Writing Your Book, part XI: Marketing Your Work and Yourself


Okay, first I want to say that this is now a Very Good Series, because it goes to eleven….

In my last “Writing Your Book” post I discussed the read through and the need to learn to self-edit. Faith has written recently about revisions, and I’ve covered similar ground in past pasts. We can offer advice on how to approach the process of reworking your book, and we can tell you what practices have worked for us, but ultimately every rewrite is going to be different. Every manuscript has different needs. That’s why we use beta readers and tell you to put some distance between yourselves and your recently completed work. You need to decide what your story needs in order for it to be as good as it can be. You need to edit yourself.

So today I’m going to move beyond the rewrite to the next step in this long journey: marketing yourself and your book. Many people write only for themselves and their friends. They have no desire to deal with the publishing business. That’s fine. There are certainly days when I have no desire to deal with it either. But I’m going to assume that if you’ve been following this series of posts to this point, you’re probably not one of them. You want to publish. Great. Good for you. You do realize though that this means you have to let other people — complete strangers! — read your book and judge whether they believe it worthy of publication or not. That’s a scary prospect for many people.

Welcome to publishing.

This is where reading extensively in your chosen subgenre can be enormously helpful. By the time your book is done, you should have some idea of which publishers put out work that is similar to your own. These are the publishers you should be looking at initially for your own work. Put another way, if you write big epic fantasies, you should be thinking about Daw and Tor and perhaps Roc and Harper Collins. If you write military science fiction, you can look at Tor as well, but you should also look at Baen. Urban Fantasy? Roc, Luna, maybe Pocket. Maybe you prefer a house that is a little edgier, smaller, more cutting edge. Take a look at Pyr and Tachyon, but make certain that your books have at least something in common with the books those smaller (but excellent) publishers are putting out already. The point is, you should educate yourself about the market before you approach it with your book in hand. If you were opening a vegan restaurant, you probably wouldn’t advertise in Hunting Illustrated or Guns and Ammo. This is no different. You are selling a product; you need to sell it in the right part of the market.

What about agents? One hears quite often that you can’t sell a book these days unless you have an agent. And finding out the names of suitable agents is far more difficult than figuring out the right publisher, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Check the acknowledgments in nearly any book (sometimes they’re at the beginning, sometimes at the end) and you’ll find that the author has thanked his or her agent. Jot down the names of those agents and start googling them. Or, if a book has no acknowledgments, visit the websites of your favorite authors in your subgenre. Chances are, they’ll mention representation. You’ll soon have a list of agencies that have successfully represented authors who write material that is similar to yours.

Okay, so now you have a list of publishing houses and agents. You should know that every one of them has guidelines for submissions — visit their websites and search for the links. And when you send in material, follow those guidelines to the letter. If they tell you to send three chapters, don’t send four. If they say that they don’t want paranormal, don’t send them yours because it’s so good that of course they’ll make an exception in this one case. They won’t. Some may say that they’re not currently accepting submissions from new writers. Respect that. Because the other thing your should know is that every agency and every publisher (and every short story market, for that matter — right, Ed?) is inundated with manuscripts and queries. And here is the hard, cold truth: These agencies and publishing houses are NOT looking for reasons to love every manuscript that arrives. They are looking for reasons to throw each one away and get on to the next. They have too many to read and not enough time. They measure progress by how much they can shrink their pile before the next day’s mail adds to it again. If you don’t follow their guidelines you give them just the excuse they need to throw your book aside.

Which brings us to another point: It is conceivable that after all your rewrites and editing your book will still not be perfect. That’s okay. Editors and agents understand that. No book from a beginning author is flawless. It just doesn’t happen. But imperfections are one thing; sloppiness is quite another. You should make certain that your book is as free of typos, misspellings, grammatical errors and the like as possible. You should make certain that it is neat and professional in appearance. Again, follow the guidelines with respect to font size, margins, and other specifications. Don’t try to illustrate it, or put in colorful fonts and graphics. Pretty is not professional. Neither is festive or “interesting”. Professional is plain and simple. You want your manuscript to distinguish itself with its content, and the only way you can make certain that happens is by making the presentation so professional that the agencies and publishers have to judge it on those terms.

Still, even if you do all of this correctly, you face steep odds — there are a lot of writers out there, and very few publishing slots open in today’s market. So another way to distinguish yourself and your work, is to go where the agents and editors are and meet them. But where are they? Don’t they all hang out at a secret location accessible only via the floo networks and closed to those who don’t know the secret handshake? Well, yes. But occasionally they show their faces in public at conventions. And as it happens, several of those conventions in the fantasy/SF field are coming up. One of them is NASFIC, the North American Science Fiction Convention, which takes place any year that WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention) takes place outside of North America. This year, WorldCon is in Melbourne, Australia. But NASFIC is in Raleigh, NC in early August. DragonCon, a huge media and literary convention in Atlanta, GA, is scheduled for the first weekend in September. And my personal favorite, World Fantasy Convention, will be held the weekend of Oct. 28-31 in Columbus, Ohio.

These conventions will be filled with authors, agents, and editors. They will be there expecting to talk business and hoping to meet exciting new authors — in other words, to network. Attending the conventions will cost you some money — in excess of $100, plus travel, hotel, and meals. But they will you offer the chance to meet those people who might someday help build your writing career. The advantage of meeting them is that once you strike up a conversation and deliver your pitch, they might give you a business card and say those truly magical words — “Sounds interesting. Why don’t you send me a few chapters?” At that point, your manuscript is no longer one anonymous novel-in-waiting in a large pile; it’s a book that Miss Big-Shot-Agent or Mister Big-House-Editor has asked to see.

And maybe, just maybe, you’re on your way….

David B. Coe

17 comments to Writing Your Book, part XI: Marketing Your Work and Yourself

  • Wow. I go away for a week and return to find David giving away all our secrets! This is great stuff, David. Solid advice. Totally agree about following agent submission requirements to the letter though I would offer one point where you *might* deviate (and will be interested to hear what you all think: I certainly do’t want to torpedo anyone’s submission). Agents often say they want a query letter only. I’ve heard from many writers that this is the one rule they disregard and advise writers to always send a small sample–no more than 30 pages. The logic goes that, as David says, agents (and the interns wading through the slush pile) are looking for reasons to reject you. While sending more than is asked for may be that reason, it also gives you the chance to show what you’re good at: writing–not just the big story arc you’ve crammed into you one page query, but paragraph and sentence-level stuff. It may be risky but it may also be the thing that makes an agent ask for more. It is very difficult not to glance at that (unrequested) first page of actual manuscript. I confess it’s a gamble, but it’s one that has paid off for a lot of writers who are otherwise dependent on the agent being hooked largely by concept alone. What do you think, David?

  • Gee, you shuold put this in a book or soemthing.. wait you are. *doh!*

    Great stuff David! It will help me a lot in the coming years.

  • >>These agencies and publishing houses are NOT looking for reasons to love every manuscript that arrives. They are looking for reasons to throw each one away and get on to the next.>>

    David this is so true! Most agents never read beyond the first sentence. If it doesn’t grab them by then, it’s an excuse to trash it.

    >>I’ve heard from many writers that this is the one rule they disregard and advise writers to always send a small sample–no more than 30 pages.>>

    AJ, I’ve successfully broken the rule too, but with only 5 pages. It seems less obvious!

    And David, you didn’t mention e-queries and e-submissions (or I missed it. Lack of sleep for 3 days.) But a lot of agencies accept email queries and submissions. This speeds up action on the front end but it’s been my experience that it does not speed up the process on the back end. It will *often* be 3 to 6 months before you hear back after you send a full mscpt to an agent or editor.

  • I think what you wrote about getting to the conventions and meeting these people is one of the most valuable things an author can do in acquiring an agent. Plenty of people get agents through the standard method of queries, but when an agent can put a face to a name, when she can think “Oh, I met that person and we had a good conversation”, you’re on the way to answer certain agent questions beyond the quality of your work — questions regarding how well you can get along and what it might be like to discuss writing issues.

  • Welcome back, A.J. Hope it was a terrific trip. Hiking in New Mexico sounds just about perfect to me. Thanks for the comment and the question. I’m of a mixed mind about this. On the one hand, I have heard of writers having some luck with this, but I have to wonder what the ratio is between those for whom it works and those for whom it doesn’t. For obvious reasons we never hear about the latter. My feeling is that for most beginners, following the GLs is the best, safest route. For those with a gambling nature and huge amount of confidence in their work, yeah, it might make sense to gamble. But for most of us the risks might outweigh the rewards. That’s just my opinion, of course, and given that it worked for Faith, it might be worth a try.

    Mark, thanks. I hope that it does help in the near future!

    Faith, thanks. I didn’t mention e-submissions because I thought that would fall under the rubric of “following guidelines.” If places allow (some do, some don’t) then by all means writers should take advantage. But naturally e-subs should be treated exactly the same way as more traditional submissions. The presentation should be professional and should follow the GLs.

    Stuart, yes, the agent-writer relationship in particular is so much a matter of personal chemistry. Those face-to-face interactions at conventions or writer’s workshops (which I should have mentioned, too) are invaluable.

  • Deb S

    So you guys aren’t going to teach us the secret handshake?

  • We would, but the others would find out. They watch us. Always. I can’t say more….

  • I’ve often heard the benefits of networking extolled, but it’s never made clear just what that entails. “Once you strike up a conversation and deliver your pitch…” Fine, but striking up that initial conversation seems downright impossible. I have attended more publisher parties at conventions than I can count, and every one of them has been the same: an overcrowded suite in the hotel wherein everyone is trying to talk louder than everyone else so they be heard above everyone else trying to be heard above everyone else. It’s never given me any contacts–just a headache. (The catering is usually good, though.)

    I’ve had fans follow me around at cons, and I try to be gracious, but it can be irritating–and I don’t want to be one of the irritating ones. Of course, if you have a pitch and are willing (as you must be) to approach an agent/publisher, you have to first be able to identify them as such–and it’s not as though they are wearing sandwich boards declaring who they are.

  • Thanks for the comment, Wolf. Yes, striking up that initial conversation can be challenging, particularly for people who are shy or who don’t feel comfortable making small talk. You don’t want to come on to strong or interrupt an ongoing conversation. By the same token, though, if you want to be successful in this business you have to learn how to promote yourself and interact in a positive way with people who can help your career. Being a writer demands not only perseverance and writing talent, it also demands business acumen and people skills. The suite parties can be just as you describe them, but they aren’t the only places to meet people. You can approach speakers after a panel and offer to buy them a cup of coffee. You can find them in the dealer’s room and approach them there, perhaps starting the conversation by telling them that you saw them on a panel and appreciated their comments, or that you read a book by one of their writers and loved it. How do you recognize them? Well, that’s where the suite parties can some in handy — consider them reconnaissance. Panels are the same.

    Is this challenging? Certainly. Impossible? Absolutely not.

  • Every conference and convention I’ve ever attended required people to wear their nametags, which made it pretty easy to determine who the agents and editors were. 😀

  • Wolf, I think the benefits of networking are best discovered when one is trying to helpful and kind and trying to learn something, rather than when one is trying only to obtain something for oneself. It is the *let me do something nice for you without getting anything in return* attitude that wins over people. That is what networking is about. And that is what leads to good things happening.

  • Good point, Misty.

    And yes, Faith, I think that’s absolutely right. So much of networking is about getting back from it what you put in to it. It’s almost Karmic that way. 🙂

  • Appropos of the networking converstaion, my agent posted this to her agency blog today concerning the recent convention in New York for Thriller writers. You guys might find it interesting to hear what it’s like from the agent’s end being “pitched” at such events: http://dglm.blogspot.com/2010/07/thrills-at-thrillerfest.html

  • David, great post.

    Well, I’ve got my fingers crossed. The writing conference I attend every year always gives its attendees one pitch session with an agent or editor and one session with a published author. I feel like I’ve learned a lot (here and elsewhere) about how to present myself. (And if I hurry it up and finish editing, one of Miss Snark’s First Victim’s secret agents has asked to see a partial.)

    I’ll be honest, everything you’ve said here is nothing new, but it’s vital information. I hear it every year at the conference. I hear it from a lot of other blogs, websites, and important people. And yet I’m still glad for the reminder, because even though it’s nothing new, the person I was when I started looking into getting published was very different from who I am today. It can be very easy, when caught up in trying to improve as a writer, to forget about this side of things. Yet every time I hear it, it becomes more relevant. But that could just be a reflection of how *much* I’ve grown.


  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    World Fantasy Con is my favorite, too…but more importantly, it’s a con where agents and editors attend. This used to be true of most big cons, but just isn’t any more. The NY editors don’t have the travel budget they had years ago. But they still go to WFC. I hear they go to Reader Con, too, but I have not actually attended.

  • Helpful stuff, thanks. (I’m a bit behind because I’ve been out of town, sorry.)

    I’ll be going to World Fantasy Con this year for the first time, and am both excited and nervous about the whole thing. I’m starting to feel like maybe I belong, having sold two short stories and an SF-related nonfiction article in the past couple months, but still… yikes!

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks! I just checked out Tor and it looks great. I might try sending there in a few years- when I’m ready.