I see a lot of questionable or false information offered in various writing groups. So, the purpose of this post is to dispel some of the myths and offer advice which will advance your career as a writer.
An extremely popular myth is that you MUST have an agent to get a contract with a traditional publisher. Not so. If you want a contract with one of the Big Four publishers (Penguin/Random House, Macmillan, Hatchett Book Group and HarperCollins), you will likely need an agent. However, even these publishing houses have short windows when they accept unsolicited manuscripts for specific genres. Check their websites to find out which genres and when they are open to submissions. In addition to the Big Four, there are roughly a dozen other large publishing houses including Scholastic, Cengage, Houghton Mifflin, Oxford University Press, and Kodansha. These are the publishers who have the resources to offer advances on royalties, and if that is your goal, you should seek an agent.
However, if you simply don’t have the resources to hire your own editors, proofreader, formatter and cover artist and are looking for a traditional publisher who provides all that, there are hundreds of medium sized and small presses actively looking for books in your genre. Although they can’t risk advances, they do cover all costs of professionally producing, publishing and at least some marketing of your book. You may even be fortunate enough to find a mid-size publisher with overseas POD facilities for better distribution, offering standard trade discounts to bookstores and libraries, and an agent to represent their works to the film and gaming industries such as my publisher, Oghma Creative Media.
Agents seldom approach small or medium publishers because much of their income derives from those advance royalties the bigger houses offer. Also, small and mid-size publishers usually don’t care to work with agents because they prefer to deal directly with the author and get quicker responses to their queries and requests.
In addition to the traditional publishers, there are Hybrid Publishers who offer assorted services such as editing, manuscript appraisals, proofreading and cover art for a fee. They operate as clearing houses for professional services an indie author may need and offer a menu to choose from. They do publish and market the books they accept although the marketing may be limited. I’ve heard both good and bad about them. I don’t recommend them simply because there are too many small presses which will provide those services for free.
Finally, there are the predatory Vanity Presses which often masquerade as Hybrid Publishers but exist solely to prey on unwary authors. They charge hugely inflated prices for every service required to get published as well as for marketing which they seldom perform. Always check the Writer Beware website before signing with any publisher and ask around about reputation. Look at their catalog and see if they are producing quality books with quality covers appropriate to the genre. Check to see what professional organizations such as IBPA (Independent Book Publisher’s Association) they belong to and support.
Once you sign with an agent or publisher, all you need to do is send in your manuscript and wait for the checks to come in. False. Very few publishers will even sign a single title unless it’s written or ghostwritten by a celebrity. If you haven’t been on the evening news for something other than a felony, you need to be writing your next book. To get an agent or a publishing contract, you will need to have a complete manuscript, fully edited and ready for submission including a synopsis, suggested tagline, and back cover blurb. You will also need to be able to tell them what your next book is about, how far along you are on it, provide a synopsis and a contemplated completion date and, at a minimum, a synopsis of your third book. My publisher requires at least that to sign a contract and a minimum of four manuscripts in hand before we begin editing the first one. The smaller the press, the more flexible they might be on that.
When your book is nearly ready for release, you will be expected to contribute to building a pre-release buzz about it through your social media. Once released, you will be expected to contribute to marketing through regular social media posts and possibly some events.
When your book comes out, you should order forty or fifty copies, have custom bookmarks printed and start arranging book signings or getting a table at writer’s conventions. No. First, as a first-time, unknown author, you’ll be lucky to sell five or six copies at your local library or Barnes and Noble. A well written tweet will sell more books. Second, writers are not your market. Readers are. Readers are best reached using social media through interest groups in your genre. You should ask your friends and family to share or retweet your posts to broaden your reach. Ask, but don’t harass. Either they will or they won’t, and you’ll soon find who your supporters are.
Finally, you become a professional author when you get that first royalty check. No. Your professional reputation begins much earlier, and you only get one shot. Don’t blow it. It doesn’t matter what your private political or religious beliefs might be, they don’t belong on any of your social media unless your genre is Religious, Inspirational or Spiritual.
Professionalism begins with your manuscript. Is it presented in standard manuscript format (Shunn format unless otherwise specified by the agent or publisher)? Did you follow the Writer’s Guidelines on the Agent’s or Publisher’s website to the letter? Did you address your cover letter to a person rather than Dear Agent or Dear Editor? Did you send exactly what they asked for and nothing more? If they ask for the first five pages, DO NOT send the first chapter or the entire manuscript. Do you have a professionally crafted synopsis and blurb? Google Jane Friedman for specific instructions on how to write both. She is a highly respected publishing professional/editor/agent. Follow her instructions exactly. Did you have your manuscript professionally edited? You might be able to skip this once you are signed with an agent or publisher, but having this done, will multiply your chances of being signed a hundred-fold. Your publisher will still re-edit it to meet their style guide and ensure their standards of quality, but you don’t want to skip it.
Once you are signed with an agent or publisher, keep all communications to the bare minimum (showing that you respect their time and busy schedules) and be brief, courteous and cooperative. They know what they’re doing, and if you don’t trust them to do it, you shouldn’t have signed. In the publishing industry, the squeaky wheel does not get the grease, they get dropped. If that happens, every publisher or agent you speak to will want to know why and will be wary at best.
Dennis Doty is an Executive Vice-President and the Chief Content Executive for Oghma Creative Media, Publisher of Saddlebag Dispatches magazine and co-author with the legendary Dusty Richards of The Cherokee Strip (Galway Press, Mar 2021)