Janet Ruth Heller On Querying Publishers

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT- Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Janet Ruth Heller. Janet is a poet, literary critic, college professor, essayist, playwright, and fiction writer. She is a past president of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, and is currently president of the Michigan College English Association. She has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago, and has published three books of poetry: Exodus (WordTech Communications, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011).

She is the founding mother and former editor of Primavera, a literary magazine. Primavera has won awards from Chicago Women in Publishing and the Illinois Arts Council and grants from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and the National Endowment for the Arts. Primavera was among the first journals to publish work by writers like Louise Erdrich.

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

I usually think about an idea that I have for a story for a while, planning in my head, and then start writing. When I have a decent draft, I take the story to my writers’ group members to get their reactions. Usually, the group wants me to develop the characters and the situation and to add more dialogue. I also think about new aspects for the story. Then, I make revisions and eventually show the revised work to the writers’ group again. Often, the group wants further revisions, so I work on the story more. This process gets repeated many times. When my writers’ group and I are satisfied with the manuscript, I send it out to potential publishers.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

If I count all of the revisions, it takes me at least a year to write a novel, sometimes up to seven years.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I usually have more than one project that I’m working on. I’m usually working on a poetry book, a children’s story, a scholarly article, and my memoir. I also do writing for nonprofit organizations to help them with publicity for events.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I was lucky because my elementary school teachers gave creative writing assignments and recognized my writing talent. For example, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Messias, dittoed a poem that I wrote and gave copies to all of the students in my class. I guess that was my first publication. And I have been publishing individual poems, stories, scholarly articles, and essays since the mid-1970s. So I am not fearful when I write.

However, some writing projects are more difficult than others. For my doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago, I wrote a history of the idea that tragic dramas should be read, rather than performed. I had never done a history of ideas project before, so I had to learn how to trace concepts across centuries.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I do not have an agent. I have found publishers for all of my books myself by doing research about various editors and publishing companies. I have eight children’s story manuscripts that I’m trying to find presses for right now.

Have you ever quit on a manuscript, and how did you know it was time?

I rarely quit writing a manuscript. But I have some unfinished stories that I may return to in the future. Often, I take very short poems and later combine them into a longer, more polished piece.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

I do a lot of research before sending a query to an agent or a publisher. I make sure that the agent or editor is interested in the type of work that I want to send. I look at websites, essays that the person has published about his or her preferences, the list of books that the individual has agented or published, etc. I read newsletters for writers and magazines like The Writer’s Chronicle, The Writer, and Poets & Writers magazine. 

For example, I found out on the listserve for the Michigan chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that Arbordale Publishing was looking for picture book manuscripts related to science. I sent Arbordale two science-related stories, and one got accepted two weeks later: How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 4th edition 2014).  

This book about bullying and about the solar system has won four national awards:  a Book Sense Pick in 2006, a Children’s Choices selection for 2007, a Benjamin Franklin Award for 2007, and a Gold Medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards for 2007. In 2009, How the Moon Regained Her Shape was one of five finalists for the Patricia Gallagher Picture Book Award given by the Oregon Reading Association.

How did that feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

I was very excited to see my revised doctoral thesis, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press) in print in 1990. However, my books for children have more readers and give me more opportunities to share my work with the public. When my picture book about bullying How the Moon Regained Her Shape came out in 2006, I went to many schools, libraries, bookstores, and conferences to talk about my book and about thwarting bullies. Because I had been badly bullied as a child in elementary school, I found it very healing to help other children understand bullying and to teach them how to stand up to abusive people. Also, I brought How the Moon Regained Her Shape to my family’s holiday gathering and listened as my nieces and nephews passed the book around, each reading a page or two. I love watching children read my books to themselves at my speaking and autographing events: they are reading my words!

How much input do you have on cover art?

I had one bad experience when the publisher, without telling me, put artwork on the cover that I had designated for the middle of the book. The cover illustration looked good, but it did not fit the overall subject matter of the book. After that frustrating situation, I have insisted on approving the cover art for all of my works.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

Because I began my career publishing poems, essays, scholarly books, and articles for adults, I had to learn from Donna German, the editor at Arbordale Publishing, that children’s books have to fit a small range of reading levels. For example, authors write picture books for children in first, second, or third grade. I had to revise some of my sentences in How the Moon Regained Her Shape to shorten them and to use fewer polysyllabic words. Similarly, my middle-grade chapter book The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015) is written for children in third grade through eighth grade.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

I do a lot of my own marketing. My website is here. I am also active on LinkedIn and Facebook. There are groups for writers and illustrators of books for children on LinkedIn and Facebook.  

I speak at many schools, book fairs, libraries, and bookstores every year.  I also attend many conferences to speak about my books and issues related to my books, such as bullying, multicultural literature, and creative writing.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I think that writers should build their platforms early in their careers so that people can find out information about each person’s work. Publishers like authors who have their own websites and are comfortable using the social media to publicize their writing. Most publishers expect writers to help with promoting books.

Do you think social media help build your readership?

Yes, I think that social media help to increase the number of people who read my books. Many individuals have seen my posts on LinkedIn, Facebook, or my website and then ask to connect to me. Some of these people are librarians and teachers who may choose to share my books with their libraries and schools. Other readers are parents or grandparents who may purchase my books for their children and grandchildren.

Some authors are already famous actors or artists before they write books, but most writers begin as unknowns. Arbordale Publishing’s Lee German told me that most people need to see information about a book seven times before they purchase that book. Therefore, we unknown authors need to use any legal tool at our disposal to increase our name recognition, explain the concepts in our books, and maximize publicity for our work.