At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Your novel: E-pub? Or "old school" Print Publisher?

If you've finished a manuscript and think it's ready to submit, your timing at this moment in the history of book publishing is unique.  On the one hand, the "old school" brick and mortar publishing houses of New York are still buying and producing books.  However, they are far more cautious about their bottom line.  The days of big advances--or even modest ones--are gone unless you are Jackie Kennedy.  In a nutshell, it's simply more difficult these days to attract the attention of Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins or the like for a first novel.

Working in your favor is the rise of smaller, quality presses and "imprints" of larger publisher.  An "imprint" is a small publishing venture, nearly always created by a venerated  professional editor, within a larger publishing house.  An "imprint" is a kind of reward for a successful professional career in publishing.  Often the imprints specialize in certain types of novels that are dear to the heart of the main editor--which means you need to do you research before submitting to an imprint publisher.  There are also smaller, indie presses that publish a few titles a year, and will sometimes take a chance on a first novel.  A small press might print only a few hundred copies, but do so with the knowledge that lightning can strike:  the title wins some awards, creates some buzz, grows "legs" (as they say in publishing) and starts to sell well.

But say you get no response from the Big Six publishers in New York, and not a peep from the imprints and small presses or agents.  Luckily for you, there is Amazon and Kindle and the whole new world of e-publishing.   There are just enough success stories (Amanda Hocking, for example, the mom from Minnesota and her fantasy series) to make e-publishing attractive.  A whole new layer of jobs in publishing has arisen:  formatting and design for e-publication.  You can send your manuscript via email to any of one of hundreds of little "companies" (often they are a person or persons working from home).  They will prepare for your novel for Kindle or other formats and charge you anywhere from $150 to several hundred dollars depending on what you want.  Then you "Kindle-ize" your novel, sit back, and wait for the royalties to roll in.  As an add for Lotto goes, "It COULD happen."

But it probably won't.  There is a great flood of low quality, self-published e-lit that makes it extremely hard for your novel to the attention it so richly deserves :-).

My advice at this moment?  Don't be in a hurry to go the e-pub route.  Try to get at least some traction in the print world.  If you're getting absolutely no response from print editors, your writing is probably not competitive.  Sorry, but this needs to be said.   If your writing is competitive an editor, even a junior assistant to the assistant editor going through the slush pile will spot it.  And it will be far easier to sell your books and make a buck in the new, e-pub world once you've proven that you can compete in the old school world of ink on paper.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Manuscript Appearance

I'm working with a couple of aspiring writers, editing their first attempts at young adult fiction.  Both are thoughtful, bright, clever people.  Both have teaching experience and/or kids at the grade levels their work is aiming toward.  Both would be fine dinner party guests; both could carry a conversation with wit and style.  However, both have a ways to go in their writing, including understanding one key, technical matter:  manuscript format.

It's a cliche' that you only have one chance to make a first impression.  But all cliches are grounded in truth.  The first impression you make as a writer is your manuscript-- a visual impression.  With people, we  judge them first on appearance, on how well "put together" they are.  We use basic criteria of clothing, tidiness and all the little markers of personal style.  We do this without fail before we get to know them, that is, understand their personality, their values, their world view.

 Recently I was struck by a photo of people lined up for a jobs fair--how consistently tidy and well dressed they all were.  They had researched "the look" of a job applicant, and conformed to it.  Likewise there are formal rules for manuscripts, and editors can see immediately if you know them.   Most publishing companies use "MLA standards", meaning the Modern Language Association's guideline for manuscripts.  The formatting guide is boring stuff, but every professional writer uses it (or something similar for scholarly writing).  MLA formatting speaks to margins, paragraphing, line spacing, pagination, etc.  In general, your manuscript needs to be double-spaced with one inch margins; have paragraph indents (not block paragraphs, which are for business letters); and your name and the page number on every page.   My two aspiring writers had somehow missed all of that.

Think of your manuscript like those people in the job fair line.  You don't want to be the one wearing jeans and tennies when everyone else is wearing a suit.  If your manuscript doesn't mostly conform to common standards, the editor begins to read it with great skepticism.   And that's the last thing you want.

Postscript:  I have also encountered aspiring writers who obsess over format at the expense of the writing.  Their novel becomes an exercise in secretarial exactness!  Put content first, obviously, but make sure it's at least close to the common standards of publishing (double spacing always!).  The goal is keep your manuscript moving forward.  As one editor told me, "I'll read a manuscript until the writer gives me an excuse to stop."  Don't let appearance be that reason.