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ASK THE EDITOR "Breaking Into The Business"

By Susan Malone

March, 1999


"How do I break into publishing? Just give me the one, two, three of it and I'll take it from there."

I hear this question about a zillion times a month, from writers so frustrated with this business (whether they've written a canon or are just beginning to see the horrors involved), and most focus on the idea of writing a nonfiction bestseller once they realize the insanity of breaking in with fiction. Yes, fiction is a tougher sell. Roughly ten works of nonfiction are published to every novel. Yikes. So, continuing with our gambling analogy from last month, we'll all just go to the casino instead.

Seriously though, it IS easier to sell nonfiction. But only relatively so. In other words, before you toss that novel into the drawer and search for the next formula for bestsellerdom, it will help to ask some hard questions. And those revolve around marketing. When writing anything, fiction or non, what is your main focus? Are you writing this for your own edification, or that of the general public? They're one and the same, you say. Well, no. With fiction, you must first and foremost please yourself, and then hope some brilliant editor recognizes your talent, and then can sell your work to his or her editorial board and director, and the sales reps can sell it to the distributor and book stores, and . . . well, you get the picture.

The route of nonfiction is not so much different, but better-established formulas do exist for what sells. So first decide what's the market for your book. I.e., who's gonna buy 101 WAYS TO MURDER YOUR HUSBAND (While Implicating Your Mother-In-Law), or THE NEW-AGE GUIDE TO COSMIC SEX. (A catchy title goes a long way in this category.) You'll need that information for your proposal, which MUST be completed before any agent or editor will even speak with you.

HOW will your book be marketed? Just that every woman in the world will want to own five copies (in case a natural disaster destroys the first four) is NOT a marketing strategy. Publishers want specifics. In this day and time, you, the author, will be largely responsible for promoting your work, so you better know how, where, to whom, when, and why the book will be bought.

What's your competition? Are there fifty books dealing with mid-life psychic experiences currently on the market? Or, none? Which scenario will prove more beneficial to you might be surprising, kinda like it seems a paradox that all the car dealers in one county sit on the same block. Competition can be very good for sales. Of course, TOO much competition kills you before you get in the door.

Second, and we're all gonna exhale heavily here, what are your credentials? While publishing claims to hate Ph.D.s, such is not really the case. Editors hate the WRITING style of such folks, but still need the credibility, otherwise, WHO is gonna believe the author knows what makes x,y,z tick? You don't HAVE to have the letters behind your name, but you do have to know your stuff. In other words, even if you have no degree in Homemaking Ed., you better be able to convince an agent, editor, publisher, and readers that you know how to sew the skirt.

And finally, although many folks in this business (including myself on alternate days) will say this should be number one, WHY are you writing this book? What's the point? Will it make the world a better place, or just add to a smidgen of knowledge concerning guacamole dip (an art and necessity in itself), in addition to making you and said publisher millionaires? Knowing the why of it will cause you to refine your proposal, while answering many of the larger, AND smaller questions. And, it'll go a long way to expose, to yourself mainly (the most important person at this point), exactly what your commitment to seeing the project through will be.

Then and only then begin your research. Then, tackle the actual writing, which as you know is another beast entirely.

Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, Associate Editor for THE LITERARY MAGAZINE, multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial and manuscript assessment service. You may email questions to her at: aaasuz@aol.com