From Napkin to Page: Get to Know Your Manuscript

 This is the second entry of From Napkin to Page, an ongoing series that discusses the publishing process. Find the first entry here.


napkin to page 2So you have a manuscript. Congratulations! Or maybe you don’t and you’re just curious about what happens when you do have a manuscript. I was that person, for sure. When I wasn’t drafting, I was almost always reading about what would happen when I did finish drafting (and editing and editing again, of course). And the truth is, every single step of the publishing process, from writing the first word to seeing the first copy of the final product, is a slog. If you have a story you want to tell, I certainly urge you to tell it. But you should acknowledge the effort it will take from the jump.

At any rate, here we are–finished, edited, and polished manuscript in hand. Now, maybe you’re done. You finished your book. That’s all you wanted. Now put it in your dresser drawer and head outside, you crazy kid. You’ve earned it!

For others, the audacity of the artist kicks in–we created something, and now we think it’s worth other people’s time (and money). There are all sorts of ways you could get your book to see the light of day, and I think it’s important to seriously consider all of the options before pursuing one or more for yourself. You’ve worked hard on that book. You want to be sure it finds a good home with good people who will take care of it.

I won’t cover all of them in detail here because I don’t have personal experience with each method, but I will link you to other places where you can learn more–here and around the web.

Publishing Options:Publishing Options

Self-Publishing: Authors publishing their own work has been popular for a while now. The invention of the E-Reader helped this along, but really, self-publishing is a practice as old as writing itself. Virginia Woolf and Ezra Pound both self-published long before the Internet made it as easy as uploading a PDF. Sometimes, self-publishing seems to get a bad rap, and I theoretically have a problem with that. Bands print their own albums and artists peddle their paintings without much (automatic) ridicule. But self-publishing a book seems to draw immediate skepticism, but that does seem to be changing.

My brain’s relationship with self-publishing is also complicated, though, as I decided at some point and for some reason that it wasn’t for me. Learn more about self-publishing from my interviews with Taylor Eaton and Debi Smith as well as from Poets & Writers.

Traditional Publishing: Traditional publishing is the dream for a lot of writers. You sign with one of those big fancy publishing houses, and then you have the world (and that huge marketing budget) at your feet. This is as tough to break in to as you would think it would be–maybe tougher. The major perk is the muscle that the publishing house can put behind your work.

The drawbacks are the difficulty you’ll have getting in the door and then becoming a small cog in a giant machine (unless you pop off in Stephen King or Dan Brown fashion) once you’re there. Learn more about traditional publishing from my interview with Mike Brooks and from Lou Belcher’s website.

Indie Publishing: This is similar to traditional publishing in process but not in financial muscle. This is how I’m publishing, so we will dig way into this in a bit. For now, check out my interviews with J.S. Collyer and Gina West for more.

Something Else: Technology gives authors an unlimited number of ways to put their work out there. You can pitch and write a serial-style novel in weekly installments for Channillo, You can give it away on services like Wattpad. Then there is just old-fashioned blogging. Given, a lot of these options will feel like (and will be) a version of self-publishing. But this kind of work can be rewarding, significant in building a following, and much cheaper than what is typically meant by the term “self-publishing.”

Before you pitchBefore you Pitch:

In short, do your research before you start pitching. We will talk more about how research is important when approaching agents next week, but research is equally important when you’re making this first decision–how to publish. Consider the following before you go in on your pitch:

  • How much creative control do you want? The bigger the publisher, the more they can make you do what they want, and the more they will want you to do things since they have a certain–ahem–reputation to protect.

Here, creative control refers to the book cover as well as major rewrites. If you wrote one story and you like it as one book, a publisher may try to split it up into a trilogy or something else. Publishers may want you to combine or delete characters or subplots, and some publishers might dictate what your book looks like. There is a spectrum of creative input in each publishing option. Obviously, self-publishing will offer you the most freedom, but it will also offer you the smallest amount of professional input.

  • Who is your book for? This is tricky because the gut instinct is to say “My book is for everyone, and everyone should read it because it’s beautiful and important and witty and sexy and smart and sexy.” There is such a thing as general/commercial fiction–stories with wide appeal. But there is a strong chance you’ve written something more specific. So how do publishers and marketers think about books? In primarily two ways:

Genre: When publishers talk genre, they are looking for words like fantasy, sci-fi, romance, erotica, mystery, thriller, and suspense–also general and literary fiction. You might be all-in on one genre, or you may have a general fiction novel with characteristics of some of the other genres mixed in–a hybrid, maybe.
Age Group: This is straight-forward. How old is the ideal audience of your book? Again, the temptation is there to say “Anybody can get my book–it doesn’t matter how old they are!” Don’t get so carried away there, James Joyce. There is a good chance that the book will play better (or be easier marketed) to certain ages. Publishers and marketers think of these groups in mostly the following categories: Children, Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and finally Adult. The easiest way to tell the age of your ideal reader is to consider the protagonist. The story is told through his or her eyes, and the reader experiences the story through those eyes. Young adult protagonists (think John Green novels) are teenagers and angsty. The people who will relate to those experiences and emotions are also angsty and probably teenagers. (Side note – I’m fully aware of the trend of adults reading young adult books, but that’s a topic for another day.) Again, it’s completely possible to appeal to multiple age groups, but you need to understand your manuscript in this way. It will help when you pitch.

  • What kind of support do you want? I’ve already alluded to this (or talked about it directly), but books don’t sell themselves–not at first anyway. According to the NYTimes, a self-published author moves, on average, fewer than 150 copies of any book. Today, you might think that 150 copies sounds pretty good, but you have not put hundreds of dollars of your own money into publishing the book yet. 150 copies won’t even make your money back if you self-publish–unless you’re doing a cheap or free e-book-only model. If your book is picked up by a publisher, they will (typically) foot the whole bill–the exception being some smaller publishers who still offer a split-the-bill model. Not only will a publisher pay for the printing of the book, they will also help you market the book. This is all in exchange for a higher royalty, of course. (More on this when we get to publishing contracts.)

This is definitely not an exhaustive list of things to consider before embarking on your pitch and query process, but it is a good start. In short, you really need to know your book–as a piece of artistic expression and as a product. That still feels a little dirty to me–the product part–but there it is.

What did I forget? What did you consider before pitching? What questions might you have about the publishing process that we haven’t hit on yet? Fire off in the comments or on twitter (@a_shanewilson).



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