My husband has worked on the business side of publishing for many years; after years of overhearing his work conversations, I believe I’m semi-qualified to offer the following advice to aspiring writers. Some of this advice applies to artists/ illustrators as well (especially #2). However, allow me to point out the proviso that I am neither a publisher, nor a writer, myself (unless message boards count).
1) NEVER tell a publisher you have a “magnus opus” or a “huge” body of work to show them. They’ll assume you’re nuts and not worth dealing with. If you do have a magnus opus, extract the best chapters or storylines and submit those (but don’t reveal it’s part of a magnus opus, until if and when they show sincere interest!).
2) If you’re over the age of 28-30ish, and are truly talented, but your success has been hampered by alcohol or drug abuse, be prepared to fake a credible cover story as to why you have not achieved success (make up a fake illness, a non-dramatic crisis, you were busy raising children, etc.). If a publisher sees very high quality writing or art cross their desk, yet the person is 30+ and unknown, they will immediately assume that person has a substance abuse problem and thus is not worth dealing with. This is especially critical if you’re looking for work that involves deadlines.
3) Write commercially and track trends. If vampires are popular, write a vampire story. If talking pigs are popular, write a talking pig story. Watch bestseller lists and browse bookstores, paying close attention to the display tables. Publishers pay $10,000 per spot on those flat tables at Barnes and Noble, so you can assume any books placed in the premium spots are trending and worth imitating.
4) Look for ghost writing or anonymous writing opportunities. Oftentimes publishers will “reverse write” a book, where they come up with the idea, then hire an unknown writer to churn it out. This is less glamorous than publishing your own idea, but it will pay, and afford you some resume-worthy writing experience. It might even behoove you to send writing samples to editors with a cover letter stating you’re looking for ghost writing opportunities, and you’d be happy to write any ideas that might be in development. Keep in mind that if the book is a hit, the title to the intellectual properties is still held by the publisher, so you will see little, if any, profit.
5) Submit to smaller publishers; they’ll be less likely to blow you off. The larger publishers have so much volume crossing their desks that it’s easy to be lost in the avalanche. If you’re an extrovert, don’t be afraid to cold call editors after you’ve submitted work– but don’t be annoying about it.
6) Be open to different formats and artforms. Don’t overlook comic books; a comic book script is short, and if high quality can attract the attention of a comic book publisher. Even if your script isn’t made into a book, you might be tapped for a future project. Try your hand at screenplays, fiction, nonfiction, and so on. If you typically write for young adults, try writing for adults. Try your hand at a self help or instructional book. Don’t lock yourself into any single format or genre of writing.
7) Be wary of length (see #1). Anything over 200-300 pages will raise eyebrows. Most readers don’t want huge volumes anyway (Harry Potter notwithstanding).
8) In general, avoid looking weird and unstable when approaching a publisher. If you are weird and unstable, do your best to tone it down. Dress conservatively and don’t say anything ridiculous.
9) Ride coattails and write parody. Keep an eye on what movies are in production, that will hit movie theaters years from now, and write a similar story and shop it around with a note that the related X movie will be coming out. Parodies can include character names and plotlines without violating copyright laws, which allows you to feed off the name recognition of the original property.
10) Write for pre-existing captive audiences. Sci-fi, vampires, and evangelical christianity are good examples of this: built-in audiences that so love the genre or topic, that they will gladly give an unknown a try. This is especially good if you’re self publishing online.
11) Write erotica for women. Erotica sales have skyrocketed ever since the introduction of e-readers. Women can now buy soft porn without embarrassment, and the numbers indicate they’re gobbling it up.
12) Write romance for women. Romance is the #1 selling genre in the United States (if not worldwide?), and the majority of the romance readers are women. Women, in general, buy more books than do men.
13) If all else fails, self-publish electronically, but be careful about disclosing your self-publishing past to a real publisher, who tend to see self-publishers as losers. The exception to this is if a self-published author has managed to attract a large fan base; then a publishing house will be happy to work with him or her.
14) For cold submissions, try something outrageous (but not offensive) that might catch the publisher’s eye. Publishers tend to see a lot of the same stuff, so if you can produce something unique, bizarre, yet high quality, it might receive more eyeball time than the typical fare.
15) Don’t despair when you read about publishing going the way of the dodo. While the internet has demolished paper journalism, book sales are still thriving, and if anything, are simply being augmented by ebooks (which, of course, is still a form of being published!). Remember, people thought VHS would mean the end of movie theaters, but people go to the theater more than ever, in addition to buying, renting, and streaming films. It’s your job to keep an eye on the kind of books that are selling: 50 Shades of Gray, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid have sold untold millions of print and electronic copies, and have made their authors fabulously wealthy.