Publishing Tips

This page will provide information about the publishing industry, specifically geared toward helping new writers get published. Check in periodically for more publishing tips.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Agents

How do I get the names of reputable, competent literary agents to submit my work to?

Many authors make the mistake of pulling agent names at random off the Internet or out of reference books such as Literary Market Place (you can find the book at most libraries or subscribe for a fee to their online database), Writer’s Market, Guide to Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. These references are useful, but not as your primary source for finding agents. Anyone can call himself a literary agent. This does not necessarily mean that he is reputable or competent, or even that he’s ever sold a manuscript to a publisher. Some so-called “agents” prey upon unsuspecting authors. You don’t want to get involved with them, and you don’t even want to send your work to them. It’s a waste of time and money.

Developing writers often have a very hard time finding a competent, reputable literary agent. A good literary agent can only handle a limited number of writers at once, so established agents often have full rosters and are unable to take on new writers. Openings may only occur when one of their writers stops writing, or when the agent drops the writer (perhaps because publishers are no longer buying his work), or when a writer decides to switch to a new agent.

Thus, the best opportunities for a developing author to find an agent often occur when a new agent comes onto the scene. An agent’s assistant may be promoted to agent, or an editor may become an agent, or an agent may leave an agency to strike out on her own. In these cases, the agent’s roster will be nearly empty, so the agent will be actively searching for strong writers to represent.

Keeping up with these developments can provide you with key information in your agent search. A few good sources for this type of information are Locus magazine (you can find subscription info at their website), SF Scope, the free e-newsletter Publishers Lunch (subscribe at their website), and Agent Query. If you go further afield, beware that you may find less reliable sources.

These sources will announce when an agent starts his own agency, an assistant is promoted to agent, and so on. They’ll also commonly report information like this: “Author Jane Doe sold the science fiction novel Iguana Planet to editor John Smith at Reptile Publishing via agent Mary Dear.” You can now write in your Publishing Information File—which all writers should have—that Mary Dear is an agent who handles SF and who made a recent sale to Reptile Publishing. If this is Jane Doe’s first novel, that would be a very encouraging sign that this agent is taking on new, unpublished clients. Reading these sources, you can quickly compile a list of good agent candidates.

Another good source for agents’ names are books themselves. When looking at books for this purpose, you should limit yourself to those published in the last year. Also, look only at books in the same general field as yours. If you’ve written a fantasy, look at other fantasies. Often, an author will thank her agent on the acknowledgments page of her book. First novelists especially tend to acknowledge their agents. Look at these acknowledgments pages and see if an agent is named. Sometimes the agent’s name will appear, but the author will not specifically say that this person is her agent. So Jane Doe may write, “Thanks to Mary Dear for all her help and encouragement.” So how do you know that Mary Dear is Jane’s agent? This is where the reference books I listed above can come in handy. If you spend some time flipping through these listings and becoming familiar with the names, then you can recognize them when you see them. Those reference books can also provide additional information about an agent.

Some additional sites with useful information on agents: QueryTracker, Manuscript Wish List, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website, and the Horror Writers Association website.

You should always check out an agent before submitting your work to that person, making sure he is reputable, successful, and handles the genre in which you write.

Should I send my work to agents who charge reading fees or other types of fees? If I already have sent my work, should I agree to pay the fees requested?

The reference books named above generally list whether an agent charges reading fees or other types of fees.

Certain fees are considered acceptable these days. For example, if you want your agent to send your manuscript out to ten publishers at once, and you have sent him only one copy, the agent would be justified in asking you to either send nine more copies or to reimburse him for the cost of photocopying. Also, if you wanted your manuscripts to be messengered or overnighted to publishers rather than being sent first class, the agent could rightfully ask you to pay the additional postage cost. Basically, these are costs that go above and beyond what the agent normally covers, and are incurred at your request. You should never feel pressured or compelled to incur costs, and any costs should be documented through receipts.

I had an author tell me recently that he paid over $500 to have his agent send out ten copies of his manuscript to publishers. This $500 was allegedly for “photocopying and manuscript preparation.” The only cost that the author should be paying for is photocopying. Using Kinko’s basic rate of $.07 per page, the 400-page manuscript would have cost $28 to be copied once, $280 to be copied ten times. The author was charged $220 too much, in my opinion.

Aside from the two justified charges I discussed above, the agent should not be charging you money. If an agent charges fees for reading, manuscript preparation, time, phone calls, or anything else, then this is not an agent you should work with. This is not how the agenting business is run. Agents make a living from commissions on sales of your work to publishers (a commission of 15% is fairly standard). This is certainly a tough business, and agents can spend a lot of time on an author before they make a sale. But when an agent charges hefty fees for simply doing what he’s supposed to do, it usually indicates that this agent is making a living from the fees paid by authors rather than by any commissions earned. Often you will find that these agents make few sales to publishers (and sometimes they’ve never made any!).

What should I do if an agent refers me to a book doctor?

See “Frequently Asked Questions about Book Doctors/Freelance Editors” below.

If an agent likes my work and wants to represent me, are there any questions I should ask him before I say yes?

Yes. Most beginning authors will be so happy to finally have an agent interested that they will immediately agree to be represented by him. But make sure you get answers to the following questions first, before entering into a relationship. A really bad agent can be worse than no agent at all. So take a deep breath and consider the following.

• Do you feel comfortable dealing with this person? Are your personalities compatible? Do you feel you could form a friendly relationship?

• Does this person return your phone calls within twenty-four hours and have time to talk to you?

• Does this person’s image of your work and your future as a write match yours? Are you sure he has read your work carefully (a few well-chosen questions will reveal the answer to this)? Is he interested in other things you’ve written? Does he have an initial plan for your career?

• Does this person demonstrate expertise in the field? To whom would he submit the manuscript? (And if you’ve done your homework, checking the magazines and acknowledgments pages for the names of editors, you’ll be able to evaluate his competence.) Has he handled sf/f/h before? What are his specialties?

• Has this agent made sales for other authors? Ask for his client list, or the names of some of the authors he represents. Ask him to give you the names of some of the books he’s represented that have recently been published (so you can go to the bookstore and check them out).

• Does the agent want you to sign a contract? Some do and some don’t. Either way, you need to feel comfortable, either with the terms of the written contract or with your verbal agreement.

If all these answers are to your satisfaction, then congratulations! You’ve found a terrific agent.

Frequently Asked Questions about Book Doctors/Freelance Editors

What does a book doctor or freelance editor do?

Book doctors and freelance editors can provide a range of services. They edit manuscripts, work with authors on revisions, perform editorial consulting, provide reader’s reports and ghostwriting.
A book doctor more often works for authors and is hired directly by them. A freelance editor may also be hired directly by an author but is also often hired by publishers or agents to edit manuscripts.

Should I hire a book doctor/freelance editor?

A book doctor or freelance editor can provide professional feedback on your manuscript. If you feel you need or want the feedback of a professional and you are prepared to revise your manuscript based on this feedback, then this could be helpful for you. Ideally, the book doctor/ freelance editor will give you a clear picture of how editors at publishing houses will react to your manuscript, with the one difference being that the book doctor/freelance editor will write you a long letter detailing his reaction, the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, and suggestions for improving the weak areas, while the editor at the publishing house will simply send a rejection letter (unless he buys it, of course).

If you are not prepared to revise the manuscript based on the book doctor/freelance editor’s feedback, then you would be wasting your money.

How do I find a reputable, competent book doctor/freelance editor?

This profession is filled with people looking to take advantage of unsuspecting writers. That said, there are some very skilled practitioners out there who passionately love what they do and will provide excellent service. You must be very, very careful in hiring someone.

As discussed with agents, it’s dangerous to simply pull names out of directories such as Literary Market Place. If you must do this, make sure you ask the book doctor/freelance editor all the questions below.

The best way to find a good book doctor/freelance editor is to be referred to him by an author who used his services and found them satisfactory. If you don’t know many other writers, you can pick up information at writers’ conferences or conventions, or in on-line writers’ resource areas. You do have to be careful about from whom you get advice, though. I recently talked to a writer who nearly ruined her career following bad advice she’d received on-line.

If you submit your work to agents, sometimes an agent will refer you to a book doctor/freelance editor if he feels your manuscript needs some revising before he can represent it. This can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

A Good Thing

If you have researched your agent beforehand and feel secure that he’s reputable (see “Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Agents”), then you can feel assured that his suggestion is made with your good and the good of the manuscript at heart. Good agents sometimes refer authors they see as “borderline” to a book doctor/freelance editor. This indicates that the agent believes it likely that with a focused revision, the manuscript will be strong enough to represent, though he will make no promises.

A Bad Thing

BUT, if you haven’t researched your agent beforehand and you’re not sure of his credentials, you may very well be in the middle of a scam. As I said in the “Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Agents” above, anyone can say he’s an agent. Some of these clever, profit-minded souls have discovered that authors are wary of agents who charge fees. So instead of charging fees, they refer you to a book doctor who charges you a fee. The book doctor then pays a percentage of that fee back to the agent as a commission.

Now, in and of itself, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the book doctor paying the agent a commission. The agent has taken the time to read your manuscript and to direct you to someone who can help you, someone the agent feels is capable of guiding you through the revision process to a manuscript that will likely be of publishable quality. So the agent is being compensated for that.

But in practice, most of the agents who have this type of relationship with a book doctor are not reputable, competent agents. They do not make a living off of commissions made by selling books to publishers; they make a living off of commissions made by selling a book doctor’s services to authors. They do not have the good of the book at heart (they’ll often refer every author who submits a manuscript to a book doctor, no matter how good or bad it is—they often don’t read the book at all), they have not selected this book doctor because he is the best one to help you, and they have no intention of ever representing you. Many of these agencies are merely hollow fronts designed to draw in customers for book doctoring. They have not sold books to publishers and have not even submitted any books to publishers.

Telling the Difference

The only real way to tell the difference between these two situations is by checking the credentials of the parties involved. Is the agent an agent with whom you would like to work (see “FAQ about Literary Agents”)? Is the book doctor/freelance editor reputable and competent? See below.

What questions should I ask a book doctor/freelance editor before hiring him?

As with a literary agent, it is critical that you check the credentials of a book doctor/freelance editor before you agree to work with him or send him any money. Ask him the following:

• What are his credentials and background? Has he ever worked for a publisher? In what capacity? Has he ever been published himself? As with an agent, anyone can call himself a book doctor. Some book doctors are simply English teachers, others are published authors, and others are experienced editors.

• Can he point you to any books in the bookstore that he has edited? Is he named on the acknowledgments pages of those books?

• Will the book doctor edit your manuscript himself? One of the most notorious book doctoring services is run by someone with very impressive credentials, but the actual work is done by a large staff of college students. After you receive the critique of you manuscript, can you call the book doctor to discuss it in detail? This question will usually reveal whether the book doctor is going to do the work himself. If not, he will not want you to call him with a lot of questions about a manuscript he hasn’t read.

• How many manuscripts does this book doctor edit per year? More than fifty indicates either that he’s not doing the work himself or that he’s doing a shoddy job.

• Do you feel comfortable talking with and dealing with this person? Do you respect him enough to carefully consider all the advice he gives you? If not, you’re wasting your money.

• What exactly will you be getting for your money? If you will be receiving an editorial letter, approximately how long will it be and what exactly will it cover? Will the book doctor write comments on the manuscript itself? What type of comments and approximately how many? Make sure also that the book doctor tells you all fees up front.

• How quickly will the work be completed?

If all these questions are answered to your satisfaction, then you’ve found a good book doctor/freelance editor, one who will help you improve your manuscript. If not, keep looking.

Standard Manuscript Format

In submitting your work, nothing is more important than the story itself. But editors and agents also pay attention to the presentation. The quality of the presentation reflects your professionalism as a writer. If the manuscript is formatted according to standard publishing practice and printed out well, editors and agents will take this as a sign that you know what you’re doing. They will begin reading your work with the belief that it may possibly be good. If the manuscript is not formatted correctly, editors and agents will assume you are an amateur. They’ll begin reading with the belief that your manuscript probably isn’t worth their time, and they’ll be looking for a reason to reject the manuscript as quickly as possible.

If the editor or agent to whom you are submitting has formatting guidelines, follow them.  If not, below are guidelines used by many publishing professionals that will serve you well.  These guidelines generate manuscripts that leave sufficient room for editing and are easy on an editor’s or agent’s tired eyes.  These guidelines are sometimes referred to as “classic” formatting.  You can find a description of the differences between two popular types of formatting, “classic” and “modern,” here.

Manuscript Formatting Guidelines

  1. Use standard 1″ to 1.25″ margins all around.
  2. Put your name, address, e-mail, and phone in the upper left corner, single spaced.
  3. Put estimated word count in upper right corner, rounded off to the nearest hundred words.
  4. About halfway down the first page, put your title, centered, and one double space below it, “by [your name].” Do not do anything fancy with the title, like put it in larger or different type, capitalize the whole thing, underline it, put in quotations, bold, or anything else. Do the same with your name. (If you use a pseudonym, the pseudonym goes on the line below the title. Your real name goes in the upper left corner.)
  5. Double space your text.
  6. The first line of a story is not indented. The beginning of each paragraph after that should be indented, approximately 5 spaces.
  7. In the top right corner of each page after the first page, put your last name, a slash, and the page number. Don’t do anything too fancy or long, because it will distract the editor each time she scrolls to a new page.
  8. If you have a scene break, hit return 4 times at the end of the scene. This will create 3 double-spaced blank lines. On the second blank line, center a pound sign (#). Leave the first and third blank lines blank. The first line of a new scene is not indented.
  9. Use type of a reasonable size. Editors read a lot and don’t want eyestrain. Ten characters per inch is the preferable size. This translates to a “font size” of twelve on your computer for Courier New, the recommended font.
  10. Use a simple serif typeface, the best being Courier. Serifs are the little lines that extend from a letter. For example, in a serif typeface, the letter i has a horizontal serif at its base and another at the top. This article is written in a typeface without serifs. Such typefaces are called sans serif and are disliked by editors. Do not use fancy typefaces under any circumstances.
  11. Use a typeface in which each letter takes the same amount of space (mono-spaced). Do not use a proportional-spaced typeface, such as Times New Roman.
  12. Do not justify your right margin.
  13. Do not break words with hyphens at the ends of lines.
  14. A good indication that your margins and typeface are about right is that your manuscript has approximately 250 words per page.
  15. To be sure not to lose your work, save it on your hard drive, on the cloud, and on a USB or external backup (and printing out a copy can’t hurt).
  16. If you are going to submit a hard copy manuscript, use white paper, plain and simple. Photocopy-type paper is preferable to fancy bond. Print on only one side of each page. Make sure your printer produces a clean, dark copy using black ink only.  Do not handwrite any corrections into your manuscript. Print out a corrected version instead.  Paperclip the sheets together.
  17. Don’t get tied up in knots over this. You should be spending time on your story, not the formatting. Follow these simple guidelines, and you should be okay.