How to format a book manuscript properly, part VI: quotation is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery

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For the last week or so I’ve been talking about how to format a manuscript professionally, and I’m beginning to fear that in my eagerness and vim, I may have scared some of you a little. Or a whole lot.

My vehemence is kindly-motivated, I assure you: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, how a submission is presented can indeed make a very great difference in how it’s received.

Yes, yes, I hear you, those of you who have been running around to writers’ conferences in recent years: you can hardly throw a piece of bread at an agent or editor’s forum without hitting a pro saying, “It all depends upon the writing.” They tend to spout this aphorism for a very good reason — it is in fact true.

But as we discussed last time, that doesn’t mean that the quality of the writing is the ONLY criterion agents, editors, contest judges, or any of the rest of us who read manuscripts for a living use when deciding whether to read beyond the first page of a submission. Professional presentation weighs in, as do marketability, a story’s probability of appealing to its target audience (not exactly the same thing), what happens to be the surprise bestseller of the moment — and yes, that whole slew of intangibles that make up personal taste.

There is, in short, no such thing as a foolproof formula for producing the perfect manuscript for submission.

As I’ve been arguing throughout this series on formatting, however, agents, editors, contest judges, screeners, and other professional readers develop an almost visceral sense of when a manuscript is properly formatted. So rather than screening submissions with a list of don’t by their sides, they more or less automatically discount pages that are cosmetically incorrect.

This is most emphatically not the same thing, though, as rejecting such pages on the spot because, say, an aspiring writer underlined a foreign-language word on page 1 instead of italicizing it. (Sacre bleu!)

Much as a reader with impeccable grammar will not necessarily throw down a book that misuses semicolons, most professional readers will not instantly reject an improperly-formatted submission without SOME further provocation. But believe me, the writer in both cases is going to have to work a whole lot harder to impress the reader as literate.

Unfortunately, the prevailing standards for printed books — which, as we have seen, differ in many significant respects from manuscripts — often lead innocent writers astray. Case in point: including a table of contents in a manuscript.

That seems as if it would be helpful, doesn’t it? In fiction, including it would enable an agent to go back and re-read the submission easily; in nonfiction, it would permit an editor to skip ahead to a chapter of particular interest.

And heck, if the manuscript fell upon the floor in the kind of you got chocolate in my peanut butter!/you got peanut butter in my chocolate! we witnessed with horror last week, a well-organized table of contents might render it a trifle easier to reassemble, right?

Wrong: this is a notorious rookie mistake. In a published book, a table of contents, like an index, is a courtesy to bookstore browsers trying to get a feel for the contents and buyers who do not necessarily want to read the entire book. Why, runs the industry’s logic, would an agent or editor be interested in acquiring a book if he doesn’t like it well enough to read it in its entirety?

So really, a table of contents in a manuscript is just a wasted page. Do not include it in a manuscript submission, any more than you would include an index or those boxes around text that magazines are so fond of printing. To professional eyes, it looks unprofessional, especially in fiction.

It’s also an inconvenience — and it’s never a good idea to fritter away the energies of people you want to do you great big favors like offering to represent your book, is it?

Why inconvenient? Well, think about our time-strapped friend Millicent the agency screener for a moment: when she turns over the title page, she expects to find the first page of text there waiting for her, all ready to be judged in a flash. If instead she finds a table of contents, something she would only find helpful if she were to read the entire manuscript, she may well be a trifle miffed. Given that she tends to reject submissions somewhere between paragraph 1 and page 5, the information that Chapter 8 begins on page 112 will most likely strike her as at best gratuitous — and at worst presumptuous.

“What gives?” she’ll say, taking an extra sip of her too-hot latte as she impatiently gets the table of contents out of her way. “Doesn’t this writer know the difference between a manuscript and a book?”

‘Nuff said, I think.

Or maybe not — do I hear some aspiring nonfiction writers clamoring for my attention? “But Anne,” these excellent souls point out, “a book proposal is supposed to include a table of contents for the planned book!”

Ah, I’m glad that you brought this up, because this is a very common misconception amongst first-time proposers, who tend to cram precisely the table of contents they expect to see in their eventually-published books into their proposals. They look a little something like this:

See any problems with this as a marketing document?

Actually, I’m sure that some of your hands shot into the air even before I showed this example, in your eagerness to take issue with the notion that a submission should resemble a published book in the first place — and thus that the kind of table of contents one might expect to see in a nonfiction book would clearly be out of place in a submission. Well caught, eager wavers.

Spot any other problems?

If you said that the example above doesn’t include information that could possibly be either accurate or useful, give yourself a gold star for the day. Obviously, it would be impossible for a proposer to state with certainty where the chapter breaks would fall in the proposed book when published; all the information s/he could reasonably offer in this sort of table of contents, then, would be educated guesses about how long each chapter might be. Or perhaps a list of where those breaks fall in the draft manuscript.

But that’s not the information nonfiction agents and editors want to see in the book proposal. The information they do want to see in the annotated table of contents is a brief description of the CONTENTS of each chapter.

The word annotated should have been a clue, I guess.

And like so many other differences between professional formatting and, well, everything else they see in submissions, it’s really, really obvious at first glance to someone who has seen a book proposal before whether the submitter du jour has followed the rules. Compare what the first page of a correctly put-together annotated table of contents looks like with the truncated version above:

See the difference? I assure you, Millicent will. From ten paces away.

I don’t feel I may leave this topic without addressing the other EXTREMELY common opening-of-text decoration: epigraphs, those nifty little quotes from other sources that we writers so adore.

Nobody else likes them much, but we writers think they’re great, don’t we? There is something powerfully ritualistic about typing the words of a favorite author at the beginning of our manuscripts; it’s a way that we can not only show that we are literate, but that by writing a book, we are joining some pretty exalted company.

Feeling that way about the little dears, I truly hate to mention this, but here goes: it’s a waste of ink to include them in a submission. 99.9998% of the time, they will not be read at all.

Stop glaring at me that way; it’s not my fault. I don’t stand over Millicent with a riding crop, forcing her to treat each submission with respect (although admittedly, it’s an interesting idea).

It’s true, alas: I’ve literally never met a professional reader who doesn’t just skip epigraphs in a first read — or (brace yourselves, italics-lovers) any other italicized paragraph or two at the very beginning of a manuscript.

They just assume, often not entirely without justification, that if it’s in italics, it doesn’t really have much to do with the story at hand, which (they conclude, not always wrongly) begins with the first line of plain text. And there’s another reason that they tend to skip ‘em: the sad fact is, at the submission stage of the game, no one cares who a writer’s favorite authors are.

The official justification for this — yes, there is one — is quite interesting: even the busiest person at an agency or publishing house picks up a manuscript in order to read ITS author’s writing, not someone else’s.

Kinda hard to fault them for feeling that way, isn’t it, since we all want them to notice the individual brilliance of our respective work?

Sentiment aside, let’s look at what including an epigraph achieves on a practical level. Instead of startling Millicent with your erudition in picking such a great quote, the epigraph will to prompt her to start skimming BEFORE she gets to the first line of your text — AND you will have made her wonder if you realized that manuscript format and book format are not the same.

Good idea? Or the worst marketing idea since New Coke?

If that all that hasn’t convinced you, try this on for size: while individual readers are free to transcribe extracts to their hearts’ contents, the issue of reproducing words published elsewhere is significantly more problematic for a publishing house. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, reproduction of published text without the author’s permission is known in the biz by another, less flattering name: copyright infringement.

If the quote is from a book that is not in the public domain, the publisher will need to obtain explicit permission to use any quote longer than fifty words. Ditto for ANY quote from a song that isn’t in the public domain, even if it is just a line or two.

So effectively, most epigraphs in manuscripts are signposts shouting to an editor: “Here is extra work for you, buddy, if you buy this book! You’re welcome!”

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some epigraph-huggers cry,
“the material I’m quoting at the opening of the book is absolutely vital to include! The book simply isn’t comprehensible without it!”

Okay, if you insist, I’ll run through the right and wrong ways to slip an epigraph into a manuscript — but bear in mind that I can’t promise that even the snazziest presentation will cajole Millicent into doing anything but skipping that quote you love so much. Agreed?

Regardless of while title page format you choose, do not, under any circumstances, include a quote on the title page as an epigraph — which is what submitters are most likely to do, alas. Let’s take a gander at what their title pages tend to look like:

How likely is Millicent to notice the quote at all? Well, this was what she was expecting to see:

Actually, that wasn’t precisely what she expected — did you catch the vital piece of information he left off his title page?

If you said that Eeyore neglected to include the book category on the second example, give yourself a pile of thistles. (Hey, that’s what he would have given you.) My point is, the quote in the first example is going to stand out to Millicent like the nail in a certain critter’s tail.

Other submitters choose to eschew the title page route in order to place an epigraph on the first page of text. The result is immensely cluttered, by anyone’s standards — especially if the submitter has made the very common mistake I mentioned in my discussion of title pages last time, omitting the title page altogether and cramming all of its information onto page 1:

Where did all of our lovely white space from yesterday and the day before go? Into quoting, partially.

The last popular but ill-advised way to include an introductory epigraph is to place it on a page all by itself, as it might appear in a published book:

What’s wrong with this, other than the fact that Poe died before our author wrote Sons and Lovers? Chant it with me now, everyone: A MANUSCRIPT IS NOT SUPPOSED TO RESEMBLE A PUBLISHED BOOK.

At best, Millicent is likely to huffily turn past this page unread. At worst, she’s going to think, “Oh, no, not another writer who doesn’t know how to format a manuscript properly. I’ll bet that when I turn to page one, it’s going to be rife with terrible errors.”

Does either outcome sound desirable to you? I thought not.

So what SHOULD an epigraph-insistent submitter do? Leave it out, of course — weren’t you listening before?

But if it is absolutely artistically necessary to include it, our pal Mssr. Poe actually wasn’t all that far off: all he really did wrong here was include a slug line. The best way to include an introductory epigraph is on an unnumbered page PRIOR to page 1. On that unnumbered page, it should begin 12 lines down and be centered.

But I’m not going to show you an example of that. Why? Because I really, truly don’t think you should be including an epigraph at all at the submission stage.

Just in case I hadn’t made that clear.

That doesn’t mean you should abandon the idea of epigraphs altogether, however. Squirrel all of those marvelous quotes away until after you’ve sold the book to a publisher — then wow your editor with your erudition and taste. “My,” the editor will say, “this writer has spent a whole lot of time scribbling down other authors’ words.”

Or, if you can’t wait that long, land an agent first and wow her with your erudition and taste. But don’t be surprised if she strongly advises you to keep those quotation marks to yourself for the time being.

If you are submitting directly to a publisher, do be aware that most publishing houses now place the responsibility for obtaining the necessary rights squarely upon the author. If you include epigraphs, many editors at these houses will simply assume that you have ALREADY obtained permission to use them. Ditto with self-publishing presses.

This expectation covers, incidentally, quotes from song lyrics, regardless of length.

I’m quite serious about this. If you want to use a lyric from a song that is not yet in the public domain, it is generally the author’s responsibility to get permission to use it — and while for other writing, a quote of less than 50 consecutive words is considered fair use, ANY excerpt from an owned song usually requires specific permission, at least in North America. Contact the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) for assistance in making such requests. (For a very funny first-hand view of just what a nightmare this process can be, please see FAAB Joel Derfner’s guest post on the subject.)

Have I talked you out of including an epigraph yet? I hope so.

Remember, just because you do not include your cherished quotes in your submission does not mean that they cannot be in the book as it is ultimately published. Contrary to what 99% of aspiring writers believe, a manuscript is a DRAFT, not a finished work. In actuality, nothing in a manuscript is unchangeable until the book is actually printed — and folks in the industry make editing requests accordingly.

In other words, you can always negotiate with your editor after the book is sold about including epigraphs. After you have worked out the permissions issue, of course.

There’s nothing like a good practical example to clarify things, is there? More follow next time. Keep up the good work!

The marketability of the unexpected, by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed

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Welcome back to our ongoing-but-episodic series on the various species of censorship authors today face. While we’re going to be talking about formal, state-sponsored censorship later in this series, this month, I’ve asked a number of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on ways in which writers are discouraged from writing what they want — and how they want.

Today, I am delighted to introduce the brilliantly incisive Mary Hutchings Reed, author of the startling COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN a Star’s “Hot Book of the Week.” Based on Mary’s personal knowledge of what goes on behind those beautifully venerred law firm doors, lawyer Kathleen Hannigan shrewdly plays the partnership game with her whole heart until she is called to testify in a sex discrimination suit and is forced to choose between her partners and her principles.

A prolific writer, Mary writes across a wide variety of categories, from novels to short stories (including one in the most recent issue of Ars Medica to, believe it or not, a well-received musical comedy about golf. But her first novel is why I blandished her into speaking to us today.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like Mary, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is.

Why might that have proven problematic for the book at the marketing stage? Well, remember our chat a few weeks ago about book categories, those conceptual containers into which a manuscript must fit in order to be marketable to a major US publisher? While the industry is always looking for fresh book concepts, as well as new spins on well-worn stories, it’s sometimes difficult to convince agents and editors that an audience exists for a kind of book that doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those boxes.

Why, you ask? By definition, the only way to demonstrate positively that there are readers already eager to buy a story would be the successful recent publication of a similar story, right? So how one prove that readers would want to buy a particular kind of book, but have not yet hat the chance.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN was not the kind of book agents and editors tend to expect people with Mary’s staggeringly impressive credentials to write — and this made it a rather problematic to market as well. But I’ll let Mary tell you all about that. (If after you read today’s post, you want to learn more about CKH’s very interesting road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)

I shall only add this: women writers (especially good literary ones like Mary) often get pigeonholed, as any agented mainstream or literary fiction writer who has been stunned to find her work summarily recategorized as women’s fiction can attest. If a writer is female and so is the author, yet the novel is not genre fiction, that category assignment tends to be automatic.

And that can be limiting, because within women’s fiction, a protagonist is expected first and foremost to be likable. Of course, depending upon genre, all protagonists are subject to the criticism of not being likable Which makes some sense, since the reader is going to need to feel positively enough about the protagonist in order to want to follow him or her as the plot unfolds, right? Yet as those of you who have been pitching, querying, or submitting a novel or memoir centered on a strong female protagonist may already know from personal experience, highly educated female characters — like, say, lawyers — or ones engaged in professions where aggressiveness is a positive trait — like, say, lawyers — are often, if not dismissed out of hand as not particularly likable, are at least under suspicion of soon becoming so. That can be very limiting for a writer trying to produce a convincing protagonist acting within a realistic present-day work situation.

I just mention.

Please join me in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Mary Hutchings Reed. Take it away, Mary!

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My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents. I was a lawyer. I was female. I was from Chicago. Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottoline.

But I let them down. I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed — I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer.

Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience. When I had the chance to speak with agents at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”

My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was life, especially in the early years of women in law. (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.)

My second response, of course, was just that Kathleen Hannigan happens to a strong and interesting woman character attempting to exercise some power over her own destiny—certainly a universal-enough theme. (It hadn’t occurred to me, until Anne asked to guest here, that “powerful woman character” was itself a no-no, but it may be.)

“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.”
One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers. You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power. You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottoline and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.

You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels.

On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted. You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.

Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan in the fall of 2007, and going on to write six more novels, two of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North.

(OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters — a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town. My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure: How many street musicians are there? Surely, not even half a million. And small towns? Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they? And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)

Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every day and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.

I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered: a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.

So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “censors.” Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for. If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to the literary agents/censors who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.” (Most of the reviews on Amazon, for instance, are from attorneys.)

In marketing the book, I concentrated there; I have not reached out broadly to corporate women generally, and only recently sent out a mailing to book clubs, joined Facebook, etc. (Visit my website for the book club questions/fact sheet.)

The nice thing about self-publishing: nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before — having now glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it. I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character (and given that you read Anne Mini’s blog, you probably like such characters), they should rush off to Amazon and buy now — either paperback or Kindle!

The point is, I suppose, that when you are aware of censorship, you can respond to it. The more insidious is the censorship that seeps in to our consciousness, as with my marketing of my first novel.

As writers, we need to be on-guard against the censorship of the marketplace, the censorship that could prevent our strong women characters from making it to the page in the first place. It would’ve been easy to conclude that the only book the publishing world wanted from me was a legal thriller, and I suppose I could have learned enough and borrowed enough from the genre to have turned one out.

But that’s not who I am as a writer; crime stories, like criminal law, don’t interest me, except on TV when I’m too worn out to pay attention to anything else. Strong women, women who take charge of their lives, women who seek power and women who wield power—they do intrigue me, and I enjoy meeting them, both real and imagined.

So, in order to write my second novel, and the third, and each one up to the seventh, which is in progress as we blog, I’ve had to forget the market, forget that I’m a lawyer, ignore those expectations for what a woman lawyer from Chicago will write about, and write.

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marys-photo-jpeg.jpgEver since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 57, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of Counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

Her current book, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

How to format a book manuscript properly, part II: you got chocolate in Millicent’s peanut butter!

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Welcome back to my refresher course on standard format for manuscripts — or, to put it another way, the basic how-to for anyone planning to submit an entry to the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. That’s right, folks: I’m so serious about my readers knowing how to present their work professionally that I’m now actually offering prizes for it.

That, and for writing something fabulously insightful on the subject of our periodic series, subtle censorship. (To take a gander at the rules — and the prizes — click here.)

Of course, the information in this series might also prove rather useful to those of you who are scrambling like crazy after yesterday’s post because you hadn’t realized until then that there WAS a standard format for book manuscript submissions. Even those of you who are already confident in your manuscript formatting might want to sit in on this series, just to be sure.

If you’re not willing to do it for your own sake, do it for mine. It breaks my heart to see good writers, even great ones, making the same formatting mistakes year in and year out, getting rejected for reasons that are apparent to professional readers from halfway across the room.

And no, Virginia, I’m not kidding about the halfway across the room part.

Although it pains me to have to point it out (on average, 2-3 times per year), how a manuscript looks can have an IMMENSE impact upon how an agent, editor, contest judge, or even a book doctor like me will respond to it. Writing talent, style, and originality count, of course, but in order to notice any of those, a reader has to approach the page with a willingness to be wowed.

That willingness can wilt rapidly in the face of incorrect formatting — which isn’t, in response to what half of you just thought, the result of mere market-minded shallowness on the part of the reader. Reading manuscripts for a living makes deviations from standard format leap out at one. As do spelling and grammatical errors, phrase repetition, clichés, and all of the many notorious agents’ pet peeves. (If you think I’m exaggerating, check out some of the lulus under the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE and AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories on the list at right.)

The sheer repetition of mistakes across manuscripts means that professional readers tend to focus on technical details when scanning the work of a new writer; don’t fall prey to the fallacy that the little details just don’t matter. In practice, the little things I’m talking about in this series matter for a very solid reason: because all professional manuscripts are formatted identically, it’s INCREDIBLY obvious when one isn’t.

This is a really, really good thing to know BEFORE you submit to an agent or editor: even if 99.9% of the format is right, that .1% deviation actually will distract a professional reader from even the most beautiful writing.

And that’s not merely a matter of being obsessive-compulsive (although truth compels me to say that in this line of work, OCD is hardly an occupational drawback; for editing, it’s a positive boon) — as I shall be showing you later on in this series, to someone who reads manuscripts for a living, deviations from standard format might as well be printed in blood-red ink.

So while it may seem tedious, annoying, or just a whole lot of work to go through your submissions with the proverbial fine-toothed comb in order to weed out this kind of distraction.

I hear those of you who have spent years slaving over your craft groaning out there — believe me, I sympathize. For those of you who have not already started composing your first drafts in standard format (which will save you a LOT of time in the long run), I fully realize that many of the tiny-but-pervasive changes I am about to suggest that you make to your manuscript are going to be irksome to implement. Reformatting a manuscript is time-consuming and tedious, and I would be the first to admit that at first, some of these rules can seem arbitrary.

At least on their faces, that is.

Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living, I can let you in on a little secret: quite a few of these restrictions remain beloved of the industry even in the age of electronic submissions because they render a manuscript a heck of a lot easier to edit in hard copy — still the norm, incidentally. As I will show later in this series, a lot of these rules exist for completely practical purposes — designed, for instance, to maximize white space in which the editor may scrawl trenchant comments like, “Wait, wasn’t the protagonist’s sister named Maeve in the last chapter? Why is she Belinda here?”

Again, this is one line of work where a touch of compulsiveness is extremely helpful. Treat this brain pattern with the respect it deserves — and treat your own writing with the respect it deserves by taking the time to present it professionally.

Obviously, competition to land an agent and get published is very intense, but if you’re going to get rejected, wouldn’t you rather it be because an agent or editor legitimately disagreed with your writing choices, instead of because you didn’t follow the rules? Or, as is more often the case, because you weren’t aware of them?

Frankly, it’s bad for writers everywhere that these rules are not more widely known. Okay, so it keeps freelance editors like me in business, but it has created a submission environment where poor formatting is generally considered a warning sign of poor WRITING to come.

By Millicent the agency screener, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and their aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, in any case.

And that drives conscientious aspiring writers, the ones who — like you, perhaps — have invested considerable time and sweat in learning something about the trade, completely batty. Because, like so much generalized criticism, the fine folks who take the advice most seriously tend to be the ones who need it least, I know that there are thousands of you out there who stay up nights, compulsively going over their manuscripts for the 147th time, trying to ferret out that one last bit of less-than-professional presentation.

Bless your heart, if you’re one of those. You’re helping raise aspiring writers’ collective reputation within the industry. On behalf of all of us who know enough agents, editors, and contest judges to be just a little tired of hearing them complain about how few writers seem to do their homework, I thank you.

One quick caveat before we get started today: the standard format restrictions I’m listing here are for BOOK submissions, not for short stories, poetry, journalistic articles, academic articles, or indeed any other form of writing. For the guidelines for these, you may — and should — seek elsewhere.

Allow me repeat that, because it’s important: the guidelines in this series are for BOOK manuscripts and proposals, and thus should not be applied to other kinds of writing. Similarly, the standards applicable to magazine articles, short stories, dissertations, etc. should not be applied to book proposals and manuscripts.

Which is a gentle way of saying that the formatting and grammatical choices you see in newspapers will not necessarily work in manuscripts. AP style is different from standard format in several important respects, not the least being that in standard format (as in other formal presentations in the English language), the first letter of the first word after a colon should NOT be capitalized, since technically, it’s not the beginning of a new sentence.

I don’t know who introduced the convention of post-colon capitalization, but believe me, those of us who read the submissions of aspiring book writers for a living have mentally consigned that language subversive to a pit of hell that would make even Dante avert his eyes in horror.

Everyone clear on that? Good, because — are you sitting down, lovers of newspapers? — embracing journalistic conventions like the post-colon capital and writing out only numbers under ten (see below) will just look like mistakes to Millicent and her ilk on the submission page.

And no, there is no court of appeal for such decisions. So if you were planning to cry out, “But that’s the way USA TODAY does it!” save your breath.

Unfortunately, although my aforementioned heart aches for those of you who intended to protest, “But how on earth is an aspiring writer to KNOW that the standards are different?” this is a cry that is going to fall on deaf ears as well.

Which annoys me, frankly. The sad fact is, submitters rejected for purely technical reasons are almost never aware of it. With few exceptions, the rejecters will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

Perhaps I’m a bleeding-heart editor, but I’d like to speed up that learning curve. I think that the way-mending might go a TRIFLE faster if the writer knew that the manuscript was broken

It’s not as though the strictures of standard format are state secrets, after all. To recap from yesterday:

(1) All manuscripts should be printed or typed in black ink and double-spaced, with one-inch margins around all edges of the page, on 20-lb or better white paper.

(2) All manuscripts should be printed on ONE side of the page and unbound in any way.

(3) The text should be left-justified, NOT block-justified. By definition, manuscripts should NOT resemble published books in this respect.

(4) The preferred typefaces are 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New — unless you’re writing screenplays, in which case you may only use Courier. For book manuscripts, pick one (and ONLY one) and use it consistently throughout your entire submission packet.

Everyone clear on those? PLEASE pipe up with questions, if not. In the meantime, let’s move on.

(5) The ENTIRE manuscript should be in the same font and size. Industry standard is 12-point.

No exceptions. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but there’s a term in the industry for title pages with 24-point fonts, fancy typefaces, and illustrations.

It’s high school book report. Need I say more?

The font rule also applies to your title page, incidentally, where almost everyone gets a little wacky the first time out. No matter how cool your desired typeface looks, or how great the title page looks with 14-point type.

No pictures or symbols here, either, please. Just the facts. (If you don’t know how to format a title page professionally, please see the TITLE PAGE category on the list at right.)

(6) Do NOT use boldface anywhere in the manuscript BUT on the title page — and not even there, necessarily.

Yes, you read that correctly: you may place your title in boldface on the title page, if you like, but that’s it. Nothing else in the manuscript should be bolded. (Unless it’s a section heading in a nonfiction proposal or manuscript — but don’t worry about that for now; I’ll be showing you how to format a section break later on in this series, I promise.)

The no-bolding rule is a throwback to the old typewriter days, where only very fancy machines indeed could darken selected type. Historically, using bold in-text is considered a bit tacky for the same reason that wearing white shoes before Memorial Day is in certain circles: it’s a subtle display of wealth.

You didn’t think all of those white shoes the Victorians wore cleaned themselves, did you? Shiny white shoes equaled scads of busily-polishing staff.

(7) EVERY page in the manuscript should be numbered EXCEPT the title page.

Violating this rule will result in instantaneous rejection virtually everywhere. Number those pages if it’s the last thing you do.

Few non-felonious offenses irk the professional manuscript reader (including yours truly, if I’m honest about it) more than an unnumbered submission — it ranks right up there on their rudeness scale with assault, arson, and beginning a query letter with, “Dear Agent.”

Why? Gravity, my friends, gravity. What goes up tends to come down — and if the object in question happens to be an unbound stack of paper…

Did that seem like an abstract metaphor? Not at all. Picture, if you will, two manuscript-bearing interns colliding in an agency hallway.

You may giggle, but anyone who has ever worked with submissions has first-hand experience of this, as well as what comes next: after the blizzard of flying papers dies down, and the two combatants rehash that old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial’s dialogue (“You got romance novel in my literary fiction!” “You got literary fiction in my romance novel!”), what needs to happen?

Yup. Some luckless soul has to put all of those pages back in the proper order. Put yourself in Millicent’s moccasins for a moment: just how much more irksome is that task going to be if the pages are not numbered?

Number your pages. Trust me, it is far, far, FAR easier for Millicent to toss the entire thing into the reject pile than to spend the hours required to guess which bite-sized piece of storyline belongs before which.

FYI, the first page of the text proper is page 1 of the text, not the title page, and should be numbered as such. If your opus has an introduction or preface, the first page of THAT is page 1, not the first page of chapter 1.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals: BECAUSE A MANUSCRIPT SHOULD NOT LOOK IDENTICAL TO A PUBLISHED BOOK.

To run over the other most popular choices for pages to mislabel as page 1: manuscripts do not contain tables of contents, so there should be no question of pagination for that. Also, epigraphs — those quotations from other authors’ books so dear to the hearts of writers everywhere — should not appear on their own page in a manuscript, as they sometimes do in published books; if you feel you must include one (considering that 99.9999% of the time, Millicent will just skip over it), include it between the chapter title and text on page 1.

If that last sentence left your head in a whirl, don’t worry — I’ll show you how to format epigraphs properly later in this series. (Yes, including some discussion of that cryptic comment about Millicent. All in the fullness of time, my friends.)

(8) Each page of the manuscript (other than the title page) should have a standard slug line in the header. The page number should appear in the slug line, not anywhere else on the page.

Most writing handbooks and courses tend to be a trifle vague about this particular requirement, so allow me to define the relevant terms: a well-constructed slug line includes the author’s last name, book title, and page number, to deal with that intern-collision problem I mentioned earlier. (The slug line allows the aforementioned luckless individual to tell the romance novel from the literary fiction.) And the header, for those of you who have not yet surrendered to Microsoft Word’s lexicon, is the 1-inch margin at the top of each page.

Including the slug line means that every page of the manuscript has the author’s name on it — a great idea, should you, say, want an agent or editor to be able to contact you after s/he’s fallen in love with it.

The slug line should appear in the upper left-hand margin (although no one will sue you if you put it in the upper right-hand margin, left is the time-honored location) of every page of the text EXCEPT the title page (which should have nothing in the header or footer at all).

Traditionally, the slug line appears all in capital letters, but it’s not strictly necessary. Being something of a traditionalist, the third page of my memoir has a slug line that looks like this:

MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/3

Since the ONLY place a page number should appear on a page of text is in the slug line, if you are in the habit of placing numbers wacky places like the middle of the footer, do be aware that it does not look strictly professional to, well, professionals. Double-check that your word processing program is not automatically adding extraneous page markers.

Do not, I beg of you, yield like so many aspiring writers to the insidious temptation add little stylistic bells and whistles to the slug line, to tart it up. Page numbers should not have dashes on either side of them, be in italics or bold, or be preceded by the word “page.”

If that news strikes you as a disappointing barrier to your self-expression, remember, professional readers do not regard formatting choices as conveyers of personal style. The point here is not to make your slug line stand out for its innovative style, but for your manuscript’s pages to look exactly like every other professional writer’s.

And yes, I AM going to keep making that point over and over until you are murmuring it in your sleep. Why do you ask?

If you have a subtitle, don’t include it in the slug line — and if you have a very long title, feel free to abbreviate, to keep the slug line from running all the way across the top of the page. The goal here is to identify the manuscript at a glance, not to reproduce the entire book jacket.

Why not? Well, technically, a slug line should be 30 spaces or less, but there’s no need to stress about that in the computer age. A slug, you see, is the old-fashioned printer’s term for a pre-set chunk of, you guessed it, 30 spaces of type.)

Keep it brief. For instance. my agent is currently circulating a novel of mine entitled THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB — 26 characters, counting spaces. Since my last name is quite short, I could get away with putting it all in the slug line, to look like this:

MINI/THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB/1

If, however, my last name were something more complicated, such as Montenegro-Copperfield — 22 characters all by itself, including dash — I might well feel compelled to abbreviate:

MONTENEGRO-COPPERFIELD/BUDDHA/1

Incidentally, should anyone out there come up with a bright idea for a category heading on the archive list for this issue other than slug line — a category that already exists, but is unlikely to be found by anyone not already familiar with the term — I’m open to suggestions. I’ve called it a slug line ever since I first clapped eyes on a professional manuscript (an event that took place so long ago my response to the sight was not, “What’s that at the top of the page, Daddy?” but “Goo!”), so I’m not coming up with a good alternative. Thanks.

(9) The first page of each chapter should begin a third of the way down the page, with the chapter title appearing on the FIRST line of the page, NOT on the line immediately above where the text begins.

That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the FIRST line of the first page — not on the last line before the text, as so many writers mistakenly do. The chapter title or number should be centered, and it should NOT be in boldface or underlined.

Don’t panic if you’re having trouble visualizing this — I’ll be giving concrete examples of what the first page of a chapter should look like later in this series.

Why shouldn’t the title appear immediately above the text, as one so often sees? Because that’s where the title of a SHORT STORY lives, not a book’s.

Very frequently, agents, editors and contest judges are presented with improperly-formatted first pages that include the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or the writer’s contact information in the space above the text. This is classic rookie mistake. To professional eyes, a manuscript that includes any of this information on the first page of the manuscript (other than in the slug line, of course) seems term paper-ish.

So where does all of that necessary contact information go, you ask? Read on.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.

This is one of the main differences between a short story submission (say, to a literary journal) and a novel submission. To submit a manuscript — or contest entry, for that matter — with this information on page 1 is roughly the equivalent of taking a great big red marker and scrawling, “I don’t know much about the business of publishing,” across it.

Just don’t do it.

“But wait,” I hear some of you out there murmuring, “I need a title page? Since when?”

Funny you should mention that, because…

(11) Every submission should include a title page, even partial manuscripts.

This one seems to come as a surprise to a LOT of aspiring writers. You should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages.

Why, you ask? Because it is genuinely unheard-of for a professional manuscript not to have a title page: literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor will include one. Yet, astonishingly, 95% of writers submitting to agencies seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard.

On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope. It’s never too early to make a good first impression, right?

If you do not know how to format a proper title page — and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for it, too — please see the TITLE PAGE category at right. Or wait a few days until I cover it later in this series. It’s entirely up to you.

Before anyone who currently has a submission languishing at an agency begins to panic: omitting a title page is too common a mistake to be an automatic deal-breaker for most Millicents; she’s almost certainly not going to toss out a submission ONLY because it has a properly-formatted title page or none at all. And yes, one does occasionally run into an agent at a conference or one blogging online who says she doesn’t care one way or the other about whether a submission has a title page resting on top at all.

Bully for them for being so open-minded, but as I point out roughly 127,342 times per year in this forum, how can you be sure that the person deciding whether to pass your submission upstairs or reject it ISN’T a stickler for professionalism?

I sense some shoulders sagging at the very notion of all the work it’s going to be to alter your pages before you send them out. Please believe me when I tell you that, as tedious as it is to change these things in your manuscript now, by the time you’re on your third or fourth book, it will be second nature to you.

Why, I’ll bet that the next time you sit down to begin a new writing project, you will automatically format it correctly. Think of all of the time THAT will save you down the line. (Hey, in this business, you learn to take joy in the small victories.)

More importantly, if you embrace these standards, any submissions you might happen to send out in the near future will look like the work of a pro. Again, call me zany, but I would rather see an agent or editor evaluate your book on the basis of your writing and your story, not your formatting knowledge.

I’m funny that way.

Next time, I’m going to finish going through the rules, so we may move on swiftly to concrete examples of what all of this formatting looks like in practice. Start working on those contest entries, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The first periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence

athelete-kissing-gold-medal

Many years ago, when I first started teaching roomfuls of aspiring writers how to write query letters and give face-to-face pitches to agents, I noticed something: there didn’t seem to be nearly enough writing credentials to go around. As valuable as previous publications, writing awards, fellowships, residencies, rave reviews from Saul Bellow, MFAs, and recent New York Times articles on one’s work with orphaned children in war zones undoubtedly were (and are) in attracting the attention of those who read manuscripts for a living, the overwhelming majority of writers seeking to market manuscripts would, when asked for their credentials, just look down, embarrassed.

When I began teaching writers how to construct their author bios, the problem seemed even more acute, even amongst those who already had publishing contracts in hand. No matter how fascinating the previously unpublished were in person (to me, anyway), they seemed to regard not having been paid before for their writing as proof positive that they didn’t really have anything significant to say about themselves to an agent or editor.

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic to this feeling, poppycock.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile are, I hope, already aware, there are plenty of things that a writer who hasn’t yet been offered a book contract can do in order to ramp up her ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, my term for all of those lovely credentials that go to make up a successful writer’s platform). Start a blog, for instance (hey, it’s writing for an audience on a deadline. Write free book reviews for a community newspaper. Take seminars with impressive-sounding names. Get your certificate in editing. Spend ten hours a week volunteering at a shelter for abandoned wombats, if that’s what your book is about.

Anything, in other words, that might catch Millicent the agency screener’s eye and cause her to exclaim, “My, but this is an interesting writer. I think I shall have to take a gander at his manuscript, pronto.” (For more tips on provoking this type of soul-satisfying exclamation, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RÉSUMÉ and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS categories on the list at right.)

I could wash my hands of the subject at this point, confident in glib advice swiftly administered, and walk away to enjoy the lovely weather outside. And I might, were I not fairly confident that my readers were not, on the whole, shallow and easily satisfied with the pat answer.

I mean, really: would someone who just wanted quick answers last more than ten minutes at Author! Author!? I think not.

So I decided that I was going to do something practical about it — the lack of credentials available for the previously unpublished or unMFA’d, that is, not catering to quick answer-seekers. Actually, I decided to do several things:

(1) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, as a helpful credential available for readers’ ECQLC;

(2) Establish the Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence for readers of pre-college age, as both future ECQLC and as a nifty credential that a gifted young writer could use on a college application;

(3) Focus the competition’s first writing contest on something genuinely important, a topic dear to writers’ hearts and one that I knew my readers would already have on their minds. This time around, the subject matter is going to be the same as our ongoing series of guest posts, with the winning entries forming the final guest slots on subtle censorship and how it affects writers.

In other words, make publishing credential part of the prize.

(4) Coordinate the announcement of the winners with the gala events surrounding my 1,000th blog post, scheduled for mid-June. (I know; time flies.)

I’ll fill you in on how to enter in a moment. But first, the important bit: the prizes.

What winners of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence will get, other than ECQLC
Obviously, undying glory and years of boasting rights. However, for those of you looking for rewards a trifle more tangible, there will be goodies, too.

Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1-hour Mini-Consult, scheduled at the winner’s convenience, and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

A Mini-Consult is a telephone service I’ve long offered to my editing clients and students, an unbroken chunk of my professional attention and expertise devoted solely to the discussion of a writer’s work. How you choose to utilize that time is up to you, as long as the discussion is limited to writing and marketing issues. Past satisfied Mini-Consulters have used the time to have me help them to:

*narrow down a book category once and for all;

*ferret out the problems in their query letters, synopses, and first pages of manuscripts;

*come up with a book’s selling points;

*cull through a list of agents to figure out who would be the best potential fit for a project;

*brainstorm about low-cost book promotion ideas;

*iron out the kinks in a book proposal;

*discuss craft issues, and

*talk though some of their frustration and confusion over how the publishing world works.

2 First Prizes: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

3 Second Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence
1 Grand Prize: a 1/2-hour Mini-Consult and publication of the winning essay at Author! Author!

2 First Prizes: a fresh-off-the-press copy of the PEN America Center’s collection of essays on writing censorship, BURN THIS BOOK (HarperStudio), edited by Toni Morrison.

How to enter
1. Collect your thoughts on the issue of censorship, subtle or otherwise
For the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, the brief is quite straightforward: address precisely the same question I put to the established authors in the subtle censorship series. So how do YOU think writers are discouraged from writing or publishing what they want or how they want, and how does that discouragement affect what’s available for readers?

For Author! Author! Awards for Junior Expressive Excellence, the question is more targeted: what limits are placed on young people’s written freedom of expression? How do you think restricting what the young can and can’t write affects public understanding of how those who cannot yet vote think?

Because I hate literary contests that contain hidden rules, I’m going to be up front with you here: creativity counts. Surprise the judges with the subtlety of your insight. Show us a take on the world we’ve never seen before.

2. Compose brilliantly for a maximum of five (5) pages in standard manuscript format
For both parts of the contest, you may choose how to make your case. A standard essay is fine; so is a short story, fully-realized scene excerpted from a novel, a play, or a poem. Heck, I’d love to see some graphic novel entries, but please, no photo essays. This is a prize for writing.

I’m quite serious about the 5-page maximum; feel free to make it shorter. If it is longer, the judges will stop reading at the bottom of page 5. Since I have been both a contest judge and editor for many years, trust me: I will notice and disqualify an entry that’s been shrunk to fit within the page limit.

Please submit only writing that has not been published elsewhere by the contest deadline (May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009; see below for further details). You may, however, submit work that is currently entered in another contest.

3. Make sure your submission is in standard format
In order to render this competition as much about the writing as possible, only entries in standard book manuscript format will be eligible to win. To make this restriction fair to those of you new to the concept, I shall be spending the next few weeks going over precisely what that means.

Why am I being so draconian on this point, you gasp? Because I want to try to get a sense of how closely my readers are adhering to the strictures of standard format in their submissions; call it a sociological experiment.

Here’s a really, really good reason to enter the contest: if your entry is knocked out of the running for formatting reasons, I will tell you so. I’ll even tell you what rules your entry violated. (And yes, I am rather hoping that enough of you will enter that I will rue the day I said this.) So if you’re not absolutely positive that you’ve been submitting your work in standard format, this is a dandy way to find out.

For the purposes of this competition, standard format consists of the rules listed under the series following this post. (If you want to consult them sooner and in a less episodic manner, please see the posts under the MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING 101 category at right.) Graphic novels, plays, and poetry may be submitted in the standard formats for those types of writing.

Do not even try to make the argument that contradictory rules you may have heard elsewhere should be used here. Quibblers on the subject will be disqualified automatically.

4. Include a title page
This is actually redundant with the rules of standard format, but since I see so many incorrectly-formatted title pages every year, I want to reward those of you who have done your homework sufficiently to do it right. A great place to begin that homework: in the standard formatting series I shall be running over the next three weeks — or, if you’re in a greater hurry than that to enter, consult the TITLE PAGES category on the archive list at right.

Your title page (which will not count toward the 5-page entry limit) must include the following information:

Your real name

Your pseudonym, if you would prefer that your entry be published under that moniker

Your entry’s title

What book category might be applicable to it (Essay, Fiction, Poetry, Action/Adventure…)

Word count (real or estimated; if you don’t know how to figure this, please see the WORD COUNT category at right)

Your contact information, including e-mail and mailing address (so HarperStudio may ship the books, if you win one)

If you are entering in the Junior category, please include your age at the end of your contact information.

5. Before you submit, double-check to make sure the language in your entry is G-rated
Since the winning entries will be posted on this site and I have it on good authority that some of my readers regularly visit Author! Author! via school and public library computers that have content-blocking programs installed, I must insist that entries be devoid of profanity. The content is up to the entrant, but if the words would not be appropriate for the family hour, it will be disqualified.

Yes, this is its own form of censorship (feel free to write about that, if you like), but as this is a restriction I place upon all of my guest bloggers, I feel quite comfortable extending it to entries in this contest. Shock the judges with your ideas, not individual words.

6. Send your entry as a Word attachment to contest@annemini.com by midnight on May 18, 2009 June 1, 2009
Please include the word ENTRY in the subject line of your e-mail. Since my readers are spread across many time zones, midnight in this context will be where you are, as shown on your e-mail’s date stamp.

And yes, those of you who are looking at these rules for the second time, having perused them before mid-May: the entry deadline did in fact change.

7. Please enter only once.
That’s fairer to everyone, don’t you think?

8. Wait breathlessly for the judges to make their decisions.

Something to ponder while you wait: if your entry is a winner, I shall contact you (thus the request for contact information) to ask you to provide Author! Author! with an author bio and photo to run with the award-winning entry. Since it takes most of us a while to find a snapshot of ourselves we like, I’m warning you in advance. If you want to get a head start on that author bio, please see the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.

And that’s it!
I’m genuinely curious to see what you have to say about subtle censorship, so I hope to hear from many of you. Best of luck, everybody — and as always, keep up the good work!

Ducking Responsibility: Details to Include in your Pet Memoir and a Topic You Might Want to Leave Out by guest blogger Bob Tarte

bobtarte

Welcome to the second installment of my periodic series on censorship issues large and small, concentrating especially on ways writers are discouraged from writing on or what they want. As you may recall from last week, I’ve asked a number of interesting authors to share their thoughts about subtle censorship — and I’ve been blown away by their enthusiastic and generous response.

I’m especially delighted to bring you today’s guest blogger, the inimitable and hilarious Bob Tarte, author of the brilliant pet memoirs ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER. Bob’s got a great voice, highly personalized, an essential for effective memoir — anyone seriously interested in writing humorous memoir should take a gander (so to speak) at his seemingly effortless wit.

In case those of you who are not comedy writers are wondering why: there’s nothing more difficult than appearing to be spontaneously funny; it takes great art.

Those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while may recall Bob’s name: his is one of my standard examples of a fabulous author bio. If you haven’t yet written your bio (and you should be thinking about it, if you are querying or submitting; it’s not the kind of project that benefits from being tossed together at the last minute), you might want to check his out: in a scant few paragraphs, he manages not only to showcase his writing credentials beautifully, but also create an indelible impression of a fascinatingly quirky personality.

But let’s get to the question doubtless on everyone’s mind: what’s a pet memoir, you ask?

I’ll let Bob’s books speak for themselves — or at least the publisher’s blurbs do it for them. Let’s start with his first book, ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, to which I’m told Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond” has already bought the film rights:

enslavedbyducksjacketEnslaved By Ducks
How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order

When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriott by way of Bill Bryson.

Then there’s FOWL WEATHER, one of NPR’s Nancy Pearl’s Under-the-Radar Books for January 2008. Quoth Madame Nancy: “If you’re longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte’s Fowl Weather.”

Before you lose yourself in daydreaming about receiving a review like that, cast your eyes over the official blurb:

fowlweatherjacketFowl Weather
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

Speaking of radio, Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that is, he says, ostensibly about exotic pets, but as frequently lapses into “a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.” It’s well worth a listen, whether you own pets or not.

As clever souls among you may well have gathered by now, I’m a great admirer of Bob’s work — which is currently available both on Amazon US, with a different cover on Amazon Canada and Amazon UK, and, for the indie bookstore-minded, Powell’s, should you be interested. However, that’s not the only reason that I’m genuinely tickled to present his guest post today as a combination Orthodox Easter treat (it’s Sunday, in case you were wondering; like many another nice Greek-American girl, I’m cooking up a storm even as you read this) and reward to all of you for having made it successfully through my recent very dense HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED, ANYWAY? series.

When Bob and I were discussing his guest post, I realized something startling: I have literally never run a post about how an author might handle readers’ responses to his work. How on earth had I missed the topic of the fan letter — and the anti-fan letter? Bob has been kind enough to remedy this oversight — and to give us his insight on how seemingly uncontroversial topics can abruptly bloom into a forest of unexpected feedback.

So join me, please, in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Bob Tarte. Take it away, Bob!

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I write humorous books about pet ducks and bunnies. And I get hate mail.

Most of the comments from readers of Enslaved By Ducks and Fowl Weather josh me about spoiling our animals, and deservedly so. My wife Linda used to sing a lullaby to our grumpy rabbit Binky. And we once kept a goose named Liza on our front porch for an entire summer while nursing her through a lung infection — plying her with bowls of duck pellets, dandelion greens, water, and gourmet-quality mud.

So I’m surprised when I’m occasionally scolded for not lavishing enough care upon our pampered critters. And a few times, I’ve been accused of outright animal abuse.

“You People Make Me Sick”
Binky died from an unknown malady after acting listless for a few days. Linda rushed him to the vet when he suddenly grew worse. After we had buried him, I was so distraught that I constructed a neurotic backyard monument to him complete with winding walking paths.

We hadn’t realized that once a bunny shows signs of illness, it is often too late to help. We had read books on keeping rabbits, phoned the breeder frequently for help, and did our best for him. But this was in the pre-Internet era when life’s mysteries were further than a Google search away. We know much more about our critters now, though this doesn’t make us feel any better about past mistakes.

Maybe I should have included a disclaimer to this effect. A reader responded to Binky’s story in Enslaved By Ducks by sending me a sheet on basic rabbit care adorned with a sticky-note that said, “You people make me sick.”

The same book contains the story of Weaver, a starling we rescued who was unable to fly. We had just started raising and releasing orphaned songbirds for Wildlife Rehab Center in Grand Rapids, and Linda successfully brought Weaver and his siblings to a state of ear-splitting good health.

She fed them the standard-recipe formula that rehabbers use with insectivorous birds: kitten kibbles, pureed chicken baby food, a squirt of liquid vitamins, and water, all slushed together in a blender. Weaver eventually took wing and left us. But a reader emailed me, outraged and frothing at the keyboard that we had fed him such a concoction. “I would bring charges against you if I could,” she wrote.

Because of comments like these — as well as an online review criticizing Enslaved By Ducks as a lousy ‘how-to’ book, though I had written it as a ‘how-not-to’ book — I find myself over-explaining things these days rather than assuming that readers will realize we’re not secretly running a taxidermy service here. But there’s a stronger reason for over-explaining than staving off criticism from the occasional malcontent. I want to decrease the odds of my contributing to anyone’s animal mishap.

Weaver

Weaver

Inoculate Yourself
Here’s an example of what I’m blathering on about. I’m writing a book about our six cats called The Funnel of Happiness. My sister Joan and her husband Jack with their 12 cats make several appearances, beginning with Jack live-trapping three feral cats with the help of a wireless video camera and the hindrance of many sleepless nights.

Once the cats are settled on the front porch, and after one of the females unexpectedly has kittens, Joan and Jack take them successively to the vet to get them spayed or neutered. Before releasing them into the house to mingle with Winston, Gizmo, Mimi, Linus, Libby Lou, and Max, they also have them tested for feline leukemia.

I mention this fact more than once in The Funnel of Happiness, but not because it contributes to my madcap narrative. I include it because I don’t want a single reader to introduce a feline leukemia-positive kitty into their home and endanger their other cats due to information that I failed to include.

Some details, however, are probably best excluded from a pet book.

In Fowl Weather I chronicled a horrendous July in which five of our animals died, including a Muscovy duck who managed to hang himself in the fencing while trying to get at a rival in an adjacent pen, and two khaki Campbell ducks that fell victim to a burrowing raccoon.

A reader chided me for being reckless about housing our animals, and he was right at least in the case of the industrious raccoon, but was fetching from afar when it came to the suicidal duck. We’ve taken steps to make the recurrence of these occurrences improbable, but it’s impossible to plan for everything.

This past March we lost more birds to a predator. I opened the barn one Saturday morning and was shocked to discover a dead and partially eaten hen on the floor. I didn’t see how any animal could have gotten inside, so I decided that the elderly chicken had succumbed to natural causes, and a rat, perhaps, had taken advantage of the situation. When closing the barn that evening, I checked the shadows for a lurking raccoon, then took care to batten down all hatches. The next morning two more hens had been killed.

Mink Attack
The banks of the Grand River are usually 500 feet from us. But they raised their skirts and scuttled to within 100 feet of our barn, thanks to an early March snowmelt and lots of rain. A mink apparently moved forward with the flowing water. We deduced this after our handyman Gary looked over the dead hens and concluded that an animal with a small mouth had killed them — and after a buddy of our neighbor’s reported seeing a mink cross his driveway after dark.

With Gary’s help, I fortified an old, unused chicken coop that occupies a corner inside the barn, covering the open side with chicken wire and plugging up any cracks and holes large enough to wiggle a couple of fingers through — because minks can weasel in almost anywhere. Linda examined the outside of the barn, identifying a slit in a window frame here, a knocked out knothole there, which I sealed as I best as I could.

Our rehabber friends weren’t encouraging, though. If a mink or weasel really wants to get inside, there’s little you can do to keep it out — especially if you house your ducks and chickens in a 100-year-old barn that’s not exactly airtight. Herding our birds into the coop, keeping the lights on, and playing a talk radio station for a few nights paid off, because we didn’t lose another bird.

In addition to shoring up structural security and setting live traps for the mink, we took a more direct and drastic step. We hired our friend Charlie to stand guard with his .22 rifle for a couple of hours after sunset the first two nights with our blessing to blast the mink into fur hat-dom if it reappeared.

I mention Charlie’s sentry duty in the “Mink Attack” episode of my podcast What Were You Thinking? for PetLifeRadio.com. And I’m planning on working the mink story into my cat book, which funnels in tales of our other animals. But I haven’t made up my mind whether or not to include Charlie’s contribution. It’s probably best to leave it out. Many people who read pet memoirs are opposed to killing animals under any circumstances.

I’m with these folks in spirit. But I loved the hens that died. They were delightful creatures who greeted me at the barn door for treats each evening, pressing so close that I had to carefully wade through the flock. So, in a choice between losing more chickens or forfeiting a mink, I picked the hens, or would have, had it come down to that choice. Charlie never caught a glimpse of the nocturnal marauder. The river receded, and our birds once again have the full run (and flight) of the barn each night.

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

It’s Hopeless, So Just Give Up
In the end, you can write and write and write, but people will still read into your book whatever they want to.

At the beginning of Fowl Weather I include a cast of characters, because our many animals (36 at the time) are hard for readers to keep track of. I grouped the cast under three headings: ‘Nonhuman’ for animals, ‘Humans’ for us lesser beings, and ‘Inhumans’ for entities like the telephone that have power over our lives. Just for a gag, I put my friend Bill Holm in the ‘Nonhuman’ category to emphasize his standing as an annoyance.

A book reviewer for a North Carolina newspaper was generous in her positive comments about Fowl Weather. And she chuckled about the scenes that featured my “imaginary friend Bill Holm.”

Being imaginary came as quite a bombshell to the real-life Bill Holm, who insists that he exists, and if he doesn’t, people who have heard him speak when he accompanies me on book signings are due for intensive therapy. Apart from the joke in the cast of characters, nothing in the book suggests that Bill is merely a product of my imagination, even though from time to time I find myself wishing that he were.

That critic accurately recounted all other facts about Fowl Weather in her review, unlike another who groused that she found it impossible to finish the book because of its supposed prejudice against the elderly. Ignoring the fact that I’m hardly in the bloom of youth myself, the comment is breathtaking considering that a major thread of the memoir is my mom’s fight with Alzheimer’s disease and my family’s efforts to help her. I’ve received countless emails from readers who are going through a similar situation with a family member, and to a person they have appreciated how I treat the subject.

A few years ago, Linda ran an ad in our local paper seeking help with a strenuous landscaping job. One man who applied had an obvious physical impairment that made it difficult for us to imagine how he could perform the work. When I wrote about the incident in Fowl Weather, I didn’t want readers in our community to say, “Oh my, gosh, that’s so-and-so,” so I disguised the man by making him asthmatic.

I also often play fast and loose with the gender and location of our vets, since there are so few avian veterinarians in our county and they could be readily identified. Nevertheless, I get emails that say, “Hey, we go to the same guy.”

Anyway, that critic who accused me of age discrimination decided that my passage about the asthmatic was more evidence of my grudge against the elderly, even though the age of the fellow was never alluded to in any way.

I should have noted in Fowl Weather that he was in his forties, and I should have taken pains to emphasize Bill Holm’s corporeality, too.

Frannie

Frannie

Unbearable Recklessness
This brings me back to the reader who posted the online comment that we lost some of our animals due to substandard housing. The afternoon of the second mink attack, Linda took a walk through the woods behind our house by sticking to the high ground (which I need to learn to do in my books). Spotting what she thought was a crow’s nest in a tree, she focused her binoculars and backed slowly away after realizing that the big brown heap was, in fact, a bear.

I didn’t believe her at first. We’re way too far south in Michigan for bears, but I saw the sleeping animal myself and backed away at a speedier clip than she had.

In the fifteen years that we’ve been keeping ducks and hens in our barn, we’ve never had problems with a mink until this spring. I’ll explain this in The Funnel of Happiness, of course, partly to alert other poultry keepers of a potential problem if they live near a river, and also to ward off criticism that we were reckless enough not to have identified every possible element that might go wrong in our lives.

But what if the bear had come crashing through the woods to tear our backyard goose pen apart as if it had been made of matchsticks? What potential havoc might Michigan’s version of Bigfoot wreak on the outdoor pets? Shouldn’t we anticipate these potential threats and act accordingly?

I’m afraid I can’t answer these questions. I’m too busy at the moment. I’ve started work on a meteor deflection screen for the top floor of the house to protect our parrots on the first floor, and I’ll definitely include the plans in the appendix of my next book.

I just hope I’m not overdoing the over-explaining. It’s humorous pet book I’m writing, after all.

bobtarteBob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets, namely Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather. He’s currently working on a book about his six cats called The Funnel of Happiness.

Bob has written the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine since 1989 and posts his columns at . He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

He hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about ‘exotic pets’ as a general topic, but just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters. For a direct link to Bob’s show, click here.)

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of over 50 animals, including parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Visit Bob Tarte’s website for photos of Bob, Linda, and the animals, information about Bob’s books, links to Bob’s music review website and pet podcast, Bob’s email address, and several totally useless videos.

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Nicely stamping your SASE and other agent-pleasing habits of the sanitary author

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I’m not much given to double-takes, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant tourist, it is fraught with enigma: its population is 170, according to its ostensibly unofficially municipal website — a human density which renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising. Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, however, next to the enigma of the Sanitary Author.

What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left pondering, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness akin to the Nobel prize?

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, demanding to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there?

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to tell me: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintaining the local sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find.

So the mystery continues. On to the business of the day.

(Stop thinking about the great unwashed mass of unsanitary authors currently roaming the face of the earth. No good could come of pondering their filthy ways.)

Hey, remember how I was saying just the other week that quite a number of my ideas for blog posts have resulted from readers’ good questions? Or rather from my inability to answer them briefly enough to prevent the fact that the comments section of this blog is not searchable (from your side, anyway) from annoying the heck out of me?

Case in point: earlier this month, busily submitting reader Rachel asked a question about stamps on the required self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). Now, I’ve written on this topic quite a bit over the years — so much so that there’s an entire SASE GUIDELINES category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page — so my first instinct was to send her there, or to advise her to do a site search under stamp, and continue on my merry way, confident that yet another writerly problem had been successfully solved.

Then I did a site search under stamp.

Suffice it to say that quite a few posts came up — more, I suspect, than any writer in the first throes of excitement about receiving a request to send materials to an agent would be likely to scan for an answer to this specific question. Also, the absolutely dead-on-target explanation I had in mind turned out to be located in the comments of a post from a couple of years ago…and thus not searchable from a reader’s perspective.

Not precisely user-friendly, in other words.

So while my second instinct was to mutter, “Yes, but all of the basics a submitter would absolutely need to know could be found under the aptly-named HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET” (which is in fact true, I realized that this wasn’t the world’s most satisfactory answer. Part of my goal in setting up the category list is to render it as easy as possible for my readers to find precisely the information they are seeking. (Another part, admittedly, is so I can say, “Look, I’ve already written about that — there’s a category on the list at right that addresses your concerns precisely,” and proceed on my aforementioned merry way.)

My solution was — and is — threefold. ( Well, fourfold, if you could my having answered Rachel’s question on the spot.) First, I’ve created a new MAILING REQUESTED MATERIALS category on the list at right, so the next time a question like this comes up, I can smugly point the question-asker there. (Hey, I’ve got to make up for lost time on the merry way.)

Second, I’m going to address Rachel’s (quite good) question right now as its own post, rather than merely in the comments, so anybody else who happens to wonder about it in the months and years to come will have an easier time tracking down the answer. It just goes to show you: asking thoughtful questions not only helps the individual who brings them up, but the entire Author! Author! community.

And third, I’m NOT going to waste any brain space wondering if the Sanitary Author used to refuse to lick his own stamps. Or envelopes. (But how did s/he survive before self-adhesion became the norm?)

Let’s take a gander at what Rachel wanted to know:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp, because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go.

Is that how they’re doing it now?

Rachel asks excellent questions, as you may see. Before I launch into lengthy explanation, however, let’s define our terms.

As those of you who successfully made it through either my just-finished HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? series (posts conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page, for the reading pleasure of those of you who missed it) or any of my previous series on the ins and outs of submission (HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET, for instance) are already aware, all queries and requested materials sent to US-based agents via mail should be accompanied by a SASE.

No exceptions, I’m afraid. Forgetting to include a SASE is an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, and with good reason: if the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions, and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense.

Yes, I know: it’s annoying to be underwriting one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the writer in this arrangement. To name but one: finding out that your submission has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two. (For some other benefits, as well as a brief exposition of the logic behind the SASE, please see my earlier post on how writers have historically ended up footing the bill for two-way postage.)

Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. Because the point of the SASE is to ensure the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency, you should always include enough postage (in the form of stamps, not metered) on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed.

What might that look like in practice, you ask? Well, when sending a query, including a SASE is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope.

With requested materials, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see 50 pages or a chapter or two, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, please see this post on the subject.) Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. (Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end — and if you’re not sure why you need to include a cover letter at all, please see the COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS category at right before you submit.)

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies; the far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

The good news is that the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad . The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

Is everyone clear on the care and feeding of the SASE? Good.

Okay, now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last few years have indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions, for instance; they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly didn’t want theirs to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by just ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. (Problematic on many levels, including the copyright one; I’ve written about this fairly extensively under the SASE GUIDELINES category.) Interestingly, agencies that operate this way usually still expect submitters to include SASEs.

The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actually stamps on it, rather than metered postage. Despite the changes I mentioned above, the imperative to use stamps on a SASE has never wavered: the goal here is not convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for the manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either trying to get her to use a Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Which means that buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. And print your manuscript on nice paper while you’re at it.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the information that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet the Sanitary Author is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of good questions.

So thank you, Rachel, for flagging the issue — and everybody, keep up the good work!

wormdivePS: lovers of fluffy bunnies and winsome chicks should make sure to visit Author! Author this weekend, when we will be visited by a guest blogger I’ve been hoping for a long time would join us here. As some of you may have begun to suspect over the past few days, I’m pretty excited about the prospect.

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XIII: the fine art of getting what you want

seagull-prints

Yes, yes, I know: the photo du jour is a trifle on the wide side, but I love it. I must be feeling expansive today.

That was not, I gather, the prevailing mood at post offices across the country today as last-minute tax filers raced to get their income tax returns postmarked on time. (For those of you reading this outside the United States: here, federal income taxes are due April 15, the anniversary of the day President Abraham Lincoln was shot.) I’m a get-it-out-of-the-way-as-soon-as-possible sort, but apparently, many of my fellow citizens are not, judging from the lines around the block at my neighborhood post office.

While taxes are already on your mind, US-based writers, now is a great time to think about next year’s returns, and not only because you hope you’ll be shaking your head over the sometimes complicated paperwork associated with collecting royalties. While that Schedule C you’re using to itemize your writing and promotion expenses is fresh in your mind, why don’t you go ahead and organize your 2009 accounting system/homemade spreadsheet/shoebox that holds your retreats so that it will be easy throughout the year to come to keep your receipts from writers’ conferences neatly separate from your submission-related expenditures?

If you’re not already filing a Schedule C to formalize your writing as a business — a move that could, for instance, legitimize deducting things like postage for your queries and submissions, writers’ conference fees, and other expenses you may be incurring while trying to get your work published — you might want to consider having a nice, long chat with a tax professional well versed in preparing writers’ returns (rather than, say, talking with someone like me, who is neither a tax professional nor plays one on TV) about whether this option might make sense for you.

Why a tax pro who specializes in artists? Because someone unfamiliar with how genuinely strange our road to success can be may not be aware that a writer needn’t necessarily earn income from writing in order to file a Schedule C. But as a non-earning writer must meet a number of specific conditions before, say, writing off the cost of buying new releases in one’s chosen book category as market research or deducting the fees of a freelance editor, get the low-down from someone licensed to dispense advice on the subject before you file any paperwork with the IRS.

Where might you find such an expert? Try contacting your local writers’ association and asking for a recommendation. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a good one, you may have to get a trifle creative. Show up at a book sighing by a local author and ask for a recommendation at question time. Find out who your community theatre uses as a tax pro, or call a good art gallery; tax pros who deal with one kind of artist sometimes work with other types. For more suggestions, take a gander at Carolyn See’s excellent MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, for my money still one of the best how-to guides for aspiring writers out there.

What you should most assuredly NOT do is just grab a bunch of tax forms next April 14 and start filling in unsubstantiated amounts. Like any other deductions, it’s in your best interest to make sure that your writing expenses are exceedingly well-documented, both in your no doubt impeccable financial records and in the form of receipts, and unquestionably tending to advance your writing career. Proving that generally requires quite a bit of advance preparation.

Which is not, as I mentioned above, every taxpayer’s cup of tea. Writer, know thyself!

Why, just yesterday, I was sharing a delightfully steamy bowl of Thai coconut soup with an exceptionally talented author of literary fiction (who shall remain nameless for the nonce, but rest assured, I’ll let you know when his next novel comes out) when the waitress informed us that we had just spent many hours discussing things writerly, and the kitchen would like to close. At the end of a roughly ten-minute discussion of the locations of places that might conceivably be willing to serve us coffee at that hour, the author sighed and said, “Well, maybe I should just go home and start my taxes.”

Since it was by then 10:30 pm on the night before said taxes were due, I naturally laughed. Judging from his reaction, though, he hadn’t meant it as a joke: he honestly had not begun to think about his imminently-due return.

I would be tempted to think of this reluctance to plan for the hard realities of life as merely part of his substantial and complicated personal charm, but the fact that most of the working artists of my acquaintance seem to indulge in this particular form of procrastination leads me to suspect that it may be endemic to our breed of creative dreamers.

Let’s face it: as a group, we tend to defer serious thought on the business side of being an artist until we actually find ourselves in the situation, don’t we? As we’ve discussed throughout this series, many, if not most, aspiring writers long for publication with a major house, but don’t take the time to learn what that would actually mean in practical terms, let alone prepare for it.

Case in point: several years ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries to a room stuffed to the gills with intelligent, well-read writers. These folks had really done their homework, and most of them had novels and NF books very close to being ready to be sent out the door.

As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their descriptions of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.

“That’s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want from your agent?”

The room fell silent.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”

Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice. As we discussed why that might be a plus, however, I could tell that they were uncomfortable with the prospect of adding something this specific to their wish lists — an interesting reluctance, considering that as we saw earlier in this series, an agent who does not have those connections is going to have a significantly harder time selling a writer’s manuscript.

So I persisted. “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”

This one was difficult even to get the students to talk about in theory, let alone express a personal preference; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation scared them a little. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.

This truth is so important to a writer’s happiness in working with an agent that I’m just going to go ahead and restate it as a rule: a writer needs not just any agent to represent her work; she needs the right agent.

That’s right, campers: after yesterday’s post, which concluded that most aspiring writers give up before they’ve given their manuscripts a sufficient chance to succeed, I’m going to talk about how they can falter after they do succeed, at least at clearing the first major hurdle on the path to publication. Today, we’re going to discuss the often astonishingly disorienting moment when a writer receives an offer of representation.

I know, I know: I’m addressing this topic out of chronological order. Can you blame me for wanting to end this sometimes depressing series on a high note?

As we saw earlier in this series, how an agent chooses to handle a manuscript can have almost as strong an impact upon its market prospects as whether he chooses to handle it in the first place. It’s not all that uncommon for good writers to end up feeling that their careers are being stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.

For a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who are unrepresented or between agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. After a long, hard spell of querying and/or submission, ANY agent willing to represent a book can start to look pretty good. So when the aspiring hear such complaints, they may be tempted to conclude that if the complainer’s book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the manuscript itself had some irredeemable fault.

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: as we have seen throughout this series, it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer.

There is a perfectly good reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable. Many, many self-styled experts make quite good livings in this manner.

And more power to the ones who are gifted at it, I say: when aspiring writers improve the aspects of the road to publication that actually lie within their control, while learning not to obsess about the myriad aspects of querying, submission, marketing, and publication that are utterly outside the author’s ability to affect them, the process becomes not only easier, but substantially less frightening. Like using language correctly and effectively, promoting one’s writing utilizes a set of learned skills.

I regularly teach this type of class myself, regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent or Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.

As we saw earlier in this series, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. The result is that agents and editors at small publishing houses (who sometimes also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

This should all sound familiar to you by now, right? Since you are already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not continue to harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.

When I pointed this out to my class, however, my students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections.

Thus, that story we all so often hear at conferences: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it. Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor.

Especially if the agent has a track record of giving up after just a handful of submissions. As with querying, until a manuscript has been circulated for a while, no one can really say for sure how marketable it actually is.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers. Now, it is the NORM for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal BEFORE sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor. Which means that it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it (or were before we discussed it in this series). Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my memoir’s representation contract revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.

Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask for mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.

Naturally, I explained all of this to my class. By this point, my students were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. As much as I would have liked to reassure them that their work would sell well and immediately, the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare.

As I MAY have intimated once or twice earlier in this series, I think it is quite unfair to aspiring writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF to signing with my agent to book sale was only eight months, positively lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed the agency contract through when the book was first sent out to editors was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal my agent’s behest.

Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually rapid, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.

This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. We all like to think that once the inspiration fairy has bonked us on the head often enough to get us to churn out a complete manuscript, that’s that. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. (Yes, I know I’m reviewing material we’ve covered already in this series, but since this is the last post, I’m entitled to a spot of review.)

“Phew!” these writers tend to think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”

With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon. The agent, in this fantasy, is just a one-time broker.

Now that you know from having slogged faithfully through this series that working with an agent is quite a bit more complicated — and lengthier — than that, I ask you the question I put to my students: what do you want your agent to do for you other than to sell your book?

Ponder that for a moment, please, while I move back to the point in your writing career when your answer could hardly be more important: the days immediately following your receiving an offer of representation from someone who may or may not be the agent of your dreams.

Remember a few posts ago, when I mentioned that too many aspiring writers take the time to learn a little about their soon-to-be agent before gasping a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation? The best antidote to an uninformed decision is to ask the offerer a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?

And so forth. The AAR’s website an excellent list of preliminary questions new authors should ask agents, to get you started.

While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months after you sign, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.

It behooves you, then, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; is this a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor, for instance? If you’re the type of person who is driven crazy by uncertainty, for whom no news is definitely not good news, you will want to know whether the agent prefers to issue periodic updates on the status of books being circulated, or whether you should feel free to ask whenever the wait starts to seem long. Knowing in advance how frequent contact has to be before the agent starts to feel hounded can save a writer a heck of a lot of chagrin down the line.

Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Find out whether the agent likes to give extensive, line-specific feedback, general feedback, or no feedback at all on a manuscript. If you are the kind of writer who hesitates to change so much as a comma without double-checking with someone else, you’ll probably be happier with a heavier commenter.

If, on the other hand, you tend to fly into an ungovernable rage at the slightest suggestion that your work is less than perfect…well, you’re probably going to want to see a doctor about your blood pressure before you sign either an agency or publication contract; as I mentioned yesterday, the professional writer’s life tends to be stuffed to the gills with agents, editors, marketing specialists, etc., suggesting forcefully that changes really ought to be made to a manuscript. But if you already know that you would prefer to keep editorial input minimal, a more hands-off agent may be a better choice for you.

You should also ask for a current list of clients — listings on agency websites are not always up-to-date — and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what their books are like. (Don’t even CONSIDER skipping this step; skimming over the first chapter of several of an agent’s clients’ books can tell you a great deal about both her literary tastes and how heavy-handed an editor she is.) You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.

See why I have been so adamantly pushing the idea of querying several good agents simultaneously — and continuing to query and submit while any given agent is reading your manuscript? Ideally, I would like you to have the luxury of having these conversations with several agents before you decide who should represent you and your work.

I speak from experience here: I e-mail and talk with my agent very frequently, and not just because he and I are both charming conversationalists; when I have an idea for a new book project, he is my sounding board. The very idea of having that much unalloyed contact with an agent with whom I could not communicate well is laughable. Thank goodness I had listened to the excellent advice my more established writing friends had given me, and made absolutely certain that I was signing with an agent I LIKED.

Oh, and he professes to love my writing, too.

But our rather joking relationship certainly wouldn’t work for every writer and agent, any more than his rather sparse feedback style would be optimal for a writer looking for serious editorial feedback from her agent. Just as all of our manuscripts are different, so are each of our needs and desires for this peculiarly intimate relationship.

So I ask you again: what do you want from your agent, other than to sell your books? How do you want to work together? Or, if you’re being honest about it, has your only criterion been that the agent in question would say yes to you?

Bears a bit of thought, I think.

Especially for those of you who are hoping to be career writers, rather than simply the authors of a single, well-respected book. While the common fantasy of being swept off one’s feet by someone spouting fabulous promises of fame, fortune, and a spot on Oprah’s book club list is all very nice, being aware of the realities of how books actually get published, what role your agent will play in that process, and how you would like your work to be handled will enable you to come up with realistic expectations that will help preserve you from the awful fate that often dogs aspiring writers who suddenly find themselves with agent: having gotten precisely what you thought you wanted, yet still feeling disappointed because what you got was not a fairy tale.

Down-to-earth expectations can, perversely, render it easier to achieve magnificent outcomes — and not just for you. If you choose well, aligning yourself with an agent who both has the connections to sell your work, expectations for it that similar to yours, and communication preferences compatible with your own, you’re probably going to end up being a better client. By approaching finding an agent deliberately, cautiously, and with an understanding of your own goals and working style, rather than blindly rushing into a contract with anyone who is interested in representing you, you are much, much likelier to feel supported throughout the publication process — and end up with the results you want.

So investing some thought in figuring out just what it is you do want is writerly time well spent.

If all of this sounds like dating, well, it is: writer-agent relationships often outlast the average marriage. You don’t want to wake up in a year and find yourself in a long-term relationship with an agent who no longer makes you feel your work is special, do you?

Why am I bringing this up at the very end of a dense series on publishing realities, you ask? So you may lift your eyes from the long, hard road to publication and ponder not only the ultimate goal of seeing your book in print, but the professional marketer — which is, after all, what an agent is, right? — you hope will help you get it there.

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long, serious series; I hope it will prove helpful to you. And, as always, keep up the good work!

bunny-rabbitPS: don’t forget to check in this weekend for the promised special treat!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XII: the changing face of self-publishing, or, not everything is up close as it appears to be from afar

sunshine-moving-in-trees

Believe it or not, this is a photo of something exceedingly straightforward: a wind-blown stand of trees alongside a rural road in Oregon, shot as I was driving by at sunset. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — my camera has an annoyingly stubborn propensity to assume, contrary to all empirical input, not only that any object I might choose to photograph is going to be stationary, but that I am as well.

News flash, camera: I move occasionally. So do objects in the material world.

As you may see, sometimes the clash of logically-exclusive presuppositions can lead to unexpectedly interesting results. Since both the trees and I were moving, the camera elected to move from the realm of realism, its usual forte, to impressionism.

Keep this in mind as you read merrily through today’s post, please: clinging too rigidly to preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work may lead to a distorted view of what’s actually going on.

That observation should feel at least a trifle familiar by now: throughout this series, we have seen a number of ways in which the prevailing wisdom about how books get published is, to put it charitably, a tad outdated, if not outright wrong. If it was ever true that the instant a brilliant writer wrote THE END, agents and editors magically appeared on her doorstep, clamoring to represent and publish, respectively, the just-finished book, it hasn’t happened recently.

To be precise, since the days when Cinderella’s fairy godmother was still making regular house calls, if you catch my drift.

At least, it doesn’t work that way for writers who weren’t already celebrities in another medium. (If you happen to have won the Nobel Prize in economics or spent your formative years starring in movies, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find somewhere else.)

For the rest of us, getting our writing recognized as marketable by those in a position to do something practical about it — like, say, an agent with connections to editors who handle your book category — is darned hard work.

And as I pointed out earlier in this series, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, all of that nerve-wracking labor and waiting doesn’t stop once one lands an agent to represent one’s manuscript. What the work entails may change, but the imperative to produce one’s best writing, presented in the best possible manner, never goes away.

(Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But if I don’t, who will?)

Last time, I touched upon several reasons that an aspiring writer might decide to bypass the traditional agent-to-major-publisher route to publication in favor of other options such as approaching a small publisher directly or self-publishing. A writer might conclude that his life was too short to spend querying every agent in the last three years’ editions of the Guide to Literary Agents, for instance; rather than shooting for the big publishing contract, he might be thrilled to see his book in print mostly sans advance through an indie press.

Or, to borrow the rather more poetic rendering of the late, great Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it may be said, ‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’

Strategic reasons might weigh into the decision as well. A writer might feel, for example, that a regional press would be a better bet for her book on migratory waterfowl of the Mississippi delta. (There must be some, right?)

Or the writer might just find the prospect of an agent’s having the right — nay, the obligation — to dictate changes in his manuscript, changes that may well be countermanded by the editor who acquires the book. Even that’s not necessarily the end of the revision road: since editors come and go with dizzying frequency at the major houses these days, the editor who acquires the book may not be the editor in charge of the project when it’s time for the writer to deliver the manuscript, or when she’s finished making the changes requested in the initial editorial memo. Or even — sacre bleu! — in the minutes before the book goes to print.

To put it even more bluntly: what a writer regards as a finished book — which is how most aspiring writers think of their books prior to submission, right? — often isn’t. In the traditional publishing world, a whole lot of people have the right to request changes.

If I haven’t already hammered this particular point home in this series, let me do it now — and since it’s a truth that long-time readers of this blog should find familiar, feel free to open up your hymnals and sing along: in the eyes of the publishing industry, no manuscript is beyond revision until it is actually sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

As you may imagine, some writers find this rather trying. Being a writer, Lawrence Kasden wrote, is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

I am hardly the first to point out that art and the business of promoting it have not invariably been on the friendliest of terms, historically speaking. One of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision.

In fact, as those of you who have gone wading through my archives lately are no doubt already aware, the majority of my blog posts have been either direct or indirect discussions of various nuances of this balancing act.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. These days, you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a respectable-sized writing conference without hitting an aspiring writer who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of traditional publishing, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

And with good reason: self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means.

Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

In case you were wondering, exceptionally well in this context usually translates into something over 10,000 books, give or take a hundred or two depending upon book category. The last time I checked, the average self-published book sells less than 500 copies.

Yes, even the ones posted on Amazon. Just as the mere fact of throwing up a website doesn’t automatically result in the world’s beating a path to one’s virtual door, having a book available for sale online doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. The web is, after all, search-oriented: If a potential reader doesn’t know that a particular book exists, s/he’s unlikely to be Googling it, right?

Someone needs to give that reader a heads-up. Increasingly, that someone is the author.

The many challenges facing the self-published book
There’s a reason for the comparatively low sales statistics, of course: self-publishing generally means that the author is solely responsible for promoting his own book — and placing it in bookstores. At a traditional publishing house, large or small, while authors are increasingly expected to invest their own time and resources in hawking their writing (it’s fairly common now for an author to be responsible for setting up her own website, for instance, and to handle virtually all web promotion), but the publisher will handle getting the book to distributors and book buyers.

A self-published book, on the other hand, almost always has a promotional staff of one: the author.

In practice, this can make self-publishing a pretty hard row to hoe, unless the author happens already to have her pretty mitts on some hefty promotional credentials, a mailing list of thousands, or connections at bookstores nationwide that would make Jacqueline Susann weep with envy. (Any writer seriously considering self-publishing, or even promoting her own book, should run, not walk, to rent the uneven but often very funny Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great?. It has some problems on a storytelling level, as real people’s lives often do, but there’s no denying that it’s a great primer on how to promote a book.)

Also, as I mentioned yesterday, self-published works (as well as POD books) currently face some pretty formidable structural obstacles in a literary world that is still very much oriented toward traditional publishing. Most US newspapers and magazines won’t even consider reviewing a self-published or POD book, for instance; even the standard advance sources (i.e., the one that review books before distributors get them, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly) won’t do it.

In practice, this means it’s harder to convince a library or bookstore to carry a non-traditionally published book. And since fiction is traditionally more review-dependent than nonfiction — it all depends on the writing, right? — almost anyone in the traditional book selling or buying biz will tell you that self-publishing a novel is just a poor idea. (Which isn’t necessarily true anymore — as two guest bloggers, Mary Hutchings Reed and Janiece Hopper, have been kind enough to explain to members of the Author! Author! community.)

Then, too, since bookstores must purchase self-published and POD books up front, they don’t have the option to return them to the publisher if they don’t sell. As a result, it can be substantially more expensive for a bookstore to carry them than books from a traditional publisher.

As if all that didn’t present an intimidating enough obstacle course for the self-published writer, there’s also quite a bit of lingering prejudice against self-published work — an attitude still strong enough in literary circles that an author’s already having brought out even a comparatively successful self-published book will not necessarily impress an old-school agent or an editor.

Yes, really. Despite some notable recent successes, reviewers, librarians, agents, and editors still remain, at least overtly, relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself), and print-on-demand (which refers to how the books are actually produced, rather than who is footing the bill to produce them).

Why would any reasonable human being lump all of those disparate categories together, you ask? Well, practical reasons, mostly: as I mentioned above, the average self-published book does not sell awfully well, so the whole species tends to be dismissed by those who sell books for a living as irrelevant to the book market as a whole.

Interestingly, the prevailing opinion on this point hasn’t changed all that much over the last decade or so, despite the fact that many POD and self-published works have proved quite profitable. (Remember what I said above about rigid assumptions sometimes leading those who cling to them to misapprehend reality?)

And then there’s the conceptual barrier
The other reason is philosophical: they just don’t think self-published books are inherently as good as those produced by traditional publishers. If the book in question were genuinely of publishable quality, they reason, why didn’t an agent pick it up? Why didn’t a mainstream publisher bring it out?

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely correct: this logic is indeed circular. However, that doesn’t mean the argument doesn’t have any merit, or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves. It’s substantially more complicated than that.

In essence, the underlying objection here is that for a book to be self-published, only its writer has to consider it of publishable quality.

Breaking into print via single person’s say-so is, as we have seen throughout this series, a far, far cry from how mainstream publishing works. Traditionally published books must jump through a rigorous series of hoops before hitting print, hurdles intended (at least ostensibly) to sift out the manuscripts that are not yet up to professional standard by passing them through an increasingly fine set of mesh screens, as it were.

A trifle startling to think of it that way, isn’t it? But ponder the process from the publishing industry’s point of view for a moment with an eye toward figuring out why they might consider it a selection process akin to panning for gold:

The querying stage: agencies evaluate hundreds of thousands of queries and verbal pitches in order to weed out book projects that don’t fit easily into an established book category (if you don’t know what that is, I implore you to peruse the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the list at right), concepts that have been done too many times (every bestseller spawns thousands of copycats), premises that are unlikely to sell well in the current literary market (which changes all the time), and works by writers that cannot write clearly (I’m sure that all of my readers are sending off gems, but you’d be amazed at how many query letters border on the incoherent).

Based upon these assessments — and other criteria, of course, but we’re thinking in generalities here — the agent (and her Millicents) select a small fraction of the queried or pitched projects to read in manuscript form. In theory, then, any book project that makes it past this stage is considered to be conceptually acceptable and in accordance with professional querying standards.

The agency submission stage: Millicent and her boss agent remove from the pool of possible manuscripts that exhibit grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, formatting problems, storytelling difficulties, pacing angst, a not-very-compelling voice, and a whole host of composition problems. (Not to mention those that just don’t grab the agent’s interest or he doesn’t think he can sell in the current market.)

By this point, the initially immense applicant pool has been narrowed down to just a few thousand of any year’s queriers — or, depending upon book category, possibly a few hundred. Ostensibly, the manuscripts that make it past this stage are all professionally formatted, grammatically impeccable, are written in a voice and style appropriate to the chosen book category, and are stories well told and/or arguments well made. (Yes, yes, there are other criteria at play, too. Keep picturing those sieves and prospectors panning for gold.)

The editorial submission stage: agents take manuscripts and book proposals to editors (and their assistants, known here at Author! Author! as Maury, Millicent’s cousin; their aunt Mehitabel is a veteran contest judge) who assess the submissions for voice, content, and pacing appropriateness for the audience the imprint or press is already targeting (like agents and editors, imprints within major publishing houses specialize, right?), potential marketing pluses and minuses, cost of publishing (one of the primary reasons too-long manuscripts have a hard time making the cut), and what the publishing house’s powers that be believe readers will want to buy a year or two hence.

The miniscule fraction of the original querying pool that clear the hurdles of this stage enough to impress an editor more than books by already-established authors (whose books always make up the overwhelming majority of releases in any given year) will then move on to the editorial committee. Every book that makes it to this stage should be of publishable quality by professional standards; in theory, the selections from here on are amongst the best the current aspiring writers’ market has to offer right now.

The decision-making stage: editors pitch the books they have selected of an editorial committee and/or higher-ups at the publishing house who will make the ultimate decision about which books to publish, possibly after consultation with the good folks in the production, marketing, and legal departments. By now, the original querying pool has usually been narrowed so much that the group of accepted first-time authors in a given year could fit quite comfortably into a good-sized movie theatre.

I could feel many of your going pale as I mentioned actual numbers. I’m sorry to shock anybody, but if we’re going to understand the odds that render self-publishing attractive to many aspiring writer, it’s vital to bear in mind that it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States. Take a deep breath and remember what we learned earlier in the series: draconian winnowing-down techniques are not the result of agencies and publishing houses being inherently hostile to promoting new voices, but the flat necessity of narrowing down the avalanche of book projects to the relatively few that publishers, even behemoth ones, can actually publish in a given year.

When you’ve recovered sufficiently from the shock, I would invite you to consider two possibilities that fly in the face of some of the prevailing wisdom floating around out there. First, the hurdles a first book (particularly a first novel) must clear are high and numerous enough that at least considering self-publishing is a fairly rational response to a difficult situation, if one happens to have the resources to pull it off.

Second — and this one is going to challenge some of the prevailing notions floating around the writers’ conference circuit — those who work in traditional publishing honestly do have legitimate reason to regard their acquisition process as literarily rigorous. Contrast the process of self-publishing a book as an agent or editor might conceive it:

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

Step 3: receive a stack of books with one’s name on the cover.

Of course, there’s far, far more to it than that, but you can see their point, right? Unless a self-published book really wows the market, the streamlined road to publication itself more or less guarantees that the mere fact that it is in print is not going to impress those who work in traditional publishing.

Again, sorry to be the one to report that, aspiring self-publishers. But wouldn’t you rather know the pros and cons up front, rather than finding out about them after you have already invested in bringing out your book yourself?

The good news — and how to go about it
All that being said, many self-published authors report that they’re quite happy that they grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and released their books themselves. Nowhere in the publishing world can a writer enjoy such complete control over what will and will not appear on the page; as most first-time authors working with traditional publishers can tell you to their cost, marketing departments change book titles all the time, and while authors sometimes have consultation rights over their book’s covers, it’s rare that they enjoy much actual input into the finished image.

By contrast, such decisions lie entirely in the hands of the self-publishing author. While many presses that cater to self-publishers do offer design services (at a price, of course), the final call is the author’s. If a writer was absolutely married to a particular typeface — something that would be utterly beyond his control at a traditional publisher — it’s his for the asking. Heck, if he wanted to have each character’s dialogue appear in a different font, while a press might try to talk him out of it, it would be up to him.

As with any other aspect of publishing, however, it really does behoove a writer to think very seriously about what she wants out of the publishing process, which type of publication is most likely to meet those expectations, and to do her homework very thoroughly before committing to any route to publication. Never having self-published anything myself, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have collected advice from a number of happily self-published authors under the SELF-PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right. These posts do not constitute an exhaustive how-to by any means, but they will give you some tips on what to expect, how to get started, and ways to avoid getting burned.

As always, tread with care in pursuit of your dreams. Remember, not all presses are equally reputable, and the range of charges can vary wildly. While there are many presses that work very well with writers for a reasonable per-copy price, there are also many that operate on the assumption that self-published books should be glossy, high-cost personal calling cards. So if you don’t have your heart set on leather binding, you’re going to want to inspect very carefully what you’ll be getting for your money.

Only one more post in this series, you’ll probably be delighted to hear! Keep up the good work!

chickenbPS: don’t forget to tune in on Friday for our end-of-the-week treat!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XI: routes to publication other than through a major house

a-winding-road

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been going over what I consider the absolutely most important information for any aspiring writer to know prior to beginning to market her work. As so often happens when I really get my teeth into a topic, I began by thinking, “Oh, I can polish this off in a couple of days. And now, ten awfully long (even by my rather prolix standards) posts later, I keep coming up with more to say.

Several lessons to be learned from this, I suspect. First, the simplest questions –in this case, How do books get published? often have really, really complicated answers, and having the space and audience to give them their due is an invitation not to minimize their complexity. Hey, boiling down multifaceted reality into bite-sized aphorisms is hard. Glancing back through what I’ve written so far, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if he has misheard the response. To be safe, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that each post in this series was approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently — but I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at conferences.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, which tends to be expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts.

See my earlier post on translating these truisms.

The problem is, trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as in this case, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple — which brings me to the second lesson to be derived from this series (other than the masses and masses of information contained within it, of course).

Lesson #2: it’s profoundly important that an aspiring writer learns that the prevailing wisdom is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

In other words, there’s a whole lot more to know about getting published than the brevity of the usual saws imply. I firmly believe that the combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly very often leads good writers to waste time along the road to publication.

Or, even worse, to assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away, the problem must be in the quality of the writing.

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught us all to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Am I being profound, you’re probably wondering, or am I merely hungry? A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes of my own about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. And you’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, I’m going to posit Lesson #3: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds.

Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly. Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious in what they acquire than usual.

In other words: hang in there. To produce some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, would be completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Which is why, in case those of you with agents have been wondering, it makes perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If this paragraph sounds like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Which might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice, by the way; there’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question even before the ink is dry on the representation contract. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers — planning to write several marketable books makes very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

The fact is, though, that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal. If getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off. Others may feel that the large or mid-sized publisher route isn’t for them, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors.

The good news is that there are other options — and I imagine those of you who have been sufficiently virtuous to keep working through this series’ concentrated account will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the last two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

For the rest of today’s post, I’m going to be talking about the various stripes of small publisher. So for the vast majority of you who have your heart set on a contract with a major publisher, take the rest of the day off.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Going this route can sometimes pay off big time for an author: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, one approaches them precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query. (Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers.)

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important doing your homework is — many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected. Check the copyright page of a published book to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house.

Also, it’s important to select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion.

Translation: the advance is often small or non-existent. (For an explanation of how the size of the initial print run affects the size of the author’s advance, please see the ADVANCES category on the archive list at right.) Also, the author usually ends up arranging the book tour himself. (While I’m referring you elsewhere, tor some useful tips on posts about how one might go about doing that, check out the posts by guest blogger Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that it was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book. More on why that might be problematic follows next time — for now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

On the bright side, an author often has much more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; as those of you who recall my GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series may recall, not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers (again, see that earlier comment about advances). If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

However, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent. Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal clause over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might have a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia. (Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor (as well as their respective Millicents) never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States.)

Here’s another bit of bouillon for you: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan.

That recognition doesn’t necessarily mean that a regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion; what they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reported above, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. (Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books.) Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit.

At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above. Given that regional presses have mostly been concentrating on nonfiction for a couple of decades now, I’m not sure why pros at conferences so frequently glibly refer aspiring novelists in their direction.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder in recent months. So much so that agents who might not otherwise have considered taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher a year or two ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and often more polished competition. Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers.

In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books? Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges fees.

And if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route should do extensive research on the subject. One of the best places to start: hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

Keep up the good work!

bunny-eggPS: yes, I know that this series has been long and dense, but I have a fabulous reward in store for you at the end of it: a guest post from an author I’ve been eager to get here to talk to you for a very long time. Hint: he’s funny, and appropriately for the season, there will be small, fluffy animals involved.

I Need a Hero! by guest blogger Eileen Cronin

eileen-cronin-author-photo

Hello, everyone –
I have always been very interested in every aspect of censorship, from the official variety where a government chooses to jail authors it considers seditious to groups yanking a book from the shelves to destroy all available copies of it to aspiring writers being discouraged from writing about certain topics — or even about mainstream topics in non-mainstream ways — to the self-censorship that leads writers to avoid saying certain things in print. I could go on about it all day; it fascinates me.

However, since a blog is, by definition, one writer yammering at great length on her chosen topics, I thought I would open up the conversation for the next couple of months, at least from time to time, to hear what some other writers have to say on the subject. To this end, I have been busily soliciting many interesting authors to contribute guest blogs on how various aspects of censorship affect the writing life.

You’re going to be hearing from them periodically in the weeks to come, I’m delighted to report. There’s also going to be a contest, some door prizes, a book review, and what I hope will be a genuinely illuminating interview, but you’ll hear about all that when the time is ripe. For now, let me introduce the first guest blogger in my subtle censorship series, Eileen Cronin.

Eileen has the kind of writing credentials that make query letter-writers drool. An assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, she’s currently in the running for the coveted Pushcart Prize. Last year, she won the Washington Writing Prize; she has thrice been a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

Currently, her novel, Orphan Sanctuary, is a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. If you want to help out with the judging, download her entry (as well as any others that might interest you, of course) and write a review before April 15.

I asked Eileen to write the first guest post in this series for a couple of reasons. First, I knew that I would not agree with everything she would say, something that strikes me as quite appropriate for this series. I want guest bloggers who will disagree with me. (And it turned out that I was right that we would not see eye-to-eye on the post: I wouldn’t characterize Amy Tan as infamous, for instance; my understanding of the 1970s film term blaxpoitation is quite different from hers, and as a long-time fan of actor Peter Dinklage, I’m quite surprised to hear that anyone would have had a problem with his role in Elf. But apparently we both rolled our eyes and cried, “Oh, come on!” at precisely the same point in The Poisonwood Bible.)

Another reason has to do with why I, at least, rolled my eyes at The Poisonwood Bible: I’ve noticed that there are not all that many complex disabled characters turning up in novels these days. One of the two protagonists in Eileen’s novel — yes, the one that’s up for the Amazon award, so you may read an excerpt for free here — is an amputee, a complex character who sidesteps the vast array of stereotypes surrounding disability.

Who better to ask, then, to talk to us about how and why fiction readers aren’t seeing many well-rounded disabled characters of late? Take it away, Eileen!

eileen-cronin-author-photoeileen-cronin-author-photoeileen-cronin-author-photo

If you were pressed to come up with the names of five contemporary writers with physical disabilities, could you do it? Now, how about writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

Are you scratching your head? I am, and I have a physical disability.

Memoir is what most often comes to mind with respect to writers with physical disabilities, and there are some lovely examples. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, written by the former editor-in chief of Elle Magazine Jean-Dominique Bauby, is one such book.
5cd0228348a033301b1f3110lAfter his massive stroke caused a type of paralysis known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby dictated his book to a transcriber using the blink of an eye. His prose is incisive and ethereal as he guides us on his journey inward with the curiosity of a New World explorer.

But physical disabilities should not be limited to memoir nor should writers with physical disabilities. I’ve heard it said in writers’ workshops that disability is a “subject” best handled in memoir, as if disability had no place in fiction. I’ve also heard workshop leaders advise that characters with disabilities should remain secondary or tertiary characters so as not to bog the story down. But writers of fiction tend to write about what they know, so where does that leave the fiction writer with a physical disability?

In my case, I have written a novel with an amputee as the protagonist, Orphan Sanctuary. An excerpt is now online as one of the quarter-finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards — reviews are welcome! — and it was a finalist in the Novels-in-Progress category of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

It was difficult to write this story, as the choice of protagonists spawned from my own experience as an amputee. I know that students of writing are encouraged to write the “universal” story and in the past that has been interpreted as: Caucasian, college-educated, able-bodied heterosexuals. Those attitudes are shifting as we see more stories published by writers from different cultures.

Every year at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer workshop, Amy Tan, an infamous Chinese-American writer, generously allows the administrators to post a selection of her own rejection letters for all new writers to witness. My personal favorite is one from a publisher who questioned why Tan would rely so heavily on the “Chinese idiom.” Tan’s success proves the point that in the past stories about characters from cultures outside of Caucasian were called “ethnic stories,” today they are called “bestsellers.”

But writers with physical disabilities, even characters with physical disabilities are not nearly as visible.

And disability, by the way, is not as “marginal” as it has been characterized in the publishing industry. Given that estimates of persons with a disability (of any kind) could amount to up to twenty percent of the U.S. population, with numbers as high as fifty million, it’s likely then that disability affects most Americans, if not directly, then at least through a familial or personal connection. Disability is in fact “universal.”

And as persons with physical disability are more likely to be restricted to more sedentary activities, reading and/or writing perhaps occur more commonly in this population. I have only logic to rely on in this case—logic and Laura Hillenbrand.
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Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which often limits a person’s physical activity substantially. She has said in interviews that in becoming disabled she was forced to be more introspective; she had more time to read and write.

Other than Hillenbrand, where are all the writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

To find a few, I Googled “physically disabled writers” and the only contemporary writer I found was a woman named Noria Jablonski.
534100367_mJablonski’s collection of short stories, Human Oddities, has been compared to the photography of Diane Arbus, although in my estimation Jablonski’s strong suit is more her ear than her eye. Ironic when you consider that her disability is a partial hearing loss.

Jablonski is most often cited for her story, “Pam calls her mother on five-cent Sundays,” which is about Siamese twins, Fern and Rose, and this is an excerpt from a scene in a beauty salon where Fern and Rose are having their hair done:

“If we could,” said Fern, “we’d go back to being show folks. But live shows are kaput. People look down on them. Also, they’re so expensive to run. Now, if you’re lucky, maybe you could get a two-headed baby in a pickle jar—”
“Or a five-legged cow,” said Rose.
“Or one of those kids with a unicorn horn,” said Fern…

This dialogue works beautifully because the characters lack the self-consciousness that most would assume as part and parcel of being a Siamese twin. The characters are fresh, and while provocative, they are humorous and enchanting. The dialogue is musical.

It might even be that the driving force behind that marvelous ear is Jablonski’s hearing loss. Perhaps she hears things differently than most of us?

Jablonski’s work is noteworthy for bringing the physically disabled from the unmentionable and invisible into the spotlight. Still, her writing might also be criticized as another form of sensationalism; and many with physical disabilities could justifiably argue that there is a demand for characters whose physical disability is only one of many traits instead of the defining feature.

For me, the challenge in the invention of a hero is in developing a psyche, a cohesive blend of unique traits mixed with irony. Even more difficult is the task of unveiling humanity in its most compassionate light.

There have been recent portrayals of characters with physical disabilities by more famous contemporary writers who have no known physical disability.
2534-1In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth includes Alvin, a World War II veteran with an amputation and the all too familiar “chip on his shoulder,” the plague of so many amputees in novels. Heaped onto this chip is Roth’s fascination with the festering wounds on the amputation: a metaphor no more evolved than the concept of Heggedy Peg. In the end, the rotting limb becomes symbolic of a rotting soul.

What’s new in that? And what a shame. There were so many fascinating aspects of Alvin left undeveloped.

imgthe-poisonwood-bible-a-novel3In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver includes one twin, Adah Price, with hemiplegia (a paralysis on one side of the body). In doing so Kingsolver brings out a complex family dynamic: When disaster strikes, the twins’ mother grabs the able-bodied twin in the rush to evacuate, while the neurologically impaired twin has to survive on her own strength.

The scenario is beautifully rendered until the end of the book when the impaired twin grows up to become a neurologist and cures herself, which seems unlikely. Besides, it begs this question: Must a heroine be physically cured in order to make a viable heroine?”

For my money, the film industry has made more evolved choices than the publishing industry with regard to physically different characters in recent years. I doubt that this is due to an influx of screenwriters with physical disabilities, but somehow, disabled characters are sneaking in under the wire. My two favorite examples being: 3:10 to Yuma and The Station Agent.

3-10-to-yumaIn 3:10 to Yuma, the hero is an amputee (so of course I love it). The concept is realistic enough without being weighty and yet it’s dynamic. Christian Bale as the one-legged-rancher-turned-bounty-hunter is soulful. His character (seen in the photo as crouching on what must be his “good leg”) exudes both heteroerotic as well as homoerotic sensuality. The dialogue is classic Western with a down-on-luck spin that takes an unexpected twist when the hero turns out to be an amputee.

My favorite line from the movie is when Bale’s character speaks as a man who has been kicked around one too many times. He’s arguing to his wife that he’s going to become a bounty hunter because he’s tired of watching his boys go hungry, his wife go without, and his ranch fall apart; he says: “I been standin’ on one leg for three long years waitin’ for God to do me a favor…and he ain’t listenin.’”

He got me at “standin’ on one leg.”

stationagent_1And then there’s The Station Agent, a film about a very short man with a larger than life persona. This film made it clear to me that an enduring sense of integrity could be sexier to some than six-pack abs. Peter Dinklage’s wry, terse style is disarming. Even in films where he plays a self-effacing caricature of a “dwarf,” he dominates the screen and comes out with his dignity intact. Some would argue that he loses points for roles such as the “angry dwarf” in Elf but I would argue that once established as a noteworthy ensemble actor, Dinklage has created the freedom to laugh at himself.

And that really is what’s at stake for writers and even characters with disabilities. In fact, that is what’s at stake for any group that is marginalized by the “taboo” label.

For those of us in the physical disability taboo box, it’s cumbersome to argue after every stereotypical portrayal. If physical disability were treated as multifaceted in literature, then perhaps the disabled would feel less of an affront each time a stereotype creeps in. Physical disability would move (as race has) closer to the mainstream.

shaftConsider the movie Shaft, for example. The same film concept with a slightly different spin over three decades yielded a vastly different result. In 1971, Shaft was considered “Blaxploitation,” (a term coined in the seventies to describe films that exploited black actors). But the 2000 remake was a success. Why is that? It’s because in the period between those movies an increasing number of films featured African-Americans in multifaceted roles. By the year 2000, the stereotype had lost much of its power.

In advancing the storyline, the freedom of expression expands and we all feel a bit less constrained.

So maybe the publishing industry should give a closer look at physical disability. Take it seriously. Take it out of the closet. In doing so, we can all lighten up because we will have one less cultural taboo bogging us down.

And for those interested in accessing my novel, Orphan Sanctuary, please feel free to download it on Amazon!