Vicki Hinze © 2000-2011
Vicki Hinze © 2001
There are two kinds of writers. Those who write for their own pleasure, and those who write to sell.
If you’re writing for your own pleasure, then selling what you write doesn’t factor as a consideration. You can afford to be self-indulgent. Write only what you choose, the way you choose.
But if you’re writing to sell, then self-indulgence is a luxury you can’t afford. And an entire spectrum of special considerations come into play.
• Have you crafted an original novel with universal appeal?
• Does your novel fit into an existing, specific marketing slot?
• Have you utilized basic and advanced writing techniques? Portrayed the story in accordance with marketing standards?
• Is your manuscript physically appealing to an editor?
• Is your manuscript contextually appealing to an editor?
• Have you avoided common problems which invite rejection?
• Have you approached the publisher in a professional manner?
Every story which can be told, has been told. That means you must make your story fresh and original. Perhaps you’ll twist the plot line so that what typically happens in a given situation, doesn’t. Something else does. Or you might use an unusual character as a catalyst that puts a new spin on an old tale.
Regardless of what your fresh and original twist is, you must retain universal appeal. In other words, what you write must be something that a lot of people can identify with.
For example, a love story. Most of us who comprise “the masses” can identify with love. Divorce, single parenting, are other samples, as are guilt, fear, doubt. Strong emotions that all of us have experienced at some time or another; strong emotions a reader can identify and understand. This creates reader empathy. To sell a novel, you must people it with characters a reader cares about, empathizes with, admires.
People your novel with characters who are the kind of people we want to be, not the people we are. No perfect specimens—those aren’t real, and they’re boring. Deadly mistake, to bore a reader.
Broad-based themes, such as love and honor, are excellent choices for universal appeal. Mix either with admirable characters, and you’re definitely on the right road to publication.
You can write the best novel in the world, but if the publisher can’t tell booksellers where to put it on the shelf, it’s highly unlikely the publisher will buy the novel. Editors realize from experience that shelving a novel with like novels strongly impacts the novels sales.
Substantially increase your sales potential by structuring your novel to fit a specific market. The alternative is to write mainstream fiction, or experimental fiction. Neither are easy “break into publishing” fields. The new writer has much better sales odds if the novel fits into a specific genre, such as, romance, mystery, or fantasy.
To decide which genre to write, look at what you like to read. Then study the market on that particular genre to assess your odds. For example: I like to read romance, mystery, suspense, and mainstream novels. In determining what to write to sell, I did extensive market research.
I learned that new writers have little success marketing mainstream. The suspense market was tight, which meant fewer of those novels were being purchased. Mystery was alive and well, but it didn’t have the potential of romance. In studying the market, I learned that romance novels comprise 48% of the market of all paperback novels sold. That 180 (now 150) novels were published every month. That many of the publishers welcomed new authors and the sales far exceeded those in other genres, domestic and foreign. In weighing the market needs and my personal likes, I found romance to be my best bet for publication success.
If you’re just getting started at writing to sell, select a genre you enjoy, study it, see who’s publishing what types of novels within the genre, then target your work specifically to that publisher. You can’t be self-indulgent; you must give the publisher something publisher publishes.
Is your novel written in first person? The current trend is for third person novels. That’s not saying that your first person novel won’t sell, only that fewer first person novels have sold.
In crafting a novel, the writer is charged with creating a Fictional Dream for the reader. Meaning, to use writer’s tools, skills, and techniques that transport the reader from reading words on a page, to living the story through the character’s eyes. Specifically the point of view character’s eyes.
As well as creating and maintaining the fictional dream, the writer writing to sell must also slant the tone and style of the novel in a way that suits the novel itself, but also the targeted publisher. Read the novels the publisher has bought that are now on the shelves. Compare your work to that of those authors. They are your competition, but also your guide as to the publisher’s preferences.
For example: if you’re writing romance, you would write very different novels if you’re targeting Silhouette or Harlequin versus St. Martin’s Press or Pinnacle. The Silhouette and Harlequin novels are category romances; St. Martin’s Press and Pinnacle are single title romances. There are differences in a Silhouette and Harlequin category romance, just as there are between a St. Martin’s and a Pinnacle. The only way to understand these differences is by reading the different novels.
The editor is your first reader. If he/she likes the manuscript, then it gets passed on to other readers in the publishing house. But you and your work make an impression on the editor long before the first page is read. The impression is formed when the manuscript is removed from its packaging and the editor sees the basic formatting you’ve used.
Use only 8-1/2″ x 11″ white bond paper, and a clear, footed font such as Courier or Times New Roman, in 12 point or 10 Characters per inch. Double-space the text. Leave 1″ margins all around. And put a “tag” line on each page that gives your legal name (not your pseudonym), the page number, and either the complete or partial title of the work.
Remember that density doesn’t invite the eye. Space and legible, dark type appeal. If you don’t know the proper formatting for a manuscript, ask another writer with more experience, go to the library and look it up, or invest in a book on formatting so that your work doesn’t stand out in an editor’s mind because it wasn’t formatted correctly. You want your work, not the display of your work, to grab Editor’s attention.
Think about it. You’re an editor. You review about 100-150 manuscripts per month–each and every month. Now if you get 99 on white bond, double-spaced, in 12-point, footed font, and 1 on green paper, single-spaced in some spooky type, what are you going to think of the one?
Editors are human. They have feelings, likes and dislikes just as the rest of us do. If you’ve written a novel that is dark in tone, and you send it to an editor who prefers lighter toned novels, your sales success rate is low. Conversely, if you can network with other authors, study the published novels, and find an editor who has a history of liking the type of novel you’re writing, then your odds for selling have dramatically increased.
Many authors write a novel and then submit it to a listing of publishers without investing the time to see what type novels that publisher buys. This is a waste of time, money, and effort. And it isn’t the greatest way to win friends at the publishing house.
The more time you spend researching your market to make sure that the publisher publishes your type novel, the better your sales odds. I’ve known romance authors who have submitted sexually explicit novels to Avalon. Had the author done his/her homework, he/she would have known that Avalon publishes sweet romances; no sex—explicit or implied—is acceptable. Some authors submitted 110,000 word novels to Silhouette at a time when the longest manuscript Silhouette published was 85,000 words. One author submitted a thriller to a religious publisher. In these cases, the publisher has no choice but to reject the manuscript.
For a lecture a short while back, I informally surveyed editors from the top publishing houses in the country, asking for what reasons did they most frequently reject manuscripts. Several reasons were repeated to the point that they mimicked a refrain.
Those repetitive reasons were:
• The novel didn’t fit the publisher’s needs. Either it was just the wrong type novel for the house, or too many like it had been acquired, published, or awaited publication.
• The characters weren’t admirable, believable, or empathetic.
• The plot line wasn’t logical, believable. The editor didn’t feel the story events “could happen.”
• Passive voice. The author kept intruding, filtering events between the reader and the character.
• Syntax errors. Where the author wrote the reaction to something before the action causing that reaction. Or putting on the page the effect of something before the cause.
• Too frequent usage of names in dialogue. This rendered the dialogue, stiff, stilted, and unrealistic.
• Wandering eyes. (Autonomous body parts.) Eyes wandering around a room create the wrong image in the reader’s mind.
• Combined actions that are logically and/or physically impossible for mere mortal characters.
• Point of View infractions. Head-hopping from inside one character’s mind into another too frequently, or not establishing a point of view character at all.
• Unanchored scenes. The characters interact, but the reader can’t mentally “see” them. The author failed to incorporate concrete, vivid details that form images for the reader.
• Lack of clarity. The author’s intended meaning isn’t clear to the editor, or the entire novel lost focus. (Either in actual writing skills, or in genre focus.)
For more in-depth information on this topic see the Writers’ Aids Library Article: Common Mechanical Pitfalls.
If the editor is unknown to you, have you investigated their house policy, the editor’s personal preferences on submissions?
If the editor typically will review only a query letter from a new author and you forward your entire manuscript, the odds of it being read and well-received are minimal. If you don’t know the house policy, ask an author who might know. Check the Literary Marketplace or Writer’s Digest’s Writer’s Market. There, you’ll find a listing of what the house considers acceptable. Only as a last resort should you call the publisher to ask them their policy. It’ll mark you as an amateur. If this is your business, then you should know it.
The best advice I can offer: write the best commercially-targeted novel you can write, polish it until it’s as perfect as you can make it (this is an extremely competitive business), then attempt to market it. The odds of selling an incomplete first novel are minute. Nearly every publisher insists on a complete manuscript.
Attend conferences where you have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with editors and talk to them about your work. Talk with other authors—network—to learn who is buying and what is being bought.
I can’t speak for all genres, but insofar as romance novels are concerned, I am comfortable saying that how you approach an editor is extremely important. High standards and ethics are mandatory. Professionalism is mandatory. Romance novels are part of a billion dollar a year industry. Self-indulgent prim donnas who lack a firm grasp on basic business concepts don’t fare well. Writers who demand of themselves their very best work, who respect the integrity of the novel and that of the market, and those who have a good grasp on publishing business methods and practices fare much, much better.
Doesn’t your work deserve the effort?*