Written by
Sunny Frazier
September 2010
Written by
Sunny Frazier
September 2010
Small publishing houses work for me because I can't seem to resist the urge to put my two cents in on how the publishing house works. I'm sure Simon & Schuster or Random House could care less about what I think on the way they run things, but I've had two publishers now who value my opinions. Let me tell you, it's a heady feeling. When my current publisher was backed up by the onslaught of query letters, I volunteered to lend a hand. Not that I know anything about acquisitions (is there a training manual somewhere?) but I know what I like to read. I've also studied the market and have an idea of what sells. I loved all the letters I received. Some were funny, some were written by a quivering hand, all were hopeful. But, here's where I went off the beaten path of query letter/synopsis/outline. When I open e-mails, the first thing I look for is genre and word count. We are a strong genre house, our word count doesn't exceed 85,000. This is the only way to make books cost effective, for both the buyer and the publisher. While main stream publishers push the idea that BIGGER is BETTER is a BLOCKBUSTER is a BESTSELLER, we have more realistic expectations. Sometimes the best novels come in small (55,000 words) packages. I know all the writing books stress that the query letter is “The most important letter you'll ever write.” Really? How about the letter to the IRS explaining that strange tax deduction? To Santa for a new computer? To to complain about bad hook-ups? I don't even read the query letter. Blasphemy! The first thing I do is Google the writer's name. I'm expecting to see at least a website. I'm hoping for many more hits. How active is the potential author on the Internet? Does this person blog? Have they joined any professional/social sites other than Face Book? What has this person been doing to foster their career goals? Because it's not just about the writing anymore. I lecture on marketing at conferences. My mantra: marketing starts the minute you decide you're a writer. Waiting until the novel is finished puts you behind the pack. Name recognition is key. Why would anyone in the writing field want to withhold words, to refuse the reading public a sample of their “voice?” I doubt if the big houses bother to investigate. I wonder if they even look at their slush pile before sending rejection notices. Although the expectation is that a big house will supply an endless marketing budget for the book of an unknown author, that's not going to happen unless your name is Paris Hilton or Prince Charles. Marketing has become the responsibility of the author. Although my publisher originally believed I wasn't fair to authors, I convinced her that checking the writer's “street creds” goes a long way to selecting authors working hard at their career goals. In my opinion, they are the ones who deserve a shot at publication. But, that's just me. And I'm the acquisitions editor.

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  • Good advice - thank you! I also enjoyed your website (after Googling you). Your mystery series sounds interesting and I've added "Fools Rush In" to my acquisition list. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom with others. It's much appreciated.

  • Marja McGraw

    I also appreciate your candidness, Sunny. Unless I can convince someone I'm really Janet Evanovich in disguise, the things you've commented on are paramount to a writer's career. So much really does depend on name recognition and getting ourselves "out there". Thanks for sharing.

  • Sunny Frazier

    Julija, I want to publish so many of the manuscripts that come across my desk. It's hard because sometimes even the best novel languishes as we try to find room and money to publish more. While authors think we enjoy blocking their efforts, that's not the case. There's an economic side to this business that simply cannot be ignored. That's why we stress marketing; the next author who gets published depends on the profit we make from the author we last published. None of us are getting rich.

    What I wake up to every morning are queries clamoring for my attention. Even if I read the first chapters and ask for the rest of the manuscript, the author assumes their book will soon be published. Not so! I have over 100 manuscripts on my desk to read and we only have 48 publishing slots to fill this year. It can be a very long wait. I would never hold anyone back from their career path, but I can't create the money and overload the publisher with manuscripts. This is a SLOW business.

    So, the question becomes this: how do I encourage authors and praise their work but tell them publication could be more than two years down the pike? It sounds like I'm stalling or stringing them along. Perhaps it would be easier to just cut off the queries until we're caught up, but too many publishing houses do that and it's pretty heartless.

    Instead, we all work hard to make dreams come true. We have to know authors are working just as hard, and not just at writing. I have to see a commitment toward promotion and realistic grasp of the world they are now entering.       


  • Julija Sukys

    Sunny, this is a great post. It's enormously helpful to hear from someone who's sat at the desk of an acquisition editor. Thank you. I've long suspected that that Google searches are used as a criterion for selection -- not the determining factor, but certainly part of getting past the gate. Your remarks on word count come as a relief to me. I'm a slow writer of shortish books. Even though I know that presses are more likely to take on short books than huge bricks, I've still long had a nagging feeling that there should be more pages to my manuscripts! I'm going to try and get rid this length anxiety once and for all. Embrace the small but tight book!

  • Sunny Frazier

    In a manuscript, I like it to be well-edited, correctly formatted and an indication that the author knows basic craft (no front-loading, no information dumps, no long dialogues hanging in the air). I don't like creative punctuation. . . .--! As for story, it doesn't have to be so unique that I can't find a readership, nor so plainly written that a third grader wouldn't read it. Just a good plot, interesting characters, story arc that goes somewhere.

    I usually make suggestions; if the author ignores them the relationship ends right there. If I feel the author and I both want a good manuscript out there and can work toward that goal, I'll keep reading. At that point, I have to pitch it to the publisher. I can talk about the author's flexibility, the projected fan base, marketing strategy, compare it to similar books in the line-up for cross marketing, even location of the author to promote with other Oak Tree Press authors. We look at the publishing slots available, possible launch dates to work toward, factor everything in and then we decide if the book is going to make back our initial investment and hopefully, profit.

    So far, I've picked manuscripts that have done exceptionally well. Seems I have a good eye for a good read.