How To Break Into Print Publishing
edited: Wednesday, April 10, 2002
By Michael A LaRocca
Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2002
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Some solid advice on how to make the transition from author to published author.
How To Break Into Print Publishing
Copyright 2001, Michael LaRocca
(2787 words. This article may be freely published or distributed
as long as the author's information at the bottom remains intact.
If you use it, please notify michaellarocca.lycos.com.)
The big question. Do you submit directly to the publishers, or do
you find an agent who will do that for you? Based on anecdotal
evidence I've heard, it can work either way. The bottom line is,
if a publisher reads what he can sell, he'll buy it. It doesn't
matter if it comes from an author or an agent. The trick is
getting him to read it. That's always your focus.
Some people swear by agents because they're the ones who will get
you larger percentages and advances. I've decided I don't care
quite so much about that. In the case of a new author, I
sincerely doubt that'll happen anyway. I'd hate to lose my first
sale because some greedy agent asked for too much money. Not that
I believe that'll happen either.
There are also those who swear by agents because many publishers
won't look at an "unsolicited manuscript." That's true enough.
They ain't got time. They're using agents as a preliminary
Someone recommended that once you've selected some potential
publishers, phone each one and ask how they would like to be
approached. Ask whom specifically you should address your work
to. Then you can honestly call it a "solicited manuscript."
(Always be honest in your correspondence.)
If this doesn't work, because you can't phone or the secretary
refuses to cooperate and tells you things like "we only accept
material from reputable literary agents," then mail your query
letter, bio, synopsis, and sample chapter(s). They can only say
no, or they can say your query looks interesting and they want to
see the rest of the manuscript.
If you hook a publisher this way, odds are the publisher will
like for you to have an agent. So this is when you call one,
after you've hooked the publisher. The agent gets 15% for doing
practically nothing, so he'll take the job. The publisher will
become more interested when your agent phones saying he's (or
she's) looking after your interests in this matter.
The most important step is to get your presentation looking as
professional as humanly possible. No mistakes. None. Zero. Nada.
The vast majority of rejections aren't because the story is bad,
but because the Acquisitions Editor concludes that it'll be too
much work to make it "ready to read." With new authors,
publishers usually lose money. Advertising, print inventory...
don't ask them to invest a great deal of editing time as well.
They won't do it. It's just that simple.
The Selection Process
The most important part of getting your error-free manuscript
published is choosing the right market. The best way to do this
is to read books that are aimed at the same target audience as
your own. If you want to approach publishers directly, look at
who published those books. Preferably one who publishes lots of
books in that genre, not just one or two authors. Their marketing
machine is already positioned to announce your manuscript to your
target audience, and they want more books of the type that you
write. They are your best bet.
Some authors thank their editors. If you're going straight to the
publisher, note the editors' names and use those, preferably
after a phone call to ensure the editor still works there. If you
can, just phone the publisher and tell whoever answers the phone
something like "I'm writing a letter to so-and-so, and I want to
be sure I'm spelling the name correctly."
If you want to approach an agent first, look in the
acknowledgements sections of those books. Some authors thank
their agents. Look up those agents and start with them. Tell how
you found them. This will impress them. You know they've got a
track record in your genre. They know how to sell to publishers
who are aimed at your target audience, so let them do it.
some additional advice on selecting an agent.
Whichever method you use, go in fully prepared. Meaning, work
through all the steps below before you submit anything.
Your aim is to convince someone who not only does not know you,
but does not want to know you, and has read too many bad books,
that your book is different. For this you need a cover letter,
bio, synopsis, and sample(s) chapter of such sublime wit, wisdom
and genius that even the most jaded and cynical editor can take
pleasure in it.
Take your time. Don't just whip up something in a day and send it
out. You're probably looking at a one or two year gap between
acceptance and publication. So in the grand scheme of things,
taking the time to make your presentation really shine won't
matter. EXCEPT, that it'll ensure you get published in the first
Every publisher has "writer guidelines." Get them. Read them.
Follow them. They're using the process of elimination to get out
of reading these submissions. The first step in that process is,
bump off everyone who can't follow the guidelines. Don't be one
Preparing Your Query Letter
This will be the first impression that they get of you. Make it a good one! Edit that letter as hard as you would a manuscript, and make the damn thing perfect. Make it good writing. Sum up your book in such a way as to make the recipient of the letter say, "Wow, I want to read this book."
The first page of your book, along with the jacket text, are what usually determines whether a browser buys your book or puts it back on the shelf. As you write your query letter, think of what you'd put on that book jacket, and work that concept into your letter.
Never address your query letter To Whom It May Concern, Dear Editor, or any of that. Get a name. When you find the books that you really like, and are searching them for potential publishers, call those publishers. Ask who edited those books. If you want to approach the publisher directly, write to those editors.
You can find advice on writing your query letters etc. at:
The "query letter clinic" in the 2001 WRITERS MARKET is well
worth reading. If you're not going to buy the book, go to the
library and read that section of it.
With a simple bit of good writing, and we all know you can do
that since you've already written and polished your manuscript,
you'll make it past this first hurdle. The editor reads your
letter, sees nothing in it to stop him from continuing, and has
What would stop him? Typos. Grammar. Spelling. Boredom. Or
anything that says "I write so much better than Stephen King that
he's not fit to hold my jock strap. Buy my book and we'll both
Writing Your Bio
Don't lie. That's the first rule. The second rule is, don't
forget any writing credits. List everything relevant you've got.
Publications in decent magazines or newspapers. Credits in TV,
films, theaters. Any literary prize you've managed to get in
adulthood. The fact that you're a Professor of English or an
Editor on a sports journal.
If you have no literary background, no education, or no
respectable publications, but you spent fifteen years in solitary
confinement in a Siberian Work Camp, that might indicate that you
have a story to tell. But if you're writing about cuddly koalas
to entertain the under-five crowd, this piece of information may
be more than anyone needs to know.
You can list your credits either chronologically or from most
impressive to least impressive. Just whichever puts you in the
best light. You want to look like you're already a successful
author. You don't want to sound arrogant, but you do want to
sound confident. Keep it to a single page. You don't want to
waste anybody's time. They don't have enough. (Who does?)
If your bio is so bare of details that it's more of a liability
than an asset, forget about it. Maybe your "bio" equals only a
sentence or two, in which case you can work it into your query
letter instead of a separate document.
Your goal, remember, is to get that editor to read your synopsis
or manuscript. To judge it on its own merits. If he reads your
writing and rejects it, you gave it your best shot. Try a few
more, and if they all reject it, then think about improving the
writing. But you don't want that editor to stop reading your
submission before he gets to your writing. So, take the time to
do the query letter and bio correctly.
Writing Your Synopsis
To quote one agent, "There is no such thing as a good synopsis."
And how can there be? How do you sum up 50,000 or 100,000 words
in a page or two? I'll tell you how I do it. Very badly.
Having said that, this is your first chance to show the publisher
that you can write. Some publishers want a minimal amount of
information on first contact (query letter, bio, synopsis).
Others want to see the first chapter or two as well. Nobody wants
to see the whole manuscript at first, except those who say so in
their writers' guidelines. If you include sample chapters, the
chance of them being read depends largely on the quality of your
query letter and synopsis.
Keep your synopsis short, two pages maximum unless the writers'
guidelines say differently. Shorter is better. Pick out the theme
and the strengths of your book and, in as clever a fashion as
possible, relay these qualities in a brief chronology. The
chronology is less important than the theme because, in truth,
your only hope with a synopsis is that your theme or concept will
strike a chord with the editor or agent reading it.
If your story is funny, your synopsis should be funny. If it is a
romantic story, then your synopsis should be a romantic synopsis.
You are a writer, and here is where you can be creative.
A lot of the great works of literature do not have easily defined
stories, just fine writing and good characters. If you have no
story, then you have to sell your idea. The synopsis must have
fine, clear writing. Say how your book starts, how it ends, and
what is the interest in the middle. This isn't the time to employ
Your sample chapter should do the main talking, but your synopsis
should offer up those clever memorable sound bites that will
linger in the editor's mind and convince him to read the sample
Preparing Your Manuscript
Did I mention that your manuscript must be flawless? I'll mention
it again. Your manuscript must be flawless. Especially be sure
that the first chapters, the "hook" which you will submit, will
be the type that grabs the reader and makes him/her/it wonder
what happens next.
Beyond that, some mechanics:
If the publisher you're submitting to lists all this information
in its guidelines, you're in luck. Do what they say and they'll
read the manuscript. Fail to do so and they'll set it down
unread, even if you're the next John Grisham.
Remember, they're budgeting their time and trying to get out of
reading this stuff. Once they read it, they'll be fair. (If not,
you don't want them.) If it's good solid writing, you're in. But
until they get to the writing, they're always expecting the
worst. If you'd seen some of the crap that comes their way, you'd
be just as pessimistic. But in the end they do love good writing
or else they'd quit that job.
If the guidelines don't tell you how to prepare the manuscript,
consider the information below as a "generic template."
Otherwise, ignore my guidelines and use theirs.
Fonts - UK publishers prefer Courier New 10pt, US publishers
prefer Times New Roman 12pt. Both are trying to ease their
eyestrain, so don't be fancy.
Paper sizes - This one's easy. Letter (8 1/2" by 11") in the US,
A4 in the rest of the world.
(Hong Kong residents can find letter-size paper in Admiralty.
City Office Supplies in Tower 1, Admiralty Center, sells it by
the ream. Jumbo Grade on the first floor of Pacific Place sells
packs of 50 or 100 sheets, I forget which. You can get to either
store by taking train/bus/taxi/your car to Pacific Place.)
Binding - US publishers prefer none at all. UK publishers prefer
that you punch two holes in the side and use simple brass
fasteners to hold it all together - ugly but effective.
Use one type of paper throughout your presentation, preferably
plain white. (If you have personal stationery that's not too
funky, you can use that for the query letter.)
The title need not appear on the beginning of every chapter, but
it's a good idea to put it on each page, along with your name and
the page number, in case the manuscript is separated or mislaid
at the publisher's.
Double-spaced text, unjustified right margins, one-inch margins
all around. Include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (or self
addressed envelope with IRCs) of the appropriate size if you want
your manuscript back.
Package it so it's easy to open but not all wrinkled and nasty
when it arrives at your publisher's office. No folded manuscripts
hastily stuffed into a manila envelope. No envelopes that scatter
hundreds of little brown paper shavings all over the desk.
They're opening far too many of these things, and anything that
looks "amateur" gets bumped unread.
the websites of almost 100 publishers. I recommend visiting this
after you've gone through the selection process, either from
books you read or from a book such as WRITERS MARKET.
When you select an agent, forget about who's closest to you.
Think about who's closest to the publishers you're targeting.
Those agents are more likely to know which publishers want which
types of manuscripts, and they're also the ones who can lunch
with the publisher instead of handling everything by mail or
email or telephone.
Here's some advice from the Agent Research and Evaluation
website. They define an agent as:
"...someone who makes a living selling real books to real
publishers. No one representing himself as an agent should also
claim to be a book doctor, an editor-for-hire, a book
'consultant' of any kind. They shouldn't charge any type of
'upfront' reading fee, marketing fee, evaluation fee or any other
fee apart from a commission on work sold.
"With the possible exception of certain MINIMAL office expenses,
legitimate agents NEVER handle [the expenses connected with
submitting manuscripts] as an upfront cost. Only as a billable
expense after being shown to have been incurred.
"Remember, real agents live off the commissions they make from
selling their clients' projects. Scammers live off up-front fees
for unnecessary, inadequate, or non-existent services."
This is excellent advice. Anyone can call himself an agent, get
himself listed somewhere, and tell every author who sends him a
manuscript "This is excellent. Send me some money and I'll sell
it." Then he can pocket the author's money and do absolutely
Agents work for a percentage of your sales. It's usually 10%-20%.
An agent's source of income must be the books he sells. If the
author pays him before he closes a sale, where is his incentive
to close the sale?
Insist that your agent send you copies of all rejection letters.
A great agent should offer this without you asking, and those
rejection letters shouldn't all be undated "Dear author" or "Dear
agent" letters that don't mention you or your agent or your
manuscript by name.
Your agent should also involve you in the selection process
without you asking, even if that just means telling you "I'm
sending to this, that, and the other place." Don't let him/her
send your gothic romance to a children's publisher, etc.
If your agent is sending your stuff to the right places and it's
still getting rejected, you've done all you can do, except write
http://free_reads.tripod.com/literaryagentlist.html contains my
list of resources for finding an agent. If you've been reading my
other advice, you're already talking to other authors. If you
know one who's made it into print, especially one who writes in
your genre, ask which agent (and which publisher and editor) he
Once you have narrowed down your list of prospects, visit the
following sites to learn about the latest scams and such:
National Writers Union
Be sure to look at "Writer Alerts"
Preditors and Editors
Michael LaRocca is the author of four published novels and an
EPPIE 2002 Award finalist. He's been working as a full-time
author and editor since December 1999. For a complete list of
his articles, all available via autoresponder, send a blank email