New Writers: Don't Make These Mistakes

Top Ten Mistakes New Writers Make When Submitting Queries and Proposals

If you take the following list to heart, you won’t raise flags or get your submission returned unopened. Here are the few simple no-no’s that can easily undermine all your hard work:

1) Letters that contain a misspelled name 2) Packages or letters with postage due 3) Letters printed with outdated equipment 4) Query letters that don’t quickly come to the point 5) Proposals that criticize other books 6) Letters that are too flip or amusing in tone 7) Queries that say, “All my friends think this is a great idea” 8) Proposals that smell like cigarette smoke 9) Queries that mention the minimum advance the writer will accept 10) Proposals that arrive in a package filled with shredded paper or packing “peanuts”

Bonus Tip: “A big no-no when approaching an agent or editor is to be cagey about your idea, or worse yet, not reveal it at all. More than one amateur has expressed anxiety over sharing their surefire book idea for fear that someone will steal it. Trust us, they won’t. This attitude only makes you look naïve and foolish to a publishing pro. The same theory applies to asking an editor to sign an NDA – a nondisclosure agreement."

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Published, 4th Edition
Sheree Bykofsky - Author
Jennifer Basye Sander - Author
$19.95 Paperback; 368 pages
ISBN 9781592575183; Aug 2006

In this new edition, readers will find:

  • An updated overview of changes in the publishing industry
  • Practical tips about pitch letters, negotiations, contracts, and industry trends
  • Includes CD-ROM with sample pitch letters, proposal templates, a comprehensive list of literary agents, links to fantastic author websites, and more

    See the Complete Guide to Getting Published online.

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    Follow the Recipe for Getting Published

    An interview with Sheree Bykofsky, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Getting Published
    Editor’s Note: We normally highlight independently published titles ONLY in this publication, but we sometimes make exceptions. The Complete Idiot’s Guide® series of books from Penguin/Alpha has an indie-style edginess (there are now over 450 titles in the series), and many of its titles are written by authors who publish independently. Their Getting Published guide offers an excellent overview of the publishing process, and is a great addition to any would-be self-publisher’s library. The book mentions Jenkins Group, publisher of Independent Publisher Online, and the survey we conducted that found 81% of Americans "have a book in them" and estimated six million manuscripts are languishing on hard drives and in closets throughout the nation, waiting to be published. Is one of them yours? This book can help!

    * * * * *

    The 4th edition of The Complete Idiot’s Guide® to Getting Published: Get your book out of your head and into bookstores has just been released, and even though it’s not independently published, it certainly deals with many issues indie and self-publishing “wannabes” face, and its authors, Sheree Bykofsky and Jennifer Basye Sander are both longtime indie author/publisher advocates. The book really “tells it like it is” – upbeat but not patronizing; plainspoken but not sophomoric.

    They certainly don't promise an easy road to bestseller status, riches and fame. This message comes through loud and clear on Page 1, as the authors admit: “Writing is very hard work. Getting published is very hard work. Selling books is very hard work.”

    "The book describes everything about the publishing process, whether or not you have an agent,” says Bykofsky, herself a New York literary agent and author of more than a dozen books. She is also an adjunct assistant professor of publishing at New York University, pens a column, “Ask the Agent” at the Backspace writers’ website, and speaks about all areas of publishing at colleges, conferences and seminars across the country. Basically, she’s “been there” and paid her dues in all aspects of the publishing business.

    In spite of the popular how-to series’ tongue-in-cheek title, Bykofsky is quick to point out that those who choose to buy and read her book are anything but idiots…

    “We wrote the book to give people a full understanding of the business, so that they will have a better understanding of each twist and turn of the business,” says Bykofsky. “This book is like a recipe, and you can’t skip any of the listed ingredients. If you’re willing to do the work, your chances of success are good.”

    “It’s all about learning how to best present yourself, and all about packaging yourself, ‘the writer,’ and your book,” she says. “You need to learn how to put yourself in the best light, and to put your material in front of the right people.”

    “It’s not unusual for good books to get rejected, sometimes time and time again, so you need to have a tough skin. Like many other things worth achieving, getting a book published takes great persistence. Publishing is a business, and as hard as it may get during frustrating moments, you have to maintain a professional attitude through it all.”

    Not only has Bykofsky paid her dues in publishing, she once put herself through the rigors of auditioning for -- and becoming -- a Wheel of Fortune contestant. Another exercise in persistence and discipline, she says the experience taught her lessons with distinct parallels to the publishing business.

    “Getting published is very much like becoming a Wheel of Fortune contestant. To start with, it’s not a good idea to call agents or publishers on the phone, and I know from experience that it’s impossible to get through to Wheel of Fortune on the phone.

    “It’s very important to learn the business -- and etiquette -- of book publishing, and the correct methods of submitting queries and proposals. You have to approach agents and publishers via their guidelines. You have to figure out their way of doing things.”

    "For example, I like my authors to help me help them. I like to get reminders. I like to hear about problems before they get out of hand. If one of my authors has a problem with a publisher, I really want to hear about it so I can help."

    The book is presented in five parts, corresponding to the Five Stages of Publishing (paraphrasing here): 1) Deciding to Write; 2) Submitting to Publishers; 3) Getting a Contract; 4) Working with a Publisher; and 5) Continuing Your Career as an Author. These are followed by appendices, resources, and a publishing lingo glossary that should come in handy along the way.

    One of the valuable and high-tech features added to the new edition of Getting Published is the included CD-ROM, which contains book query and book proposal templates and examples, contract and agreement forms, and various lists of links and resources.

    True to the style of the Idiot's Guide® series, each chapter ends with a list entitled, “The Least You Need to Know,” so that those who refuse to abandon their idiotic approach to learning might at least scan one page per chapter. Those who dig a bit deeper will find a complete, logical, step-by-step approach to the “impossible” business of book publishing.

    Included throughout are sidebars labeled “Hot Off the Press,” “Slush Pile,” and “Experts Say” that offer insider quotes and facts, adding even more relevancy and timeliness to the book. Like any business affected by computer and Internet technology changes, publishing, the authors point out, has changed dramatically since they entered the field two decades ago.

    “Since I started in publishing back in 1979, publicity is the area that has changed the most,” says Bykofsky. “Savvy authors today soon realize they need to be very energetic and willing to do a lot of promotion, or have the resources to hire an independent publicist. Authors who complain about incompetent publishers and sit around waiting for publishers to sell their books will be left out in the cold, while the more savvy authors will keep their books selling off of the bookstore shelves so that booksellers will know to restock them."

    “I think the idea of becoming a published author is a daunting proposition to most people, but with reasonable skill, and a good, timely idea – it’s realistic to imagine success. It doesn’t hurt to dream, and if they’re willing to do the work, many writers’ dreams do come true.”

    Who knows, maybe your great story or idea could be the next DaVinci Code or the next Idiot’s Guide®. People are definitely buying and reading books, and eager for entertainment and information. Somebody has to write and publish the next bestsellers – why shouldn’t it be you?

    * * * * *

    Sheree Bykofsky is the author, co-author and editor of more than twenty books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles (Pearson, 2000), The New York Public Library Desk Reference (Simon & Schuster, 1989), three editions of the regional bestseller The Best Places to Kiss in and Around New York City (Beginning, 3rd edition, 1993), The Big Book of Life's Instructions, (Harper, 1995), and Popping the Question: Real-Life Stories of Marriage Proposals From the Romantic to the Bizarre (Walker, 1996). Sheree's most recent books include Put Your House on a Diet (Rodale, 2005) and The Downtown Girl’s Guide to Wine: How to Buy, Serve and Sip with Style and Sophistication (Adams). She has written articles for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including The Writer, which featured Sheree's cover story "The Six Secrets of Getting Published" in 2004.

    Sheree Bykofsky, AAR, represents over 100 book authors in all areas of adult non-fiction as well as literary and commercial fiction. Her non-fiction specialties include popular reference, business, health, psychology, poker, spirituality, self-help, humor, cookbooks, pop culture, biography, women's issues, decorating & crafts, music, and much more. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Publishing at New York University and teaches at SEAK's conferences for doctors and lawyers. Visit for more information.