Back at the end of May, I had the pleasure to attend a forum put on by the Northern Virginia Writers Club entitled "How to Increase Your Chance of Publishing." The event was proof that you should always solicit feedback, regardless of your achievements or degree of experience; I've been professionally employed as a writer and editor since I was nineteen years old, but still came away with some things I never would have thought of on my own. You can imagine my shock at discovering I did not know everything there was to know about this industry. That being the case, though, I was happy to enlist the help of the three celebrity* panelists:
- John Gregory Betancourt, publisher at Wildside Press and grave-robber extraordinaire (this will be explained).
- Denise Comacho, president of Intrigue Publishing and a refreshing voice of honesty in an industry where gatekeepers are known to struggle with handing out rejection.
- Tara Laskowski, editor of SmokeLong Quarterly and recreational stalker, who divides her time between reading flash fiction and engineering a terrifying five-year-long plot to insinuate herself into my life (this will also be explained).
One thing I really enjoyed about this panel (beyond their hilarious/horrifying backstories) was that they came to the table understanding both sides of the publishing world: what it is to reluctantly send that rejection letter for a manuscript you'd really like to make work, and what it is to pour yourself into a piece of your own writing, send it off, then wait biting your nails in front of a computer screen as agents and editors look it over. John Betancourt, in his own words, wanted to be a writer from the time he was 13 and has now published over 40 books and runs his own publishing house. Tara Laskowski won a writer-in-residence contest with SmokeLong Quarterly in 2009 and has been the publication's executive editor since 2010 (which, in my mind, makes her the publishing industry's equivalent of Carrie Underwood and explains her propensity for wearing cowboy hats and bursting into breakup anthems at random). And Denise Comacho has devoted the greater part of her career to promoting outstanding writers and to facilitating the sorts of unique voices that the industry does not always give enough attention.
These three had some interesting tidbits. Let's take a look:
The bookmark test and getting to the point
Denise: "I personally use the bookmark test: if I put a bookmark in this book at night, will I want to open it again first thing in the morning, or will I leave it sitting on the nightstand? In terms of what will make me stop reading, too much description does it for me, or if the manuscript is really bland when you start. I don’t want to know what they did ten years ago in the first two chapters. I don’t want to spend the first two chapters on the backstory. Unless it’s going to make the story move along, I don’t want to see it. It’s got to be a ride, with something going on all the time."
This one really resonated with me, as much of my daylight is occupied with editing manuscripts and failing to master Russian grammar, so I do a lot of my pleasure reading at night while sitting in bed. I was recently trying to get into the Falling Kingdoms YA series and found it just wasn't hooking me. Literally the morning I went to this forum, I'd looked at that book sitting on my nightstand and felt a twinge of anxiety, rather than excitement, at the prospect of opening it again that evening. The bookmark test is something I'm happy to steal, but make sure you attribute it to Denise!
John: "I want to be sucked in. Sometimes you can read a book, and the moment you open it you know you have a bestseller. I want that. Something that’s immersing, so that once you’re in it you don’t want to not read. Light and moving is good, and a little bit of humor really helps."
Tara: "In our case the first two lines, not the first two chapters, determine whether we’re going to take it. There’s a good chance you know almost immediately if it’s not going to work. Overly written material is a red flag: if you’re using ten words when you can use one, it’s not going to work. Disembodied dialogue is another flag. If two or more people are talking, and we don’t know who’s who, I feel like I’m reading a conversation between two ghosts. Humor in flash fiction is hard, too, because it can wind up feeling like the whole story was a punchline, like you’re reading a long joke instead of a short story."
Querying is more than just writing a letter
Denise: "Follow the submission guidelines. If you can’t even be bothered to read those, you probably won’t listen to anything else I say. Have a platform. Have a plan. That’s key. Make it easy for people to find your book. They have to find it before they can buy it."
I can say with absolute certainty that the bit about guidelines is essential. When I was an agent, I was receiving hundreds of queries every day, most of them for projects that were good or even quite good. When you can realistically only take on a handful of clients, but you're inundated with a ton of perfectly qualified authors, what do you do? You look for flaws. The wonky eye. The poorly coordinated socks. The slightly off-beat rendition of Sting's 1984 hit "Every Breath You Take." Or failure to follow submission guidelines. The field is competitive enough--don't give an agent or editor an excuse to dismiss you off the bat.
John: "Before you even get to trying to sell the book, you have to have a manuscript that is professional. That’s something an editor can tell without reading a word: if you have teeny-tiny font and no margins, that’s not a professional manuscript. There are rules for a reason. Know what they are and follow them. Formatting maters. For instance, if you have your name as a header, make sure it’s on the upper right rather than the upper left side, that way the first thing a reader sees when they flip the page isn’t the author’s name."
This seems a good time to mention that, provided you have a pulse, John Betancourt is likely not interested in your project. He makes exceptions, of course, for particularly lively manuscripts (get it? I crack myself up), but in general is looking to add to Wildside Press's impressive collection of rights to the work of deceased authors. This, I feel, justifies the following (actual) exchange:
Forum attendee: "How can I increase my chances of being published by Wildside Press?"
John Betancourt, grave-robber extraordinaire: "You could die."
Know your audience, in terms of both general readers and publishing gatekeepers
This image is relevant because there is no audience to which Betty White does not appeal.
Tara: "Reading the journal or magazine you’re submitting to is key. You don’t have to mail a check and subscribe to every one; there are so many good publications that have their full text or excerpts online for free that there’s really no good excuse for not being familiar with the publications where you’re submitting. My personal acceptance rate for my own work has gone up dramatically because I’m reading the places I’m submitting to and I can cater my submissions to each one. I also know who not to submit to. That’s important, too."
Tara knows a lot of things. In particular, she knows a lot of things about me. Like my musical preferences, my work history, and what I was humming to myself in the shower at 9 p.m. last Thursday when I was absolutely convinced I was alone and hadn't yet noticed that the front door was ajar. I suspected we might have met before (we were making platonic moon-eyes at one another for the better part of three hours at this event), and then discovered why: we're co-workers. Or were co-workers. Tara did communications work for George Mason University's PR office in 2010, at which time I, an innocent lad of 22 who had yet to encounter my first dangling modifier in a work of literary fiction, was working as a paid intern writing press releases for the same organization. Small world. Now we're best friends and stay up all night confessing secrets to one another and making S'mores**.
Refine, refine, refine
Denise: "Work with an editor if you can. It doesn’t have to be a professional editor; it could be a schoolteacher, a librarian, just someone who knows what they’re doing. But it can’t be your mom or your best friend. It needs to be someone who will be honest with you. And don’t write in an accent. If you say your character is Irish, I’ll know he’s Irish."
Note: I know of an editor named Ethan Vaughan whom I'm told does passable work. Kind of the Wal-Mart of editors, if we're being honest, but he's a bargain.
Rock that social media--and remember to be someone's fan
Tara: "You have to be a member of a community. Don’t just talk about yourself. Networking can be hard. Mingling and small talk is not easy for everyone in person, but it’s so easy online. I know one author who shares things about her kids, photos of her kittens, and is just really open about letting people see her and not just her work. And then when something happens professionally it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool. She’s nice and now she’s being successful!' And make sure you’re networking. Writing is a solitary act, but being a part of a community is really important. Try reading for a journal you admire. Be a book reviewer! It’s a nice way to give back and get your name out there."
A million people standing on their own individual platforms with megaphones and screaming about how great they are just produces an incomprehensible roar, and if you do nothing but promote yourself, you'll find a cold and diminishing audience. Root for someone who's doing something cool. It'll make others want to root for you when your time comes.
Denise: "Make sure you have a website or social media—or preferably both. That is absolutely key in this day and age: you can’t be a ghost. I need someone I can put on a TV screen, someone I can put on a press photo, someone who can do an interview. The writing is not the only thing. You have to be able to speak intelligently about your own work. Social media is the first thing, other than the book itself, that you need to be looking at."
John: "A blog or a Facebook page is the bare minimum. Build an audience. If you want to be a writer, you have to build an audience."
Know when to stand your ground, but know when to defer to the experts
Denise: "The author knows what they like but doesn’t know what the industry will stand. I dealt with a situation where the author had written a brilliant book but was unwilling to make any changes, and we had to end the contract."
John: "The worst covers we’ve ever published have been covers authors insisted on. Most agree to redesigns based on sales. Just because you’re an author doesn’t mean you know what’s best in terms of artwork. There are people who have been doing this a long time and might know better than you."
I'm thankful to the Northern Virginia Writers Club for inviting me out, and to the panelists for providing their valuable insight. As always, I am available for editing work (with a current start date of July 30) and my rates can be found here.
Until Trend Tuesday!
*"Celebrity" in this context meaning "regionally prominent independent publishers."
** This does not happen.