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FAQ: How Do I Get My First Book Published? The Start of a FAQ on Getting Published and Writing Your First Book

Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Patrick had some questions about getting started as a writer. (See his comment in the last thread.) I've been meaning to start compiling a Writing FAQ for a while, so I thought I'd use Patrick's questions as a starting point. Here is my initial stab at answering some of the most frequently asked questions about writing and book publishing.

HOW DO I GET STARTED AS A WRITER?

By putting pen to paper and writing -- and then writing some more. Expect to throw out a lot of the stuff you write and for the throw-out-to-keep ratio to increase rather than decrease the longer you have been writing. I can spend an entire writing and end up trashing everything I've written on a particular day. My suck-o-meter is much more sensitive and more tuned into my unique style than it was when I launched my writing career in Grade 3. At that stage, it was all about the volume -- using more foolscap paper than the other kids in the class. Now I tend to be more interested in economy of words or a unique turn of phrase or getting through at least some of the items on yesterday's to do list.

DO YOU HAVE TO WRITE FOR MAGAZINES OR NEWSPAPERS BEFORE YOU WRITE YOUR FIRST BOOK?

Yes and no. (Writing is a wonderfully ambiguous profession, as you've no doubt gathered by now.) It's helpful to have some publishing credits under your belt because this gives you some industry credibility and it can help to convince a book publisher that you're a marketable author (those magazines that you've contributed in the past might be interested in writing about your new book -- or not!); but it's certainly not mandatory.

Here's the most important rule to bear in mind every time someone tells you a rule about book publishing. Rules were meant to be broken (particularly "rules" like clauses in standard book publishing contracts, which were made to be negotiated, rewritten, or spit on).

HOW DO I PITCH MY BOOK TO A PUBLISHER?

It really depends what type of book you want to write.

If you're writing fiction (or poetry), you should write the entire book first, make it as spectacular as you can possibly make it (perhaps with input from a writing group, a professional editor, or some other trusted person/entity), and then start shopping it around to publishers. Some publishers will want to see the entire book right away. Others will prefer to receive a letter letting them know your book is available for exclusive (or semi-exclusive) viewings before you send the manuscript. The rationale? Their mailrooms or editorial assistants may be endanger of collapsing under the weight of all those unsolicited manuscripts or their lawyers might be rendered mad by manuscript-induced insomnia, while pondering all the lawsuits that could result, should one of their other authors bring out a book that bears an eerie resemblance to the concept that you just pitched to their house. ("Two sci-fi vampire political romance trilogies pitched to the same acquisitions editor in the same month? I think not!")

If you're pitching a non-fiction book idea, you want to write a book proposal rather than the entire book. You don't want to spend months -- if not years -- of your life crafting your masterpiece, only to find out that another publishing company is bringing out a guide to surviving the hell that is high school written by (oh noooooooo!) the bully who made your high school years unbearable. You want to get the contract signed upfront so that the sales force can be pitching your book while you're writing it. ("Think Heathers, but set in Mississauga.")

CAN I PITCH MY BOOK BY PHONE OR OVER COFFEE OR DRINKS WITH AN EDITOR?

Sure, if your name is Britney, Paris, or [insert celebrity name here]. The rest of us have to resort to boring old-fashioned things called book proposals and sample chapters. (See Michael Larsen's excellent book How to Write a Book Proposal for the ultimate how-to guide on both.) Basically, you want to give your acquisitions editor the tools she needs to make the best possible case for your book when she goes in front of the toughest crowd you can imagine: the publishing board (an in-house group of representatives from the editorial, sales, marketing, and publicity departments; a motley meeting of minds that's carefully balanced between cynics and optimists so as to avoid throwing the delicate book publishing ecosystem out of whack).

Your book proposal and sample chapter(s) will give the editor and the publishing board a feel for what it is you're proposing to write, how that book will be unique in the marketplace, your marketability as an author, and now many copies you and the publisher are likely to be able to sell as a publishing team.

Note that word "team" very carefully. If you're not too keen on flogging your book in front of a room of people -- to say nothing of on national TV -- you may want to rethink this author thing right now. Contrary to popular belief, books don't jump off the bookstore shelves on their own. A lot of publisher-and-author sweat-equity is involved in spreading the world about those books. (Which publisher you choose and how much money they have to invest into marketing your books will determine the author-publisher/publisher-author sweat ratio.)

One other thing: it's important to research the house rules of various publishing companies before you make your pitch. Read publishing market guides (The Writers' Market and The Canadian Writer's Market, for example) and then take the time to make a quick phone call to find out or verify the name of the editor who accepts over-the-transom submissions. That way, you can obey the number one commandment of manuscript submission: "Thou shall not address thy unsolicited manuscript to the current acquisitions editor's editorial predecessor." Getting the acquisitions editor's name wrong may seem like a minor detail (and, frankly, in the real world, it is a small detail), but editors are sticklers for details. That's why they became editors, after all.

- Ann Douglas

For the truly obsessive: a few hundred of my favorite writing/publishing/author links. Note: you'll find more in the sidebar of this blog.

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[a work in progress]

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| posted by Ann D @ 3:16 PM