All right, I am substantially less grumpy today, due in large part to memoir-related negotiations that I am not, as usual, at liberty to discuss. Here’s a hint, though: by mid-October, I may be able to tell you the ENTIRE story about why the book hasn’t come out yet, in vivid Technicolor.

In the meantime, I have some housekeeping to do today: my desktop is piled high with unanswered questions from readers (well, my virtual desktop is, anyway), all of which richly deserve answers. Practical questions, too, the kind that everyone wants answered. For instance, clever and insightful reader Claire wrote to ask:

“Suppose an agent wants to see your whole manuscript. Does one send it in a box? With enough postage inside for them to return it? How does the whole SASE thing work for an entire manuscript? Thanks.”

Claire, thanks for asking this: I can’t tell you how many last-minute, panicked phone calls and e-mails I’ve gotten on this very point – I think perhaps the writers in question just start looking up freelance editors on line while they’re about to rush off to the post office, and call every phone number until they catch someone who knows.

The answer is no, not anymore. In the old days – say, 30+ years ago – the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

So if you can get it there in one piece box-free (say, if it is short enough to fit into a Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Remember, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

If not, find an inexpensive box – if you live in the greater Seattle area, Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. The craft chain store Michael’s also carries a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting, as do some office supply stories. However, these boxes are generally a tad on the expensive side, and they are often too deep for the average manuscript, so you will need to add some bubble wrap or other filler. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)

But whatever you do, don’t reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. (Yes, it’s been known to happen.)

Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. (Trust me, sometimes they have trouble figuring it out.)

My preferred method is to use one of those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so I usually add padding to keep the unbound manuscript (for those of you who don’t know: never bind a manuscript in any way) from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.

Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I either enclose the label and postage, as I described above, or, if I really don’t think that I’m going to be getting it back anytime soon, just nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it, right? Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

My, that was a long answer to a simple question, wasn’t it? On to the next, which is actually two in one:

“Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying and 2) the role of a web site, not only to promote a current book but to sell the next one (if, indeed it is of any use in selling the next one). I sure would appreciate it.
Thanks, MooCrazy”

Happy to, Moo – but as I have a LOT to say on the issue of titles, pray forgive me if I take your second question first, and delay the first until tomorrow. (If you reread that question four or six more times, you will find that it honestly does make sense, I promise.)

Pretty much anyone in the industry will tell an aspiring writer to set up a website for herself and her book before the ink is dry on the publication contract, but in my experience, not everyone who gives this advice is entirely clear WHY it is a good idea. Amongst the computer-illiterate (a group to which a surprisingly high percentage of inmates of publishing houses and agencies seem to belong), it is not uncommon to regard websites as magical attractors of customers for any business. These are, lest we forget, the people who actually believed it when Internet-promoters predicted ten years ago that supermarkets, shoe stores, and other in-person buying experiences would be wiped out forever by online purchasing.

The industry’s thinking about the web has not, alas, changed much in the intervening decade. Oh, they know now that bloggers exist — at least, they know about the bloggers who get millions of hits daily — but as the regular blog readers among you have probably already noticed, they haven’t seemed to have been able to figure out that a blog’s readership will have ALREADY read the entries on the blog; when they buy a book by a blogger whose work they have followed for some time, they want to see something NEW.

But I digress. My point is, publishers tell writers to set up websites, and sometimes even do it for them, and admittedly, it is a fine thing if a potential book buyer who has heard your name elsewhere can run a basic internet search on your name and find information on your book. However, the resulting websites tend to be tombstones. They are static; since the content never changes, except perhaps to note different dates on a book tour, there’s no reason for your potential readers ever to go there more than once.

Perhaps as a blogger, I am prejudiced, but I think this is an inefficient use of a website. It’s basically just a roadside sign along a very busy, very advertisement-heavy highway. Yes, someone may see it, but there’s a whole lot of competition to wade through first.

The big search engines reward websites whose content changes often — that’s why blogs tend to shoot up the Google lists. (Also, the more content you have to be indexed, the more different kinds of searches will lead to your website.) So if you’re going to invest in a website, and you want to have it be an effective promotional tool, it’s a good idea to plan in advance to make the time to change the content often.

Have you considered writing a blog, for instance?

Don’t get me wrong – like any other kind of advertising, it’s generally better to have a website than not to have one. It is genuinely nice if people who have fallen in love with your first book have a logical place to check in to see when your second is coming out. There is nothing to stop you, either, from creating a “Join my mailing list” button on your website, to make it easier for you to send out e-mails to your fans when there is breaking news about your next book.

However, in my experience with the industry, there is one thing that a blog will NEVER do for an author: be a substitute for submission pages. Counterintuitive, isn’t it, when agents and editors keep yammering about how authors should have blogs? I have heard agents complain ENDLESSLY about writers who include web addresses in their query letters, expecting the agents to make the time to log on and check out their prose there. “Like I have the time to search for the work of someone I don’t know,” they scoff.

Unless you are already a well-established blogger – and sometimes not even then – it just doesn’t work.

By all means, though, if you are marketing a book to agents and editors, mention that you have a website, if you do; in their minds, it will mean that you are serious about helping promote your book. If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, definitely mention that erecting a website is part of your promotion plan.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of the craftier of you out there cry. “If they never check submitters’ websites, why shouldn’t I just go ahead and SAY I already have a website, if it’s a selling point?

For the sake of your karma, for one thing. Or immortal soul, if you prefer to think of it that way. Or just because it’s not very nice to lie to people. And maybe, just maybe, yours would be the one time in the last fifteen years an agent actually did take the time to take a gander at a writer’s website.

I hope that answers your questions, Moo and Claire. The other part of Moo’s question follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep those good questions rolling in, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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