Monday, March 23, 2015

How to (or NOT to) Influence Publishers and Win a Book Contract

Among the many things I learned in Tucson at the Festival of Books, the most impressive, I feel, was learning just how patient and wonderful my publisher, Billie Johnson, really is.

Sitting in 80 degree weather with 20 mph winds buffeting the authors and books would be enough to ruffle anyone's calm (let alone feathers!) but not only did Billie cheer us on to sell books, she also welcomed several authors who were wandering the festival, searching for a publisher.

Gandalf facing the Balrog couldn't have been braver.

At one time or another, all of us authors have mustered up the courage to approach a publisher or agent with our manuscript in the hopes that they might find it worthy of publication. And there are a few things that we learned along the way that we would like to pass on to prospective authors:

1) Know what you've written. Once Billie had invited an author to talk to her about their book, many of them really didn't know how to describe it. "It's a kind of a romantic, Old West, chick-lit, hero vs. villain type of story set in a distant galaxy. With recipes." That kind of story is hard to classify. And hard to sell. If you can't describe your story in one sentence (preferably twenty words or fewer--no three paragraph long run-on sentences allowed!) you may need to do some serious editing.

Don't be that kind of author.

2) Pitch your book in thirty seconds. Or less. This is known as the "elevator pitch"--imagine you find yourself in an elevator with an agent or publisher and you have thirty seconds while they're trapped with you to tell them about your book. This goes hand-in-hand with knowing what you've written. Condense your story down to what you can tell in thirty seconds. Not only does it tell the publisher or agent that your story has a point and doesn't meander all over the place, you've also had great practice for writing a back cover blurb about it. One prospective author went on and on in great detail about all the research that had gone into writing the book, but Billie couldn't get him to tell her what it was about.

Don't be that kind of author.

3) Make sure the book is finished. I lost count how many times Billie had a prospective author pitch her an intriguing book idea only to add, after she asked them to send her the manuscript, "Well, I haven't finished it yet," or worse, "I haven't started it yet." Or the ultimate worst: "Well, I really have a great story idea, but I just need someone to write it for me. I'm a lousy writer!" There is an urgency among writers who see the dismal number of new books being published every year to try to get a contract before their book is written. Especially if a publisher announces that they are looking for books. The author wants to strike while the proverbial iron is hot, but they don't have anything to strike with. A publisher of fiction rarely will accept an unfinished manuscript. They want to know that the author can wrap up the story effectively. A lousy ending can ruin a good book.

Don't be that kind of author.

4) Be willing to edit and promote your work. So a publisher decided to look at an unknown author's manuscript and found it was a good story, but needed a little editing. Or a lot of editing. Is the author willing to make changes to their manuscript? Is he or she willing to take some constructive criticism? And once the book is published, is the author willing to step up and promote their book in order to help sell it? Most small-press publishers (like Oak Tree Press) do not have the budget to run full-page ads in Publisher's Weekly. Or even in any small-town weekly. If you don't want to step out of your comfort zone and meet the public and talk about your book, you won't get many sales and that may mean that you won't get a contract for another book... and worse, your book won't be read. So if you expect the publisher to accept and print your book as is and then give it the publicity reserved for Suzanne Collins... well, that's a fairy tale in and of itself.

Don't be that kind of author.

The good news is this: publishers ARE looking for new authors and their books... and I'm talking about true, royalty-paying publishers who are interested in high-quality work. But they are looking for professional authors with well-written books who are willing to work hard to make their books the best they can be and reflect positively on both the author and the publisher.

Be that kind of author.

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