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How to Get Your Book Published : AN INSIDER'S GUIDE by Herbert W. Bell (Writers Digest: $15.95; 252 pp.)

March 09, 1986|Sandra Dijkstra | Dijkstra is a literary agent in Del Mar, Calif. and

Herbert W. Bell has written this book for new writers who "usually have only a hearsay knowledge of the publishing process, what is expected of them, and what they should reasonably expect from their publishers." To combat the relative ignorance and helplessness of the new author, Bell offers to "explain the whole publishing process, from manuscript development through publication and sale, with an emphasis on issues vital to authors." He hopes that, armed with this information, "authors may be better able to write publishable manuscripts, select the right publishers for their projects, negotiate better publishing terms, and in so doing, be more fully rewarded for their creative work."

He fulfills his promise to some extent, offering readers a broad but superficial and sometimes partial view of these crucial stages in the publishing process. A veteran of 33 years in publishing, the majority spent at McGraw-Hill in a variety of capacities, Bell's background provides him with a wealth of information, but most of it comes from the publisher's side of the table.

He attempts an ambitious tour of the publishing world, defining and describing the diverse "nations" which constitute it: trade, mass-market, professional, text, mail-order, book club and scholarly. Of necessity, this is a "if it's Tuesday, this must be Belgium" kind of tour, still Bell does provide a unique all-in-one-book look at publishing, offering the basics, even managing a brief stop at such watering holes as the "chains" which now claim about 60% of all sales of trade books.

Also, because of his effort to present this entire world in 200-plus pages, he can only briefly touch upon the effects of such new trends as the domination of book selling by the chains and of publishing decisions by marketing people, the mass-marketing of hardcover books, the absorption and/or fall of mid-size houses by the giants, and the audio- and videocassette boom. His one how-to "these times" seems strangely dated: a brief chapter on writing software. He omits one new trend which rarely but significantly offers authors entree: self-publishing, the route taken by the authors of "The One-Minute Manager," to mention one recent and successful example.

Writers and publishers are, according to Bell, partners in a business yielding precarious and narrow profits. He provides authors with some tips on how to improve their salability, instructing them briefly on proposal-writing and market-psyching, but accords proportionately more space to the other aspects of the publishing process. His advice on marketing one's own manuscript is of use, but he omits one key point: Submissions should be addressed to appropriate editors, not to "Random House" in its entirety!

While he allows that "such a small percentage of unsolicited trade book proposals result in contracts that editors treat them as junk mail," he entitles the chapter, "Choosing a Publisher," a luxury few new authors attain, and counsels them to risk that approach rather than try to find (an agent) who is willing." He views agents with caution and some disdain, a stance that editors and authors today can ill-afford, given today's emphasis on name authors and the bottom line.

Sections on contracts and the publishing process itself are helpful, but do tend to present the publisher's point of view as unquestionably reasonable and correct. Apart from a disturbing number of typos, the text is clearly written, and Bell has provided a service in offering such a wide range of valuable and up-to-date information. One glaring error, probably attributable to a typographer, may stun mass-market publishers: a royalty schedule of 6% on the first 15,000 copies, 8% on the next, increasing to 10% thereafter. Add a zero to those sales figures and you have reached reality.

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