Classic wisdom for unpublished authors seeking traditional publication has been this:
If you’re writing a novel (fiction), you need a complete manuscript. If you’re writing non-fiction, you need a book proposal plus two or three sample chapters. If you’re writing a memoir, who knows — everybody has a different opinion.
Here’s what is true and will always be true: unpublished fiction authors MUST have a complete novel before trying to get an agent or publisher. No question, no exceptions.
But things are changing in publishing, especially when it comes to non-fiction. In some ways, the standards are higher. It’s more of a risk for a publisher to say “yes” to an unproven author. And in light of this reality, I’m going to make a bold and probably controversial suggestion.
No matter what you’re writing, even if you’re already published, even if it’s non-fiction or memoir:
Why would I say such a thing? A few reasons:
Recently I’ve been submitting proposals to publishers with the entire manuscript attached rather than just a few sample chapters. Without exception, editors are telling me how much they appreciate me sending them the entire book. It takes away so much of their risk and guess-work. Even though they’re planning to edit the book, they know exactly what they’re getting. They know for sure that the author can deliver a manuscript that satisfies from beginning to end.
There have been instances when I sent the entire manuscript to an editor, and soon I was told that the editors, the sales people, and the marketing people had all read the manuscript cover-to-cover. When that many people at a publishing house have that “can’t put it down” feeling, it leaves no doubt in their minds about whether they can sell this book. They experienced the book themselves, and they’ve already begun to develop a vision for how they can sell it. Their confidence in the value of the book is high.
When several members of the publishing committee all have a strong gut-level “buy in” on your book, they naturally want to try and acquire it. They’re much more likely to put an offer on the table because of the certainty about the product they’re acquiring. This is completely different from the more common scenario — a strong proposal and some killer sample chapters that still leave them waffling a bit as they wonder… will the rest of the book deliver what this proposal says it will? Is this going to be a satisfying reading experience, making people want to recommend the book to their friends?
One of the things I’ve been learning over the last few years is how very difficult it is to write an entire book when you’re contractually obligated to a deadline, and you’ve never written a complete 60,000-to-100,000 word piece before. You have no idea what it’s going to take until you do it. You may be uber-confident you can deliver the entire thing and have it be awesome, but publishers know this isn’t always the case. The best way to set yourself up for success is to prove to both yourself and your potential publisher that you can do it — by having it already done.
What do you think? Have you heard this advice before? Are you willing to write a whole book before trying to sell it? Is it worth it?
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