REMINDER: The end of the month is the deadline for voting for the Aurora Awards if you’re Canadian. I think the Hugo deadline is the same. For more information go to http://www.prixaurorawards.ca/ and http://www.thehugoawards.org/. You have the opportunity to effect the voting and to see that those people who bring you all our genre’s wonderfulness are rewarded in some small way for what they’re doing. (And if you feel inclined to vote for yours truly or my fellow columnist R. Graeme Cameron for our efforts in Amazing, who are we to quibble?) Seriously, folks: vote! This is your chance to make a difference! (The Aurora in Figure 1 is the “old-style” Aurora, used for many years, designed and built by Franklyn Johnson. This is one of two my wife, Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, won. It’s designed to resemble the Auroran lights, with its flowing curves… and if you look at it from the top it says “SF”—which is my initials! But sadly, I didn’t win last year and the new design doesn’t incorporate my initials.)
Because this column is all about submitting books to publishers—and let me make it clear that here I am talking about physical book publishers, not ebook publishers. I’m sad to say that I have not been diligent in keeping up my knowledge of current practices, so I’m hoping to help you avoid my mistake and learn how to submit properly if you want to see your book from a major publisher in paper format—either as a paperback or hardcover book. (And because it’s rather hard to properly illustrate a column about submitting books, I have decided to illustrate this one with photos of some of my wife’s ‘bot and space sculptures. Because I can, and because my editor/publisher likes her stuff. I hope you do too!) (Ed. Note: Yes, I do!)
Okay, here’s the recent Quora question that prompted this column. I’ve redacted both the asker’s and answerer’s names and changed both Q&A somewhat, as I don’t want to step on any toes.
Question: I’m finishing the final draft of a fantasy novel. What’s the best way to submit it to a publisher?
Answer (by someone who’s a published children’s author and owner of an independent bookstore): Most of the big publishing houses just won’t accept submissions from first-time authors without an agent.
If you have some contacts, you can still get into houses like Tor, but your chances of a big launch with a big publisher aren’t good without an agent. I’d recommend going to every fantasy writing group and convention you can, and getting to know published fantasy authors. Ask them if they’ll read your first chapter and give you feedback. If they like it, offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask them if they can or will introduce you to their editor or agent—that gets your foot in the door and moves your manuscript out of the slush pile and into their [the publishing house or agency’s] in-basket.
That answer got me thinking: when I was getting into fiction writing over 30 years ago, there were a number of sf/f book publishers—as opposed to general fiction houses—and it was easy to submit manuscripts to them—or, at least, query letters. There were such houses as DAW, Ace, Ballantine, Bantam, Berkley, Baen, etc., all of whom had published diverse writers of fantasy and science fiction; all of whom had brought in and nurtured new writers. There were also smaller, yet well-respected houses like Pulphouse Publishing and a score of others. At that time, I was involved in a small but well-known writers’ workshop called Writers’ Bloc, and we distributed to our members all the current methods of submitting—including writers’ guidelines—for every publisher of long or short fiction we could find. The usual advice for new, unknown and unagented writers was to submit—not a book-length manuscript, not just a query letter, but several (three) chapters and a detailed outline or synopsis of your book. The chapters would tell the editor (or First Reader) whether you could write; the outline would tell him or her whether you could plot. That was the accepted advice. Besides, the only way to get an agent was to actually have sold stuff. It’s extremely rare for any reputable agent to take on a client without a track record. But I wondered: Had things really changed so much?
So I sent that question (the Quora question/answer) to a number of writers I knew, who had published a bunch o’ books; after all, writers would know, right? The answers I got surprised me a bit. Here are the answers I got in order of receipt (and some of my answers to theirs):
William Gibson (author of Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition, The Peripheral and others) said: I have no clue.
Everything I know about that is literally 35 years old, hence useless at best, at worst misguiding.
The unpublished, today, need to be tutored in getting published, today, *by the quite recently published-for-the-first-time*. Seems like a no-brainer to me.
Almost everything in publishing has changed since I started, and not for the better.
“Wait, I know — you need to get shitfaced with Terry Carr in the hospitality suite!” [that’s an in-joke; Terry Carr bought Bill’s first book, Neuromancer, for the Ace Specials line; it was published in 1984. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you would usually find most writers and editors in either the bar or the hospitality suite, depending on where the cheapest or most plentiful booze was, more or less. As far as I know, that was an ancient and honourable practice whose origins were shrouded in history.]
I replied: Thanks, anyway, Bill. I’m not sure any editors/publishers get shitfaced in the con suite any more, anyway.
(I’m sure it’s great from a medical standpoint, but… not half as much fun as it used to be.)
And Bill replied: They don’t! That’s exactly why advice from a writer at my stage of career could be worse than useless.
The next person to answer was Steven Barnes (author of Street Lethal, Zulu Heart, South by Southeast [with Blair Underwood and Tananarive Due] and a lot of books with Larry Niven), who said [I assume of the original poster]: Not bad advice at all.
Then I heard from Canada’s own Robert J. Sawyer (author of Golden Fleece, Triggers, the WWW trilogy and Red Planet Blues, among other books), who said: Only got a moment here, but I’d say that what’s in the Quora response is not quite right. First, I always recommend people start not by going to conventions (as was suggested by the person you quoted), but to large bookstores. Spend hours — days! — studying the science fiction and fantasy section. Pick up each book in turn and look at it. See what it’s about; see who published it; see how many printings it’s had (the lowest number on the list of digits at the bottom of the copyright page is the printing number; it’s a rough-and-ready estimate of how successful the book has been); if it’s a paperback, see if it had previously been a hardcover (it’ll list the previous edition on the copyright page); if it’s a Tor book — and you’ll see a lot of them — see who edited it; Tor is unique among the major publishers in listing that on the copyright page, too.
After you’ve done this, you should know what sorts of books Baen publishes; what kinds flourish at Tor; what makes a typical DAW book, and so. You’ll also know which small presses are managing to get their books actually distributed in bookstores (few do). And, most important of all, you’ll know where your own book would most comfortably fit in, leading you to the most-appropriate publisher (and, indeed, with Tor, to the specific editor) to query.
Most big publishers do prefer agented submissions, and will only take unsolicited submissions (that is, ones they didn’t specifically ask for) from agents. But a well-presented query letter can indeed lead to an editor at many houses asking for (that is, soliciting) your manuscript, so it’s not a completely closed shop.
Most of us who have agents got them by doing short fiction, and a new writer is well-advised to start with that (think of a novel as the Major League; do you really expect to start there, rather than first paying your dues in the minors)? Biggest advantage of an agent at the submission stage is that he/she can follow up repeatedly with the editor to hopefully get a more timely response; at Tor, for instance, the response time to unagented submissions is typically three years or so; an agent, if he/she has any clout, should get your manuscript read in a matter of months (or days, if he/she thinks the property is super-hot).
You quoted someone as saying, “If they [the author you’ve buttonholed at a convention] like it [your opening chapters], offer to let them read the whole book (you might get a blurb from them), and ask if they can introduce you to their editor or agent.”
Ummm, well, yeah, maybe; but, y’know, editors and agents are professional gatekeepers. We authors aren’t. We might choose to take someone under our wing — I’m mentoring several writers of my own choosing currently — but never once has a stranger at a con successfully pestered me into doing any of the things that the respondent suggested. And, y’know, although once or twice when I felt my editors were dropping the ball, I’ve been importunate enough to ask a colleague for a blurb, but in general, that’s handled by the editor on behalf of the author, and occurs after the book is sold; it’s very rare for authors to issue endorsements for unpublished books.
The aspirant writers I have tended to champion over the years have been my own writing students. Some of us authors teach writing (often or occasionally); taking a course by one of us, or going to Clarion or Odyssey, is a better way to cement relationships with mentors than going to SF/F conventions with the mindset of, “Oh, look! A published writer! He/she must have come here so that I could use them to advance my own career!” Puh-leeze.
After such a reasoned response as that, what can one say except, “Whoo! Thanks!” (Rob Sawyer has always been extremely helpful to newer writers; if you have the time and/or money to join any writing program in which he is teaching, I highly recommend you do so. Also look into the two writing programs (Clarion and Odyssey) he mentions.
I also asked Gregory Benford (author of In the Ocean of Night, Timescape, Shipstar [with Larry Niven] and many other books, who replied: I can best echo Rob [Sawyer]: “…editors and agents are professional gatekeepers. We authors aren’t.”
I’m hopeless, know nothing of today’s market. I have no lit agent, either. I just do it through editors I know.
And, finally, Spider Robinson (author of Telempath, the Stardance trilogy [with Jeanne Robinson], Variable Star, Very Hard Choices and the whole Callahan’s series) talked about the whole “use a published writer to get published” part of the Quora answer: My experience is almost forty years out of date, and I doubt any of it is still relevant.
But I’ll say this: over the course of my career, I have tried several times to help out a new writer by writing him a cover letter to submit along with his work, basically saying, “Take a look at this guy: he’s really got the stuff.” Not one time has it ever helped a single one of them to even get their rejection slip any quicker. Editors simply assume that the writer is a friend of yours, or owes you money, or is dating your sister. New writers, of course, cannot believe this, and keep leaning until finally you surrender and write them yet another useless cover letter….
In my day, submitting to a publisher yourself, without an agent, was a great way to keep your manuscript out of circulation for a couple of years, if not forever. Whether that’s still true or not, I simply could not say.
In my day, the only way to get an agent was to sell a few short stories to the pulps yourself, then show them the stories someone had already paid money for. Again: how it works today, deponent knoweth not.
So even major SF/F writers don’t have a handle on it; you might well assume that you, as a new writer, have no choice. But wait: who actually reads and accepts (or rejects) the novels you write? I decided to ask a couple of editors of my acquaintance about agented vs. unagented submissions:
Patrick Nielsen Hayden (who is an editor and Manager of SF at TOR), sent me a link to their submissions guidelines (here). The gist of it—but please, follow the link and read it yourself—is “We have an open submissions policy and consider tens of thousands of projects a year. Every proposal that reaches us is reviewed by at least one member of the editorial staff. We apologize in advance for replying primarily with form letters; unfortunately, there’s no other way to handle responses in a timely manner.
We do not respond to queries; please do not send them.” They require chapters/synopsis, as I mentioned earlier. When I asked Patrick if TOR/MacMillan was typical of the other SF publishers, he said: I don’t think we’re representative at all, quite the contrary. Almost nobody else looks at unagented unsolicited manuscripts. Baen perhaps.
Senior Editor at TOR, David G. Hartwell (who has edited for many of the major publishers), said of Patrick’s initial response: This looks generally fine for the general public.
But I bit the bullet for you, dear readers, and looked up the submission guidelines for what I think are the top SF/F publishers today. Remember that there are now—for better or worse—publishing conglomerates, who have swallowed many of the familiar names: MacMillan has TOR (see above link for guidelines); and many of the others are now part of Random House/Penguin. Baen Books is part of Simon and Schuster.
Baen’s guidelines are here: Briefly, they want to see complete manuscripts; query letters are unnecessary. They prefer e-submissions, but no emails; there is a submission form you must attach your ms. to as an RTF file.
DAW Books is (as far as I can tell) the only Penguin Group publisher that accepts unsolicited/unagented books. Their submission information is here. They say: “We publish first novels if they are of professional quality. A literary agent is not required for submission. We will not consider manuscripts that are currently on submission to another publisher.” Again, please read their guidelines before submitting.
All other former SF/F publishers (Ace/Roc; Berkley; Del Rey/Spectra; Ballantine) in the “big name” group specifically say “no unagented submissions.”
And there you have it. That’s all I’ve been able to find out for you about paper books in the SF/F field. If there are errors or omissions in this column, they are mine alone; if I have mistyped or misrepresented anything said by the writers/editors in this column, I will take full responsibility, but I don’t think I have. If you have written—or are writing—your first genre book and you want to get it published by one of the big-name SF/F publishers, you should do as suggested by one (or more) of the pros quoted above. Otherwise, you could do what a lot of people are doing, and publish it yourself s an ebook, through Amazon, for example. You won’t get an advance, and you’ll be competing with (it seems like) a billion other novice writers, but you will have complete control over your book, for what it’s worth. In a future column, I will be addressing that option.
I will be absent from Amazing’s pages for approximately the next three weeks, as I must drive to Missouri (a couple of thousand miles round trip) on a family matter, and I won’t have much internet access either on the way or while I’m there. So behave yourself, and as my sister and others have admonished: don’t break the internet while I’m gone! 🙂
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