I’ve developed a nasty habit of referring to this subject as “tunas and sharks” when I discuss it with others. I suppose it’s applicable in some ways but it also has a ring of bias that I don’t appreciate in myself. So, please keep this in mind as you read on.
Online publishing is a boon to many writers. It’s a way to get their words in front of an audience, and do it with relative ease. Personally, I think good online publishers provide an important service to writers. And, there’s obviously a big market out there. It’s the future, and it’s here for all contemporary writers. Now, I’m writing about true online publishers here, not simply a POD (print on demand) service that leaves the entire process in your hands. That’s a different animal altogether, and a subject for some other time.
Online publishers are a very mixed bag. Yes, a huge sea of tunas and sharks, often surrounded by thick layers of swamp gas. It takes very little to establish a web presence and self-define as a “publisher” without regard to what that term really means. So, for us writers, the trick is how to knock on the front door of that enormous and mostly-hidden castle without inhaling too much swamp gas.
First and foremost is history. Does the publisher have a history? Has the publisher been around for a while? Is the operation well-established or is it just another pretty web face? It doesn’t take much effort to investigate the publisher’s background. You should be doing this anyway. Get to know them before you make an approach. If they look like wet nightshade, move right on down the line.
Now, does this mean that new publishers should just be overlooked? Absolutely not! I went with one of the first online publishers many years ago and that house is still around, still active, still pumping out stuff. However, I was careful about going with this publisher. In fact, I insisted on a face-to-face meeting before I signed up. Now, I understand that this kind of anal-retentive behavior is not always necessary, or practical. In my case, though, I wanted to know much more about what was going on. In other words, I wanted to check out that swamp gas up close and personal. Today, I’m happy to have a relationship with this online publisher, pleased with what they have accomplished. They had an idea that worked and a dream they were willing to chase.
There’s a definite dark side to this business, though. Online publishing operations come and go like a fickle summer breeze. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s up to you to chase the history down and make the appropriate decision. It’s easy to do in today’s vast online community.
No matter which publisher catches your eye, there are tasks you need to undertake for your own peace of mind and protection. Here are a few.
Check out their stable of authors. Look beyond their “featured authors” and track down a few of the other ones. Do they have a specialization in certain genres? Does this match your preferences or specialty? Contact the authors directly and ask them outright for an honest appraisal of how the publishing house performed. Most writers are quite willing to give you an honest answer if you ask them a direct, sincere question. This is a must. A good publisher wants to keep a good writer as happy as possible. After all, we provide the grist for their mills.
Check the website carefully. Do the names of the principals appear on the site? You’re not looking for ways to contact the principals but you are looking for their names. No names on the site? Cross them off your list. Titles like “editor” or “publisher” mean nothing. You want names. If they are proud of their work, if they want to make it in the business, they will put their names out there. Names count in the publishing business and seasoned authors know that.
Look at the submission guidelines and read them carefully. Then, ignore them for the moment. Everyone in the world makes submissions, and publishers have no reasonable way of dealing with the onslaught. Rather than sending off a submission, send off a brief (and I mean “brief”) email that introduces yourself and includes a sentence or two about your skills, qualifications, genres, interests, or something you believe may be of use or interest to the publisher. Now, I cannot overemphasize “brief” when you do this kind of communicating. If you don’t get their attention in two or three sentences, why should they go any further? Would you? They will give you ten or fifteen seconds, maybe. Make every second count.
A truly involved, interested publisher will not ignore a brief introduction that catches their eye and arouses their interest. Of course, they will all bemoan how many emails, letters, whatever they receive. And, this is largely true. However, it is also a convenient excuse for a lackluster publisher. It’s like the good old standby rejection letter that says, “Sorry, but your submission doesn’t fit our current publishing goals.” Sometimes this kind of answer is true; but, often, it’s just another way of letting you know that they never read anything you sent their way.
A good publisher is a hungry publisher. The right house, well-run and successful, is always on the lookout for something new and fresh, for that unique writer to add to their stable. A run-of-the-mill submission is almost always the least effective way to make that first contact. Unless, of course, you want to settle for a run-of-the-mill publisher. I don’t recommend that way of approaching your writing career.
Now, let’s assume you have that perfect, very short introduction composed and ready to go. Do not send it to a hundred publishers at the same time. If you do, you’re not being sincere so why should you expect them to act in any other way? Send it to one at a time and let them know that’s how you operate. Make your words tight, meaningful, direct and honest. Expect the same from the publisher. Wait a reasonable period of time for a reply, say a week or so. That’s enough time if they are interested.
What’s the outcome? In the vast majority of cases you will hear nothing back. Perhaps you’ll get some canned kind of response. You’re a writer so you’ll know hack phrases when you read them. All of this is just fine, and you should expect it. Just move on to the next publisher on your list. Silence is not just an answer, it also tells you what you need to know about the publisher.
At some point, you’ll get a publisher to respond. A personal response is what you are seeking, a way to open the door to real communication. When that day arrives, when you know you have someone’s attention, follow their instructions (assuming they are not the usual, “canned” type). You may be pleasantly surprised that publishers are also human. In the end, you and the publisher have many of the same goals in mind. The trick is finding that “right fit” with the right publisher.
Sharks or tunas, we all swim in the same ocean. Take a long-term view of your career and walk carefully. Publishers may come and go but good writers are forever.