Common pitfalls and misconceptions

Common pitfalls and misconceptions

A Lesson by TOF_Matt

Some of the most common traps and pitfalls new authors fall into when trying to get published.


The following is a summary of notes I took at a 2-day lecture by Cynthia Good, the former president of Penguin Publishing's Canadian division.

Writing a book you intend to get published can be a confusing experience.  When we were young, most of us were told to write freely whatever is in our hearts.  However, when you submit that same writing to a publisher, they'll often shoot you down without ever giving a reason.  Many writers are left feeling around in the dark, unsure of why they were rejected.  While it could be any number of reasons, here are some of the most common, a few of which are extremely easy to fix (and others, not so much).

You're sending it to the wrong people

Research, research, research is absolutely crucial when sending your work out.  You need to know which publishing houses will give your work a chance versus those that will just throw it away.  Look for publishers who have put out works that are similar to yours.  Mention those works in your query letter if possible.  It's never a bad thing to note comparables in your query letter; it is an efficient way to say a lot in very few words.

Make sure you find out who within the publishing house would most likely handle your work.  Generally a house will employ multiple editors, each specializing in certain things.  Address your letter to the right person (never to a generic" Dear publisher") and, if possible, find their personal email (even if they provide you with some sort of info@ address).  They will be much more likely to see your work this way.

Another thing to consider is sending your work to smaller publishers versus bigger ones.  Your first thought may be that smaller publishers' budgets can't compare to the bigger ones.  The truth is not quite as simple as that.  Bigger publishers tend to have a lot of major clients, so while they have more money to spend, they'll be spending it mostly on their proven names.  As a new writer you won't receive the more intimate attention of a smaller publisher.  Additionally, smaller publishers are more likely to take bigger risks on both new authors and more risque material since that's the best way for them to compete.  Yes you may not get the lavish book launch parties, but in the end you just have a better chance of getting published period.

You think you absolutely need an agent

It may surprise you to know that roughly 75% of authors negotiate their own publishing deals.  While agents are a huge help, they aren't absolutely necessary.  Now, I am not saying don't try to get an agent.  If you can get one, they will provide you with great advice, moral support, and credibility that will make certain publishers look twice at your work.  However, the sad truth is that it's almost MORE difficult to solicit an agent than it is to solicit a publisher.  There are only so many agents, and you'll find that many of them are booked quite solid.  So while it would be great if you can get an agent, don't think you absolutely have to have one to get published.

Your book is too long

A common thought amongst young, first-time writers is that more is better.  More words equals more detail and more detail equals a greater chance someone will be sucked into your world.  So you can imagine the shock when an editor's first piece of advice is to cut 40% of the words out.  This is one of the most difficult things to do as an author (it's like chopping a limb off our baby), and understandably many of us react with anger or resentment.

There is a good reason for this though.  Paper costs money, and the longer your book is, the more money it costs to print it, and so the more copies they will need to sell to make that money back.  And honestly, how many times have you picked up a tome on a book store shelf and been immediately turned off when it weighs as much as a cinder block?  Now this is becoming less of a problem with the advent of e-readers, but print is still where these companies make the large majority of their profits and so they will almost always look very closely at your length.  For general fiction, they generally want something between 80,000 - 100,000 words.  For fantasy and science fiction, they've been known to go a little higher, say 120,000 - 140,000 words.  Basically, brevity is king.  Focus on quality, not quantity; write and re-write to make your text as efficient as possible, so you don't need a lot of it.  If you find your work falls way out of this scope, consider splitting it into multiple books.

Now comes a difficult question.  Should you mention the word count in your query letter?  There have been many conflicting opinions on this so it's hard to state definitively one way or the other.  According to Cynthia Good, the former president of Penguin Publishing Canada, including a long word count can only hurt you.  Including no word count may make you look suspicious, but if a publisher really enjoys your query letter they will very rarely throw you to the dogs for simply omitting it.  Basically, if you fall within the "proper" word count for a new author, go ahead and include it.  If not, then omit it but be prepared to do some major chopping if you get signed.


Obviously there are many more pitfalls a new writer can fall into, but these are the major and most common of them.  In the next lesson I'll detail some of the inner workings of a publishing house.

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Added on July 6, 2011
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Matthew Chan grew up in the harsh Tundra of Ontario, Canada, braving freezing temperatures, taming wandering polar bears, and helping the local populace battle the occasional giant ice spider - in ot..