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!