Not all of us are the J.K. Rowlings or Stephen Kings of the writing world. We do not have agents and publishers begging us to sign the next contract or readers counting down the days before our next title hits the shelves. We have to take the risk of submitting our manuscripts to publishers who often put so many obstacles in our path that sometimes it seems our potential best-seller will not even get read - if indeed our manuscripts ever reach the slush pile.
Writers who are prepared to put in plenty of pre-writing slog can help get their manuscripts contracted long before they have written THE END. You, too, can get past the "not taking on any manuscripts" or "work only submitted via an agent" signs which one sees posted so often on publishers’ web sites and in writers’ newsletters. You can get published, even if you have never written before.
So, what’s the secret? There are, in fact, numerous secrets, but know this – if your writing is sub-standard, if you demonstrate that you are less than professional in the presentation of your manuscript, and if you cannot ruthlessly and competently self-edit, you will never get published – never, even if you know and apply all the secrets which follow in this article. The competition today in publishing is fiercer than it has ever been. Many more writers (often with University degrees in creative writing) are submitting, and because of various factors (one being company mergers and re-mergers, the advent of e-publishing and the closure of bookshops), there are fewer books being published than ever.
Okay! Secret number one to becoming published is knowledge. You need to know all the publishing houses in your area of writing interest and what they specialise in (for example, not all children’s book publishers take on picture books or YA novels). You need to know who the key people are in the publishing houses you want to submit to. You need to know how to approach these people so they respond to you. You need to know the writing genres you wish to specialise in. You need to know the "gaps" in that market. And you need to know what readers will want to read in the future (even if they don’t know it themselves).
As a full-time freelance writer and author who specialises in writing for children and makes a decent freelance writing income, I keep myself informed about all these things. It is not easy (especially in the early stages) and it requires constant vigilance and often distracts from the task of writing. But it does bring contracts and sales if you work at it.
If you want to be as informed as I am, then you need to outlay some capital: subscribe to the really important magazines (such as Australian Bookseller and Publisher) and zines (such as the Publishers’ Weekly on-line newsletter), both of which are available from Thorpe-Bowker, Melbourne. Join professional organisations such as the Australian Society of Authors, or the Children’s Book Council of Australia, the Australian Writers’ Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and so on. I advise you to network extensively by contacting other writers, publishers, illustrators, librarians and so on, and by attending writing courses, conferences and festivals. Don’t just listen: approach people in the industry -- published and unpublished – talk to them, offer them a cup of coffee and/or swap business cards. Swap information constantly. Don’t just take, but share generously.
Another thing: get in first. By this I mean when you see an opportunity, grab it immediately. Don’t wait until the last date stipulated, but show your keen interest and enthusiasm by submitting your manuscript to the market or in the competition straight away. And never, but never, miss a deadline.
The major players
Learning what the publishing houses are and their catalogue of publications is as easy as surfing the net. Check out the imprint (information) pages of newly published books. However, staff members change constantly; thus you need to invest time and money to keep up to date. Obtain copies of (or create) bookseller and publisher directories. Check out publishers’ and editors’ current names and addresses; ask your booksellers and librarians for help. Phone up or email publishers and ask them to send you their catalogues and staff lists. Up-date your information regularly.
Networking is without doubt one of the best ways of keeping your finger on the pulse of the publishing world. Buzz Words is a monthly online networking newsletter for people in the children’s publishing industry. I founded it (and previously CAINON, now called Pass In On) in order to keep in touch with what is happening in my writing world (and because I live in a regional area where writing conferences are never held). Publishers, booksellers, film producers and others in the children’s book industry are Buzz Words and PIO contributors, reviewers and recipients. You too can establish your own network, even if you are house-bound. Join the committee of your local CBCA sub-branch. Being pro-active is one of the keywords to being successful. Nothing will land in your lap – or rarely: I’ve found from years of experience that if you want something to happen, you need to make it happen!
Key personnelGetting to know key people in publishing houses can take time, but it is do-able. Meet them at conferences, seminars, book fairs. Invite them to speak at your writers’ groups (pay their expenses and buy their books, at least!) Give them your business card while you hand them a drink or snack. Follow-up any contact. Keep emails and letters to them short and succinct.
Getting publishers to know you is a matter of getting your work noticed. Establish a reputation by writing letters to and/or getting stories, poems, reviews and articles published. Enter and win writing competitions! Numerous magazines and on-line websites need volunteer reviewers: you will get your name well known this way, especially if your approach is professional and your writing sparkly and erudite.
You can get your name imprinted in the minds of key industry personnel in many ways: a bunch of flowers works wonders for a jaded editor! Remember that publishers and their staff are people first and foremost: like you and me, they want to be treated with kindness. If you read and loved a publisher’s new title, why not let her know with a personal letter/email? Let the author know too! Good, sincere public relations never harmed anyone. Oh, and be nice to the publisher’s assistants – they are often editors of the future!
You can use these tactics to find a literary agent, but agents are harder to crack. Learn about agents – not all of them represent your area of writing expertise – and then approach them. Novelty is good, but the better, safer way of making worthwhile contact is via a third party, preferably a published writer. By the way, new writers are over-anxious to have an agent represent their work, but it is generally more difficult to get an agent on-side, unless you wave a contract in front of their faces (that is, you place the manuscript first and then find the agent!)
It is easier to get to know and curry favor with authors than with anyone else in the book industry. Authors are the bottom of the industry food chain (wrongly, of course, but the fact is that not many call the shots). Most authors are approachable. Go to their book launches, book signings, places where they present, send them friendly emails via their web site (or their publisher’s). Talk to them enthusiastically about their work, buy their books and ask for an autograph. Take them out for a meal. You will generally get a friend for life! Keep in touch with the author, and become needed before you even begin to ask for favors -- for example, offer to read and comment on works-in-progress.
Author as mentor
Most authors know their industry. They can inform you about publishers and their staff and make representations on your behalf (as I do with those I mentor if their work is of high enough standard); they can direct you to manuscript assessment and to editorial services. Once I heard well-known literary agent Selwa Anthony tell her clients that she would be willing to look at manuscripts that they had personally read and approved of: “do NOT,” she said, “give third parties my contact details.”
Some manuscript assessors offer to write a letter of recommendation if the work is outstanding. One well-published writer I know highly recommends that new writers pay for professional editing of their work before submission in order to get the best chance of acceptance. (I think he has a point there; as you know, it is extremely difficult these days to break into book publishing, especially if you are an unknown.) Even before the said writer submits to his agent, he gets a range of (voluntary) readers to read and comment on his manuscript. Invariably he takes their opinions on board when re-writing.
Manuscript-in-progress reading is one (of many) services you could offer a writer who mentors you. Too many beginner writers accept mentoring but give nothing in return. It has happened to me time after time that I have expended much time and energy helping new writers to find publishers to take their work, see them get their books published, and then I observe they do nothing to help other new writers. Those whom I now mentor help me out personally in numerous ways, for example by passing on children’s writers’ newsletters and magazines, photocopying, undertaking on-line research, reading and commenting on my manuscripts (as I do for them, free of charge) and so on. Too many writers ask me for help and when I oblige, often at great length, they do not even bother to thank me. I would suspect that this lack of good manners from writers they have helped in the past is why some well-published authors ignore letters and emails from fans and new writers.
Many authors write the book, and then look for the market. My approach is often to find a gap in my market: if I am passionate about the subject, I then write to fill that need. Recently, when I enquired about gaps, an educational book-seller told me that he cannot sell a book about Australia’s involvement in the Korean War to the young adult market - because no such book exists. A librarian friend is constantly begging me to write a children’s novel set in a rain-forest, another “hole” to be filled. These projects do not interest me, but for every need, there is a potential writer. Seek and you will find!
Currently my “niches-to-fill” completed manuscripts include a three book non-fiction series about children’s achievements: there are no books like these so far published in Australia. I am also trying to place a children’s poetry anthology, Our Home is Dirt by Sea, which features poetry by as-yet unpublished poets, some of whom I mentor. (Note: This latter book was in fact published by Walker Books Australia after this article was written. Interactive Publications also published Aussie Kid Heroes which covers the remarkable lives of many Australian children past and present.)
Professionally presented publishing proposals which show you’ve discovered a gap, undertaken market research, found any competing titles (and their drawbacks), and have a solid knowledge of proposed contents and approach can – and do – appeal to non-fiction publishers. It is not difficult to get an up-front contract before you write the main text. The main thing to know is that your proposal must show the publisher the possibility that it can make profits; this, after all, is why the publishing company is in business!
It has become necessary these days to promote yourself as an author on social media, something you didn’t need to do when I first started getting published more than 30 years ago. This means having your own webpage and/or a blog (to which you contribute regularly) and a Facebook presence. Many authors are active, too, on Twitter and Instagram. Numerous articles written by proactive authors recommend building up a rapport with your readers rather than constantly promoting your books. Others write about creating a ‘brand’ for yourself, as though you are a marketing brand, which of course you are. There are numerous articles about self-promotion on social media: it’s recommended that you read them.
Knowing what readers will want to read in the future is a matter of informed intuition. One has only to astutely keep in touch with current news to know what are going to be next season’s “hot topics”. It is clear now, for example, that if you are writing for the e-book market that series of short non-fiction books create the most readership – and wealth. Whatever your interest, there is always something that is evolving in that area: it is really a matter of thinking about the ramifications and acting on them quickly. Being proactive is what being a published writer is all about, not sitting and waiting for prospects to land in your lap.
© Dianne Bates
Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of 130+ books for young people. She has worked as a newspaper and children’s magazine editor, and as a manuscript assessor and online writing tutor. Di is a recipient of the Lady Cutler Award for distinguished services to children’s literature. In 2006 she founded Buzz Words, an online magazine for those in the children’s book industry. Di lives in the Wollonong area with her award-winning YA author husband, Bill Condon