Creative writing is hard work. You have to master the technical side of writing (know your grammar), deliver work that resonates with readers, and possess massive amounts of drive, ambition, and sheer determination.
It can take months, even years, to write a book. Then you have to sell it — first to an agent, then to a publisher. Finally, you have to sell it to the world.
Many writers believe that once their labor of love is safely in the hands of a publisher, their work is done and they can to move on and start writing their next masterpiece.
Those writers would be wrong.
When the Creative Writing is Completed…
Once your book is slated for publication, the most challenging phase of your project begins. You suddenly have to become a marketer. You have to take your creative writing skills and somehow turn them into creative marketing skills. And sell those books!
Wendy Burt-Thomas is all too familiar with juggling writing and marketing. She is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and copywriter with more than 1,000 published pieces. Her third book, The Writers Digest Guide To Query Letters (aff link) hit stores in January 2009. Wendy was kind enough to share her wisdom with us.
You’ve been a mentor, coach, or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don’t get published?
Wendy: Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when they write “the end” but writing is only half of the process. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?
Wendy: That they’ll be rich overnight, that they don’t need to promote their book once it’s published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you’re prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn’t possible, there wouldn’t be so many full-time writers.
How much book promotion does a writer have to do? Don’t the publishers take care of most of the marketing?
Wendy: Depending on your publisher, you can expect to do 95 to 100 percent of your marketing. Even some of the larger houses now expect you to do most of your own book promotion. They have less money, smaller staffs, and staff members that are doing the jobs of several people due to downsizing. Don’t be surprised if the biggest help you get is an offer to send out books to reviewers; reviewers YOU provide. And they may put a cap on that at 20 or 25 books!
Would you say that the first step in marketing is writing a query letter and sending it to an agent?
Wendy: Actually, I’d say the first step comes out before a query letter. Christina Katz talks about this in her book, Get Known BEFORE The Book Deal (aff link). You might be marketing yourself by blogging, posting on Twitter, developing and promoting your website, or creating a newsletter (eg. future fan base!).
Why are query letters so important?
Wendy: Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious “in” of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they’ll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don’t like your query letter, you’ve got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!
I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you’ve blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they’ll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it’s not fabulous, don’t send it until it is.
You wrote an entire book about query letters. Can you tell us about it?
Wendy: The book was a great fit for me because I’d been teaching “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I’m a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn’t require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as “good” examples in the book. I wrote all the “bad” examples myself because I didn’t dare ask for contributions that I knew I’d be ripping apart!
In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.
It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer’s Digest let me keep all the humor.
There’s an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?
Wendy: Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes, and staff better than you ever could.
What advice do you give writers who hope to be published one day?
Wendy: Take every opportunity that comes your way – especially when you first start. If someone asks you to write a brochure for their company or content for their website, do it! I never lied to a client about my experience, but I did always say, “Sure, I’ll give it a try.” My “big break” came when the publisher of a business newspaper for which I had been writing (freelance) articles asked me to come on board as the editor. I had ZERO experience as an editor but she put things in perspective by saying, “Wendy, your articles come in so clean, we never need to edit them. Anyone who doesn’t need an editor could probably be one.” So I quit my job, became the editor and learned enough in two years to become a full-time freelance editor and writer.
My favorite quote is “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I am a very lucky person because I am always prepared to seize writing opportunities.
To learn more about Wendy or her books, visit GuideToQueryLetters.com (update: this link is no longer active). If you have a writing-related question, you can post it on AskWendy.wordpress.com.
How do you feel about switching hats from writing to marketing? Are you prepared to market your work? Discuss in the comments!
Yeah, I’ve heard that the authors need to do most of the marketing on their own, but I also wonder if that’s actually a good thing. If the publisher doesn’t need to put as much resource into marketing for each book, then they can publish more books. That way, it’s actually easier for someone to get published. I don’t know if that line of reasoning is right or not.
I am guessing, rushing through the query letter is like an actor working on his acting day and night, but doesn’t bother to get a decent headshot to submit to producers. Many people say that about blogging too (how you should spend a big chunk of your time promoting your blog and so on).
Kelvin, the whole idea of an author doing the marketing has always seemed absurd to me. I’ve heard of authors who even had to schedule their own book tour (and pay for it!) and who have used up all their advance hiring a publicist and paying for a marketing campaign. Marketing requires an entirely different skill set and every single product and service must be marketed – otherwise no sales.
Having said that, for a writer who knows or enjoys marketing, this gives the writer greater control. I’d never thought about it in terms of more books being published but then again, I can’t even keep up with what’s already out there.
Funny query letter story – I’ve only written one. Immediately after I wrote it I decided to, “get known before the book deal” and I started my blog. I had been writing a lot of children’s material and the query letter was for a collection of children’s rhymes. I decided to write the query letter in a rhyme scheme as though it was a children’s book. Yes, nine months later I realize the ridiculousness of this, but at the time I actually thought it was a good idea. It was well written and I thought the originality would help it stand apart. I emailed the query and got a response back nine minutes later. The agent said the query had given him, “shudders of horror,” and that cute belonged in Hallmark, not a query letter. Ouchy.
Ouchy indeed. I understand that agents and editors get a lot of gimmicky queries including everything from gifts to veiled threats. Most agents I’ve heard (usually in interviews) say that the query letter should be professional and straightforward. I think your query letter showed a good instinct for trying to wow an agent. I also think you forgot that your competition (other writers) are an enormously creative bunch, which means these “creative” query letters are probably quite common. Still, it’s a great story.
Love this! Thanks so much for posting it.
Thanks! Once you get the writing down, the next step is query letters and agents, so this is good stuff.
Okay, OKAY. I’ll send out some more queries on my book. I know, there’s no excuse not to (grumble, grumble).
Yes! I will cross my fingers in hopes you land an agent. Hey, one tip I hear a lot is that you should check books/novels that are similar to yours and see if the authors mention their agents in the acknowledgments section. It’s common for them to do that and those agents would probably be a good match for you. Also, most agents specialize in genres (fiction vs. nonfiction, for example) so you are supposed to check their websites or directory listings to make sure your work fits in with their specifications (you don’t want to send a cookbook to the sci-fi agent).
Great interview and useful information. I’m going to buy a copy of her book to make sure I do it right. I’m going to spend a majority of my writing time submitting short stories to publications. I’ve never done it before, but I’m ready to start now. Without building a platform of previously published work, a novel will likely not take off in most cases. Writing blog fiction is fun and has been great practice, but I must step into the real world and brace myself for numerous rejections.
Wendy is very inspiring with great advice!
Agents and editors have a lot to say about query letters, so they’re pretty important. Basically, they are the key that unlocks the door to a book deal. Wendy is super inspiring. Please go check out her site too, it’s packed with good stuff!
Great info from Wendy…also liked the tip from you about reading back covers of books similar to your to find an agent…anyhow good to know for that ‘someday’ that’ll be me:)
Hi Clara, Yes I’ve recently started paying closer attention to the publishing industry and rounding up lots of tips so I’ll be ready when the time comes. Best of luck to you!
Apparently I haven’t been getting the “follow up comments via email” notice. Darn!
Anyway, WriterDad, I loved your query letter story! It actually made me wonder, have you ever TRIED greeting cards? It pays very well and there’s a market for everything. My specialty is humor. I’m actually putting together an ebook on greeting cards as we speak. People don’t realize there’s good money in it! You can make as much as $150 for one line of text!
Hi Wendy! Next question: How does one get into writing greeting cards?
Last summer I heard an interview with a woman who writes greeting cards for a living and it sounded like a lot of fun. If I remember correctly, she worked for one of Hallmark’s subdivisions. Interesting stuff!
Regarding authors doing their own marketing, yeah, it stinks! But here is some good news: a ton of marketing can be done online now. I always tell people that bookstores are the worst place to sell books. You might make $.50/book, and if 10 people show up and 8 buy books, you’ve covered your gas money. Maybe.
The big thing now is blog tours (thanks Melissa!), which means you can work in your PJs and still make some personal connections (like we’re all doing now on Melissa’s blog). And with Twitter and Facebook and other forms of social media, it’s virtually (no pun intended) free.
For my first two books, I was doing book signings and TV and radio and seeing very little returns. Now I do speaking engagements, teach at writers conferences and do online promotion. I see a much higher return, still get to connect to other writers (my favorite part) and spend very little money doing it.
I’m all about online marketing 😉
Very thorough and thoughtful interviews. I like the questions and the responses.
I especially like this point about what holds most writers back, “poor marketing skills.” I think that’s true across a variety of disciplines.
Seems like these days, everybody has to be a marketing expert. I have mixed feelings about that.
You’re right: poor marketing skills can affect you as a writer in many forms: marketing your articles, trying to get an agent, selling your idea to a publisher, promoting yourself as an author/speaker and in using social media. Having low confidence is a very common poor marketing skill among writers. I say, “Fake it ’til you make it!” ; )
Aha! I knew the greeting card question would come up! ; )
The best way to get started is to go to a greeting card store and make a list of all the companies you’d WANT to write for. In other words, are there particular lines of humor you like? Or Christian lines? Or animal cards? Make a list and then go home and Google them. If they have a Web site, chances are they will either list that they don’t accept freelance submissions, or they’ll have writer’s guidelines. Sometimes they’re labeled as “submission guidelines” or “guidelines for contributors” (because sometimes “contributors” is writers, and sometimes it’s artists).
It used to be that you had to submit by mail – often one idea per 3 x 5 card. Thank goodness nobody does that anymore! Most accept card submissions by email now. It’s usually 12-15 ideas per bunch.
To start, check out Blue Mountain Arts at http://www.sps.com. They’re always actively advertising for freelance submissions. They take forever to respond but pay like $300 per idea!
Thanks Wendy! That’s an awesome tip. I actually rushed off and told my mom about the greeting card opportunity because she’d be perfect for writing greeting cards (of course, she didn’t think so). Thanks again!
I agree with Wendy that writing is only half the process, it is the same in many different sectors. Businesses believe that if they have a website, blog or networking profile, all of a sudden they will have thousands of hits and people pouring in to buy their products and services. The truth is that marketing is essential for this to happen.
First-time business owners also believe that all they have to do is open their doors and people will come stampeding in like a Macy’s White Sale…