Columns > Published on November 21st, 2011

Ask The Lit Coach: "Should A New-To-Publishing Writer Seek The Safer Submission Route, Or Routes That Pay More?" and More

Always a pleasure to receive your questions, dear writers. This week we explore what one fresh MFA student should consider while starting out on her professional writer's journey and what another writer needs to consider before soliciting his anthology to the publishing world. As always, the solutions are never cut and dry. Who ever said the writer's life was easy? 

Question from Nancy R. from Savannah, Georgia

I'm a budding writer (MFA student in creative nonfiction) seeking eventual publication, but I'm having trouble deciding whether to devote my limited marketing time to literary journal submissions or whether to spend time pursuing avenues that pay, such as feature articles and books. Somehow it seems that going down both avenues simultaneously would confuse the "identity" and "branding" of my work as I market myself as a writer. Would you agree pursuing both avenues is problematic, or will trial and error be my eventual guide? Assuming income is not a factor, would you recommend the new-to-publishing writer start out doing one or the other first?

First off, I don’t want you to think about branding yourself. Your brand is your creative or professional voice that has had a chance to develop over time and has had a chance to reach an audience. No fresh writer comes out of the gate “branded,” so let’s take that pressure off your shoulders right away. And be wary of the agent who wants to “shape” your brand (what that usually means is that they want to package you a certain way – their way.)

If money were absolutely not an issue (which is very rare for most writers), I would tell you to follow the path you’re most passionate about – the one you’ll be most happy with, to start. If that passion is building your creative portfolio by submitting piece after piece to literary journals and eZines, do that. If that passion is building your platform and credibility as a freelance writer, do that. Both paths could lead you toward finding an agent and eventual publication, but that’s not the point.

No fresh writer comes out of the gate “branded...""

You could certainly do both. And there’s no right or wrong process to do this – some writers prefer to work in their respective vacuums when developing their creative and/or professional work. Some let one work influence the other, and that’s fine too. I have a very good friend who after years of writing marketing and advertising copy for others has decided she is finally going to put her professional writing on the back burner so she can focus more on her creative work. She’s not fresh out of grad school, some of her closest writing pals are New York Times bestselling authors, and her craft is solid. It’s taken her a few decades to get to this point in her writing career. So yes, there is an element of trial and error to this process – and that’s just life, isn’t it?

Now, for the writers who do have to consider how they’re going to pay the bills, I would ask you: What’s your goal? What do you want to accomplish? What kind of books do you want to write? Can you support your publishing career with ongoing marketing and PR pushes? There are countless authors who freelance and countless freelancers who publish a few books. One of my favorite writers, James Wood, who is mostly known for his literary criticism and book reviews, has only written one novel, The Book Against God (Picador, 2004). The thing that connects his fiction to all his nonfiction work is his voice – dry, smart, and with a distinct sense of humor. So, take that into consideration – it’s the consistency of voice and unique point of view spanning the majority of your work that you will eventually market.

This is a very long way of saying, don’t worry yourself out over a process that will eventually reveal itself to you (OK, with some inspired action on your part). Have I already stressed not letting the word “brand” cross your lips ever again?

Good luck, Nancy!

Question from Daniel G. from Port Orchard, WA

I am putting together an anthology of mental illnesses with a reality based edge.  I'm not sure if I should market it as horror or just fiction.  The genre route seems so limiting, plus people keep telling me it is really hard to get an anthology published.  How should I market it so that it will be more palatable to a publisher?  This has been a dream of mine for awhile, and if worse comes to worse I will self publish, but what are your tips for a strong query letter or approach?

If the bulk of the stories contributed have truly gruesome elements connecting them together, I feel 99% confident suggesting your anthology would find a home in the horror genre. If there’s nothing horrifically twisted going on between the pages, the collection can’t be marketed as horror.

Unless you’re a well-respected and notable editor or author, your chances of publishing an anthology with even a mid-sized publisher are very slim. Agents and publishers are open to considering anthologies, but your platform as an expert within the genre your anthology fits must be very strong and you’ve got to have some major literary talent attached as contributors. For example, the critically acclaimed and award-winning anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010) edited by Kate Bernheimer (the well-known and respected founder and editor of Fairy Tale Review and author of several adult and children’s books) did not sell for a large advance despite the big names attached (she had to pay all those contributors, too): Joyce Carol Oates, Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, and my pal from Omaha, Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope, Unbridled Books, 2011). This is a pretty good indicator that publishers aren't going to invest in anthologies unless you can deliver what Ms. Bernheimer can deliver - star quality.

Getting an entire publishing team to champion your anthology (or short story collection) is very difficult. Who do you have attached to contribute? Who is writing the forward? Do we know their work? How will they promote it? How will you? How quickly do you think you can sell through a conservative first print run of 5,000 copies? You’re going to have to be prepared to WOW an agent who will then have to WOW an entire publishing team with the answers to these questions.    

Here’s what you can do

If you’re not getting a good response from agents, you could attempt to query independent publishing houses yourself. If they don’t bite, you could consider self-publishing, sure. You may want to consider self-publishing via Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s eBook platforms before you invest in publishing a printed book. I think given the nature of your genre, you could experience considerable success via e-publishing – an avenue more and more very talented writers are exploring. But just because that path is “easier” doesn’t mean the sales will accumulate just as easily – that’s all up to the energy you put toward the marketing and promotion of the work, and of course the quality of the entire anthology.

Good luck, Daniel!

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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