W.L. Ripley is the author of two critically-acclaimed series of crime novels — four books featuring ex-professional football player Wyatt Storme and four books about ex-Secret Service agent Cole Springer. His latest novel is Storme Warning, a stunning new mystery/thriller that we’re publishing in February. We will also be re-releasing Ripley’s other books through 2015 and early 2016.
I live in rural Missouri, which is not in the middle of nowhere despite anything you may have heard. The middle of nowhere is a good fifty yards south of my house. Still, it’s two thousand miles from New York City and the publishing industry. I’ve never been there and in no hurry to go. I am not a celebrity, have no contacts in the industry (well, some) and nobody was knocking themselves out to help me when I started.
And yet, I am a published author with seven books to my credit and had my work optioned for movie production by major film stars and producers.
How was I able to do that?
Being published seemed easy enough when I first started writing. You write a great book, you send it off, and every publisher wants it, right?
I was in for a surprise.
There are thousands of good writers in the U. S. Some of them even are published authors. There are hundreds of unpublished writers better than some writers who are published. Perhaps you’re one of them. They have to come from somewhere. The problem is you must get editors to read your manuscript and then what you write must be beyond outstanding. Outstanding is not enough. I once submitted a novel that an editor described as “the best high school sports novel I have ever read.” High praise, don’t you think?
It was rejected.
Stephen King’s wife fished his first novel, Carrie, out of the waste basket and sent it in one last time after the mega-bestselling author had given up. Many bestsellers and award-winning novels were rejected without being read before they found a home.
Simple. There are too many books being written and editors and literary agents are swamped with manuscripts.
You are up against established authors, an avalanche of submissions, and the limited amount of hours in an editor’s day. Therefore, just getting an editor or agent’s attention and getting one to read your manuscript becomes the problem. Book agent Richard Curtis puts it this way in his book, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent
“You’re not worried about how much you’re going to get for your book,” writes Curtis, “you’re worried about whether the damned thing is going to get read.”
The good news is that successful editors and agents (I have worked with some great people in the industry) love their job and are searching for that fresh new voice.
So, how do you get editors to read your manuscript? Here’s the solution.
Every writer wants to know how to break into the market. They want to know the inside stuff. The hot tips. Fortunately, there are a few hints that will geometrically increase your chances.
Following is a list of tips I wish someone would have shared with me when I started out. It is the result of years of trial and error and research. Some of them you may have heard before. It will save you months of unnecessary work and worry and waiting.
I know. Because it worked for me and it has worked for some unpublished authors I have shared it with. One young author got a response in two days using this method!
USE MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS TO INCREASE YOUR CHANCES:
Yeah, I know you’ve heard it a thousand times — Publishers won’t consider multiple submissions. It just isn’t done and you’re afraid to offend them. Been there. Listen, if you haven’t been published how do they know you’re doing it? Do you think they’re sitting around some upscale waterhole drinking Bombay martinis talking about your manuscript — a manuscript by an unknown — only to discover (horrors) that you sent a copy to both houses?
The real reason they don’t want multiple submissions is that they want to discourage a deluge of manuscripts and to cut out the competition. Besides, if your manuscript is good they’re going to want it anyway.
I used to play the one-house-at-a-time game. You wait for months, then the publisher returns it unread, or rejects it (sending you a form letter with your name typed on a slant, now it’s just an email). Now you’re three or four months behind and have to send it out again. If you play by their rules you’ll only be able to submit your manuscript three or four times in one year!
Do you have that kind of time and patience? I don’t.
Marketing your manuscript is a full-contact sport. For my first published novel, Hail Storme, I sent queries to a dozen houses, starting with the biggest. As always, some rejected it without reading the manuscript (or the query), some lost or misplaced it, some were intrigued and wrote personal letters; but four major houses were interested. Which brings us to item #2.
SUBMIT A QUERY LETTER RATHER THAN A MANUSCRIPT AS YOUR FIRST CONTACT:
Query letters are time efficient, cost less, and a besieged editor is more likely to read a short letter or email than the twenty-third manuscript (and they get that many, every day). Also, it’s to your advantage if an editor requests your manuscript on the strength of a query as there is an implicit agreement on the editor’s part to actually read it. Now you are out of the slush pile. So, make sure you have a finished manuscript ready before you query. Editors do not purchase novels on spec from unknowns.
Hail Stormesold quickly after arriving in-house. As a result, I wrote what amounted to rejection letters to three major publishers requesting the return of my manuscript. A nice feeling.
I barely resisted printing my signature on a slant.
TARGET A SPECIFIC EDITOR
Do you like receiving mail addressed to “Occupant”? Do you like having your name misspelled? Or being referred to as Mr. If you are a woman?
Neither do editors.
Make sure you address your query to a specific editor using the name and the correct title of that editor. There is a formal hierarchy in publishing houses and a Senior Editor, after working hard for many years to attain that title, might not appreciate being referred to as a mere editor. Which is why the next item is important.
These are important publications to keep on hand. Jeff Herman is a New York literary agent who must keep abreast of what is happening in the industry. He lists each editor by name by name as well as their genre interest (mainstream, mystery, romance, young adult, etc.). This book will help you target your submissions.
The Writer’s Digest compilation includes smaller houses and magazines (helpful in getting a beginning writer a track record) and rates each house according to its needs. With these two books you learn much about the industry and increase the odds your manuscript will get attention. Both list addresses and phone numbers of publishers.
I would not have been published without access to the information in these books.
NOTE: There is much movement in the industry. Even if you have the editor’s name it might be helpful to make a preliminary call to find out if the editor in question is still at the house and what his/her title is. And, that’s all you should ask. Don’t cold call editors.
NOTE: even if you possess these publications, it is a good idea to call ahead and ask who handles your type (genre) of novel as there is much movement in the industry.
These days there are also many websites online you can access that will give you the name and titles of the appropriate agent or editor for your work.
HAVE AN EYE-CATCHING TITLE FOR YOUR BOOK
How many times have you been attracted to a book by its title? Or a movie? Happens to editors too. The title is one of your most important marketing tools. Some books, believe it or not, have been sold merely on their title. Consider the following — The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger), True Grit (Portis), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey), The Firm (Grisham) CATCH-22 (Heller). All were best-sellers with name recognition. Some of the above are first novels and received big advances. Most have been made into movies.
My literary agent, Donald Maass came up with a great title for my first Cole Springer novel, Springer’s Gambit. Lee Goldberg, Brash Books publisher (and co-author of the New York Times bestseller, The Job), gave me the idea for my newest Wyatt Storme title, Storme Warning. I’m always open to good suggestions and just as willing to hear objective criticism from colleagues and professionals.
Come up with your own list of favorites. Get a good title with a hook for your novel even if you have to ask your mother.
PREPARE YOUR MANUSCRIPT PROPERLY & PROFESSIONALLY
Your high school English teacher probably knows little about what makes a saleable book. However, she is dead right about punctuation, syntax, usage, spelling, etc. Don’t send in something that screams, fourth grade grammar.
When writing your query letter don’t appear whiney or desperate. Don’t tell them it has been rejected five times and don’t say things like, I hope or I think you will like my novel. Either they’ll like it or they won’t. Use the Jack Webb approach (“Just the facts, ma’am.”). And, keep your letter short (less than one page). It works.
Be confident. Insecure people don’t write well.
DEMONSTRATE YOU ARE A PROFESSIONAL
Do things the right way. Research and learn how the industry works. ReadWriter’s Digest and any publication or article about the writing task you can find. Learn to write short, concise business letters. Sloppy, incoherent correspondence will send the wrong message (and get you hammered before you start). Learn to handle rejection and the lethargic way the industry conducts business. Be tough and purposeful and thick-skinned.
Get over the notion of being an “Author” with a capital “A” because that notion will get in the way of the writing. People enamored of the idea of being an “Author” tend to see themselves as undiscovered celebrities and above the work it takes to write. Writing is editing and rewriting and throwing away and getting the words right.
It’s damned hard work.
Here’s a sobering exercise. Pick a literary author (Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Joyce Carol Oates) or an author in your favorite genre (mystery writers like James Lee Burke, Ace Atkins, etc.) and ask the average person if they have ever heard of them. Most haven’t. That’s the reality.
I write because I have to. It sustains me. I can’t imagine life without writing. This is what you’re up against. People like me. Writers.
ALWAYS KEEP A MANUSCRIPT GOING OUT TO EDITORS AND AGENTS
If you receive a rejection letter, immediately send the manuscript to someone else. If you’ve made multiple submissions this won’t be so devastating. There is nothing worse than the tyranny of the reply. If you wait, breathlessly, each day for word on your manuscript you become a hostage to the process.
Take charge. I’ll make only one promise and this is it — if you are a good writer and don’t give up, eventually you will be published — it’s only a matter of finding the right editor at the right moment. It will happen. Believe it. It’s going to happen.
Send your book off and write another one. And another one.
BE COMMITTED (and persistent)
This is important! If you are going to write, then write and don’t apologize for it. Tell your friends you’re a writer. Don’t be afraid to tell people you are writing a book and that you intend to become a by-God, full-fledged, sit-around-in-your-jeans-and-drink-coffee writer (I love this part most of all). This will make you work harder and cause you to abandon excuses for not writing. You’ll look an idiot is you quit writing at this point.
In the early eighties I made a conscious commitment to become a published writer. Ten years later my first novel was published. In between I wrote three or four books (and started several others) and was rejected over thirty times for every imaginable reason. All the while I was learning the writing craft as well as becoming informed about the business end of the industry. Hail Storme was accepted immediately, surprising me.
A ten-year overnight success.
And now my seventh novel, Storme Warning, will be released February 2 followed by all of my previous Wyatt Storme novels throughout the year.
Never, never, never give up. The late great John D. McDonald, creator of the Travis McGee series, asserted that writers must be willing to write one million words (ten medium length novels) without being published before they were to be worthy of being called a writer.
How many words have you written so far?
Don’t give up because someone in an office in New York rejects you. Get a life. Mine isn’t dependent on some faceless name in Gotham’s concrete canyons. Besides, get used to it. If you do get published, then you have critics to contend with (and editors and agents).
Being a writer is everything I hoped it would be and less. I still have to face the blank page (or screen) and I still have to write every day. The writing gets easier (some aspects) but you have to compete with yourself once you’re in print and you have to deal with the annoyances that are part of any job or career choice.
But, I’m a writer. I love writing and creating even though it’s probably harder for me to write than someone who just wants to be an author.
Writing is good work if you can get it. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.
TO BE CONTINUED…
On Monday, W.L. Ripley blogs here about the Big Mistakes Made by Beginning Writers…