A bit of background: I'm the author of nine published books and a former NYC editor, who still does a fair amount of work for various publishing firms. I teach writing and book publishing at the university level, and remain tied into the publishing world (particularly science fiction and fantasy) on various levels. I've written and edited both fiction and nonfiction, and I'll talk about both in this series.
I am not currently an acquiring editor (so don't send me your manuscript unless I specifically ask to see it) but hopefully this series will steer some of you in the direction of people who will buy your books.
Anyway, in this introductory part, I'll talk a bit about how publishers are organized and buy books, and the first few steps you can take, before getting into more details in later episodes (assuming y'all are interested in reading more). I'll probably write it in chunks of 1,000 words or so while I'm avoiding my current deadline. (The first draft of my new novel has been promised to my agent in late August.)
1 - Finish the Damned Thing First
If you're a first-time author (meaning you've never sold a book before, not that you haven't written professionally) it's very likely that you will need to have a completed book in hand before you can sell it to anyone. The exception here is for people who are selling the book based on their fame rather than their writing skills - but if you're Paris Hilton it's not like you'll be writing it yourself, anyway. Or like anyone will be reading it for your writing ability.
Experienced writers often do not write the entire book before selling it: A publisher will frequently buy a book based on an outline and sample chapters. But that's because an experienced writer has a track record of being able to finish a book - which lots of first-time writers can't. The single biggest problem with new writers is endings; almost anyone can start a good book, while it often takes lots of experience to actually finish one in a way that will be satisfying to readers.
Ray Bradbury famously said that it takes about a million words of writing before a writer really gets good (the average novel is about 100,000 words these days), and there's a lot of truth to that. For many eventual published writers, the first book you write won't sell - but it will teach you to write a book that will sell. The first two books I wrote didn't sell (though they landed me my first agent), but most of what I've written since has sold. Piers Anthony wrote 13 books before he sold one (and went on to become a best-seller). My friend Walter Hunt (a fine writer in his own right) sold his first novel - but it took nearly 20 years. (Ironically, after 20 years that book - which concerns an alien culture that wants to destroy humanity because their religion tells them we shouldn't exist - came out a month before 9-11, and ended up with huge sales because of that fluke of timing.)
2 - Why Good Books Can Still Get Rejected
While publishers are in the business of making money, and your book may be tremendously commercial, that doesn't mean that every publisher will be interested in it. Publishing houses (and imprints within those publishing houses) have different strengths and weaknesses, and more importantly, their sales forces have different strengths and weaknesses. Editors, who are competing with each other for precious publishing slots, tend to be highly attuned to what they thing their publisher can sell. Yes, sometimes they go out on a limb, and sometimes they have blind spots, but by and large, whether your book sells is based on:
Finding the right publisher, and following that publisher's guidelines
Convincing that publisher there's a viable market for the book, and that market isn't too saturated
Having good timing
A well written, commercial book is likely to sell eventually, but it can still be rejected (for good reasons) at the first place (or places) it's sent to. For example:
You've written the best 14th-century Scottish romance novel in the history of creation. You submit it to me, and I love it. Unfortunately, I just bought another 14th-century Scottish romance novel last week, and if I buy your novel, the two books will be competing with each other. Regretfully, I have to pass on your book. A year later, you see the other book on the shelves, say "my book was way better than this" (and you're right), and wonder why yours got rejected.
Conversely, the opposite can also happen:
14th-century Scottish romance novels are the hot new genre, and the sales force is screaming for one that can be slotted into the November publishing month. Unfortunately, no one's been writing them. After a long search of all the submissions we have in house we find your 14th-century Scottish romance novel, which has been sitting in the slushpile for a year and a half unread. It's not great, but with a heavy edit I can make it at least publishable, and the sales force will have something that they know they can turn into a big-seller.
If there's a market for 14th-century Scottish romance novels, that book is likely to eventually sell (or the next one will), as long as you don't give up after the first rejection. Incidentally, this can be a very long process: I know several editors who routinely take up to two years to look at submissions - and most publishers won't take simultaneous submissions.
Another key piece of advice: If an editor asks for a revision, do it. She isn't saying it just to avoid hurting your feelings, or out of the joy of being overwhelmed with more submissions (of which she gets literally hundreds every month). No editor asks for revisions unless that editor sees a lot of promise in the work, and thinks that she may be able to make an offer on a revised version of the book. (More often, editors will suggest changes, but not want to see the book again. How to decide whether to make those changes or not is a subject for a different thread.
Anyway, back to the deadline I'm currently ignoring: I'll be around for a while to answer questions, and then check again late in the morning.
Next up: how publishing lists work, how to submit a book, finding an agent, and avoiding scams (or as much as I can fit in one diary)
Still to come: everything from how to finish a book to contract negotiating tips
The series so far:
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
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