Native authors wanting to get their books published may have felt a jolt of inspiration over the past year as publishers and literary agents embraced such social media movements as #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Though many literary agents and publishers want to work with authors of diversity, most don’t know how to find them.
Eddie Schneider is a successful literary agent and Vice President of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he joined in 2008. Schneider says he is among those agents who wish to work with a greater selection of diverse authors, but says many aspiring writers don’t know how to navigate the submission process.
Schneider’s website and literary blog cites some sobering statistics about the lack of diversity in the publishing world.
“According to this study of literary prize demographics conducted by the University of North Texas, 95% of Pulitzer Prize winners are white, 75% are male, and 85% of them live on the East Coast. When it comes to the National Book Award for Nonfiction, it’s only slightly better; 90% of winners are white, 70% are male, and 80% live on the east coast. The winners are being drawn from a pool where the numbers are stacked against women and minorities. Seventy percent of the submissions for these awards are for books authored by men.”
“We need more voices in nonfiction,” writes Schneider.
Schneider took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with ICTMN in an effort to assist Native authors hoping to get their work into print.
Here are the seven tips Native or otherwise diverse authors need to follow:
Write a good story
“As obvious as it sounds,” writes Schneider, “the first thing that you want to do to get your work published is to write the manuscript (fiction) or the proposal (non-fiction). With fiction, one of the great pitfalls that authors encounter is finishing projects they start. Too often, the candle that burns brightly at the start goes out before all the wax has been used. With a new author, agents and publishers need to see that you can finish projects, and the way to demonstrate that . . . is by finishing a project.
“Non-fiction is a little different. What you need to succeed there are sample chapters that demonstrate you have writing ability, and a proposal that shows you have a strong concept for the book as a whole. Non-fiction proposal writing follows its own formula, and I wrote a blog post in 2015 (https://eddieschneider.com/2015/09/23/trade-publishing-101-nonfiction-proposals/) that covers the basic elements of a proposal.”
Re-read it and Polish It
“You’ve done it! You’ve written a manuscript or a proposal, reached the end, and maybe even typed ‘The End’ (which you don’t need to do). Now what?
“The best general piece of advice here is going to be to put it away for a few weeks so that you can re-read it with fresh eyes. When you return to the manuscript, the real work starts: revision.
“When you reach out to agents or publishers, or self-publish, you’re going to want to put your best foot forward, and that means to revise up until the point that it feels like you’re just pushing words around. But when you pull that manuscript out of the (literal or metaphorical) drawer, a funny thing will happen: you’ll see a thousand things you could do to the book to make it better. Some are going to require difficult revisions, like reworking an entire plot or subplot, and some are going to be simpler.”
Join a Writing Group
“The point of these is that you have a community of writers who work to push each other to do their best work. Sometimes you’re fortunate and can find those people right in your community. Sometimes it means traveling to meet up in person with others who live miles away. And sometimes it means turning to the internet. There are good writing workshops out there online (some involve paying dues or membership fees, but some are free).
“When you have critique partners, you have others who can see aspects of your manuscript that might be blind spots for you, and they can help you fix those blind spots. I would recommend this rather than hiring an editor early on in the developmental stage, even for those who intend to self-publish. And one good thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to take all the advice everyone gives. Ultimately, it comes down to deciding what fits with the book you want to write and what doesn’t, and sometimes other people are better able to identify plot holes or issues with a manuscript than coming up with solutions.”
Figure Out Where Your Book Belongs
“If you’re near a bookstore, that makes things fairly easy,” says Schneider. “You can move around the physical space and look at the other books that might one day be your book’s neighbors, and see where your book fits in, as well as how it stands out within its own genre/sub-genre. Sometimes people already have a strong sense of which genre they write in, but sometimes this can be eye-opening.”
Research the best agent, publisher, or self-publishing platform that works for you
Schneider says that once an author has written their book or proposal and revised it to the point there’s not much more to improve it and the author has identified their genre. “The fun part begins.”
Now is the time for authors to do some research.
“There are thousands of agents, hundreds of publishing imprints, and a number of self-publishing options, and it will necessarily take a while to do the research,” says Schneider, who offered up some resources.
“Ultimately, you’re probably going to be looking at a couple dozen agents, give or take, on a submission list, unless one or a few stand out, in which case that submission list might be smaller,” he says. “Publishers follow a similar path, although you’ll find as you research, that most of the largest houses and imprints only look at agented submissions. There are exceptions, though.”
Write and submit an honest and professional query letter
According to Schneider, query letters to agents follow a formula. “As strange as it may feel to reduce the plot of your book to one or two paragraphs, as business-like at it may feel to follow a formula, it still works—and your unique personality still shines through on the other side,” he maintains.
Schneider says the formula is pretty simple, and follows the methodology of a letter Schneider uses when writing pitches to editors (https://eddieschneider.com/2014/11/04/the-bones-of-a-query-letter/):
Dear [Agent’s or Editor’s Name],
[TITLE] is a [word count] word [genre of book] novel about [one-line description]. [Reason you’re querying this particular agency, most likely because they represent Author X and Author Y, whose work you enjoy.]
[1-2 plot paragraphs]
[Author bio paragraph]
[Closing paragraph, in which you say that you look forward to hearing from them.]
All best wishes,
Schneider says there are four things to remember when writing a query letter.
“First, is that your letter is going to capture the tone of your book. It will even if it feels to you like the business letter that it is and everything in you wants to break the mold and do something unusual to stand out.
“Second, it’s a good idea to have one or two catchy lines that don’t feel contrived. That sometimes shows up as a hook near the beginning of the letter, sometimes as some part of the plot summary that sticks with you later, sometimes in the final paragraph which is mostly just to say that you look forward to the agent’s (or publisher’s) response.
“Third, it’s best not to self-aggrandize and get too adjectival when describing the work.
“Fourth, the bio paragraph should contain information that’s relevant and not get all that personal. If you’re a nonfiction author, this is your first opportunity to show your platform. If you’re a novelist, list a few publication credits (if you have any) or mentions of relevant work, life, or college experience will suffice.
“When submitting the query letter,” says Schneider, “Send it simultaneously! And if an agent offers representation, let the other agents know. And be sure to follow individual agents’ guidelines. Usually they don’t differ too radically from one another, but we get hundreds of email messages and letters each month and if something comes in that has ignored our guidelines, well, we’re looking for excuses to trim down the size of our reading piles.”
The last important point for diverse authors – Wait and Repeat
“Finally, you’ve gotten your manuscript or proposal written and revised, you’ve done extensive research, developed a list of agents, written a query letter, revised that, and sent out your work according to different agencies’ guidelines. Now what?” asks Schneider.
“Well, the publishing process involves a lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’ Once the submission is out there, it can take weeks or months to get any sort of response, and even when a book is good, you’re going to get rejection letters. Lots of them. Some people even line their walls with them. That’s normal. You’re waiting for one person to say yes.
“And sometimes you work through your list of agents, through a second list of agents you didn’t send to the first time, and haven’t gotten a different response from anyone. That means two things. First, try revising the pitch, and second, don’t put all your eggs in one basket! Keep writing, keep coming up with different ideas and pursuing them to the ends of the earth if need be (most likely metaphorically). If you want to write nonfiction, work to burnish your credentials in the field. More often than not, it takes years and multiple manuscripts to get from the first lines of that first project to published. And that’s okay. Along the way, you’re likely to learn a great deal about storytelling, all sorts of different subjects, and about life itself.”
Follow ICTMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Sports and Pow Wow’s editor Vincent Schilling on Twitter at @VinceSchilling.