Saturday, March 21, 2020

Some Straight Talk on Querying: Notes from a Publisher ~ by Jason Peters

For many authors, querying conjures up the same emotions one would encounter standing before a guillotine or iron maiden. It’s a panicky, fear-stricken ordeal filled with numerous thoughts of self-doubt, uncertainty, and fear for one’s life.

But fear not, fellow readers and writers! Odds are you’re just putting too much pressure on yourself, and not necessarily setting yourself up for success with realistic expectations.

Hopefully giving you a little insight into the process, as well as some easily digestible info on how best to approach, you’ll be able to establish proper expectations that will keep you moving until you find the right partner to publish your book.

Let’s Begin!

Question 1: Who the Hell are you, and what are you Doing Here?!

Odds are you haven’t heard of me, but my name is Jason Peters. I’m an author, editor, and head of a young indie press called Aberrant Literature. We’ve got a few books on the market right now – one anthology featuring stories from 12 different authors, and a novel and novella from author Ashton Macaulay – with four novels set to release this year in 2020.

Question 2: So you’re a Nobody?

For now, yes. However, I’m a nobody who’s faking it ‘til he makes it, which means I look, talk, and act like a publisher. And if it looks, talks, and acts like a publisher…

Question 3: Ok, fine, I’ll play along. Where should I, a writer, begin my querying journey?

I’ll tell you, but first allow me to answer a question with a question. Do you have a clear, concise, fully developed and edited treatment or outline of your entire story from beginning to end?

If yes, skip Question 4 and proceed directly to Question 5.

If your answer is, “No”, “I don’t need that”, or “What is a treatment?” Question 4 as follows is just for you.

Question 4: What is a Treatment and Why Do I Need an Outline?

Put simply, a treatment is a 3-10 page summary that takes the reader through every important facet of your story from beginning to end. Think of it as the Cliff’s/Spark Notes version of your story. This is important because the reality is that most if not all publishers simply do not have the time to read every single 60k-120k+ manuscript that comes through our submission portal.

It’s a quick and efficient way for us as publishers to weight the merits of the story, as we unfortunately simply don’t have many resources, both in terms of time and finances, so we have to be selective about the projects we bring on. You can opt for a detailed outline in lieu of a treatment; that’s perfectly acceptable. However, I will admit that for reasons I haven’t identified yet, I prefer treatments to outlines.

This is also good practice for your career as authors. It shows consideration to the publisher, and makes it easier for us to check out your work. Plus, effective treatments almost always have a tendency to move to the top of the slush pile, which works to your benefit. I can tell you that manuscripts with no summaries to speak of always remain at the bottom of my personal pile. Please, make sure you have a really great, concise, effectively written treatment or outline before you start reaching out to any entities for submission; it’s a good look for you, believe me.

Question 5: Okay, I’ve Got my Treatment Done. And Yes, It Rocks. What Now?

Congratulations! You’re ready to start reaching out to potentially interested parties re: your book! So the first thing you should do is pull out your list of targeted publishers that you’ve researched and identified as good fits for your style and subject matter. You do have that, right?

I’m tempted to do the “if yes, then; if no, then” thing again, but I’ll spare you. The point behind it is that it’s important for you as an author to understand the publishers that you are submitting to. Especially in the indie world, publishers tend to stay within a given lane or genre(s). A lot focus on maybe one or two related genres, others might get into more, but in either case, we tend to be pretty specialized. Even for someone like me who focuses on multiple genres, there’s still material I won’t consider, whether because I don’t cater to that specific genre (romance) or it involves subject matter that just doesn’t fit the brand (extreme horror). Because at the end of the day, that’s what we as publishers are creating: a brand. If what you’re selling doesn’t fit into our brand, it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just never going to be a fit, so don’t waste your time and the publisher’s time by submitting material to the wrong entity.

Question 6: Alright, I Did my Research and Identified the Publishers that Are a Good Fit. Can I Start Submitting now?

Short answer: Yes! But also maybe not. See, various publishers have different rules for submissions. Sometimes, people will have open submission periods that are only open between predetermined dates. Others may have year-round submissions, but they’re so backlogged that they can’t see yours for two or three years down the road. Every publishing entity is different, but with a little digging, you should be able to get a sense of what their process looks like. Many publishers make this info readily available on their web site, which is the best place to start. You are also free to reach out and inquire as to someone’s process, and they should be happy to answer questions directly or point you in the right direction.

What I would like most to impress upon you is that at this stage of the process, you should view yourself less as an author and more as a salesman. I cannot overstate the importance of presenting yourself as a professional to every publishing house you reach out to. Imagine for a moment that you are a working salesman, either in person or over the phone. What version of you would you present to the world? How would s/he look, talk, act, and respond to objections? Remember that at the end of the day, the publishing entity you’re talking to is a real, live person. They will respond to you over email in mostly the same fashion as they would in real life, so you should present yourself over the internet with the same dignity and professionalism you would display at an in-person meeting with a potential client, customer, or vendor.

I once again cannot over-stress how much your approach as a person will affect your ability to sell your manuscript. While I can’t speak for other publishers, I can tell you that I look at the authors I bring on less as creators of individual projects and more as long-term partners that I want to work with for extended periods of time. For me, clicking with an author is everything. The fact of the matter is that there are great books that don’t sell and there are crap books that sell very well. To a large degree this business is an inexact science, so because of that I would rather focus on creating partnerships with talented folks and continue to crank out content until something hits for both of us.

Question 7: I Sent My Query Letter/Treatment to All of My Well-Researched Publishers and No One Has Gotten Back To Me Yet. What Gives?

Patience, young Padawan. If there’s one aspect of this business you need to accept, it’s that it moves at an absolutely glacial pace. There have been instances where I have not responded for four to six months because I simply haven’t had the time to discuss their project. Early on in my career, I would respond right away and tell people I needed a month or two, but after having to do that three, four, five times to the same author and having it be a bad look for me, I realized it is best to just engage with the authors when I have the time to devote to the initial stages of discussing their project.

It’s also perfectly fine to follow up on your material, but be judicious about it. Reaching out here and there will demonstrate your enthusiasm to a publisher, which is good. However, if you push too hard or too often, that can also work against you, so you need to develop an intuition for gauging when and how often to follow up. I would say as a general rule of thumb, one month is a good amount of time to wait between follow-ups, and that three times without response is the max you should attempt. Any more than that will immediately start to work against you.

Question 8: It’s Been a Year and I Still Can’t Get My Book Published. Should I Give Up?

Maybe, maybe not. That all depends on your expectations. If you don’t publish your first, are you able to move on to a second while you continue to try and find a publisher for the first? If not, this grind might not be for you. The reality is that there are a number of wonderful books out there that go unpublished every year, and a lot of it is just a matter of circumstance. So, as discouraging as it can be, just keep at it and someone will most likely take a chance on you at some point.

And if they don’t, just respond how I did by starting your own publishing company. What the hell do they know anyway?

So that’s about it. Again, think like a salesperson during this project. Specialized businesses understand that not everyone is a potential client, so it’s all about finding the people that respond positively to what you have to offer. Your manuscript is no different.

Be smart, keep your head up, be tenacious without showing disrespect, and just keep submitting until you’ve exhausted all of your options. If no one bites, you may have some legitimate issues with your book that need to be addressed, and if so, be willing to go back and make those corrections and try the whole thing over again. It’s not always fun, but when it strikes, you can feel good knowing you worked hard to get where you were looking to go.

Best of luck, fellow writer person!

Listen to Jason Peters' podcast episode here.

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