Chip MacGregor

December 17, 2007

Questions about Publishing


Fiona wrote to ask, "What happens when you have a good proposal, a finished manuscript that people want to read, and you know the market — but you can’t get anyone in the publishing industry to read the darn thing? Do you self-publish? This is an exhausting process, I must say."

My dear, welcome to the world of publishing. While I sympathize with your frustration over creating something you think is good but not having the connections to get it read, you should know that’s a fairly common problem. You need to seek publishing relationships. Go to a writing conference and show your work to editors. Introduce yourself to agents. Enter some contests. Be part of a critique group to make connections. Become friends with other writers and begin to get plugged in to the industry.

Of course,  if no one is willing to seriously review your work, the possibility exists that you’re being a bit too generous in your self-praise. I’ll admit I could be wrong here, but I’ve often had wannabe authors say to me something like, "Everybody on the planet has reviewed this and told me it was awful, but I’m sure I’m a genius…maybe I should self-publish." Just something to consider. I’ve covered self-publishing in other posts, but my basic argument is that you should only self-pub if you know exactly how you’re going to market and sell your own work.

As for this being an exhausting process, I’d submit that it is…but that it’s no more exhausting than making a living at any other art form. If you put together a band and write some songs, you may think your work is brilliant — but you’ve got to go play some gigs at local pubs, meet producers, and get some experience under your belt before you can expect to sign that record deal. You may think your paintings are genius, but you’ve got to sell some at art fairs and get introduced to some gallery owners before your work will hang in a museum. Like any other art, you start at the bottom and work your way up. Get some experience, meet some people, and move forward.

Wande wrote and asked, "When a writer sells a book to a publisher, does a standard deal give the publisher the right to publish the book only in a specific country? Can the writer contract with a different publisher in another country?"

When you sign a publishing contract, you’re granting specific rights as to what the publisher can do with your book. The standard request from a publisher will be "all rights in all countries." From there, you negotiate. It’s possible to do a US-only contract, or an English-world-rights contract. And yes, each country would require its own publishing deal. But before you start limiting the grant of rights, make sure you know what you’d do with those rights if you kept them. The larger publishers have full-time sales people who are actively seeking foreign rights deals for the house. They are often very connected with publishers in other countries who would be interested in your work. Unless you or your agent have strong foreign publishing contacts, you may end up making less money because you’re unable to secure deals. Conversely, if you have great contacts in other countries, you may make more by contracting each country separately. (I just did a deal with a publisher who contracted for world rights "except for China." They graciously allowed the author to keep Chinese rights because the author has some very strong ties to the publishing companies in that country.) But be aware that not all books translate well across cultures.

Jimbo wrote me to ask, "Why on some novel covers does it say ‘A NOVEL?’ For crying out loud, I know it’s a novel and not a cookbook! Do they think we’re not smart enough to figure that out?"

The phrase "A Novel" normally appears on some books to clarify the genre. For example, Penguin was inundated with complaints when they first published The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing (which was a novel, in case you’re unaware). The words "a novel" help potential bookbuyers know what sort of literature they’re buying. But here’s a little-known fact: some publishing houses insist each book have a subtitle, so the phrase "a novel" goes into the computer and fulfills the house need for completeness. However, it all could be a plot to upset the persnickety among us.

Diane wrote and said, "I’ve written a true-to-life, humorous short poem (12 lines) that I’d like to get out there. I’m wondering if I should just hold onto it and wait until I have a whole collection to print, or if I should submit it to a publication that would publish it right away. If I did the latter, would it be difficult to publish later in a collection?"

Um…okay, friendly readers of this blog will realize that I’m completely the wrong guy to ask about poetry. (For my part, I’d be happy if you held onto it the rest of your natural life, but only so that I wouldn’t be subjected to more poetry. But that’s just me.) My guess is that you should try and publish separate pieces, just to get your name in print, since nobody is going to buy a collection of poems from an unpublished poet. (Of course, nobody is going to buy a collection of poems from a published poet either, but that’s another issue.) However, I included this discussion because of your question at the end: No, it shouldn’t be difficult to publish in a collection later. Normally in a magazine or journal you’re giving the publisher one-time rights. Once that issue is off the shelves, rights to your piece revert back to you. (NORMALLY. Read your contract to make sure they’re not buying this poem from you as a work-for-hire, in which case they now own it, so when you sell that collection and get nominated for your Nobel Prize, they’re going to make a fortune off you.)

Ashley wrote and wanted to know, "If you could have represented any book from the past or present, which book would it be?"

From an agent’s perspective, it would have been The Purpose Driven Life. Why? Because it sold a bajillion copies and would have made me a flippin’ forture. Then I could have paid for that beach house and sat around reading whatever I wanted while sipping rum drinks with little paper umbrellas in them. But since you’re a sensitive writer type, you probably want more of an answer from an artist’s perspective. And that would probably be Huckleberry Finn, the best American novel ever written.

One last note: Everybody owes a debt of gratitude to literary agent extraordinaire Natasha Kern. You don’t know this, but Natasha has been talking with the people at Publishers Marketplace about listing "inspirational fiction" as its own category. (Like me, she was tired of having novels she represented listed as "romance" or "women’s fiction" when they were simply strong Christian stories.) She made her case to a skeptical group, pointed out the growth of Christian fiction in today’s marketplace, and noted that there are now dozens of literary agents focused on inspirational fiction. And, a couple weeks ago, they relented. If you check it out, "Inspirational Fiction" is now an official category for novels. Natasha gets my vote as "Cool Person of the Month" for accomplishing this. Thanks, Natasha!

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