5 Things to Know About Writing as a Business
Commercial publishing is a business. You can be a wonderful person who is kind to animals and always pays your bills on time, and still not get any traction. Don’t take it personally. Persevere. There are writers who have great success by following exactly none of the steps below. There are also life-long smokers who live to be ninety, but why buck the odds?
- Figure Out Your Objective.
I once worked with a World War Two vet who wanted his memoir published. When I asked his objective, he said he just wanted his grandchildren to have a record in the event they were interested someday. I suggested a copy store, where he got his work nicely bound with original artwork, which did the job and made him happy.
If your objective is to supplant John Grisham or JK Rowling on the best-seller lists, you’ll have to take another approach. Read on.
- The Query Letter
Unless your college roommate still owes you money and is a senior agent or editor somewhere, you’ll use a query letter to introduce yourself to agents and/or editors (more on audience selection later).
An editor once told me that a query letter must do two things. “It must show me that you have something that will make me money, and that you can write a clear sentence.”
A query letter is NOT a retelling of the entire story. It is a piece of persuasive writing whose sole purpose is to get the agent to ask for more of your work, whether it’s a few sample chapters or a complete manuscript.
An agent once showed me what he considered a good query, in this case for a novel about a particular kind of private investigator. The letter (on paper) was written on the letterhead of the writer, who was—you guessed it—an actual private eye. Writer’s bona fides: check. The letter mentioned a couple of authors the agent represented, as in, “I really liked the novel ABC by your client XYZ.” My friend said it was obvious flattery, but it showed the writer did his research. Then, in about 250 words, the letter laid out enough of the story to be intriguing. How much is enough? That’s the big question, and you have to figure out the answer on your own. Get some feedback on your drafts; this is an important piece of writing.
- Your Target List
To whom will you send queries? The Writer’s Market and similar publications list literary agencies and what they’re looking for. One of the cleverest approaches I heard of was by a former FBI agent who looked in the acknowledgement sections of a bunch of books similar to hers. Most authors will thank their agents, and the aspiring author added those names to her list. Do your research, spell the names correctly and, finally, milk your contacts. If your second cousin’s ex-mother-in-law is corporate counsel for a literary agency, it’s time to become friends. If you think the publishing world is going to come to you because you’re a nice person, well, good luck with that.
- Do I Need an Agent?
Commercial publishing houses use agents to help them separate the wheat from the chaff. Agents know what’s going on in the market: which publishers and which editors are buying what kind of manuscripts, who is setting out in a new direction, whom you want to avoid. Yes, agents take a cut, but I’d rather pay than have to learn what’s in that 50-page contract. An agent once told me, “I have the purest motive. The more money you make, the more money I make.”
A good agent can also be a coach. The plot for my novel Blame the Dead went through several significant changes based on feedback from my agent, Matt Bialer. Matt never claimed to be an editor, but he knows the market and is an astute reader. It also helped that he was incredibly patient and stuck with me and my germ of an idea until it morphed into a saleable manuscript.
- What’s All This About a Proposal?
If you’re writing non-fiction, you may have heard that you lead with the query and offer to follow-up with a book proposal. This is a compelling business plan showing why your idea is a future best-seller. A good proposal will most likely have these elements.
- An executive summary on the cover. An agent I know calls this “the hundred-thousand-dollar paragraph.” Your job is to get them to turn the page.
- A synopsis (see above). How would a marketing person describe your book?
- Your bona fides. Why are you the person to write this book? What experience do you have, in the subject matter and as a writer?
- Your platform. If you have half a million social media followers who are potential book-buyers, you’re going to want to mention this. Ditto if you belong to a group with strong ties and shared interests, if you’ve been on TV a bunch of times, if you’re a crackerjack radio interview, if you are the beloved former governor of your state. Tell them how you will help the publisher sell this book, because your job is really just getting started when the book is published. You’ve got to convince them that you are going to be a great salesperson.
- Market analysis. What other books are out there and selling well? How is your book similar? How is it different (i.e. better)? What are the sales trends for books like this?
- Sample Chapters. Your job is to always leave a reader wanting more.
Remember, in writing as in boxing: fall seven times, rise eight.
Ed Ruggero is a former soldier who has written both fiction and non-fiction. His most recent book, Blame the Dead, is the first in a historical fiction series set in World War Two.
“At the start of this exceptional WWII mystery and series launch from Ruggero . . . Lt. Eddie Harkins, an MP who was once a Philadelphia beat cop, comes across a murder scene near Palermo, Sicily…. Ruggero plays fair with his readers and makes the carrying out of a homicide inquiry in wartime both exciting and plausible.”
–Publishers Weekly Starred Review