To Publish or Languish, That is the Question
by Marcus A. Nannini
To publish or languish is something most authors find themselves dealing with at some point. Especially if it is an author’s first complete manuscript. The author with no track record must have significant strength of character and patience in order to persevere. Strength of character comes into play with each rejection letter and patience is required to reach the point where the author actually becomes qualified to receive the rejection. An author needs both characteristics.
Often, an author will reach a point when they feel they have hit a wall. This may come after six months of sending queries, or maybe a year. Remember, a good story will eventually find a publisher.
At the beginning of my author journey, there was the initial search for a potential publisher. Locating the names of publishing companies and their specialties is not rocket science. Digging a little deeper for a specific editor to query is hit-or-miss. Personally, I prefer to query a specific person at a publisher, but if I cannot locate the right person, I rely on the generic “Dear Acquisitions Editor.”
I read each publisher’s website to learn their requirements. I also put the name of the company through an internet search as I seek additional information about them that could prove helpful. Often news stories or interviews with key personnel are out there just waiting to offer a really strong “hook.”
I use a basic publishing query letter template which I tailor to individual publishers without needing to reinvent the wheel each time. My opening paragraph is unique to each pitch and is intended to address the particulars of the targeted recipient. I keep the opening paragraph to two sentences, making sure there is not so much as a single unnecessary word in either. Open the editor’s eyes first, and then hit them with my best pitch is my philosophy.
Keeping the letter to one page is not necessarily my goal, especially since I will be cutting and pasting from Word into an email, as almost all publishers prefer email pitches. In fact, many will only accept them via email. Sometimes a publisher’s website will direct me to a submission form to be completed in lieu of a letter. In such instances, I usually can lift entire sections of my pitch letter and paste them in where appropriate. If you are using such a form, be careful not to duplicate aspects of your letter when cutting and pasting.
For the same reason my opening paragraph is always different, my goal is never to place all my marbles into one pitch letter format. Sometimes I feel the need to make changes to the basic letter when I see a better way to meet a publisher’s unique requirement. Or perhaps I’ll decide there is a better way to structure the pitch letter because of the kind of books the publisher has been pushing into the market.
In short, I change more than the addressee on each letter. I spend significant time working the body of the letter, always taking care to be concise, make my points, express who I am and what I write. My goal is to instill within any given acquisitions editor a strong desire to read my manuscript.
In two instances, I succeeded so well that the publishers went straight to the offer, even though all they read beyond my pitch letter was a couple of chapters. What can cause frustration is when publishers do not respond at all. I have occasionally received responses to the effect they do not publish my specific category. Sometimes a publisher is not clear, and sometimes I try to stretch the boundaries.
An example would be Smithsonian Books. I pitched them because I interpreted their market to include WWII bios. I received an email from the editor with praise for my book that I will be able to use on the cover jacket, though she went on to say they no longer publish WWII bios. Still, I know the pitch was effective. That is ultimately what counts.
Effective use of just a few words to convey the story behind your 70,000- to 110,000-word manuscript is tough. As authors, we are very close to our work so it can be difficult to adequately describe your entire work in a single paragraph. You might be allowed up to 100 words, but do not count on it. Create a telling sentence that makes a person want to read the book. One 15-word or less sentence. Work it. Work it. Work it again. Then sit on it a few days and work it some more. Create a line that will act as the proverbial “hook” that causes an editor to stop and pay attention to you. Yet, don’t be married to it. Over time it is likely to evolve into an even better line.
The 15-word limit is not hard and fast. It is my goal, but I do not always achieve it. And I don’t necessarily stick to it. Sometimes when I am reading about what a publisher is seeking, I think of a way to re-work the hook to hit the point precisely. But in every instance, I had one key sentence to work from. Just one telling sentence to create a firestorm of interest in your story.
But now it is many months, maybe even years, since your first query. The feeling you are languishing may feel overwhelming. If so, it is time to regroup. If you have not taken a couple of months off and worked on a different project, do so now. Perhaps seek out journals, magazines or blogs for your genre and pitch a story to them. The story may well be a modified outtake from your book. The point is to get yourself in print somewhere, anywhere. Accomplish that – then return to your book.
I suggest you print a copy of the entire manuscript, if you don’t have a clean copy to work from, and go through it paragraph by paragraph. Clean it up again while also “seeing” your story anew. And use the built-in thesaurus.
By the time an author is halfway through the manuscript, new ideas for pitching the book will have manifested. Not to mention the likelihood that fine-tuning the manuscript has resulted in a better book. Please don’t tell me your work is already perfect. After a year or two of pitching and, I presume, writing, you are a better writer than when you put down word number one.
Your decision is to pass on languishing, in favor of publishing, so it’s time to research publishers all over again. The market is always changing, and publishers you did not pitch the first time because of what they were seeking may be publishing your genre now. Publishing houses are always acquiring other publishing houses. Often, they do so as a quick and easy means to enter a piece of the market they were not serving. So research publishers all over again and do not shy away from those who turned you down the first time.
Again, patience is critical. Carefully research each publisher before you pitch them. Be certain of who they are and why they should publish your work. Keep a record of who you pitched, when you pitched them and the letter you sent.
A Ph.D. once told me the difference between someone with a BA and a Ph.D. is “patience.” The difference between a published and non-published author often boils down to one word, “patience.”
Don’t languish – regroup, refresh, restart and be patient.
Marcus Nannini began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the sixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel. His latest work, Left for Dead at Nijmegen, debuted to great regard.