Have you ever written a book review?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Successful? No. Stupid? You be the Judge

I guess he did not read my blog posts, and was hiding behind the door when God passed out brains. You just can't make this stuff up.

We returned a manuscript we really liked with three significant suggestions to make it better. Here are a few select excerpts from the submitter's (I hesitate to use the word "author") reply:

1. "I can't believe it took you two months to come back to me with these suggestions. I don't think that is very good customer service if you want me as an author."

2. Two of my friends, both very honest about my labors, think the manuscript as presented is perfect. So does my wife of fifteen years, who has an English degree and teaches the subject. Do you have an English degree?"

And finally,

3. "I don't think I am going to make any of these changes. Do you want to publish my work or don't you?"

I attached and returned the picture below to him via email and bid him farewell.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting Published (Manuscripts): Part 3 of 5

Previous entries in this thread include, in order:

Sorting Through Book Manuscripts. Part 1

Sorting Through (Unsolicited) Book Manuscripts. (Part 2 of 5)

Sorting Through (Unsolicited) Book Manuscripts (Part 2a of 5)

Speaking of (Potential) Authors (Part 2b of 5)

Refer back to the first post, and you will see I described the second way we obtain manuscripts as DEVELOPED. To me, it means we see a need in a particular space and seek out material through a variety of means to fill it.

How can an author use this information? Read through the post, think about it, and I will explain later.

Here are but two examples of titles we have produced that fit this description . . .

The Guns of Independence: The Siege of Yorktown, 1781, by Jerome Greene (2004): A few years ago, except for one book by an author named Ketchum, there was nothing of any worth on the monumental Yorktown Campaign (a decisive series of events and battles, land and sea, during the Revolutionary War that solidified the outcome). And Ketchum's book was not in favor at the national park that tens of thousands of people visit each year.

Someone told me about something Jerry Greene had written about the campaign for internal use of park employees back in the 1970s. I obtained a spiral bound copy and read it. The work was outstanding--but was so filled with minutiae, archaeological references, etc. that it was unsuited for a good entry into the general trade. However . . . one of the few things I do well (there are not many, just ask Mrs. Savas) is visualize the final product. I knew what I wanted, and worked with Mr. Greene to rewrite his earlier effort. We coordinated the development with David Riggs at Yorktown (David is a wonderful, knowledgeable man and was and has been extremely helpful) to ensure the park would carry it, obtained photos from the modern field, added original maps, and so forth, and produced the final product. I am proud to say it has sold extremely well in both the book trade and at the park, was selected by the History and Military book clubs, was sold into a UK edition for Europe, and has now sold out in hardcover. We are making it available this spring in a new paperback edition.

We saw a need for a title, and filled the need.

Steel Boat, Iron Hearts: A U-boat Crewman's Life Aboard U-505, by Hans Goebeler with John Vanzo (2005). U-505 is the captured German submarine on display in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry. Hundreds of thousands pass through the exhibit each year. Yet, there was not a single full-length title sold there dedicated to U-505, nor was there one in the book trade. Another niche needed to be filled.

I had met Hans and his wife Erika once at a book show, but by 2004 Hans has died. I owned and had enjoyed his memoir, co-written with John Vanzo, but it was available only in paperback and had been privately produced (with most of the usual pitfalls that approach carries with it). Working with Erika and John, we edited the book, added some new material, more photos, a few original maps, and produced a strong selling hardcover edition that sold case after case, month after month, at the exhibit. It also did well in the trade, and reviews are routinely glowing (as they should be--it is not only well written and detailed, but the ONLY full-length work on the U-boat service by an enlisted man). The hardcover edition is now sold out and we have a steady seller in the paperback edition. We also recently sold German rights to a large publisher.

These are but two examples, and we have many more titles in development that follow this line of "birth," if you will.

How can an author use this information? When you know that a house is actively looking to fill empty niches with specific titles, never hesitate to approach the publisher with a good proposal. Once we identify a niche, we look for (1) A title that will sell well outside the trade--typically at a location that routinely draws in heavy foot traffic; (2) A book that is likely to sell well in the book trade (bookstores, Amazon, and so forth); (3) A book that will have appeal to third parties like foreign or overseas rights or book clubs; and (4) An author that will support the book as much as possible.

So if you see a niche to be filled, and you know a house that actively develops projects from within (most do), then pitch it from that angle.


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Speaking of (Potential) Authors (Part 2b of 5)

I have received a tremendous amount of feedback about my ongoing series of posts on manuscript submission. Thank you, keep it coming, and I am heartened that many find the posts helpful.

Larry Tagg, whose book The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln: The Story of America's Most Reviled President will be published later this Spring by Savas Beatie (you can watch and listen to Larry talk about his completely unique approach to Lincoln here:), left a very perceptive comment a few hours ago I wanted to discuss briefly. Here is Larry's observation:

I used to run into the same problem with songwriters who sent me their work to critique. As soon as I offered a real criticism, they got huffy and recoiled. Sorry to say, it's the mark of someone who is destined to remain an amateur.

Larry knows of what he speaks. He was the "Tagg" of Bourgeois Tagg, the hit band of the late 1980s. This was probably their most timeless hit (and my favorite): I Don't Mind At All. Yes, THAT song.

A lesson I learned (sometimes the hard way) was that if I was going to excel at something, I would have to put my pride on the shelf, be it baseball (my love of the game exceeded my throwing arm), classical piano, practicing law, writing history, or publishing books. My mom encouraged me from a young age to find people who excelled at what I wanted to do, and learn what they did and how they did it. "But don't just listen to what they tell you," she continued, "HEAR what they tell you and welcome it."

This bit of universal truth aptly applies to writing (and getting published). Follow the rules, listen to what others who have carved out successful writing avocations or careers tell you, and learn from it. Heed it. Thank them. And be thankful.

Or, as the song goes . . . you will be "...destined to remain an amateur."

Thanks Larry.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sorting Through (Unsolicited) Book Manuscripts (Part 2a of 5)

A small detour in our ongoing discussion. . . As the managing director and acquisitions editor for Savas Beatie, I do my best to evaluate both content and author. Both are important. An evaluation tool I use is how authors respond to my suggestions via a rejection letter.

For example, occasionally we get manuscripts we can't use, but I know agents or other editors/houses who might want to see them. So when I reject the query/manuscript, I pass along a suggestion to the author to consider posting comments on our blogs (and others) pertinent to the post topic of the day, and discuss their own situation and manuscript. I also always offer a tip or suggestion that might help them.

Why? Because you never know who is watching. And as I tell them, agents, other bloggers, other publishers, other editors, et. al., track my blog.

I like to see which authors even take the time to say thank you in a reply (about half do, which means the other half are essentially brain dead when it comes to manners and seeing past square one), and which take the time to post a pertinent comment that might help them. The vast majority of those I turn away do not.

Question: What does this tell me?

Answer: That I made the right decision to turn down their manuscript and reject them as authors.

If they can't follow simply suggestions that will help them and potentially help them get published, why would I want them as a Savas Beatie author? There is a reason for everything we do here, even in rejection-suggestions.

Another quick example: We had a full length manuscript biography of a Civil War general cross our desk (I requested to see it) a few months ago. I sent it out to a reader, paid to have it read, and he evaluated it pretty carefully. Generally he liked it as a first cut, but had some very straight-up criticism for the author on how it had to be improved before we should accept it (more tactical battle detail, more analysis, and so forth). Tough, fair, and honest. No BS.

I took the time to put all this into an email and send it to the author.

Guess what? The author has not taken the time to even reply. It looks like it was not what he wanted to hear, so he handled it by not handling it. And by doing so, he told me much about what it would be like to deal with him after the contract is signed.

Authors take heed: There is a reason for everything we do here (and this is true in every publishing house). How you handle it may determine whether you ever get your work published.

Publishing is a very, very small world, and word travels fast.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sorting Through (Unsolicited) Book Manuscripts. (Part 2 of 5)

For Part 1, the introduction to this post-thread, see Sorting Through Book Manuscripts: Part 1 (or, "How do you find your manuscripts to publish?")

Time to deal with the Lottery example, also known as . . .

1. UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS. Unsolicited means just that--we didn't ask to see them. Solicitations in this category include complete or partial manuscripts that arrive via email at editorial@savasbeatie.com, or reach us through snail mail.

I am only speaking for Savas Beatie internal procedure, but I know my advice here follows for many and likely most publishing companies. And I have written a bit about this before, scattered within a few posts. Here it is in a more concentrated form.

Even though we are considered (by the book trade) to be a small (but rapidly growing, thank you) independent publishing company, we now receive an average of two unsolicited manuscript queries EACH DAY. We publish about 14-16 books a year (including reprints). Most of them are not the result of unsolicited submissions. Even if you are the product of a public school education (like me), the math is not that difficult to figure out. Your chances aren't quite as bad as wasting a buck on the Lotto, but they aren't that hot, either.

I once told an author that, for most writers obtaining a traditional publishing contract via unsolicited submission is like running around outside in Kansas trying to get struck by lightning. I was just kidding: it is easier to get struck by lightning.

Here are a few important tips. We watch for them. As authors, you must pay special attention to them.

First, do we ever accept unsolicited manuscripts?

Here is the link to our submissions guidelines.

Obviously we are trying to discourage unsolicited manuscripts.

Know in advance that every publishing company has its own way of doing things. Find out specific submission details before you submit.

Does the company accept unsolicited queries or manuscripts? Does it want a letter first, or a letter and sample pages? Does it want an email submission query? Does it refuse email submission queries? Does it work with agents only? Etc., etc.

Many companies specifically state, "We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts." That is about as clear as it gets. If that is the case, follow their specific instructions on how to query them about your work.

While we try to discourage them, we don't pitch unsolicited manuscripts into the trash upon arrival. On occasion, we have accepted unsolicited manuscripts. (A few of our best books were unsolicited from authors we had never heard of at the time of submission.) So truth be told, we at least glance at them before automatically returning or shredding them.

As a rule, unsolicited manuscripts end up in a stack in the corner of my office (the slush pile) where they often sit for weeks--or longer--without any attention. Why? Unless something special strikes my eye upon arrival (the subject, the proverbial "hook," the author's name, et. al.), I have others that are more important to me.

If you read our submission page and decide to send something unsolicited, make sure the books we produce and the manuscript you are submitting actually have something in common. Obvious? Sure. Widely ignored. Yes.

A completely unrelated query communicates a lot of information, none of it flattering for the submitter. It tells me that the author (or agent) did not research our company, did not visit our website, and did not study our list of published titles. It also tells me that (almost certainly) the "shotgun" approach to getting publishing is the author's preferred flavor of the day--i.e., send out as many queries to as many publishers as possible in the hope 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 up and down the street, whether or not you are qualified for the job, or whether or not the company hires someone with your set of talents? 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 two a day--not counting all the others we have in development or are working to get contracted through other means; later posts to follow). The first ones tossed into the round file are those that do not match what we publish.

Unrelated? Strikes 1, 2 and 3. You're out.

You are also out time and money, and you just drained a few minutes and bucks from the company that has to handle brainless submissions like this.

As noted above, 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. It is that simple.

Lesson: 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.

Unsolicited manuscripts remind me of the lotto in another way: they can strike gold (in a manner of speaking) for both author and publisher. So every day we walk into the office and turn on the lights is another pull on the slot machine lever. You never know what is going to come across your computer or in the mail that day.

So prospective authors take heed: if you have a manuscript and you want to submit it to a publishing house, find out first whether they even accept unsolicited manuscripts (most do not). If they do, or discourage but to not exclude such submissions, determine specific submission requirements (they vary house to house), make sure the publisher and manuscript are a good fit, and follow them exactly.

You can bet your last dollar that acquisition editors are evaluating both the procedure of your labors as well the substance of your pen.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sorting Through Book Manuscripts. Part 1

"Can you tell me how you find manuscripts to publish?" That's a common question in this business.

Last week I had an interesting conversation with an non-fiction acquisitions editor who works for a sizable house on the East coast. She voiced concern about a lack of good material. "It's flooding in," she explained, "but by and large it is so poorly written I can't stand to read it, or it has been published a hundred times before." I acknowledged her pain (as my wife has taught me to do over the two-plus decades of our marriage--empathy is/was not my strong suit), conversed a bit longer, and hung up.

Where do we get our manuscripts? The material keeps coming in, but where does it come from? How does it end up on the accepted/contracted list?

In the vast majority of cases, manuscripts that make the accepted/contracted list do so along one of four avenues. Here is how I view this process from inside Savas Beatie:

1) UNSOLICITED: Complete manuscripts, partial manuscripts, or query letters arrive via email at editorial@savasbeatie.com, or reach us through the mail;

2) DEVELOPED: We see a need in a particular space, and seek out material through a variety of means.

3) FOLLOW-UP: We work with an author, enjoy the process, publish a book, and develop new material with him/her.

4) NETWORKED: One of our authors recommends a friend's / acquaintance's work, and either we follow up or we ask the author to follow up on our behalf.

If you are a writer and desire to publish a book, ideally you want to find yourself sitting at either number three or number four. The former is the four-lane freeway to publication in Savas Beatie, and it moves at 75 mph; the latter is a two-lane sidestreet that moves a bit faster than normal traffic patterns.

The first option is the congested on-ramp leading to the freeway. There are at least three accidents along that glide path, emergency vehicles blocking the way, a flooded water main, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Regardless of the difficulties facing you along that route, nearly everyone has to find a way to avoid and overcome those obstacles at some point in their writing career/avocation just to get a glimpse of the four-lane freeway ahead--which is moving fast with a lot of traffic.

Number two is a unique animal unto itself. (More on that later.)

As I have expressed before on this blog, authors who do not follow guidelines for submission or come across distastefully to the person most likely to accept their work will find it sleeping with the . . . (I know "Ants" will be able to look at this post and fill in the last word).

My next several posts will discuss each of these options, and how we work them. I think potential authors will find it interesting, and hopefully useful.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Dissing the Herd Mentality: The 2009 Agenda

We at Savas Beatie have spent considerable time mapping out our objectives for 2009. Last year was a major transition for us. We moved into new offices, hired additional staff, and ramped up our marketing efforts. And having just looked at the overall numbers, I can say with authority that we are pleased with the results.

Admittedly, most news seeping out about the publishing industry is dressed in a shroud, but I refuse to follow the herd of doom, gloom, and hand-wringing.

We have carved out a good niche in general and military history by producing books people want to buy and read, and we will continue building on our success this year and beyond. The big guys seem to have only just discovered that they have too much fat around the midsection (and the ankles, and the knees, and the elbows, and especially the head), and so have begun chopping, merging, splicing, and cancelling expensive parties. (Who knows, maybe they can piggyback on one of AIG's spa extravaganzas at taxpayer expense.)

It is not a whiff of grapeshot you smell, Bonaparte, but panic.

Being large (and fat) means an inability to be flexible and nimble. We see opportunity in the chaos and are quickly developing plans to act on what we see. (More on that in another post.) We intend to increase our share of the market, and not hunker down in a bunker mode mentality.

As it stands, four of our major goals this year include . . .

(1) Enhancing Marketing and Publicity: We are going to elevate our already strong marketing program to an entirely different level with even better advance placement of interviews, excerpts, articles, the utilization of social networking on a wider and deeper scale, the implementation of more book trailers (go to onceamarine.com to watch our current book trailer), and a firmer commitment to supports authors who actively work to promote their own books--and cut bait with those who do not.

(2) Integration: Veronica Kane is overseeing the updating of our software and merging of our databases into a more streamlined, efficient, and powerful tool. We will use this to improve marketing, improve our communication with customers, manage our various projects more closely and efficiently, and track and manage costs and time.

(3) Special Sales: We opened up a number of special sales channels this year both domestically and abroad, and we intend to increase our efforts in this direction through 2009 and beyond. Our authors are the prime beneficiaries of this effort, which reduces their (and our) exposure to the vagaries of the book trade.

(4) Launching Savas Beatie BookTalk: We have been planning an Internet-based series of weekly radio programs for some time. Stay tuned for more on this in the near future. We think you are really going to enjoy it. I know we will enjoy bringing it to fruition.

But all of this would be for naught if we do not continue to find outstanding authors and manuscripts to produce into books you want to buy and read. We think 2008 was a great year for Savas Beatie titles, and we firmly believe the slate of upcoming books is our best overall offering yet.

So we intend to keep growing, keep improving, and keep putting out books worth buying and owning for a lifetime. We could not do that without you, and we thank you for your continued support and for your willingness to tell others about our books.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Why I Don't Live in Iowa Anymore

Thought I would begin the year . . . lightly.

The title of the accompanying image is "Snorkeling in Iowa."

And to think what I have been missing.