Copyright 2009 by Morris Rosenthal
All Rights Reserved
How To Find A Publisher And Get A Book Published
Imagine sending a query letter offering an unfinished manuscript to eight publishers and getting back four positive responses within the week. How about having the managing editor of a major imprint contact you out of the blue asking if you have a publisher for your work? These may sound like scenarios from an advertisement in a writer's magazine intended to separate you from your money, but they actually happened for this writer, thanks to the Internet.
Why publish on the Internet
The vast majority of writers today have exchanged their typewriters for personal computers, but their sole focus remains that double-spaced manuscript that gets sent off to New York City with a SASE. That's a shame, because by simply skipping down an extra item in the File menu of your word processor, you can save that document as HTML, a form ready for instant publication on the Internet. "Why should I give my work away for free?" you argue, "What if somebody steals it?"
As an unpublished writer, getting people to read your work and respond to it is the primary challenge. After all, you need to convince the editors or agents you contact that you really know your market, but how can you actually do that if your market has never heard of you? Whether you are writing plumbing books or poetry, there is an audience for your work on the Internet, and if you can fix their leaky hearts, some of them will send e-mail to let you know how much they appreciate you. The main pay-offs of web publishing for the unknown writer are reader feedback and traffic (visitors to your site).
Testimonial e-mails from visitors to your site can carry real weight with an acquisitions editor. In fact, my publisher used excerpts from nine such letters as a marketing tool on the back cover of my first published book, "The Hand-Me-Down PC." Feedback from web surfers is valuable for another reason; this audience isn't tied to you by friendship or by blood. Any criticism is useful because these people ARE your market, and compliments from Mom are rarely as uplifting as praise from complete strangers. Traffic on your site can be used as a form of proof that you do have an audience, and even more importantly for smaller publishers, that you know how to promote yourself. By the way, a copyright is a copyright, so if somebody does plagiarize your work, take it as a compliment and threaten to sue.
What to put on your site
Building a web site really is something that anybody can do. Before you rush out and buy the latest book on the subject, try setting up a free web site using one of the online providers, like Geocities, who will lead you through the process step by step. This doesn't have to be your permanent site, in fact, there are many good reasons to host your site on a commercial server for anywhere from $10 to $50 per month, but the main point is to get started. Unlike paper publishing, web publishing is flexible by its very nature. If you make a spelling mistake, want to change something you said, add a picture, or even close down the site, you can do it instantly any time of day or night!
The critical components (2 C's) for any web site are content and contact - content is the work you want people to see and contact is the means through which they can react to it, normally e-mail. We stated earlier that it only takes one click of the mouse to save your manuscript in web format, but you may want to produce material specifically targeted for web. Many people who surf the web are looking for answers, so if you are writing non-fiction, you might offer to answer e-mailed questions on your subject for readers. This can take some time, but it will definitely teach you what your audience is interested in rather than what you think they are interested in, and this "hands-on" experience really carries weight with editors.
For example, back in 1995 I signed up for a $14.95/month Internet account with a national service that was later acquired by AOL. Learning that it came with space for a web site, I posted a short guide titled "Troubleshooting and Repairing Clone PCs" which I had already written for some co-op students I had trained and basically had lying around on the hard drive. My primary motivation in posting the computer material was to attract people to come and read the short fiction and poetry I also posted on the site. People who didn't find an answer to their problem but who thought I might be able to help them began sending me questions, and recognizing that this was "content," I began adding a new question and answer to the web site each night. This section of the site, titled "The Midnight Question," became the most popular draw during the years that I maintained it, and had a large number of repeat visitors. That original short guide and the material from the "Midnight Question" became the core of my first published book.
Many journalists now depend the Internet for material to fill out their articles, and the questions and answers I posted on my site brought me two generous helpings of free publicity. The first was a front-page story in The Investor's Business Daily which described me as a "Digital Age Dear Abbey" and the second was an interview and link on the Dateline MSNBC site which sent my site 10,000 visitors in a single day. These cases may be extreme, but I continue to receive regular exposure in both online and traditional publications due to material I have posted online.
When it comes to fiction and poetry, you have little choice other than to publish whole works on the web. There are some documented cases of individuals who began by web publishing a novel, responded to reader demand for books by self publishing and eventually landed real publishing contracts, but this kind of success is rare. Publishing fiction and poetry on the Internet is less likely to bring an unknown author the kind of instant exposure that can result from a well planned information site, but the feedback, when it comes, is all the more welcome for that reason. The modest successes I've experienced with fiction on the web, like having a short story picked up for a printed Zine or adopted onto a genre site, have worked wonders for my bruised fiction ego.
Once I got an e-mail from a guy with a corporate return address asking if I could send him my online novel, which was then posted in twenty-six individual HTML documents, as a Word file. I wrote back asking why he wanted the novel in Word format when he could already get it in any web browser and he replied, "Nothing sinister, I'm reading it at the office and if it's in Word, I can act like I'm working."
Getting people to come to your site
"Even if you build it, they won't come unless you tell them it's there!" Morris Rosenthal - March 21, 2000
From Fortune 500 ghost sites to Aunt Millie's home page with pictures of the cat, the web is crowded with sites that nobody visits. As you will read many places in my articles, publishing is a business, and in business you can't escape marketing. The good news is that on the web, the only type of marketing you need is free, as long as you providing the labor. This marketing of your site can be broken into three basic areas: Search engines and directories, link trading (including web rings) and discussion groups.
Search engines and directories, once very different beasts, have been integrated to the point where I'll treat them as one subject. Examples of these are: Yahoo, Google, Altavista, Infoseek, Excite, Lycos, Webcrawler, Ask Jeeves, etc... The pure search engine concept is one where you type a number of key words into a box and the search engine returns some or all of the sites that contain those key words in some combination or another, depending on the search conditions you apply. A pure directory is a hierarchical catalog in which you start by choosing a general subject, like "Arts and Humanities," and continually narrow down your search in layer after layer of categories until you reach, "Bronze casting techniques in Ancient Greece." The key for you is to get listed in the major search engines and directories, and not to get taken in along the way by an ad for a service that will get you into 1000 search engines for $19.95. The vast majority of search traffic is directed by a handful of search engines and directories, primarily those listed above, with the majority of "honest" traffic coming through Google. In the search to "monetize" their users, many search engines have begun selling top placement to the highest bidder. Make sure that you submit to any search engines and directories that YOU use, and hopefully your potential readers think the same way.
There is one exercise in market research that anyone who wants to be published must undertake. This is to try to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience and search the web for the sort of work you hope to publish. You'll quickly get a feel for what sort of key words you should be including on your pages, not to mention valuable insight into the "competition" which makes up an important part of any sales pitch to a traditional publisher. You may be astounded by the number of sites that already offer almost exactly what you were planning to be first with, but don't be discouraged. In publishing, the bigger the existing market, the more likely a publisher will be willing to produce another title for it. If you can't find anything on the web similar to your work, you could be in trouble. The worst thing you can do when pitching a book to a publisher (or a business to a bank) is to brag about how unique your work is. Nobody in the real business world wants to touch anything that's unique. Just like Hollywood keeps producing sequels, serious business people are looking for proven moneymaking ideas, not "unique" opportunities. In the end, competing with other web sites will only help you hone your skills for the big battle, which is competing with other books.
Getting listed in search engines used to be easy. You'd simply go to the search engine site, look for a link that said "Submit your URL" or "Add your site" and click on it. That would bring you to a submission page where you could type in the address of your new web page(s). Within a couple days or weeks you were up and running. Well, times change. Most search engines still accept free URL submissions, but it takes them months to update their database. Some only accept paid submissions, or make it clear that your chance of getting listed is much better if you fork over a couple hundred dollars. Have also adopted the "pay or pray" approach. If you go to the bother of submitting to directories, you need to carefully choose which category you want to be listed in, and again, the best way to do this is to pretend you are a potential reader looking for whatever it is you write about. Directory entries are handled by human beings rather than automated software, so only a small number of submissions are ever actually looked at. Sound familiar? Personally, I wouldn't pay to get my stuff listed anywhere.
A link is essentially an address holder that shows up in most browsers as an underlined word or phrase. Link exchanges work on the old principle of "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." You find another site with content related to your own site, and the two of you negotiate an exchange of links via e-mail. When a visitor to your site clicks on a link you have made to another site, they're gone. I'm not a big fan of link exchanges because they can easily get out of hand to the point where your site is no more than a revolving door. If you provide good content and make sure you are listed in the big search engines, people who maintain "all links" sites, essentially small targeted directories, will eventually find and link you. As long as you can get a link exchange with at least one site that's cataloged in the major search engines, eventually you'll get listed by them all. I'm writing a book about how to build a publishing website.
Discussion groups and News groups are a highly targeted way to announce the existence of your site. There are tens of thousands of public News or Use groups, not to mention those discussion groups hosted on individual sites, so odds are somebody out there is interested in hearing about what you are doing. It was by way of a technology discussion group that I received an unsolicited offer from a major imprint to publish a book based on my online material, though I eventually turned them down in favor of a larger advance. The editor was apparently in the habit of checking the group for new trends or potential material, and a message I had posted to the group about some new online material brought her to my site. The key to participating in groups is to avoid spamming, i.e., sending unrelated junk mail under the guise of actually participating. You're not going to attract editors or casual traffic through annoying people, but if you have something genuine to offer, discussion groups are a great way to steer traffic to your site.
This is the future
Maybe you secretly hate your computer, though you avoid thinking about it while you're working for fear it will read your mind and trash your documents. There will always be room for a small number of eccentrics whose eccentricities are part and parcel of their attraction, but it's a tough role to break in with. The Internet is the future, and a web strategy will be an integral part of any query letter in the coming years. The best way to learn about the web and its potential is to get online and experiment with it. Even if you will never post material to the Internet, you're going to need to understand how the publishing industry uses this tool.
Lest you think, "This is all great and fine for writing about technology, but what about my special field?" let me relate a final anecdote. For the past couple years I've been working on translations of my great-grandmother's Hebrew books, and wanted to get a short piece about how she came to learn Hebrew in 1860's Latvia published. This is definitely not "high tech" stuff. A web search conducted with Altavista turned up a list of possible publications, and I sent queries to those that gave e-mail addresses for the editor. Of the three or four responses, I submitted the article, via e-mail, to the most enthusiastic, where it was accepted for publication in the next issue. The edited copy was sent for my approval, via e-mail, and the only time paper or postage entered the process was when the publisher sent me five complementary copies of the magazine.
Once you have a web site of your own, you'll wonder how you lived without one. For example, you can access your own material from any Internet connected computer in the world! No more missed opportunities because the dog ate the manuscript and the editor you met on vacation wants to see it yesterday. I have written and submitted material for publication from a friend's computer on the other side of the Atlantic, and with e-mail, you'll never worry about missing a phone call. A popular web site can actually pay! You can sell self-published books to people for less than the cost of the inkjet cartridge they would use up printing it or you can sell yourself as a consultant, speaker, writer, etc... Last but not least, you can sign up as an AMAZON associate, referring your visitors to AMAZON.COM for books you suggest, have reviewed or written. AMAZON used to put over $100 per month in the pocket of this writer, more than paying the freight for a commercial web site. Since they started reselling second hand books, that income has fallen, but it's still free money.