Republishing Public Domain Stories, Plus Other Questions: Magic Bullet Q&A for Writers

Q: I am very new to all this and I have found a children's
book in the public domain I would like to keep pretty much as it
is and get it published. I am sure I cannot just copy it and send
it off to a publisher—or can I?

—Alix Mosley

A: Well, think about it this way: Shakespeare’s works are
also in the public domain, but can you copy and submit it to a publisher
as your own work? No. Shakespeare remains the author, and just because
his work entered the public domain doesn’t mean the authorship
can transfer to someone else. However, public domain works can be
published, copied, parodied, manipulated, sold, and distributed
by anyone. (A caveat: Certain editions, translations, or collections
of public domain works can be copyrighted.)

For the type of work you’ve discovered—probably an
obscure children’s book that no one remembers—a publisher
may be interested in re-issuing it, if they see a market for it.
At best, the publisher would acknowledge you (maybe monetarily)
for bringing the work to their attention, but they don’t need
your permission or assistance to publish a public domain work.

 

Q: If I have received rejections for a novel query from
particular presses and agents, is it appropriate for me to re-send
another query after I have made major revisions to my manuscript?
The title, characters, and setting are the same, but there are major
structure, plot, and point of view changes after the ms received
comments from two other readers.

What is proper etiquette in this business? Is there an
amount of time I should wait before I re-send similar work to the
agents and presses that I have been targeting? These agents and
presses express interest in considering future work from me. Though
they do not suggest I make any changes and resend the current work,
I am wondering if revisions will do the trick. Or, how many rejections
should I receive before I get the hint that I need to scrap my project
entirely and start on something new?

Alas, I am growing somewhat demoralized. Any advice would
give comfort.

—Rebecca Jane

A: If an agent/editor has read your manuscript and sent a rejection,
then I recommend that you not re-submit the same work to that same
person unless you were previously invited. An invitation to resubmit
the same work sounds like: “If you revise this, please let
me know” or “You’re welcome to submit this again
after making XYZ changes” or simply “I would love to
see this again.” An invitation is usually made when agents/editors
recognize that eventually you’re going to get this manuscript
right—it’s only a matter of effort and time—so
they don’t want you running off to a competitor once you’ve
succeeded. However, if your manuscript doesn’t reflect the
level of writing they want or expect; if your style/voice doesn’t
excite them; or if your work doesn’t exhibit the spark of
originality they’re looking for, they will not extend that
invitation. They have to love your writing or your story.

Now, you’ve presented an interesting scenario: They want
to see future work from you, but not a revision. To me, that means
one of two things (or both): (1) They recognize that you’ve
got what it takes (you’ve got the raw talent), but it will
take another manuscript or two before you produce publishable work.
You need to develop your craft, and get a few more years of writing
experience under your belt. In this case, practice means everything.
(2) Your current manuscript, for whatever reason, didn’t appeal
to them—it could be topic, plot, theme, who knows. But they’re
encouraging you to submit again because they suspect your next effort
may hit it out of the ballpark and/or be exactly right for them.

If the advice you received—or the rejections you received—were
from agents/publishers whom you respect and admire, then I recommend
you get started on that future work and don’t look back. Most
first novels collect dust in their authors’ desk drawers for
years until their second or third or fourth effort finds publication.
Sometimes that first effort gets sold and published later on—but
more likely you’ll wake up one day and be embarrassed by it.

On the matter of timing: If you decide to re-submit, despite the
advice here, make sure a good chunk of time has passed since your
initial submission. You won’t be taken seriously if you’re
shopping around the same manuscript after a two-week revision interim.
A meaningful revision, even for a full-time author, takes time.
Think in terms of months or years. Six months, a year, maybe more.
But you can ignore this interim if you submit your work to fresh
eyes, which means researching new agents/publishers who might be
interested in your revision. Out of the thousands of agencies/publishers
that exist, there must be ten or twenty whom you didn’t query.
Try them.

Let’s say you re-submit this work to a dozen new agents/editors
and you receive a dozen form rejections. Find another dozen if you
can and submit again. Repeat until you run out of appropriate people
for your work, or until you receive feedback that all says the same
thing (such as “revise for XYZ” or “send me future
work”). If you’re confident about your work’s
quality, exhaust all avenues.

You’re definitely doing the right things so far—you’ve
queried and submitted, received some feedback, and decided to revise.
That’s progress many writers never make. Even if you keep
sending out that first manuscript, I recommend you start writing
that second one today. You’ll feel better, you’ll improve
your writing skills, and maybe within another year, you’ll
have something new to send those people who want your future work.
Feel free to ignore rejections along the way, except when they provide
you with valuable insight into how your work might be improved or
become publishable.

 

Q: I have a two-part question. I have accumulated a number
of short stories that have been published (some print, some online)
and was curious as to how I might go about submitting a query to
an agent/publisher about putting them in a book of short stories.
Is the procedure essentially the same for both novels and short
stories, or do I need to alter my query letter according to a different
set of rules?

Secondly, what is the policy on submitting a query letter
regarding a book that isn't finished yet? I'm always hearing on
NPR about unknown authors getting big advances on book “ideas.”
Is this a crock, or could I feasibly land an agent/publisher with
a partially completed manuscript?

Thanks for your time and consideration. Your column in
Identity Theory is a breath of fresh air.

Sincerely,
Tyler Stoddard Smith

I have some bad-sad news for you. You’ll have an easier time
skiing in the Sahara than finding an agent/publisher for your short-story
collection. They just don’t make money, not for the agent
and not for the publisher. Most short-story collections you see
these days are by established novelists, or the stories are linked
in such a way that the collection can be disguised and sold like
a novel. (People are calling these a “novel-in-stories.”)
Obviously you’ll find exceptions to this rule (Interpreter
of Maladies
by Jhumpa Lahiri, You Are Not a Stranger Here
by Adam Haslett, Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger), but
ask yourself: Do you have anything in common with the authors who
proved to be the exception? Look at these authors’ trajectories—they
didn’t come out of nowhere, and they had significant advantages
(e.g., MFA from Iowa, first publication in The New Yorker).

While agents like to read the short fiction in premier literary
journals in hopes of finding new talent, it’s not so they
can sell short fiction. Rather they’re betting that a talented
short-story writer has a novel-in-progress. So short stories can
serve as a good stepping-stone in your publishing career, but don’t
expect them to see book publication (soon).

That said, if you must query agents/publishers about your collection,
ensure they’ve demonstrated openness to short-story collections.
(Use a resource such as PublishersMarketplace.com to run a deal
search.) Then send a simple one-page query detailing where the published
stories have appeared, and offer to send the entire collection.
(Hopefully you’ll be able to mention a few awards too.) Spend
a couple sentences describing the general nature or theme of the
stories, assuming they have something in common.

If you hear back, the agent/publisher may say, “Hey, these
stories are great. Do you have a novel?” If you respond, “Why
yes! I have a partial!” nearly every industry professional
will then say, “Please send a copy when it’s finished.”
You’d have to be a super-hot commodity to have your book sell
based on a partial, because as a first-time novelist, no one knows
(not even you) if you can actually pull it off. Many first attempts—and
published novels for that matter—fall apart by the final chapters.
Only published authors, celebrities, or sexy, young phenoms can
get away with a partial (or with a “big idea”), and
that’s exactly why you hear about them on NPR. They’re
exceptional stories that people love hearing about; they feed the
dreams of listeners.

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