “all rights” to his literary work, he is essentially conveying the entire bundle of rights that makes up his copyright plus any common law rights he may have in the work. Whether the writer has effectively transferred his “copyright” is open to debate and may depend on the contract’s actual wording. But clearly the ESSENCE of his copyright — the bundle of rights copyright represents — is gone.)

By conveying away “all rights,” the writer gives up the right to re-license his work to a reprint magazine, foreign periodical, electronic database, anthology, or business publication, for example, or to re- use the work in a future book. For many writers, subsidiary rights like these represent a considerable annual source of revenue. The Internet, where content is king, has also substantially expanded resale possibilities. Signing an “all- rights” contract (or its equivalent) hands that income over to the publisher.

“Non-Exclusive Rights” And Other Variations On The All-Rights Theme

Although less blatant as a rights-grab than “all rights” contracts, “first right to publish” or “non-exclusive” agreements can achieve virtually the same result for publishers via the back door. These agreements often begin with a benign-sounding FNASR clause and then tack on extremely broad (though “non- exclusive”) rights to use a writer’s work in perpetuity in various media. The writer may still technically own the property, but the publisher may continue to re-use the work whenever it wishes — for no additional fee.

Granting “non- exclusive rights” to a publisher may sound less onerous to a writer than signing an all-rights or WMFH agreement, but the apparent safeguard may be deceptive. These non-exclusive rights clauses may also allow publishers to profit from the work through their own network of sister publications, syndication contacts, and resale markets without sharing that income with the author. The loss of potential income can be substantial. Think about the size of the potential market among corporate purchasers, for example. (How would you feel if Microsoft buys 10,000 reprints?) How would you feel if the article for which you sold all rights later becomes a film? (Think “Saturday Night Fever.”) And if you plan to include your article “Why Eating Chocolate Makes You Live Longer” in your book “Surprising Foods That Keep You Healthy,” do you want your article to become part of a competitive nutrition book the magazine throws together?


As if all-rights contracts weren’t onerous enough, “work made for hire” (WMFH) contracts have been jokingly called “all- rights contracts on steroids.” But WMFH (sometimes called “work for hire”) is no laughing matter.

The term owes its existence to a lengthy definition in the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. Sec. 101 and 201(b)). Under this definition, as one might expect, writings produced by an employee in the scope of his or her employment belong to the employer. In addition to employee-created works, certain works produced by independent contractors may also be WMFH if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument that the works are “work made for hire.” But not all types of work by independent contractors will qualify. The work must be “specially ordered or commissioned” as:

  • a contribution to a collective work,
  • a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work,
  • a translation,
  • a supplementary work [to another author’s work, such as a foreword, chart, or table],
  • a compilation,
  • an instructional text,
  • a test,
  • answer material for a test, or
  • an atlas.

(A tenth category, “a sound recording,” was briefly added and then quickly removed from the statute after intensive lobbying by recording artists.)

There’s a big payoff here for publishers: When a “work made for hire” agreement is entered into for a work in one of these nine “magic” categories, the company or individual COMMISSIONING the work (and not the independent contractor) is deemed to be the “creator” of the work — and is entitled to copyright protection from the moment the work is created. (But remember: just because a work falls into a qualifying category doesn’t mean a writer must agree to write it as WMFH).

In many ways, “all rights” contracts and WMFH agreements are roughly equivalent: both cede a broad array of important rights, and both can deprive writers of valuable sources of income. But there are some differences between the terms.

Sure, you wrote that article or textbook. But if you’ve signed a valid WMFH agreement, you’re not its legal “author.” From the instant of its creation, the employer or publisher who commissioned the work is considered its creator. You won’t be able to resell the work in other markets — and won’t be entitled to benefit if the publisher resells it. You can’t syndicate the material or even put it on your own web site without the publisher’s permission.

The Scary Part of Publishing

With the rights discussion above one can see that what you don’t know can deprive you of a lot. It’s one of the reasons an agent is a valuable resource not only to help you find a buyer, but to help you navigate the legal mine-field of protecting as much of your rights as possible. Publishers are less likely to try and strong-arm you with an agent in the mix.

If you manage to get a publisher for your novel without the assistance of an agent, that is a good time to shop for one. The same agent who turned up his/her nose at a new unpublished writer will be considerably more interested if you say you are in negotiations with a publisher. Often times, the percentage you pay the agent is worth the extra money he/she can get you in terms of an advance and royalties.

If an agent is not in the mix and you have to go the contract negotiations alone, keep one thing in mind—less is more. Sell as little of your rights as possible. Keep all the subsidiary rights that you can unless the publisher offers you a fair amount for them. If it’s your first sale, the gittery instinct is to just accept whatever they offer you. Remember that publishing is a business and it’s in their interest to offer you as little as possible. There will be room for negotiation. How much room is why it’s nice to have a professional involved.

Before signing that agreement make sure you have researched as thoroughly as you can and you know the ramifications of everything laid out in the contract.

You’ve come a long way

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this section starting with approaches to finding a home for your script to the pitfalls of negotiating to sell. Writing professionally is a business, and like a business it has its own set of rules and inside knowledge. The onus is on you to be aware of the trends, the players, and the value of your work. In the next and last section we’ll come back to the issue of marketing and the emotional investment of writing.

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