Research your idea. See if there’s a demand. A lot of people have great ideas, but they don’t know if there’s a need for it. You also have to research your competition.
– Magic Johnson
Writers know that research is important during the writing process. It’s a big part of the seeking publication process, too, though! You don’t want to send your manuscript to just any old agent or publisher. You have to know what’s best for you—and the other party, too.
Once you finish your manuscript, you’re probably itching to send it out to everyone. If you send it to a hundred people, someone will go for it, right? Well, hang on just a second. Submitting is a careful process!
When seeking a publisher or agent, you have to familiarize yourself with the needs of the other party and how it affects you. For example, if you have written a 90K sci-fi novel for adults, you’re not going to be looking at children’s publishers or non-fiction publishers. Google is an easy tool for finding keywords like “sci-fi publishing houses” or “sci-fi books.” From there, you can look at individual publishing houses’ websites for guidelines on submitting work.
Unsolicited manuscripts are manuscripts being pitched that are not represented by an agent. If you, the author, are pitching your own book, make sure that the houses to which you’re submitting accept unsolicited work; a number of them don’t.
Exclusive submissions are manuscripts that are sent to only one publisher or agent at a time. Some houses require that you send the manuscript only to them for a certain period of time (for example, “exclusive for six months,” though it’s often a shorter time frame) before you start considering other publishers. If you’re submitting to multiple publishers at once, it’s common courtesy to alert houses in your cover letter.
There are a couple of routes you can take once you’ve finished a ms. First, determine what it is that you’ve written: length, genre, and intended audience, especially. Then decide what the best outlet for that work is. For example:
- Short stories (usually under 10K words) are probably best suited for magazines. For younger audiences, the lines blur a bit with picture books and early reader books, as children’s stories could be in a magazine or a book.
- Novellas (the guidelines are hazy, but usually 10K-20K words) are a steadily-growing market but can be tougher to sell. Some magazines will print a limited number of novellas per year. If you’d rather go the book route, seek smaller publishing houses, which are more likely to accept that length, or consider grouping the novella with short stories or other novellas to make a collection.
- Novels (guidelines still hazy, but can range from 20K in young readers to hundreds of thousands for adults) offer a lot more options than either short stories or novellas, since there are so many publishing houses. Be sure to do your research, and consider your intended audience. Sometimes a smaller niche publisher is the best fit for your piece, and other times it’s the bigger houses who will suit you best.
Particularly with novels, there’s also the question of whether or not you should have an agent represent your work. I would say that the answer depends on the author and work. If you want to make a living off of your writing, an agent can only help.
Agents know the ins and outs of the publishing industry and the business side of signing contracts and dealing with houses. They also have an in with the bigger and busier publishers (think Scholastic) that only accept solicited, or agented, material. If you want to be a full-time writer, or at the very least spend a good deal of time on that profession, you’re going to want to find an agent.
If, on the other hand, you’re a more casual writer or are interested in a smaller market, you will probably be OK on your own. Most magazines don’t require an agent to buy your work. Same deal with smaller publishing houses. If you do your research and go over your contract carefully, you will be fine.
There are many benefits to having a literary agent, of course. As I said before, they know the business and contracts side of publishing well, and they have the opportunity to make deals with bigger houses. Submitting to an agent is like submitting to an editor. You don’t just hire them; you submit, and they decide whether or not they want to take on your project. Once you’ve got an agent, he or she will work to help you polish your ms before passing it on to houses, which means your work will become even stronger. Agents are like the first round with a ms, and once you get past them, bigger publishing houses will be more willing to review your work knowing it’s passed that level.
Agents only make money if they sell your ms, so they’re going to be as invested in the success of your work as you are. They make a small cut, usually around 15%, but they are editors/marketers/businesspeople who champion your manuscripts to publication, so they’re well worth it. They’ve got connections and have to stay on top of the publishing world to know the best houses for any mss they might represent.
If you’re interested in finding an agent, Agent Query is a good resource. It lists thousands of agents and gives you the opportunity to narrow down results based on what it is you’re looking to pitch.
Check out Writers Digest’s annual publications listing agents and publishers by category and interest. Listings will include what editors are looking for and how many mss per year they purchase, which is a big help when trying to narrow down your options! They also help you to get a feel for a certain house, like if there’s an environmental focus or a desire to make fantasy/sci-fi more accessible to a wider audience.
Once you’ve found an agent and/or a publishing house (or two, or however many), be sure to check their websites for submission guidelines and follow them exactly. If there’s a name for a submissions editor, address your letter to that person. Look through houses’ catalogs and read their books; be sure to reference other titles they’ve worked on in your cover letter. If you find an agent who’s represented one of your favorite authors, say so! If you’ve read every book ever from a certain publisher or series, say so! Think about if these are the books you want yours next to in stores, and if you do, let the agent or house know why you feel you’re a good fit.
Make it clear that you are invested in this agent or house, because this could be the person or place responsible for your publication, and if they know you care, they’ll care more about you in return. It shows that you’ve done your research and that you’re serious.
Never send out a submission without doing your research first! Knowing your publisher is tremendously important, just like their knowing their writers.