A few items that keep surfacing on my list of Important Things for Aspiring Book Editors to Know.
Your writing is flawless, your ideas are brilliant, your manuscript is clearly magnificent. What more could a publisher possibly want?
Well, a lot, actually. Here are three ways to impress a publisher, whether you are a seasoned author, a newly signed neophyte, or a writer still trying to land your first book deal.
1. Be a grownup. As I've said before, the second you submit a manuscript or query letter for consideration, you've entered into a business relationship with a publisher. Successful business relationships require grownups. So:
- Meet your deadlines, no matter what. Sign your contract swiftly, turn in your manuscript when you should, and send your author photo in when asked. If something terrible happens to make you miss a deadline, let your publisher know as soon as you possible that you are going to be late, give the date you'll be able to hand in your material, and apologize profusely. But mostly just always meet your deadlines.
- Speaking of author photos, either get a hobby-photographer friend to take one, or consider hiring a professional. (Not a Sears professional.) Don't send a low-res, blurry, or hideous headshot. Especially don't send in a group photo in which your head is the approximate size of an ant's egg.
- Be courteous to everyone you interact with at the publishing company. This should, but apparently doesn't, go without saying.
- Express gratitude whenever you can. Book publishing is an isolating industry. The editors, designers, and salespeople you interact with are working hard to turn your manuscript into a bestseller because they love books—your book, in particular. They are not in the industry for any other rea$on, if you catch my drift. Saying thank you early and often will make them want to work even harder for you.
- Be editable. This deserves its own post so I will elaborate no further.
- Here is a fun scenario. An editor sends you some changes. You don't like the changes, so you write back to the editor saying exactly why—and you cc his manager.* STOP! WHY DID YOU DO THAT? It is weird, rude, and juvenile. You are essentially tattling on your editor—who almost certainly has the blessing of his manager to make your book as good as possible, and will also find the cc weird, rude, and juvenile. If you feel the need to go above your editor/designer/marketing person, write a fresh email. There's no need to bring someone else in on the whole email history. Be a grownup!
*I'm sure you wouldn't do this. You are far too classy and respectful.
2. Use social media, well and wisely. When I work acquisitions, the
first thing I do after reading a good manuscript is Google the author. I want to see if you're smart and engaging. I want to see if I like you. I want to see if you'll be fun to work with.
Dave Atkinson and Bethany Myers
are two new authors whose first manuscripts I acquired in the past couple of months, shortly before
leaving Nimbus. They both wrote fantastic books that I wanted to publish
straight away—and they both aced the Google test.
Their respective Twitter presences made me confident that I could sell not just
their manuscripts but also them, as authors, to the marketing
team. And I also had a good idea of their (lovely, funny, brilliant) personalities before I picked
up the phone to let them know they would soon be published authors.
Remember to be focussed and intelligent in your approach to social media. If you have an active, interesting presence on Twitter or Facebook, it shows you have a built-in network to market to, the ability to connect with an audience, and the willingness to keep your communication skills and methods up-to-date. This makes a sales manager rub her hands together with glee. But if you have a dormant Twitter account or a Facebook timeline full of cheesy memes, a sales manager sighs deeply and asks how good the manuscript is, really, and are you sure we have to publish this, Penelope.
3. Hone your word processing skills. Has a more tedious sentence ever been written? I don't care. I once had to type up an author's entire lengthy manuscript, which had been written on crumpled paper, envelopes, and—most alarmingly of all—a stained brown paper lunchbag.
So. Hone your word processing skills. Ask your kids, ask your neighbour, ask your community college for help. Your editor, while she may be very kind and patient, probably doesn't want to have to walk yet another author through how to use the track changes feature in Word. She definitely doesn't want to remove all the forced line breaks in your manuscript. And she has a deep need for you to make your changes to the most recent version of the file so that her eighty hours of editing are not for naught. Her time could be much better spent writing sparkling back cover copy to promote your book, don't you think? Your editor of course does not resent any authors for needing tech help, but she truly appreciates the rare author who knows his way around Microsoft Word.
In conclusion, there is a lot more to being published—either for the first time, or repeatedly—than good writing. Authors who do not charm their publishers—especially authors who violate item 1, repeatedly—do not get their subsequent manuscripts picked up. Unless they sell millions of copies of their books, in which case they can write their next manuscript on the back of a greasy food container of their choosing and blind copy my mother on every email.
I had the pleasure of being part of Word on the Street's children's/YA Pitch the Publisher panel on Sunday, representing Nimbus Publishing. Eleven lucky applicants gave three-minute pitches of their projects, and my colleagues and I gave two minutes of advice and feedback about each pitch.
I love working acquisitions, and doing Pitch the Publisher is working acquisitions at warp speed. So, Star Trek and acquisitions all at once. (We all cried when we heard about this, right? Not in a joyful wedding-sniffles way?) I love hearing authors' ideas and seeing their passion and understanding what is most important to them about their project. But I noticed a few common issues with the pitches, and they are issues that also come up a ton in submissions I get. So below are some tips for brand-new children's writers getting ready to pitch a publisher (either at Word on the Street or, more likely, the old-fashioned way. By carrier pigeon). Please note that if you have not already considered each of these items on your own, then you are almost certainly not ready to pitch just yet.
1. Know your target audience. And I don't mean "Kids!" Bookstores have very specific categories they shelve books by, and publishers use these categories too. Are you writing a board book for babies? Is this a chapter book for early readers? Is it a YA book? The answer to this question will affect the word count and format of your book. Don't pitch a fully illustrated YA novel; don't write a middle-grade novel that's only fifteen pages long. Figure out your target audience, and shape your project to fit industry conventions. Once you are a fabulously successful author, you can flout all those conventions; for now, show the publisher that you understand and respect the book industry.
2. Know your story. And I mean your story. A lot of the pitches I heard Sunday were descriptions of characters and setting and themes and lessons; only three pitchers (one of them an awesome ten-year-old girl, another an awesome teenaged boy) sketched an outline of their plots.
I can't read a quick cover letter and know whether your characters are well drawn or the setting as lush as you claim or the themes as Important; but I can read a brief plot outline and know whether you have a good story to work with. You can pique my interest by showing me that you understand every story needs tension—give me a kickass protagonist, yes, please, but give that protagonist some kind of obstacle or journey or challenge. You are not a portrait artist! You are a writer.
This applies to picture books, although many writers seem to think they can get away with not writing a plot but rather a collection of images and scenarios for their picture books. Nope! Something has to happen. And I say this not only as an editor, but also as a parent who has to read these books a million times a day, LITERALLY. Please. Give me a plot. Also some jokes would be nice.
3. Seek honest feedback. Likely professional. One pitcher out of eleven Sunday mentioned having worked with an editor. Unsurprisingly, he was one of the three with a solid pitch. (The awesome teenaged fellow.)
Your friends and family are probably never going to give you useful feedback on your manuscript. Either they're going to love it because they love everything you do because you are lovely and they love you, or they are going to not love it, but not tell you because you are lovely and they love you.
Find yourself a cruelly frank writing group. Hire a freelance editor. Offer to trade critiques with another new writer, gloves off. I can always, always tell when a writer has been given honest feedback—the story arcs are tighter, the character development is authentic, and the dialogue is natural.
And you know what? Not only does the work impress me more, but you impress me more, for having taken your writing seriously enough to let someone else tear it apart.
4. Read. In your pitch, you should be able to compare your book to other books. Don't tell me this is the next Hunger Games, but do tell me a few books and authors that are comparable to your title. It's shorthand that helps me easily understand what you're envisioning in terms of genre, audience, length, etc.
5. Don't be too…creative. Dour, right? But publishers have an enormous stack of manuscripts glowering at them from the corner of their desks at all times. And when an editor finally has time to work on acquisitions, she is going to power through as many as possible to minimize the glowering for another month or two. And if she gets to your cover letter and it is a limerick, or written in character, or is indecipherably flowery, or full of hyperbole, she may become frustrated and judge your manuscript more harshly than she would have otherwise. Your manuscript should be creative; your cover letter should be deft and professional. Which leads me to a…
Bonus tip: Keep it professional.
Not so much a bonus as something I just reminded myself of: You are entering into a business relationship with a publisher, whether they accept your manuscript or not. For the love of books, BE PROFESSIONAL. Here is a helpful BONUS TIP LIST.
- research appropriate publishing companies, who have published books similar to yours, and submit only to them
- write a complete cover letter
- include a CV with relevant information only
- include a plot synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown where applicable
- be polite in all communications with a publishing company—including receptionists (we talk to each other, you know)
- be gracious and positive if declined, particularly if you were declined with more than a form letter
- mention how much your family loves the book (see item 3, above)
- mention your kids/grandkids in your cover letter (I get it, I want to talk about my kids all the time too, but for the sake of your professionalism, hold it in)
- argue with constructive criticism (feel free to ignore it! but don't argue with it)
- pester an editor you've submitted to. Gentle reminders/check-ins are fair and fine; but understand that that enormous pile of glowering manuscripts is not going to get read any faster if you email every day or drop by the office unannounced. The waiting is SO HARD, I understand—but it's part of the book publishing industry.
- get shirty after being declined. So many of the authors that I eventually worked with at Nimbus were turned down over and over again—their projects just were not right for the company. But the ones who stayed classy and understood why I was declining and kept working at their writing and honing projects to suit Nimbus's mandate proved to me that they would be excellent to work with, and I ended up publishing a whole bunch of them.
Okay, that's it for now. Good luck!
The first book I ever worked on was Black Berry, Sweet Juice, by Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes. It's a non-fiction book about growing up mixed-race in Canada. I wasn't editing, just transcribing his interviews with family and friends because a mutual friend recommended me. Lawrence (Larry, but that feels disrespectful and I even typed "Mr. Hill" but that was a bit over-the-top) probably has no memory of me, but a) I am in the acknowledgements and will be forever and ever until all books have become loam, and b) that work sparked something in me. I had already been working in magazine publishing, and loved it, but didn't want to stay in that frenetically-paced world for much longer. Books, however--books I could sink into. Books would stay on the shelf for years. Working on books gave me time to ponder and revisit and question and get things right. Books!The list of authors I've worked with over the years has been filled with masters like Lawrence Hill and first-timers just finding their voice, and every single book is its own treasure and joy. But I'm still pretty proud of my first.
I'm getting more and more clients interested in having me edit their blogs. Why? Because they are super-savvy businesspeople.
Blogs are one of the best ways to promote your business. While few people can make money directly from their blog, an interesting, thoughtful, clearly written blog related to your business—even very peripherally—can help communicate your services and values to potential clients, or create more loyalty and connection with existing clients.
I love working on blogs—it is a thrill to see work go from rough to published so quickly, and to see my clients getting positive feedback straight away on their writing.
I will help you polish and refine your writing, and together we'll find links that will give your readers added value, and keep them coming back!