Traditionally Publishing Novels: Two Paths

Okay, moving on to novels! (If you have any suggestions or questions on short stories, please let me know!)

There are two routes one can take when publishing a novel traditionally. The first method is to get an agent, and the second is to deal directly with a publisher.

NOTE: Not all publishers will take submissions from an unagented author. It may be a good idea to look at major publishers in your area and see what seems to be the norm.

A publisher will note in their guidelines whether or not they accept “unsolicited” submissions. It is more common among smaller presses, or those that specialize in nonfiction, but some larger publishers also accept them.

The initial process for submitting a novel to either an agent or a publisher is essentially the same–you will need a query letter to introduce your work to the agent/publisher. Some agents/publishers will also ask for additional materials, such as a synopsis (which could be between 1 and 4 pages, depending on preference, so some experts recommend having multiple versions of yours available of varying lengths), the beginning pages of your manuscript, or, in rarer cases, a marketing plan.

WARNING: There are several “publishers” out there that might not be legitimate. A good thing to remember for traditional publishing is that the money flows to the writer. If an agent or publisher asks you for money up front, such as a “reading fee,” they may just be a scammer. There are websites where you can check to see if an agent/publisher is legitimate, such as the forums at Absolute Write or Preditors and Editors. (Note to self: P&E is currently down, looking for a new caretaker, so do not include if it doesn’t go back up.)

There are several books, websites, and articles available on the proper way to put together a query letter and/or a synopsis, so we’ll just touch on the basics here. A query letter is a short letter of 200-300 words that acts a lot like a cover letter for a job application. If you have a specific reason for querying the agent/editor (you talked to them at a con and they asked you to send them something, you looked at their wishlist and your story will be a good fit, etc.), you start your query with that. Then you spend a few paragraphs hooking your story (it shouldn’t be a summary, and it shouldn’t reveal the ending), and you finalize with a short, relevant bio (which includes previous publications, if any, awards won, life experience that might show that you’re qualified to write this particular story). You also include the title, word count, and genre of your story.

A synopsis can be of varying lengths and is a recital of the events of your story from beginning to end. Depending on the length you’re trying to hit, you may have to leave out some characters or subplots. You do include your ending in the synopsis–agents/publishers that ask for them are often using them to make sure the story makes logical sense all the way through.

If an agent/publisher asks for pages to be included, you send the beginning of the book. Some people consider sending what they consider the “best” pages for this, but this is frowned upon for a few reasons:

  • Agents/publishers may be unable to get into the pages because they lack the context for them
  • Agents/publishers may assume that you didn’t send the beginning because it isn’t good

The main point of your query letter is to garner enough attention that the agent/publisher is willing to look at more. The rest of your work will need to stand on its own, so make sure you’re only querying a finished, edited, and polished manuscript.

On Wednesday we’ll look at the querying process, as well as the rest of the submission process. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments on the basic set-up of the querying process for novels, or if you feel like I’m leaving anything out!

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