"But Is It Salable?"

"Cookbook, western, how-to, inspirational, thriller, juvenile -- it doesn't matter what kind of book it is, the question is always the same. The issue is NOT how well the book is written, for the quality of the writing is only one factor in the decision-making process, and not always the key one. A well-written book may be just as unsalable as a poorly written one; it just breaks your heart a little more to return it to the author." - Richard Curtis, in the introduction to his book, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent: The Business of Getting a Book Published (ISBN: 0395718198)

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Gone Are "Gone With the Wind" Days

The "Slushpile" keeps growing -- what's a starving novelist to do?
When it comes to getting their books published, most authors are caught between a rock and a hard place. Royalty-paying publishers seldom consider the unagented authorís manuscript, and literary agents seldom consider representing an author unless his manuscript already has a publishing offer. In other words, a publishing house is hard as rock to crack into, and todayís economy is a hard place to sell books. Whatís a starving novelist to do?

Gone are the Gone With the Wind days when editors went in search of manuscripts. Thatís what MacMillan Publishing Company editor Harold Latham actually did in back in 1935, as he traveled through the South by train, looking for authors to publish.

In Georgia, a friend of author Margaret Mitchell and former journalist for The Atlanta Journal told Latham that Mitchell was writing a book about the Civil War. But when Latham paid her a visit and asked about the book, Mitchell denied she was writing one! Finally, several days later, the impulsive, petite woman gathered up her totally disorganized array of handwritten and typed manuscript chapters and gave a trunk full of the dog-eared paper to Latham. On that eveningís train ride to New Orleans, Latham read the pages, which were mostly out of sequence and missing chapters, and decided the book was publishable.

So, Mitchell signed a contract with MacMillan. And for the next year, she, with the help of editor Latham and her journalist husband, John Marsh, organized, rewrote, and completed Gone With the Wind. It became an instant bestseller, won the 1937 Pulitzer Prize, and due to the international success of the book and the movie, Margaret Mitchell became very wealthy. But in the publishing climate of today, would Gone With the Wind ever have been published? Probably not.

Why? First of all, because publishers arenít combing small town America looking for authors. And also because these days, an author doesnít dare submit less than a perfect manuscript to a publisher or agent. A handwritten or sloppily typed manuscript may echo the romance of yesteryear, but it wonít warrant an editorís glance today. As it is, non-celebrity authors are lucky if their practically perfect manuscripts get more than a cursory reading by a publisherís reader or assistant editor.

Yes, presenting an attractive manuscript has gotten easier with advanced computer technology, but getting published has become increasingly difficult as editors get more cynical. It is now easier than ever for would-be authors to type anything on their computers using their PC spell check, dictionary, and thesaurus, and then submit poorly written but attractive printouts. Therefore, publishing companies are inundated weekly by thousands of manuscripts, and editors grow increasingly skeptical of their potential. The slushpile may be well-typed, but itís still slush.

Furthermore, authors of fiction face an even greater challenge getting noticed, as approximately 80% of bookstore and library shelf space is taken up by nonfiction. At least with nonfiction, experts in their fields, even unknown writers, are needed to produce books on the many topics information-hungry and self-help addicted readers require.

Regardless of their genre, todayís serious writers have to find an edge. What is the best way to approach todayís busy editor? Writers of both nonfiction and fiction should first approach editors with a one-page query letter, not an unsolicited manuscript that will probably get lost in the shuffle. Your letter should include a short paragraph describing your book project and one with your credentials. Also, state what audience your book is intended for as well as some marketing suggestions. If an editor is interested in your project, he will request a proposal for a nonfiction book or the complete manuscript for a novel. Be sure to include in your query letter a self-addressed stamped envelope for his reply as well as your phone number, e-mail address, and website. Multiple query letters are acceptable, however, most book editors do not open e-mail attachments. Therefore, you will have to send your queries, proposals, and manuscripts via snail mail. If you donít hear from an editor about your project in a reasonable amount of time, send a follow-up letter. If you still donít hear anything, the best times to call busy editors are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays between 10:00-12:00 a.m. and 3:00-5:00 p.m. Mondays are usually reserved for meetings and Fridays for tying up loose ends.

If you dream of having a huge conglomerate publish your book, present you with a million dollar advance, get your book on the bestseller lists, and then negotiate a six-figure movie deal, just think of your book as a lottery ticket. Chances are you didnít buy the winning ticket! In fact you may not get through the door of some major publishers. However, there are literally thousands of small and medium-sized independent publishers who are looking for new authors with their own unique voices. They probably wonít give you a $100,000 advance, but they are more apt to help you market and sell your book -- and keep it in print for many years!

This happened to me.

My first book, Pirates, was published by one of New Yorkís largest publisher of nonfiction childrenís books. I was then a novice writer, so I accepted my agentís negotiated $1000 advance (very low even at that time) with a 5% royalty and no sliding scale. My book sold to school and public libraries for six years. And it was still continuing to sell well when a new editorial director of that huge company put 300-400 books out of print in one swoop! No one called me; I discovered the bad news on my own. But since the warehouses had sold every copy of my book, I had to scour the country to find copies in bookstores that I bought at the retail price. And -- I never made more than $.50 in royalties per copy, though the company made hundreds of thousands of dollars! So, query the large companies if you must, but also query the smaller independents.

When you do receive a publishing offer for your book but wish to obtain an agent, find one who has substantial experience dealing with publishers, negotiating contracts, and seeing that publishers live up to their contracts. PublishersMarketplace.com is a terrific website that includes writers, agents, editors, bloggers, book reviews, and the latest book deals. For $15 per month you will receive a daily e-mail newsletter, and you can type your own web page that you may update as frequently as you wish. On your web page you can include photos, your contact addresses, phone numbers, and web site as well as your publishing credentials, background, projects, and whether you are looking for an agent. Also on this website, you can click onto agentsí sites and peruse genres they represent, list of clients, and if they are seeking new clients.

If you decide to forgo an agent and negotiate your own contract, read books such as Richard Curtisí How to Be Your Own Literary Agent; an Insiderís Guide to Getting Your Book Published written in 1983 and revised several times. Whether an author has an agent or not, he should know about negotiating contracts, rights, permissions, auctions, obtaining movie deals, taxes, etc. Also, you can become a member of The Authors Guild (authorsguild.org) for $90 per year if you have already published a book by a traditional publisher. However, if you have never published a book but have just received your first book contract from a traditional publisher (not print-on-demand, vanity, or any other kind of self-publisher), you can apply for membership. And after you have been accepted by The Authors Guild, their crackerjack legal department will peruse your contract for free then send you a letter from a lawyer with suggestions on what to add, delete, or reword. Several times I have received free legal advice about other issues from one of their outstanding lawyers or legal interns who promptly returned my phone calls and e-mails. I look forward to receiving their outstanding quarterly Bulletin that has up-to-date information about publishing companies, suits, books that have been censored, transcripts of seminars and panel discussions, and other things of interest to serious writers.

Authors are spread from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu, and most of us donít personally know another author churning out books for the same publisher. Therefore, when we are having problems with publishers, we canít form a union to strike and boycott as employees at most companies. But we can pressure publishers by insisting on more frequent royalties and royalty statements instead of semi-annual statements which enable publishers to lag months behind book sales. And we can pressure them to do away with the antiquated remainder system that is not applied to any other commercial products. Authors can also have their publishers audited, and they can go online to chat rooms and message boards to extol the virtues of good publishers and discuss problems theyíve had with the bad.

Writing no more is just about writing. Authors who succeed are the ones who persevere and remember to treat their writing as a business; they are the CEO in charge of everything!

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K.J. McWilliams, a former teacher and school librarian, writes childrenís books. She is currently working on the fifth book in a series of fictional diaries and journals about slave children. She also has been a book reviewer and IPPY Awards judge for Independent Publisher. McWilliams has published magazine articles as well as reading comprehension questions for national and state standardized tests. She is currently seeking a publisher to republish Pirates. K.J. McWilliams lives in Naples, FL. with her peek-a-poo pup, Sophie. 5