Wednesday, November 14

Choosing a Publisher

Ever since I got my first two contracts (in rapid succession of one another) last year, I've been fielding questions about publishing and publishers. Some of the people I've talked to (mostly other writers) have just wondered about the process, how I found my publisher, whether or not it was a paying gig (because there are a lot of vanity presses/shysters out there, folks!), was I paid an advance, and how the process went--i.e. would I recommend my publisher to someone else or tell them to stay clear? (For the record, both Dreamspinner and Clerisy are awesome!) These are all very good questions.

Other people have come at me with stars in their eyes because they or their sister/brother/aunt/best friend/ect. wrote a book and "Gee you're published, will knowing you get me in at YOUR publisher?" Not really, I'm pretty much nobody--but let's start with the important question: did your brother/sister/aunt/best friend/ect. write a book that my publisher would even WANT? I'm not talking about whether or not it was well written, I'm talking about the fact that both Dreamspinner Press and Clerisy Press are small, niche market publishers. 

  • Dreamspinner publishers m/m romance. Period. 
  • Clerisy publishes books about sports, sports medicine, health and fitness, nutrition, business and "certain types of travel books"--that would be where I happened to fit in. 
After I wrote the book that would eventually become my first published novel, Heart's Home, I knew I had to do something with it. The natural "something" was to find a publisher. Or. Two. Make that as many as I could scrounge up, because typically a book gets dozens of rejection letters before someone finally decides to publish it.

Now, before we go any further, let me point out that there are LOTS of reasons for a manuscript to be rejected. Publishers only put out so many books in a year. The editorial staff is only so big, there's only so much money they have to spend, there's just a place where a publisher can't handle another book. Most publishers publish more than one genre and try to put out a reasonably balanced catalog (or at least they have some idea that this year they're going to publish X number of contemporaries, X number of sci-fi novels, etc.) Also, they're not going to sign your book if they've just singed a book with a very similar plot. It's not that your book isn't good, it's that they don't need both titles and the other guy got there first. 

And of course, they might not think your book was good enough. You MAY be the next J.K. Rowling...but they don't think so. Look at how many rejections J.K. got before someone finally accepted Harry Potter. It's just a part of the business. Accept that up front and don't take rejection letters to heart. Maintain a professional attitude (at least in public).

So. I wrote this book and I loved it and I knew I wanted to get it out there. I was already reading m/m romance, so I had a few publishers to put on my list. I knew that Dreamspinner put out quality products and have a kick ass customer service department (I had an issue with an audio book I was trying to download--a case of computer ineptness on my part--and it was resolved immediately by a very patient person in the office. I really don't remember who, but she was incredibly kind. Believe me, if you're an author, you want to work with someone who treats their customers well. Customers can and will go somewhere else if they get the shaft.)

In the name of research (honest!), I made a point of buying books from a couple of other publishers as well. 
  • Did the physical books look good? Was the page layout professional looking, or did it look like something I would do in Word? 
  • How was the spine? Did the pages fall out or stay put? I've seen more shoddy production of books than I care to think about back when I was working in a library. I spent HOURS cataloging this stupid graphic novel; it got checked out TWICE and pages started falling out. Not good. Not good for the average consumer, either. 
  • I looked at eBooks, too. What format/platforms were available? How did they look on my PC? Now that I have a Kindle, I'd want to know how they look there, too. A published book must LOOK like a published book, folks, regardless of format (paper/electronic). 
  • Were the publisher's websites user friendly? 
  • Were their books available at third party sites (Amazon). Very important consideration. 
  • Also, were their books riddled with typos? Did the cover art look professional or did it look like a bad photoshop job?
I also outlined my personal criteria, because for me, it was very important to have a physical book I could hold in my hands. A lot of publishers, especially of romance, are electronic publishers only. And that's fine (I do literally a hundred to one electronic vs. print sales). But I really wanted a physical book.

Now, obviously, I couldn't buy one book from every publisher out there (there's only so much "research I can credibly do before my husband gives me the stink eye!) so for publishers a little further down on my list, I looked at sample chapters on Amazon, to check out formatting and scan for typos. (Typos happen; editors are human too, but if in one sample chapter this little spellling-challenged writer can spot more than two typos, there's something rotten in Denmark, folks). 

I'm also a bit of a snob. I looked at plot summaries and asked myself: Do you want your book sitting next to THAT?! There is at least one publisher out there who didn't make my list because I would rather self publish than have my book sitting in with all that drek. And obviously someone must buy it it...but yeah. I'm a snob. Besides their covers fall into the category of bad photoshop jobs. 

In order to find more publishers, I went over to Amazon and typed m/m romance into the search field. I clicked on book after book after book and skimmed down to see who the publisher was. 

I visited each publisher's website. I read their submission page. I took notes:
  • What do they accept? What do they prefer?
    •  My book was an historical fantasy/paranormal--do they take historcals? Do they take paranormals? Are they interested in fantasy? If the publisher says "at this time we are only interested in contemporaries and westerns", do NOT send them your space vampires or Victoran werewovles. They don't want them. I don't care what they've published in the past, the submissions page will tell you want they want NOW. 
    • Many publishers have put a cap on the length of a manuscript. Heart's Home is about 90,000 words; some publishers cap at 90K. Some at 60K.  Don't send a publisher a 500,000 word manuscript if they only want books 75K or shorter! 
    • I know I tend to write long; publishers who only take 60K manuscripts made my list...but they were at the bottom of it. I knew they wouldn't be interested in Heart's Home, and I knew I wouldn't likely write a book that short, but there's nothing wrong with keeping a good list of resources. 
  • What's the submission process; it is vital to give an editor EXACTLY WHAT THEY ASK FOR. The best way to get your manuscript tossed into the circular file is to send it in in some elaborate font in purple type. UNLESS that's what they say they want (not especially likely). It won't make you look clever or make your book stand out (in a good way). You'll look like an idiot incapable of following basic directions. Editors get dozens, if not hundreds, of manuscripts each week. Your ms and cover letter should be EXACTLY what they specify they want. 
  • What are the terms of their contract? A reputable publisher will tell anyone who visits their submissions page the bare bones of the contract, i.e., is there an advance, if so, how much, and what they pay in royalties. Those aren't trade secrets. 
    • It isn't unusual for small presses not to offer an advance
    • Royalties can vary wildly; decide what you're comfortable with AND look at the retail cost of their books. A fifty percent royalty might sound awesome, but not if they're selling eBooks for two or three bucks. Harlequin pays notoriously low royalties--but you'll probably sell a lot more books than if you go through a small publisher. 
    • YOU have to decide what works for YOU and rank publishers accordingly. And yes, you may find you have to compromise. There's a reason my list had a top, middle, and bottom--not to mention a few publishers who weren't even on it. 
    • Always start at the top of your list and work your way down
    • Never, EVER pay for editing or cover art; if a publisher asks you to pay for ANYTHING(related to the publishing process), they're NOT someone worth dealing with. Remember, you're going to be making at most a couple of bucks per book. Why exactly should you also hire your own editor? Easy: you shouldn't.
    • DO expect to be responsible for your own copyright protection (that's a thirty five dollar fee that you pay to the U.S. copyright office). Think it's not important? Read THIS
    • DO expect to be doing a lot of your own PR work. (You should not, however, have to hire a consultant or provide them with marketing plan--yes, I got told that once by a publisher. I smiled, nodded, and moved on.) Doing your own PR means tweeting, blogging, facebooking, and going to subject related conventions. 
  • I also looked at things like how long any given publisher had been around and how many books they'd put out to get some idea of how stable the company looked. If a publisher says they've been around for three years and has a back catalog of three books, something's off. 
    • There's nothing wrong with going with a new publisher, but beware the risks 
  • The last step in compiling a list is to visit Preditors and Editors [sic] and the Absolute Write Water Cooler and do a search for the publishers on your list to see if anyone else has claimed to have had problems with them. 
  • By the way, all of that goes for non-fiction as well as fiction. 
    • Read the submissions page carefully; submitting to a non-fiction publisher sometimes means sending a full manuscript, but often times they will accept a proposal. 
    • Determine if your book or idea is a fit--not a decent match, an EXACT fit
    • Follow the publisher's submission guidelines TO THE LETTER
    • Don't pay for the services a publisher is supposed to cover. 
    • Visit Preditors and Editors and Absolute Write
    • Do expect to do a lot of your own legwork for PR
I got the job to write Ghosthunting Michigan by keeping my eyes on freelance writing websites. Ninety nine percent of the jobs on those boards are CRAP. But every once in a while there's something good. 

First, what do I mean by crap? Write a thousand word blog for five bucks (sometimes less). Do NOT go there. The average payout for writing is 2 to 3 cents a word. That means for every hundred words write, you should get two or three dollars. No, that's not a lot. A good pay is 5 cents a word. Don't ever settle for less than a penny a word. Unless you're writing a gratis piece for a reputable 'zine because it's a byline and bylines are important, they're how you build your resume. 
  • You won't build your resume blogging about kitchen gadgets for somebody else's blog, for less than chicken feed. It is a complete and utter waste of time. If you want to blog, get a blog and blog your heart out. 
  • You also won't build your career ghostwriting for other people...but if the pay is fair you MIGHT pay your electric bill that way and that might be important enough to consider letting someone else put their name on your hard work. Just make sure the pay is fair. 
And yes, sometimes magazines have flat story rates and those vary and are sometimes pretty small, but when you publish something in a good magazine, get to add that magazine to your resume. 

Where was I? Oh yeah, GHMI. The series editor, John Katchuba, posted a notice on one of the freelance writing boards that he was looking for someone to write Ghosthunting Michigan. It looked pretty cool, so I googled the John's name and saw that he looked pretty legit. He'd written a couple of books and there were several books already out in the series in question. They were published by Clerisy press. I googled Clerisy. They also looked totally legit. (I.e. this is a real publisher and not a vanity press). I ran them by Preditors and Editors and nothing came up (that's usually a good sign, it means nobody's pissed at them). 

So I answered the ad, and gave John EXACTLY what he asked for. 

During the course of a few emails, I clarified that it wasn't a ghostwriting gig, that I would get a byline, (because 60K words is too much for me to let somebody else get the credit for, sorry). I also wanted some idea of what the contract looked like; i.e. royalties and advance. Yes, and yes. I kept my emails professional, short, and polite. I wanted the job :D 

On a last note, I've mentioned vanity presses a couple of times. I have absolutely NOTHING against self publishing. What I'm against is someone charging you thousands of dollars to do it for you. 

You can hire a good cover artist for two to three hundred dollars. A good editor will run between one and four hundred, often depending on the level of editing you need/want. I don't recall how much it is to buy an ISBN, but it's not expensive and it's not hard (if you go through Amazon or Lulu, they'll do all the work for you, you just pay the fee--and that's ALL you pay them, unless you need help formatting...and PDF formatting isn't that hard. I've done it through Lulu and I am NOT the most technically savvy person on the planet. I had to ask my kid how to send a text message!) 

If you can't find a publisher--or a publisher you want to work with--there is nothing wrong with self pubbing. Just be smart and do your homework. (And no, really you DO Need professional cover art and an editor). 

Whew. Who's hungry after all that?

A while back, I had a real craving for feta cheese. It’s honestly one of my favorite cheeses (marscapone, cream, and ricotta being the other three…oh and munster. Munster is definitely my cheese of choice for sandwiches…but I digress. As usual).

So. Feta cheese + chicken = Greek Chicken
(one of my persona recipes--i.e., I made it up all by myself!)

the following is for ONE serving
  • 1 or 2 thighs OR one breast 
  • 2 Tablespoons of feta (or, just as much as you can heap on!)
  • 1/4 lemon, squeezed (okay, I usually use a little more, but I LOVE lemon and chicken)
  • Olive oil (although I’m still using soy oil, since it’s what we have; any light oil will work)--you just need enough to coat the bottom of your pan so you can brown the chicken
  • Enough water to cover the bottom of the pan in about half of an inch of water; it’s safe to eyeball it, no need to whip out a ruler
  • Garlic powder, dried thyme, dried oregano, and dried basil to taste (I tend to go heavy on the garlic and just sprinkle the others, lightest on the thyme and basil; thyme is a little strong, but I love the flavor)
  • 3 or 8 grape or cherry tomatoes, cut lengthwise.  (I can usually fit 3 or 4 decent sized grape tomatoes on one thigh)
  • if you love olives and want to make it even prettier, garnish with sliced olives
  • Optional: some broccoli florets for the side. I happen to really love broccoli with lemon
  • Also optional: a splash of white wine. Basically, if I have a bottle open, I’ll splash some into the pan; if not, no sweat


  • If you're using a chicken breast, I recommend butterfyling it (cutting it in half lenghtwise)
  • Heat the oil (remember, olive oil takes a higher temp than anything else); I use a medium heat; brown the meat on both sides.
  • Pour in water (yes, it will splatter), wine (if using it) and lemon juice; sprinkle on spices. Do not turn the meat back over, but leave the spice-side up for the duration. 
  • Cover, and cook on low heat for 10 minutes, adding more water if necessary. 
  • Carefully heap on the cheese; cover and cook for another five or six minutes, or until the cheese looks melty (again, add more water if necessary)
  • If you're cooking broccoli with your meal, this is a good time to add it to the pan; I usually squeeze some more lemon juice directly to the broccoli. After the broccoli is cooked to however you like it cooked go onto the last step:
  • Add the tomatoes, then cover the pan and turn off the heat; the idea is to get the tomatoes heated, not cook them (it's a personal preference  you can add the tomatoes when you add the cheese if you like them that way). 
  • Serve with a garnish of sliced olives and more lemon juice if you like zesty, lemony chicken
This dish would be great served with rice or orzo and a light garlic sauce or just more lemon. (Or garlic AND lemon). It would also go really well with a little tabouli salad.


Tali Spencer said...

This is such a wonderful post about the road to getting published that I may have to make it a permanent link on my blog. Because I get asked the same question and you've nailed the process. Research. Research. Research. Information is power, so empower yourself. I had (and still have, will always have) a list of "My Dream Publishers". I landed publishers at the top of that list and I couldn't be happier. They're both great! (I write m/f as well as m/m romance.) I hope lots of people visit this blog entry and take it to heart.

H.B. Pattskyn said...

Thanks, Tali! Definitely information is power.