Tuesday, November 10, 2009

How to Get Published

A blog reader recently posed this question, and agreed to let me answer it here:

“I have a book that I'm thinking about publishing. My friends and I worked on the book before I graduated and it's not 100% complete by any means, but I already have a mock up version of the book done and was wondering how I would approach publishers and pitch them the idea. Which publishers should I be looking at? Anybody that I should talk to in particular for something like this?”

This question comes up a lot. Let me offer a few quick answers and some links for more information.

1. I assume you mean an illustrated book. If it’s a short picture book, write the whole manuscript. Prepare a detailed dummy or storyboard, and a half dozen sample pieces of art. If it’s a longer book, like an illustrated novel, you can submit a sample chapter, an outline, and sample artwork. Make sure it’s really good. Join a local writer’s group to get feedback. Also, in your case, before you go any farther, work out on paper your business relationship with your collaborators.

2. Do some research about the publishers who have already published books similar to the one you’re conceiving. Start your approach there. Get the Writer’s Market books and check publisher’s websites for submission guidelines.

3. Usually you should send a very well-written query letter to see if a publisher wants to review your materials. Try to target your query letter to a specific editor, and find out what that editor is likely to buy. You can often find out editor's names in the dedications or acknowledgments of published books.

4. If you get a positive reply, then you can submit your idea. Follow the publisher's guidelines closely. You don’t necessarily need an agent, but you’ll need advice or help on how to negotiate the contract at least.

I recommend joining a local chapter of SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They’re a helpful group who can answer any question that may come up about the submission process. The Author’s Guild is another helpful professional organization, but they only allow members who have published books or who have a contract in hand.

One other request: please don’t send ideas to me to look at. I honestly don’t have time, nor do I have any connections that can help you. But I wish you good luck! Never give up.
SCBWI website with frequently asked questions about getting a book published.
Another SCBWI page on query letters.
Authors Guild website.


Unknown said...

Also if it is oriented to children or a YA audience, a support group of peers may be useful to you. There is a great one that I know some people who participate in at the Children's Writers and Illustrators forum at http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php

Brian said...

Stephen Silver has a self publishing course at schoolism.com

Here is a site where you can publish your own book.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for that practical and positive advice~!

Anonymous said...

Hey everyone and Jim.
I thought I’d finally pitch in with something informative to add. I was fortunate enough to attend a writers and illustrators conference a few months back and had the privilege of watching publishers and writers discuss (and at times argue) about the business of publishing for three days straight. I came away from it vastly more informed on the matter. I went to the conference with my incomplete but presentable picture book in hand and got really good feed back from the publishers with what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. I’m an illustrator b.t.w, so the whole publishing side of things was new to me. So let me share a few things I picked up.

Publishers are great at one thing, and thats getting a book published. To sell your book, its only natural that they are going to try find a way to wedge your book into an age group/category or market that they think it will do well in. Every book they consider is a risk assessment for them, because they really don’t know what will sell with 100% certainty - especially with new authors. (Harry Potter got denied by dozens of publishers before it was finally picked up)
In saying that, publishers are not evil, they themselves loves books! They are making very astute and educated guesses about the market, and if the publishers love your manuscript, they are going to be fighting for you to get your book made. But knowing how publishers operate and think, will be key to improving your chances...

You have to believe in your book, through and through. If you don’t believe in it, it will be transparent to the publisher. This also means if a publisher says no (majority of the time they wont have the time to give a review), you keep trying.
Research as much as you can. Understanding why you are approaching a particular publisher (as Jim pointed out) or why they have guidelines such as a picture book is 32 pages and 700 words long. If you are going to break these rules, you have to prove yourself and make them believe its worth the risk. Shaun Tan’s and yours truly Mr Gurney’s books are examples of what’s possible outside those ‘norm’ parameters.
Be as professional as possible and get the manuscript to the best standard you can before sending it in. Some publishers can only give you one chance because they have so many manuscripts to get through. Get in touch with a local ‘editor’, there are lots of already published authors who can give you a lot of advice for a small fee. If you can anticipate anything the publishers might want to change, you can make those changes to your own satisfaction before being told to do so in a way you might not be happy with.

I’m sure there’s plenty more things I wrote down in my notes but these came to mind. If anyone is interested, I’ve started a blog recently and I’m going to be going through the development of getting my book made: its under ‘The Gift’ section at: selfexisting.blogspot.com (Don’t worry Jim, I’m not asking you to assess my work! ;) haha)

From a storytelling point of view, if I could add one more piece of advice. Which is to worry about the publishing side of things after writing/producing the book you want to create in your heart. You should not be persuaded by publishing issues while in the process of writing - its something to think about afterwards.
My picture book is looking to be 40 pages and around 6000 words with sequential elements and the genre is for a wide age group. So it’s going to be very tough and challenging to publish, but that shouldn’t hinder me in letting my book go where it needs to go. I know if no publisher is interested in it, there are plenty more methods to get your work out there -like self publishing (like those links Brian pointed out).

Thanks for reading guys

James Gurney said...

Thanks, David and Brian for those links. There really are a lot of good resources out there in books, websites, and conferences.

Thaw, you're right in everything you say. An unconventional book that doesn't match existing categories can be a harder sell, and often fits better with a smaller publisher.

However, if you're presenting a visual book, I believe you have an advantage over people presenting text-only novels, because your book can be understood at a glance. If it's attractive, it will get noticed. One of my mentors was Ian Ballantine, who believed in the "fait accompli" approach, where you present a very comprehensive bound dummy with a finished-looking cover.

And as you point out, Thaw, getting a book published is one thing; selling and promoting it is another. The author can be a real ally of the publisher in publicity and marketing, especially in these strapped times when staff cuts have made it harder for publishers to give the care they would like to every title.

bzyglowi said...

I have a question about query letters and illustrators. Perusing the various market guides, a lot of places ask for query letters, but I've found very, very few resources telling what they are and how to do them right. The link you provided gives guidelines for when you want to pitch a specific idea, but what if you're just an illustrator looking for freelance work? How should you write a query letter then? This seems to be something more specific to book publishing, because I've asked on other sites and gotten no response. Do you have any insight on this?

James Gurney said...

Bzglow, There's no absolutely set form, but basically a query letter should be a single page, with a courteous introduction, a brief description of what you've got to show, return contact info, and an indication of whether you're submitting to multiple buyers or to a single buyer. Ideally it should be custom tailored to the buyer you're sending it to, and the purpose is to see if they're interested in seeing more. Most good writer's market books have sample forms that you can adapt to your particular needs. You should allow a month or so to hear back.

ted said...

These tips are invaluable. Thanks so much!