Author’s Note: Research!

When I first tried to publish my work, I read all the advice you normally read about query letters and summaries and what to do and what not to do and even how to go about researching which publishers to send to.

I thought to myself, “Research?! I don’t have the time or money to go buy eight zillion books and read five books from each publisher to get an idea of the many kinds of plot lines they’ll publish!”  I didn’t realize I was making my life much harder than it needed to be.

Since I’ve recently finished writing a new romance novel, I thought I might take you through the researching steps–the easy way. I’ve worked with publishers before, but they’ve been small up and coming publishers; time to jump to the big leagues, which means researching new publishers! (I’ll add in notes about researching things other than romance novels, but to start with it’s all very similar!)

I already know one important thing: what kind of book I’ve written. You’ll know, when you write, whether it’s a high fantasy or contemporary fantasy; I know I’ve written a paranormal romance. So I can start there.

For the rest, what I have to research is the tone of the books being published (fluff/drama/comedy), the content of the books (for my purposes, werewolves), the length of books being published, and–specific to romance–how graphic the sex scenes are. Some of this varies from author to author, but in general a publisher looks for similar things.

So a few weeks ago, I started the hunt for books. Initially, I hit, hoping I could get books for free. Then I hit Amazon, but in both cases there was a problem: if I didn’t recognize the publisher or author, I had no way of knowing if it was a big publisher or a little publisher. I finally gave up and went to a used book store, my assumption being that if it was in print in book stores, it was probably a big publisher. A library would work as well, I just don’t have a library card. Bad author!

Once at the used book store, I perused books. I also firmly told myself I COULD NOT go buying any book I dang well pleased. Instead, I looked for paranormal romance novels. I already know that’s what I wrote, so my genre was easy enough. If you’re doing this for fantasy, you might have to pull books off the shelf and read the back to see if it’s contemporary, historical, high fantasy and so on. Romance publishers put it right on the spine.

If I found multiple books by a single publisher, then I’d skim the back to see if any of them were like mine in either tone (focus on the romance, with only a side plot of mystery) or content (werewolves). If there was, I bought that one. If there wasn’t, I still bought one. Just because I didn’t see it there doesn’t mean they aren’t publishing it; if I find one that is even a little like mine in either tone or content, I’ll take a closer look at that publisher. Sometimes reading the back doesn’t tell you everything.

Once I’d gotten one book from each paranormal romance publisher I could find (about 10 books in all for a cost of $35) I bought them and headed home. Fast readers could possibly skim in the store to find what they need to; I’m not a fast reader, and my comprehension is low. I buy the books and take them home!

So already I had several steps accomplished: I knew who some paranormal romance publishers were (genre), and I had their websites (published on the first page) so I could look up submission guidelines if they should be appropriate. I had a rough idea of content, but for those books that didn’t have my exact content, I wanted to see if they had anything vaguely like it, or, barring that, if they were willing to push the boundaries.  I also needed information on tone, length, level of sexual content, and if I could find it, agents.

I didn’t tell you that part, did I? Sometimes an author will put an acknowledgement to their agent in the book, so that’s always a happy bonus. Gives me someplace to start, when I need to find an agent–which will be my next step.

Getting the length of the book isn’t hard. I flipped to the back page and looked at the number. I also checked the print; small print indicates roughly 300 words per page, and large print roughly 250. In this way I can calculate out how many words my manuscript should be. For agents, I checked the acknowledgements. As I found each bit of information, I wrote it down.

Tone, content, and sexual content were something else. For tone and content I have to read the book, though if I find I don’t like the book (which has happened) then skimming will do. I don’t need to know the details of what’s happening in the storyline, after all, I just need to know if it sounds like my book. Tone is whether or not it’s romance-focused, action-focused, character-focused, tense, funny, etc. There’s always a tone to a book, and it matters. Sharon Shinn and Isaac Asimov are both sci fi authors, but I wouldn’t expect their books to have a similar tone, in spite of the fact that both of them write stories that take place in the future, on other worlds. Shinn writes character-driven, romance-oriented novels. Asimov writes plot-driven, science-heavy novels. I don’t want to send my book somewhere that’s publishing dark, gritty romance, when mine is pretty light-hearted.

Content is also important. Some publishers are very traditional; they don’t want to take a chance, so they publish only what will definitely sell. Vampires, traditional werewolves, lately demon hunters. If I can’t find less ordinary werewolves (like mine), I’ll look for something else non-traditional. (The book about aliens will require further research; if they’ll publish that, they might publish werewolves that don’t act like your typical werewolf. However, they might also publish only sci-fi paranormal. Like I said: further research.)

While I’m skimming, I’m also going to look for sexual content. This is romance novel specific, but very important.  Publishers will turn down a book that’s too graphic, or ask you to bump up a scene that isn’t graphic enough. There are other specifics to other genres, and if you’ve read tons of books in that genre, you’ll probably have some idea what it is. (Hard science vs soft science in sci fi, otherworldly fantasy vs contemporary magic in fantasy, and so on.)

As I get this information, I write it down. My current format looks like this:

[Author] – [Book Title]
[imprint] – [publishing house]
[sex] [(including language used)] ~[Page count], ~[Words Per Page, best guess]
[tone] [agent]

Author and book title are obvious. A single publishing house has many imprints, which for these purposes might as well be separate publishing houses. Typically, each imprint publishes something specific, so if I have two imprints by the same publishing house on my list, I’ll take another look and see which is the best fit. Sexual content and language used are for romance novels specifically, and the language used tells me what’s acceptable. (Publishers can be very picky.) Tone, agent, content–I think these are pretty self-explanatory.

So, for a real example:

Marjorie Liu – The Fire King
Leisure Paranormal Romance – Dorchester Pub.
Semi-graphic sex (“penis,” “wet”) ~ 300p, ~ 300 wpp
Action. Agent – Lucienne Diver.
Multiple shifters, non-traditional.

Jennifer Lynn – Blood Magic
Ballantine/Del Rey – Random House pub
~360 p ~250 wpp
Action. No agent.
Demons and witches, magic. Very traditional.

Kat Martin – Season of Strangers
Mira – Mira pub.
~426p ~300wpp
No agent
Aliens. Highly non-traditional.

You can see that I haven’t finished the Lyon or Martin book yet, and there are about seven more to go. By the time I finish, though, I’ll have a good idea of where my book falls, and what editing I need to do for it to meet the standards of most of the publishing houses. There might be some tweaking after that, but overall, I’ll know where to start.

Did this give me a giant overview of each publisher and all possibilities? No, and I might miss several publishers entirely. But I also have some idea of who to look at closer, so something will crop up–and that’s all I need. And even better, it wasn’t completely overwhelming!

Posted on February 23, 2011 at 19:25 by JB McDonald · Permalink
In: Columns, The Written Word · Tagged with: , ,