Insider information FTW!
This week’s post is from a very special guest – Stephen Michin, founder of Steam Press, one of NZ’s best up and coming publishers of Speculative Fiction. His post is full of invaluable insider information and tips – take note!
I’ve been running Steam Press for two years now and have worked for a couple of other publishers around Wellington, and in this time there have been a few things I’ve learned which I think authors should bear in mind when they’re submitting their work to publishers.
The first thing is to know who you’re submitting to. What does this publisher actually publish, and does that align with what you’ve written? (You’d be surprised how often a publisher who only puts out New Zealand science fiction and fantasy, for example, is approached by Bolivian crime authors.) Do you know the name of the editor you’re emailing, or can you find out and so avoid beginning your cover letter “To whom it may concern”? Are they actually open to submissions?
Next, what are you sending them? Do they ask for a full manuscript or just the first chapter and a synopsis? Have you formatted your submission as requested or, if there aren’t any guidelines, followed standard manuscript format? (Sending them what they ask for is a good idea. For example, I ask for submissions in electronic form only and in rtf format – this is because I read all submissions on my iPad, and rtf is the easiest format for me to convert into an ebook. If the first interaction I have with an author involves them failing to follow a simple request this might make me wonder what it’ll be like to work with them on bigger projects such as, say, a book….)
Now you’ve sent your manuscript. What next? Leave ‘em alone! Editors tend to be busy, and the last thing they need on top of trying to proofread a book which is due at the printer tomorrow, chasing graphic designers, getting print quotes, talking to the media, and actually reading submissions is an email from an author asking after a manuscript that only arrived yesterday. I’ve written a couple of books so I know what it’s like to have a submission sitting in a slush-pile but it won’t help to badger the editor about it. They’ll get back to you when they have the time, and hassling them may just get your submission thrown in the rubbish. (I think that I’m generally a nice guy who is on the side of authors, but I have done this when the author kept emailing me asking for updates and telling me how experienced they are. Again, I’m picturing what it would be like to work with this author, and if they can’t simply leave me alone for a week or two so that I have the chance to read their work I’ll be very reluctant to commit to working with them.)
If all goes according to plan the editor will soon get back to you and offer to publish your work. Hurrah! To get that far, though, they have to like what you’ve written…
This is probably the big question, right? What are editors looking for?
I can only really speak for myself and for Steam Press, but for me it’s pretty simple – I want to publish stories that I’d happily buy as a reader, and ideally not just ones that I’d buy for myself but that I’d then buy for my friends and family as well when their birthdays roll around. This means that the story needs to be original, compelling, and well written, and it has to be something that I like enough to want to (as a publisher) spend money on and spend months working on. All of which is hugely subjective, of course. What I love, another editor will hate. What another editor loves, I’ll hate. Seriously – Twilight? Fifty Shades? You’ll all on crack.
This makes submitting your work to publishers a really hard road. There’s a lot of luck involved – you have to find the right editor in the right mood at the right time – but it is possible. And yes, it’s not just a matter of finding the right editor, but you need to stumble across them when they have a space in their list that’ll suit your book. Aaaargh.
To help ensure your work does get picked up I think it’s really important for your first couple of chapters to be absolutely brilliant, as it’s that first ten or twenty pages where much of the editor’s assessment will probably take place (by which I mean, if the first ten pages are terrible the editor probably will have given up before they get the chance to find out that the last 500 are great). Personally, I’m not too worried about a couple of typos as those are easy to fix. If the nuts and bolts, the craft, the mechanics, and the pure magic are all there then that’s worth a lot more. Infodumps, telling rather than showing, rubbish dialogue, clichéd plots, and wooden characters will make it a hard sell as those are indicative of a writing which, to me at least, isn’t up to spec. But hey – Twilight, right? What do I know.
So how to get there, or ensure that you are there before you submit? Lots of people get their friends to read their work and provide feedback, and that’s good, but it’s a little asking your spouse, “Does my arse look big in this?” Do you want someone to be honest, or do you want someone to be nice? Friends will be nice. That’s lovely if you want a gold star and a warm glow. Gold stars and warm glows don’t get you published, though.
Give your work to someone you don’t know, or better yet, an enemy… Give it to another author, and tell them that you just got a $100,000 advance and three-book deal from Tor and were wondering what they thought of your work. In other words, get them to tear it apart, point out the holes, rip it to shreds. Then fix it. Then send it out into the world and see how it goes.
And good luck!