AUTHORS! Why do you write?

Friday, November 30, 2007

How to Guarantee You Will Not Be Published

Authors--ignore this post at your peril. It is a simple two-step process to guarantee you will not get your hard work published.

We received an email query letter to Savas Publishing and Consulting Group (my consulting business, the outgrowth of the original Savas Publishing). I know where it originated because of the unique email address. The prospective author (let's call him John), explained fairly well what his manuscript was about, why it was important and worthy of publication, and other pertinent information.

I sent back the following email:

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Dear John,

Thanks for taking the time to write.

Please do us a favor and go to www.savasbeatie.com, and follow the submission guidelines on that site. It is the only way we can keep up with and monitor the enormous number of submissions we receive each week.

Thanks so much.

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This is the email the author sent back:

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A rejection slip already, and I have not even submitted anything yet. I will file this under what will likely become a long list of rejections.

P. S. the only guideline I did not follow was submitting through Outlook Express, which does not function on my Machine. I did send my query through e-mail just as you asked. I did print out your SUBMISSIONS instructions, and feel that I followed them. I provided the information you requested.

Good bye.

John

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I posted on the submission process on November 12, 2007, and why following instructions is important not only for the author, but because of what it reveals to the acquisitions editor.

Note this paragraph from the November 12 posting: "Consequently, I have turned down many publishable manuscripts because of how authors present themselves. Unbeknownst to most writers, many of the hoops and mazes established to weed out manuscripts are also designed to weed out authors."

Unfortunately for the author, I had an immediate interest in his proposal. Until I read his response, that is. This is what I wrote back to him:

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What an interesting and insightful email, John.

Savas Beatie is the publishing wing of the consulting company. The email you used was not our submission email. You did not follow our submission guidelines. And then, you argue with a publisher who actually had an interest in your manuscript.

I can see why you are getting rejections.

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Argue and parse with the person who has the power to publish your manuscript. A smart, insightful strategy--if you really don't want to be published.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Choosing a Publisher (or, Pt. 4)

My past several posts discussed various submission issues. Here is one that many authors do not take into consideration when they submit a book: the publisher's sales program.

I know many authors are scratching their heads thinking, "Don't all publisher's have a sales program? Surely they all want to sell their books, right?" The answers are no, and yes.

Most publishers (note the word "most") do indeed have a focused, strategic sales program to sell their titles, and they would not be in business if they were not able to do so with some level of proficiency.

For the sake of this post, let's assume the house you are considering has an established sales program. I am more concerned with what that program is--and you should be, too. There are a host of markets, niches, and sales programs. Does the publisher's program match your expectations?

Here is a common, real life example. A frustrated author-friend of mine called me a few months after he published a book with a fairly well known publishing company. (His book was not something we would have published.) He was shocked when the relatively short non-reference book (220 pages) appeared with a sticker price of $45.00. The print run was small (about 800 copies is his best guess). He scheduled a few book signings and sold only a thin handful because the price was too high.

My explanation was simple: he published with a company whose primary customers are libraries. Not trade sales, not specialty sales, not corporations, not individuals. This house (and all houses like it) price their books high, often produce them without jackets, do not spend a lot of time or money on design or editing, and sell the vast bulk of a short run at exorbitant prices to institutions (usually libraries). And that is that.

Simply put, he went with a publisher (a few others had turned him down) whose sales program did not meet his expectations. There is nothing wrong with this program, and it works well for the publisher. But it was not what my friend wanted for his book. He should have asked where it sold its books, how it sold them, etc. He also should have looked up their catalog of titles and determined where they are sold, how they are priced, and what the final package looks like.

Savas Beatie welcomes these and other questions from all our prospective authors, and we happily supply author references and invite contact. We have a great military history-related distributor in Casemate Publishing that reaches deeply into the trade and specialty markets. Our distributor in Europe is Greenhill Books, which offers our titles to the trade and individuals in the UK and on the continent. While we do very well in the trade, bookstores are the worst place to sell a book (more on the next post on that).

So, we focus a lot of our energy and marketing dollars outside the book trade. Our marketing director, Sarah Keeney, opens and maintains sales and promotions of all our titles, including our very vibrant backlist, outside the trade to museums, parks, institutions, schools, individuals, and so on. She also works hard to schedule radio interviews, web interviews, signings, and print coverage.

So what does all this mean? It means as an author, you better know your publisher's sales program. Go in with your eyes wide open.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why do you Write?

[Note: This is an edited version of an article I wrote for a Northern California newspaper a few years ago. -tps]

A prominent psychologist claims nearly everyone is a rock/movie star wannabe or frustrated author.

Dreams of taking a stage or seeing yourself on the silver screen usually fade away with the reality of kids, jobs, choking government regulations, and income taxes. For many, however, the desire to write the great American novel--or just see a book spine with your name stamped into it--never dies. Indeed, the yearning only grows as one decade slips quickly into the next.

My casual chats with residents of El Dorado Hills demonstrate the urge to write a book is alive and well here in the golden foothills. Many of my neighbors are laboring on mystery novels, screenplays, thrillers, and cookbooks. Knowing I am in the publishing business and a published author, they sometimes ask (at their own peril) for my candid advice. This is what I tell them:

STOP! Raise your hands slowly over your head and back away from the keyboard!

(Caveat: If your goal is to travel the road paved with disappoint and quiet desperation, don’t read the rest of this column--just keep clicking those keys and praying you will get published. Otherwise, read on.)

A significant slice of my last sixteen years has been spent as an acquisitions editor evaluating manuscripts for publication. I do this for my own company and other publishing houses. Many editors find the process wearisome. I never do. I love it because I appreciate the toil and sacrifice it takes to produce a book-length manuscript.

Last year I read through more than 130 manuscripts and queries from hopeful authors, the vast majority of whom were unpublished. Many were outstanding (well written, creative, entertaining, and publishable). Sadly, most will forever exist only as unbound stacks of yellowing paper buried away in a box on a closet shelf. Each rubber-banded stack represents thousands of irretrievable hours spent away from family and friends, hobbies, and life’s other adventures. Want to add to that headache? Calculate your uncompensated hourly rate.

So why in the world would any sane person write?

Is it because you have the next killer screenplay? Do you fancy yourself the next J. K. Rowling? Want to be the next Clancy, or Cussler, or Ludlum? Stop wasting your time and go play catch with your son. Very roughly speaking, about 1 in 300 will finish their book manuscript. Out of that slim handful, 2 in 100 will snag a legitimate contract. Discouraged? There’s more bad news. Only a handful of contracted authors will sell enough copies to cover their driveway. These odds are not encouraging if you are driven by dollars or fame.

So why should anyone voluntarily shoulder Atlas’s burden? In a word, love.

Do you have a burning need to write about something for which you have a passion? Do you weave a plot as you drift into the soft arms of Morpheus? Do you wake up in the morning crafting a character in your mind? Does that troublesome footnote pop into your head when your wife confronts you with her Honey-Do List? Is there a story inside aching to be written?

And now the real question: Would you spend the time and money writing even if you knew in advance your work would NEVER be published?

Was the the answer to the first set of questions yes? Good. Was the answer to the last question a resounding “Yes!” Better. If so, you have the virus. The sickness that never goes away whether you are at work, on a beach, in a plane, or wasting time in front of a television (We turned ours off when our kids were born, and banned it during the school week, allowing only 1 hour each weekend. Now, they don't watch TV at all and don't care. Instead, they use all those free hours to be productive; you can, too.)

Yes to these questions mean you should write. Souls so afflicted have a much better chance of realizing their potential--and being published.

Why? Those driven to write because of their love of the endeavor tend to be better writers. (However, not everyone who loves writing can turn a phrase.) Their ardor for storytelling is more palpable, their plots more believable, their organization and research more compelling and genuine. Amateurs who one day pull their books off a shelf at a Barnes & Noble or a local library almost always write about a personal passion, be it a hobby, career, success, or obsession. They are smitten.

Is this you? If so, never forget you write because of your love for the craft, your desire to learn, create, and share with others. Those are your true rewards. And maybe . . . just maybe . . . someone will one day send you that acceptance letter.

So get back to that keyboard you slid away from a few minutes ago! Now you know that regardless of the outcome, only good will come of it.

-tps

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Choosing a Publisher (or, Pt. 3)

I have a friend who worked on a Civil War book for many years. In the early 1990s, he placed it with a well known press (which shall remain anonymous). The press made no demands, asked only a few questions, and that was it. There was no input on anything else of substance.

When the finished books arrived, he opened the box with eager anticipation. The first thing he saw, of course, was the dust jacket. It was, to use his adjective, "hideous." He skimmed through his labor of love and discovered the paper was heavy but cheap, and that the cloth was not cloth at all. The binding was also inexpensively done, and glue was visible everywhere. He stuck the book on his shelf and never opened it again. Five years of research, and the disappointing finished product was something he would have to live with forever.

But it did not have to be this way.

By this time, some of you are likely wondering why I am sharing a story like this. The answer might be posed as a question: Would you marry a girl you have never seen? Would you buy a car you have never seen or driven? For most of us, the answer is obvious. And yet, authors often jump at the first press that says "yes" to their manuscript.

The acceptance minuet performed prior to signing a contract should not simply consist of a press accepting your manuscript, but must include a thinking author willing to "accept" the press--and all that entails. It is a bilateral arrangement, one both sides should enter with their eyes wide open. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a partnership (at least, that is how we think of it at Savas Beatie.)

If you have a manuscript ready, before you submit it to a publisher I strongly suggest a trip to the local bookstore (or to your own local or home library). When you find a publisher that produces books in your genre, study as many as you can with deliberate care. Pick them up, read them, feel them, sleep with one under your pillow.

Is it well designed? Does it have a dust jacket? Is the jacket professionally designed? Look at the flap credits and try to determine if the designer is an outside professional. Is the interior formatting pleasing, readable, and cleanly presented? Is the paper appropriate and of good quality? How is the binding? Tight and square, or loose and inexpensively done? If applicable, does this press use maps, photos, footnotes, or end notes? If so, are they plentiful, well done, and helpfully displayed? Is the text well edited? Generally speaking, look to see if the books by this press are reviewed positively or negatively by readers. Is the company brand (think r-e-p-u-t-a-t-i-o-n) strong and well respected within its publishing niche? Will the company give you the names of 3-4 authors and allow you to contact them?

Books are not an exact science; human eyes and hands create them. However, a good sampling of a publisher's titles will give you a strong sense of what your finished manuscript will look like.

The submission process is, in many respects, caveat emptor--buyer beware. When you go onto a car lot and open your wallet, you know whether you will be driving away in a Mercedes or a Chevy. If your eyes and ears are wide open, you will have a pretty good idea what your final product will look like before you sign on the dotted line.

--tps

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Manuscript Submission Process, Pt. 2

We received a submission yesterday that, sadly, is not atypical. A large submission envelope arrived (priority) offering several graphic novels for publication. Now, I have nothing against graphic novels, and thought the movie "300," which was based on a graphic novel, was intriguingly well done.

But even a cursory examination of our list of titles makes it vibrantly evident Savas Beatie does not publish graphic novels. This particular author spent time (30 minutes) and money (say $10 for the postage, certified return receipt, interior binding, paper, ink, etc.) to submit three manuscripts to a company that does not even publish (or dabble in) their genre. If this author makes $15.00 an hour, he wasted some $25.00 of his own money--and my time.

Which leads me to one (two, actually) of my head-scratching pet peeves. Let's spend a minute discussing the first one, and I will follow up with the second in a later post. Authors pay too little attention to both of them when submitting manuscripts. A few minutes well spent will save you copious amounts of time and energy, and keep acquisition editors from pulling their hair out.

As obvious as it seems, make sure the books produced by the publishing house and the manuscript you are submitting actually have something in common. A completely unrelated query communicates a lot of information, none of it flattering for the submitter. It tells me the author (or agent) did not research our company and list of titles. It also means that almost certainly the "shotgun" approach to getting publishing is the preferred flavor of the day--i.e., send out as many queries to as many publishers as possible in the hope that one will stick.

Would you interview for a job with a company you know nothing about? Would you tell your interviewer you are knocking on every door in every building and up and down the street, ready to take the first offer someone makes? Of course not. But that is exactly what an unsolicited submission in a genre we don't publish tells us.

Credible publishing houses receive a slew of manuscripts and queries (we get at least one query each day). The first ones tossed into the round file are those that do not match what we publish.

There is a reason for a submission process. Ignore it at your peril.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Manuscript Submission Process, Pt. 1

Every publishing company has its own way of doing things. At Savas Beatie, we have always been careful about how we select manuscripts for publication; thankfully, we have always been blessed with a plethora of publishable manuscripts. Still, dusting the chaff from the grain is not always easy.

The process of acceptance is of interest to most authors, and rightly so. Sometimes authors inadvertently make the decision for us, without realizing it.

Of course, the genre, topic, research depth, and writing skills are important. But what most authors do not realize is that for many presses, acquisition editors (at Savas Beatie, I wear that hat) sometime employ a process akin to alchemy. Call it a gut feeling, call reading tea leaves, call it learning the hard way, but over the years I came to understand that if the genre is what we publish and the topic is right, research can be improved and writing can be cleaned up. But unlike fixing commas or digging into an overlooked archive, like leopards, authors don't change their spots. They are who they are. They have their idea on how the process works, and how hard they will work once their manuscript is published. For large houses, this is not as important, but for smaller independent presses, who often rub shoulders with their authors and work closely with them, personalities, outlook, and character matter--greatly.

Consequently, I have turned down many publishable manuscripts because of how authors present themselves. Unbeknownst to most writers, many of the hoops and mazes established to weed out manuscripts are also designed to weed out authors.

Here is one concrete example. Our website has clear and specific submission guidelines. They are there for a reason: they work well for us. They are also there for another reason: authors who can't follow simple directions won't follow simple suggestions or directions later--after we have invested significant time and money in their manuscript. Thus, when an author (or agent) calls and tries to pitch something on the phone, sends in a complete unsolicited manuscript, or does not follow our step-by-step guideline for submission, it tells us as much about them as it does about their work. And experience demonstrates that authors who will not follow requirements up front won't down the road, either.

I once told an author that, for most writers, obtaining a traditional publishing contract is like running around outside in Kansas trying to get struck by lightning. I am kidding; it is easier to get struck by lightening.

So writers take heed: if you have a manuscript and you want to submit it to a publishing house, determine specific submissions requirements (they vary house to house) and follow them exactly. Editors are evaluating the procedure as well the substance.

--tps

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Kicking, Screaming, and Careening into the Blogosphere

I love blogs.

Really, I do.

I spend so much time reading them each day (a must for someone in my line of work--any line of work, really) that the idea of creating and maintaining one seems compulsively obsessive.

As the managing editor of a growing independent publishing house (http://www.savasbeatie.com/), however, I can no longer avoid the necessity of maintaining a blog. My hope and intent is to comment on matters relating to everything from catching a publisher's eye when submitting a manuscript, to what Savas Beatie is seeking to publish, from our editorial direction to legal issues shaping today's publishing world. A majority of my posts will relate, in one way or another, to what is happening behind the scenes--inside Savas Beatie.

Unlike many managing directors or acquisition editors, I am also a widely published author/editor in my own right, a licensed attorney (I practiced in Silicon Valley for a dozen years), and I have worked for publishers and individuals on a host of matters as a free-lance consultant. (I also teach legal- and history-related classes at night at the college level.) These facts I relate as a way of establishing my bona fides on a rather wide playing field. I am completely confident readers will disagree with some of my opinions and observations, but each of them will rest solidly on a foundation of personal experience.

The publishing world is rapidly changing, and these changes directly affect everyone, including and especially authors (although many writers do not yet realize this).

I do not intend to often comment on comments. Please do not interpret my lack of response for indifference. Time is short, but know that I read every remark and email.

Hopefully, this blog will add something to the discussion.

tps