Dear Sir or Madam, Will You Read My Book? How to Get Editors to Read (and Love) Your Manuscript

As experienced editors, the team at Autonomous Press is often amused by the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.” Querying editors the way the song’s main character does is no way to get paid for writing fiction – and yet it happens every day.

Yet some of us also admit that in our early days as aspiring writers, we loved this song. So how did we get from first time writers to experienced authors and editors? Certainly not by following in the “Paperback Writer”’s footsteps! Here’s what the poor narrator gets wrong:

Dear sir or madam, will you read my book?

Already, the editor’s toes are curling. Always address your query to the editor by name. Ours are listed as “senior editor” under their respective imprints – that’s who you need to write to.

And I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer….

Editors assume that writers who query us want to get paid for writing fiction. We want to get paid for publishing it! Pay for everyone!

But your (and our) desire to get paid isn’t enough – you (and we) also have to produce things people want to give us money for. Skip this line in favor of telling us why your book is engaging and important to publish right now.

It’s a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn’t understand.

We try not to judge your manuscript too heavily on its description in the query. At that point, we’re only checking to see if what you describe is the kind of thing we publish. Hint: the Paperback Writer’s description is not.

If it’s not the kind of thing we publish, we’ll pass. Not because you haven’t written an outstanding book – you probably have! We’re just not the right place to help it shine like it deserves.

It’s a thousand pages, give or take a few. I’ll be writing more in a week or two. I could make it longer if you like the style, I can change it ‘round….

Where to start? This person certainly wants to get paid for writing fiction – they’re producing enough of it – but this is an editor’s nightmare.

  1. A thousand pages is far too long. Aim for closer to 150, double-spaced. Better yet, use word counts, not page counts – 60k to 70k is a solid length for a first novel.
  2. Writing more in a week or two? You mean you didn’t send us a completed manuscript? Pass.
  3. Offering to “change it ‘round” when you submit it indicates that you aren’t confident that you’ve written a cohesive, engaging story. And if you’re not confident, we’re not.

Overall, this Paperback Writer gets an A for enthusiasm, but an F for effort. Fortunately, you now know how to do better.

Forget the Advance–Here’s What You Should Expect From a Publisher

The last decade has seen an explosion of new talent on the writing scene. While the internet has been an incubator for new talent since its beginning, the advent of print-on-demand publishing and the sharp upturn in the popularity of ebooks have created a marketplace where the industry is no longer dependent on a handful of large legacy firms and their satellites of “independent” publishers who were mostly university presses with endowments and who still largely depended on those legacy firms for distribution. Now, publishers can work with printers on the other side of the country to manufacture product that is entirely submitted online, and publishers can easily stock product digitally, testing out electronic text popularity before committing to the costs of an ebook. This means more people are able to create publishing firms with less effort than ever before, and for the writer looking for representation, it can be difficult to decide who to go to.

The fact of the matter is that the large advances advertised in the industry are only available to a handful of authors each year who manage to land contracts with large legacy publishers. Otherwise, you are looking at seeking some form of independent publication. It might seem obvious that larger publishers in the independent sphere will give you more, and to some extent this is true. The writers who get the most promotion at larger independent firms do get more than the authors who get the most promotion at smaller independent firms. That doesn’t actually indicate how they will treat new writers, though, or even those they perceive as midlist.

It’s also worth remembering that if you do go with a smaller company, they will likely be in the midst of designing and implementing their marketing plan. That’s why it’s important that you discuss these details early, along with details about your financial compensation.

What to Expect From Publishers’ Marketing

Regardless of the size of the firm, there are a few steps that most self-publishers manage to cover on their own an overwhelming majority of the time. If you don’t get coherent answers about these services, then you should backpedal quickly, because you are going to get less support than you could give yourself from your home office. Those basic features are:

  • Goodreads and blog give-aways to foster awareness of the book title
  • Promotions to generate reviews on Amazon and other major retailer sites
  • Digital advertising support
  • Keyword optimization in all book descriptions and catalog content
  • Placement in the distribution catalog of one of the five major publishing distributors in the U.S.
  • Ad placement in the new product catalogs and email newsletters for the distributor
  • Social media support and promotion for your title
  • Integration of your title into their brand-wide advertising initiatives

If you can go for more, go for more, but these items are the very least you should expect from anyone handling your manuscript. Of course, they aren’t the only important items you want to make sure you ask for. Let’s talk financials next.

What to Expect Instead of an Advance

Most of the independent publishers you will find operating commercially instead of operating at a university or another public institution will be relatively small businesses with employee numbers somewhere in the vicinity of two to twelve people. Much of the time, they have invested personal money, and that limits what they can promise up-front. It’s also worth mentioning that advances on royalties deplete the publisher’s liquid funds, which can cause problems with the marketing budget for smaller firms. Instead of looking for an advance when you go to a small publisher, look for the opportunity to ask for better royalties, guarantees of reinvestment, and support for your own marketing efforts. That’s right… your publisher might be able to support you, but you will still need your own platform to communicate with fans and spread the word about your books yourself. Your deal with your publisher is a partnership, and it takes two of you to do promotion. That gets easier when you get advantages like these:

  • Higher than average royalties: Digital distribution has streamlined the costs of getting a book into print, so the days of three to five percent royalties should be a thing of the past if your publisher knows what they are doing. Look for up to 15 percent of the list price, but remember that royalties that are too high indicate the publisher isn’t putting as much money into marketing as they could be.
  • Sales Support: You’re going to want to sell your own titles when you go to speak or at events. Your publisher should want you to be putting copies out there too. Look for discounts beyond their normal wholesale pricing, and make sure the copies you purchase are going to earn you royalties too. Some publishers try to exclude them from author sales.
  • Author Copies: How many copies of the title can you get before you have to start paying? Look for at least a dozen, and remember that these are your copies for soliciting reviews. Use them wisely.
  • Reinvestment Guarantees: Not all books perform well, but when they do, you should have a guarantee that some of that money will be used to enrich the book’s marketing and keep its success mounting. Most publishers will do this as a matter of course for the first 90 days. After that, new book marketing falls off sharply at most firms. Ask for guarantees that if your book remains profitable, its marketing will continue to be developed. Especially if you are a first-time author.

Choosing Your Publisher

When it comes to small publishing firms, there are a few different schools of thought about which ones make for your best investment. Some authors try to find publishers who “just publish,” ignoring presses that were started by authors and for them. The reasoning is that those presses will be less likely to spend on new authors and more likely to use them as income streams to promote their partner-authors. On the other side of the coin, though, there are small presses being built by former self-published authors that make it their goal to treat every writer like a partner. These firms are often founded by authors who have been through the available choices for publishers before deciding they can offer other writers more.

F*ck You, Pay Me: Why Publishers Need to Pay Their Writers

“We can’t afford to pay, but it’ll be great exposure!”

This statement, from so many publishing outlets that aren’t offering payment in exchange for writing (but who want good writing anyway), is so cliché it’s become a joke among writers. Yet it’s not funny. Paying outlets for writers shouldn’t be rare or magical; they should be the norm. Here’s why.

  1. Writing is work.

Every writer, whether published or not, knows that writing takes effort. Writing is a skill that can be learned and taught, but like any skill, it takes practice and patience to master. The act of writing is mentally and often physically laborious. Add research, interviews, or reviewing materials for context? That’s more work.

Fiction and poetry are fun to read, but that doesn’t make them not hard work to write. Regardless of the genre, labor goes into its creation—and that labor deserves compensation.

  1. Publishers get value from publishing written work.

Why would publishers ask for written work to publish if that work was worthless?

Trick question—they wouldn’t. Whether the goal is to gain ad revenue through online page clicks or to release an on-paper literary anthology, publishers seek writers and their work because they want to make money. Writing has value, and publication outlets know it. Failing to share that value with the writer—say, by being a paying outlet for writers—isn’t just selfish, it’s disingenuous.

  1. “Exposure” is (a bit of) a sham.

“We can’t afford to pay.”

“We offer great exposure.”

Do these two statements seem to contradict one another? That’s because they do.

A website, journal, or press that truly cannot afford to pay its writers (or to offer a fair royalty agreement to them) might be a startup. It might be run on a shoestring. It might be an editor’s hobby or labor of love. All of those are noble, but none of them are likely to be big enough to offer the exposure your hard work deserves.

Is the outlet big enough to offer substantial exposure? Look up its financials in your favorite search engine. Chances are good it’s got the cash to be able to pay its writers—and that its profit margins are as large as they are because it’s making that money off its unpaid contributors’ backs.

Publishers’ goals and focuses are as vast and divergent as publishing houses themselves. That’s a good thing—it means there’s a place for every writer. When deciding where to publish, don’t sell yourself short: the best outlet for your work is (like AutPress) a paying outlet for writers.