Just what am I getting myself into? Part II: the money matters

After our long, in-depth foray into the delights of standard format for manuscripts, and as a segue into what I hope will be an extended romp through craft, with particular emphasis upon problems that tend to generate knee-jerk rejection responses, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. (My, that was lengthy sentence, was it not? The late Henry James would have been so proud.) There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok, or to a small publisher domestically? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time. While we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, it’s the acquiring editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not necessarily only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, who will in turn discuss it with the author, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, please recall, is already completely written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book. Such as…

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book.

Sorry to be the one to break the bad news, but it’s better that you know the score going into the situation. Pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your misguided boneheaded downright evil suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling. Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press? It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine those last couple of paragraph having that effect — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling with your editor over every single requested change. Editorial control is built into the publishing process, after all; if you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly, a coy reference to A Scanner Darkly, which is in itself a reference to 1 Corinthians 13), believe me, my sympathies are squarely on the writers’ side on this one. (And no, Virginia, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

The moral, should you care to know it: while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, take a gander at the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the archive list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Hey, a Kindle’s an electronic device — it has to be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a great big surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad or news story, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year. More often two.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

So although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the excellent folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

Yet another moral: it behooves you to read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers. Many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Again, sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to a good writer’s happiness to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

Clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement, if not outright depression. Certainly, it makes a writer more likely to give up after just a few rejections.

Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul. It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing.

But first, let’s talk about what an aspiring writer should NEVER do
Querying and pitching are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude.

Translation: they’re not going to work. Don’t even try.

The same holds true for mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way. This is universally an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject pages they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. This will be familiar to those of you who worked through my Querypalooza series last fall, but for the benefit of all of you New Year’s resolvers new to the game, here’s a list of the information a good query should include:

(1) Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

(2) The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

(3) A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot. No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

(4) The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

(5) Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book. As I mentioned above, agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

(6) The writer’s contact information. Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get hold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

(7) A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for a month or six weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. So it’s just poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. There are pros and cons to this — which I shall go over at length in a day or two, when I fulfill a reader request for a Formatpalooza take on the subject.

Some agencies ask queriers fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, in recognition of how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes a plus.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing: it’s borrowed from the movie industry. Screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. It’s also sometimes possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. (Contrary to conference-circuit rumor, it’s typically the conference bigwigs who object to hallway pitching, not the attending agents. Virtually nobody objects to being approached politely immediately after a conference panel — and if they do, they simply say no and walk away. But no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (To engage in another parenthetical just-between-us chat: contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so often tell potential attendees otherwise.)

In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry. In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: scheduled pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right.

Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what happens after a query or submission arrives at an agency — and perhaps use that as a segue into that aforementioned additional Formatpalooza post, by special reader request.

The joint is going to be jumping here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Building a query list-palooza, part XI: what to do when your list starts to thin out

kite competition

Why, no, the photograph above doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our topic du jour, now that you mention it. But come on, admit it: it cheered you up just a little bit, didn’t it?

Good; we’ve got a heavy topic for today. I’m taking a small breather from polishing off the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest to return to the topic we were discussing with such vim before Thanksgiving: nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might, to put it indelicately, a waste of an investment in stamps to query with your particular book.

As I argued the last time we broached the subject, it behooves a savvy querier to recognize that agents specialize; it honestly is in your — and your book’s — best interest to employ more specific criteria than, “Oh, I’d settle for anyone who represents authors for a living.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Seriously, being an agent and having a delightful propensity for saying yes constitutes the beginning and end of most aspiring writers’ representation wish lists. Allow me to suggest a few other criteria: being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs, as demonstrated by a successful track record selling books similar to yours. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.

So it’s an excellent idea for a querier to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I may have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.

Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying road for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides, searching the web, and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time. Help!”

I feel your pain, weary query veterans, and it’s an excellent question: how does one go about generating future querying prospects after one has already gone through one’s ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents?

Here’s a radical notion: how about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a reader? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?

Stop chortling; successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership. Who knows the norms, conventions and expectations of the category better, after all? It’s also far from uncommon for authors and readers in a particular adult subcategory to share certain demographic characteristics: gender, for instance, or general age group.

Oh, you weren’t aware that literary fiction is written primarily by college-educated writers for college-educated readers?

Don’t be afraid to get specific here. While the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it wouldn’t necessarily have gone to high school together, they often do share substantial life experiences — or, in the case of YA, have in the past. A funky Gen Xer with relationship woes, a Baby Boomer who took care of ailing parents, a survivor of life-threatening illness or someone who just lost a loved one to same: all of these have subcategories of fiction aimed at them.

So I ask you again: who is writing for readers like you these days — and who is selling those books?

As those of you who happened to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? A few years back, a female writer born during or after the Johnson administration pitching even high literary fiction about a mute woman who lived alone for 25 years in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen fiction for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided to a very great extent, thank goodness, since the passage of chick lit’s heyday, but actually, it still could be turned in your favor: if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors and readers in your demographic, right?

How might you go about finding agents who represent people like you? Here’s an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

Don’t tell me magazines are a dying art form; they still exist now, and you should be checking the mastheads and editorial pages of your favorites. (Preferably after purchasing them, if you are able. They rely on their readerships, too.) If any of their staff writers or columnists has written a book, take a serious look at her agent, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.

For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the aforementioned literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.

Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: in every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning Since you so ably represented Book X…

The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical — which are, alas, getting rarer all the time — designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the periodicals section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.

A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if

(a) you are polite,

(b) you have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and

(c) you don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.

Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you, either: a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.

(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious short story-publishing magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals with book review section is that — brace yourselves — that they will give you insight into what is coming out now in your book category. Since so many books come out in any given year (yes, even in this economy), it can be very helpful to have somebody else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — essentially do your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

Think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff.

Oh, you thought those college-educated editors did not have roommates who aspired to write books?

So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?

I hear faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention. “Excuse me, Anne?” I heard you saying. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are, you clever person — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game: with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

That’s one reason, in case you’d been curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those aforementioned requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists, which necessarily reflect what an agent was able to sell to an editor quite some time ago. And that’s potentially problematic for writers trying to find agents to query, because professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed.

Those of you who attend writers’ conferences regularly know what happens when trends begin or end overnight, right? The about-faces can be pretty darned abrupt. Some of the same agents who were roundly declaring historical fiction dead as the proverbial doornail before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time were actively soliciting it from the conference podium after. On the flip side, some of the same agents who once clamored for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, generic queries don’t work, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold in the U.S., and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of the market. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways all autumn, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what now requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Weekly (which runs book reviews, people) or Publishers Marketplace.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. (Like, say, Publishers Lunch.)
Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although the book review method only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, it is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. Reading book reviews will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are not reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, some print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, other reviewers have dropped this policy — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit this autumn, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, literally every agented writer I know learned not to query agents who are not demonstrably interested in their kind of writing — or their kind of writer — at that very moment.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to taking a chance on another first book. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit redundant to keep on informing the world yet again that Toni Morrison can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for representation pastures new, If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t that the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of The New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

Don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough — how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be, after all? — the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at discovering those.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire your prose flair.

Or –- and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial –- if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Sometimes, the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, admittedly, rendering them less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre.

For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond mortal comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Next time, I’ll be wrapping up this series — then, I devoutly hope, the Great First Pages contest. As the year fades, I like to tie up loose ends.

We wouldn’t want those kites to go flying off into the ether, would we? Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIV: and then there are the alternate — dare I say more scenic? — routes

to the village center

We’re nearing the end of our crash course on how manuscripts do — and don’t — move from the writer’s fingertips to publication, you’ll be glad to hear. And boy, have we covered a lot of territory over the last few weeks! Admittedly, I could conceivably have guided you over this trail with a somewhat speedier step, dwelling a bit less on the important details, but I consider a working knowledge of how the publishing industry in general, and agencies in particular, function an absolutely essential prerequisite for any aspiring writer intending to market her work.

If by some chance I hadn’t already made that abundantly clear. If I had my way, every writers’ association in the English-speaking world would regularly offer free weekend seminars on this stuff, to discourage any talented writer from walking into the querying and submission process blind.

Heck, I’d love to see this information taught in high schools, along with the basics of standard manuscript format. Now that would be one great English composition course.

Glancing back through the posts in this series, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days. Even a week, if I need to do background research.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if the professor misunderstood the question, but after all, this is a learned man; no need to insult his intelligence. Slyly, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that most of the posts in this series are approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently. But there’s more to it than that: I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at writers’ conferences and online.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, often expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts. Or as single-page, bullet-pointed to-do lists cribbed from a handout from another conference lecture or website.

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s hardly best tool for explanation.

Trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as is often the case for advice aimed at writers, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple.

That’s why it’s both difficult and profoundly important for aspiring writers to come to understand that the much prevailing wisdom you hear glibly passing from mouth to mouth is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

And frankly, the easy availability of bouillon can lead good writers astray. The combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly can (and frequently does, alas) prompt an aspiring writer to conclude, wrongly, that the process should be easy for a genuinely marketable book. Because all that’s necessary to land an agent and/or editor is to have talent, right? So why bother to learn how to format the manuscript professionally, or to figure out the book category, or even to proofread? Isn’t it the agent and editor’s job to ferret out talent despite how it’s presented?

Um, no. It’s their job to discover writers who can reliably produce marketable prose, adhere to industry standards, and have talent. Even then, the writer’s going to have to take direction well.

Other aspiring writers who have imbibed the bouillon assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away at the query stage, the problem must be in the quality of the writing. If true talent always gets spotted, then why even speculate that an unprofessional query letter might be the culprit?

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught many aspiring writers to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Some of you are scratching your heads, aren’t you? “Hmm,” you muse, “is Anne being profound, or is she merely hungry?”

A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now. Just the facts, ma’am.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about the difficulty of taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. You’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, allow me to suggest something the bouillon-mongers seldom remember to mention: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds. Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly.

Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious than usual in what they acquire.

At the risk of repeating myself: hang in there. To recycle some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, is completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Although a few wheelbarrows full of money would be nice, of course.

Which is why — to return to yesterday’s topic — it might make perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal.

Seriously, it happens all the time. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If these last two paragraphs sound like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years and years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Authoring only one book is a publishing strategy that often appeals to aspiring writers, particularly memoirists: you have a story to tell, and you tell it. Done. But that’s a career strategy that might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice.

There’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question before the ink is dry on the representation contract, after all. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers, by definition — agents tend to be on the lookout for career writers, ones ready, able, and eager to keep launching fine books into the marketplace. From their perspective, planning to write several marketable books is simply very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

But that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal, is it? Is it?

Okay, so it is for a whole lot of aspiring writers. But if getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off.

And that’s not the only reason a reasonable writer might have qualms about pursuing the standard major publisher route, either. Some might balk at all of the hoops through which large or mid-sized publishers expect first-time authors to leap, up to and including landing an agent first, for instance, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors. Still others might feel, and rightly, that the time for their books to reach readers is now, not some dim, uncertain time several years hence.

The good news is that, contrary to the underlying assumptions of the bouillon trade, writers do have options other than the big publisher route. And I imagine those of you who have spent much of this series muttering, “Oh, God, NO!” will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the next two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Typically, indie houses offer relatively small advances — or sometimes no advance at all — but that’s a calculated risk for an author. Sometimes, it can pay off big time: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, a writer should approach a small publisher precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query.

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

By the same token, it’s just as important to do a little research on an indie publisher as on an agent. A well-stocked bookstore is a great place to start; see who is bringing out books like yours these days. Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers. So does Preditors and Editors, a fine source for double-checking that the press whose website looks so appealing is in fact a traditional publisher, and not a printer of self-published books for pay.

Hey, you’d be surprised at how often their websites look similar.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important it is to doing your homework, and not merely to avoid being presented with a printing bill. Many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected.

How can a savvy writer tell which is which? Check the copyright page of a published book — you know, the one on the flip side of the title page — to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house. If it’s affiliated with a major, the copyright page will say.

Select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion. And remember how I was telling you that their advances were usually small or non-existent?

Another cost-cutting move: the author usually ends up arranging — and financing the book tour himself. If, indeed, there are public readings at all. (For some useful tips on posts about how writers can set up their own readings, check out the guest posts by FAAB Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that the archive list was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book.

More on why that impression might present marketing problems follows next time. For now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

Just something to keep in mind when you’re rank-ordering your list of indie publishers for querying purposes.

On the bright side, an author often has significantly more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor who genuinely loves the book, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage for book #2: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; I tremble to report it, but not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might even become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. (Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers — again, see that earlier comment about advances.)

Don’t be scared off by a presumption that signing with them would that you’re committing to a lifetime relationship. It doesn’t. Small publishers are aware their authors may HAVE to leave them in order to pursue larger markets. Consequently, they expect it. Also, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s not at all unheard-of for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent.

Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision for publishers of any size, large or small. It means that when you sell them the first book, you agree to let them look at next before any other publisher does.

That can be very valuable to a small publisher, if your first book takes off. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category, too. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this response probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than what they call mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might enjoy a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia.

Why? Well, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor, as well as their respective Millicents, never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States. My agent boasts that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the hospital where he was born (and if you want to keep on his good side, learn from my sad example and don’t instantly exclaim, “Oh, you poor thing. You really need to get out more.” Trust me on this one.)

The moral: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher, singular — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan; an incisive novel on the domestic trials of a Newfoundland fishing village might well make more sense to a Canadian editor, or at least can at least find Newfoundland on a map on the first try.

Unless, of course, that last book is by an author who has already won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, you have THE SHIPPING NEWS, and its interest is global. Name recognition is a great dissolver of borders.

Just because a regional press’ editors are more likely to understand the market appeal of your book, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, regional presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion.

What they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Again: calculated risk.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reproduced at the beginning of this section, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books. But so few have published novels within the last ten years that I am always astonished when a NYC-based agent implies that they do.

Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit. At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder over the last couple of years. So much so that agents who would have huffily rejected the very notion of taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher just a few years ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed of late.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and more polished competition. In other words, an unagented writer’s book usually has to be even better than usual to land a spot in the print queue.

Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers. In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books?

Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges authors fees.

Which a traditional small publisher should not. But if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route owes it to herself do extensive research on the subject. So hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

And then, who knows? Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one its writer never sends out.

I just mention. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XIII: submission strategies under a microscope, or, many roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry Cerise could not travel them all…

Viewpoint sign

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: this series hasn’t exactly been a beach read. We’ve been covering a massive amount of information — how manuscripts move from a bright idea to the published page, with significant stopovers at the querying, submitting, agency, revision, and publishing house stages — very rapidly, with an eye to bringing those new to trying to get published up to speed as soon as possible.

Why? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: because an aspiring writer who understands how publishing does and doesn’t work tends to have a far, far easier time treading the road to successful authorship than one who doesn’t. Not to mention being infinitely less likely just to give up on a manuscript that really does deserve to see print.

Because it often is a long and complicated road, even for the most brilliant of writers, realistic expectations are, to my mind, one of the most important — and, unfortunately, least often taught — tools in the career writer’s tool bag. Think about it: even if an aspiring writer lands the best agent currently residing in North America for her type of book, won’t it be significantly harder for her to work with that agent if she doesn’t have a clear notion of what good agents do for their clients?

To that end, I waxed poetic last time about the many, many factors that play into an agent’s decision about when and to whom to submit a book. That’s right: I said the agent’s decision: it comes as a great, big, stunning surprise to most newly-agented writers just how little say they have in how the agent handles their work. Or when the agent starts (or finishes) submitting it to editors.

See why I spent the first couple of weeks of this series harping on the importance of finding not just any agent to represent you, but the right one? I can tell you from long, long experience: a writer who doesn’t feel he can trust his agent to know the market well enough to trust her sense of when to submit his manuscript to which editor is not going to sleep well at night.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that the stars have aligned: your agent decides that your book’s submission date has arrived. What happens next?

How agents submit their clients’ work to editors
Your agent (let’s dub her Cerise, just for the heck of it) has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail.

Your book is thus expected, a necessary precondition to its getting read in any of the major US publishing houses. Cerise nods her wise head, the agency sends out the manuscript, and you sit down for a nice, soothing month or two (or twelve) of gnawing your fingernails down to the elbow.

But that’s not all there is to the story, not by a long shot. As I mentioned last time, submission strategies differ from agency to agency, and sometimes agent to agent. Some popular choices:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question has said yea or nay. If the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next editor on his list, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

While this can be a great approach if the agent happens to have a true sense of what that particular agent might like, it has its downsides. Most notably, time consumption: one-at-a-time submissions can stretch the submission process out, slowing it to a pace that even your average snail would find maddening.

But there’s good reason for that, so kindly resist the temptation to mutter imprecations at the editor under your breath, and still less Cerise: since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, garnering a definitive answer on a particular manuscript can take months.

And that’s assuming that the manuscript landed on the best desk for it in the first place. It’s not at all uncommon for an editor to pass a submission along to another editor in-house for which the project might be better suited (or, in the last couple of years, for it to show up in the inbox of the editor taking up the slack for the one who has just been laid off or quit). since most publishing houses employ editorial assistants to screen submissions, it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it up the ladder, as it were.

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the Great Big New York City-Based Publishing House (or, as it’s known around here, GBNYCBPH), congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the wait-HURRY UP!-wait rhythm inherent to the submission process.

Again, try not to take turn-around times personally. A slow response is not necessarily a reflection on your book’s quality, its ultimate marketability, or even how much the editor likes your manuscript. It’s just the way the system currently works.

While you’re pondering that, let’s move on to another submission option Cerise might choose.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once — informing each, naturally, that she is reading the work competitively.

Cerise’s logic on this one: if somebody else is interested in what you have in your hand, it’s more likely to seem desirable to you. Human nature. And to give due credit to Cerise and her Psych 101 professor, she’s often right about this. But that doesn’t always mean a speedy turn-around time: since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants. Not to mention working its way up that to-read stack on the editor’s desk.

See my earlier comment about turn-around times. It’s not about you.

If you’re now thinking that because there are so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order.

Hey, Cerise’s options honestly aren’t unlimited here. Cut her some slack, please.

(c) Some agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship.

Although this strategy tends to pay off best for well-established agents with excellent connections, as well as those who pride themselves on identifying and pouncing on the latest new writing trend, it is also much favored by agents relatively new to the game. For good reason: its primary advantage is speed; if none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent can simply relegate the book onto the inactive list and move on to the writer’s next project.

Those of you who missed yesterday’s post just did a spit-take with your coffee, I’m guessing. “Next project?” writers across the English-speaking world gasp, wiping liquid from their chins, their computer screens, and any of their pets that happened to be passing fifteen seconds ago. “I poured my heart, soul, and two-thirds of my free time into my present book project! I’m just supposed to be able to produce the next one on command? How? By slight-of-hand?”

No, by advance planning. Pull out your hymnals, readers of yesterday’s post, and sing along with me now: it’s always to a serious career writer’s advantage to have another manuscript or two waiting in the wings.

Or at least a well fleshed-out next book idea. And not just because Cerise might decide after just a few tries that your current project would be easier to sell if you already had another book out first. (Hands up, all of you agented writers who have heard this argument, especially within the last couple of years.) It’s also possible that one of the editors will fall in love with your writing style, but decide to pass on the current manuscript.

“I like the voice,” the editor will sometimes say thoughtfully, “but this book’s not right for our list. Has this writer written anything else?”

If Cerise already knows what’s in your writing pipeline, so to speak, she’s obviously going to be in a better position to leap on this opportunity for you. Perhaps less obviously, you are going to be a much, much happier camper if that next book you’ve gushed to her about is already written. Or at least mostly.

Five thousand writerly hands have been waving madly in the air throughout the last two paragraphs, haven’t they? “But Anne!” writers of marvelous prose everywhere shout as one. “Isn’t what we’re selling here our writing? How is it even possible for an editor to love the writing, but reject the book?”

Oh, quite easily; I’ve had this happen to me several times. Remember what I was telling you yesterday about how often and how radically the literary market changes? A novel that would have flown off Barnes & Noble’s shelves three years ago might well be hard to sell to an editorial committee today.

But that novel you finished eight years ago, then set aside after it had that near-miss with the agent of your dreams? You know, the one that your new agent said might be transformable into a good second novel of a two-book deal? The market may well have changed sufficiently that it’s absolutely right for a particular publishing house now.

Chant it with me now, campers: things change. A savvy writer plans for that when strategizing a writing career.

While a third of you are leaping up to scrabble frantically through desk drawers, cabinets, and the recesses of your basements, trying to find the last extant revision of a long-ago novel, why don’t the rest of us get back to the subject at hand?

As I mentioned, short-list submission strategies tend to appeal to gents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence. Unfortunately from a writer’s perspective, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling before.

Which, surprisingly, isn’t usually the biggest objection that writers tend to have with this technique. Where conflict usually arises is over different expectations; unfortunately, agents who embrace this strategy are often not very communicative with prospective clients about the logic they have embraced.

Even more unfortunately, lack of communication between agent and writer is not solely the province of the speed-oriented. Even very patient agents often decide after a reasonable number of submissions to table a project until the market is better for it.

Or even — are you sitting down? — to give up on a manuscript permanently. Either way, chances are slim to none that the writer of the book in question will agree in her heart of hearts with the decision.

Predictably, conflict sometimes ensues. It’s even more predictable if the writer had already been of the opinion that his Cerise had held onto the manuscript too long prior to submitting it. Or was submitting it too slowly. Or just didn’t understand in advance what the agent’s submission strategy was.

Doubt that this is stressful for the writer? Ask a few writers whose agents have found their books hard to sell. Actually, If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this.

How can you pick them out of the crowd? Easily: they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. (Hey, one of the points of attending writers’ conferences is to glean wisdom from those who have trodden the hard path before you, right?) Don’t worry about rubbing salt in the wound by asking about their experiences with their agents; if it’s been remotely negative, believe me, they’ll be only too eager to talk.

One of the things they are likely to tell you: given the downsides of short attention spans, it’s a terrific idea to ask an agent offering to representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. Even if the agent cherry-picks only his most satisfied clients — and he will, if he has the sense God gave a green tomato — if he tends to discard manuscripts too quickly, his clients will probably mention it.

If asking an agent making an offer whether you can speak with several of his clients seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

Is it time yet to talk about the best-case scenario?
Yes, impatient writers who have had their hands raised for a nice, long time now? “But Anne,” authors of the surprise bestsellers of 2013 inquire, “what about all of those books we hear about that make editors drool? How does an agent generate a bidding war?”

Glad you asked, future blockbuster-mongers. There is yet another way an agent might choose to handle a book.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction.

This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

I can’t come up with any down side for the writer on this one. Sorry.

Yes, eager producers of future bestsellers? “Hey, Anne: I sometimes see, in Publisher’s Marketplace, that a book was sold in a preempt. Is that some fancy industry euphemism for an auction?”

Excellent question, writers-for-the masses, but no. Actually, a pre-empt (short for preemptive offer) is an attempt to prevent a book from going to auction — or to stop another publisher from acquiring it. Pre-empts also can occur when the publisher wants more rights — North American plus world, for instance — than the agent is trying to sell at the moment.

Basically, the publisher tries to make it worth the agent’s while not to offer the book up for competitive bidding. So it will offer a bid that it hopes is high enough to tempt the agent not to take the book to auction.

Usually, though, a pre-empt comes with a catch: it’s only good for a short time, generally 24-48 hours. That way, the agent doesn’t have the option of coming back after a disappointing auction and daying, “Okay, Pre-empt Offerer, I’m ready to deal now.

Okay, you can stop drooling now; you can always return to that alluring mental picture later. Let’s get back to less-green pastures.

I’m confused. Can you tell me more about what happens if my agent decides she can’t sell the book?
Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if she has gone all the way through her planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. Ideally, Cerise would talk through these options with you before proceeding, but again, an inclination to issue regular informational bulletins is not standard equipment for an agent.

Which points us to yet another great set of questions to ask in that first conversation: how often do you give your clients updates on your progress selling their manuscripts? Will you be contacting me only if something exciting happens, or will we be communicating regularly? Will you call me, or should I e-mail you?

And so forth. The earlier in your working relationship you can establish realistic mutual expectations, the less likely a communication breakdown is to occur down the line.

Back to those end-game submission options. First, the agent can choose to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, as we discussed above, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change. And that’s only natural.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again. (Speaking of common sources of agent-client conflict.) Fourth — and this is the option most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list.

Wait — my agent might give up on me, and not just my manuscript?
Well may your shapely jaw drop. Again, see how it might be to a writer’s advantage to have a few book projects in the pipeline, rather than staking his entire sojourn at the agency with just one?

And that’s not the worst of it, I tremble to report. Remember how I mentioned that some (c) adherents are not, shall we say, the best communicators who ever logged into e-mail? Here is where that paucity tends to shine with its most baleful splendor: it’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this strategy not even to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

Yes, this last is lousy to live through, now that you mention it. But in the long run, a writer is going to be better off with an agent who believes enough in her work to stick with her than one who just thinks of a first book as a one-off that isn’t worth a long try at submission.

I’m mentioning this not to depress you, but so if your agent suddenly stops answering e-mails, you will not torture yourself with useless recriminations. Either pitch that next book project to Cerise, pronto, to try to rekindle her interest, or start querying other agents right away, preferably with your next book. (It can be more difficult to land an agent for a project that has already been shopped around for a while.)

In other words: you’ll be a much, much happier human being if you’ve already been working on your next book while your agent has been submitting your current one.

But enough dwelling on the worst-case scenario. I know that I’m running long today, but I hate to end on such a grim note. On to happier topics!

What happens if an editor decides that she wants to acquire my manuscript?
Within a GBNYCBPH, it’s seldom a unilateral decision: an editor would need to be pretty powerful and well-established not to have to check with higher-ups. The vast majority of the time, an editor who falls in love with a book will take it to editorial committee, where every editor will have a favorite book project to pitch. Since we discussed editorial committees earlier in this series, I shan’t take the time to recap now. Suffice it to say that approval by the committee is not the only prerequisite for acquiring a book.

Let’s assume for the sake of brevity that the editorial committee, marketing department, legal department, and those above the acquiring editor in the food chain have all decided to run with the book. How do they decide how much of an advance to offer?

If you have been paying close attention throughout this series, your hand should have shot into the air, and you should already be shouting the answer: by figuring out how much it would cost to produce the book in the desired format, the cover price, how many books in the initial print run, and what percentage of that first printing they are relatively certain they could sell. Then they calculate what the author’s royalty would be on that number of books — and offer some fraction of that amount as the advance.

All that remains then is for the editor to pick up the phone and convey the offer Cerise.

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the initial offer tends not to change much; after the terms are set, the editor puts the offer in writing.

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for, campers: the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

With a multiple-submission strategy, events get a little more exciting at this juncture. If there are other editors still considering the manuscript, the agent will contact them to say there’s an offer on the table and to give them a deadline for submitting offers of their own. It’s often quite a short deadline, as little as a week or two — you wouldn’t believe how much receiving the news that another publisher has made an offer can speed up reading rates. If there are competing offers, bidding will ensue.

If not — or once someone wins the bidding — Cerise and the acquiring editor will hammer out the terms of the publication contract and produce what is known as a deal memo that lays out the general terms. Among the information the deal memo will specify: the amount of the advance, the date the editor expects delivery of the manuscript (which, for a nonfiction book, can be a year or two after the contract is signed), an approximate word count, the month of intended release, and any other business-related details.

Basically, it’s a dry run for the publication contract. After all of the details are set in stone, the publisher’s legal department will handle that — or, more commonly, they’ll use a boilerplate from a similar book.

What neither the deal memo nor the contract will say is how (or if) the author needs to make changes to the book already seen or proposed. Typically, if the editor wants revisions, she will spell those out in an editorial memo either after the contract is signed (for fiction) or after the author delivers the manuscript (for nonfiction). Until the ink is dry on the contract, though, it’s unlikely that your agent will allow you to sit down and have an unmediated conversation with the editor — which is for your benefit: it’s your agent’s job to make sure that you get paid for your work and that the contract is fulfilled.

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world.

I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quire a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do. Frankly, I think those are topics for another day.

If not another series. This has been a lengthy one, hasn’t it?

And besides, things are changing so much in the publishing world right now that I’d hate to predict how the author’s experience will be different even a year from now. All any of us can say for certain is that writers will keep writing books, agents will keep representing them, and publishing houses will keep bringing them out. As the author’s responsibilities for the business side of promoting her own work continue to increase — it’s now not at all unusual for a first-time author to foot the bill both for freelance editing and for at least some of the promotion for the released book, for instance — how much publishing with a GBNYCBPH will differ from going with a smaller press five or ten years from now remains to be seen.

Conveniently enough, that brings me to our next topic. Next time, I shall talk about some of the other means of getting a book into print: small presses and the various stripes of self-publication. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XII: things change — but not as fast as many writers would like

Yes, yes, I know: I usually open our discussion and gladden your hearts with a pretty picture, or at any rate one to get you thinking about our topic du jour. Today’s marginally pretty pictures, however, require a bit of initial explanation. Specifically, I want to give you a heads-up about how I would like you to use them.

So: please stare at the photos I am about to show you for a good, long minute before moving on to the rest of the post. I would like these images burned into your cranium before we return to our ongoing topic, how manuscripts move from the writer’s brainpan, through an agency, through a publishing house, to end up on your local bookstore’s shelves.

Never mind why; just stare. First, at this snapshot I took in my yard a year ago:

a-windchime-in-the-snow

Clear in your mind? Excellent. Now contemplate, if you will, the same view at a later date (and from slightly farther away, I now notice):

crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

Four months separate those pictures — either a very short time for such a radical alteration of the environment or an interminable one, depending upon how you choose to look at it. But whatever your attitude, the fact remains that both the wind chime and its observer feel quite different sensations now than they did then, right?

Bear that gentle observation in mind for the rest of this post, please. This series has, after all, been all about gaining a broader perspective on a great, big, time-consuming process whose built-in delays aspiring writers all too often — mistakenly — regard as completely personal.

Yes, it’s all happening to you, but the upcoming change of seasons will happen to you, too. Does that mean that nobody else experiences it? Or that today’s frosty blast of winter air was aimed at you personally?

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking to the basics: an overview of the trajectory a manuscript typically travels from the writer’s hands to ultimately sitting on a shelf at your local bookstore. Since what most aspiring writers have in mind when they say they want to get their books published is publication through great big New York City-based publishing houses — GBNYCBPH for short, although admittedly, not very short — I’ve been concentrating upon that rather difficult route.

As we have seen, in order to pursue that particular path — which is, as we shall see later in the week, not the only possible route to publication; people merely act as though it is — a writer needs an agent. Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction.

So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming. Should we writers rend our garments over this, bearding the heavens with our bootless cries, complaining to an unhearing collection of muses that it’s just a whole lot more difficult to get good writing published than it used to be?

Well, we could — and a startlingly high percentage of the public discussion of the writing life is devoted to just that. One can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not. And don’t even try to total up all of the blogs on the subject.

Two things are clear: there’s quite a bit of garment-rending going on, and this process is hard.

Although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warrants it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Without question, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as the North American literary world’s manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

Did I just hear a few dozen cries of “Aha!” out there? Yes, your revelation is quite correct: at one level, an agency is to a major NYC-based publishing house what Millicent the agency screener is to the agent, the gatekeeper who determines which manuscripts will and will not be seen by someone empowered to make a decision about publishing it.

But it’s laughably easy for an aspiring writer in the throes of agent-seeking to forget that, isn’t it? All too often, aspiring writers speak amongst themselves and even think about landing an agent as though that achievement were the Holy Grail of publishing: it’s a monumentally difficult feat to pull off, but once a writer’s made it, the hard work’s over; the sweets of the quest begin.

It’s a pretty image, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way?

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because I’m hear to tell you: seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

To put it lest histrionically, working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change. And that’s only natural.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
Are you sitting down? You should, because the answer to that question generally comes as a gargantuan surprise to those in the throes of agent-seeking: the main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books.

That’s not paranoia talking, by the way, nor is it merely the inevitable emotional letdown inherent in reaching a goal one has pursued for an awfully long time. It’s a ruthlessly accurate perception, usually.

How so, you ask with horror? Well, for starters, the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

* when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH;

* given that the agent’s initial answer to that first question will almost certainly be not yet, what revisions need to be made in order to render it ready;

* when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s flailing its way out of a serious recession);

* what additional materials should be included in the submission packet, and your timeline for producing them (because yes, Virginia, you will be the one producing most of marketing materials your agent will wield on your behalf);

* which editors should see it and in what order;

* how it should be submitted (one at a time, in a mass submission, or something in between);

* how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while (in general, quite a bit longer than strikes an impatient first-time author as appropriate);

* whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off or are toying with an offer from another publishing house);

* whether to pass along to the writer the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do — and not all agents who do pass along all of the feedback they receive from editors, especially if it contradicts their own views of the book);

* whether enough editors have given similar excuses that the writer really ought to go back and revise the manuscript before it gets submitted again;

* when a manuscript has been seen by enough to stop submitting it, and

*when to start nagging the writer to write something new, so s/he can market that.

I make no pretense of foretelling the future, but I don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to state with 100% certainty that those of you who land agents between the time I post this and two years from now will disagree with those agents on at least one of the points above. Probably more. And the vast majority of the time, you will not win that particular debate, because the agent is the one who is going to be doing the submitting.

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed a representation contract? And aren’t you glad that you already had those nice, peaceful windchime images rattling around in your head? (I thought you might like a brain-soother right about now.)

Now that you’ve calmed down — oh, like the list above didn’t make you even the teensiest bit angry — let’s take another gander at it. Notice how much work the writer is expected to do under this arrangement? You produce the manuscript or proposal, revise it according to the agent’s specifications, write any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider devoting next weekend to going through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), make any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…

And all the while, you’re supposed to be working furiously on your next book project. Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions any editor interested in your current book will ask.

Nice, deep breaths. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking about your next book roughly 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. A career writer — one who has more than one book in him, as they say — is inherently more valuable to an agent or a publishing house than one who can only think in terms of one book at a time; there’s more for the agent to sell, and once a editor knows she can work with a writer (not a self-evident proposition) whose voice sells well (even less self-evident), she’s going to want to see the next book as soon as humanly possible.

And no, at that point, no one will care that you still have a day job. It’s a reasonable objection, though.

A word to the wise: you might want to start working on your next during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — that’s agency-speak for showing it to editors — or getting ready to shop your book around. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work to wrest your fine creative mind out of the book currently in your agent’s beefy hands — but it’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than sitting around and fretting about whether your agent is submitting your last book quickly enough.

Or rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what will my agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time. Let’s also say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three.

If that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.

What happens next? Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies (like mine, as it happens) will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission.

Other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them. Many agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

While some of you are cringing, furtively adding up how much it would cost to produce 15 impeccable copies of a 400-page manuscript, I can feel others of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff. It also makes keeping the submission lists straight easier — because you don’t want your manuscript to be sent to either the wrong editor or the same editor twice, do you?

In a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission.

That just made half of you sit up ramrod-straight in your chairs, didn’t it? Remember how I told you that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn?

The inevitable result: your manuscript may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But the usual reason is — shout it with me now — things change. The manuscript that couldn’t interest an editor even if the agent did a striptease during the pitch (oh, there are stories) five years ago might get snapped up in a flash two years from now. And while the bookstores may be crammed with vampires and zombies now, they will be just as crammed with future fads next year.

See why it’s of critical importance to sign with not just any agent, but one whose judgment you trust, one who believes in your talent? A good agent is not just some guy who can take a brilliantly-written book and sell it — ideally, he’s the writer’s partner in long-term strategic planning of the literary variety.

And that kind of partnership, my friends, is well worth searching a while to find.

Because although this is a hard business, it’s also an ever-changing one. You want an agent who understands that ultimately, literary success is a long-term game. Myopically insisting that is true today is eternally true of the book market is just, well, historically ill-informed.

Things change — and that’s only natural. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IX: the agency contract, or, what to say to an agent who offers to represent you — other than, “Yes, please.”

fireworks

Today’s installment of our ongoing series is an exciting one, campers: I’m going to be talking about the happy day when an agent first tells a writer that he wants to represent her. Most aspiring writers have long fantasized about that auspicious event, but what actually happens?

Other than a monumental celebration, of course. I think it’s safe to assume that all of you can picture that part for yourselves.

Let’s back up a moment and savor the actual moment of acceptance in some detail: first, the phone rings. Although some agents do prefer to communicate by e-mail, typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone.

Why? Well, agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time, and they’re used to using their powers of verbal persuasion. (Remember, most agents will assume that you will have continued to query and submit while they are considering your manuscript; for all the agent who wants you knows, you may already have other offers. Besides, the agent of your dreams will undoubtedly have a few questions for you.

This is also a great opportunity to ask a few of your own. In fact, you should.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit. (Hey, a writer likes to know these things.)

Another that you might consider blurting out right off the bat: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes! Yes! Oh, God, YES!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it might be prudent to prepare for this moment. While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal is a dandy time to work off some of your nervous how-long-must-I-wait-to-hear energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT and WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU categories on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list of preliminary questions on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say during that much-anticipated phone call, please don’t put this off, thinking you can wing it when the time comes. Accepting an offer gracefully, like garnering the offer in the first place, usually requires some homework. I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

What’s that you say, readers? You’re not entirely sure what a good agent can do for you, other than sell your book? Let’s take a gander at the full range of possibilities.

Some things a reasonable writer can (and should) expect a reputable agent to do:

*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

*Help a client strategize the order and timing of working on particular projects, to maximize the agent’s ability to sell them.

All of that sound familiar and reasonable, or is the list disappointingly short for those of you who had been picturing the agent of your dreams wearing the cape and tights of a superhero? To help bring hopes into closer alignment with reality, let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about what an agent is actually capable of offering a writer.

Some things an agent cannot do for his clients:

*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher.

*Guarantee a certain advance if the book does sell.

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will, and/or

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

If an agent offering to represent you claims to be able to do any of the things on that second list, you should be asking plenty of follow-up questions, as well as checking the agent’s credentials with Preditors and Editors or some other credible source. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask to see a list of clients before you decide, or to request a run-down of the sales tactics the agent used to sell the last book he sold in your book category. You may even ask to speak to a couple of current clients, to see how happy they are with his representation, although naturally, few agents will send a prospective client to a dissatisfied client for a reference.

I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well before the agent calls and offers to represent me, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.

For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post, as well as this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how she works, so that she can do her job well. Most agents actually prefer clients who ask intelligent questions.

And if you say nothing, many agents will simply assume that you’re already familiar with every step in the often long and complicated process of getting a book published. An interesting assumption, given that the vast majority of first-time authors are completely astonished by what occurs. So are most writers new to working with an agent.

Don’t believe me? Ask any writer who signed with his first agent six months ago. Unless his book has already sold — and it’s highly unusual for an agent to be able to sell a new client’s work that quickly — he’s going to be full of wonder about why his agent is handling the book the way she is.

So come up with a set of reasonable questions in advance, and ask them before you sign anything. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

I see a few more timid hands raised. “But Anne,” confrontation-haters continue to wheedle, “surely most of what I need to know will be spelled out on the agency’s website. No? Well, then won’t the agent give me some sort of hand-out, explaining how she works? No? Isn’t it even spelled out in the agency contract I’ll be signing?”

I’m sorry to report that the answer to all three questions is not necessarily. (See my earlier comment about the likelihood of agents’ assuming that writers are already aware of what will be required of both parties to the agency contract.) In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Don’t let that make you tense. Trust me: the lack of specifics is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Remember, to make this arrangement work, both parties have to hold up their end of the deal. It’s just not in a good agent’s interest that a writer not completely comprehend what he is being asked to do.

What might an agency contract require of my new agent — and of me?
Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Sometimes, a single-book contract will grant the agency the right of first refusal over the client’s next book, entitling them to see your subsequent writing before you show it to anybody else, regardless of how happy you were with how the agent handled your first project.

Read every syllable of the contract carefully before you sign; if you don’t understand any part of the contract, ask the agent. If you don’t understand the answer or anything seems fishy, take it to an attorney familiar with representation contracts.

That may seem mistrustful, but a good agent is already quite aware that what you don’t fully grasp can hurt you, contractually speaking. Some contracts, for instance, will feature a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

Find out which up front, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — which means what, campers?

That’s right: you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. (I was just checking to see whether your eyes had glazed over while I was going over technicalities.) Either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. If this section is vague in any way, start asking questions, fast.

How writers get paid for their books — and how agents get their percentage
Any money you ever earn on books sold for you by the agency will pass through the agency before it comes to you; the agency will take its cut, then mail you a check for the remainder. Paying the agent’s percentage will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience; once you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you.

This means that any money you see will already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it. See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Typically, in literary agencies, the agent’s percentage is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so no need to worry that asking about them up front will make you look like you’re haggling: it’s to shield you against the unhappy day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. Or for more time passing than you expected between your publisher’s cutting your royalty check and the agency’s passing along your share to you.

And no, a lower percentage for the agent does not usually mean a better deal for the author — it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuania.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has a branch office in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who will need to be paid as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

I see a lot of raised hands out there, and I’m delighted to see so many of you getting in some practice, speaking up when you’ve got a question. However, you might want to lower those flailing arms; I’m out of time for today.

Hold those good questions, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part II: the control conundrum

tug-of-war-photo

My last post was so excessively long that I wore myself out, apparently: I barely had the energy to work my way through the couple of hundred e-mails from well-meaning readers of the Wall Street Journal, asking if (a) I’d seen this article and (b) whether those mentioned within its paragraphs were the same who kept threatening to sue my publishers (although not, perversely, yours truly) over my as-yet-to-be-released memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. I appreciate all of you kind souls taking the time to make sure I had (a), but since the answer to (b) is yes (and with arguments similar to those mentioned in the article), it would probably be prudent for me not to comment upon it here. Or, indeed, anywhere.

Except to say: ever get that feeling of déjà vu?

Back to the business at hand. For those of you who happened to miss yesterday’s epic post, I’m going to be devoting the next couple of weeks to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for starters, let’s concentrate upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok? Or indeed, a small, independent US publisher? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time — and while we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed last time, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the perversely-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located at the lower right-hand side of this page), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come. (Not to mention a self-editing tip for those of you who long for the return of my December series of same!)

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher generally must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, back in the day as well as now, it’s the editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects at the meeting as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of editorial committee debate, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, a publishing contract will state that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, as you will recall, is already written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. After the author delivers the completed manuscript (usually in both hard copy and as a Word document), if the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion of being asked to alter your manuscript, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Chamomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book.

Control over the text itself
The author gets to decide what her own book does and doesn’t say, right? Not to mention how it’s expressed.

Actually, no, if she sells the rights to a publisher. While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will appear on the pages of the finished book. The contract will say so.

And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book. (Sorry about that, but it’s better that you’re aware of this fact going in.)

How do I know? Experience, mostly. After all, pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your (boneheaded) suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling.

Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press?

Uh-huh. It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine what I just typed having that effect, admittedly — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling over every single requested change with your editor. If you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something; editorial control is built into the publishing process. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

Other matters that aspiring writers generally assume that they will control after they sign a book contract, but usually don’t
Just a few of the tidbits that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like.

Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

I feel you glowering, but don’t blame me — I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly), believe me, my sympathies are mostly on the writers’ side here. (And no, no publishing house employee was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant. The marketing department just thought it would be a good idea for the cover to make a vague reference to A SCANNER DARKLY, because the movie would be coming out around the same time.)

My point is, while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, please see the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book. Translation: it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. That may not distress you now, but it may well come the release date: historically, the author’s percentage of the cover price (a.k.a. the royalty) has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback.

One reason for that: hardcover books were considered more serious, literarily speaking, than a volume a reader could fold and stuff into a back pocket. In fact, until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a purse or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel. Typically, the author’s royalty on a trade paper release is lower than for a hardback, but higher than for paper.

Everyone with me so far, or are you mentally calculating how much you will end up making per hour for writing your novel. Don’t even go there; that way lies madness.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, the publisher will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is generally months prior to the print date.

This, too, often comes as a surprise to a first-time author. If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence.

Its main manifestation: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

The moral: although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

The publishing world’s term for a book that contains references likely to spoil over time is easily dated. Unless you are trying to tie your characters to a very specific time and place (as most contemporary fiction doesn’t), excising such references prior to submission usually increases its marketability.

A market-savvy self-editing tip for novelists and memoir-writers: go through your manuscript, highlighting any cultural reference that might not make sense to a reader five years hence. When in doubt, whip out your highlighting pen. Mention of a character on a TV show? Mark it. Complaint about a politician currently in office? Mark it? Any reference at all to Paris Hilton? Perez Hilton?

You get the idea. This is not a moral judgment you’re making, but a calculation about pop culture longevity.

While you’re reading, take the time to note what the reference is and the manuscript page on which it appears. After you finish, go back and read through the list: would your target reader have recognized each of these five years ago? If you’re writing for adults, would a reader in high school now know what you’re talking about? Are you really willing to bank on whether Arby’s latest moniker for a sandwich is here to stay — or that your target reader will even know about it?

If you aren’t sure about the long-term cultural resonance of, say, the McRib, walk into your local community library, find the person reading the 19th-century novel (if you can’t find one in the stacks, try behind the check-out desk), and offer to buy that kind soul a nice cup of coffee if s/he will be nice enough to take a gander at your list. If the lady with her nose in a minor Charlotte Brontë novel doesn’t recognize a cultural reference, chances are that it’s not as pervasive a phenomenon as you may have thought.

After you have figured out which references need to be changed or omitted, go back and examine the ones you decided could stay. Is that reference actually necessary to the paragraph in which it appears? Is there another way that you could make the same point without, for instance, using a brand name?

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…
As I was walking you through that last exercise, I spotted some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the folks attached to those hands inquire timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some sort of a tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t shallow. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
As I mentioned in passing above, an author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Generally speaking, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. That’s a calculation based upon a lot of factors: how much it will cost to print the book (anything over 500 pages requires more expensive binding, for instance, and color photos are expensive to reproduce), how large the already-existing market is for similar books, how difficult the marketing department thinks it will be to reach those readers, whether Barnes and Noble is having a bad year, and so forth.

It is, in fact, a guesstimate — and as such, tends to be low, especially for first-time authors.

Why not aim high, let the author quit her day job, and hope for the best? Because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every three or six months is fairly standard.

The moral: read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers — but I’m afraid agent-seeking is a topic for another day.

Before I signed off, allow me to add: don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so. It’s not something that we talk about much in the writing community, perversely. And that’s a shame, because In the current market, when advances for new are often reflective of the gloomiest projections, while those for bestselling authors keep rising, I suspect that a significant percentage of the authors who sign their first publication contracts in the months to come are going to be mystified at being offered an honorarium when they expected enough dosh, if not to allow them to retire to write full-time, at least to permit cut back their hours.

Don’t panic; conditions change. One thing you may rely upon to remain the same, however: the writer who is in it for the love of literature probably going to be happier enduring the ups and downs of getting published than the one who walks into it with dollar signs in his eyes. Good writing is a gift to humanity, after all, every bit as much as it is a commodity for its author to sell.

Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, or, how does a book concept make it from a New Year’s resolution to a shelf at Borders?

gutenberg press drawing

Welcome to 2010, long- and short-term members of the Author! Author! community. May this be a year of major steps forward: starting the book of your dreams, finishing the book of your dreams, revising your manuscript until it becomes the book of your dreams, discovering the best agent on earth to represent it, convincing the best agent on earth to represent it, that agent blandishing the ideal editor into reading it, said ideal editor falling in love with it, a lucrative sale and easy publication process, readers eager to bury their noses in it, a second book (or a third, or a fifteenth) that exceeds expectations, a well-deserved Pulitzer prize.

You know, the basics of a writing life well-lived.

An especially hearty howdy-do and handshake for those of you acting on a New Year’s resolution to learn how to get your book into print. Or how to land an agent. Or why a writer might need to land an agent in order to get her book into print. You’ve happened upon this blog at an excellent time, because I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks getting down to those very brass tacks. I’m going to be addressing the two most basic questions of the writerly life:

(1) How does a book go from sitting on an aspiring writer’s desk to being sold in a bookstore?

(2) What, if anything, does an aspiring writer need to know to navigate that trip successfully?

Why go straight to the root of the quest, rather than simply handing those new to the game a couple of one-page sheets of directions? Well, first of all, because there are plenty of advice-givers out there willing to bark unexplained orders at those new to the biz. In my experience, quick-and-dirty isn’t nearly as helpful as carefully-explained. Unless a writer understands why things work the way they do, he’s not only likely to break the rules — he’s not going to be able to improve his game.

Heck, he may not be able to play with the big kids at all. So: let’s talk fundamentals.

That chorus of groans you just heard, newcomers, arose from some of the longer-term readers of this blog who were really, really into my recent series on self-editing. “But Anne,” they whimper, ink-stained fingers gesticulating, didn’t you tell us just the other day that since half the writers in North America suddenly send out queries and submissions” (you’ll be tossing around those terms very soon, newbies, never fear) “as part of their New Year’s resolutions, we should hunker down and wait until mid-February before trying afresh? Wouldn’t that hiatus be a dandy time for, you know, revision?”

Indeed it would be, ink-stained protestors. A review of the basics before leaping back into the fray is never a bad idea. But just to keep it interesting, I’ll make a valiant effort to keep tucking tidbits useful for self-editors into the corners of my next couple of weeks’ posts. I wouldn’t want you to feel that I was ignoring old friends for new.

And let’s face it: a crash course in how the publishing industry works isn’t a bad idea before leaping back into the fray. As I’m sure many of you are already well aware, when a rejection is staring a writer in the face, it’s awfully easy to forget that it isn’t personal; good book concepts and well-written manuscripts is just part of how the system works.

Didn’t expect me to be so up-front about it, did you, newbies? Fair warning: this series is going to be rather disturbing to any writer who believes that the only real test of whether a manuscript is any good is whether it gets published. Or that a good manuscript will always be able to find an agent, and swiftly.

At the risk of repeating myself, that’s just not how it works.

Honest. I’ve been in the game practically since birth, and I’m here to tell you, there is no literature fairy. No winsome sprite will guide an agent to the doorstep of a talented new writer, simply because she is talented; the writer has to take some steps to flag that agent down.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I? I haven’t even laid the foundation of gloom-inducing yet, and here I am, waving from a second-floor window.

What I’m about to tell you may well be depressing — heck, it depresses me, and I have an agent — but please, I implore you, stick with this series, even if you are already fairly familiar with, say, how to construct a passable English sentence or to write a query. This is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage. Aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.

In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are not the people for whom I am writing this. I’m talking to every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice. I want to help you succeed.

So let’s get this baby cranking, as Johann Gutenberg doubtless said to his assistants in 1450 or so.

Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.

But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Theodore Roosevelt administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff, persons with whom he may well have shared a dormitory at some elite private college; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.

Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a well-placed review.

Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.

Heck, that’s assuming that you’re even reading newspapers anymore.

Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commonly available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence.

This is what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, a manuscript an author sends to an agent or editor without said agent or editor’s having asked to see it. Today, an unsolicited manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread.

Not every aspiring writer believes that, however, because they’ve heard what used to happen to such manuscripts in the days of the Model A: publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.

This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.

They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.

That hasn’t always been easy advice to follow, unless one happened to command a personal army of copyists and/or a steno pool; see my earlier comment about historical access to copy machines.

Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when jolly old TR (Roosevelt hated being called Teddy) was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say; no agent or editor in her right mind would read even a sentence of a hand-written submission today. Another way that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.

The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were (and are) sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, editors buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract.

It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well. Usually, there was a pretty good reason for that: the author spent five or ten years, or even a lifetime, cranking out that first novel, but after it hit the big time, her editor began clamoring for the next immediately. The author tossed something together in a year, and poof! Everyone was astonished that the second wasn’t nearly as good as the first.

Hmm, who could have predicted that? As late as the 1980s, not the publishing industry.

As a result, while multi-book fiction contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series-production — they have become substantially less common in the mainstream and women’s fiction markets. Which is to say: the vast majority of fiction is sold on a per-book basis. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books– and have them polished into publishable form before they can sell them.

Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials.

Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work in their book proposals — which is why, in case you’d been wondering, so many nonfiction books are authored by journalists. They tend to have stacks and stacks of clippings on hand.

Why are clippings helpful in selling a nonfiction book to a publisher? Because they prove that some other editor has thought enough of the proposer’s writing to publish it before. Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.

That does not, however, mean that every nonfiction writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Why not, you ask? Because buying something that does not yet exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.

Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that novelists can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? If not, please trot right to the comments and ask a pertinent question.

While we’re waiting, let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries, shall we?

The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.

Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller, independent publishers that do accept direct submission. Very good houses, some of these. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.

But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.

This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.

You novelists out there are getting a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. Nonfiction writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book before I approach an agent, much less a publishing house. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”

Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)

Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-manuscripts-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as at best a necessary evil, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses.

Okay, so they bring some not-so-hot writers and less-than-amazing books to ‘em, too, but try to see the forest, not the trees here. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.

Everybody understand that? Agents reject 95% of the queries they receive, and an even higher percentage of submitted manuscripts, so the publishers don’t have to do so.

It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is simply not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.

Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?

“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”

A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be clarifying that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.

In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.

Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.

Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.

Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.

Allow me to repeat that, because: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Contrary to common belief amongst aspiring writers, their employees are not primarily concerned with the task of discovering great new talent, but rather with finding books they believe the agency can sell within the current literary market.

In other words, they reject books they know to be written well. Routinely. Because if they can’t sell the book, the agency does not make money.

It’s honestly as simple as that. See why knowing how agencies work might help you take a rejection less personally?

Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.

Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to appreciate this level of verifiability once you become successful. Trust me on this one.

To recap how things have changed since Theodore Roosevelt roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.

Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.

Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.

Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: agents largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.

Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.

Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!

Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it.

But wait — I haven’t given you a self-editing tip yet today, have I? Here’s one that will keep many of you busy for a good, long while: in most adult fiction, professional readers like Millicent prefer to see tag lines — all of those he said, she exclaimed, they cried statements that litter the average dialogue scene — minimized, or even omitted entirely. Unless there is serious doubt about which character is speaking when, they usually aren’t necessary.

Quotation marks, after all, indicate that what falls within them is being spoken aloud. So dialogue that runs like this:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah?” he said. “Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed in fear, but she stood her ground. “I am,” she said stoutly.

“Ooh,” Johnny said, “this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

may often be trimmed to the following, with no real loss of meaning:

Johnny smoothed back his pompadour, copied from a torn photo of his grandfather. “Yeah? Who’s gonna make me?”

Tina quailed, but she stood her ground stoutly. “I am.”

“Ooh, this is going to be fun. I haven’t created a scar in weeks.”

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the most graceful way to work today’s editing tip into the text. Hey, I’m just warming up here. Keep up the good work!

Not another best and worst of the decade list!

one-way sign in graveyard

It’s certainly been a year — and a decade — of mixed blessings, hasn’t it? Why, only last month, as I was noting with annoyance that Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top 100 new releases of 2009 did not contain a single book by a female author, I realized with a shock that the Matthew Crawford at #8 used to sit next to me in grad school seminars. Naturally, I rushed out and bought Shop Class as Soulcraft at a brick-and-mortar bookstore right away, on general principle and to boost my writerly karma, but it made me think: the dark, dark clouds of the last year have certainly had some odd silver linings.

So, belatedly: congratulations, Matt. And here’s to finding writers I like on 10-best lists, anywhere, anytime.

I’ve been mulling over those unexpected flashes of silver in the sky all month, as I’ve been gearing up to this, my last post of the decade. I had planned to come up with one of those ubiquitous best and worst lists from a writerly perspective — you know, books I hated, editors at Random House I was sorry to see take early retirement, that sort of thing.

Frankly, coming up with a worst list was no problem at all. Took about four minutes. Yet every single one of my hard-found bests — all seven of them — were charming surprises like seeing Matt’s name turn up on the PW list, not genuine trends I could laud as harbingers of good things coming to writers everywhere. And while I could follow the excellent example of other end-of-the-decade commenters like Julianna Baggott (whose recent Washington Post article on why it is so hard for female authors to crack those top ten lists is well worth reading, by the way), devoting my last post of the year purely to criticism of the status quo, I just can’t bring myself to believe that those silver linings, however few and far between, are not something worth celebrating.

But let’s not kid ourselves: we writers have a heck of a lot to complain about these days.

So here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll be taking a barefoot run through what I think are the ten worst things to happen to writing over the last decade, followed by what I consider the single nastiest development for aspiring writers. Then, with all of that out of our collective system, I’ll let you in on some reasons that I think all of us should continue keeping the faith.

With me? Tremendous. Let the snarly bits begin.

The Ten Worst Things to Happen to Writing in the 2000s So Far

(10) Benefit-free simplification of the language
You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ve all picked up a newspaper — remember those? — and been knocked out of an otherwise interesting article by , say, the completely gratuitous capitalization of the first word following a colon. It’s never been correct in English — so why the heck has it suddenly become so very common in recent years? Why, in fact, has it become acceptable by AP editing standards?

For heaven’s sake, it’s not a new sentence!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the type of irritant that makes folks who don’t read or write manuscripts for a living choke on their coffee, but I assure you, such creeping attacks on literacy drive those of us who do absolutely nuts. Why? Because after enough readers have seen the incorrect version often enough and in authoritative enough sources, it will begin to look correct to them.

Can the fall of civilization be far behind?

No, but seriously, the last decade has seen the dubious legitimization of quite a lot of technically incorrect practices. More nails on the proverbial blackboard:

* The use of quality as a synonym for high-quality, without the necessary modifier. Technically, quality could be high, low, or middling. The sole exception, as far as I know, is when it refers to obsolete social class distinctions: it was obvious from her bearing that she was a lady of quality.

See? I didn’t capitalize the first word after the colon in that last sentence, and the grammar gods didn’t strike me dead on the spot.

* The use of unique with a modifier, as in she is very unique. By definition, something is unique because it is the only one of its kind.

* Leaving question marks off sentences that are clearly questions, as in do you hear me. It’s a lame writer’s trick, intended to convey flatness of tone. If only the language contained some sort of descriptors for sound, so the reader could know how a speaker’s voice sounds…oh, wait, it does.

Nit-picky? You bet. But since when did wielding the language correctly become optional for good writers?

(9) Conspiracy theories whose individual elements can be adequately exposed within a three-page scene.
I’m looking at you, Dan Brown. Just once, couldn’t a necessary clue not be instantly recognizable the second our hero stumbles upon it? Followed, perhaps, by that crusty old character who has held his tongue for the past forty-three years not blurting out everything he knows the instant the protagonist happens to ask? Or sometimes even before he asks?

Call me a complexity-monger, but if a long-unsolved mystery can be revealed to the first yahoo who bothers to glance in its direction, and that within the first four minutes, I’m just not interested. I have too much faith in the inventive capacities of mystery writers to settle for boneheaded plot twists.

(8) Single spaces after periods and colons in manuscripts.
Yes, yes, I know: eliminating these necessary spaces in published books saves a lot of paper and ink. In a manuscript, however, omitting these spaces is not only an offense to the rules of punctuation, but renders text significantly harder to edit by hand.

Which, in case you’d been wondering, is generally the only way to catch the kind of errors mentioned in (10). And why it’s so obvious to most professional readers handed a manuscript without the necessary two spaces that the writer has not worked with an editor before.

(7) A radical increase in pop culture references in published books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, a memoir: mentioning that the protagonist’s sister is lying on the floor, watching a brand-new Gilligan’s Island episode is a legitimate way to give a sense of place and time to a scene. But using current pop references in a novel to make it seem up-to-date now will simply render it out of date in five years.

Sorry; I don’t make the rules governing the turnover rate of pop culture. Nor of the passage of time.

I object to this one, like the last, primarily for its negative effect upon aspiring writers. It can take a couple of years for a manuscript to travel the bumpy road from sale to a publishing house to a spot on a bookshelf at Borders; what’s hip today may well be dated by then. Manuscripts still do get rejected, and often, by old-school professional readers trained to spot references that readers will not necessary catch three years from now.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen plenty of published books with these references. So have I. That doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to follow their example.

(6) Not dividing the YA market into as strongly-defined book categories as the adult market
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Well, I guess you might have to talk to a lot of writers, agents, and editors to notice this problem, but since YA has taken off as a major market, more and more agents who represent primarily adult fiction have, predictably, started actively seeking out the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Which are, correct me if I’m wrong, quite different from each other. So how is an aspiring writer to know what an agent who says she’s looking for YA, any YA, to know what she’s got in mind?

Defining YA books more precisely would be very, very helpful to agent-seeking writers — and not just by guiding those who write YA paranormal romance to agencies with a more successful record with vampire stories than horse books. Lumping too many kinds of YA together makes it harder for those who write for niche markets — like, say, the book for the smartest girl in the class, rather than for the boy who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable girl — find the right homes for their books.

There is literally nothing writers can do about this one, of course. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth grumbling over.

(5) “Whatever!”
Oh, God, how I wish that this one had never entered the language — although, as a means of irritating adults, I suppose the very fact that I want to strangle the next character who utters it indicates that it has been a rousing success.

Fine; you win, whatever-ers. Now give it a rest, already.

I’m not talking to young writers here, although I must admit that I have had a younger students hand me pages where whatever played a prominent role. (Unfortunately, the pages were in a term paper on Rousseau, and the first sentence that caught my eye was In human beings’ natural state, they all lived alone or whatever. The ensuing discussion was not pretty.) I’m aiming this complaint squarely at adult writers who shove whatever into their teenage characters’ mouths in an effort to make them sound like, well, teenagers.

Personally, I find this dismissive; most of the teenagers I know are pretty interesting people. As a reader, I want to hear what a specific teenage character has to say, not to see her merely parrot what any generic teenager might say.

And don’t tell me that young people really talk that way; real-life dialogue can be pretty boring. Astonish me with how your characters are different from anyone I might overhead in a movie ticket line, rather than lulling me to sleep with a transcript.

Want to show an attitude problem? Go right ahead. Writers have plenty of other narrative tools with which to demonstrate all kinds of emotional states.

(4) The demotion of the art of memoir to mere journalism
As recently as seven or eight years ago, memoirists signed contracts with their publishers that specified that the stories they were telling were essentially true, to the best of their knowledge. Lawsuits did occasionally happen, but pretty much everyone concerned recognized that (a) every human being recollects any shared event differently, (b) one of the things that separates a gifted memoirist from the rest of the population is the ability to hone and plane reality into a story that someone might conceivably want to read, and (c) occasionally, the effective exercise of (b) might lead to a bit of narrative fudging.

In short, no one seriously believed that all memoirists did was stand around for their entire pre-publication lives, taking notes like a court reporter. Poetic license was considered legitimate. Heck, ten years ago, you’d only have to buy a junior editor at a major publishing house one drink before he’d be assuring you that the latest celebrity memoir was a good 87% poetry.

Oh, I’m sorry — should I have warned you that the emperor’s clothes were about to be affected by gravity?

Now, memoirists are not only often required to sign iron-clad contracts, taking on all legal liability for any misstatements, but sometimes have to obtain signed releases from anyone mentioned in the book. Under the threat of negative publicity, publishers have been regarding memoirs with a far more suspicious eye. And no wonder, given how the media has reacted to the news: one established memoirist after another is outed as having made up salient facts, and some hyper-literal reporter so misunderstood David Sedaris’ essays that he meticulously fact-checked them.

Sedaris writes humor, people. Comedy writers see things differently than the general population. And may I introduce you once again to the concept of poetic license? Should I invite you all over for dinner, so you may get better acquainted?

It’s tempting to blame James Frey, he of the Million Little Pieces scandal, for this rather severe shift in publishing attitude. If only those rumors that his agent sold the book as a novel, not a memoir, would stop circulating so persistently, I might be able to jump on that bandwagon. However, as a memoirist whose publisher was dogged with lawsuit threats (unfounded) over my book, I’m inclined to think that the real culprit here is a trend for authors to be saddled with more and more of the burdens of bringing out a successful book.

If an author is now expected to, say, pay for his own book tour or hire his own publicist, is it really all that astonishing that he should be saddled with all of the risk of telling his own story? The emperor needs a new wardrobe, after all.

(3) The rise of editing on computer screens
I’m placing this one near the top of my list, since it has contributed so heavily to some of the problems lower down. Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: since the human eye reads 70% faster on a screen than on a page, it is markedly more difficult to catch typos, logical problems, and other textual errors if one edits on a computer screen.

I could — and have — unleash an avalanche of examples at this point, but I’ll restrain myself and provide only one, a little something I like to call the according to Smith problem. See if you can spot it for yourself in this (completely fictional) article opening:

For the Anderson family, this was not the New Year’s Eve they were expecting. Last year, and every year before that, Mom Sheila, Dad Egbert, twins Drucilla and Delward, and little Ermintrude had gathered around the cheerful fire on their hearth, toasting one another with the vodka-laced grog Sheila’s grandmother used to make.

That was before the fire. Like so many now-scarred Americans, the Andersons were tragically unaware that vodka is flammable.

According to Smith, however, the turning of the year was not the only time the family used to drink. “I thought the kids were a little young. I mean, grog in the baby’s bottle? But hey, who am I to tell them how to raise ‘em?”

Did you catch it? No? Here’s a hint: WHO IS SMITH?

As an editor, this sort of editing error drives me nuts — and I assure you, it is an editing error, not a writing one. To an editorial eye, it’s fairly obvious that in an earlier draft, a sentence identifying Smith, probably including his first name and his relationship to the Andersons, appeared prior to the paragraph with the quote. In a subsequent draft, the reference was cut, and nobody noticed.

Except the confused reader, that is.

Would this be a good time to remind you to read your manuscripts IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and, if possible, OUT LOUD? No? Okay, I’ll move on to my next point.

(2) The swiftly-widening gap between advances for bestselling authors and those less established
Do I really have to explain to a readership of writers why this one is bad for our art form? I doubt it, but just in case I need to spell it out: tiny advances mean that first-time authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Am I the only one who worries that the full-time book writer is in danger of becoming obsolete? And does anyone seriously believe that eventuality will improve the overall quality of the literary market?

Especially in combination with…

(1) The rapid turnover of editors, or, the rise of the five-editor book project
Ten years ago, it was rare that the editor who acquired a manuscript did not remain with the project all the way through the publication process. Heck, it was fairly normal for an editor to stick with a successful author for half a career.

Now, a first-time author may thank her lucky stars if her book is handled by only two or three editors; the turnover rate over the last year has been so rapid that I know no fewer than three authors whose books were overseen by five editors, all of whom wanted the book to be something different. One poor novelist got assigned a new editor less than a month before his book was scheduled to be printed.

Guess how he spent the first three weeks of that month? Oh, well, his protagonist didn’t really need that lesbian sister, anyway.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of his five editors, of course; for all I know, each of their widely divergent opinions on the book could have worked — had it been the only editorial vision. I’m merely suggesting that continually asking writers to adjust their creative process to different masters’ expectations within a single project might not be the most efficient means to get the best out of talented people.

Of course, the rate of turnover isn’t really the editors’ fault — I’ve seldom meant one who actively yearned to be fired — any more than the notoriously short average tenure of agency screeners and editorial assistants is the result of some active conspiracy of the powerless. So before we leave behind the blame portion of our evening, let’s talk about one other negative development for writers that is very much within these decision-makers’ control.

Bonus: the increasingly common practice of agents and editors not responding to submissions at all
A decade ago, an agent’s using a form letter to reject a query was the most common source of complaint among aspiring writers; now, it’s far from uncommon for that same agent not to respond to a query at all if the answer is no. But until just a couple of years ago, it was unheard-of for an agency to apply the silence-means-no practice to requested materials.

The times, they have indeed been a-changin’. Now, it’s not unusual for a submitter to hear back 6 months later, or even not at all.

Obviously, this widespread policy shift has been terrible for agent-seeking writers — and not just because it’s harder to wait five months to hear back than two. How, for instance, is a writer to know whether four months of non-response means that (a) his manuscript has been rejected, (b) his manuscript has not been rejected, but has not yet been read by all of the people who need to read it before the agent can say yes, or (c) the manuscript never got there in the first place?

Yet despite this quite radical change in how some agencies — not all, thank goodness — handle requested submissions, most aspiring writers still submit to only one agent at a time. Or even — sacre bleu! — query one at a time.

In the current environment, that means that even a writer who gets picked up unusually quickly will unnecessarily waste a year or two. Once again, I implore you: unless an agent’s website or guide listing specifically says s/he will not accept simultaneous submissions, keep sending out your work.

Unless, of course, you have an extra decade or so to kill before your book gets published?

Okay, that’s enough gloom-inducement for one night. On to the reason that all of you talented writers out there should keep pushing forward, despite an increasingly difficult publishing environment.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper it: the fact that it’s become significantly more difficult to get it published has little to do with the quality of your writing; these are systemic changes. But that doesn’t mean a good manuscript isn’t still worth promoting.

Yes, yes, I know: that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve been saying here at Author! Author! for the last five years. It’s still true. The primary difference is that in the face of ever-heightening barriers to good writers’ getting discovered, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the faith.

And yet you still push forward, don’t you? That’s one of the things I love most about our Author! Author! community: we don’t give up on our talent. Even when the odds are, frankly, pretty ridiculous, good writers keep writing.

Which is why, despite my deep concerns about the future of writing, I’ve decided to end the year not with my suggestions for how to keep the faith, but yours. Here, at long last, are the winners of November’s Words to Write By contest:

“Don’t look down.” — Jennifer Crusie, bestselling romance author

Submitted by Jenyfer Matthews, who adds: “Seemingly simple, I interpret this quote to mean believe in yourself. Be brave enough to take that first step and then let the magic of the writing process carry you. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and just keep putting one word in front of the other until you reach the end. Don’t second guess yourself or the story – or else. Have faith.”

I’m with you, Jenyfer. Here’s another:

“You are allowed to suck.” — Mur Lafferty

Submitted by Bart Silverstrim, who went on to explain: “I first heard that aphorism as one of Mur Lafferty’s Rules of Writing in her podcast called “I Should be Writing.” My fears of ridicule, lack of talent, not being “good enough” to deserve the chance to become a published author melt away when I remind myself of this. It is the permission that all new (or aspiring) authors need in order to face that keyboard; you cannot edit your manuscript that sucks into something better until you have a manuscript to improve upon!”

So true, Bart. In a similar spirit:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — Dodie Smith

Submitted by Natalie Kingston, along with this charming comment: “I love this quote; it’s the opening line of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (more famous for her Disney-adapted work The Hundred and one Dalmations). It reminds me that it’s always possible to find the time and space to write, if you look hard enough. It’s Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” shrunk down to fit into the most prosaic, domestic space. The quote is typical of the whole novel, which contrasts romanticism of writing and the cold reality; the father takes a forty year lease on a dilapidated but charming castle in the hopes it will help him write his second novel, but it is his daughter who takes inspiration from their struggles to survive there. It reminds me not to cut myself off, and that the best ideas come from the most unexceptional places.”

Feeling more empowered already, aren’t you? Hold that feeling, because here comes the entry the judges found most inspiring of all, the winner of a brand-spanking-new copy of Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers’ excellent LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?”
~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

Submitted by Juniper Ekman, who went on to say:

“This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.
I am a writer.
I have books to write.”

I can think of no better way to end the year. Congratulations, Juniper, Natalie, Bart, and Jenyfer for trumping some pretty hefty competition for top inspiring quote, and thanks for helping all of us keep the faith for another year.

I say it at the end of every post, but never have I meant it more: keep up the good work, my friends. The world needs to hear your voice.

Let’s hear it one more time! (Or maybe not.)

Nixon on peter pan ride

Did my odd mid-week hiatus leave you wondering if I had slipped off for some holiday merry-making? No such luck; just swamped with work. That, and being comatose with depression over some recent news, international, national, and personal. I doubt 2009 is a year I shall remember fondly.

Or that writers in general will: this was the year that advances plummeted, especially for first-time authors. I was reading only just today that in the UK, advances as low as £500 on debut novels are now considered acceptable, even from major publishing houses. Lest those of us on this side of the pond are tempted to feel superior, the average advance for first-timers has dropped between 30 and 50%, although advances to authors already on the bestseller lists continue to spiral upward.

As the old-timers used to say: don’t quit your day job until someone other than your mother is buying copies of your work. To which I would add the latter-day caveat: and that work is your fifth book.

Sorry to be the bearer of such awful news, but I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers with completely unrealistic expectations about what publishers are willing to pay for brilliant writing. Many sincerely believe that it’s routine for writers who have successfully sold a first book to quit their proverbial day jobs the next day, but honestly, it’s been true for a long time that advances, especially on first novels, tend to be more in the new car range than the retire-for-life range.

And recently, they’ve been in the used car range, unless the manuscript happens to be one of the few that sells at auction. That’s just what it says on the box: if more than one publisher is interested in a book — a logistical impossibility for novels agents choose to submit, as many do, to only one editor at a time — then they will bid against each other for the rights. If the competition is fierce, that price can go quite high, of course, but for a first-time author, that’s pretty rare.

Why? Well, think about it: publishers can make educated guesses about what readers will buy, but there’s no way to know for certain, short of hopping on a time machine, what’s going to be the hot book a couple of years from now, right? So given the choice of shelling out up front for a book by an author who already has an established readership and one whose work is brand-new to bookstores, they tend to opt for the former.

All the more so in the last couple of years, when authors are increasingly being held responsible for promoting their own books, something considerably easier for an established author to do. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — if advances are dropping like stones, where is the small-but-serious author to get the resources to promote her own book?” congratulations; you’re understanding the current dilemma of many an exceptionally talented published author.

Starting to see why most published authors don’t quit their day jobs? And why staring glumly at the Senate health care debate on C-SPAN might have seemed like the least depressing way to spend a few hours than blogging about writing?

So how do the authors making a living at it make a living at it? For fiction, usually by having a number of books out. And teaching. And promoting the heck out of their books. Or by writing in different book categories, up to and including nonfiction.

For nonfiction, the picture is a trifle less grim, and remains so. That’s largely because (a) historically, it’s been easier to sell nonfiction than fiction, except for memoir, (b) a nonfiction writer doesn’t have to write the entire book before selling it, and thus can potentially market proposals for several different books in any given year, and (c) unlike fiction, which is typically sold on a finished manuscript, nonfiction writers are often paid to write the book before they’ve written the book (see point b). Yet even there, publishers are becoming increasingly cautions, even to the point of canceling long-established book contracts — especially the later books covered by multi-book contracts — if they’re not absolutely positive that the books in question will sell well.

See earlier comment about advances rising for bestselling authors. We writers often forget just how much greater a gamble taking a chance on a new writer actually is.

I mention all this not because misery loves company, but because writing a novel is so many day-job-having writers’ plan B. And plan Bs — and Cs and Ds and Qs — tend to get trotted out in a slow economy. Which, perversely, means that there’s simply more competition for the increasingly few publishing slots in any given year, both at the publishing house and agency level.

Translation: it’s been harder than usual to find an agent or sell a manuscript this year in the English-speaking world. Significantly harder. Just ask all of those published authors toiling away at their day jobs.

So please, as the year and the decade wind down, don’t fall into the trap of judging your writing purely by the yardstick of whether an agent fell in love with it, or an editor was able to move an editorial committee to cough up a couple of thousand dollars for the rights. Plenty of good books, plenty of brilliant books, even, got rejected this year.

Keep your chin up, literarily speaking, and remember: there will be other years. Recessions don’t last forever.

So what does a savvy-but-depressed writer do while waiting for advances to rise again? Why, the same thing one does during the annual Thanksgiving-through-New-Year’s publishing world slow-down: work on one’s craft. And revise, revise, revise, so one’s manuscript’s chances are even better in the year to come.

Let’s hear some enthusiasm, people. I, for one, am raring to go.

Oh, no: I’ve inadvertently used the evil phrase, the one involved in my first A CLOCKWORK ORANGE-like aversion therapy for repetitive phrase use. The screen goes wavy, and I see it all before me: I was six years old, standing in line for the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, back in the days when the quality and popularity of the ride was easily discernable by the level of ticket required to board it. E was the best; I believe this particular ride was somewhere in the B range.

So there I was, all brown eyes and braids, holding my mother’s hand while my father watched my older brother go on D and E ticket rides, waiting in a queue of inexplicable length to cruise around an ersatz London with Peter, Wendy, and the gang. Not that I was particularly enamored of PETER PAN as a story, even then; the business of telling children that if they only wish hard enough, their dead loved ones will come back from the dead has always struck me as rather mean. Because, honestly, what does that story about the motivations of all of those kids whose late relatives remained dead?

So I was not especially psyched to take this particular ride; it was merely one of the few the guidebook deemed appropriate to literary critics of my tender age. And the longer we stood in line, the less enthused I became.

Why, the six-year-old in all of us cries? Because as each ship-shaped car took a new crew of tourists whirring into the bowels of the ride, Peter’s voice cried out, “Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!” After about five minutes of listening to that annoying howl while inching toward the front of line, I started counting the repetitions.

By the time it was our turn to step into the flying ship, Peter had barked that inane phrase at me 103 times. It’s all I remember about the ride. I told the smiling park employee who liberated us from our ship at the end of the ride that it would have been far, far better without all of that phrase at the beginning.

And that, my friends, is how little girls with braids grow up to be editors.

Actually, it’s probably fortunate that I was aurally assaulted by a cartoon character chez Mouse in my early youth; it’s helped make me very, very aware of just how much repetition is constantly flung at all of us, all the time. Not just in everyday conversations — although it’s there, too: if you doubt this, walk into a popular café during a midwinter cold snap and count the variations on, “Wow, I’m cold?” you hear within a 15-minute period — but in TV and movies as well.

Most of us become inured through years of, well, repetition to the film habit of repeating facts and lines that the screenwriter wants to make sure the viewer remembers, information integral to either the plot (“Remember, Gladys — cut the RED cord hanging from that bomb, not the yellow one!”), character development (“Just because you’re a particle physicist, George, doesn’t mean you’re always right!”), or both (“You may be the best antiques appraiser in the British Isles, Mr. Lovejoy, but you are a cad!”)

My all-time favorite example of this came in the cult TV series Strangers With Candy, a parody of those 1970s Afterschool Special that let young folks like me into esoteric truths like Divorce is Hard on Everyone in the Family, Outsiders are Teased, and Drugs are Bad. (See, I even remembered the morals, doubtless due to incessant repetition.) In SWC, the heroine, Jerri Blank, often telegraphs upcoming plot twists by saying things like, “I would just like to reiterate, Shelly, that I would just die if anything happened to you.”

Moments later, of course, Shelly is toast.

It was funny in the series, of course, but it’s less funny to encounter in a manuscript, particularly if your eyes are attuned to catching repetition, as many professional readers’ are. Characters honestly do say things like, “But Emily, have you forgotten that I learned how to tie sailors’ knots when I was kidnapped by pirates three years ago?”

All the time. Even when the first 200 pages of the manuscript dealt with that very pirate kidnapping. And every time such a reference is repeated, another little girl with braids vows to grow up and excise all of that ambient redundancy.

Okay, not really. But it does make Millicent the agency screener mutter into her too-hot latte, “I KNOW that. Move on!” more than the average submitter might like.

At base, conceptual repetition is another trust issue, isn’t it? The writer worries that the reader will not remember a salient fact crucial to the scene at hand, just as the screenwriter worries that the audience member might have gone off to the concession stand at the precise moment when the murderer first revealed that he had a lousy childhood.

Who could have predicted THAT? How about anyone who has seen a movie within the last two decades?

Television and movies have most assuredly affected the way writers tell stories. One of the surest signs that a catch phrase or particular type of plot twist has passed into the cultural lexicon is the frequency with which it turns up in manuscript submissions. And one of the best ways to assure a submission’s rejection is for it to read just like half the submissions that came through the door that day.

Come closer, and I’ll tell you a secret: repetition is boring. REALLY boring. As in it makes Millicent wish she’d gone into a less taxing profession. Like being an astronaut or a nuclear physicist.

Why, you ask? Here’s another secret: people who read manuscripts for a living are more likely to notice repetition than other readers, not less. (Perhaps Peter Pan traumatized them in their younger days, too.) Not only repetition within your manuscript, but repetition ACROSS manuscripts as well.

We all know how agents and editors feel about manuscripts that bore them, right? In a word: next!

It may not be a problem to which your manuscript falls prey — and if so, hurrah for you; it’s hard to strip a manuscript of them entirely, because they are so pervasive. But just to be on the safe side, here’s a depression-avoidance project for a rainy winter day: sit down with your first 50 pages and highlight every line of dialogue in there that you’ve ever heard a TV or movie character say verbatim. Ever.

Was that giant slurping noise I just heard the sound of the blood rushing out of everyone’s faces at the realization of just how much dialogue that might potentially cover?

No? What if I also ask you to highlight similar phrases in the narration? First-person narration is notorious for echoing the currently popular TV shows. So is YA.

Often, it’s unconscious on the writer’s part: it’s brainwashing from all of that repetition. It would be surprising if common dialogue hadn’t made its way into all of our psyches, actually: according to CASSELL’S MOVIE QUOTATIONS, the line, “Let’s get outta here!” is heard in 81% of films released in the US between 1938 and 1985.

Care to take a wild guess at just how often some permutation of that line turns up in submissions to agencies? Better yet, care to take a wild guess at how many agents and editors notice a particular phrase the second time it turns up in a text? Or the second time it’s turned up in a submission this week?

“Come on, everybody, raring to go-o-o-o!”

Unfortunately, just because a writer doesn’t realize that he’s doing lifting lines doesn’t mean that an agency screener won’t notice and be annoyed by it. Particularly if three of the manuscripts she’s seen today have used the same line.

It happens. Or, to put it in Afterschool Special terms, Checking for Both Types of Repetition is Good.

I know, I know, it’s tempting to assume that you haven’t used any of the standard catchphrases or plot twists, but believe me, even the most innovative writers do it from time to time. And for good reason: the rest of the population is subjected to the same repetitive teleplays and screenplays as writers are.

Over time, people do tend to start to speak the way they would if they were playing themselves onscreen. (A writer of very good hardboiled mysteries tells me that he is constantly meeting private detectives who sound like Sam Spade, for instance.) But remember, just because people do or say something in real life doesn’t mean it will necessarily be interesting translated to the printed page.

Check. Weed out both repetition within your manuscript AND material unconsciously borrowed from TV and movies. Or, better yet, have a good reader you trust check for you. (And if you’re not sure whether a particular twist or line is common enough to count, film critic Roger Ebert maintains a database of them.)

Often, it’s surprising how small a textual change will turn an incipient cliché into a genuinely original moment. But a writer cannot perform that magic trick without first identifying where it should be applied.

Okay, it’s time for me to go-o-o (curse you, Pan!) for today. Keep those creative spirits riding high, everyone, and as always, keep up the good work!