Once you have an idea of what kind of novel you want to write, what kind of readership you’re aiming for and which publishers are most likely to accept your book, how do you present your project in a way that will capture and hold an editor’s attention?
Editors, after all, are often overworked, underpaid, stressed-out people. They get thousands of unsolicited manuscripts and proposals every year, only a fraction of which are appropriate for their publication needs. If your manuscript is going to be one of the favored few, what the editor initially sees of your work must be clear, creative and captivating.
Because they are inundated by a tidal wave of paper, many publishers no longer accept unsolicited material—certainly not full manuscripts, and for many publishers not even unsolicited proposals.
If you don’t have an agent, your first line of offense is the query letter. Most writers workshops and books about writing can give you examples of effective query letters. Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers’ Market Guide contains an excellent article, entitled “Getting Your Manuscript Published,” by Carol Johnson of Bethany House Publishers. The article offers a clear step-by-step guide to writing a good query letter. (Ed. note: See also our “Query Letter Clinic” in the Expert Advice section of WritersMarket.com).
The query letter should be addressed to the acquisitions editor, by name, or to the specific editor who has expressed interest in your project. If you don’t know the acquisition editor’s name, you haven’t done enough homework. Find out—call the publisher and ask, and make sure you get the spelling right. Christian Writers’ Market Guide can help, but be sure to double-check it—there is a good deal of turnover in publishing houses, and sending a proposal to an editor who is now working for the competition doesn’t make a good impression.
A brief aside here about good impressions: Appearance does make a difference. Invest a little money to present your query letters on an understated but classy letterhead—a quality bond in a neutral color or a subdued pastel. Pink neon stationery annoys an editor even after she’s had her morning coffee. Include a business card that has your phone and fax numbers and e-mail address. And restrain yourself from decorating your letterhead with cutesy sunflowers, smiley faces or “Jesus is everything to me” calligraphy. If you want to be regarded as a professional writer, take pains to look professional.
If you’re still using that old dot-matrix printer, donate it to charity and replace it with a laser or high-quality inkjet. Print your query letter on 20-lb. white paper; don’t use photocopies unless they’re really good quality. Send your letter flat and unstapled in a manila envelope. It’s a good idea to have a header with your name and the book title on each page: Papers get shuffled sometimes, or routed around the office in sections. And don’t forget to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE).
Once an editor responds positively to your idea and asks to see more—or if you’ve met an editor at a writing conference and the editor has asked to see your work—be prepared to present a full proposal. Mark your proposal “Requested Material” on the outside of the envelope; it’s less likely to get buried in the slush pile.
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