How to Get Published

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This excerpt from How To Get Happily Published will help you on your way to getting your manuscript published.

Everyone — as the old saying goes — may “have a book in ’em,” but few folks can actually sit down and write it. And, of those who do, fewer still know how to get a manuscript published once it’s on paper.

Which is exactly why Judith Appelbaum and Nancy Evans have written How To Get Happily Published, a delightful guide that overflows with enough how-to information and energetic enthusiasm to put you a long way down the road to doing just that. If you are a writer and want to learn how to get published — but don’t know where to begin — you’re sure to like the following excerpts from the Appelbaum/Evans book, and love the book itself!

From How To Get Happily Published by Judith Appelbaum and Nancy Evans, copyright © 1978 by Judith Appelbaum and Nancy Evans and reprinted with the permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Getting Published

It is largely within your power to determine whether a publisher will buy the book or article you want to write or have just written and whether the public will buy it once it’s released. Failures abound, however, because hardly anybody treats getting published as if it were a rational, manageable activity — like practicing law or laying bricks — in which knowledge coupled with skill and application would suffice to ensure success. Instead, almost everybody approaches the early phases of the publishing process — which have to do with finding a publisher — by trusting exclusively to luck, to merit, or to formulas.

Such behavior is thoroughly counterproductive, but it’s understandable at the same time, and on several grounds.

In the first place, people who write are as reluctant as the rest of us to expose themselves by asking questions. Seeking information is an intimidating task in this day and age. We’ve all been raised to believe that — since knowledge is power — ignorance must be impotence.

Furthermore, we tend to proceed on the assumption that mastery of any field is the exclusive province of specialists and experts. Laymen — so the theory goes — can’t expect to understand how to fix a leaky pipe, let alone how to get a book manuscript from writer to reader. So people who aren’t prevented from finding out by the fear of looking silly are often precluded by the fear that the information they’ll receive will be unintelligible anyway.

But even those who are brave and energetic enough to go in search of knowledge about getting published have not — in most cases — found the effort worthwhile. What every aspiring author really needs is an editor who has the time and the inclination to sit down with him and show him the industry ropes.

What he gets, however, is more likely to be a handful of books from the oppressively large number of works on breaking into print, which usually tell only parts of the truth at most, or another handful from the pitifully small canon of works on subsequent aspects of the publishing process, which tend to explain the way the business works without any reference to the flesh-and-blood men and women who run it and who inevitably alter the rules to fit personal and practical demands.

To substitute for the friendly editor, we’ve written this book and arranged for it to offer a full and frank description of the contemporary publishing picture (complete with fallible human beings in the foreground and annotated guides to hundreds of available resources at the back). We’re convinced that anyone who reads it intelligently will get [1] a good general idea of the way the publishing process normally works, [2] some valuable specific information on the ingenious tactics assorted individuals have devised to make it work for them, and [3] easy enough access to additional information about the full range of publishing options so that he’ll be able to create effective publishing strategies of his own.

But at every step our main focus of attention will be on you: what you want, what you need, what you’ll have to contend with to get it, how wide your options are, and how you can most easily reach your goals.

This book, in other words, is designed as a launching pad for individual writers and writing projects. Its overriding purpose is to help you improve your improvisational skills so that you’ll be able to switch gears when you need to, no matter what the rule book experts say.

Publishers Need Your Work

To keep your spirits up on darker days, you may find it useful to dwell on three important facts:

[1] PUBLISHERS NEED YOU AT LEAST AS MUCH AS YOU NEED THEM. Despite widespread suspicions of conspiracy, there’s little truth in the theory that an elite circle of editors and writers concentrated in Manhattan and doing business on the cocktail-party circuit reserves every printed page for itself. Unquestionably, a lot of assignments are given out at New York cocktail parties and at opulent publishing lunches as well, but on the other hand: [a] Even the deputed leaders of the New York Literary Establishment — always aware of the dangers of provincialism — are wary of accepting too much material from fellow members, and [b] no matter how many authors an editor knows he never has enough first-rate material. In publishing firms on both coasts — and in between — the quest for new ideas and new writers is considered so vital that editors-in chief frequently chide — and sometimes threaten — their junior colleagues about it. A particularly stern taskmaster, in fact, is in the habit of telling his staff, “Unless you have three projects to propose, don’t come to the editorial meeting this week. And if you miss three meetings, don’t come back to work.”

[2] EDITORS MAKE MISTAKES. For instance, dozens of publishing houses turned down Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Auntie Mame, and fiction by Anais Nin. And John Fischer, for many years head of the “trade” (i.e., general) book department at Harper & Brothers (now Harper & Row), tells — with the aplomb made possible by his otherwise admirable record — of spurning a book that went on to make publishing history.

“I hate to remember,” Fischer confessed in one of his “Easy Chair” columns in Harper’s Magazine, “the time when James R. Newman first told me his scheme for a history of mathematics. He wanted to gather all the basic documents of mathematical thought and arrange them into an anthology which would trace the development of the science in the words of the masters themselves. It would be a big book, perhaps 500 pages. What did I think of it?

“I told him it was impossible. Nobody would buy it. Its subject was too specialized — in fact to most people (including me) downright repellent — and it would be far too costly to manufacture.”

Newman’s The World of Mathematics was subsequently issued by Simon & Schuster (having grown to four volumes from the originally contemplated one) and Fischer reports drily that before long the publisher had sold over 120,000 sets . . . in addition to those distributed by two book clubs.

The point — clearly and comfortingly — is that a rejection (which in any case is directed to your work and not to you as a person) may well reflect more unfavorably on the editor’s ability than on yours. [3] PERSEVERANCE PAYS. Outlets for writing are multiplying rapidly nowadays, as new technology makes small presses and self-publishing ventures economically feasible. And at large “houses” as well as small, editorial tastes are always so varied that there should be an editor somewhere who’s looking for what you have to offer, as Judith Guest discovered when she tried her now famous, but then rejected, novel Ordinary People on a new pair of editorial eyes.

After the book was turned down by Random House, Ms. Guest sent it on to Viking, where an editorial assistant named Mimi Jones picked the manuscript out of the slush pile and passed it along to her colleagues with enthusiastic comments. Viking accepted the book, whereupon it was published to good reviews, selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, and sold to a paperback house for more than half a million dollars. Ordinary People went on to make the bestseller lists and the final chapter in its success story to date is its sale to a major film production company.

Where to Send Manuscripts

Choosing markets for your manuscripts is a two-step process. First, you must become aware of the tens of thousands of outlets that exist. Second, having learned how enormous your range of options is, you must figure out how to narrow it sensibly, so that you end up sending your work to the particular publishers and editors who are most apt to be receptive to it and enthusiastic about it.

You ought to keep one question very much in mind during this “choosing” process: Would you, generally speaking, be happier with a large publishing firm or a small one?

Large publishing operations offer certain obvious advantages: Everybody’s heard of them, so their imprint on your writing tends to confer prestige. They pay better than small firms. They have more clout with reviewers and talk-show hosts, as well as with bookstore managers and newsstand distributors. And they employ professional designers, copy editors, and other skilled specialists to process the raw material they buy.

On the other hand, most big firms are more likely than most small ones to reject serious fiction and poetry and anything else that’s noncommercial. And they’re quite apt to offer you little or nothing in the way of promotion unless you’re a celebrity or about to become one. Furthermore, large companies are often — although by no means always — impersonal, and they have an irritating habit of getting tangled up in red tape.

Small firms have roughly opposite strengths, weaknesses, and special interests. They will appeal especially to writers who want personal attention, freedom from bureaucracy, and a chance to help produce and sell their work. Since they issue relatively few manuscripts (perhaps fewer than half a dozen a year, as compared to the large publishers’ two hundred plus), small publishers usually work hard on each one. And since their overhead is low, they can often take a book that would have been quickly remaindered by a large house and keep it in print over a long period of time . . . while it climbs toward substantial sales.

On the debit side, small presses have not done much so far to get their share of attention from the mass media. They often pay poorly, at least where advances and guarantees are concerned. And on occasion, their seat-of-the pants approach to editing and production results in sloppy work.

In some cases, it will make sense to aim straight at Doubleday or The New Yorker. In others, the best targets may be distinguished small presses like Black Sparrow or the Hudson Review. Under a third set of circumstances, you might decide to submit your manuscript to both large and little houses . . . and under still a fourth, you could consider trying a special-interest quarterly first and then using a clip of your piece as it appeared there to boost your chances at a slick mass-market magazine.

Because the paths to publication are so numerous, you can probably discover a variety of promising markets for every manuscript you have to place.

Avoid Vanity Presses!

With one exception, any publication opportunity you can seize is worth seizing: Ever-widening ripples move out from even the smallest of splashes. It is our opinion, however, that something more like a self-contained “plop” is all you’re likely to get if you resort to a “vanity press.”

You can recognize a vanity press by its come-hither ads. “An invitation to authors of books,” they’ll say (or words to that effect). And they’ll offer a free (no obligation) manuscript evaluation and a free (no obligation) brochure about the publishing operation. Usually vanity houses wait until you’ve begun corresponding with them to mention their fee. Be advised, though, that a vanity press is likely to charge you several thousand dollars to handle publication processes that you’d be far better off directing and/ or executing yourself! Most vanity houses issue impressive looking pamphlets that explain their operations with varying degrees of candor and detail. These booklets generally fail, however, to stress two crucial points:

[1] These presses have no stake in the success of your book. They take their money up front by getting you to pay all the costs of editing, typesetting, proofreading, printing, overhead, and the like, plus an additional sum that’s pure profit for them! Then, if the edition actually earns anything they’ll take a cut of the revenues from sales too (and they’ll charge you for any copies you buy over and above the allotment mentioned in your contract).

[2] Distribution efforts by vanity presses can be worse than useless because vanity books bear a stigma. Most libraries, bookstores, and book reviewers won’t touch them! And while some titles do manage to rack up sales, it’s virtually certain that most vanity press successes could have been easily equaled by a writer on his own.

Magazines: Introduce Yourself With a Query

On the surface, a query is simply a letter that asks an editor whether he’s interested in work you’re planning or have already produced. It’s an introductory move, used to pave the way for submitting articles to periodicals and proposals or finished manuscripts to book publishing houses (and to agents, too.) With magazines, queries may also function as proposals, in the sense that they can earn you an assignment complete with guaranteed minimum payment (but they’re not likely to do that if you’re an unknown.) And in all cases a query obviously makes for efficiency. (Evaluating a letter takes a lot less time than reviewing the entire manuscript it describes, so the winnowing process is speeded up.) But the query’s most important function is often-and oddly-ignored: A query is a tool for steering your manuscript clear of the slush pile.

Judging from the number of unsolicited submissions that reach editorial offices daily, most writers either don’t know this or don’t believe it. The fact is, queries get “manuscripts solicited” status . . . with benefits all around.

Whether or not an editor offers specific comments, a go-ahead from him means that your submission will land in his in-basket rather than in the unsolicited manuscripts bin when it arrives. His expression of interest obligates him to read — or at least to skim — what you send. That’s all it obligates him to do, however, unless he has agreed to commission your forthcoming work. When an editor says he’d be delighted to see your manuscript on speculation (or “on spec”, to use the common jargon) he means he thinks it has promise but can guarantee nothing.

Remembering that a query must do double duty — by selling your idea to the editor it’s addressed to and then by helping him sell his colleagues — makes it easier to compose a good one. The following guidelines summarize the advice most editors give for drafting a one- or two-page query letter about a non-fiction manuscript. If you adapt them to your piece in a creative fashion, they’ll serve for fiction as well.

[1] STATE YOUR SPECIFIC IDEA (as opposed to your general subject). A title that conveys the essence of your story will be useful here. Perhaps skimming magazines will help you come up with one.

[2] EXPLAIN YOUR APPROACH (how-to . . . first-person experience . . . a canvass of opinions), and give some sense of the style you’ve chosen for this project (will it be informal and chatty, or scholarly and critical?).

[3] CITE YOUR SOURCES (will you conduct interviews, use case studies, work from historical documents?).



[6] MENTION YOUR CONNECTIONS AND QUALIFICATIONS. If you have any relevant expertise, let the editor know. And tell him, too, about your publishing credits . . . even if they’re minor ones. Include clippings (two at most) only if they’re relevant to the piece you’re proposing . . . or if they’re outstandingly good samples of your work.

[7] CONVEY SOME SENSE OF YOUR ENTHUSIASM FOR THE PROJECT. Enthusiasm is infectious and editors are inclined to encourage writing that obviously has conviction and energy behind it.

Books: Cash in on a Proposal

With a book proposal, you can sell a book before you write it. Many houses will offer an advance — and pay half of it — on the strength of a proposal alone (the other half will be forthcoming on delivery of a satisfactory completed manuscript). If a publisher is to advance money for a book, though, he must generally be convinced that the book he’s buying will be a book he can sell.

Book proposals can be submitted to agents (who will take you on — or not — after reading them) . . . as well as directly to editors. And the basic principles that contribute to the success of a query apply to proposals too: Because it’s much shorter than a full manuscript, a proposal can be considered more quickly and easily. And because it represents raw possibilities, it has the power to ignite an editor’s imagination and get him involved in what you’re trying to do.

Editors commonly define a book proposal as “an outline and a sample chapter”, but what they really want is anything on paper that will give them some sense of how you write (which several unrelated passages may demonstrate better than a chapter in a book’s early stages) and some reason to believe that your subject — when developed — will interest a large group of readers (which no rigid I, II, III, A, B, C outline of contents is likely to convey).

When writing a book proposal . . .

[1] DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK well enough so that an editor can say to his colleagues, “I have a great proposal here for a novel about espionage during World War I”  or whatever. Your title, if it’s catchy or compelling, can also be a strong selling point.

[2] GIVE AN ANECDOTE OR EXAMPLE THAT ILLUSTRATES YOUR THEME AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE. Take whatever space you need for this: a paragraph, a page, or more.

[3] IDENTIFY THE AUDIENCE TO WHOM THE BOOK IS ADDRESSED (for example: coin collectors, people in rebellion against impersonal bureaucracies, everyone who loved To Kill a Mockingbird). Sometimes you can direct an editor’s attention to several possible markets and thus inspire him to think of still others.

[4] TALK REALISTICALLY ABOUT THE COMPETITION AND HOW YOUR BOOK IS DIFFERENT so that both editors and salesmen will understand why it needs to be written and why it will be read.

[5] SHOW HOW YOU PLAN TO DEVELOP YOUR BOOK. Indicate the breakdown by chapters and sketch your primary sources of information (where you will go, whom you will talk with, what statistics you will gather.)

[6] EXPLAIN YOUR CREDENTIALS. Cite publishing credits as evidence of your ability to write along with any experience or training that qualifies you especially well for this project.

[7] ENCLOSE A SAMPLE OF YOUR TEXT (20 pages is about the norm). Send whatever chapter or excerpts will reflect your book’s content and style most accurately and most favorably.


Whereas magazine article queries normally elicit a response within a few weeks, be warned that book proposals can have you checking the mail for months. It’s a good idea, therefore, to keep records of everything you’ve sent out and to follow up on magazine pieces after about six weeks and on book outlines after roughly twelve. Editors do get bogged down, go on vacations, and sometimes even lose manuscripts (this is as good a place as any to remind you to always, always keep a copy). Furthermore, delays may result when a project hovers on the borderline between acceptance and rejection. A polite letter of inquiry is a reasonable and perfectly proper way to find out what’s holding things up.

If and when you do get a positive response from an editor, acknowledge it with thanks and with some word on when you expect to deliver your finished manuscript. Be as realistic as you can about the due date. Then if you find it impossible to stay on schedule, let your editor know.

Establishing Rapport With the Editor

Any rapport that you establish with particular editors obviously works to your advantage and can be strengthened by simple gestures of courtesy (saying thank you for comments, for example, or expressing gratitude for encouragement offered along with rejection.)

And speaking of rejections, well, everyone gets them, even the best of writers. And everyone feels the same way: Rotten and hurt. But bear in mind that it’s probably true if an editor says that he really liked your piece even though other editors didn’t, or that everybody liked it except the editor-in-chief (whose “no” means “no”). And remember, too, that the roots of rejection are infinite: An editor who had a fight with his wife last night bristles at your piece about how to achieve a blissful relationship through yoga. Or a story like yours just came in from a house author and — while it isn’t any better than the one you wrote — it isn’t any worse either. Or your book just doesn’t strike the sales manager as a good bet. Or your article sounds too much like one that just came out in Business Week.

What this variety of causes signifies is simply that one editor’s rejection may be another’s acceptance, so continue to circulate your material. If you’ve followed our advice without garnering a single encouraging word from the forty-six editors who’ve considered your manuscript, then — and only then — is it time to take stock. Perhaps your logic is not as sound as you thought in the beginning, or your point is not so fresh and crisp after all. Sigh one sigh, file the manuscript away, and get on with something new.