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  1. #1
    Gary Kessler

    "Am I Published?"

    I have discerned lurking around in the background on the WritersNet discussion boards the question not directly addressed recently of "am I published?"

    I think that in every respect but one, this question is one that is self-judged based on self-perception. If you have made something you've written available to readers in either print or electronic form and you want to consider yourself published, I think it's fine for you to make that decision and to have that self-perception. If someone else disagrees with your call, that also is fine for their perception--but I don't think there is any need or purpose for one party to force their perception onto the other.

    The one exception to this--and it's a crucial one for those who are trying to find an agent and traditional publisher for a subsequent work--is in providing a publishing history in a query letter. In this case, your goal is to make a favorable impression on the agent or publisher you are querying, and what is important here is not your perception of the publishing status of the works you identify in your history but the agent's or publisher's perception of that publishing status. You need to accept that traditional publishers are naturally prone not to consider anything as "published" that hasn't been published by traditional publishers. This would be their natural perception and it's largely based on their financial and self-esteem need to keep other forms of producing books at an subordinate level to their own.

    When an agent or publisher looks at the publishing history you provide in a query letter, they will have a sliding scale of how they perceive your previous works--from both Pulitzer and Noble prize-winning best-seller published by a major publisher and going on to become an Academy Award-winning motion picture (at the top) to copied on an ancient Xerox producing streaks down the paper and handed out at a family picnic (at the bottom). They will consider not only whether they think the works you claimed as previously published actually were published but how well they were published (and how much, in either event, they sold).

    With one caveat, it would be better that you not claim previous works at all than that the agent or publisher get the impression that you are overrepresenting the value of your publishing history. The caveat is that, if you have actually produced a book-length work and somehow got it produced for distribution, this does indicate you can complete such a project. And in this case, it would be good for you to somehow get that information into your query letter.

    So, where are the likely thresholds of what an agent or traditional publisher would consider published--first, published at all, and second, satisfactorily published?

    An aside here. The method of printing of your book--either preprint runs, common with traditional publishers, or print-on-demand, common with many companies whose status as "publisher" is questioned--has nothing to do with whether your book has been published or not. Book producers on both sides of the published/not published line use both methods of printing.

    At the very base, I don't think you would be wise to claim to be "published" at all unless your work had been (A) selected by someone else to publish and that that someone else didn't accept everything that was offered and (B)--the kicker--that the someone else who selected the work to be published accepted a significant portion of the risk in getting the work published.

    Below this baseline would be such "producers" as vanity presses (such as Dorrance, Minerva, and Infinity) and such self-publishing arrangements as those offered by Xlibris, iUniverse, and 1stBooks. All of these claim that they fulfill requirement A above (they all list types of material they won't produce) but they do so only to a limited degree (making little or no judgment of acceptability within the genres they do produce). None of them, however, fulfill requirement B above. The author covers all of the expenses and takes all of the risk on the book.

    A "published" threshold example is the much maligned (on these boards) PublishAmerica. This company fulfills both requirements A and B above at a minimal level. PublishAmerica is selective. (Many posters on the board have doubted this, but I have researched and tested this, and I have found that PublishAmerica is selective--albeit with low thresholds--within the genres its accepts.) PublishAmerica also takes the upfront risk of covering the production costs itself.

    So, by the definitions I've set forth, a book released by PublishAmerica could be called published. The kicker with how you phrase this in a query letter, however, is that an agent and traditional publisher will consider this book to have been badly published (and the resulting impression they take from this in relation to the book you are now offering is a subjective one that only they can form and be motivated by). I put PublishAmerica as an example at the lowest rung of "published," because PA has a very low threshold of selection and it takes a very low risk. It produces badly published books because it has extremely low editorial standards--if it has them at all; it charges high prices (to quickly make up for the low risk it took up front); it has no returns policy and therefore can't get its books into the center of the marketplace; and it does little to promote its books (it's purposely in the business to minimally produce questionably publishable books for a quick-in, quick-out low profit).

    Still and all, a book released through PublishAmerica is better--and more legitimately claimed as published--than a book released by a vanity press or self-publishing company that doesn't fulfill requirements A and B above even as well as PA does.

    So, what to do in a query letter if you have previously produced a book that probably won't impress an agent or publisher as having been published?

    I suggest that you do mention this previous history--it does show you have had practice writing and are capable of completing a book-length project. But I suggest that you write around the "published" word. You might start off with a phrase such as "Although not formally published," and then use words other than "published." For instance, you could say, "Although not formally published, two of my earlier espionage novels, 'Boris Assassinated Pierre' and 'Pierre Wasn't Really Dead,' were released by the royalty-paying SpiesRU Press." And what would really be useful would be if you could tack on an "each of which has sold more than 2,000 copies since 1999 and 2001, respectively."

    Reiterating, the point of this is not to define "published" to everyone's mutual satisfaction. The point is that when you are giving a publishing history in a query letter, what is important is what the agent or publisher you are querying thinks the definition is of being published, and being satisfactorily published--not your own perception. And if your goal is to sell the agent or publisher on this new offering, your query letter needs to deal with their perceptions, not yours.

  2. #2
    Pat Cooper

    Re: "Am I Published?"

    Very interesting points, Gary. And thank you for taking the time to set them out.

    As usual, I have fallen somewhere between the cracks.

    I was given two grants--one from the local board of ed to produce a self help book for students on how to write effective résumés and prepare themselves for a job search. This was reprinted a couple of times and reached beyond its original borders.

    The second was from the govenrment to co-author a report (200 pages) on a specific subject (which I don't think anybody ever read anyway).

    I really had no intention of mentioning either of these in a query letter--but, should I perhaps mention the first one?

    My WIP is a memoir, which comes under non-fiction.

    It would be nice to be able to include in a query letter that I'm published. But I believe you said that we could also mention the Anthology too.


  3. #3
    Gary Kessler

    Re: "Am I Published?"

    Pat: You don't say how the two non-fiction works were published, but on the basis of what you did say, I don't know why there would be a problem saying these were published. You were selected to write them by someone footing a significant amount, if not all, of the bill. If the government bodies you mentioned then sponsored the publishing, these are respectable publishers. I'd certainly mention them both in query letters on your memoir, because they sound respectable, represented large completed writing projects, and were also nonfiction.

    Yes, I do think everyone's whose work is in the WritersNet Anthology (except for mine--because I did the selecting; but traditionally an anthology editor does include some of his/her own work) can be called published. But I don't want to overplay being able to say they are well-published, so I'd probably mention this in a query letter, as appropriate, but in subdued tones. The material was selected, but the threshold was lower than usual. (The purpose of the exercise was to work with what showed up and to try to help make it publishable--not to publish just the best of what was submitted.) Also, although there are perfectly good reasons why we went with iUniverse as the publisher of this one, iUniverse isn't accepted by traditional publishers as a publisher. So if you got into the position of having to name the publisher, you'd also have to go through hoops explaining that the book was the result of selection, it did have a sponsor (WritersNet), and that it was professionally edited and that this publisher was used primarily to get the anthology out quickly (such a work would have a hard row to hoe to be published by a traditional publisher) and to have it available for on-line order across continental borders with no promotion required. Better just to dwell on the good aspects if possible when mentioning it as a publishing credit in query letters.

  4. #4
    Pat Cooper

    Re: "Am I Published?"

    Thanks Gary.

    I'm still not decided. The board of ed in question commissioned this book and provided funds for me to do the whole production thing--including getting it printed at a local press. So this would come under the heading of vanity printing, which is a little iffy in my mind.

    However, when it came to the second and third printing, they printed it at the Board's print shop. As it had an IBSN number, it was subsequently picked up by libraries in different parts of the country. This was 1989, so of course, it's not still around, although I still have a few copies kept for posterity!

    Maybe it was such a little deal, it's not worth bothering about.


  5. #5
    Gary Kessler

    Re: "Am I Published?"

    Pat: If the board of ed commissioned it and paid someone outside of the board of ed to write, they are the publisher--doesn't make any difference who put it together or who printed it. This isn't remotely related to vanity publishing--especially your role in the project.

  6. #6
    Pat Cooper

    Re: "Am I Published?"

    Thanks Gary -- that eases my mind considerably.

    The connotation--and the concept--of vanity publishing was jarring to me.


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