Transcripts

"What's a Writer To Do?" with Kristi Holl

Thursday, November 29, 2001

Kristi is Kristi Holl, web editor of this site and author of 24 books for children and teens, plus l50+ articles for adults and children. Kristi also taught writing courses for fifteen years.

Interviews in the Professional Connection room are held on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Names color coded in blue are viewers who asked questions.

Kristi Holl: For those of you who do not know me, I'm Kristi Holl, an author and the web editor for this site. Tonight we're doing something different in response to the flood of questions received since September 11. Although the usual pattern on Thursday nights is for me to interview a guest speaker, tonight will mainly be a "lecture" on how to submit our material in an effective manner now that the usual publishing procedures have been, to a large extent, abandoned. We hope it's temporary, but until publishers feel safe again to open our submissions, we need to fall back and regroup. After I talk about a variety of topics--from writing contests and making contacts at conferences, to various types of manuscript display sites and getting an agent-- I'll open the forum up for questions and answers.

Anytime you have a question or comment, it will be automatically sent to the moderator box. When time permits at the end, those questions will be answered (if they weren't during the main discussion.) If some of your questions and comments go unanswered, please feel free to e-mail me at the web site later. This lecture will be archived in the transcripts tomorrow for your convenience. So . . . let's get started!

Moderator: How can I keep up on the changes in the publishing industry due to the anthrax scare?

Kristi Holl: There are two places that I have found very helpful, and the reports and articles are easy to understand. Read various Writer's Market reports at http://www.writersmarket.com/content/anthrax.asp. Publishers Weekly online also has some great articles. To find these, go here http://publishersweekly.reviewsnews.com/index.asp and do a search on "anthrax". Some articles there worth reading include: Will Anthrax Fears Kill the Slush Pile? - 10/25/2001; Anthrax Redux: Publishers, Media Tighten Policies - 10/31/2001; Book Industry Adapts To Anthrax Scares - 11/05/2001; and Bookselling Since 9/11 - 11/12/2001. Don't just read the articles posted there today--check back from time to time and read their updates as things change.

Moderator: How can we submit in a safe and effective manner so we have the best chance of getting read?

Kristi Holl: First, make sure that your hard-copy submissions are as professional as possible -- use new, clean envelopes, include a return address, and take larger packages to the post office for a metered postage strip rather than affixing a bunch of stamps at home. Some writers have resorted to private messengers, Federal Express and United Parcel Services (since they don't go through the postal system). It's been recommended that writers include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) with self-adhesive as opposed to the SASE that needs to be licked.

The need for professionalism from writers is perhaps at its highest level ever. The publishing industry is not under attack, and writers are still encouraged to submit good books on all subjects and in all genres. However, writers need to be even more professional with their submissions than usual.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when submitting work in these hypersensitive times. Writers should:

1. Write their return address on submissions. Many people, whether at work or home, are not opening mail without a return address. Failure to include this vital piece of information will, in most cases, ensure that your postage is wasted.

2. Present clean submissions. No tape or glue should be used to seal the envelope. Handwriting should be easy to read. Hastily packaged submissions will inadvertently raise red flags. In fact, a few publishers have expressed a desire for writers to have envelopes printed or to use printed mailing labels.

3. Send e-mail notice, if possible, to a potential market that mail is coming. Many editors have expressed that such a notice would help them feel more comfortable opening submissions. This helps your good image with the editor, agent, or publisher.

4. Before mailing, check websites (if publisher has one) for last minute changes in guidelines. Be patient with your submissions. One effect of the anthrax scares that is immediate and will probably last into the near future is that response times will probably be slower. Even markets that have not changed their submission policies have instituted new methods for checking their mail, which takes more time.

Many of these methods are more time consuming than traditional ways of routing the mail within companies. As a result, writers should expect a little delay in response time. Recently, many writers have reported submissions coming back marked "return-to-sender" from magazines, book publishers, and agents. This used to mean the company had changed addresses. However, right now it usually means the publisher is in the midst of changing submission policies, at least for a while.

Moderator: Are magazine editors, book publishers and agents ALL reluctant to accept submissions?

Kristi Holl: The consensus of opinion among magazine publishers seemed to be summed up in one editor's comment: "At our publications, we're concerned, and we're vigilant, but we're not scared. We're doing everything we can to proceed normally with our work and our lives." Concern and vigilance does take more time though.

More book publishers, perhaps because they deal with bulkier packages, have recently changed their submission guidelines in response to the anthrax scares. Additional publishers are still considering a change in the future. However, book publishers are still accepting manuscripts, and for the most part, the rules are still the same. But your submissions must LOOK very professional if you expect them to get where you've addressed them.

Quite a few literary agents, who deal with publishing houses frequently, mentioned they've heard the days of slush piles at major publishers are officially over. Whether this rumor pans out remains to be seen. But for the most part, agents are trying to get on with their work, handling things "in a cautious but productive manner." Writers should be prepared for longer response times, due not only to their precautions but to delays in the postal system.

Moderator: What do you know about manuscript display sites, where you post your work online so editors and agents can view your work and contact you? Wouldn't this be a good alternative for writers now (especially if you don't have an agent)?

Kristi Holl: First, about what a manuscript display site is: The goal of such sites is to showcase your writing in order to attract the attention of agents and editors. It's a way to get your writing before a large number of editors who might be interested in your work. There are reputable sites, and there are scams. I'll talk in a minute about what things to look for and where to find these sites.

One reputable manuscript display service used by many Christian publishers looking for Christian writers is called The Writer's Edge, which is found at www.writersedgeservice.com Check their Frequently Asked Questions for help. They accept adult and children's writing both.

Other groups, like Author's Venue at http://www.authorsvenue.com have services you can subscribe to where they submit your work to editors and agents. The Author's Venue service is called MANUSCRIPT CONNECTION. They say authors who submit on the Manuscript Connection can expect to receive responses shortly after submitting, in about 48 hours. The research is done for you. When editors and agents sign on to the Manuscript Connection, they choose which genres they want to see. It's a way of reaching the right editors, without the expense of travel or lodging for conferences.

Moderator: So how do you choose a site or know if it's a scam or legitimate?

Kristi Holl: Before you ever agree to display your work on a site, you will want to know just how successful these sites are at selling authors' work. It's hard to tell from the sites themselves; not many post success stories. Also, few display sites seem to do any kind of real marketing. Some just sit there in cyberspace, hoping someone will drop by. Others confine their publicity efforts to search engine listings, or to sending mass e-mail (a.k.a. spam) to publishing professionals. To get the lowdown on more than 40 display sites, including fees, number of manuscripts posted, amount of manuscript posted (word count), marketing strategy, successes, screening process and search/listing methods, visit: http://www.writersdigest.com/wd1000/business.html

If you're thinking of using a display site, here are a few questions you should ask:

1. What does it cost? Free sites typically don't market themselves. Don't make too big an investment. Fifty dollars for three months or $100 for six is probably enough to decide if it's working for you.

2. How big is the site? The bigger the better. Sites with less than 50 offerings aren't worth an agent's time or yours.

3. Does the site's marketing reach beyond the Internet? Search engine registration and bulk e-mail aren't effective marketing tools. A good site should maintain direct, personal contact with publishing professionals.

4. Does the site disclose its success? A good site should track and list its achievements. If it doesn't have any, don't consider it.

5. Is the size of excerpts limited? Posting entire manuscripts may compromise your rights. A good site shouldn't allow more than 2,500-5,000 words. Never post your entire story or manuscript.

Moderator: Are there alternative ways to get a foot in the door these days? What about writing contests? Is entering a contest considered a solicited manuscript?

Kristi Holl: Yes, they are solicited because someone is asking or inviting you to enter their contest. This is a good way to catch an editor's eye, get some publishing credits, and get paid for it too. If you're serious about making money and contacts through writing contests, there are many sources of such contests and awards that give money as prizes, often accompanied by publication of the winning manuscripts. Let me list some sources for you here:

ONLINE SOURCES for contests and awards (with prize money) include:

Absolute Markets Newsletter (Formerly Writer Online Marketplace): Recent newsletter had many new contests listed, most with no entry fees, with prizes ranging up to $1000 (but most in the $100 - $500 range.) Go to http://www.AbsoluteWrite.com/Marketplace.htm to sign up for the free market newsletter.

Writing Contest site at http://www.writingcontests.net/ Sign up for their free newsletter.

Byline Magazine at http://www.bylinemag.com runs many contests, and many new writers get their first paid publication here.

Check this site http://www.writing-world.com/contests/index.html for 50+ contest listings.

PRINT SOURCES for contests and awards (with prize money) include:

The Complete Guide to Literary Contests 2001 can be purchased at amazon.com A review in Library Journal, February 1, 2000 claims it is "...more detailed than Literary Market Place or Writer's Market..."

The 2002 World's Biggest Book of Writing Contests can be found at http://www.ult-media.com/writingcontests.htm Virtually all of the 400+ writing contests listed here are open to unpublished writers.

Literary Market Place and Writer's Market have contest lists too, and can usually be found at your library's reference desk.

The Long Ridge Writers Group market guide (The Best of the Magazine Markets) has nearly 100 listings.

The Institute of Children's Literature students receive Children's Magazine Market Writer's Sourcebook which has a section listing contests and awards. Likewise the Children's Book Market has a listing of contests and awards for book writers.

The Children's Writers Guide (also published by The Institute) has a large section on writing contests and awards. The Children's Writer newsletter (also published by The Institute) frequently runs contests.

Moderator: What about conferences and workshops for meeting editors and agents face to face?

Kristi Holl: Those are excellent places to go. Writing conferences come in all shapes and sizes. They vary from the small local conference encompassing several towns in one area, to state-wide conferences, regional conferences, national conferences (like SCBWI in California and Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop in NY), and international workshops often held in Europe.

Both literary agents and editors speak at conferences and often give consultations. That way they make contact with new and established writers. If they like your work, they can ask to see more of it. This saves time and money for everyone. The writer is saved the expense, time, and frustration of submitting to an agent or editor who isn't right for the writer or the manuscript, and the editor/agent is spared the time of sorting through hundreds of unacceptable submissions. And in these days of suspicious anthrax letters, being able to establish this personal contact is especially helpful. And if they offer manuscript critiques or consultations, editors and agents have a chance to meet the author first and see if they "click" and could work together.

Moderator: Where do you find out about such writers' conferences?

Kristi Holl: There are many sources of information. First, there are the writers' magazines like WRITER'S DIGEST and THE WRITER. Each year they give an extensive list early in the year of the writer's conferences around the country. I believe the WRITER'S DIGEST list is in their May issue. Various bulletins (like for SCBWI) list conferences around the country in each issue. The Children's Writer Guide (published by The Institute) has general conference listings, as well as those devoted to writing for children.

There are many online sources for writers' conferences, like ShawGuides to over 700 writers' conferences and workshops at: http://writing.shawguides.com You can sign up for e-mail newsletters about upcoming conferences around the country.

For conferences, seminars and retreats where you meet agents and editors, sign up for another free newsletter at this site: http://www.authorsvenue.com

Moderator: How can you best take advantage of writers' conferences to meet editors?

Kristi Holl: First, determine which of the conference leaders you'd like to meet during the conference and mark on your schedule where they are likely to be and when. This way you can plan to attend any informal pre-dinner gatherings or late night gatherings they will be hosting. One excellent book to read before attending a conference is NETWORKING AT WRITER'S CONFERENCES: FROM CONTACTS TO CONTRACTS by Steven D. Spratt and Lee G. Spratt and published by John Wiley and Sons. It contains a wealth of information on getting the most for your conference money and time.

Moderator: Can you bring a manuscript with you to give an editor or agent?

Kristi Holl: You can bring it with you, or an outline or sample chapters, but leave them in your room or briefcase unless you're specifically asked for them. If you have a chance to have a manuscript critique or a meeting with an editor or agent, tell them about your work and ask if you can send them a proposal or the manuscript. (It could then be marked "solicited" or "requested".) Only if they ask you for a copy right then should you pull it out. They won't be able to pack fifty manuscripts into their luggage, so it would be rare for the editor to ask for it right then. But it does occasionally happen, especially if it's a week-long conference or the editor/agent drove there by car.

Moderator: Since publishers are reluctant to accept submissions now, is it wise to skip submitting and just try to find an agent?

Kristi Holl: It might seem like that. Certainly, if you're writing books now, that's a good option. If you're still writing short stories and articles, an agent won't be interested in you because his "cut" of that kind of income isn't worth his time to market it. Agents are getting flooded now with more queries than they have time to respond to, so be warned! Because of this, a crop of questionable agents is likely to emerge. All agents are NOT created equal. Continue to market your own work while also shopping for an agent. Don't feel pressured--or BE pressured--into an author/agent agreement before you take the necessary time to check him/her out.

Moderator: Where can you find lists of agents that are reputable?

Kristi Holl: On the web look under www.publishersweekly.com/aar/ and www.literaryagent.com or check out a group called AuthorLink. And at the library look at Literary Agents of North America (Author Aid Assoc.) and Guide to Literary Agents (Writers Digest). A good book to get, also, is Literary Agents: The Essential Guide for Writers by Debby Mayer.

Moderator: If you want to find an agent, how do you contact him/her? What goes into the query or proposal (or whatever kind of contact you make)?

Kristi Holl: Most still prefer the mail. Send a short query letter telling what you are working on, and your writing interests. For a proposal, send three chapters of a novel with summary. For those who write children's books, you can send up to three whole picture book manuscripts. Do NOT send things like food or other incentives. These days, any odd looking or feeling package will get burned without opening!

Moderator: After narrowing down the list of possible agents, what questions should an author ask before making a commitment?

Kristi Holl: Well, first ask if they are a member of AAR. If so, ask the following: How long have you been in business? Will you yourself be handling my work or will someone else in the office be doing this? Is the author consulted and informed about all offers? Does the author see all rejection letters? What are your commission rates and your procedure for processing advances and royalties? How often do you keep writers informed of your activities, and is it by letter, phone or e-mail? Do I sign an agent-author agreement? (Not all require this.) Who are some of your clients? Which publishers have you sold to in the last few years?

Moderator: What might be some warning signs that you're talking to the wrong agent?

Kristi Holl: Be alert and warned if there is an up-front fee. Be wary if he is just too enthusiastic about your manuscript, especially if he also asks for money. Watch for agents who make big claims, but can't back them up with specific names and book titles. Look out if they won't give you a client list, or a list of publishers they've sold to.

Moderator: Should we switch to e-mail queries and submissions until further notice?

Kristi Holl: No, not necessarily, although e-mail queries and submissions will undoubtedly be on the rise. At the moment, many book publishers, literary agents, and magazine editors have not changed their submission policies. Some have, and many are debating the possibility of future changes in policy. Keep in mind: Even though submission policies may not have changed, publishers are sticking to their original guidelines more than ever. If they said before September 11 that they wouldn't take unsolicited manuscripts, then they are making no exceptions at all now. (Remember: a manuscript sent AFTER querying and getting a go-ahead is a "requested" or "solicited" submission.)

Many publishers have (or are in the process of ) setting up special e-mail addresses to receive queries from writers electronically. The Children's Division of Simon and Schuster recently announced their new e-mail address, but stressed that only queries should be sent. S&S does not consider unsolicited manuscripts, and manuscripts should not be sent to this address. (By the way, this announcement, when it first was released, was only for Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which is a good reason to join professional writing organizations. I haven't found that new address online for the general public yet.)

Recent nasty viruses have publishers and editors scrambling to make sure their virus protection software is up to date. Writers need to have the same software installed and running on their own machines so they detect both incoming (and then outgoing) viruses. Both Norton and McAfee are good. You can buy the software at computer and office supply stores or directly online.

Moderator: I can't even seem to get publishers to send guidelines to me. Now what?

Kristi Holl: Try finding publishers' guidelines online. The Writer's Place is one good place to check, found at http://www.awoc.com/Guidelines.cfm and Writer's Digest's searchable submission guidelines is found at http://www.writersdigest.com/guidelines/index.htm You can find children's writers guidelines at http://www.signaleader.com/chldwrit.html and the Writer's Guidelines Database: Children's Publishers at http://mav.net/guidelines/childrens.shtml

Before submitting, since things can change rapidly, check a publisher's online guidelines for the latest submission policies -- and if a publisher doesn't specify whether e-mail submissions are acceptable, send a polite e-mail inquiry to ask.

Moderator: If you query or submit online, is it pretty much like regular mail? Do I just cut and paste my word document into my e-mail and then send it?

Kristi Holl: No, it's not quite that simple, although the changes and adjustments you need to make are not very difficult. There are some specific DOs and DON'Ts for both the technical aspects of e-mail queries and submissions, and how you write and set them up. I found two articles online that I would highly recommend reading and printing out for easy reference. One is "Preparing E-mail Queries" by Moira Allen at http://www.writing-world.com/query/e-mail.html The other article by Moira Allen is "E-mail Queries and Submissions: How to Keep Editors Happy" at http://www.writing-world.com/general/e-mail.html about how to put the text of your manuscript into the body of an e-mail without adding gibberish symbols, odd characters, or losing paragraphs and formatting.

Moderator: As an online editor, are there certain things you hate to see in online queries and submissions?

Kristi Holl: Yes. I get a lot of slipshod queries and submissions, full of misspellings, like they haven't been proofread. (I don't mind this type of e-mail from my college kids, but it definitely does NOT look professional.) Also, I get quite a few submissions that start out saying "I know this won't fit any of your categories, but..."

I also get pieces targeted for children instead of for writers for children. It's important to know your audience and the readership of the magazines or e-zines you're submitting to.

I get things the wrong length ("I know this is too short but...") I will take "too long" before "too short" because I am getting more for my money and posting more words is no problem online. But if the requirement is l000 words for $50, it's not fair to pay that to most writers, but pay someone else that fee for 450 words. For print magazines, though, you must closely watch the word length. Running several hundred words too long is a problem for a print magazine editor.

Also, I get lists of "publishing credits" that are simply pieces posted on the author's personal web site, newsgroup postings, or other non-paying "opinion" sites. Don't list as publishing credits pieces you've posted yourself. Most editors aren't impressed by credits for articles or stories donated for free elsewhere on the Internet unless they know they are high quality non-paying e-zines or web sites (and there definitely are some, just as there are some high quality non-paying print magazines).

Moderator: What kinds of things do you LIKE to see in e-mail queries and submissions then?

Kristi Holl: No attachments! Submit your manuscript in the body of your e-mail, even though it sometimes knocks out your italics and bold. Most editors won't open unsolicited e-mail with attachments--virus fears! Some writers put their italicized words in all CAPS and note that in a cover letter, like book titles and emphasized words.

As with print publications, be sure you are writing the type of article asked for. Don't try to disguise a personal experience article as a how-to. If you don't have publishing credits, that's fine, but be prepared to do some digging and research for your article. I receive too many articles on a given topic (like writing dialogue, for example) that are actually personal experiences telling how a new writer used to have a lot of trouble with writing dialogue, their struggles, with maybe one concrete tip in the whole l000 words.

Also, please SUBMIT YOUR BEST WORK! I get half-finished mss pretty often. For some reason, writers more often submit e-mail mss that are rough, not finished, not revised, not spell-checked or proofread. Perhaps it's because we're all used to firing off quick (messy) e-mail messages to friends and family. I recall my first editor years ago saying to ignore the odds against getting published. She said I wasn't competing with as many authors as the statistics would make you think because half the submissions were wrong or messy or handwritten or somehow unacceptable. E-mail submissions are sometimes even worse. Your submission to me stands out when these things are taken care of.

Moderator: If I choose to expand and write for online magazines during this anthrax submission scare so I can submit online and skip snail mail, where do I find such markets?

Kristi Holl: If you have favorite subjects you like to write about, do a search engine search on those topics (for example, health or child-rearing magazines.) If you enter "electronic health magazines" into your favorite search engine, you will get--among others--health.com and Womens-Health.com. So click on your findings and check them out. If you like them, see if they have online guidelines. That will give you payment information. Some pay and some don't--check that out. If their guidelines aren't posted there, go to your favorite writer's market guide to look up their guidelines and payments.

You can also sign up for free e-mail market listings. One is called "Writing World," which more or less picks up where the recently canceled "Inklings" left off. "Writing World" offers professional information for writers, including paying online markets. Go here http://www.writing-world.com to sign up her free biweekly e-mail newsletter.

"Writing for the Web" by author/editor Emily A. Vander Veer WAS a free bi-weekly electronic newsletter for professional web writers that recently ceased publication. However, you can find a HUGE archive of back issue articles on "writing for the web" and online markets here: http://www.topica.com/lists/writingfortheweb/read

Another resource is a book called 1200 Online Resources for Writers by Moira Allen (178-page e-book). Links in the 1200 Online Resources are annotated with a brief description of the site. You can find the e-book at http://www.writing-world.com

Editors and policies change quickly online. To confirm payment policies, or if you're unsure about some policies or whether a magazine is still in business, check these sites:

Preditors & Editors: www.sfwa.org/prededitors/

Writers Beware: www.sfwa.org/beware/

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