I’ve just been asked – literally, just a few minutes ago – to cast an editorial eye over the submission package destined (or at least intended) to make the fortune of a client of my editorial consultancy. It was timely. A few minutes before that, in the middle of a damp week which is far too cold for July (looks like New Jersey’s getting our share of summer as well as its own) and in which absolutely nothing out of the ordinary has happened, I’d been staring at the screen asking myself what on earth I was going to post about today. Thanks, Richard.
Long, long ago when I was starting out, submitting short stories to magazines and one dubious novel opening after another to publishers, the rules were clear and simple. Write a great story, and write it brilliantly. Then double-space it on white paper, unbound, one side of the page, keep a copy, don’t hassle the editor for at least six weeks. The brilliance of the content was what made it stand out from the crowd, not the way the package looked. Typewriters offered no choice of font. Pictures had to be drawn freehand, pasted to the page or paid for with a second mortgage. Postage costs made up a large portion of a wannabe writer’s business expenses. Yes, dear reader, there was a time before e-mail. There was even a time before computers. Some of us still remember it.
But it was, admittedly, long, long ago. These days there don’t seem to be any rules. But making the submission package stand out from the crowd? The truth is, these days I don’t know any more. Not because I’m out of the loop, or I don’t keep tabs on what’s happening in the book trade, but because the requirements keep changing. And they vary so much from one publisher to another. I tell clients that publishers want submissions by e-mail – then I find a publisher’s website – a website, mark you – which states categorically that they only accept hard copy. So it goes.
And don’t get me started on the way self-publishing has suddenly become respectable. Actually I think Erin and her commenters covered most of those bases a few days ago, so I’ll just say this: not so very long ago the line I have self-published this book in a query letter would have guaranteed that the package was hurled at the wall; after Fifty Shades of Grey I don’t think editors can afford to take that risk any more.
So what did I tell the consultancy client? What wise pearls did I drop at his eager feet?
Just this. Read whatever guidelines you can find, and if you're going to spend money, spend it on editing. (Yeah, OK, I know.)
He, sweet old-fashioned thing that he is, was planning to take the ‘conventional’ approach: prepare an eye-catching package, with the help of a friendly and not too expensive local printer. The usual letter, CV and one-page synopsis, sent as hard copy to half a dozen hand-selected publishers in the hope that one would ask to see the first three chapters. He’d also produced some striking illustrations to put alongside the synopsis; that’s where the friendly local printer came in. I told him, yes, OK, sometimes that might work. But before you send out a single word, check what the publisher wants.
I’ve been thinking long and hard about this whole process, and the only rule I’ve come up with for this brave new world is this: if you’re going down the ‘conventional’ route, first impressions count. They always did, and probably always will.
For a lot of people conventional publishing will remain the way to go for a long time yet. It’s not the money, or the handing over of the technical bits to experts. It’s a matter of credibility and self-belief. All self-publishing does is get your book in print, and maybe sell a few copies. OK, sometimes a few thousand, even million. But it doesn’t tell you whether or not it’s good. What a lot of aspiring writers want more than anything is someone to tell them that – someone who isn’t friend or family, or a Kindle owner who downloads everything that costs less than a pound. Someone whose opinion has been counting for something for some years. So conventional publishing isn’t dead.
Despite what I read on the web, it doesn’t even have a summer cold. I suspect it will survive and outlive a lot of trends. The death of the novel has been heralded for as long as I can remember, and I don’t think anyone serious expects the funeral notice any time soon.
OK. Sorry. I wasn’t going to rant about self-publishing. And conventional publishers do sometimes, notoriously, follow the money, so as a criterion of excellence even that route is flawed.
But the question remains. How does an aspiring author make that first impression?