Proposals and Getting Started
April 6, 2009 | Written by admin
I've got a backlog of questions to work through, so let's jump right in…
Bethany wrote to ask, "Since publishers are struggling in this bad economy, is it better to submit a completed manuscript with your proposal, rather than a proposal, outline, and sample chapter?"
In my opinion, it is always better to tell the publisher your manuscript is complete. That reveals to the publisher that you're serious about this business, and it means they have less risk — they don't have to wonder if you're going to hit your deadline, or if you're up to the task of completing the book. Of course, I don't particularly like the fact that you could spend months crafting a manuscript that won't sell, and it may not be fair to you as the author… but there's no question that having a manuscript completed makes it easier to sell. (And, of course, if you're writing a novel, you pretty much HAVE to have your manuscript complete.)
Deonne asked, "What with these hard economic times, and publishers cutting the number of titles they are doing, wouldn't it make sense that an author seriously consider self-publishing?"
The short answer: It only makes sense to self-publish if you know how to sell the book. So, yeah, you can go ahead and self-pub your title. It will cost you a lot of money to get it edited, jacketed, designed, printed, and shipped. Then you've got to warehouse the copies somewhere and THEN you've got to spend money to market and sell it. But if you have the money, and you know how to reach your readership, then you might find this pays off. (In fact, for people who know how to market and sell their books, they find they make much more money than those who sell books through a regular royalty-paying publishing house.) Still, most people who self-pub lose money because once the book is printed, they don't actually know how to market and sell it. So that's the litmus test. I've found the people who do best with self-pubbing are the speaker types who have a speciality niche. They print their books, go around and speak at conferences, then sell them in the back of the room. Or they are well known in their field, and know how to market the books through magazines and websites. But aside from those scenarios, I think an author will find it very hard to sell enough copies of their book to make it financially viable. This is especially true for novelists — I'd be willing to bet more than 90% of self-pubbed novelists lose money. (And yes, the author of The Shack is the exception to the rule. He self-published his novel and made money. But that's a fascinating story because he succeeded when most people fail, and he spent money on advertising through e-zines.)
Jeanette wrote this: "An author friend spoke with an editor at a writers' conference. The editor asked my friend to send in her manuscript. She seems to think that it's now a done deal — that she's about to get a contract. I've tried to tell her that's not true. What do you think?"
I think your friend needs to sit down and take her reality tablets. Editors ask for proposals at conferences because (1) they don't have time to actually read stuff in the fifteen minute appointments authors are given, (2) they are fatigued and it's easier to say "no thanks" later in an email than to say it face-to-face, or (3) they are weenies. (And there is #4 option: that the author misunderstood. I regularly have authors tell me things like "the editor at Random House insisted I send this to her," when in fact the editor from Random House had said something like, "I don't know, and I'm racing off to teach my workshop, but it you want to send it, go ahead.") So no, having an editor ask to have a proposal sent them is NOT a sure sign that a contract is coming. Even if the editor says something cool like, "I think this has merit — why don't you send it to me and I'll take a closer look," that doesn't mean she is going to like it enough to make an offer, or that the rest of the pub team is going to endorse the idea. Don't get me wrong — I think having an editor ask you to send your proposal is better than having an editor tell you to drop dead or go away or consider giving up writing for a career in dry cleaning (ESAD, as we used to say in the business). But no, it's not tantamount to receiving a contract offer.
Beverly asked, "Do agents write the proposal for an author, or does the author write it and the agent tweaks it and sends it?"
You're the author. You're the expert. It's going to be your book. So YOU write the proposal. Sure, you can expect me to tweak it, and make it fit a house's preferences, and sprinkle my fairy dust on it so that it really stands out. But the author is the one who does the hard work of creating the proposal. If you need a good resource to help you with that, take a look at Terry Whalin's Book Proposals that Sell, a really well done handbook for writers. You can also see some sample book proposals on my business website.
Stan said this: "I've had a couple agents turn down my proposal, but offer to help me rewrite it (or introduce me to their editor who will rewrite it) for a fee. Should I take them up on their offer?"
No, you should get up and walk away. Then you should turn them in to Writer Beware and Predators and Editors. As I noted in my previous post, any agent who tries to cross-sell you his editorial services is in violation of the agent's Code of Conduct. They aren't trying to help you sell your book and make money, they are simply trying to make money off of you. No legitimate agent does this. Stay away.
Darice wrote to say, "A friend of mine posted chapters of her novel on her blog. Do you think that will hurt her chances of landing a deal with a publisher?"
I doubt it will hurt her chances, Darice. There's some evidence that giving away chapters to increase your readership will actually help you. And while there are still some houses that frown on this sort of thing (they're afraid readers will feel as though the book is already out there on the web), for the most part I'd say your friend won't hurt her chances too much if she posts a couple chapters, garners some attention, and can say to a publisher, "Hey — I've already had 25,000 people stop by and read the first two chapters of my novel!"
Daniel asked, "What do you know about www.christianmanuscriptsubmissions.com?"
That's the big electronic slushpile put together by ECPA publishers to help writers get their manuscripts in front of editors. You pay $99 and submit an overview, table of contents, and sample chapter. It goes into a database that editors at religious publishing houses can peruse. On the one hand, you could argue that it's one of those "by any means necessary" tactics for authors. On the other hand, it could be $99 wasted, since most editors already have plenty of submissions flowing onto their desks from agents. I'm afraid of looking like I'm defending agents by bashing the competition, and I really want to be fair here, so let me just say I see VERY few deals coming out of this service. Editors have plenty of submission to look at, so asking them to spend a few hours wandering around a huge electronic slushpile — well, it just doesn't seem terribly effective. One man's opinion.
Jocelyn sent me this: "I'm not sure if you're familiar with bookendslitagency.blogspot.com, but they just opened up their blog to allow writers to say everything that drives them crazy about agents. (This came after they opened it up for agents to complain about what drives them crazy about proposals.) Have you checked out what authors had to say?"
The folks at Bookends Literary have a wonderful blog for authors, and they sometimes have something fun like this. I was a bit disappointed in the reactions of writers, to tell you the truth. There was a ton of negativity, and it reflected a bit on the fact that some writers seem to think an agent is obligated to respond to them. As an agent, I try to be polite to people, and to respond to serious queries. But… look, I get some really stupid stuff sent to me. I put on my business website (www.MacGregorLiterary.com) that I generally represent established authors, yet I'm regularly beseiged with unpublished wannabes who haven't even given a cursory glance to my site. I don't represent pornographic novels, or children's books, or science fiction stuff, and I say that clearly on my site, yet every month I can count on somebody sending me a proposal that is a pornographic children's sci-fi novel. (Okay, not really, but you get the idea.) Where is it written that I need to give these people my time and energy?
I've had some people write in to say that I'm not being fair, that I shouldn't reveal bad proposal ideas sent me, since it makes it look like I'm picking on certain ones. Um… I am. I don't poke fun at the legitimate projects I am sent to review — not even if I reject them. But the fact is, if somebody sends me something unsolicited that is truly awful, I don't owe them anything. If somebody can barely write, or blindly sends in a project that is outrageously bad, or has spent no time figuring out how to do a good proposal, that means they aren't really serious about this business. They haven't gone to a conference, or read books, or researched this stuff on the internet, or even read this (and many other good) blogs. Frankly, it's hard for me to treat that sort of person as a professional. I wouldn't show up at an investment guy's office and say, "You need to listen to me, because I had a brainstorm — I insist you invest all your money into Enron stocks!" I'd be tossed out of the building. So why am I expected to take everybody who sends in a crappy idea seriously?
If you haven't read this before, I like to use a bakery analogy. If I ran a bakery, I might occasionally bring you into the back room, show you how things work, and give you a tour of the bakery. I'd answer your questions. If you were obviously knowledgable about my industry, I'd be happy to talk about the business. And who knows — I might even invite you to work with me in some capacity. But my full-time job is running a bakery, not giving bakery tours, or listening to all the crazy recipe ideas people have ("Have you considered salmon-flavored muffins?"). So at some point I just say, "Enough. I've got a business to run. I don't owe every person who wants to know about bakeries an interview."
Understand me — I don't revel in being rude, and as much as possible, I try to be respectful of peole who are trying to learn this craft and grow and maybe get something published. But there's a feeling of entitlement that comes across in the responses on that Bookends blog that rubs me the wrong way. It seems to assume that an agent OWES an author a response; that an agent MUST reply to every query sent them. Sorry, but I don't agree with that thinking at all. I won't show up at your job and tell you how to do it, and insist you give me a bunch of your time — so I just expect the same courtesy, I guess.
Please feel free to comment on this topic. I'm actually looking forward to seeing how people respond. And if you've got a publishing, question, feel free to send it in. I'll do my best to answer it.