- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

Best-selling novelist David Baldacci did not sell a single manuscript for 15 years.

Few people knew that after a full day of work, the trial attorney rushed downstairs to his home office at about 10 every night to write for another four hours. For years, he wrote in obscurity with no feedback except rejection slips, he says.

“If you love to write, you’ll keep going,” says Mr. Baldacci, a Fairfax County resident.

Mr. Baldacci published his first book, “Absolute Power,” in 1996 with the help of his literary agent, Aaron Priest Literary Agency in New York City. Since then, he’s kept the same agent, publishing nine additional national and international best-sellers, including his latest mystery thriller, “Hour Game,” in 2004.

Mr. Baldacci and area authors, writing instructors, editors and literary agents provide advice for writers who want to publish that first book.

“You have to develop a very thick skin because you will be bombarded with rejection slips. Trust me, I have a boxful,” says Robert L. Giron, a published poet and the editor and publisher of Gival Press LLC, an independent publishing house of fiction, nonfiction and poetry in Arlington. He is a professor of English at the Takoma Park campus of Montgomery College, a community college with three locations in Maryland.

Mr. Giron recommends that fiction writers and poets first publish in journals, magazines, newspapers and anthologies before trying to publish a book. Publishing in smaller media is a way to develop a portfolio and give credence to a writer’s work, he says.

“I look for somebody who has a resume that would indicate to me that they’re serious about writing,” Mr. Giron says.

Editors favor manuscripts from literary agents they trust or writers with whom they already are familiar, says Stephen Goodwin, professor of English at George Mason University in Fairfax. He has authored three novels, including his most recent, “Breaking Her Fall,” published in 2003.

“Unsolicited manuscripts are not likely to succeed or get much of a reading, if they get read at all,” Mr. Goodwin says. “There are so many writers that the famous slush pile doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Goodwin and many of those in the publishing industry say that finding a literary agent is a must for publishing book-length manuscripts.

Nearly all of the books published by major publishing houses, most of them in New York City, are represented by agents, says Gail Ross, literary agent, publishing consultant and lawyer with Gail Ross Literary Agency LLC in Northwest, which represents mainly nonfiction.

“The business has evolved in such a way, they count on the agent being the first reviewers,” Ms. Ross says, adding that writers who send their work directly to a publisher appear to not know much about the business.

Publishing houses read agented manuscripts first, says Kristin D. Godsey, editor of Writer’s Digest, a monthly magazine for writers that is owned by F&W; Publications in Cincinnati.

Editors and agents are looking for a fresh angle, a good voice, quality writing and something that catches their interest, Ms. Godsey says.

At the same time, “It’s so competitive, they’re looking for reasons to reject you,” she says.

A fiction manuscript typically requires a query letter to the agent and, if requested, sample chapters. For nonfiction manuscripts, a book proposal often is requested.

Nonfiction literary agent Audrey R. Wolf suggests that the book proposal provide a description of the book and include a chapter outline.

“For me, it’s better to have the first three chapters. I like to see how it progresses,” says Ms. Wolf, founder of the Audrey R. Wolf Literary Agency in Northwest.

Ms. Godsey suggests that the query letter be one page and provide a synopsis, note the book’s length and genre, and include the writer’s credentials. A proposal, she says, includes the research covered and level of expertise of the writer.

Writers looking for an agent are advised to check the agent’s track record and be wary of any advance or reading fees, since agents should earn their profits from the sale of the work, according to those in the publishing industry. Literary agents who might be interested in a particular manuscript can be identified by researching literary agent and publishing directories and industry magazines, they say.

Literary agents should know what types of books individual publishers are interested in buying and are aware of what can sell to the public, Mr. Goodwin says.

“They’re not sending out stuff blind. They are very focused and directed,” he says.

Once the book sells, writers are expected to participate in marketing their own books with their agents, who serve as authors’ representatives and publicists. Writers can do this by conducting readings at book discussion and writing groups, along with readings at bookstores and libraries. They can do book signings, make radio appearances and encourage book reviews.

“In the end, it’s word of mouth,” says Joseph Barbato, president of Washington Independent Writers, an 1,800-member nonprofit organization in Northwest that promotes the interests of freelance writers. He is a contributing editor for Publishers Weekly, an international news magazine about the book industry.

“It takes time to nurture and move along something,” Mr. Barbato says.

Smaller publishing houses have more time and staff than larger houses to dedicate to promoting new authors, he says.

Larger houses, however, can heavily promote a book they believe will do well, says Judith Appelbaum, author of “How to Get Happily Published” and managing director of Sensible Solutions Inc., a Mount Kisco, N.Y., company that helps authors and publishers market their books.

“Small houses can create best-sellers, too. Either way, it’s the author’s responsibility to stay involved in the marketing,” Ms. Appelbaum says.

As a last resort, writers can self-publish, Mr. Giron says. Alternatives include IUniverse and Xlibris, online self-publishing companies that require an up-front fee for a cover, an ISBN number and printing of the book, which will be printed and sold on demand.

“The drawback is you may not be able to get it in bookstores. It’s not considered a true publication because it’s self-published,” Mr. Giron says.

Writers also can take control of the publishing process and hire a short-run printer to print copies, then market their own book, Mr. Barbato says.

Ms. Godsey says that publishing can seem daunting from the amount of information a writer needs to learn and the competition in the industry.

“You just really need to have passion for your project, and you should love the writing,” she says. “Good writing will find a home, and it will get published.”

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