So You Want to be an Author

By Lise Funderburg

May 1998

As an editor for the publisher Henry Holt and Co., Tracy Sherrod dedicates herself to finding new talent. For those trying to break in, she offers these practical tips:

Only the strong survive: “The first thing I tell people is that this is a very competitive marketplace. I receive at least five agented manuscripts and about six unsolicited (unagented) proposals and query letters each day. The only time editors have to read these is in the evening, after putting in a ten-hour day, or on the weekends. That’s a lot of material to get through.”

Dot those I’s, cross those T’s: “Professional presentation is crucial. This means no handwritten notes, letters with typos, or bad Xeroxes of form letters with an editor’s name written in at the top. Don’t bind the pages together — editors often like to take home a chunk at a time. Double space and number the pages. You can learn all about standard styles of presentation from the many books about publishing and the writing business at the library.”

Don’t call us: “The most important rule is not to call an editor — ever. People will call to see if I’m interested in seeing their work, then to see if I’ve received it, then to see if I’ve read it. Calling too much gets on the nerves of editors because most of us are so overextended. If you would like your work returned after the editor has reviewed it, enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.”

Be patient: ‘Writer Walter Mosley

had a manuscript rejected 15 times before he finally sold his first book. Consider hiring a literary agent to help with the legwork (they’ll take 10 to 15 percent of any profits). You can find a reputable agent (don’t use the ones who charge you for looking at your work) in the guides to literary agents available at any library. Query agents in the same way you would an editor. Good luck and keep reading and writing.”