We’re sent a lot of manuscripts at my publishing house, Lantern Books; it’s one of the hazards of the profession. Well, that’s not fair: We depend on them to keep in business, so we welcome them all. However, much of the time we’re sent manuscripts that we’re never going to print—and not because they’re simply terrible, but because the author hasn’t done some elementary homework. Some are novels, and we don’t publish fiction; some contain a lot of poetry, and we don’t publish that; some are children’s books, and we don’t publish those either. It’s not because we hate fiction and poetry and despise the Very Hungry Caterpillar; it’s simply because those markets are huge and complex and we don’t feel ready to move into them right now. It would also be a major disservice to you, the author: Who wants to be published by someone who has no idea what they’re doing? For those of you who’ve written a book, or are thinking of writing one, I thought it might be useful to put together a checklist of sorts so we don’t waste each other’s time.
Does the publisher publish books in my subject?
You’d be amazed at the number of manuscripts we get where the author has seen that we publish books but hasn’t bothered to find out that we are not the go-to folks for an anthology of Andalusian folksongs or an in-depth exposé of funereal rites in pre-Akkadian Sumer. Make sure that your manuscript fits one of the publisher’s programs. If in doubt, take your time scrolling through the publisher’s website, or, better yet, buy one of their books and read it (nothing works better than flattering the publisher by showing you know their work).
Is my manuscript the best it can be?
Unless you’re well-known or infamous, or you’ve published lots of books before, don’t expect a publisher to write your book for you: No missing sections or to-be-filled-in-later bits, please. Your manuscript should be complete or give a very clear indication of how you intend to finish it and what will be in it. Also, get someone to look over your manuscript. I’m sure your friends or your mother are wonderful people, but they’re not necessarily going to tell you the truth. It’s worth hiring a third party, and best of all a professional editor, to go over your magnum opus so there are fewer errors, misspellings, inconsistencies, and less confusion all round; that your manuscript is no longer than it needs to be and as polished, precise, and pellucid as a diamond. It’s what you want; it’s what we want; it’s what the public wants. So, it’s worth the investment.
Do I know who’s going to buy my book?
It’s hard enough being a writer, I know, without worrying about the marketing and selling of your worthy tome. But if you don’t know who’ll buy your book, there’s a good chance the publisher won’t either. That’s why you should have some kind of marketing plan with your manuscript, some sense of where best to sell the book and to whom, and why they should buy it. We don’t expect you to have all of the answers; we just don’t want you to be clueless. Producing a successful book is genuinely a partnership between publisher and author—one that doesn’t end when the manuscript is turned in. Oh, and one other thing: Be honest! It doesn’t help if you tell us, “All the mothers in America will want to buy this book because it’s about family.” If you find yourself thinking such a thought, ask yourself one question: Would that line work on me?
Which brings us to the next issue. . . .
Oprah or Bust
I have some terrible news: You are not going to be shriven by the Blessed Oprah and Charlie Rose is not going to devote an hour of his show to discussing your work. It’s not that what you have to say isn’t important. It’s not that you’re a bad writer or even that Lantern is not Random House—although, on that last point, it’s true that Lantern doesn’t have the reach and reputation and history of that august institution. It’s simply that the odds are very, very long that fame and fortune await your volume. Hundreds of thousands of new books are published in the United States every year, and only a tiny percentage of these are reviewed and featured by the big names—and this publicity is no guarantee of big sales. So, getting to chat with Oprah or Charlie Rose or Terry Gross should not be your entire marketing strategy. Take a deep breath: It ain’t gonna happen.
Have I done all the legal stuff right?
Have your interviewees signed off on your use of their words in your book? Have you obtained permission for the serial opalescent paragraphs you’ve cited? (For that matter, why do you need so many words from so many other people to make your point for you? Whose book is it, anyway?!) Have you stolen someone else’s work because you forgot to reference it properly? Are you libeling someone, misquoting them, taking their words out of context? Before you go a-quoting and a-submitting, therefore, make sure you know your rights and the limits of fair use of other people’s words. For more on that, click here.
Finally, don’t despair. First of all, reflect on the fact that you have written a book. That’s a hell of a thing to do: A lot of people around the world aren’t even literate, and those who are spend most of their time watching television or drinking beer. You, however, dedicated your time to constructing ideas to which you have given shape and thought, and you’ve finished a book. That’s a very good thing, and worth celebrating—even with a beer.
So what if you got turned down by an agent or a publishing house! Welcome to a club with a roster of very big hitters. All the great writers (and quite a few of the lousy ones, too) were rejected by publishing house after publishing house for incomprehensible and wholly unjustifiable reasons (How can they not see my genius? This is a guaranteed million-copy bestseller!). In fact, there probably hasn’t been a significant work of literature published over the last 150 years that wasn’t utterly whiffed at by at least three publishing houses that then spent the next few years desperately trying to hit a home run by publishing clones of the one they missed, and not even reaching first base. (End of extended baseball metaphor.)
If you can’t be bothered to slog your way through the rejection letters, you can always try self-publishing. It has an honorable tradition: Every poet in history and some of the most successful writers today started out by paying for their own books to be printed; I wouldn’t be surprised if Homer himself didn’t have to pay the booker for his first gig. Self-publishing won’t make it easier to sell your book to a customer, but you’ll get to keep more of the sales if you do, and you’ll have complete control of the process (which, if you’re honest with yourself, might not be an entirely good thing, right?). Ultimately, there’s the web, or turning your book into one or more magazine articles, or a lecture series, or even standing at the corner of your block on an upturned crate. If you’re passionate enough and tenacious enough, what you need to say will reach somebody. It just might not be through a publisher.
Now, if you’ve read all this, and are still convinced that you want to be published and that Lantern’s the right house for you, then send us your manuscript, with your marketing ideas, and we’ll respond. Who knows, maybe you’ll become one of our authors?