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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 10

Selling your work, selling yourself

In order to be published in the professional literature, you need to develop the ability to sell your ideas to editors. Thinking in terms of "selling", especially if you are writing for peer-reviewed publications, can seem strange – particularly given that marketing is not always among our strengths as librarians.

The reality, though, is that you are selling yourself and your ideas whenever you put your ideas or your work out there. Your ultimate goal is to convince an editor that your work is appropriate for him to publish; you do so by marketing yourself. You can think of effective marketing as a variation on the old "who, what, when, where, why, and how" series of questions:

  • Who are you? Show that you are the right person to write the article, book, or other work.
  • What is the work about? Be able to explain it succinctly yet accurately.
  • When should the work appear? Is it topical now? Will it be topical by the time it appears in print?
  • Where is the best place for this work to appear; can you picture it in this journal or among this publisher's offerings?
  • Why should an editor publish it?
  • How is it appropriate for the readers of this journal or target audience of this publisher?

Before you can even think about selling your idea or your work to an editor, you need to be able to sell it to yourself. Devote time to thinking and talking about your topic, bounce ideas off of colleagues, and take the time you need to clarify your thoughts. If you are unable to summarize the subject of your book or article or work in a couple of sentences when talking to a colleague, you probably lack the focus to sell it to an editor.

Effective query letters

When you write for non-peer-reviewed publications, you will often be asked to submit a query letter describing the topic, focus, and content of your proposed article before actually sitting down to write the piece. This saves you from taking the time to complete a whole article and then finding out it is inappropriate for, or unwanted by, a given publication.

Whenever I put out a call for queries for my electronic newsletter, I receive incomplete, oddly formatted, and inappropriate submissions. Although potential contributors are enthusiastic, I often cannot tell from their messages what they want to write about or why they might be qualified. Although they have interesting ideas, their topics often fail to fit into the scope and tone of the publication.

One query I recently received read, in its entirety: "I'd like to write for the next issue, so send me the deadline". This is less a query letter than a demand, leaving me with no idea who the potential author is, what she plans to write about, or why I should publish her work. Another aspiring author sent, in its entirety, a 20 page footnoted academic article. My publication guidelines call for 800-1,000-word conversational articles around thematic issues. Neither of these approaches made a positive impression.

Before writing your query letter, take time to look at a publication, any back issues or articles it makes available, and its contributor guidelines. Think about the "who, what, when, where, why, and how" series of questions above, and have your answers formulated – your letter will then pretty much write itself! Query letters in many ways parallel the cover letters you write when seeking employment; you show how you match a publication outlet's needs, just as you would show how you match an employer's needs. If sending a paper query, keep it to a page, and keep e-mailed queries similarly brief; practice selling yourself and your work concisely and effectively.

Effective cover letters and abstracts

When you publish in the peer-reviewed literature, you will instead of a query often be asked to submit a finished piece of work with a cover letter and/or abstract that summarizes its content and goals. Generally, abstracts run 100-250 words (this will be spelled out in the journal guidelines). An abstract briefly summarizes the purpose of your paper, your methodology, your argument, and your conclusion(s). Here again, the practise you went through in learning to succinctly describe your topic to colleagues will come in handy.

In your cover letter, describe your article briefly, and supply any important information. Are you submitting it for a particular section of the journal, a special issue, or an upcoming thematic issue? For a multi-authored work, identify one contact author and include full contact information; this person will be responsible for any communications with the editor. If the publisher's guidelines ask for specific verbiage to be included in the cover letter (for example, assigning copyright to the journal), be sure to do so – and be sure you know what you are agreeing to.

Effective book proposals

The content and format of your book proposal will vary, depending on the guidelines of your target publisher. Most supply detailed proposal outlines online; be sure to follow a given publisher's format and style when submitting yours. Each, though, asks for similar basic elements. These often include items such as: a description of the proposed work (more practise in succinctly summarizing your topic!), an annotated table of contents, a biographical statement, a sample chapter (and/or other writing samples), a description of the potential market, a list of competing works, and delivery details.

Potential authors are often intimidated by the length of a book proposal and the amount of work required with no guarantee of success. It may help, though, to look at a proposal as merely a lengthier version of a query letter, covering the same "who, what, when, where, why, and how" type of questions. Its greater length is appropriate, given the greater commitment you and a publisher are making to one another in working together on a book-length project.

Working on a proposal, further, can help you clarify and organize your own thoughts about your potential book. The process of creating the table of contents and describing the work will help you determine if you really do have a book-length idea, or whether your topic might be better off as an article.

Effective selling

As in any other aspect of publishing, you improve your odds of success by giving editors what they are looking for and remaining professional in all of your communications. This is especially important in an initial communication, such as a query, cover letter, or book proposal – these offer your best chance at making a good first impression. Put the same thought into these documents as into your other writing; if an editor sees that you can create an effective letter or proposal, she will be more likely to take a chance on your longer work.