THE BIGGEST MISTAKE WRITERS MAKE
“I can do it,” they say. “I can write a book and send it straight to a publisher.” These are beginning writers as well as best-selling authors. “I’ll save time and money!” they tell me. “Everybody’s going to love my book, so I don’t need a 15-page book proposal. I’ll just whip together a quick cover letter and a short outline.”
Then they send their material to me, and it’s embarrassing. I don’t mean their book ideas, their book ideas are wonderful. But their presentation is amateurish. They don’t even use the right font. (Times New Roman.) They don’t have a book proposal per se, just a meager little outline that doesn’t really do justice to their project. And then they complain that publishers aren’t giving them a fair chance.
Do you realize how many people just like you are bombarding publishers with submissions? If you submit material without being repped by an agent, publishers will put it in the slush pile. Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? So, why would you do this to yourself? I’ll tell you why. . . .
Writers are by nature creative people with a rich interior life. “I can’t keep up with all the new ideas that come into my head,” says Katie. “I started writing one book to get my ideas down on paper and out of my brain, so I can make room for new ideas." Writers like Katie have learned to rely on themselves, and in the process they've found that they can do everything from getting ideas for books, to writing them, to revising them. So naturally when they approach the publishing world, they suffer from the delusion that they can continue to do everything.
You Know This Best-selling Author
Mark is a college professor and the best-selling author of a book you’d recognize if I mentioned the name. He doesn’t like the idea of using an agent; instead, he wants to send his book directly to publishers. “Take a look at it for me, will you, Bill?” he says. Then he sends me his material, and one look tells me why it’s not working. I’m thinking, How can a best-selling author turn out such shoddy copy? “I’ve always represented myself,” he says. “I sent out thirty-three of these outlines, but not one publisher replied.”
I won’t go into all the mistakes these writers are making. But off the top of my head I can list numerous errors that both Katie (the amateur) and Mark (the pro) are making in their attempt to get a book published.
- Neither is using an agent.
- They don’t have a book proposal ready.
- Their 2-page outlines are amateurish.
- They’re using 2-page outlines instead of 15-page book proposals.
- They boast about their work instead of describing it objectively.
- And, worst of all, their query letters are disasters.
The Biggest Mistake and How to Fix It
Can you spot the biggest mistake these writers are making? It's obvious. They think that because they’re creative people they can do everything themselves. They’re missing the fact that various professionals have spent years acquiring skills that could help them. I’m talking about helping them get a real book proposal together, not a skimpy 2-page outline. I’m talking about helping them produce an irresistible query letter with a brilliant book hook and a convincing author bio. I’m talking about helping them select a short list of literary agents to query.
If you want to do everything yourself, remember what happened to Mark — and he was a best-selling author not too long ago. It's sad but true. Things have changed in recent years. Today the publishing industry usually frowns upon those who come in over the transom, unagented, especially if they submit sloppy skimpy outlines and query letters that have:
- the wrong format
- the wrong font
- the wrong tone
- the wrong salutation
- the wrong opening line
- the wrong type of book hook
- the wrong number of characters per line (i'm not kidding!)
- the wrong complimentary close
- the wrong length
- the wrong number of paragraphs (believe it or not!)
You see that photo of Tennessee Williams? (It was taken by Karsh, by the way, a brilliant photographer.) Tennessee Williams was incredibly successful, and his success was due, in part, to the fact that he realized that he should devote his energies to the creative side of his art. He gladly accepted technical and business help from others, and he worked with a competent literary agent.
Why waste years of time? I wish someone had helped me when I was starting out. Maybe I’d have written more books. Do yourself a favor and accept that, like Tennessee Williams, the number one thing you can do to get your book published is work with a professional. Don’t try to do it all yourself.
If you're not sure how to get a book deal, you can stop trying to figure it out for yourself. I’ve already done it all for you. All you have to do is ask and reap the rewards.
William Cane can be reached at email@example.com or 201-656-7956. An attorney and former Boston College professor, he teaches English at the College of Staten Island.