Published March 13, 2021

As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, editor and author Kris Spisak (The Novel Editing Workbook: 105 Tricks & Tips For Revising Your Fiction Manuscript) and publisher Anne Trubek (So You Want to Publish a Book?) discussed their work, writing, and books in conversation. Both of these books provide practical, hands-on information for writers at every level of expertise and for all types of work.

This event was presented as part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book’s Virginia Writing & Publishing series, hosted by these writing centers and organizations across Virginia: 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA, Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice, and WriterHouse.

We invite your feedback on events you’ve viewed, using this brief survey.
Watch the video of this event and read the transcript below:

Resources

Thanks to our booksellers for this event, UVA Bookstore and Belt Publishing.

“Kris Spisak brings her signature wit and can-do spirit to this guide brimming with practical, hands-on advice. From big picture restructuring to line-editing polish, Spisak’s suggestions will help both the novice and the already-published revise their next manuscript and make it shine. A must-read and a fun read!” -A.B. Westrick, author of Brotherhood

“A wonderfully candid, down-to earth description of how a nonfiction book moves from query letter to point of sale.” ―Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World

Community Partners

Thanks to the Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice for hosting this event. Thanks also to James River Writers for sharing information about this event.

Transcript

GREGG WILHELM:  Good afternoon, and welcome to Editing and Publishing: Tips and Information You Can Use Right Now, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. I’m Greg Wilhelm, director of Mason Creative Writing and cofounder of Watershed Lit Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice at George Mason University. Thanks for joining us this afternoon. And there are a lot of you out there, so thank you so much.

This event has optional closed captioning, which you can access at any time during the event by using the closed captions button at the bottom of this video—the green button. It will open another window for you to read the closed captioning. Thanks to Denise Redfield for providing the captioning this afternoon.

If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our booksellers for this event, please visit vabook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events and also learn about the future very interesting events that are coming, a lot of which are going to happen tomorrow on Sunday. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at vabook.org/give.

This program is one in a series of six devoted to Virginia writing and publishing presented by writing centers and organizations across Virginia. In addition to Watershed Lit, other hosts include 1455 Literary Arts, James River Writers, The Muse, Randolph College MFA Program, and WriterHouse. If you have questions, and we’re sure you will, please include them in the “Ask a Question” tab rather than the chat so that we can keep better track of them as the afternoon goes on.

So now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, and so allow me to bring them on stage for their introductions. Good afternoon. We have Kris Spisak, author of The Novel Editing Workbook: 105 Tricks & Tips for Revising Your Fiction Manuscript—thank you—Get a Grip on Your Grammar, and the Family Story Workbook. I’m slowing down in case you wanted to raise any other books up. Fabulous. Kris is on a mission to help writers of all kinds empower their storytelling and communications. Her “Words You Should Know” podcast follows the same goal, as does her work as an editor of fiction.

Anne Trubek, author of So You Want to Publish a Book?, is the founder and publisher of Belt Publishing and Belt Magazine, the author of two previous books, and the editor of two more. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other outlets.  Kris joins us from Richmond, Virginia, and Anne joins us from Cleveland, Ohio. So thank you again for everyone—all one hundred of you who are in the audience this afternoon. Please insert your questions in Ask a Question, and without any further ado, Kris and Anne, it’s’ all yours.

KRIS SPISAK:  Thanks, Gregg.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Thank you, Gregg. And thank you to the Virginia Festival of the Book and all the other sponsors for having us. You guys put on such a great show every year, and this year the advantage is people from Italy and Chicago and D.C. can join us. So I’m thrilled to be here.

So Kris and I are just going to chat for a while, talking to each other about some questions that often come up when we’re working with writers. Hopefully, they’ll be the kinds of questions that you all might have in mind. And we’re also going to answer questions as we go—and then definitely at the end. So don’t be shy. Shoot your questions in the Ask a Question, and we want to include as many of you as possible in this discussion. Because it’s really about trying to give advice and feedback to writers. That’s what we’re here for.

So I’m going to start by asking Kris a question, and that is, “What are some of the common things that, when writers come to you, they may not be thinking about when it comes to the editing and publishing process? So not so much how to write a book or a story per se, but what happens in editing and publishing?”

KRIS SPISAK:  I love that question, and you’re right. That’s probably the very top question that I hear—is a very simple one. What is editing, right? And here’s the moment of suspense. Because we all have those moments of suspense—those cliffhangers—in our stories. Before I answer it, I want to say one quick thing. Anne has been really generous, and I’m also going to give away a book at the end of this session. So I want to do a quick little shout-out, and I’m going to put it in the comments that both Anne and I are giving away a free copy of our books. So if anybody would like to enter the raffle—anybody is eligible. You don’t have to do anything. No purchase necessary. All of the wonderful jargon. But I, in the comments, am sticking details and a link if anyone wants to do that raffle for one of our books. I’m going to do the drawing one hour after the close of this session, but enter now.

Okay, back. Here’s my transition. I feel like we’re talking about editing. We’re talking about publishing. You need to have this beautiful segue from one topic to another. And I don’t have it here, so I’m just going to go right back to Anne’s question. So one thing I hear again and again is what does editing even mean. Because, Anne, you know this too. You get to the end of the book. You get to the end. You want to throw up the confetti. Maybe the confetti is in the shape of commas, just to kind of capture the spirit. But then you need—okay, I need to edit this project. I need to go back to page one and work on punctuation. And this is the way we finish that first draft, and you start going to punctuation, right? But that’s not what editing is.

Editing means so much more. There’s revision, where you’re looking at structure, where you’re looking at your characters, whether you look at your language and realize—are you using clichés? Are you using that language that everybody is using? That opening with a dream. That opening that’s somehow falling into a cliché. That you’re not looking at a cliché.

So my advice for everybody is, after you hit the end, first do throw up that confetti. Because how many people want to write a book versus how many people do? So if you’re making it happen, just cheers to you. But after you finish, you have to go back and realize there’s stages to the editing process. You have to look at the big picture before you look at punctuation, and you’ve got to look at your point of view. You’ve got to look at all of these things. This is actually the origin of where this book came from because there can be a process to revision and editing. It isn’t just a “now I need to make it better.” Because it’s really hard to just look at a giant book and say—how do I make it better? There’s a process of the big edits and going down until you finally do get to that final proofing of punctuation. So thank you for asking that question, Anne, because we really need to not just go to write that query or write that proposal or whatever you’re doing. You need to take the time to make sure that book is as powerful as possible. Because this is a competitive business these days.

And there’s my beautiful segue, see? We’re getting there. Anne, this is a competitive business these days. You get a lot of queries. You get a lot of proposals. What attracts you to something that comes across your desk at Belt Publishing?

ANNE TRUBEK:  So, yeah, that’s a good question. I want to add a little bit about editing, once it’s with an editor. So what Kris is talking about is the editing that writers need to do before they send it to somebody who might want to publish it. So let me add on to that by talking about the kinds of editing that I, as a publisher, will do with the manuscript after I’ve accepted it. And then after I finish that question, I’ll explain how I get to accepting something and what I look for in a query.

So what we do—we roughly divide editing into three different categories. The first one would be developmental editing, and I think that’s kind of what Kris is talking about with revision. That’s where we’re looking at the manuscript as a whole, whether it’s a novel or nonfiction. We publish at Belt all nonfiction, but this also would apply to novels. So I would be looking at the structure. Does it make sense that chapters five, six, and seven are there, or should they be chapters one, two, and three? So really wholesale changes on the structure.

I might be looking at the focus. I might say all this stuff you have about hot dogs in this book about meat—I think there’s too much hot dogs.

KRIS SPISAK:  Too many hot dogs.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Yeah. Let’s cut all the hot dogs. Sometimes I’ll do something like—say this book is great, but it feels baggy. I want you to go through and cut 30 percent. And in that activity of cutting, you’re going to have to be thinking about the focus and what can go and what can’t. A lot of writers are really shocked that they’re going to be asked to do that level of editing and changing. Anecdotally, I would say that the least experienced writers have the hardest time with developmental editing. Because it’s new to them, and maybe they didn’t know that this is par for the course. Whereas more experienced writers can get really excited because we know what a gift it is to have somebody with expertise to work on our books—manuscripts. So that’s developmental editing.

The second level would be copyediting or line editing. And that’s really looking at maybe deleting a paragraph here, revising the syntax of a sentence. You know, on that level. So you’re really working on the page, but you’re doing larger changes.

And then you have proofreading. And the proofreading is the punctuation and the commas and the capitalization. And that’s the third level of editing, which I agree a lot of newer writers assume that editing and proofreading are the same thing. So knowing those differences—

KRIS SPISAK:  There are so many things with editing.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Yeah. Knowing those differences is important. What I look for when a writer has an idea for a book—the first thing that he or she should do is write up a proposal. And we can talk about proposals later, but let’s just bracket that for now. And then what they do is they distill that proposal into basically an email. They just send one email that is maybe three to four paragraphs. There are certain guides and tips for how to put together a good query, but we’ll bracket that again for now.

When I receive that query, the things that really are important to me on the first level—one, a sense that the writer knows who the hell I am. A lot of writers will mass send queries to every publisher they can find on a database, and that’s going to be very obvious to me. If it’s not, then—good job—because you did such a good job of your mass email that I didn’t know it was a mass email.

KRIS SPISAK:  So you don’t want the “Dear Sir or Madam.”

ANNE TRUBEK:  Right, exactly. And you have to have some sense of what my press does—what Bell Publishing does. Just Google. (Google skills!) You don’t have to read every book, but have some understanding of what we do. The more understanding you have of the particular press that you’re sending your query to, the better it will be received. And, you know, flatter the editor. Everyone likes to be flattered. If you really like some book that that press published the year before, mention it.

KRIS SPISAK:  And this is great advice for agent pitching too. You have to know who that agent is. You can’t just “To whom it may concern” something where it’s BCC’d out to one hundred people. You have to give that specificity. Show your research. Because if you’re not willing to do that research, you’re not really showing yourself to be someone who is professional, someone who is going to be great to work with.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Right, absolutely. And that can sound intimidating, but it’s just time and research. It’s not necessarily difficult. But it does take time. And related to that—to the idea of researching and knowing who you’re writing to—you need to know what other books out there have been published that are similar to yours. And that is something I think that a lot of people don’t understand. When you’re talking with a publisher, you’re basically asking them to spend a lot of money to make a book that they will sell in a marketplace. So the publisher is going to be thinking about that marketplace. If you say you want to sell a burger that people can drive up in their car and order, the person might be like—but there’s a lot of places where you can do that already. Why should we choose you? You want to be able to say, you know, but nobody is doing lobster roll drive-thrus. I don’t know why I came up with this.

KRIS SPISAK:  I love it. I absolutely love it.

ANNE TRUBEK:  So know what other books out there similar to yours have been published in the last couple years. Not like twenty years ago. So that’s important. And then the last thing that’s really important to me is that I get a sense—well, there’s two more things. The third thing is that I get a sense that the writer is well-read in the area that they’re writing about. Another thing I find often is that writers—there are a certain number of people who like to write better than they like to read—and I’m looking for people who read a lot, personally. And I think most editors are. Because that’s the business that we’re in. So being really well-read in the area that you’re writing about is very important.

And then the last thing, of course, is great writing. And that I can tell from the query itself and how it’s written. That’s a long answer.

KRIS SPISAK:  Oh, it’s a good answer, though.

ANNE TRUBEK:  So do you have any thoughts about this, Kris?

KRIS SPISAK:  Yes, just that whole concept—also jumping back to the editorial side because that’s always where I jump back to things. You said that you want to show that you are well-read in this area. And people so often say, “How do I learn how to edit my own work really well? How do I learn how to pitch and find those comp titles?” and those comparative titles you’re talking about. The more you read—that’s like writer’s homework right there. It’s not just something that’s purely for pleasure. Read, read, read. Because the more you read—you’re studying. You are learning the craft. You are learning the art. You are learning the business model of who you’re going to use for your comparative titles when you’re going to be doing the pitch for this book.

With the comparative titles, as Anne said, you want to find something recent. You want to find something that really shows you know what you’re talking about—where you’re not going to say this is going to be Harry Potter meets Dan Brown. I mean, you don’t just throw out the giant, giant books that everybody has heard of. You want to throw out something that shows that you know what you’re talking about. And really reading, reading, reading. If you’re studying point of view, if you’re studying how to make a character come alive, if you’re studying suspense, if you’re studying verbs versus adverbs—reading gives you all of those. Read like a writer, and you can have an amazing education when you just examine—when something takes your breath away—look how the author did that. Go back. When you realize you fell in love with a book, look at why you attached to that character on page one. What about that scene touched your heart or made you scared or whatever it is? Read, read, read, read like a writer.

ANNE TRUBEK:  I peeked at the questions, and somebody was asking something that I think we can use to expand this discussion, which is a question that I think also comes up all the time—top of people’s minds. And that has to do with marketing and how much of a sort of platform or personality do you need to have to get a book contract. And obviously there’s a lot of people in this audience, and there’s a lot of ways to answer this question. We’re not going to be able to tailor it to all of you. But there is a sort of general sense that, in order to get a book published, you have to have 100,000 Twitter followers or a million Instagram followers. It’s very intimidating to people. So my response to that is, if you have those things, yeah it’ll probably be easier to get a book contract. Because book publishers like to make money, and they think, “Oh, all those followers. It’ll be easy to make money.” Not all book publishers like to make money, but I’m just making that sort of connection between the ability to sell copies—that’s what it’s showing to them.

But there are many other ways, one, to show that you can sell copies. If you’re very involved in a community that has many members—maybe you run a Facebook group on a certain type of cuisine or a certain medical condition or a certain place—that’s also a platform. So just think of all the communities that you’re a part of that you can talk about.

Also, who cares about the platform? So here’s another way to talk about that, which is to say that there are a ton of different publishers out there—there are hundreds, thousands of different publishers. And there’s a lot of different approaches to publishing. A very oversimplified way to think about it is that there are five and maybe now soon four conglomerates—multinational companies—that publish most of the books in the United States. And they’re called the Big Five or the Big Four. And it’s very hard to get a contract with those places, and they will be looking for a platform and marketing, and they will probably—if you’re lucky—give you some money up front that they expect to make, after the fact, in royalties. And that’s an advance.

But then there are many, many other presses—there are independent presses, there are university presses, there are a lot of nonprofit presses—that are less concerned with a huge platform. Also, they will probably give you less money up front against royalties but will still give you the same amount of money total over the course of the lifetime of the book, because it’s just that the money is going to come after-the-fact instead of beforehand.

So I think that—one of the things that I argue in my book is that there’s really been a huge change in book publishing over the last thirty, forty years—a move towards conglomeration—and that I am hoping that people start to look more to alternatives to those types of publishers. There’s nothing wrong with them. But do understand that there are alternatives, and there’s a lot to be gained from going with independent and academic presses instead of the big fish in the pond.

KRIS SPISAK:  Absolutely. And I think the funny thing is, when people think about—I need to get a literary agent or I need to get a New York book deal—all of these pieces. There are so many different ways, and it doesn’t necessarily even need to be a choice for your entire publishing career. You can have a first book that might be self-published or independently published, as you’re working on building that platform. You might have a literary agent that sells some books to big traditional publishers. You might be pitching some things in different directions. One author can have multiple choices.

It’s so funny because the jargon in 2021 is so muddled. Because you’re talking about independent presses, which are smaller publishers. But there’s also people who consider themselves “indie” authors because they’re trying to get away from the self-publish term. Because sometimes there’s that stigma of vanity publishers or vanity presses, and all of that stuff, where you’re just buying so many of your own books—paying money to get it out there.

But if you are someone who’s willing to put in the time to actually build your creative team—to have your book designer, to hire professional developmental editors, copyeditors, proofreaders—like all of the pieces—to think about the business mind of running your own business, your marketing, you can independently publish things on your own. It really depends on: what are your goals, who is your audience, how fast do you want this to happen? There are so many pieces that go into this decision. And I think the one piece that is so often forgotten in this conversation of publishing is that you think about self-publishing, or you think about New York. There are so many possibilities in the middle. And this is where you figure out what is right for you.

My first traditional publisher is a medium-sized publisher. I did get an advance. I had a publicist who was working with me. I have done some projects independently. My first independent project—self-published project—was what got me my lit agent and traditional deal. So there’s lots of things in the mix, and people definitely need to remember that.

Now what is your feeling on if someone is thinking about the independent publishing route? There’s more work involved with that, right? Anne, what do you think? Where can independent publishing go wrong? Or right?

ANNE TRUBEK:  First, there’s this terminology problem. For the sake of this discussion, I assume by independent publishing you mean self-publishing?

KRIS SPISAK:  I do. And it’s so funny because there is such a movement to get away from the term self-publishing. But for the sake of this, I will stop using it. I will stick with self-publishing for the sake of this conversation. Because, independent presses can also mean small presses. It’s a muddle right now.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Right. So just to explain, when I say I run an independent press, I’m not self-publishing. We own ourselves. We’re self-owned, but we are a traditional press. We give advances. We do publicity and marketing and editing and all that stuff. So independent press is often synonymous with small press. Self-publishing is when you’re doing it yourself. Some people don’t like that term, but it gets confusing, as you can see.

So self-publishing—you do it yourself—I think it’s great. I think the best reasons to self-publish—and there are a lot of places where you can get help with all of the aspects of publishing that you might not already know—you just pay some money to experts to do that. If you do have a large platform, and if you do have a lot of people you think that you can sell that book to, why not keep most of the money that you get in response? You pay the money up front. It’s a risk/reward thing. You put all your money in up front, but then you get to keep most of it after the fact. So I think that’s good.

I think it’s also good if your goal is just to have a book. Your goal is not to sell a lot of copies. Your goal is not to get a better job. Your goal is not to have a career as a writer. Your goal is to have this thing that you’ve been working on printed and published and accessible to other people. Then I think self-publishing is absolutely the best way to go.

And then I think traditional publishing is important if this is a serious professional endeavor for you. Then try traditional. And you don’t know how to sell copies yourself. Belt Publishing, my press, started because I self-published one book. And I was like, I want to see how this works. So I did that. And then I was like, I like this. This works; I’m going to keep doing more. And then we became a traditional press.

There were a couple questions. We want to switch now to mainly answering your questions. So I have a few notes. I’m sorry. I have a hard time reading the questions and looking out at you, although I can’t see you at the same time. But one question was an example of good query emails. I do include a query that I wrote once that worked in my book. So you can find that. There may be other resources that are happening through this book festival. But one resource that I always send people to—because I think it’s excellent—is Jane Friedman. Janefriedman.com. She has a lot of great resources up there to find examples of queries, I would think. But at least you can search for that.

KRIS SPISAK:  She’s an amazing resource for anything in the publishing world.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Right. Another question was about a list of independent publishers—small presses. Using independent publishers in that sense. You know, there really isn’t one, and there should be one. There isn’t just, sort of one place, I can send you. But NewPages I think lists a lot of them. You can look at Poets & Writers. You can look at—I’m trying to think of places that have public lists. I’ll think about that a little bit more. And if anybody out there in the audience can think of the good, sort of easy databases, to find a list of presses.

KRIS SPISAK:  Does Duotrope have—I know they’re really good with agents. Are they with—

ANNE TRUBEK:  Yeah, I was going to mention MLOP (Media Literacy Online Project), but I wasn’t sure if that list was public. Yes, that’s another great one that’s just been put up in the chat. I don’t know about the Writer’s Market guide, honestly. I haven’t seen that one in a while.

Another question I saw was somebody being asked to do revisions by a publisher but not having a contract. You’re not under contract to that publisher, so do them if you are hoping to get a contract, but you don’t have to. You can also send that proposal elsewhere and not do the revisions. The contract is the key. So the person is right to be wary of doing work. There’s no guarantee—the publisher is not guaranteeing anything.

KRIS SPISAK:  And that’s something you’ll see commonly with literary agents also. That R&R—that revise and resubmit. This is where they’re saying this is really interesting to me, but I’m really interested to see if the beginning can be tightened or if this character can be a little bit more active rather than passive in their own story. And sometimes that’s something that you’ll get from literary agents also. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that that agent is asking you to be a client. That means that agent is interested and willing to work with you, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a deal. So that revise and resubmit—that R&R—is a pretty common thing. But that means also your book is super, duper close if you’re getting that level of attention.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Yeah. I see a good question here about no responses to queries. We’ve all been there. You’re sending something out—I’ve been there as a freelancer, as a potential author—but you’re not getting anything back. There’s no right answer to that. Maybe everyone’s an idiot, and they’re missing this amazing opportunity, or maybe you should put it in a drawer. I think that’s just something you’re going to have to decide on your own. It really doesn’t mean anything that no one is responding, but then maybe it does. It’s a tough one. But you’re not alone in that. And if you had a different novel, and you sent the same one out to the same people, and you got a ton of response from that, that might tell you something. But it’s just hard to know otherwise, so.

KRIS SPISAK:  That query is interesting because there’s not really “publishing etiquette” so much these days. So often when you’re pitching a press or an agent or whoever—even sometimes media—when you have a book and you’re getting it out into the world, there’s not necessarily a standard of even just a return of receipt saying, “Thank you for your query. We’ll be in touch after we look at your couple of paragraphs,” or whatever it is. Sometimes it is standard that no response means no. But then you don’t know: Does that mean after four weeks? Does that mean after six weeks? Does that mean after six months? Unfortunately, there’s not a good standard on that.

However, with queries, it’s always good to use these as kind of A/B testing, if you will. Try one query. Try it and see if you get any work on it. Maybe try some sample pages, see if you get any response on it. And if that query doesn’t work, okay, well, maybe you should go back to the drawing board with that query. Maybe have some critique partners look at it. Have a writing group community look at it. Shout-out to James River Writers in Central Virginia—great for connecting with other writers. But you want to have people think and help you, and there are great editors who work specifically with query letters. Maybe that’s the piece that’s not working.

Maybe your query letter gets a response and they ask for pages, and it’s the pages that are not really connecting with somebody. So it’s often something that you can really do some testing with and say, okay, where is the stumbling block? Is it my book that they’re not interested in, or is it my query? If your query is working, okay, is it my book that they’re not interested in? Or is it how I open my book? Is it how I introduce the plot of the story or the problem of my nonfiction or how I’m going to answer this question that the world needs to know the answer to? Whatever it happens to be.

But your query process—don’t send the exact same query out to one hundred people the first time you ever do this. What if there was a typo in that query? What if it was something that you said? It’s like a resume you’re sending out for a job. What if you misspell the word manager and you actually say manger? Things happen that are wacky. Send them out in small batches—maybe a batch of ten queries. See how it goes. Maybe you’ll do some tweaks after that. Maybe it’s going really well, and you can keep going in other ways. But queries should always be done in small batches, researched just like Anne said, so you know exactly who you’re pitching—whether it’s a press, whether it’s an agent, whoever it happens to be. But use those as your experiment, just like your writing. You have to do the editing. You have to find out what works.

ANNE TRUBEK:  Absolutely.

KRIS SPISAK:  All right. Jumping back into the questions.

ANNE TRUBEK:  There’s a question about finding a book cover designer. So if you want to self-publish, I would suggest that you have a typesetter, an interior designer, a book cover designer, and a proofreader. Those are absolutely essential. There are lots of places that will do that for you for a fee. There isn’t one place to send you. I don’t think there’s any one place that’s aggregating. At Belt Publishing, we do this. We provide this service through what’s called Parafine Press—so if you look on our website and look up Parafine Press. The term that people are using now is hybrid publishing. It’s so confusing. But hybrid publishing is basically, you’re self-publishing it, but you’re hiring experts to do a lot of the publishing aspect of it. So you might want to Google that to find services. Or ask your writing group.

KRIS SPISAK:  Right. And there are a lot of hybrid publishers, as they will kind of act as the publisher and do all of the things for you, but there will be a fee involved if you’re doing some of it, they’re doing some of it. And I think that whole concept of—if you want to self-publish—you really need to think about, okay, you’re going to build your team. You need to have all those people in place to do it well. Because if you are super proud of yourself and you’re pressing ebook publish, and it’s full of typos, and your cover is not up to snuff, and the formatting is wonky, and it just screams that this was not done well, your book won’t be taken seriously, no matter how brilliant it is. If it looks unprofessional, you won’t be taken seriously. So if you’re going the self-publishing route, you need to make sure that you have all the pieces in place to do it really well. And if you do, you can do really well.

I’m not an overly competitive person, for those who know me, and I always have a race every year of my traditionally published books versus my self-published books to see which one raises more money every single year. And it’s really fun to watch the race. And if you’re marketing savvy, you can do well in both avenues. And it’s funny to see.

ANNE TRUBEK:  So I want to take a second just to note that most of what we’ve been talking about so far is basically the cover letter. We’re talking about proposals and queries, which is just the thing in between writing a book and publishing a book that gets that “match.” And this is very common, where so much time is spent on queries and proposals. And none of that matters if the book isn’t good. And nothing that we’re explaining to you so far really helps you understand what happens once a book gets accepted by a traditional publisher and you go through that process.

So obviously these are really important, and I will answer all these questions for the rest of the day, but I just wanted to stop and note that there’s so much focus on this. But none of that stuff matters if the book isn’t good, and it’s also not going to prepare you for what happens if the book is good and you get a publisher. So I just want to mention that.

Now I’m going to go back to a question about proposals, which was how many sample chapters you should have. Again, this depends on what kind of publisher you’re approaching. If you are looking to get a contract with one of these multinational conglomerates, you will need a literary agent. To get a literary agent, you may need sample chapters. But that will depend on the agent. There isn’t one sort of rule. It’s not a codified thing. What do—we talk about it now in politics— norms. They’re just norms; they’re not laws. So there are a lot of norms, but there’s no laws in all of this.

So if you are hoping to get an agent, get a large advance, get a contract with Simon & Schuster, then two sample chapters would be good. One might be good. One might be okay. But your agent might be like, I’m not going to send this to editors unless you have two.

If you are looking for an independent press, you might be able to sell your idea with just a really strong proposal. I, as someone who has been both an author and now an acquiring editor, I hate sample chapters. As someone who writes nonfiction, I need to have the contract before I’m going to write the chapters. I also need to know what the vision of the house is for this book. Because books change upon acquisition.

I wrote the book before this one on publishing—it was about the history of handwriting. And my idea for the book was a certain kind of nonfiction. But I ended up signing with an editor who had a different kind of nonfiction genre in mind for the book. So it changed a lot. If I had spent all that time writing those two sample chapters—to me, those sixty-page nonfiction book proposals are ridiculous—and they take so much time. It’s uncompensated labor. You might get a big advance, but nobody paid you for the year it took to write that proposal.

KRIS SPISAK:  I’m cracking up right now because I’m working with my agent on a nonfiction proposal, and I’m just sitting here cracking up because, yes. So many things, yes. Absolutely.

ANNE TRUBEK:  So anyways, I’m going on because, as you can see, this animates me. When I’m talking with a writer whose work I know, who has an idea for a book that I think is good, I just need a little bit more information. If I already know they’re writing, they don’t need sample chapters. If I already think the book idea is a good one, they don’t need all of that stuff. I do need a sense of a table of contents—a general sense of the structure of the book and what’s going to be in it. I need to know that they know the feel, and that feel can come out in comp titles or something else. But sample chapters are not important to me. So this is really going to depend on who you’re approaching for how much you have to have in the proposal. And you can probably tell more about my pet peeves about proposals—oh, that’s good. Pet peeves about proposals.

KRIS SPISAK:  That’s good. Say it six times fast, though. And I want to point out really quickly that we’re talking about nonfiction versus fiction queries and proposals. Proposals are obviously the larger documents before you write the book. Fiction is different, of course. Fiction you do need to have the entire book written, finished, edited, beautifully revised, the proofreading, and all of those pieces before you send the queries. That’s a very important distinction between the nonfiction query and the fiction query. Nonfiction—you can get the publishing deal before it’s completely written. Fiction—it needs to be not only finished, but finished to a standard that shows that you know what you’re doing as a professional.

You can’t finish your fiction and then say, “Oh, my literary agent or my editor will help me get it to a place where it needs to be published.” Think about how many people are in this room right now. Think about how many people in your city, in your state, in—whoever’s in Italy—in your country, who are working on writing a book right now. It is an incredibly, incredibly competitive business. It’s a business full of joy and passion and that we pour ourselves into, but it’s competitive. So you need to make sure that you’re putting your best work out there. And before the proposals and queries, if I can just take a step back for a moment, to just make sure that everyone is considering putting their best work out there.

One of my favorite tips—when you think you are ready on the fiction side for pitching it out to a publisher—is to do a read-through. And a read-through where you don’t touch the manuscript at all. This is not where you change a sentence. This is not where you do a little dabbling here, dabbling there. This is when you do that read-through, and you think you’re probably done, and kind of roadmap the book. And this is something you do kind of at the very beginning when you just finished your first rough draft, but I like to do it also at the very final stage. You do a read-through and have a little key that you create for yourself on: Is the character strong enough? Are they active? Are they deciding the story, or is the story happening to them? Is this scene relevant to the whole? Does this narrative arc have a line to it, or are we zigzagging all over the place? As Anne said, do the hot dogs just keep on going? Look at all of these little pieces and do your read-through. And if you create a key for yourself of symbols that exist nowhere else within your entire book. For example, nowhere in your entire book are you going to have, I don’t know, three ampersands next to each other. And if you see three ampersands next to each other, that means the character is kind of flat here. Or maybe nowhere in your book is there a tilde sign. And if you put a tilde sign, maybe you need to double-check the research. And you kind of can create a map for yourself, whether you’re about to put it out and start pitching it or whether you are in those early revision stages, do a read-through where you’re not looking at anything except for making sure you have everything in place that needs to be there. And then catch yourself. Because I promise you. You will always catch yourself. Who was it—Da Vinci—who said, “Art is never finished. It’s only abandoned.” You will find at the moment—

ANNE TRUBEK:  I’m sorry, I’m going to interrupt you and say we’re not going to finish this discussion either. We have three minutes left. I want to try to get to a few of these questions because they’re so good. And Kris, I’m so sorry to interrupt.

KRIS SPISAK:  Oh, no. I lost track of time.

ANNE TRUBEK:  If you buy Kris’s book, you’ll be able to get all of it. You can pitch an editor directly if they express an interest in your work, absolutely. Yep. That’s what an editor is doing, saying, “Hey, I want to talk to you.” Can you hire an editor? Any editor. Hire any editor. Hire Kris. I hire editors. I don’t want friends reading my stuff. Friends often do not give you the best advice. Let’s all be honest here. I want somebody whose expertise I’m paying for because I know that’s going to keep them honest.

KRIS SPISAK:  And there’s a difference between a friend and a critique partner. Someone who really knows their stuff versus someone who’s going to give you a hug in non-COVID years and say, “Great job for writing this.”

ANNE TRUBEK:  I’m so glad to hear you guys are having your questions answered. I’m so relieved. Because I have no idea what questions you came to this panel with, and I’m so glad that Kris and I have been able to hit the mark, as it were.

KRIS SPISAK:  And there’s so much to talk about. So, really, I’m going to say this for myself. Again, I’m going to put the link in case anybody wants to enter the book raffle giveaway for this again. Come to my website. Email me. I’m happy to connect with anybody. And, yes, with the editing thing, make sure if you’re looking for an editor that they edit the genre that you write. That’s another big thing. Don’t just query any editor for your project. And the raffle link is in there again just to make sure everybody has that giveaway opportunity. So much to cover, Gregg.

GREGG WILHELM:  That was amazing. I’ve been sitting in my chair for forty-five minutes, and I’m out of breath, and I haven’t said anything. That was so great, Anne and Kris. Thank you so much. I think you did a great job of covering so much important information in a short amount of time. And I’m sure you’d be willing to talk to people more if they contact you through your website and things like that. We will get back to the winner of the raffle after this is all done, and I just want to close by saying thanks for everyone who’s watching. We had about 105 people at one point tuned into this afternoon’s presentation. Please consider buying these books that are featured by Kris and Anne today from your independent bookseller. Or you can also use the link that is provided on vabook.org. And you can also check out the rest of the Virginia Festival of the Book’s programs at vabook.org. Today is March 13th, an auspicious date in the history of humanity. It’s been about a year since the lockdown and the declaration of the pandemic. I hope everybody out there is safe. It’s the first day of the Virginia Festival of the Book. It goes throughout the month of March, through the 26th. So check out vabook.org for—I just was browsing it earlier this morning. It’s amazing what is in store for the next two weeks here at vabook.org.

Thank you, Virginia Festival of the Book. Thank you, Virginia Humanities. Thank you, Kris. And thank you, Anne. And thank all of you in the audience, and have a good rest of your day.

KRIS SPISAK:  Happy writing, everybody.

Partners & Sponsors  |  View All

CLOSE