Layoffs and cutbacks have left a lot of us with more spare time on our hands than we ever expected, and as we glance over bestseller lists, so many can't help but think, "That's what I should do! I should write a book and get it published. Then my financial worries would be over!"
Although this is an extremely lofty goal, it's not as unrealistic as, say, writing a screenplay and selling it to a major studio, or becoming the next 'America's Got Talent' winner. Solving all your financial worries by writing a book might be a little tough; but, with all the options available to everyone online, getting published can be as easy as the click of a mouse.
Getting read, however, is a whole other story. When you do the math, self-publishing seems to be a no--brainer. You'll get up to 50 percent of book sales back from most hard copy self-publishers (after you've laid out publishing fees, most of which will be well under $5,000). And if you go with e-books, sites like LuLu.com offer you 80 percent of book sales, and publishing expenses can be free.
With profits like that, why even bother with a major publisher that only offers you 8-15 percent of book sales after your advance is recouped? And don't forget your agent's fees -- another 15%. Publishing's big boys won't even look at your manuscript unless it's submitted by an agent, who will also help you with other aspects of book publishing that you can't possibly do by yourself. Speaking from experience, there are three very lucrative and strategic advantages to going with an agent and major publisher: advance, publicity and distribution.
How much is it worth to you?
The advance is basically the investment the publisher makes in you. It can range from $10,000 to $10 million, more or less. It can go to pay your expenses while writing the book, and to cover writing costs such as photos, research, illustrations, etc. The publicity provided can be invaluable, since most news and talk shows, magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. regularly accept books from major publishers not just to review, but to feature the authors. Distribution involves getting your book directly into stores nationwide, which major publishers have a unique system for achieving, and most individuals are powerless to do.
But with Amazon flourishing and e-books taking over, you might wonder, "Who cares about getting your books in a brick and mortar store?" Having worked with Simon and Schuster, St. Martin's, Random House and Hachette, I have to tell you that there is nothing like the prestige of a major publisher, the savvy editing skills of a committed editor, and the monetary benefits of a sizable advance. I always say that 15percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing, which is all you're guaranteed when you self publish.
The biggest, and most important hurdle in getting through to a major publisher, however, is finding an agent to represent you. Publishers will send your manuscript back to you unopened unless you approach them via a reputable agent. Why? For legal reasons, of course -- writers often accuse publishers of stealing their ideas, even though the publisher might have been working on a similar book years ahead of when they received the accusing writer's proposal. Agents and publishers already have all the legal necessities worked out between them, and you will have signed a contract with your agent. The publishers also use agents as "slush" editors to weed out the myriad manuscripts they've been receiving ever since word processors made writing so easy.
From the agent's mouth
I interviewed my own agent, Eileen Cope of Trident Media Group, to get the skinny on agents these days. She gave very practical, concise advise.
"The biggest mistake people make," she says, "is not researching agents. Different agents represent different types of books." For example, she handles non-fiction narratives on pop culture, humor, business and popular science, along with literary historical fiction and short story collections. Don't even think of sending her romantic fiction or children's book ideas. It will be a waste of everyone's time and resources. "All you have to do is google agents for your genre. There are plenty of free agents directories online. It's easy, and it will save you needless rejection. Nobody likes to be rejected."
The proper way to submit a query to an agent, once you've found one who deals with your type of writing, is to send him or her a few paragraphs via e-mail. Make sure the query is in the body of the e-mail, and not in an attachment. "People are reluctant to open attachments from someone they don't know," says Cope.
Cope says the initial query is short, sweet and simple, and should include the following three parts:
1. Biographical information
One paragraph telling who you are and your experience with the subject matter. Your background is important, but also what makes you an authority on the subject and a good writer.
2. Your platform
Cope says the No. 1 reason books get rejected is because the author doesn't have a platform. Your platform is your public outreach, following or established audience. The good news about this, she says, is that, with social networking, it's easier than ever to create a following. If you have thousands of friends on Facebook, tens of thousands of followers on Twitter, or hundreds of thousands of hits on your blog, you have a valuable following.
3. Synopsis of the book
When you approach an agent for the first time with your idea, the synopsis should be no longer than two paragraphs. A professional can tell in two paragraphs whether your idea can sell, whether you've thought the whole book through, and if you're a decent writer or not. By the way, even if you're not a great writer, if your concept is good enough, a publisher will work around your lack of exceptional skills by finding someone to help you write it.
Another way to capture an agent's attention immediately is if the e-book you've self-published has a large number of downloads. That's an instant entree to most agents' rosters. They figure if you can sell many without the help of a major publisher, just think how well you'll do if you had one. "If an author has sold 5,000 downloads of an e-book, I want to see it!" says Cope. That book should be able to get a decent advance from a publisher that wants to put it out in on paper.
Each literary genre has its own set of rules, of course. A fiction writer, especially a first time writer, should have the entire book written before submitting a query to an agent, and a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA) always captures attention. Sample chapters and a strong outline will suffice for non-fiction, however. And children's books are best completely written, but links to illustrations should be submitted, not the illustrations themselves--and they don't have to be complete. But once again, everything must go to a pre-selected agent who deals with your specific genre.
I'll be honest. When I set out to do this interview, I expected Cope to discourage would-be authors since the publishing industry in such flux because of e-books; but instead, I found her optimistic. "A good story well written, or useful advice, is always in demand," she says. "You just have to know how to package it."
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