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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