Saturday, September 22, 2007


By Josi S. Kilpack

I was recently talking to another writer who had a lot of questions about how to submit to an agent or publisher. I answered it with some version of the following:

Research the agent/publisher and find out what they want in a submission, determine whether it's e-submission or snail mail, write a query letter, cover letter, prepare whatever writing sample they may want with the query, or what they might request after they decide they like your query. Keep a log of what you send, to whom. Make absolutely certain before you send anything that you have the name, company, address and submission criteria exactly as it appears in Writer's Market or on their website.

As I spoke I could see the person's face falling. By the time I finished they had gotten past the denial phase "It can't be THAT hard", and were full fledged in the anger stage of grieving we all go through when we figure out that we just didn't understand how something worked. And they said. "Sounds like a bunch of hoops to me."

Well, yeah. What's wrong with hoops?

Consider this; let's say you hold a best pie contest, and you're giving away a million dollars as the first place prize AND they will be crowned as best pie-maker in the country. How many people do you think will want to enter your contest? Two million? Three? A lot, right? In fact, so many that there is NO way you can review them all, much less actually bake them to see if they really work. What do you do?

Well, how about you set up some rules that will automatically weed out the crackpots that have never cooked a day in their life. So you make the rule that entries have to mailed, not e-mailed. Perfect, you just cut down your contests by about 2/3. Why? Because people that aren't serious, or don't really have a good pie recipe, aren't going to go through the trouble of sending it in. However, you've still got about 600,000 recipes. Too many.

So, you decide that the recipe has to be typed. You just cut down your qualifying submissions again. What if you insisted it was typed on an index card instead of a regular sheet of paper. You just cut your submissions in half again--BUT you have kept the most serious pie makers.

So, you're down to about 100,000 pie bakers now. You still want the best pie makers, but you can't handle 100,000 recipes. How about they have to send a photo. How about you have them put the photo on the back of the index card they wrote the recipe on. How about you insist it's a color photo--after all, you need to see that it looks good enough to eat. Then, let's say you insist they send it in a white envelope--no other color will do. Very good, you've come up with a lot of entries. So you post the rules and wait for submissions. This is no longer just about finding the best pie. You are only human, and can not go over 100,000 entries. There has to be a way to narrow down.

You get 25,000 submissions. But 10,000 are in envelopes that are not white. Another 10,000 didn't do the photo. Another 3,000 aren't typed. 500 didn't include their contact information, 400 were actually recipes for cobbler instead of pie, 300 are for pizza, 200 are for homemade baby wipes (to help clean up after you eat the pie) and of those millions and millions of people that were originally interested in entering your contest, you are left with 600 people that are not only good pie-bakers, but they can follow instructions. They are the type that can proudly wear the pie maker crown.

Did perhaps the BEST pie baker not follow through? Perhaps. But that's just it, it's not JUST about baking pies. It's about being someone other people can work with, someone that can learn the rules AND execute them.

It's the exact same thing with getting published. Yes, there are millions of people that want it, but mere wanting is not what publishers are looking for. They want to see commitment, they want proof that you respect what they can do for you. Is it frustrating? Absolutely. We are pie makers, we make pie and don't want to deal with this stuff. Which is fine, unless we want the crown.

So, yes, there are a lot of hoops to jump through, and yet, why not jump? If that's the only way to get there, then start hoppin!


Tristi Pinkston said...

What kind of pie?

This was a great way to explain it, Josi. Thanks for the great visual.

Karlene said...

The analogy I like to use is that it's like having a job anywhere. Let's say you have a job at Sonic and your boss tells you that when you make the Banana Cream Shake, you fill the cup 3/4 with ice cream, add a scoop of banana flavoring, mix it for a full 60 seconds, then put a cherry on top. That is the way Sonic makes the shake.

If you, as the employee, decide to only fill the cup 1/2 with ice cream and add 1/4 cup of regular milk, you're going to get fired. You do it the way Sonic says to do it because they are the boss, the employer, the entity who signs your paycheck.

Publishing is a job. Sure, it's got its perks that make it a little different from other jobs, but basically it's a job and the publisher is your boss. When the publisher tells you to submit a certain way, you do it that way.

If you start right off with a query that doesn't match the guidelines, it's like telling the Sonic boss during your initial job interview that you fully intend to change the shake recipe. Do you really think you'd get hired if you did that?

Why do people who are perfectly willing to jump through all sorts of hoops for their employer (even potential employer) balk at submitting manuscripts according to publisher guidelines? I've really never understood that one.

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Thank you, Josi for the great analogy. I am working on a query letter now and keep thinking how great it would be if I could just skip it. Thanks for reminding me how important it is to follow the guidelines.

Julie Wright said...

I't a good thing writing isn't like making pies . . . I'd fail miserably. But loved the analogy. Jumping through a few hoops makes for some good exercise.

Heather B. Moore said...

This is an excellent analogy, Josi. You need to use it in a writer's workshop :)

Annette Lyon said...

Great post, Josi! The good news is that so few people actually jump through all the hoops that you really do improve your chances just by following the rules. Now I want some chocolate silk pie . . .