Simultaneous Submissions (Should I or Shouldn’t I?)

I’ve often heard writers ask whether they should follow a “no simultaneous submissions” policies, as requested by some publishers.

The question of multiple submissions, also call simultaneous submissions, is daunting to an emerging writer.

Here is how the policy is often stated:

Please do not send us work which is also being submitted elsewhere. We do not consider simultaneous submissions. This policy saves our editors from reading work that is not actually available for first North American publication, and it saves authors the embarrassment of having to withdraw a manuscript.

My advice? I recommend that authors do what is in the best interests of the author, and let publishers do what is in their best interests.

It’s a bit of a gray area, I admit; it may depend on how “hot” or timely or truly amazing your work is. You generally want to be respectful, in part to increase your likelihood of acceptance anywhere. Still, in a nutshell, if you feel compelled to violate a publisher’s policy . . . well, you cannot always shape your business model to what is most convenient or efficient for a publisher.

In short, while publishers logically are publisher-centric . . . as an author, you need to be author-centric. Exclusive expectations to review literary work, given the competition of the real world, seems unrealistic, especially if you are submitting work “over the transom” (which means unsolicited).

As an author, your responsibility is to submit good and appropriate work, which gives a publisher a chance to consider it and respond as quickly as they wish to. In this business climate, publishers should know that unbought work can be bought or acquired by a competitor if they don’t move quickly enough.

I’d say publisher legitimately could request a “no simultaneous submissions” policies if:

  1. They acknowledge receipt.
  2. They indicate how long before a response will be given.
  3. They indeed respond to your submission within that time.

If so, their request that authors don’t submit work elsewhere is more reasonable. Still, authors – especially new emerging authors – need to submit and get work published, and they need to pursue this aggressively.

Caveats and exceptions:

1. Don’t submit countless random, machine-gun simultaneous.

I recommend authors be selective. Do good research into likely prospects. Start with the highest-value publishers (or literary agents), those with the greatest pay or highest readership or greatest literary prestige. If it’s a timely item, you might want to send it to a selection of a few prospects. If you don’t hear anything soon, then move onto the next prospects on your list.

2. Do honor explicit requests for an exclusive read.

If a publisher, editor, or agent looks at a brief query and requests more, asking for or expecting an “exclusive look” for a set period of time, I’d likely grant that. I’d confirm the period of time; if one isn’t given, I’d send the requested work but state my acceptable period for an exclusive look, perhaps 3–4 weeks. At that time, I’d nudge, and ask how the review has gone, before withdrawing it from the “exclusive” zone.

3. Avoid irritating good clients.

If you have a working relationship with a publisher, then you have a reason to give that partner in your literary career a first look, probably an exclusive one, at new work. Some book contracts may insist on that. But it’s generally a good way to do business. This would be true also of a literary journal where you’ve seen some past publishing success; you may have an inside track, and so logically want to build a good relationship.

But, if you are an emerging writer without a lot of published credits or existing relationships with agents or publishers . . . and you want to get your work published to launch a fairly new career . . . ask yourself what is the best model for your success? You are exactly the person who needs to get your work onto a lot of editorial desks to be reviewed.

A publisher should know they are in competition for manuscripts, especially when it comes to discovering new talent.

Sure, they’d like an exclusive look. Who wouldn’t?

As a business matter, authors should consider the risk. Ask yourself: what’s the down side? Let’s say one publisher accepts it, and you have to notify others (yes, you should be courteous and do this immediately) that the work was accepted elsewhere and you have to withdraw your submission from further consideration. If they are peeved . . . well, they should have responded sooner if they really wanted to acquire the work.

And you have made the publisher who accepted the work happy; this is the publisher you’ll clearly be working with. You’ve annoyed an editor who thinks he/she “wasted” (possibly) time considering your work, but didn’t move quickly enough. So? It’s only a factor for you and your business if you later want to work with that publisher, and if the same editor is there and maintains a black list. Is there some risk here? Have you possibly burned a bridge? Sure. But I think your outcome, in such a case, is better than having your work sit too long on a single desk.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in playing the literary game fairly. But to me, an exclusive demand for unsolicited work just doesn’t meet my definition of fair to all parties involved.

Further Reading:

Here’s a well-balanced discussion of some issues (Harold Underdown recommends reasonably that you indicate that your submission is a multiple submission):

Here’s a good author-centric analysis:

Excellent Resource for Authors Looking at Self-Publishing

I got a copy of this book recently, and I immediately found myself in the next several days recommending it to several authors who were considering self-publishing.

The book is The Fine Print of Self-Publishing by Mark Levine. The brilliant thing about this practical volume (4th edition): it looks in considerable detail at key differences in the publishing contracts and basic options offered by the leading self-publishing companies.

The companies analyzed include the big players: CreateSpace, Lulu, Outskirts Press, and others—a total of 24 self-publishing operations from Aventine to Xulon. Levine looks at them through a magnifying glass, discussing the pros and cons of each.

He also divides the players into four groups: Outstanding, Pretty Good, Okay, and To Avoid (the list for that last category includes Trafford, PublishAmerica, Xlibris, and iUniverse, among others.

In the Outstanding category, for instance, he includes Aventine Press, one I’ve often highlighted in talks I’ve given at writers conferences because of its quality, price, and services.

CreateSpace, another avenue I’ve often recommended (mainly because of its close connection with Amazon), is listed as Pretty Good. And Levine will tell you why he’s judged it to fall in that range.

I also recommend that newbie self-publishers read this book just to understand the ins and outs of contract language. There’s indeed a lot of fine print in these contracts. While you can’t negotiate the deal in these standard packages (as you can with an indie press and to some extent with a big press), you can get more of what really matter to you and your project by picking the right publishing partner and the right package within that company’s options.

This book is described as a Consumer Reports–type report, and I concur. Buying this book (list price $16.95) may well save you a ton of money, headaches, and heartaches.

It’s subtitled: Everything You Need to Know about the Costs, Contracts & Process of Self-Publishing. If you want to take the self-publishing plunge, buy this book first.

Getting Published with a Small Indie Press – Finding the Right One

[This is Part 4 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007.]

To this point, I’ve discussed pros and cons in getting published with a small press. Now . . . how to find the right match.


Set realistic goals.
Know why you want to be published. To see your work in print? To have control over your work? To become rich or famous? To make a living as a writer? To break in? To make a difference in the world?

Realistic goals will help you decide if you want to work with a particular small press. Make this part of your discussions with a potential publisher.

Be prepared to be a partner in marketing your title.
Can you deliver specific ideas or contacts with specialty magazines, newsletters, conferences, bookstores, interest groups, professional associations? Can you contact some yourself with review copies or PR info? Get on a local radio show or arrange signings near your home or in places you travel to on vacation?

Be prepared to help out with grassroots marketing, from joining key associations to developing a blogsite to mentioning your book to that person sitting next to you at the dentist office.

Plan subsequent work in your subject area.
Perhaps your niche is writing about Japanese zen gardens or Western novels. Your first book may gather good reviews and decent sales. If so, many readers would love to see a another book by you. So would your publisher. (Don’t try to sell multiple works off the bat – a publisher won’t be ready for that, and you might later want to move elsewhere; just make this part of your personal planning and general discussions with a publisher.)

Do your research to find the right publisher.
Finding the right match is like getting married. Don’t jump at the first opportunity if it doesn’t seem ideal. And don’t court a publisher as a one-sided effort; find one that wants you as much as you want them.


Visit your library.
One major resource is Literary Market Place — the leading directory of the book trade. (It requires a press to publish at least 3 books a year to be listed.) The bible for smaller and edgier presses is the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (Dustbooks), also available in your library.

Look for publishers in your immediate locale, state, or region.
Do a web search for book publishers in your area. A local publisher might be more open to your proposal. Why? Because they have existing contacts with regional stores, newspapers, and reviewers that will have some interest in you as a local author.

Check the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Formerly known as Publishers Marketing Association, they have a membership of more than 4,000 small publishers, from microscopic to heavy hitters like Sourcebooks. Look for publishers with awards, good websites, great cover designs, clear niches, etc. Publishers join to get access to IBPA’s marketing programs to libraries and stores, which is good for an author.

Check the Council of Literary Magazines and Publishers.
Because there are dues involved, and member services, and some screening or review process, membership in a professional trade organization tends to be a good starting point in any search.

Join organizations for writers.
Associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) or the Romance Writers of America (RWA) – or any of the other national organizations for specific types of writers – maintain detailed lists of publishers. Membership gives you access to insider info and interviews, workshops, and valuable networking.

Check the web; check your bookstore.
For nonfiction publishers, search the Web for listings using your subject area, plus key words like press, publishers, or book(s).

Another good method is to scan your library or bookstore shelves for the names of publishers who have published books similar to yours. Bookstores carry more new titles, and so will be more useful than library collections if you want to see what’s being published now.

Examine similar books closely. Do they include illustrations? Charts? Extensive appendices of resources? Make sure your own book proposal includes those.

Publisher websites.
Finally, many publishers have websites with writer guidelines, or you can check annual guides like Writer’s Market that list publishers by category, with summaries of what they publish and how to contact them.


Study their most recent catalog (print or online).
How do they describe their books? (This will give outstanding hints on what the publishers like and what they think the buyers will like!) How much catalog space do they devote to new books and also to backlist (which your book will become soon after it is released).

A very, very important question: Is this a group of authors and titles you want to be associated with? Will it reflect well on you and boost your prestige? You will be judged by the company you keep.

Do they have a good distributor?
A good distributor has the punch to get a book out to more stores if demand warrants it. Influential ones include National Book Network (Lanham, MD) and Independent Publishers Group (Chicago). There are others that handle varied other distribution needs.

And good distributors are picky; they don’t want to work with fly-by-night presses or ones that publish occasionally or unevenly.

Look for a steady presence in your niche market.
This can be ads in specialty publication or regular booths at important conferences. If you have written a science-fiction novel, for instance, check the magazines – Locus, Asimov’s, etc. – to see who is actively advertising. Would you rather be with a publisher that runs lots of large ads? . . . occasional small ads? . . . a classified listing in the back? . . . or no ads at all? The answer should be clear.

Once you enter discussions with a small press, ask for details on the most similar project.
How many copies did they sell? Over what time period? How did they do that? What kind of mailings, ads, and special activities did they undertake to achieve success? You want to ferret out more than just: “We’ve sold 20,000 copies of our best title.” As the warning phrase says, “Your actual experience might vary.”

Seek some details. Although a press may not share every scrap of info, they should be able to give some sense of what has worked best and why.

Look for genuine chemistry and enthusiasm.
Yes, it’s hard to quantify, but you’ll know it when you see it: a publisher that is truly excited by your work and really wants to do their best to make it a success.

What financial commitment is the publisher making?
What exactly will they commit to a project? A decent advance? Promises to place ads in key publications? Lots of postcards or bookmarks you can mail and hand out? This may not appear in your contract, but you can discuss it and get it planned, written down, and agreed to in advance. The more “skin in the game” a publisher has, the greater their vested interest in making your book succeed.


Like all relationships, while hoping for the best, it’s prudent to be prepared for the worst. You may wish to limit the rights, or the time frame of the contract, or not include subsequent works. If things go well, you can extend the relationship.

As the project moves forward, trust but verify. Keep in touch. Don’t be a pest, but don’t sit on your hands. Ask what’s happening with production, release plans, promotions, and once launched, with sales. Best of all, ask how you can help!

For any author wanting to reach a niche audience, or wanting to break into print to get some good reviews and a sales history, then to seek to move up the ladder, small presses can be a great stepping stone.

Or a match made in heaven.

[Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.]

Getting Published with a Small Indie Press – The Negatives

[This is Part 3 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007.]

Let’s look at things that can be real problems in getting a book published with a small independent presses.

Minimal Advances
Small often means just that when it comes to advances. The up-front money handed over to an author before books hit the streets can be microscopic, from virtually nil to a few thousand dollars. Small presses often point out they prefer to put their cash into promotions. However, this creates more risk for the author, who must wait for elusive future royalties, without the guaranteed income of a decent advance.

Lack of Prestige
A small-press label may offer little or no name recognition. Unfortunately, many people assume that a book published by a small press wasn’t good enough to be published by a larger press. You tell people you have been published, but when you tell them by whom, they get a funny look on their faces, different than if you had said Random House.

Small Marketing Budgets
Marketing budgets are rarely big. Smaller presses rely heavily on low-cost promotions: sending review copies, courting word-of-mouth support from niche audiences.

In the bookstore world, a small-press label tips off a buyer that there is probably less money for store placement or co-op efforts or PR campaigns to drive readers quickly into stores. Accordingly, small-press books are less likely to get prime placement—if stocked at all. Too often a small-press book needs to be special-ordered by a bookstore if a customer takes the trouble to request it.

All publishing houses, large and small, rely on authors playing some role in marketing. Authors need to consider the time, money, and effort of developing a author platform (in advance) and then using that platform to fuel sales in the author’s sphere of influence.

The same is true for author-involved marketing that can occur after a book’s release: book launches, author signings, mini-tours, being a speaker or having a booth at a regional trade show or conference. Most of those will only happen if authors do the booking and pay their own way.

For any size of press, authors need to be a partner in marketing a book, but more so with small presses. The good news: small presses will gladly work closely with you. But they may have little cash and a small staff, and this will limit what they can do.

Meager Reserves
Small can mean slow to publish or slow to pay. With fewer titles in a hopper, any setback (on any title, not just yours) can affect the whole line, if the press doesn’t have enough cash reserves. A small press has less likelihood of the occasional bestseller, creating revenues that can cover a lot of overhead and make the whole business profitable.

Small presses, especially the micro-presses, have any number of things that can throw them off stride: illness striking a tiny staff, an owner with personal financial difficulties, a poor decision to expand that isn’t well planned.

Small presses also may be at greater risk from problems occurring elsewhere in the distribution/sales chain. Famous examples: the occasional closings of middlemen distributors, leaving the smallest presses in chaos and with the smallest amount of clout in negotiating a settlement to recover income or inventory.

Of course, authors published by big presses also have horror stories. These include cases of questionable accounting, mysterious deductions, editors leaving abruptly, or projects getting cancelled. They may be more prone to back-office politics or sudden changes in management philosophy, compared to the steady operations of a well-run, focused small press.

And even good-sized publishing houses occasionally go belly-up. But the business or the titles are often acquired by someone else; this creates headaches for an author, but less risk of a total collapse.

All in all, the slimmer resources of a small press are definitely a concern for authors. As with most comparisons of small vs. large, working with a smaller business gets you more attention, bigger clout with that business, and possibly a more informed and interactive relationship. But there are plenty of unavoidable negatives to consider.

[Next in this series: Getting Published with a Small Indie Press: How To Find the Right Press for You]

Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.

Getting Published with a Small Indie Press – The Positives

[This is Part 2 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007.]

Let’s look at things that good-quality, small independent presses do well for writers.

They often take risks on new or unconventional writers. They look for work with literary or social value, or useful to a specialized niche, rather than demanding a more common denominator (such as being similar to other work already published, or appealing to a very large demographic, or having the elusive compelling author platform already in place). They may read relevant submissions more carefully. And they might consider offbeat submissions, something larger presses seldom do. Sometimes, a small press will stretch itself to reach into a new area if they get a great manuscript, realizing an author might bring new audiences into their fold.

Grassroots Niche Marketing
The better ones do creative publicity, using low-cost, grassroots guerrilla tactics. They seek reviews with small but respected publications, send catalogs to regional or specialty shops, attend professional conferences. They get books adopted for university courses. They try harder and longer to reach specialized audiences, whether organic gardeners or feminist mystery fans or Hispanic-speaking families of the American Southwest or Christian homeschoolers, and often develop long-term relationships with those communities. Their familiarity with a niche audience can in turn provide useful feedback to develop a good book project, with more detailed information about what that audience wants and needs.

Editorial Involvement
A good small press may provide lots of hands-on editorial support to help an author who has a special story to tell or a great concept, even if the manuscript needs a bit of extra work. Large presses can sit back and reject promising but unpolished work, waiting for the ready-to-go, easy-to-sell manuscript. But quality small presses are generally known for their editorial accessibility and hands-on support.

Open to an Author’s Diversity
Small presses might publish work by an established author who wishes to branch out into a new field. Joseph Bruchac’s popular children’s books of Native legends are published by major presses like Harcourt, Philomel, and Dial, but he turned to a small press, Holy Cow! Press of Duluth, Minn., to publish his poetry. Other well-known authors like Ursula K. Le Guin or Jane Yolen have chosen in their illustrious careers to publish an occasional book with a smaller press to get worthwhile work out into the light of day.

Small presses may shepherd a slow-developing title longer as it reaches for its grassroots readership, which can take time, especially in fields where success may depend on a particular annual conference, a quarterly journal, or a post-publication blurb from an influential person. Tenaciously, they stay on the case, seeking publicity and sales long after big presses would move on to greener pastures. In contrast, large presses are famous for Darwinian tactics: publishing lots of titles, throwing them out to the wolves of the trade, then waiting to see which books do well quickly, fully prepared to pull resources from slow-to-develop titles.

Small presses tend to be loyal to their authors. Once they have invested their slim resources to develop an author and explore niche audiences, they look favorably on subsequent work by that author. They may do this even if a first title had only modest success, to sell more copies of that earlier title as well as to expand their foothold in small markets.

As Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue, summarized her very successful experience getting published with an excellent indie press: “For a first-time author, working with a small publisher can be a boon. A personal relationship with staff members representing all aspects of the publishing process develops quickly. With a small house publishing only a few books each season, individual authors are very important people. I found that the entire staff of MacMurray & Beck got behind Girl in Hyacinth Blue, believed in me, celebrated each good review with me, and was profoundly happy at its success.

[Next in this series: Getting Published with a Small Indie Press: The Negatives]

Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.

Getting Published with a Small Indie Press – Is It Right for You?

[This is Part 1 in a 4-part series, based on an article of mine in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007.]

Small presses offer opportunities for new or different authors. As we said in the ’60s: small is beautiful. Literary, adventurous, or tightly focused, small presses routinely take chances on new authors who have some thing important to say. And through the democracy of the Internet and guerrilla marketing tactics, they may have a decent shot at financial success, major awards, and media attention with select titles.

Or not.

It can be just the right thing for you. But how do you know?

First, what is a typical small press? “Typical” is not really applicable to this diverse universe. There are thousands of independent presses, as different as cats and dogs and armadillos. They may reflect the personality of a single person working out of a home office. Others have grown into a corporate entities with real offices with potted plants.

Some have been around for decades, others for just a few years. Each year a good number disappear, but many new ones rise to take their place.

A tiny micro-press might publish only one or two books a year. Others might release a dozen or more titles a season. First printings tend to be modest, from a digital Print-on-Demand (POD) approach that only prints books as needed, ranging to runs of 3,000–5,000 copies.

Their editorial goals range from presenting “new voices” to publishing worthwhile books overlooked by big publishers because they didn’t fit somebody’s business plan. Small presses create titles from avocado cookbooks to zoo activity guides, and everything in between.

The name of the game for indie presses: “find the niche.”

In total, these myriad presses are responsible for publishing many of the astounding number of of new titles (more than 100,000 titles each year!) flooding into the American marketplace.

Most prefer the term “independent press” over “small press,” to emphasize their uniqueness. They don’t like to think of their ambitions or literary talents being diminutive in any sense.

However, small press is the term I will use here to focus on the realities of working with most of these publishers: small staff, limited resources.

Given this tremendous diversity, what should you expect when dealing with a small press?

[Next in this series: Getting Published with a Small Indie Press: The Positives]

Disclaimer: yes, I currently run a small indie press, Crickhollow Books. For more on that effort, visit the Crickhollow Books website.

Can You Compete for an Agent’s or Editor’s Time?

Aspiring authors often seem puzzled that their work isn’t read more carefully, or positively, or even at all, when they send their work out to an agent or an editor.

Those would-be authors aren’t thinking enough about the competitive pressure on the gatekeepers’ time. Editors and agents have a lot of hot projects, and to add another to their list means you need to deliver a truly compelling work . . . good enough to make them put aside something else.

Yes, your work may be perfectly fine. Readable and enjoyable. Yeoman plot. Likable hero. All that. But agents and editors have a lot of that already. You need to compete for their attention, and compete hard. You need to knock their socks off.

And quickly. If you are a new author, it had better happen in the first few pages.

Here’s how it looks from a busy editor’s point of view. This is a perspective shared at a WisCon 2009 panel a few weeks ago by James Frenkel, senior editor of science fiction titles for Tor Books.

Frenkel was talking to an audience of mostly would-be authors. He said, okay, it might help to understand my professional priorities as an editor. The top projects on my desk, he said, are sequels by bestselling authors already in the Tor line-up. (Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? These are lucrative projects with a built-in audience, likely to sell and also will promote earlier work in the series.)

Then, he said, next in line are new queries or manuscripts by other bestselling authors at Tor, although not necessarily sequels. (Makes a lot of sense; these are proven authors in which Tor already has a relationship and an investment. More work by these good authors will likely pay off.)

Then, Frenkel looks at new work by bestselling authors from the outside, pitched to him by top agents. (Makes sense; these are from authors and agents who have proven themselves, although not at Tor.)

Then, he looks at proposals from new authors . . . sent to him via top agents who also represent bestselling authors. (Makes sense; these agents know the business and have a track record of identifying successful writers and material.)

Then . . . Frenkel paused and looked at the aspiring authors in the room . . . “If I have time, I look at you.”

Clearly, there’s not a lot of time left. That’s the way the business works. Publishers, editors, agents, marketing departments, all are busy working with people who have already shown signs of success. They already have a lot of viable projects on their desks.

Frenkel clearly would love, as does any editor, to discover new talent. But his and others’ time is limited.

No, it’s not impossible to break in. But to do it, you need to gird your loins to compete, and compete hard. If one of those agents or editors does get a few moments to riffle through a slush pile . . . you need to make your manuscript sparkle . . . quickly, convincingly, without any quibbles or concerns or dull spots or wasted words.

We all have to compete, even (as you can see from Frenkel’s hierarchy of attention) those much higher in the queue than you or me.

So . . . make the most of any chance you get. Write a couple of first pages that are teeming with the “wow!” factor, that are really outstanding (not just competent), that fire a reader’s immediate curiosity about what comes next. Make us say, “Hey, that’s remarkably good. I’ll read some more.”

“I’ll read more . . . despite all the pressures on my time . . . despite all the other projects piled on my desk that are so likely to succeed and fund my paycheck.”

Can you do that? The opening lines should be fantastic. The first page must be great. And the following several pages should be brisk and bold and brilliant with the promise of a wonderful story.

Four Reasons Not To Self-Publish a Novel

Is self-publishing a short-cut to fame . . . or a short-circuit?

Here’s a bit of tough love for novelists. I’ll give you four good reasons not to self-publish your novel. Instead, stick it in a drawer! Better things might happen to you if you do.

First, I’m not a big fan of self-publishing as a great option for most writers. When you hear success stories . . . remember: your actual results may vary!

But writers are hopeful and by their nature persistent. Novel writers, especially so. After a zillion hours slaving at a keyboard, what if your novel sits unpublished, on a shelf or forlorn inside your computer?

Self-publish! many will say. But below are some counter-arguments, why deciding not to publish a novel may lead to more positive outcomes.

Yes, it’s nice to be able to tell friends that you are a “published author.” If this is what you desire most, then certainly you may put up your own money to publish your own book.

Yes, others have self-published; a few have even achieved fame and fortune. But it is also the source of a tremendous amount of sub-par writing – work that is poorly edited, meandering, overblown, inconsistent.

Frankly, because of the quality problems in the self-publishing world, most book buyers (individuals or stores) are not going to look for their next purchase in the ranks of POD novels. There may be lovely, shining needles in those literary haystacks; your novel may be one of them. But if someone wants a needle, let’s be honest, there are easier ways to find one than searching through gigantic mounds of moldy hay. Most readers will look elsewhere.

So even if your novel is well-written, self-publishing it will likely throw disappointment in your face. You may sell only a few dozen copies, plus those you give to friends and relatives.

To complicate the matter, there are those who gain from encouraging you to publish to “fulfill your dream.” Magazines and the Internet abound with ads, rich with tales of writers who have succeeded in this way. The advertised services have a vested interest in encouraging you to print your work, whether this is best for your career or not. So their ads suggest grand things ahead if you are bold and ambitious. Take advantage of the wonders of POD! It’s cool, it’s modern, it gives you control. Publish your work, and it is “available worldwide!”

But let’s think a bit more deeply about your choices and likely outcomes. Take a moment to look at some positives . . . if you set it aside. Consider how you might benefit by deciding to stick an unpublished novel in a drawer.

1. You can give it a long rest. A sojourn from endless tinkering can offer a fresh perspective later, an insight to fix a fatal flaw. Too often, beginning writers undermine their work by reworking it too often; such manuscripts might have been saved if set aside, then returned to later . . . much later, when your skills have advanced!

2. You can recycle pieces. If a work is unpublished, you can freely recycle major elements: characters, plot twists, dialogue, anything. If you’ve gone ahead and published it, you can’t. Many beginning authors write first novels with lots of good pieces. But overall, the work just doesn’t form a compelling whole. But certain elements – an engaging character, a plot twist, a wonderful scene – can invigorate a next new work. (A good bit of your first novel might even become a secondary plot within your next novel.)

3. You can pitch it later. If you write new work that’s accepted for publication, you have a great opportunity to pitch earlier works to your editor. Why? He or she now has a relationship with you, an investment in your name. Naturally, that editor might be receptive to earlier works. Even if those works are flawed, a supportive editor might suggest useful changes. Of course, you have improved tremendously as a writer and now can see ways to fix that earlier work!

4. You can keep the fire in your belly alive. Consider how most successful writers achieved their greatness. Rarely did they get their first work published! Instead, they wrote and wrote . . . and agonized when those first attempts didn’t get published. But they persisted to write new material that carried them to fame. If they had published that first, likely inferior work, it might have proved a detriment, even a blight on their career. Worst of all, it might have dissipated their drive to write something better.

Instead, push yourself to improve. Many unpublished writers are very good writers, but just need to learn to craft a better story – with a more appealing hook, richer characters, a tighter plot.

Don’t get stuck. Start a second work. Keep multiple projects underway; it’s a professional practice that will pay off. Work hard on manuscripts, but understand the difference between persistence and obsession.

Desire to write a new and better work. Create new characters, dramatic scenes, compelling premises. Interweave more small stories and sub-plots. Let your writing skills mature.

This article doesn’t tell you when to stick a novel in a drawer and move on to the next work. But don’t self-publish work if it doesn’t live up to the reasonably high demands of the outside world. Avoid a petulant stubbornness to prove the world wrong . . . by publishing it yourself.

Consider that decision in light of your overall career path. What’s best for you if you want to become a successful writer?

Writing a first work that remains unpublished – a beloved first manuscript reluctantly put aside to begin your next exciting project – is a real and meaningful rite of passage.

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Curb Appeal: Staging your Literary Work

What is curb appeal?

According to the real-estate business, curb appeal is what potential buyers see first when they drive up to your property that’s for sale. It “embraces everything between your front door and the street” (per the MyHomeIdeas site).

That site goes on to note: “It doesn’t take much to make dramatic style improvements.” Tips include adding flower boxes or a nicer mailbox, trimming the shrubs, etc.

“With a little faith in your vision, and a few tips from the pros,” they say, “you can transform a dowdy exterior to an inviting, welcoming entranceway.”

Well . . . same for your manuscript.

Like staging a house for sale, to prepare your work to pitch to others, think more about the buyer’s interests. What will draw them in off the street and get them in the door?

Yes, you’re terribly fond of that wildflower patch in the yard, or the abstract painting in the foyer, but will it turn off a group of potential buyers before they get far inside? Will they really love your herb garden . . . or see it as a nightmare to maintain? That family photo means so much to you . . . but take it down . . . if you want to let buyers enter and imagine themselves in the home as their own.

We’re talking metaphorically, about your writing.

What are common techniques to “stage” your work for curb appeal?

1. For god’s sake, clean up the place. Fix the most visible problems!

2. Consider: what is the likely audience? And what do they want in a reading experience?

3. How do I attract the quick look online, the drive-by eyeballing of the place, the noncommittal “check-it-out” tour?

4. Are you able to stage it yourself? Or would you benefit from the help of a professional?
Literary agents, book doctors, and editorial consultants – like me – do a lot of “staging”; we think about how your work will appeal to readers (other than you!) and how to put its best foot forward.

To stage your manuscript, here are a few quick ideas.

1. Does the tentative title appeal to your audience?
Have you tested it vs. other possible titles with a small group? Seriously, the best title isn’t the one you like, but the one that attracts others who don’t know anything about what’s inside the work. I often go to a bookstore for this; bookstore staff, if they have a minute, often have great insight into which title might appeal more than another.

2. Have you written a compelling, brief – but confident and impressive – bio of you as author?

3. Do you have any evidence of testimonials or feedback from typical users/readers, any indication of interest from others?
Or evidence of comparable sales of nearby, truly similar properties?

4. How compelling is the first page or two, really?
Would you buy the book, or invest more time to examine it, based on the first paragraphs?

5. If nonfiction, is the table of contents clear and revealing of what’s inside?
Maybe it’s just me, but I shy away from cute chapter titles; I think it shows a lack of understanding of how a book sells and what a reader wants in a table of contents . . . not to be amused by your cleverness . . . they want to know what the book’s about and be able to find things in it!

6. Personally, I am a fan of the good epigraph quote.
These are placed at the front of the book. The epigraph to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is from the Bible. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

A clever epigraph, maybe an intriguing, pertinent quote from a literary giant of the past, is like that trim and colorful flowerbox . . . it doesn’t turn anyone off, but attracts those who enjoy those things.

7. A preface, by a famous person, is generally a good thing.
People know they can skip it, that it’s not essential to the work and was written afterward by someone else. It will impress some, and be quickly skipped by others.

8. A prologue by the author, on the other hand, is not always as good an idea as it seems (especially for fiction).
If it’s there, it should be brief, and very intriguing. If it’s too long, it’s hard to skip, but slows things down from the start instead of plunging the reader into the work. To me, it just raises the question of why you feel the reader needs to know some background before starting the real story.

9. A great pitch paragraph is always appreciated by everyone.
Can you sum up your book in 3-4 paragraphs? Or your story or article in a line or two? A good pitch identifies the neighborhood (genre) of the work, and the style, and mentions a couple of great features that everyone is sure to love. Is it a bungalow or a ranch-style or a brownstone? And how many bathrooms?

Buyers don’t want to hear: “it’s hard to describe” or “it’s a unique combo Tudor/bungalow/ranch.” Most buyers will say “Yikes!” and look elsewhere.

So . . . pretend for a moment that you’re starting to consider buying a house. What do you scan for? When you’re ready to check out a specific property, what do you want to see as you approach?

A nice description of the property? A good neighborhood? A successful broker showing it? A well-kept front yard? A few points of appeal as you enter? A welcoming feel? Nothing to turn you off before you get too far? A sense that the place might fit you?

Now, think of your manuscript as that property.

What the literary curb appeal?

Yes, eventually, it’s a matter of the quality of your writing. But if you don’t get them to look at the place, you aren’t going to sell it.

You Need to Beat the Competition

Here’s a tough-love news flash:
To Get Published, You Need to Beat the Competition!

It’s a fundamental problem I see in a lot of aspiring, emerging writers. First, their work is pretty good. Second, their work isn’t good enough.

Why not? Well, it isn’t original or appealing enough to draw a reader away from other well-known books & authors already existing and successful in your field or genre.

You need to recognize and try to beat the competition.

To succeed, your work has to be appealing enough to make someone who doesn’t know you from Adam (or Eve) grab their wallet (or metaphysical wallet of time and attention) and spend it on you and your writing.

In the real world, you’re asking a reader to turn away from other, let’s face it, compelling and well-marketed work, to buy yours instead.

Instead. That’s a key word.

Beginning authors don’t think enough about the high bar of existing competition.

Take a moment to think seriously about how you go about buying a book. What’s your threshold to open your wallet and hand over real cash?

Imaging yourself going into a bookstore, or shopping for a book online. Better yet, go ahead. Do it. Shop for a book in your field. (Thinking all the time of why someone would choose your work over it and others.)

What makes you a) select a book to look more closely at, and b) decide to buy it?

Really. What does the trick?

  • You need to encounter it first. How did you find it? Is it visible in the “aisles” you travel?
  • You quickly eyeball the cover.
  • You ask, “Have I heard good things about that book or that author?”
  • You look at it a bit more. You read the back cover.
  • Does the back cover deliver: Great summary? Great reviews? Is it clearly what I like/want to read?
  • You might read the first page.
  • Or you open it at random in the middle and scan a paragraph or two.
  • If it’s a nonfiction book. you might check the table of contents, or the index.

All through the process, you’re asking: What is so special about this book that I should buy it and not the bestselling, recommended, well-reviewed book next to it?

It’s a very high bar. The catch: It isn’t good enough to write something that people will like after they’ve read it. You need to get them to like it before they’ve read it . . . to get them to buy it.

So . . . can you tell me in 1, 2, 3 sentences, why your work is intriguing, appealing, different, dramatic?

If nonfiction, can you tell me why it’s well organized, useful, a fresh take on old subject, what niche it fills, how it’s different from other similar books?

Learn to pitch your work to a literary agent or editor or reader in a way that shows that you know the competition, explaining how your book matches up well enough to win readers.

As business consultant Rhonda Adams said in a great short article (“Great Faith. Great Doubt. Great Effort.”) included in The New Writer’s Handbook, Vol 2, and also found on her website), a key factor in your success is Great Doubt.

Great doubt, not about your abilities! . . . but about the marketability of your product.

Why, why, why . . . will they buy my book/literary work? (Instead of another choice?)

Vive la différence! What’s different and most appealing? Find it, and add to it. Boost it. Push it forward. Cut out clichés and common stuff. Be more . . . something! (quirky, suspenseful, well-organized, whatever).

[next post to come soon: Delivering More Appeal]

The Succinct Pitch: Why It Works

“I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me.”
– A.A. Milne, in Winnie-the-Pooh

Short words and phrases are effective. Whether it’s a query letter to an agent, or a review blurb excerpt, keep it short and sweet, and you’ll impress more than you would with a long version.

Why is the short pitch so effective? Because an appealing, succinct summary of a work is a likely indicator of the nature of the work itself: good focus, clear communication, and good storytelling – all of which we want and expect in our reading materials, whether for pleasure or profession.

This is why the movie or book blurb is so effective:

“Thrilling.” “Great storytelling.” “A real page-turner.” “Essential.”

It’s the shortest version of a pitch. This ultra-short approach is not just a marketing gimmick or a problem of tight space. It’s an effective bit of quick communication.

If you’re a chef, you know the value of what’s called a reduction. For Christmas dinner in our household, we tackle a different country’s holiday menu each year. This year was Spain. I made some tasty seafood crepes. One of the great ingredients was the cooking liquid (mostly wine) in which I’d just poached some red snapper and crab. That pan-full of liquid was then reduced, by boiling it for a while, to a tiny amount, just a half cup. Wow! It was bursting with a savory, delightful flavor – not something you could buy in a store – which I used to flavor the fish and creamy nutmeggy stuffing, with a sherry cream sauce on top . . . yummm!

The same is true for your pitch. Start with a paragraph. Then, boil it down, Reduce it to a couple of sentences. Then, cut those sentences to a shorter form. What are the fewest key words that best sum up your work, in a quick, essential, delightful way?

If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or my mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.
— Michael Korda, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster

Why does this work?

1. We’re all busy.
Tell it quickly, make it exciting and brief, then be done. Trying to cram more at me than I want to hear, especially at first when I just want to know if it’s even the type of thing I like, is not going to put me in a better mood about you and your work.

2. You can quickly tell a lot.
By reading just a little bit, using a professional instinct developed over many years, a professional can get a good sense of the potential of a longer work. (It’s fractal theory; the small bits reflect the work as a whole.)

3. It’s a fair test.
Hey, you’re claiming to be a good writer. If so, it’s fair to ask you to find and quickly tell me the core essence – the one- or two- or three-line short description – that will create interest and inspire everyone, from agent to reader, to want to find out more.

4. Less is more.
Fewer words carry more meaning. They are powerful, selective, intriguing. Whatever the length, people like richness, and, like making a great sauce in cooking, that is achieved with concentration, not watering it down.

As one agent said about pitching, “There’s no need for flowery language – I can read between the lines, so the shorter the better.”

Business intuition is a highly evolved set of deep knowledge. The more complex a decision (the less quantifiable or black and white it is), often the more the call is made quickly, based largely on instinct.

So boil it down. Go for that ultimate reduction, bursting with flavor. You’ll impress your readers, and can enjoy seeing them beg for more, like hungry guests and a plate of seafood crepes at Christmas dinner.

It has often been said
there’s so much to be read,
you never can cram
all those words in your head.

So the writer who breeds
more words than he needs
is making a chore
for the reader who reads.

That’s why my belief is
the briefer the brief is,
the greater the sigh
of the reader’s relief is.

– Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)

Pitching Nonfiction

“If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or my mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.”
— Michael Korda, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1984

We’ve talked about pitching fiction. Well, nonfiction is pitched in a similar way — in 3–4 sentences — especially narrative nonfiction. (What is narrative nonfiction? It’s nonfiction with lots of storytelling and a narrator . . . hence the term. It brings the subject to the personal level; you look over the shoulder of the narrator who discovers or experiences the subject, often in real-time, with some flashbacks, etc., like a travelogue.)

Here are examples of nonfiction pitches from a favorite source: Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC). Note how each paragraph sells the book in 3 or 4 sentences. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of the United States, you only get a couple of lines to pitch your book. Note the common structure: a set-up, some interesting details or examples in the middle, and a wrap-up line that expands the idea to something lovable and appealing . . . that everyone (and his mother) would be likely interested in.

GIVING, by Bill Clinton (Knopf)
[from BOMC summary:] Sharing his own experiences and those of others, Bill Clinton reveals to us the extraordinary efforts being made by individuals and organizations to solve problems and save lives both “down the street and around the world.” From Bill and Melinda Gates to a six-year-old California girl who organized a community clean-up program, Clinton introduces us to both well-known and unknown heroes, including:
• Oseola McCarty, who after 75 years of eking out a living by washing and ironing, gave $150,000 to endow a scholarship fund for African American students.
• Heifer International, which donated 12 goats to a Ugandan village. Within a year, Beatrice Biira’s mother earned enough money selling goats milk to pay her school fees and eventually send all her children to school.
Demonstrating that gifts of time, skills and ideas are as important and effective as contributions of money, Giving is an inspiring call to action, and a reminder that we each can easily do our part to make the world a better place.

Okay, Clinton’s book got a bit more space . . . with detailed examples in a bulleted list in the middle. But really it’s basically 3 sentences.

TELL ME WHERE IT HURTS, by Dr. Nick Trout (Broadway Books)
[Dr. Trout is a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.]

[from BOMC summary:] Trout’s day begins with 2:47 a.m. emergency surgery on a German Shepherd, who is her elderly owner’s sole companion. The operation, a success, kicks off a 24-hour marathon that will test his skills, and his sense of humor—much needed when attempting to treat a man-hating Chihuahua! But it also calls upon his empathy. In his wry, companionable voice, Trout lets us know that while methods have changed since country vet James Herriot’s day, the humanity and compassion remain the same.

First sentence: sets the scene. Second: an interesting detail. Third: a wrap, with the big concepts, the connection to a popular author (James Herriot), etc..

LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE, by David Isay (Penguin)
[from BOMC summary:] Beginning with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell, StoryCorps has grown to become the largest oral history project in the nation. Renowned radio producer David Isay has put together an extraordinary collection of tales—told by the people who lived them to the people they love—in what is nothing less than a celebration of humanity. From the retired country doctor’s hilarious recollections of making rounds with his physician father, to the Korean immigrant, explaining to her daughter with touching candor how she learned to express emotion, Listening is an Act of Love reminds us of the powerful truth that we, the American people, are our history, and through our experiences, we make this country great.

All said and done in 3–4 sentences. Tell it and sell it . . . quickly. If it can’t be done, your project might be too complex. But more likely, you just haven’t stepped back far enough to be able to see the big ideas, the forest that surrounds all of your many, many trees of words, paragraphs, chapters.

And if you can’t sum it up, how will an agent or editor or publisher sum it up to the customers they need to hook quickly? If the great core concepts in the very marketable books above can be summarized in a few sentences, so can your project!

So, pitching your project in a nutshell: show ’em the shell, crack it open with a sharp blow, and tell them why they’ll like the taste of what’s inside.