Well, after the first draft of my book was completed I endeavored to get it published through the traditional route. In order to do that, I first had to find out if there was anyone out there even willing to look at it.
I felt that local publishing houses were immediately right out. After all, my book was a tragic revisionist modern historic fantasy, not some slice-o'-life Atlantic Canadian yarn. These people wanted Nights Below Station Street and I wanted to give them Tigana crossed with MacBeth.
So, I set my sights on the big American fantasy publishers. I diligently picked up a copy of the Writer's Market, a publication that lists thousands of prospective publishers and agents. Each entry gives you the name of the periodical/publishing house/agency, the contact names, what they're looking for, the submission guidelines as well as their terms and conditions. Unfortunately most of them also maintain that they:
- Don't accept unsolicited manucripts
- 85 to 95% of what they publish is agented fiction
- Or, my own personal favorite: agented submissions only
What's a query, you ask? It's the method by which writers prostrate themselves before potential publishers in the vain hope that the GOD OF DISTRIBUTION will actually read your proposal and grant you some semblance of a future. Typically there are three components to a query: the letter, the synopsis and a few sample chapters.
The query letter is your book's Player-esque sales pitch. You'll include information about the book, what makes you uniquely qualified to tell the story, and how it fits into the literary market. As such, here's an example of a good query letter:
Dear Ms. Conclusion,
Thank you for your continued encouragement of my short stories, including my most recent submission, "The Sad Goat". At your suggestion, I've enclosed a new story, "Philandering," for your review.
Since last submitting to the River Tam Review, I have had stories accepted by The Hudson Hawk Review and the Skull & Bones Review (both forthcoming), stories published in the Berkeley Breathed Fiction Review and ByMine Magazine, and I recently secured representation for my first novel. My fiction has also appeared in The Salamander, The Flannel Review, Black Panther Review and a Room With A (Re)-View.
I am originally from the Sheboygan area, and returned here last fall after completing the Creative Writing Program at the Correspondence College of Barstow. I now teach writing at the Sheboygan School of Applied Wankery.
Thank you for considering "Philandering".
Okay, here's an example of a bad query letter (my comments are in brackets):
Dear River Tam Review,
Enclosed in this envelope are some of my writings. Thirty-one years old. Poor. Pist (I think he means "Pissed"). Ready to unleash some malcontented words upon paper and society. Not having a degree in english (Obviously) leaves me at a disadvantage. Writing was once just a hobby. Now I feel that it could be more. My dream is to someday have something, anything published (Dream on, pal). Whether it be a short story, prose or novel (Um, redundant much?). This is what I will work for. Working long taxing hours. Late hours as a waiter adds to the white noise that I call my meager existence (Wha..?). Okay, maybe it's not that bad. Actually every night is like a Saturday night (Um, where are we going here?). Women, alcohol and fun (!). Words come with ease but I feel that they are unnoticed (Gee, I wonder why?). Prose is the great escape. Shorts (Does he mean short stories?) are, well like a silent fart of a mongoloid (!!!). All writing is enjoyable to me. My true passion is the working of a novel. Last week I embarked upon Blowjobs, Whiskey, and Steak (TMI!!! TMI!!!). This is my arena. Believe me when I say that I will send you the work (Is this a threat or a promise?). You will not be able to ignore the way the words will speak to you (Creepy!). Safe to say that you have not heard the last of me (Creepier!). Yes I am in love with the word; it has never let me down (Except, say, in this awful query letter). With this in mind I am ready for failure (Well, that's a good thing). I believe that a man or a woman can only be measured by their reaction to failure. So any words of encouragement, or even if you feel the need to rip me apart (More likely). It would be greatly appreciated. I would even settle for a list of other publishers in your area that might offer some advice. My expectations are low, by my writing is different (That's one way of putting it). Thank you for your time. Hope to hear from you in the near future (Not bloody likely).
Although I goofed around with the references, both of these letters are completely real. Here's what the editor said in response to the last letter:
Our magazine is a 20-year old award-winning literary magazine and his style would never fit in or be accepted. The writer did not read our guidelines. This is, by far, the most offensive and profane letter I have ever received. If the goal was to capture my attention and make me want to read the manuscript, the writer failed miserably. The query disgusted me. Period.
Okay, so what have we learned here, kiddies? Make sure your query letter is brief, to the point, inventories your accomplishments, gives pertinent details about your current submission, avoids gratuitous use of the word "mongoloid" and also opts not to mention the last time you got a hummer.
Well, after I'd removed all of these references from my own query letter I also noticed the conspicuous absence of one other key element: publishing experience. Frankly, in this day and age, with so many books to choose from (not to mention all the other entertainment-related distractions) publishers are quite keen on known quantities and a certain amount of bankability. I can't say that I can slight them for this, but then again, who's gonna roll the die on an emerging writer in an effort to uncover that new, original literary X-Factor?
Typically included with the query letter is a plot synopsis, which either indicates that you actually finished the damned thing or at least you know how to finish it. Plus it also shows if you have a head for crafting a full-bodied story with a beginning, middle and end. Please note: unless you're Steven King your finale probably shouldn't include prepubescent group sex or a Pier 6 donnybrook with a giant space spider. I'm just sayin' is all...
So, after I'd crafted a pretty decent, fellatio-free query letter, typed up a synopsis and Über-proofed my first three inclusive chapters, I sent this plucky little document blindly off. During this entire process I felt like I was trying to double into a game of darts with my helmet's blast shield down.
Sending a query letter to a prospective publisher is sure to generate feelings of despondency and helplessness for the budding writer. Your book could be the modern day equivalent of The Great Gatsby but unless there's a cappuccino-fueled agent pushing the publisher to the floor and trying to stick your manuscript up his nose, it's much more likely your book will end up in that most dreadful of purgatories: THE SLUSH PILE.
And what is that you may ask? Well, the traditional description (a pile of dirty, half-melted snow) isn't too far off the mark. It's the name publishers give to the massive mound of unsolicited manuscripts lying around the office, a stack so high that every year a bakers-dozen interns around the world are killed trying to scale their respective peaks.
Liberating your manuscript from slush pile oblivion is one of the hardest things for a new writer to do. Which is traditionally why you need an agent to constantly be screaming "HERE! Read it! Read it! Don't make me go all Clockwork Orange on your ass!" Truth is, there's a real double-edged sword at work here. You can't get an agent without first being published and you can't get published without having an agent! See how annoying this is?
I decided to cover both bases for awhile by sending my queries out in pairs: one to publishers willing to accept unsolicited manuscripts and another one to potential agents. I could only do this one set at a time since publishers tend to get upset when confronted with evidence that they're not the only game in town.
And then, you wait. Often for months at a time as your poor, sad proposal slowly works it way to the top of that Olympian-sized slush pile. The responses that you get back are often non-committal, blandly inoffensive and uselessly abstract. Here an example of one of mine:
Dear Author (Why didn't she just address it 'Dear Carbon-Based Lifeform'?):
Thank you for your recent inquiry. I'm sorry not to respond personally, but the volume of submissions that we receive unfortunately makes it impossible. I always enjoy reviewing the wealth of material that crosses my desk, but we do receive hundreds of submissions every week.
Your proposal has been considered, but I regret I am unable to offer you representation. Thank you, however, for thinking of (insert name of short-sighted literary agency here), and best of luck in the submission of your work elsewhere.
Dictated but not read
So, as you can well imagine, once you've been on the receiving end of a half dozen of these little missives you begin to equate the submission process to palming a red-hot stove burner. Frustrated by THE MAN and THE MAN'S SYSTEM of doing things, I once again put my manuscript away in a hermetically sealed vault until new avenues presented themselves.
This happened a few years later when a friend of mine turned me on to Cory Doctorow. He's a Canadian writer who's done some brave and groundbreaking stuff with digital media, copyright laws and open access to his work. In 2003 Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (and much of his subsequent work) was released electronically under the Creative Commons banner, which allows people to read and circulate his work for free as long as they don't alter it in any way or try and make a profit from it. It garnered the writer a tremendous amount of attention, including a standard paperback publishing deal.
So, I thinks myself: "Hey, self, why don't you make a portion of the book available for people to read for free? It might garner some hype and help you attract a publisher!"
Conveniently, another buddy of mine soon told me about a website called Storiesville. Storiesville allowed writers to post their flash fiction, short stories and serialized works on a blog-like website for readers of all persuasions to peruse and review. In 2008 I began to post one chapter of my book every three or four days until the first third of the book was available. Soon I'd earned myself a pretty ardent little following.
The dozen or so people that read it and left a comment were very supportive and complementary. After this confidence booster, Storiesville inspired me to set up a "pay to read" website. I'd make the first third of the book available for free and then charge fans a small stipend to unlock a new chapter or the rest of the novel in one fell swoop.
This was a boffo idea except for one thing: I had no clue how to go about doing it. I made a half-assed effort to cobble a website together about a year ago but the web host (HostPapa) and their affiliate site builder (SohoLaunch) proved to be w-a-a-a-a-a-y too creatively inhibiting. The templates they provided were frustratingly restrictive and generic. If I was going to create a internet billboard to promote my book I didn't want it to look like the website of a small town dental office.
Then disaster struck in September of 2009 when Storiesville vanished off the face of the interwebs. The site's administrator soon revealed that some douchestore with way too much time on his hands had released a virulent attack upon its web host resulting in a complete loss of all data. Faced with the monumental effort of having to get the site back up and running, he decided to pack it in for good.
And with it, all the great comments people had left for my book were also lost forever. The only information I had about my supporters were a bunch of vague usernames like Pastor Reg, Rage Age, Chicago Jake, Moxjosie, and R.E. Potter. I had no way to contact them. I wish that I'd had the foresight to save their feedback in a Word document but I never thought in a million years that the site would ever be so utterly annihilated by hackers.
I was at a whole new low. It seemed as if I was destined to keep my book all to myself like some malformed mutant brother locked up in the spare room and kept alive by a diet of fish-heads.
Then in late 2010 I did Stephen Patrick Clare's C.K.D.U.'s radio show "The Book Club" while promoting Open Heart Forgery. One of the other guest was an interesting local actor named John Alexander Baker, who'd just self-published a book called God Yes, Hell No.
Now, although the book's subject matter wasn't exactly my cuppa joe (and there's no chance that I'd ever be able to plaster my own mug all over the cover of my book), I could see the potential in self-publication. At least I'd be able to steer people to it if they really wanted to read it. And although John's formatting, editing and organization was a bit cockeyed, I was still impressed by the book's overall production values and reasoned that my anal-retentive nature would ensure that I could produce a pretty decent-looking product.
Plus, John's an older guy and (I suspect ) not the most technologically savvy dude on the planet. So, my theory was, if he could pull it off then so could I.
So, I set to work researching Kindle and CreateSpace publication routes. My goal: to make my book available to anyone who wanted to read it by hook or by crook.
But, as you might expect, things are never quite as easy as you'd hope...
EPIC Here's an inspirational news report on a tremendous independent publishing success story. Damn, I wish I'd written a book about 'tween paranormal romance instead of deathwish-obsessed berserker pirates. Which begs the question: are only teenage girls reading en mass anymore?
FAIL More query letter FAIL-ures.