Like last week’s letter, this week’s letter answers some frequently asked questions. Next week, I’ll be closing this series with a letter about one of the most challenging aspects of the submissions process: rejection.
Question: Should I try to write a book that fits current trends?
Answer: It’s fine to be aware of trends, but I don’t encourage authors to write to trends. Trends are cyclical, unpredictable, and tend to rise and fall within narrow periods of time; in contrast, writing and publishing are lengthy, time-consuming processes. As such, it’s almost impossible to see a trend and to then write and publish a book that takes advantage of that trend before the trend becomes too crowded or a new trend emerges.
When agents are reviewing submissions, they often see manuscripts that feel overly inspired by current bestsellers and trends; this makes it all the more refreshing to read a story that has a unique angle or perspective, filtered through the author’s own specific experiences. Regardless of trends, agents, publishers, and readers will always be looking for books with unforgettable characters, unique voices, and gripping plots.
Q: Should I mention that my manuscript is intended to be part of a series?
A: I always think it’s helpful to be as straightforward as possible in your query letter. If your manuscript stands alone but has series potential or is the first in a planned series, I’d recommend stating that. This likely won’t impact the agent’s response to your initial query and sample pages, but it can help to give them an idea of your creative vision and what to expect from the full manuscript. Interested agents may ask about your plans for future books or how you envision the series unfolding. If an agent doesn’t want to represent books that are part of a series, they aren’t going to be the best agent for your book, whether or not you mention the series in your query letter.
Q: Do I need a website before I submit my work?
A: If you are a first-time author, agents and publishers won’t expect you to already have an established website, though they may do an internet search to get a sense of your existing online presence. If you are an illustrator, an online portfolio (whether via a standalone website, Instagram account, etc.) can be a good way to showcase your artwork to potential agents and publishers.
Once you have a contract and are preparing for publication, a simple website that includes your book cover and description, purchase links, a brief bio, and contact details may be all that you need. Your agent and publisher will be able to share additional guidance, depending on the topic and publication details of your book.
Q: Do I need to copyright my manuscript before submission?
A: According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright exists automatically in an original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium.” This means that unless there is another superseding legal agreement (such as a work for hire or employment agreement) authors automatically own the copyright to their original manuscripts. Ideas (e.g. “a novel about a dragon that turns into a bunny”) are not protected under U.S. copyright law. The Copyright Office provides more information on their website. Most publishers register their books with the Copyright Office and the Library of Congress upon publication; as such, authors don’t usually register their manuscripts before submission.
Q: I’ve written a rhyming picture book, but some agents won’t consider rhyming texts. Should I rewrite my story to take out the rhyming element?
A: Publishing is a subjective business, and agents’ and editors’ wish lists reflect their preferences as well as their areas of expertise. This may mean that they don’t accept books in certain categories (e.g. rhyming texts, sports-themed books, religious books, etc.) because they don’t connect with those types of books or because they don’t feel they would be the best professional match for them. An agent who never reads or sells sports books likely doesn’t have connections with editors who focus on buying sports books, for example.
Some of these likes and dislikes may also stem from seeing a large number of weak manuscripts in a certain category. For instance, agents and editors often see manuscripts that attempt to mimic Dr. Seuss without success, or that try to teach a straightforward lesson in a way that is unlikely to engage young readers.
That said, numerous rhyming, lesson-driven, sports-themed, and religious books are published every year; ultimately publication relies on finding the right agent and editor match, as well as the execution and strength of the manuscript itself.
Rather than focusing on whether or not an agent represents rhyming texts, I’d suggest first ensuring that your manuscript is stronger when told in rhyme than it would be without. Writing in rhyme can be deceptively difficult, requiring even greater attention to areas like rhythm, syntax, and phrasing than writing in prose. If you are confident that your manuscript is stronger in rhyme than in prose, I’d recommend focusing your search on agents who do represent stories in rhyme, rather than potentially weakening your story solely in order to submit to those who don’t.
Q: I have completed some illustrations that are inspired by my manuscript, but I am not a professional illustrator and I do not plan to illustrate my work. Can I still submit my illustrations with my manuscript to give agents an idea of my creative vision? Or should I hire an illustrator myself? What if an agent only accepts picture book submissions from author-illustrators?
A: I only recommend that you submit polished work that you would be happy to see published; if you don’t feel that your illustrations are as strong as your text, agents will likely agree. Unless you are an author-illustrator whose writing and illustrations are equally strong and well-suited to your intended market, your manuscript should ultimately stand on its own. Submitting supplemental material—particularly illustrations—also runs the risk of agents mistakenly reviewing the art as part of your submissions package and responding accordingly.
For similar reasons, it’s not advisable for authors who are pursuing traditional publication to hire their own illustrators. If your text is submitted alongside artwork, the text and artwork will be evaluated together as a single package. This means that if an agent is interested in your text but not in the artwork, they will likely pass (and vice versa). Even if the artwork is fantastic, publishers prefer to select and hire illustrators for the picture book texts that they acquire, taking a variety of factors into consideration (e.g. style, medium, availability, name recognition, budget, etc.).
Lastly, my advice for authors submitting picture book manuscripts is similar to my advice for authors submitting rhyming texts: it is a better use of your time to focus on agents who do accept submissions in your category (whether text-only picture books, rhyming texts, nonfiction, horror, etc.), rather than trying to find a way to adjust your submission to reach agents who don’t. Keep in mind that your goal is to find an agent who is excited about your work AND who has the professional expertise to represent your work to publishers.
Q: I’m under 18 years old. Are there any specific resources for me?
A: Try looking into publications that are for and by kids and teens. Two that I am aware of are Stone Soup, a magazine for and by writers and artists ages six through thirteen; and Teen Ink, a magazine for and by writers and artists ages thirteen through nineteen. Your school or local library may also have some good resources to suggest. Keep in mind that writers who are not yet legal adults will need to involve their legal guardians in the publishing process, particularly when it comes to signing documents like agency agreements and publishing contracts.
Your Editor Friend,
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