by L.M. Browning

Award-winning author, Founder of Homebound Publications and Owl House Books, Partner in Hiraeth Press, Founder of The Wayfarer, Co-Founder of Written River

Step 1: Getting to the Real Final Draft

Before you consider submitting to a publisher, you must put the manuscript through its courses. Many manuscripts that cross my desk that are termed “final drafts” are nowhere near ready to be seen. While it is true that a good editor will help you hone your manuscript, you should still send your proposal to the publisher in the best possible shape you can.

Once you have what you think is your “final draft” you should do the following:

Step Away: Let the manuscript rest for at least 3 months. Don’t read it. Don’t work on it. Don’t even think about it! This is a hard step. After working for months—even years—on a manuscript the first thing you want to do when you are done is submit to the publisher, not sit on your hands but you must! You only have one chance to make a good impression on an editor and you have to let yourself get to the real final draft. There is a difference between finishing the book and actually having your final draft! You’ve worked it and worked it and worked it and now you need to step away from it so that you can return with fresh eyes to make those final crucial tweaks—to polish. The only way to gain a fresh perspective on the manuscript is if you give yourself some distance from it.

Peer Review: Before you send the manuscript to an editor, you should choose at least 4 friends/colleagues who can review your manuscript and give you honest objective feedback. Not only are you looking for someone to give you grammatical feedback but also thoughts on the story itself. It is all well and good for you to understand the intricacies of the story, you’re the author, but how is the book coming across to others? This is something that you need to know and a peer review can help you. After your colleagues read the manuscript ask them if there were any areas that confused them or if there were any questions left unanswered. Having a peer review not only ensures a polished manuscript but a clear storyline.

A side-note on accepting criticism: Authors must develop a thick skin if they are to survive in the publishing industry. There are two kinds of criticism: constructive and destructive. Destructive criticism serves no purpose; it is simply someone pouring out their ill feelings towards your work without an objective viewpoint or valid argument. This type of criticism should be ignored. Constructive criticism however should be heeded and welcomed. The most precious thing we have to give is our time and energy. In this busy world when we have less and less time to pursue our passions, if someone takes the time to thoughtfully review your manuscript pay them the compliment of carefully considering their suggestions. Many times the author is too close to a project and can lose perspective; peer review is a vital part of the writing process.

Finding Your Flow: There is a saying, “Easy reading denotes hard work.” When a reader picks up your book you want to ensure that they can “get into a flow.” The best way to do that is to craft the book in such a way that it is easy to read. The easiest way to determine whether or not your writing style has a good flow is to read it aloud. When you read aloud you naturally force yourself to read every-single-word (as compared to reading a manuscript quietly to yourself for the millionth time, during which you become so familiar with what you are trying to say that you might not read what you actually have down on paper!) Reading aloud not only helps you to pick up rouge errors missed during previous reviews but it also gives you an idea of the flow of the work. When you run into “wordy” sections that you tend to trip over, you can be sure that the reader probably will too and therefore corrections need to be made.

Step 2: Gathering What You Need to Submit

There are several parts to a book proposal that you must prepare before you can begin reaching out to publishers.

  • The Blurb

Also called the digest or the hook, the blurb is found on the back of the book or the inside of the book jacket on a hardcover. This paragraph is the equivalent of the elevator speech for your book. You have 30 seconds to sell someone on your project—GO! What would you say? The blurb is arguably the most important part of your proposal. With the blurb not only are you attempting to sell the book to a reader but, in the case of a submission, you’re using the blurb to sell the book to the editor. Do some research first. Read blurbs from other successful books in your genre before you craft your own. A blurb should be tight and exciting. Like a movie trailer, it should give you an idea of the story but not give away too much.

  • Cover Letter/The Pitch

A good cover letter should be no more than one page. The cover letter is a good place for the blurb to go—try to hook the editor right off the bat. You’ll also want to give the editor some information about yourself: your previous publications (if any); your general marketing philosophy (show that you are aware of your marketing responsibilities and are willing to step up and do the work); tell them whether the manuscript is done and, if it isn’t done, when it will be done and so forth. Above all, keep it brief; you will be able to expand in other sections of your proposal.

  • CV with Publication History

Writing is a profession so approach it in a professional manner. Send a one page resume with your professional and academic achievements and your publications history (if any). If you don’t have a publication history you may want to reach out to a few literary magazines/journals and try to get a few pieces published. Novels, poetry collections, and fiction titles alike usually have pieces/chapters that can stand alone. Try to get these published in journals before approaching publishers. It will help you to have a stronger footing in your proposal. Each publication is like an endorsement for you and the manuscript you’re submitting. There is a comprehensive listing of literary journals on Poets&Writers’ website.

  • Summary

Agents and publishers alike will almost always request a summary. Some will give you three pages while some will only want one page so you should do two versions—one condensed and one extended. Unlike with the blurb, you need to giveaway the ending in the summary; agents and publishers need to know the broad strokes. No author likes to boil down their multilayered story to two pages but it is necessary. Editors and agents need to make a choice at a glance so you have to give them what they need to make an educated decision.

  • Marketing Assessment

Identify books published in the last 10-15 years that are similar to yours. List how your book is like them and also how your book differs from them. Do research into what steps the various publishers took to market books similar to yours and how those methods can be adapted to market your title. In the end, you need to prove that your book does indeed have a wide audience that can be easily tapped into and that, while other books on the market are like yours, you take it a step further and give the audience something new.

  • Author Bio

You should craft two author bios written in the third person, one long (200 words) and one short (75 words). Do some research on author bios before penning your own. Some authors like to go quirky with their bios because it suits the tone of their writing, while others like to play it straight.

Step 3. Tips and Etiquette for Approaching Publishers

Response times: It will take up to eight months for your manuscript to move through the various phases of consideration. This may seem like an inordinate amount of time to those who have never held an editorship but it is simply a result of small staffs and a booming market. An independent publishing house such as Homebound Publications received upwards of 1000 submissions a year, we have a staff of just 3-4 editors, and publish only 12-15 titles a year. Our current response time in 4 months—this would be considered a quick turnaround in the industry.

Atop their day-to-day duties, editors must wade through submissions—read hundreds of proposals and sample chapters—looking for titles that will suit their house. The author must accept the reality of long response times and endure the wait with professionalism and grace. Do not call or write the publisher asking about the status of your submission unless the house has gone at least two months past their projected response time and even then, when you write, be understanding not demanding.

Things to Avoid: Many authors stumble over the basics and end up costing themselves the opportunity to have their work objectively considered. First things first: use a standard font—Times or Calibri—12 point font, single spaced; employ standard margins, don’t use any fancy colors, and spellcheck…a few times. Secondly, when addressing the editor be calm. Don’t try to guilt them into reading/accepting the manuscript; no matter how desperate you are to be published, don’t let that neediness define your proposal. Be understanding. Let the editor/agent know that you understand the insanity of their workload and don’t pressure them.

Do Your Research: Blind submissions waste everyone’s time—your time and the editors’ time. Many publishers have a niche—an angle—that they focus on within the industry. Research publishers and select 10-15 that publish books within your genre then do deeper research and learn the name of the editor you will be directing your queries to. If an author isn’t willing to put in the effort to learn more about the publisher to which they are submitting it denotes laziness and editors ask themselves “If an author isn’t going to put in serious effort to pitch their work what kind of effort are they going to put into promoting their work?” and the proposal ends up in the trash.

Build Your Platform/Following Before You Submit: Don’t wait until your manuscript is accepted to start building your network. An author who already has a network is more attractive to both publishers and agents. In today’s industry, an online presence is vital. You must have a website, an actively maintained blog, social media platforms—sometimes multiple platforms. Authors who aren’t willing to put the time and effort into their online presence will struggle in the market no matter how good their book is. There was a time when good writing would sell itself and that is still true to some extent; good writing will attract a following. However, with advances in self-publishing, the current market is flooded with books so self-promotion is crucial. Self-promotion is the process of bringing your work to the attention of your potential readership. If you don’t carry the banner for your work, it will go unnoticed. Even the larger houses expect authors to be actively involved in self-promotion. You’ll need to invest time and money to build your name/brand.

Who should Self-Publish? There are two different types of writers who should consider self-publishing. Firstly, the hobbyist writer. There is a vast difference between being a working writer and a hobbyist writer. If you submit to a publisher you should be prepared to do everything it takes to make your book a success. This will mean putting in a long term sustained effort to promote your book, including social media participation, blogging, readings, signings, seeking interviews, seeking publication in journals, attending book fairs and conferences etc. Some authors think that publication is the end of the book’s life when in fact it is just the beginning. If you are not willing to put in the effort to make the book a success you should not expect a publisher to invest in you. After all, why should a publisher make the investment to build your name and promote your work if you aren’t willing to do so. It will only serve to be a waste of time, money, and effort on all parties. If you aren’t willing to learn the business of publishing and take up the responsibilities of a working writer, you should self-publish.

The second type of writers who should consider self-publishing are those who write for a very focused readership. Publishers are in the business of making money so many of them seek books that will appeal to the widest audience possible. If you have penned a book that has a very small audience such as a history book about the small town in which you live, you should consider self-publishing. It will be difficult to find a publisher—large or small—to invest thousands of dollars to publish a book that might only NET under $1000.00 in profit. Furthermore, if you self-publish, you will see more money from each sale, thus maximizing your income from the project.

Should I Get an Agent? As we’ve established, editors have to wade through thousands of submissions each year. Many editors, especially those in larger houses, depend upon agents to recommend authors. Editors rely upon agents to help thin down their stack of submissions. If you’re seeking to get published by a larger house, an agent will be necessary as 99% of larger houses don’t accept unsolicited submissions. A good agent can not only help you negotiate better deals with publishers but they can also help you edit your manuscript.

If you’re seeking to start with a small press, you don’t need an agent to secure a fair deal. If you would like to find an agent, I suggest looking through the agent database on the Poets&Writers database. As always, do your research—look at each agent’s author list for other writers in your genre. Some agents specialize in poetry or YA; just like when submitting to a publisher you need to find the agent who specializes in what you write. Then, put together your proposal—the same proposal you would for a publisher.

Step 4: Useful Resources

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