On the heels of my last post, and some quasi-related stuff I’ve seen around lately, I decided to step in with this: a handy guide to who, when, and how to ask for help as a newbie author.
No, I’m not starting an advice column… I just see so many people going about this the wrong way (sometimes the wrongest way, doing more harm than good) and I see an opportunity to maybe help out some people who don’t know any better. There’s no saving the ones who take the wrong tack out of laziness or entitlement, but maybe… just maybe… I can aid the ones who do so out of ignorance. So! I’ll give it a shot.
So you’ve finished a short story/novel/collection! Congratulations! That’s awesome! Now what?
The first thing you should do is edit. But assuming you’ve done that already and have a clean, pretty, final draft and are looking to find it a home: The next first thing you should do is decide what kind of home you want for it and that means…
DO YOUR RESEARCH!
Don’t just write one general, impersonal email and spam it to everyone you can find with an “editor” after their name or on their linked in profile. Sure you MIGHT luck into someone that can actually help you AND has the inclination, but chances are that you’ll do more harm than good. Even if you DO manage to strike gold this way and garner an interested party or two, you DID just send a bunch of emails to people who KNOW you didn’t really do your research, don’t know who they are or what they do, and are basically just throwing emails at the wall to see what sticks. That isn’t flattering, professional, or even really appropriate. You can be sure that at least a few of those people you sent the writerly equivalent of a Canadian Viagra ad to will remember you and editors DO talk, they DO change fields/publishers, and they DO have a preference for working with people that give them warm fuzzies versus cold pricklies. Just like with any other interaction in life, you never know when you’ll run into someone again, so it’s best to try and leave good impressions wherever you go. This applies to your digital self, too. Maybe even especially.
So what’s a n00b to do? Again, research. What kind of thing did you just finish writing? Who writes things in a similar vein? Check that out. What publishers are they using? The internet is your friend here. Look up those publishers, check out their websites. Do they have submission guidelines posted? Do they only accept manuscripts through an agent? Do they have an open submission period? Those are the kinds of things you should know BEFORE you send anyone there an email. Think of those as the rules for engaging a certain publisher. If they say they are in the business of publishing futuristic cyborg leather fetish epic poetry, don’t send them your old west steampunk haiku. You dig? Making sure your email is going to an appropriate audience AND that it is not something that could easily be resolved by reading the guidelines on their site is a great first step in ensuring that your email will be received favorably.
TAKE THE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT!
Find out the actual NAME of the person you’re emailing if you’re sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Address your email TO THEM personally. Have they worked on something you really enjoyed? Open with that! Tell them how much you loved PROJECT X and that you’re looking forward to PROJECT Y. Make sure you tell them why you’re emailing them specifically and why they should care. Yes, this means it will take you more time to write emails to each person individually, but that’s the point! It’s an investment, that time. It shows that you have dedication to your work and an interest in finding it THE RIGHT home instead of just shoving it at anyone who will take it. Respect yourself and your work by sending out emails that show how much you really do care. If you don’t care? Well, that’s another story entirely.
KNOW THE MARKET!
Don’t break the rules. If a certain publisher says they don’t take open submissions or that they only take manuscripts through an agent, trust them and take them at their word. You are NOT special. You don’t get to bypass those guidelines and thinking/assuming/acting like you do makes you look like… well, like something I’m not going to say on an otherwise positive post. Just don’t do it. Respect the publisher and what they do by not wasting their time sending them things that fall outside their guidelines. It will only serve to benefit you in the end, as you won’t look like the aforementioned *ahem* and you’ll have less in the way of rejections to contend with. The same goes for rules on simultaneous submissions, reprints, word counts, subject matter, etcetera. Don’t violate those rules hoping to sneak something by someone. The only exception is if there’s a “query for…” clause in the guidelines. Then, and ONLY then, should you send a short, personalized query to them explaining your situation.
SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS!
So you’ve done your research, you know that X Publisher doesn’t require an agent, they accept open subs, and they are looking for things in the vein of your work. Great! Now take the time to compose a clean, professional email. Spelling and grammar DO count! Moreso than in most other fields, in fact. Now is not the time for off color (or any, really) jokes unless you know 100% for a fact that they will be well received. It IS the time for spell check, maybe even having someone else look over the email before you send it. DO NOT paste your story into the body of said email unless the publisher in question has specifically requested you do so. Don’t send them Dropbox or Google Docs links unless, again, specifically requested. Do comply with their formatting instructions including appropriate fonts, contact information, and file type. For a handy dandy general formatting guide, I like this one.
Ok, so you’ve done all that. What happens if THEY DON’T LIKE YOUR SUBMISSION?! (Dun dun dunnnnn…..)
ACCEPT REJECTION GRACIOUSLY!
Seriously, guys. Let me level with you here. Rejections SUCK! Some moreso than others, but I think that if you asked even the most jaded, experienced writer out there, they’d tell you that they were upset by a rejection at some point in their careers. Some of us (Me?) have even been brought to tears once or twice. It happens. That’s OK! What’s NOT OK is lashing back at the editor. THAT is something you should avoid at all costs. Yeah, they didn’t like your story. Or they liked it, but they didn’t have room. Or it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. That’s OK! It happens! In fact, it happens more often than it doesn’t. It DOES NOT mean you get to go all psycho and respond with bitter, angry BS (or any BS, really). Just suck it up and move on. Do not respond AT ALL. That’s my personal rule. Editors are busy, they really don’t have time for reading much outside of what they have to. So respect that and don’t add to their workload by responding to a rejection with ANYTHING. Not “But what if I?” not, “How come?” not, “WHYYYYY?” Not even “Thanks for reading it.” (which is tempting, especially early on). Your best bet here is to simply let it go and move on with your life. If necessary, start back at step 1 and work on finding a home for your story/poem anew.
USE YOUR RESOURCES!
There are great resources out there that can save you a LOT of trouble. My personal favorite is Duotrope, a way to search for publishers looking for certain types of stories/manuscripts by specific criteria and even track your submissions. YES, it is a pay site and I personally find it very worth the modest $50 a year they charge. If that’s not your speed, check out the open call groups on social media, The Horror Tree (if you’re subbing horror, of course) or even just a good old fashioned web search. Do your homework on whomever you’re submitting to as well.
What if you’re not ready to submit anything yet, or what if you have questions that aren’t for a publisher?
Ok, so maybe instead of a publisher, you want to contact an author. Whether it’s someone you personally admire, someone whose career you hope to someday emulate, or just someone whose book you really loved, my advice is pretty similar to contacting a publisher. Do your homework, address your email to them personally, mention specific things you appreciated/admired, and ask specific questions. Most importantly, if you don’t get a response, or if the response you did get isn’t what you were hoping for, be gracious and kind about it. Don’t lash out, don’t act entitled, don’t threaten, harass, boycott, or otherwise slander someone just because they don’t have the time or inclination to help you out. You reached out, great! No one is under any obligation to respond to you, no one owes you a reply, their help, time, advice or anything else. And if they ARE awesome enough to give you any of those things? Be thankful, don’t take up too much of their time, be polite and courteous and decent.
Good luck, and remember: Everyone, from Stephen King straight on down, is just another human being. Follow the Golden Rule and you’ll be fine.