Sunday, December 6, 2009

How not to sell your book

This showed up in my inbox this evening, in my role as editor of Robert J. Sawyer Books, the science-fiction imprint for Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside. It violates two of the cardinal rules for trying to sell a book to a commercial publisher. The first is: don't query until you're ready to submit; she queried me years ago, and had nothing to submit after I expressed interest. What possible point is there in querying a publisher if you don't intend to immediately follow up with a manuscript submission if you get the go-ahead to send on in?

The second rule I address in my response.
Hello Robert,

A few years ago I sent you an email to see if you were interested in publishing my first novel. You were interested but I did not follow up because I was still working on it. Finally it is complete, and I will soon have it posted on

If you would be interested in reviewing this work for me I would be extremely grateful. If you would be interested in publishing it, I would be even more grateful.
My response:
No commercial publisher is going to be interested in picking up a self-published book unless you can show massive sales in the self-published format. So, sorry, but no; no way I can even consider it for my line now that you've published it yourself. Other publishers will feel the same way, I'm afraid.
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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At December 06, 2009 10:40 PM , Blogger Adam said...

It's strange how some writers can be so disconnected from the business aspect of writing. The consummate artist I suppose.

At December 06, 2009 10:49 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

It's stunning, isn't it, given how much info there is online from credible sources about how publishing works.

At December 06, 2009 11:33 PM , Blogger Wendy C. Allen a.k.a. EelKat said...

OMG! For starters I'm shocked that the query and the mss were separated by *YEARS* not *WEEKS*.

And secondly - I don't even know where to begin here - I think I could go off on a hundred page rant over this. Secondly, how can any one in their right mind expect a publisher/editor/agent to actually PAY money to read your MSS?

I mean, I could see having a printer print up one single bound copy of your book, so you could doing the editing directly on the pages, before typing up the final MSS to send in, sure. Why not? An expensive way to edit your book, but whatever. But to PUBLISH it and than list it FOR SALE (on Amazon no less), and than ask a publisher to BUY the MSS and than REPRINT it?!?!?!?! What the heck?

***Here I printed up a sample of my manuscript and it's for sale on Amazon. If you want to publish my book, please buy the manuscript off Amazon first.***

Yeah, I can just see Amazon starting a section for authors to list *unpublished manuscripts* for publishers to buy. LOL! Where do people come up with these ideas anyways?

At December 06, 2009 11:53 PM , Blogger brian_l_raney said...

What was her point of getting in touch with you in the first place if she never intended in sending out her book for you to read?

I guess you were not the only editor she queried. She must have had second thoughts about sending numerous simultaneous submissions out, and thought posting her novel online for any interested editor to read was easier. Talk about lazy!

At December 07, 2009 12:52 AM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

This is stunning on so many levels.

Robert, in my interactions with students and would-be writers, I've found that many new writers have, for some reason, serious issues with comprehension. What I mean is that they simply are not able, for some reason, to recognize whether or not a source is credible. So the fact that all this great info about how publishing works is available now means nothing to them. Because they read a press release promo for some vanity publisher and don't understand that the claims are not credible. They don't have the capacity to distinguish between cracked-out ad-speak and real, normal, useful journalistic writing about the publishing industry.

The basic analytical skills which a writer requires just seem to be beyond the ability of most people who want to be writers, and for the life of me I can't understand why somebody would want to be a writer when they can't even competently read the submission guidelines for a magazine. Is it a phase that people go through? The wanting to be a writer phase? A lot of people who tell me they want to be writers don't even read books. What is the appeal for these people? Where do they even get the idea to write?

At December 07, 2009 3:29 AM , Blogger Martin Sommerfeld said...

Hahahahahahaa, looooooooooooook at her!!!!!!!!!

Hmm. Forgot to put some words in capitals.
Anyway. Please let me know if the kind of public mobbing shown here in the comments and that you clearly invited by letting the comment section open is some kind of new blog policy, so I can decide if I should take your rssfeed off my reading list. Having read your blog now for about a year I came to the conclusion that you must be a nice and considerate person - so I am quite surprised now.

At December 07, 2009 7:49 AM , Blogger John F said...

By the way, when will you be publishing the next RJS Books title? Compulsive collectors need to know!

At December 07, 2009 10:27 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Martin, everything I do in such matters is in the spirit of helping others get ahead in a very competitive field, paying forward because I can't pay back those who have helped me.

I've had comments open in my blog for years. If, in this case, I had included the name of the person, or any identifying details about her or her work, your umbrage might be appropriate. As I didn't, it's misplaced.

(And, good grief, "Public mobbing"? There were precisely three comments -- Adam's and Wendy's and Brian's -- cleared from moderation when I released yours.)

I am trying to help aspirant writers, by letting them learn from the mistakes of others -- in this case, two very common mistakes, namely (1) thinking that following up with an editor is something you can defer for months or years and expect conditions not to have changed at the editorial end, and (2) self-publishing and then thinking that somehow failing in that arena is going to make your work more attractive to a traditional publisher.

If you can't see that I'm trying to help (or, indeed, if you've now changed your policy, and it's now one of posting snarky self-righteous comments in other people's blogs), then, yes, by all means, please do remove me from your rss feed.

Have a nice day.

At December 07, 2009 10:29 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

John F, there are no new RJS Books titles in the pipeline at the moment; we're waiting for the economy to pick up a little bit. That said, Distant Early Warnings: Canada's Best Science Fiction is doing very well for us, and the parent company, Red Deer Press, has a handsome new edition of my Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated Starplex coming in March 2010.

At December 07, 2009 10:38 AM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

In the wake of Martin's post, I should add that I'm not attempting to be rhetorical, I honestly would like to know where some people get the idea that they want to be writers, in instances where they are asking me for advice but also making it clear that they lack certain basic comprehension skills or even the desire to read. I don't know how to respond to these people in a way that is helpful. Is there any helpful way? Should I just suggest that they think more fully about what a writer actually is and does, before they spend a lot of time and possibly money pursuing a dream that is simply unattainable for somebody who lacks basic analytical skills? Is there any way to give solid advice that is helpful but not over their heads? Or is it just a lost cause in such instances? If you don't like to read I don't see how I can help you become a better writer. If you can't understand how to find and follow guidelines I don't know to what degree you can understand the advice I'm trying to give. Is there a way to get through to such people and steer them on a proper course, in any useful manner? Because Robert has such a history of teaching and mentoring I am hoping that he has some advice.

At December 07, 2009 12:15 PM , Blogger Jonathan Ball said...

I really do feel that there must be some better way to deal with these misguided writers that I have not discovered. The thing is, before people like this contact you, Robert, with bizarre queries, they contact people like me --- writers earlier on in their careers, with less success, who are seen as more approachable (rightly or wrongly).

They ask me questions like (this is just an example), "I'm writing this book and I'm about ten pages in and it's pretty good so far and I thought I might try to publish it with RJS Books so can you give me advice on writing a query letter?"

And I say things like, "You need to stop worrying about query letters. You're putting the cart before the horse. There is no reason to query RJS right now. You should finish the manuscript and polish it until it shines. When it's finished and it's good, then you start worrying about query letters -- at which point I would be happy to comment on a draft version of your letter."

Then those people just ignore the advice. They don't see it as relevant. Their question was about query letters, not finishing manuscripts.

I honestly find myself having a very difficult time with questions along these lines. I don't know how to be encouraging while also being realistic and helpful, in a way that will matter to the questioner, that they won't just ignore.

At December 07, 2009 2:18 PM , Blogger Ron Friedman said...

I truly feel sorry for the poor girl. I'm sure she spent a lot of time and effort writing her novel. Unfortunately, she didn’t do her industry marketing homework.

Thanks for sharing your experience.

By the way, the last FlashForward episode was awesome. I've just saw it on-line, after returning from Hawaii.

At December 07, 2009 7:38 PM , Blogger John F said...

I'm glad that Distant Early Warnings is doing so well. It should definitely be in the running for the Aurora, Hugo, and Nebula awards in 2010! Is it doing well internationally as well as in Canada?


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