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  • Writer's pictureFrederike Schmitz

Writing is creative, publishing a business: query letters, literacy agents and next steps

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

Now that I feel like my story is mature enough, I struggle with the next steps.

Should I approach a traditional publisher? And if so, which one?

Should this be a publisher in an English-speaking country or a German one?

After all I initially wrote my story in English, but I am German. In the past I have mainly written anything from my PhD thesis to manuscripts, to articles in English. Also, in the beginning I’ve done a lot of scientific literature reading in English.

But now that I’m thinking about the book trajectory: from writing the story, to approaching publishers to getting it published and then promoting the book I’m doubting that English would be the best fit for me.

For the ones of you who know me personally, I’m an extrovert. Through and through.

I need contact to people- as many as possible. I get my energy from personal encounters. I enjoy giving presentations and talking. Well, the thing with presentations is that I’m always nervous beforehand but get an energy boost afterwards when I’ve managed to overcome this feeling.

So, the whole pandemic situation wasn’t easy for me. I am definitely not made for social isolation. And I can consider myself fortunate that I have a husband and a child who I both saw a lot during the lockdowns.

Now that we are opening up, I feel the energy rushing back, because I’m seeing more people in real life. Still mostly outside, as I’m still very much careful.

But what has all of this to do with book publishing?

Writing is a solitary endeavor. After all, you are alone when you write. Behind your laptop.

By yourself.

If I’d have contact with a publisher now, I’d probably talk to people working there – likely remotely via video calls.

But then… once the book is out, I’d have to do marketing to spread the word about the book and to get it into the hands of kids and their parents.

This could be done in person. What I hear from many writers (through social media and by being a member of the society of children’s book writers and illustrators- SCBWI) is that they tour libraries and schools after the release of their books.

That is actually something I’d so be looking forward to doing. This would be the first time I could interact with my audience. Hear their questions, their feedback and get inspiration to write more stories.

If I now decide to publish in the UK or US or Canada, I don’t see myself touring schools and libraries there. After all I live in the Netherlands now. And given the circumstances today I suppose that most of these events will still be online- more video calls.

Being able to do video calls is great because you don’t necessarily have to travel anymore, but it will never replace the real face-to-face meetings for me.

If I now approach German publishers and manage to publish a book with one there, I could visit German schools and libraries. If my Dutch writing wouldn’t be so bad I guess I could also try to get the book published in the Netherlands too.

Either way, I haven’t fully decided yet and these are thoughts that keep me busy.

What I also wanted to share with you today are general steps that you’d have to take and consider when you want to publish a book.

Like I mentioned, I joined the SCBWI community last year and I’d like to cite from their yearly published book on how to publish here.

I don’t know how many of you have any experience with book publishing or if you’d be interested to publish a book at one point in time, but here are my main take-aways.

“The process of writing is creative, but publishing is a business.”

This is a quote from Carla Killough McClafferty and is basically summing up my AHA! moments from the last couple of months.

First, I struggled to see myself as a creative person. I am a trained scientist. [Are scientists creative? I guess that’s a topic for another discussion.]

For my story I was creating characters, story plots and breathing life to otherwise lifeless beings. Yes, I guess that is creative work.

Having spent so much time with Didi -my main character- and letting her grow and develop emotionally I now feel attached to her. Like she would or could be real.

That is definitely the result of a creative process.

But publishing a book is business. This is where creativity basically stops. This is where marketing begins.

Ah, but wait! There is lots of creativity in marketing you might say. I do agree with that.

But it’s business foremost. People need to buy the book otherwise it will not be printed. A publisher invests money into a writer and illustrator to eventually make money out of this collaboration. It’s as simple as that.

So, you as a writer or illustrator have to convince the publisher that their investment into you will pay off. You can do that creatively- and probably should. Even if it’s just to stand out from the crowd. Because there is a huge crowd!

It’s not for nothing that all publishers I’ve seen which actually accept open manuscripts state that they won’t reply under 3-6 months. And if they don’t reply it means that your manuscript hasn’t been accepted. You won’t even get a rejection letter.

So how does it pay off for publishers to invest into you?

They must be fairly certain that there are readers out there willing to read your story and buy the book.

“It’s not that your text goes off into the world by itself. It must withstand the tests of a variety of readers and tastes as well as changing trends.”, says Beverly Horowitz, VP & Publisher, Delacorte Press, Random House Children’s Books (quote slightly adjusted).

If publishing is a business: How do you pitch your story for success?

Like I mentioned before, publishers receive a lot of manuscripts. That is why they don’t really want to read your whole manuscript- chapter by chapter. They often want a query letter. A pitch of your story, so to speak.

What is a query letter?

The goal of a query letter is to provide an initial hook to your story. It should leave the reader wanting to know more. It is important to strike the right tone. A tone that matches your complete manuscript.

It should further give the impression that the author is a professional writer. Obviously, that means that your query letter should be flawless in terms of grammar and writing. Even as a starting writer you should always present yourself as a professional. To get there you need to treat your query letter the same as you treat your manuscript. “Write a rough draft, then revise, revise, and revise again.”

What about its structure? Often it’s only a single page long containing four basic parts: the initial hook, a summary (3-4 sentences), your biographical information and a closing line.

The hook should include something related to your manuscript so that the reader is intrigued and reads on. It’s probably wise to include a one- or two-sentence teaser for your story. Think about the text printed at the back of a book you pick up in a bookstore or library.

The summary is basically an overview that includes the setting, the characters, the main conflict and how the story is different from other similar books. Somewhere here you can also indicate the age group and genre you’re writing for.

Your biographical information describes why you are the only one who can write it and what exactly makes you an expert.

The closing line: like any good business pitch this has to be a call to action. In a query letter this action is likely “please read my whole manuscript”.

In essence, you should do a thorough research into the publishers you’re submitting to. What kind of books have they published? Would your book fit into this selection? Have a look at my previous blog where I shortlisted several publishers.

What about finding a literacy agent?

First of all, what is a literacy agent? In the SCBWI book it states: “Agents have ongoing business relationships with editors and creative directors and can encourage them to try their talent group.”

An agent can therefore advise you about the potential of your story. She/he can help you pitch your story to publishers and match your work with an appropriate editor in a publishing house more quickly.

He/she can then also negotiate your contracts once a publisher is interested. The agent therefore can also help you with royalty statements and reserved rights, say for film or merchandising.

He/she would also collect payments and transfers the money to you.

Ideally an agent is familiar with current trends, practices, and conditions in the industry.

As you probably realize by now is, that an agent should be someone you trust completely.

For an unpublished author like me, it is therefore extremely difficult to find such an agent and I’m wondering if I should not rather spend my energy on finding the right publisher.

In fact, if I’m ‘just’ looking for someone who can eventually help me with contracts and such I might consider hiring a literary lawyer.

Such a lawyer is familiar with the publishing industry and can help with contract negotiations. Whereas the literacy agent charges a commission, lawyers are usually billed by the hour.

What are my next steps?

Either way, now that I feel ready for the next step, I struggle a bit which step I should take.

What would you do? Have you ever published a book? How did you approach it?

The new authors I’ve talked to who published science books pretty much all told me that they got approached by publishers and agents after they’ve gotten any kind of exposure in the media.

And only few approached publishers systematically.

And then there is still the option to self-publish. At the SCBWI they are publishing a book about self-publishing end of this year. I will then write about my main takeaways from this book in my blog here.

If you’re interested in (self)-publishing, make sure to subscribe to my blog or follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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