The Indie Path to Publishing

The last time I mentioned Rooted in the Sky and my efforts to get it independently published,* I had submitted it to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and Ashland Creek Press. We’re still waiting to hear back from Ashland, but Claire recently opened  her mailbox to find a form rejection letter from Algonquin.

I’m not worried though. Rejection is inevitable. In the meantime, Rooted in the Sky has been submitted to:

Unbridled Books: estimated 10-week wait

Soft Skull Press: estimated 29-week wait

Graywolf Press: estimated 12 to 24-week wait

Elixir Press (2012 Fiction Award): Unknown wait time

Being a writer requires so.much.patience. The only thing to do is to keep busy by simultaneously submitting it to a slew of other publishers.

*Remember, when I say “independent publishing,” I’m not talking about self-publishing a book, but rather having a book published by an independent publisher. There’s a huge crowd of very respectable, smaller “independent” publishers who do all the publishing and distribution work, free of charge, and provide (small) advances and respectable royalties rates. It’s a mini version of getting published with one of the Big 6, without a literary agent acting as the go-between.

Cover Letter Mad Lib

When you’re submitting a short story to a literary journal, you send along a cover letter. It’s a little like a query letter, only briefer.

This is the Mad Lib of my usual cover letter format:

Dear [NAME],

[1-2 sentences demonstrating that you’ve read their publication; mention how you came across their publication–are you a regular reader?–a story you enjoyed, or a story they published which you believe is similar to your own submission]

Attached, please find my [WORD COUNT] submission, [TITLE]. [One sentence summary of the story]

[Bio paragraph]

Thanks for your time and consideration,

[me]

This is an actual fleshed-out cover letter I’ve been sending around recently. I’ve gotten quite a few bites and positive feedback for this particular story, a lot of “almost” and “dear story, let’s just be literary friends,” talks from several kind and lovely editors. If I just sending it out, hopefully it’ll find a home!

Dear Mr. Towers,

I recently discovered your journal and am in love with the content. I was particularly fond of “The Bank Robbers” in the March issue.

Attached, please find my 1,700-word submission, “Nine Lives.” Fed up with a horde of feral cats terrorizing his family, George undertakes an unorthodox problem-solving approach.

I am an Assistant Editor at Transaction Publishers and have had work appear or forthcoming in Inside Pennsylvania, The Stillwater Review, The Honors Review, The Susquehanna Review, and Weave magazine. My writing has also been awarded 2nd place in The Baltimore Review’s 2011 Creative Non-Fiction Contest and Honorable Mention in Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition. I maintain a writing blog at https://thewwaitingroom.wordpress.com/. Despite what you may think, I am extremely fond of my little black cat, Gizmo.

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Hannah Karena Jones

(Image, No Copyright)

How to Write a Query Letter

So, the first order of business to get Claire Lawrence’s awesome book, Rooted in the Sky, published is the query letter. I struggled with this more than most writers do, I think, because I was ghostwriting it. Though I read Claire’s book, I didn’t know the plot and the characters inside out and backwards the way I would if I had written it myself. So after rereading the manuscript twice and taking extensive summary notes, I finally pared it down to what, as my boyfriend said, sounds like the blurb on the back of a published book (good foreshadowing sign, perhaps, yes?)

The basic rules for a query letter are this:

  1. It needs to fit on a single page;
  2. It should explain why your book belongs with them (whether an agent or a publisher) specifically;
  3. The BRIEF summary (no more than five sentences!) should provide the title, word count, genre, setting, main characters, and the central plot points; and
  4. Your bio should be short and to the point. No ramblings about your favorite color, or how your dearly beloved pet inspires you to write day after day. Even if you don’t have many (or any) writing credits, you can still write an impressive bio paragraph. If you’re interested, this is my own standard author bio.

A la Nathan Bransford’s guide on how to write a query letter, and his own Query Letter Mad Lib, I’m providing a Mad Lib of the form query letter for Rooted in the Sky. I’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions! If you were a publisher, would this query letter make you want to request a partial manuscript read? Or, even better, would you want to publish it on the spot??

Dear [Name],

I discovered [Name of Publisher] through [website/book]. [Specific reason why this book could/should live happily ever after with this publisher]. Rooted in the Sky is a 70,000-word work of literary fiction that serves as an ode to humankind’s relationship with nature.

Hannah never wanted to be a mother, but in the middle of her husband’s funeral service she gives birth to a daughter who, growing up, wants nothing more than Hannah’s attention. Committed to purifying and detaching herself from all such earthly ties, including her own physical body, Hannah escapes to the Utah desert and leaves her daughter, Frances, to be raised by a Mormon grandfather and a Catholic nun. Neither mother nor daughter, though, can escape the voices of the inanimate world as animals, rocks, trees, and buried bones speak to them, whispering secrets about the end of days.

I am an Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at Bloomsburg University and hold an MFA in creative writing from the University of Utah and a PhD in fiction from the University of Houston. My fiction, personal essays, poetry, and literary criticism has appeared in Tri-Quarterly, Terra Nova, Connecticut Review, Gulf Coast, The New England Writers Anthology, descant, Crab Orchard Review, Puerto del Sol, So to Speak, and The Best of Writers at Work, among others. My fiction has been anthologized in Terrain and The New Earth Reader. This is my first novel.

I’d be thrilled if you would consider Rooted in the Sky for publication. A few other publishers are considering simultaneously.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Claire T. Lawrence

#1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate

Let me tell you a true story.
It’s a horror story.
A publishing horror story.
The following is not for the faint of heart.

I work at a social science press. We publish history, economic, sociology, psychology, and urban planning books (among others). On occasion, we publish memoirs but these books are usually the memoirs of significant leaders in the above-mentioned academic fields. We have our own website, clearly illustrating what we publish.

So it boggled my mind when I found out that some of the editors at my company receive query letters for fiction titles. Action adventure fiction, mystery thrillers, literary fiction. These aren’t poorly written query letters either; the writers’ have obviously spent a lot of time editing their manuscripts and researching the appropriate format of a catchy query letter. They just haven’t bothered to research their market at all. After all that work, the editors at my company barely give those query letters a glance before throwing them out; with them, they throw out an author’s misplaced dreams and hopes. (Don’t worry. The editors are kind enough to reply and explain that the manuscript just isn’t our thing).

Your book might be amazing. Your query letter might be phenomenal. But it’s not going to convince a publisher to change their business plan, alter their distribution method, and design a unique marketing method just for you and your special book if they simply do not publish/acquire that genre.

An adult fiction literary agent or publisher will not suddenly decide to publish a YA title (and if they do accept your submission, despite it being way outside their range of expertise, you should be concerned. How well can a literary agent, for example, shop your book if they’ve never represented a YA book before and never had the chance to cultivate those critical editor contacts?) A serious academic press will not change their tune and start publishing romance novels. Cookbook publishers are not going to be interested in publishing a collection of short stories.

So writers, do your homework. After all the hard work of writing and editing a book, then a query letter, and then building up the nerve to submit it all . . . don’t waste all that effort (and everyone’s time) by submitting it to a literary agent and/or editor if you both know it’s not going to be their cup of tea. Don’t do all that work and then sabotage yourself and send it to somebody who will, without a doubt, say no.

When querying literary agents . . .
Look at their website and see if your book would fit what they’re looking for. What do they tell you they like to represent? What do they tell you they will never–even if the world ended–represent. Respect their wishes.

When querying publishers . . .
Look at their website. First, make sure that they accept unagented submissions. If they require every submission to be agented, they will not make an exception for you. Your query letter won’t knock their socks off because they won’t even bother reading it before throwing it in the recycling.

If they do accept author submissions, then check out what their mission statement or About page says they publish. Search for comp titles (books they’ve published that are similar to yours). Do they publish books for the same audience (ex: adult vs. children)? Do they often publish the genre your book is (ex: romance, thriller, literary, fiction, memoir)? Are the comp titles recent publications or from decades ago? (This might reflect that they’re moving in a different direction and don’t acquire those types of books anymore.)

So the #1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate?
Submit to somebody who’s going to want your book. You can’t guess ahead of time who will definitely accept it–if you did, writers would never get rejection letters–but research enough to know who would never ever in a million years consider representing/publishing your manuscript.

(Image, No Copyright)

Dear Writers: Read This For Your Own Good

Making editorial assistants cry is the equivalent to killing kittens: (1) it’s soulless; (2) selfish; and if these adjectives don’t scare you off, at the very least it’s (3) frowned upon. So read about how to avoid this cardinal sin over at the INTERN’s blog. (Here’s a hint: be a smart submitter and savvy negotiator before you get giddy and legally-foolish over the opportunity of being a published author.)

Also, if you’re having a hard time figuring out which writing contests are legitimate, or if you’re consistently losing money in a never-ending pattern of failed contest submissions, consider asking these six questions before entering another writing contest.

In more light-hearted news, for your significant other’s own good–or a potential significant other approaching upon the horizon–have them read the “10 Reasons Not to Sleep with an Essayist.” It’s only right to give them fair warning.

How Winning a Writing Contest Can Improve a Writer’s Self-Esteem

Wonderful news, folks! You are officially reading the blog of the winner of Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Young Adult Fiction Competition!* According to their congratulatory email, “competition was fierce,” so I’m super proud! While first and second place comes with fame (publication of their entry in Writer’s Digest) and fortune (they won some prize money), honorable mention certainly isn’t a shabby win!

Benefits from Winning Honorable Mention:

  1. One free copy of the 2012 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market
  2. Mentions/Promotion in the May/June 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest and on www.writersdigest.com
  3. Bragging rights in future cover letters
  4. Bragging rights in future query letters
  5. Total rejuvenation and inspiration to jump back into my NaNoWriMo novel

You see, the short YA story I submitted to the contest was an excerpt of my NaNoWriMo novel, Waterlogged.  I had already written the first three chapters of the novel for my senior undergraduate creative writing seminar last spring and decided to finish the rest of the book during November. It was the best writing I had on hand when the deadline for this contest rolled around so I also decided to submit an excerpt of that already revised/edited/reviewed beginning. And it won! This recognition makes me feel like the entire month of November wasn’t wasted, like my novel has some real potential and merit, and now I am pumped to start the year-long process of rewriting the entire hot mess that is my 56,000-word novel! And I’m even more pumped to have the polished manuscript ready for literary agent submissions so that I can insert this mention-worthy award in the query letter. I already feel like this book has a statistically-better chance of getting an agent!

New Year’s Resolution: Finish the entire manuscript and query it at least once before New Year’s 2012. Everybody hold me to this goal!

*Please excuse me while I jump about in unadulterated joy and excitement.

What To Do When Your Book Idea is Stolen and Made into a Bestseller

  1. Monday (9:00am):  Denial.  Denial, denial, denial.  When they clog up your email, each electronic bad news arriving one after another, providing a summary paragraph that’s startlingly similar to the plot of your own manuscript, refuse to read the:
  1. Monday (9:15am):  As bitter revenge, consider unsubscribing from all of these newsletters.  Try reading the unsubscribing small print; then, confused, give up.
  2. Monday (9:16am) through Tuesday (midnight): Glower and hate the publishing world for not seeing the genius potential of your book.  Specifically, resent yourself for failing to query the correct agent first, before this other author got to him/her.
  3. Wednesday (all day event):  Lament loudly to anyone who will listen—your boss, your physical therapist, your mom, strangers who upon questioning admit that they subscribe to one of the above newsletters—about how tragic the situation is.
  4. Thursday (all day event):  Stalk the new book.  Go back to the newsletters and read everything.  Go to amazon.com and read every review you can find.  Read a few pages on the online page preview.
  5. Thursday (10:10pm):  Feel comforted by the handful of 1-star reviews, assuring yourself that every flaw in the bestseller is non-existent in your own manuscript.  Comfort yourself that the bestseller is intended for an adult audience and yours is for a middle-grade audience.
  6. Friday (7:00pm):  Over dinner, try to assure your mother that the past two years dedicated to this manuscript have not been a waste and that the books are in fact very different and that you still have a good chance of becoming a successful published author.
  7. Friday (7:22pm):  Half-believe her comment that your book is even more attractive to the publishing world, now, because of how popular the topic is.  Ignore the nagging thought that nobody will want to purchase and read the same book twice.
  8. Friday (7:45pm):  After dinner, ignore your significant other’s suggestion that you “give up” on this book and write a different one.  Convey your distaste for this suggestion with long, meaningful glares.
  9. Friday (8:00pm):  Burrow under the covers for a minimum of twelve hours, protesting the injustice.
  10. Saturday (11:00am):  Sign up for NaNoWriMo to write your next book.

 

*Insert wailing wherever it seems appropriate and necessary.