Thursday, February 25, 2010

9 Tips for Getting Your Manuscript Accepted

By Jevon Bolden
FCWC 2010 Faculty

Because of the work that I do, I am often asked, “How can I get my book published?”

I know that they are not asking what is the process for submitting a manuscript to a publisher. They are asking, “How can I get accepted and see my book on bookstore shelves across the country.”

This is a very legitimate line of questioning that basically gets past all the diplomacy and straight to the point: “How can I guarantee that I will get published?” I have to admit that other editors and I find ourselves asking the same question to each other as we review unsoliciteds or plan strategies for acquiring new authors.

And of course, what better topic to squeeze into my blog called “Embrace the Impossible” than how to get a book published, ’cause that’s what it can seem like (impossible) when you have a book and no publisher wants to give you the time of day.

But let me just share this truth with you: book publishing is a tight market if you can only see yourself being published using traditional models. Expand your horizons a bit and consider investing in your own dream, and your options may open up a bit more. There are still a few publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts, but even though they do, many of the unsoliciteds are only accepted for copublishing or print-on-demand agreements. But that is not really a bad thing. There have also been many traditionally published authors who began with copublishing or even self-publishing and were later acquired for contracts that followed a more traditional model of publishing.

So becoming a published author may depend on your definition and expectation of what “getting published” means.

There are several models of publication that may meet and exceed your expectations, so take the time to get to know what’s out there, and follow the nine tips I put together with the hope of helping you increase the likelihood of being published. They are based on what I have observed and even desired to see when reviewing unsolicited manuscript submissions and from my many meetings and discussions with other editors.

Also know that none of what I say below will guarantee any kind of publication. We’re talking about increasing chances, people, not a guaranteed win. There is a high risk of rejection in this industry, but most things of high value carry a great risk of failure. So don’t give up after one try. Try, try, and try again!

1. Follow the instructions given to prospective authors on the publishers Web site to a T.

I know you may be anxious to be like Nike and just do it, but please oh please slow down enough to see what publishers need from you to make a good decision about the work you submit to them.

Carefully read the instructions that they have posted on our Web site. Do they accept submissions by mail or online? Do they require a full or partial manuscript? I know that it has been my preference to see a completed manuscript, especially from a first-time author and especially with a work of fiction, so that I can get a full grasp on their message and what they are trying to say.

Can this author tell a good story and captivate their audience, leaving them wanting more? A proposal or submission application alone will not do, a synopsis alone will not do, and an e-mail describing your book to me will not do.

Another reason to have your book completed at the time of submission is so that the reviewing editor can determine the best season for when your book should be released. Books about health and weight loss do well in January right after the holidays and in the spring right before bikini season. Books about politics do well in the fall around election time. Then there are topics that are trendy or attached to a fad that need to be released right away or at other strategic times because their unique selling point quickly becomes extinct.

From approved proposal to when your book lands on the street, it can take as long as twenty months to as little as six weeks to see your book on the shelves. So having it finished is a big advantage for you. You never know, your topic may be so hot that we have to fast track it!

2. Use the book proposal submission form they provided.

Some publishers provide a form for you to fill out and return with your manuscript. Others want you to submit a basic query. But most often the kind of information needed includes the authors contact information; suggested title of the work; a brief summary; the book’s message, benefits, and unique qualities; why readers will want to or need to read the book; who the audience is; author bio; promotional opportunities that the author already has open to him/her; endorsements from other notable leaders in the author’s field or in mainstream media that would draw attention to the book; and has the work been published before.

The proposal or the submission application is probably the most important piece to me when I pull an unsolicited file out to review. If the person didn’t include the book proposal form, I am basically at a loss. Sure, I could finger through the mass of papers that is their ever-so-delicate work, but I have thirty others to review in the one hour we barely can spare to review them. I don’t have the time to do that.

I also want to be able to judge fairly quickly if the author has a handle on who they are writing for and if they have a sturdy platform on which to build a publishing career around. So if the proposal or application is missing, I usually write a note on the folder to the editorial assistant to send it back to the author requesting more information and that they fill out the proposal form, and I do not review or read the manuscript. This will of course increase the writer’s waiting time and affect the timing on when the book could have been released in the marketplace.

Timing is everything. So just take the time and do it right on first submission. This is your future, your dream, and it is worth your time to pay it careful attention.

We don’t need any special graphics or creative fonts, family photos, crayon-colored pictures, magazine cutouts, or any other glittered, glued, or taped craft that further illustrates your story. Just be simple, professional, have good spelling and grammar, and have confidence and take pride in the work you are submitting.

When I do come across a nicely organized, fully completed proposal form with full manuscript attached (which rarely happens, unfortunately), I know I can quickly assess if this one is for us or not. I can send it on for further review, and, depending on if the author followed the rest of my steps, publication is almost guaranteed with one of our imprints.

3. Specifically define whom you are writing your book for.

We get a majority of submissions that say their audience is anyone who ever lived and breathed, anyone who ever went through this situation or knows someone who did, anyone who is young or old, anyone who ever went to church, anyone who ever had a mom or dad, and on and on.

You would think that I am being sarcastic, but people really are this broad with their audience. Or you might be one of those people who is wondering what’s wrong with that kind of audience. The problem with an audience that large is an unfocused manuscript and the teeny tiny chance that what you have to say will meet everyone’s needs, preferences, and desires.

What you want to do is identify that one corner of the market that can relate to your story and build from there.

The kind of answers we look for is:
  • “I am writing for young Christian professionals between the ages of 25 and 40.”
  • “My book is geared toward African Americans who are socially and politically active between the ages of 35 and 55.”
  • “I wrote this book based on my testimony to help men and women who still suffer from the effects of childhood sexual abuse.”
4. Know your subject.

Make sure that you have researched the topic you are writing on and have up-to-date information, statistics, and sources.
  • Are you an expert or professional in the area that you are writing?
  • Do you have firsthand experience with the topic you are writing about?
  • What qualifies you to be able to write on this topic?
5. Know who the publisher is, whom they publish, who their audience is, and so on.

I work for a Christian book publisher. We do not publish secular or nonreligious books. If your book seems to be in opposition to God and Christianity, we probably won’t publish it. We do allow for various interpretations of Scripture and Christian beliefs and doctrine.

My editorial director is famous in our department for saying, “We let them dangle over the edge of the abyss, but we don’t let them go in.” So there is some flexibility and creativity in the kind of books we publish.

Other publishers have their niches as well. Take time to browse best-seller lists and the bookstore shelves and see who is writing what and who publishes what is written. Research the books and authors you enjoy reading. Who publishes them? Find books that cover the same topic or are a part of the same genre as your book. Research the publisher on the copyright page and find out what kind of people read their books. Take notes, and you’ll begin to see who your audience is.

6. Get to know and understand the book publishing industry as a whole and especially the genre for which you are writing.

It is important that you follow the recommendations and advice about publishing that are already out there from proven professionals. There is wisdom in that. Don’t try to be so cutting edge and different that nobody knows what you’re doing. Watch the trends in the market. Get a feel for what readers want to know and whom they like to get their information or entertainment from.

Don’t live in a bubble and say, “I don’t need any direction. What I have stands out and is unique.”

Don’t get me wrong; unique is good. But if something is too different, it’s just weird and scary. The book industry is relationship oriented. We cannot afford to weird people out or scare them, else no one will buy our books. You may not be one who cares what people think, but if you want them to read your book and care about the things you’ve written about, you may want to start caring about what matters to them. The writer/reader relationship is a two-way street. You gotta give a lot to get a little! Oops! Did I say that right?

Get on Twitter and Facebook and locate profiles of prospective publishers and their editors, agents, authors, and such, and see what they are blogging about. Connect with trade publications like Writer’s Digest. Join the conversation, and stay in the mix!

7. Consider having your ideas vetted through an agent, a writer’s group or workshop, or a good freelance book editor or writer.

Your friends and family are sweet people, I’m sure, but they will not give you the objective perspective you need for your book. They love you and want the world to know who you are so the world can know who they are. No, but seriously consider joining a writer’s group that meets a couple times a month to discuss each other’s works. One of the most valuable classes I took in college was a poetry workshop. We sat in roundtable style and spent the whole class time reading each other’s work and discussing it with candor and honesty. The main advice given to me: show; don’t tell.

Having a publishing professional like an agent or editor review your work and give you some feedback isn’t a bad idea either (not to mention that most publishers only receive manuscripts handed to them by agents). They can give you an objective and very valuable critique. There may be a cost involved, but what thing of value doesn’t have a cost?

8. Know your personal goals for the project you are writing.

How far do you want it to go? Do you want a national and international stage, or do you just want to have a published book as a memorabilia? What type of publishing would you like to use? Traditional, copublishing, self-publishing, or some hybrid of all of those?

You also have to be realistic about what you are willing to put into the process of marketing and promoting your book. The days of publishers putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the hands of a first-time author are over. As you’ll see in the next tip, who you are in your professional and personal life as well as who you are willing to become play a big part in how far you go with your book project.

9. Have a personal/professional brand.

Many times what publishers hope to see is a platform or venue that the author already has that they can tag onto to help them push the author onto a more visible stage, using some of the networks and connections the publisher has. The smaller your sphere of influence, the harder it is for publishers to get people to want to know what you know. Publishers invest a lot of money into each book project they take on. Their hope is to recoup the investment and then some so that they can continue on as a business.

So when you think about getting published, realize that the company you are querying is a business with strategies to make profit. Consider how you would fit in with this fact: Where are you with the market you hope to reach? Are you an influencer? Do people want to know what you have to say? Would they pay to have your opinion?

If you think you need time to develop these areas, copublishing is one of our many publishing models that can help with that. Copublishers work with new authors to develop marketing plans and strategies that include radio, TV, speaking engagements, book signings, and the like. But you have to be willing to be thoughtful in your submission, consider who you are submitting to, know your audience, be an expert in your field, have well-defined publishing goals, and be willing to develop a personal or professional brand.

Jevon Bolden is a developmental editor for Strang Book Group. The projects she focuses on are political/social issues, religion, diet/fitness, alternative health, self-help and motivation, career strategy, finances, and business ethics. Jevon is excited about reviewing manuscripts and meeting with authors at the conference. A graduate of the University of Alabama with a BA in English, Jevon is also a worship leader, wife, mom, and blogger.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent suggestions. Authors forget that for a publisher, it is just a business. They did not spend the sleepless nights over the best word to use to finish the fifth chapter, or the decision as to whether or not to kill off the villian. To the author, their work is a part of them and the publisher should automatically see that!

    Unfortunately, no. It is just a business. Authors need to treat their submissions like a business as well if they want a chance at getting picked up by a traditional publisher. Put the joy into the book!


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