Friday, September 2, 2011

Preparing For Success Part 3: Standing Out

Preparing for Success is a three-part series targeted to aspiring writers. Any writer who decides to pursue publication, whether through self-publishing, e-publishing, or traditional publishing enters a crowded, competitive field. For most of us it will be a long, bumpy, confusing ride. If we use our unpublished time wisely, we will stand out from the crowd and our hard work will pay off.

Standing Out

At some point on our journey from aspiring writer to published author, we become aware that half the human population seems to be trying to get published. Agents’ in-boxes are full—they request few manuscripts and take on fewer new authors. Traditional publishers have a limited number of slots to fill each year. New e-publishers pop up monthly, but some are better than others, and many, many writers are self-publishing with mixed results. For every author claiming to make thousands of dollars every day, there are many more who’ve sold less than fifty copies.

So how do we stand out from the crowd? How do we get our manuscripts requested? How can we position ourselves to appeal to publishers? Or if you're considering self-publishing, how can you stand out from the thousands of other books emerging each month?
The most important thing we can do to stand out is to write a good book. That’s why the first two installments in this series are so vital. Without a good book, none of our efforts will matter. The majority of our effort should be on writing, learning, revising, and improving.

Eventually, our writing becomes publishable. We aren’t making newbie craft mistakes. We’ve figured out how to write sympathetic characters and strong plots, and we maintain high tension, fast pacing, and create unique premises. But will this be enough?

By studying blogs, reading articles by industry professionals, and talking to other writers, I’ve found five areas we can use to stand out from the crowd.

  1. Querying
* Research agents and editors. Verify they represent your genre. Read interviews, take notes on their blog posts, and find out who they represent. Follow their query instructions precisely.
* Before you send a query letter for a novel, ask yourself the following:
1. Is my book complete? An agent might request your full the afternoon you send the e-mail. You will look very unprofessional if your book isn't done.
2. Have I gotten feedback on my novel? If you're the only one who has read it, don't query yet. Find a critique partner or hire a freelance editor first.
3. Is my query letter personalized? Do not send a form query to multiple agents.

The Query Letter: Basic Tips
a.   Use an easy formula such as Hook, Book, Cook.
* The hook is the paragraph where you write your basic premise in an engaging way. The goal is to make the agent or editor want to read more.
* The book is a paragraph sharing important details such as word count, genre, if it’s one in a series, and if it is completed.
* The cook is a paragraph listing your qualifications to write the book. Include previous writing credits, writing organizations you belong to, if you’re in a critique group, and any other fact that establishes your authority to write the book.
b.   Personalize the query. Be specific. Use the agent’s name and give a brief reason why you are querying her.
c.   Proofread the query thoroughly before sending it. If possible, have another writer critique it for you.
d.   Follow the agent’s query instructions exactly.

  1. Conferences
If you’ve been querying without getting requests, or you aren’t sure who to query, head to a conference. Choose one that offers agent and editor appointments, and research the agents and editors first. Pitching in person increases your odds of getting a request. Even if no one requests your book, they’ll often give you a reason why. This information is priceless! Conferences allow you to make a more complete impression on an industry professional. Plus, the workshops are great places to learn about craft, career, and the industry.

  1. Social Media
a.   Many agents write blogs, have Facebook pages, and are active on Twitter. If you aren’t following your target agents, why not? Hundreds of other writers are interacting with your dream agent. Who do you think the agent will notice on a query letter—the writer who comments regularly on the agent’s blog and retweets her posts? Or the complete stranger?

  1. Platform
a.   Whatever publishing route you travel, a platform is vital. Platform is basically your audience—the people you can sell your products too.
b.   Your product is not just your current book. Your product is your current and future body of work. In some ways, the product is you.  
      We don’t want to sell just one book, right? We want readers to purchase our future books, pick up our novellas, and spread the word about our writing. This is why I recommend all aspiring authors to build a platform early. Join Facebook, chat on Twitter, read and comment on blogs, start a blog, publish a website, practice speaking in front of your local writer’s group. With time, these will add up to a solid platform.
c.   Today’s publishers want to see numbers. They prefer authors who have an audience, even if that audience is small and growing. They also want a great book written on deadline, and they want the author to play a prominent role in selling it. 
d.   Unfortunate fact: Many agents will not request aspiring writer’s books if the writer does not already have either a website or a blog. Blogs are free, easy to work with, and simple to re-post across social networks. Think about starting one if you haven't already.
e.   If you’re considering self-publishing, you need a platform more than the average writer. Hundreds of thousands of books have been self-published on Amazon, Smashwords, and other sites. Few review sites exist, and your book will not be sold in a Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club, or major bookstores. Traditional sales techniques don’t work well when it comes to selling books. You can tweet about how great your book is ten times a day, but you’ll only turn people off. It takes time to understand how social media can help sell your books. And it takes time to build relationships online.
f.   If you want to build a platform, but everything about it overwhelms you, read my post, “17 Simple Steps To Build a Fiction Platform.”

  1. Generosity
Publishing is a very small world. You’ll be amazed at how often the same names pop up in blogs, articles, e-mails, conferences, and social media sites. Every day, we have an opportunity to share something good with the world. Be generous, be kind. Every writer is plagued with problems—maybe not every minute—but each phase has its own challenges. We need to support each other. And when we support each other, we can’t help but spread our joy for other writers. Generosity and joy always stand out in the world.

Preparing for success in today's publishing world takes unique skills. It takes courage, confidence, humility. It takes strong writing ability. And it takes being able to market yourself as an author. Many writers have taken these steps and have found the success they longed for. It isn't easy, but it's worth it.

On a happy note, I'm so excited to share this good news with you! Wendy Paine Miller, my dear friend and critique partner, signed with Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary Agency this week!! If you get a chance, stop by her blog and congratulate her. She's an amazing writer, and I'm excited to see where her journey takes her! Congratulations, Wendy!

Also, Sarah Forgrave, one of my favorite bloggers, just announced she signed with Mary Keeley of Books & Such Literary Agency! I'm thrilled for Sarah and extra happy to have another agency-mate! Congratulations, Sarah!

Do you have any tips to stand out in this crowded field?

Have a fantastic weekend!!


  1. And are obviously generous with all these tips and spreading the joy! Great post. Have a great weekend.

  2. This was a great series, Jill! Thanks for taking the time to do it.

    Wendy and Sarah have great news. I'm excited for them!

  3. Wonderful tips, Jill. The biggest tip I try to keep in mind, whether its in social media, at conferences, or when writing, is to stay true to myself. I really always hope I'm approachable and that genuine. Sometimes easier said than done in cyber world, but if we can't be ourselves, what are we doing?

  4. So happy for Wendy and Sarah!

    This has been such an informative series, Jill!

    And something I'm learning more and more as I come in contact and meet more people at my publishing house - once your work goes to pub board, chances are people from the publishing house are lurking on your blog! So make a good impression!

  5. I think you covered it all. What a tremendous series. :)

  6. You need to take this on the road. I'm serious. You are an excellent teacher! This is gold, pure gold for the beginning writer!

    You are so thorough and dead on!

    Thanks for the kind congrats! I owe so much to you and your feedback on my work!!!!
    ~ Wendy

  7. Man, this is thorough. I can't think of anything else, Jill. Thanks for pulling this altogether for us!

  8. Congrats to Wendy! And thank you for this great series. I'm going to be querying soon (my stomach just turned) and it's really helpful to have your list. The platform is one of the toughest things for me. All I can do is be myself, I guess.

  9. Good morning!!

    Em: Aw, thanks! It was great to see you yesterday!!

    Jessica P: I'm excited for them, too! And I can't wait for the day I can share similar news about you!

    Heather: I agree. Sometimes my opinion isn't always popular, but it IS mine and I'm not afraid to own it! And personally, I gravitate toward blogs like yours where I'm getting a real sense of voice--who you are and what you're about. This is an excellent tip. :)

    Katie: True! True! I've been shocked before by high profile commenters, leaving me wondering if my post was as good as it could be!

    Laura: Thanks, Laura. Your kindness means a lot to me.

    Wendy: Yes! I could be the traveling "aspiring writer whisperer," or something! Ha!! Congrats, Wendy. I couldn't be happier for you. I'm busting out all over in joy here!!

    Eileen: Oh, you already knew all this! But thank you, Eileen. Very kind!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  10. Stacy: You'll be fine! And I'm SO excited for you!! Querying is like the presidency--it ages us! Honestly, it's so exciting and nerve-wracking, I don't know how we survive it! Must be the thrill-seeker in us all. :) Keep us posted! And I'll send a prayer for you!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  11. Jill, this is a great compact reference for aspiring writers. You did a wonderful job!

    My favorite part is the way you include generosity and joy. My journey as a debut author over the past year or so has taught me how difficult this path is for most writers even after they get published. It makes me want to support other writers all the more.

  12. Thanks, Jill. My synopsis and query letter are out with a proofer right now. Hoping my second critique partner gets through the book quickly, because I kind of want to get the process started, even though I'm scared, lol.

  13. Once again, you've culled such a wonderful list of all the major points! And I second (or third?) what others say about YOUR generosity. :)

  14. Excellent list, Jill. I especially love your point about generosity. We can find ways to give, whether it's a word of encouragement, a prayer, or a free book. God takes note of open-hearted people, and causes them to grow and abound.

    Happy Weekend,

  15. Great list and post. A keeper.

    I loved the hook, the book, and the cook.

    You've touched on everything here.

  16. Great tips! And, yes, huge congrats to both ladies!

  17. Another idea is to enter contests, both for feedback and, if you final, to get your work in front of an agent or editor who is the final judge. I think trying multiple paths ("cold" querying, pitch appts. at conferences, contests) makes sense. One just might be the ticket to publishing! Great post, Jill. You both write about and EXEMPLIFY the qualities of a successful writer.

  18. A great list of things to consider after your book is carefully written. I agree it is important to have your book done before sending out materials because the writer wouldn't want to do a rush job if the agent wanted more.

  19. Thanks for a great series, Jill. Wendy's right. You're a top-notch teacher. You shared lots of helpful tips.

    I like your fifth point today the best. There are so many opportunities to celebrate the successes of others. This week I've been doing so much happy dancing for Wendy and Sarah that it's a wonder I haven't dislocated something. I'm thrilled for them!

  20. GREAT series, Jill. Thank you so much for sharing with the rest of us.

  21. Jill, Thank you so much for the sweet note! And what a great post (and series) this was! I think in everything, it's important to remain professional yet personal. If we fall too far to one side or the other, we come across as either too cardboard or too flaky. :)

    Hope you have a great weekend!

  22. Rosslyn: Thanks! And I agree. It makes me happy to share in other writers' good news!

    Stacy: Yay! Having that second (and third) set of eyes on your query and synopsis can make all the difference!

    Karen H: Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. :)

    Jen: So true! And I think it makes the writing journey less lonely when we can offer each other support.

    Loree: My good friend Connie let me in on the hook, book, cook secret! Just passing along her wisdom!

    Susan: Thanks!! I'm just grinning for Wendy and Sarah!

    Patrice: Oh, wow, great point!! I can't believe I forgot contests!! Contests are a FAB way to get your name in front of an agent or editor. Thanks for adding it, Patrice!

    Nancy: Yes, and more and more agents are getting back quickly. They want the full right away!

    Keli: Hope you don't need a chiropractor--ha! Ha! I know!! I feel the same way!!

    Sarah: Congrats!!!! And I agree. We have to be ourselves, kind of like that Country Time lemonade commercial from years ago--"not too sweet, not too tart." :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!
    Tiffany: Thanks, Tiffany, I appreciate it!

  23. Hi Jill, This was an amazing series and has given me lots of insight for my next move. I am at the proofreading stage of my novel so am trying to take all kinds of advice on board. Thank you.

  24. At a conference last year, agents said the primary way they find new clients is at writers conferences. It's also a great way to see if you "click" with a particular agent.

  25. Followed you here from twitter. I'm new at that. Haven't followed any romance writers unless they also wrote mg or ya. But I learned a couple new things from your tips than I knew from writers' groups and critiques. Good work! Oh, and there's chocolate contest on my blog deadline sept. 10, with few entries. You can link from the latest blog. My flash fiction contest entry also needs votes. Thanks!

  26. Such a good point about how generosity and joy always stand out in the world! Yay for Wendy!!! I don't know Sarah Forgrave (yet), but thrilled for her too!


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