A memoir needs a story arc as much as a novel does? Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Of all the many, many mysteries that keep those of us who handle manuscripts for a living up at night, none is so recalcitrant — and, even more trying to the editorial mind, positively immune to diagnostic analysis — than why it so often seems to come as a complete surprise to memoirists to be asked, “What’s your book about?” From a publishing perspective, few questions could be more straightforward, or more predictable: presumably, something occurred in the memoirist’s life that he thought would make a good story on paper, right?

To your garden-variety memoirist, however, answering this inherently loaded question is complicated. Or so publishing professionals surmise, from the long pause that typically ensues. Often preceded by a gusty sigh and succeeded by a sudden avalanche of seemingly unrelated personal anecdotes.

That’s the standard response, by the way, regardless of the context in which a memoirist is asked what her book is about. Be it at a writers’ conference, in a social interaction at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, at a party mostly peopled by non-writers (oh, we do manage to mingle occasionally), or even in a pitch meeting, people writing about their own lives tend to change the subject. Rather quickly, too.

If you’ll forgive my saying so, memoirists, that’s a pretty remarkable reaction, at least to those of us prone to hanging out with writers. Published and as-yet-to-be published writers are notoriously fond of talking about their work, sometimes to the exclusion of actually working on new projects. Heck, there’s even an old joke about it:

Aspiring writer at cocktail party: I hear you’re an agent. I’ve written a book…

Agent (instantly scoping the exits): I’d love to hear about it, but I’m afraid I have only an hour left to live.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good joke, but it is reflective of the way the rest of the world views writers. A writer’s will to communicate tends to be pretty strong, after all; even a shy writer will often burst into chattiness when given the slightest encouragement to talk about his work-in-progress. So it just doesn’t make sense to the rest of the human population when someone writing about what should be the most absorbing topic of all, dear self, doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

Indeed, from the intensity of that sigh that’s always blowing those of us kind enough to inquire over sideways, the mere mention of it seems to be quite painful. As a memoirist myself, someone who recently wrote an explanatory introduction for somebody else’s memoir, a lifetime interview subject for biographies about the famous and semi-famous (I’d tell you about it, but that would involve blurting out my life story; oh, the pain), and a frequent editor of memoir, I think I can tell you why.

What we have hear, my friends, is a failure to communicate. What a memoir-writer hears is not the question, “So what is your book about, anyway?” but something closer to, “Sum up your life in fifty words or less. Kindly include a brief summary of the meaning of life in general while you are at it. Please bear in mind that how you will be remembered after your death rides on this answer. Ready — go!”

Just so you know, writers of the real: that’s not what’s being asked here. The Inquisition is not breaking out the thumbscrews, demanding a confession. Not at a cocktail party, not at a writers’ conference, and certainly not when anyone that might conceivably be able to help you get your memoir published brings it up.

So what are these fine folks asking? Precisely what they would ask any other writer. What they are hoping to hear is a short, cogent summary of your book’s story arc.

Imagine their surprise, then, when the memoirist abruptly clams up. Or starts muttering into her drink a shaggy dog tale about the summer of 1982 — a particularly effective evasive technique, as 1982 was for so many of us a year best forgotten altogether.

And those are the courteous responses. Sometimes, the well-meaning questioner will merely elicit a begrudging snort of, “Well, obviously, it’s about me.”

Of course, any prospective author is perfectly at liberty to shorten her list of friends to contact when her book comes out — oh, you thought the recipient of such a dismissive answer was going to break down the doors of his local indie bookseller to buy that memoir? — but you’d be astonished at how frequently agents and editors hear this type of comeback. Without, apparently, anticipating that the response to it will not be particularly gratified, “Well, thanks for filling me in, Noah Webster. Twenty years in publishing, and I had yet to learn the definition of memoir.”

Okay, so most publishing types’ mothers taught them not to be this rude to relative strangers. To the pros, though, any of these replies is perplexing, at best, and at worst, a sign of a complete misunderstanding of how and why anyone not already personally connected with an author might become interested in a memoir.

They have a point, practically speaking. To those who have never tackled the difficult and emotionally-draining task of writing their own stories, it’s well-neigh incomprehensible that anyone hoping to sell a manuscript or proposal could not instantly answer what is, after all, a question any agent representing the book, any editor acquiring the book, any publicist pushing the book, and any reader remotely likely to pick up the book would need to know right off the bat. Surely, having a story to tell is a prerequisite to telling it.

So how could one hope to market a book without knowing what it was about? Heck, how could one hope to write a book without having a clear idea of its story arc?

Actually, those questions puzzle most fiction writers, too, as well as the people that love them. Oh, novelists are not immune to that lengthy hesitation — combined, nine times out of ten, with a gusty sigh — in response to the more general, “So what do you write?” Yet fiction-writers usually manage to follow up with an account that bears at least some embryonic resemblance to the plots of their books.

Astonishingly often, though, memoirists do not — and sometimes seemingly cannot, even if they have already successfully proposed their books. Take Diane, for instance, a courageous memoirist who has recently sold a searing tale of self-revelation to a major publisher; she said that I could share her experience here on condition of changing her name, age, sex, height, weight, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, profession, familial background, and any other identifier that might conceivably render her recognizable to anyone she has ever known. Particularly her book’s acquiring editor.

A truly gifted anecdotalist, Diane has lead a remarkable life (about which I can, of course, tell you nothing); a skilled writer with substantial journalism experience (oops), she is likely to tell it well. Being familiar with how the publishing industry works, she had little trouble pulling together a book proposal, tossing off the requisite marketing materials in three weeks and polishing off a gem of a sample chapter in six. Her agent, Tyrone, fell in love with what was for Diane a new type of writing and was able to sell the book to an eager editor within a remarkably short time to Grace, a very talented editor with a great track record of handling personal memoir with aplomb.

The publication contract specified a not unusually short time in which to complete the manuscript: six months.

Well might you choke, memoirists. At that point, Diane had written only the sample chapter and the first three paragraphs of Chapter 2.

As is all too easy for those new to the game to forget, a book proposal is a job application: the writer makes the case that she is the best person currently occupying the earth’s crust to write a particular book, right? Implicit in that case, however, is the expectation that she will be able to produce that book by a deadline.

None of this was news to Diane, of course, at least not at an intellectual level. She knew that she was a fairly typical position for a first-time memoirist: she would need to write the book she had proposed on a not-unreasonable deadline — or what would have been a reasonable deadline, were advances still large enough to take time off work to complete a writing project. Not necessarily the easiest task in the world, certainly, given that it had taken her six weeks of nights and weekends to compose that nice sample chapter; at the rate she had been writing so far, it would only take another two years to write the book as she had conceived it.

But she did not have two years; she had six months. And Grace had, as acquiring editors of nonfiction so often do, asked for a few changes to the book’s proposed running order. As well as some minor tweaks to the voice.

Does the monumental gasp that just shook a nearby forest indicate that some of you memoirists were not aware that could happen? If so, you’re not alone: since writers so often work in isolation, it’s not at all uncommon for a first-time book proposer to forget (or not to know in the first place) that since the proposal is a job application for the position of writing the book, the publisher hiring the writer generally has the contractual right to ask for changes in that book. And that can be awfully difficult for personal memoirists, who have often spent years working up the nerve to write their life stories in the first place, much less to someone else’s specifications.

Fortunately, Tyrone had experience working with first-time memoirists; he had the foresight to warn Diane before he started circulating the book proposal that the book she had in mind might not be what precisely the acquiring editor would like to see in the published version. So when Diane received the news that Grace felt that the storyline was getting a little lost in the welter of chapters proposed in the Annotated Table of Contents.

“Just stick to the book’s major story arc,” she said, “and we’ll be fine. If this book sells well, we can always work the other material into your next.”

Stop that sighing, memoirists. The furniture in my studio is only battened down to the level appropriate for earthquakes, not hurricanes.

Still, Diane had worked on short deadlines before, and this one was not all that short. Besides, Grace clearly knew what she was talking about; she had spotted a legitimate flaw in the Annotated Table of Contents. Diane hadn’t really thought much about the structure of the book, beyond simply presenting what had happened to her in chronological order. Streamlining her story a little should not be all that hard, right?

Her opinion on the subject shifted slightly over the next three months: writing a personal memoir is notoriously prone to stirring up long-dead emotions. The brain does not seem to make a very great distinction between reliving an event vividly enough to write about it well and living through a current event. Understandably, Diane felt as though she had been going through intensive therapy in her spare time, on a deadline, while holding a full-time job.

Now, Diane saw her previously-manageable task as a gargantuan one. Presuming that she had the stamina to finish drafting the book by her ever-nearing deadline, something she was beginning to doubt was humanly possible, would she be writing it as she wished, or would she simply end up throwing words onto paper? Under those unreasonable circumstances, how could she possibly maintain sufficient perspective on that terrible period of her life to come up with a satisfying dramatic arc? She felt she would be lucky just to get the whole story into a Word file on time.

So she did what most first-time memoirists do: she just wrote the story of that period of her life in chronological order. She wasn’t altogether happy with the manuscript, but she did get it to Grace before the deadline.

Hard to blame her for embracing that tactic, isn’t it? Most of us don’t think of our own lives as having a story arc. We live; things happen; if we’re self-aware, we might occasionally learn something from the process. And when we talk about our lives out loud, that’s not much of a storytelling barrier: verbal anecdotes don’t require much specific detail, character development, or ongoing plot.

Nor does sentence structure typically make or break an anecdote. Summary statements can work just fine. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for every sentence of a perfectly marvelous anecdote to begin with the phrase I was…

Unfortunately, as Grace pointed out to Diane after the first draft had winged its merry way to the publishing house, that particular type of storytelling, while fine in the right context, just doesn’t fly on the printed page. Memoir readers expect fully fleshed-out scenes, complete with dialogue; too many summary statements back-to-back can start to seem, well, vague. Could the text be more specific?

Then, too, just referring to a major character as my brother was going to get awfully tedious awfully fast for a reader; Diane was going to have to do some character development for the guy. Like, for instance, letting the reader know what he looked like and why, if he lived in Bolivia, he seemed to be dropping by her apartment in Chicago on every ten pages.

Oh, and while Diane was at it, could she be a trifle more choosy about what was and was not important enough to the central story arc to keep on the page? “I raised this concern about the proposal,” Grace pointed out, and rightly. “I know it’s hard to think about yourself as a protagonist in a book, but you have to remember that is how the reader is going to think of you. While a side story might seem vital to how you, a member of your family, or one of your friends would recall this part of your life, you’re not writing the story for people who already know it.”

While this was, from a professional perspective, pretty terrific advice — after all, the art of memoir consists as much in deciding what to leave out as in what to include — Diane felt overwhelmed by it, as well as by her two-month revision deadline. Completely understandable, right? Here she was, frantically rewriting some of her favorite passages and slashing others (oh, her mother would be furious to see her favorite scene in Chapter 5 go!), and now that Grace had forced her to contemplate it, she had to admit that she still had no clear notion of what the overall message of that period of her life was. Why wasn’t it enough to present what actually happened, directly and honestly?

Come to think of it, wasn’t it just a touch dishonest to cut out things that had actually happened? Didn’t she owe it to the reader to give a complete picture, even if that meant boring Grace a little? Wasn’t it compromising her vision as an author to mold her work to the specifications of an editor who was…oh, my God, was Grace asking her to change the story of her life?

Naturally, she wasn’t asking any such thing, as I told Diane when she called me in a panic. Grace, like all conscientious editors, was merely being the reader’s advocate: prodding the writer to make the reading experience as entertaining and absorbing as possible on the printed page.

Need you sigh with such force, memoirists? You just blew my cat across the room. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “doesn’t Diane have a pretty good point here? She had envisioned her story a particular way, crammed with everyday detail. That kind of slice-of-life writing can be very effective: I like a memoir that makes me feel that I’m inhabiting the narrator’s world. So isn’t she right to fight tooth and nail for her earlier draft?”

Ah, that’s often a writer’s first response to professional feedback: to regard it as inherently hostile to one’s vision of the book, rather than as practical advice about how to present that vision most effectively. But that’s usually not what’s going on — and it certainly wasn’t in this case. Grace was genuinely trying to make the book a better read.

And, frankly, she was right about limiting the proportion of the book devoted to depicting Diane’s everyday life vs. the extraordinary events that interrupted it. Grace believed, and with good reason, that as a non-celebrity memoir, the audience for this book would be drawn far more to the dramatic, unique parts of the story than to the parts that dealt with ordinary life. Let’s face it, just as everyday dialogue would be positively stultifying transcribed to the novel page , quite a lot of what occurs in even the most exciting life would not make for very thrilling reading.

Oh, you thought that “Some weather we’re having.” “Yeah. Hot enough for you?” “Sure could use some rain.” was going to win you the Pulitzer? Grace was quite right in maintaining that the art of memoir very largely lies in selecting what to leave out — and that Diane’s very gripping first-person narrative was getting watered down by too many scenes about…

Wait, what were they about? It was hard for the reader to tell; they seemed to be on the page simply because they had happened.

I know, I know: that’s not an entirely unreasonable selection criterion for, say, a blog. As the Internet has demonstrated time and again, people like to get a peek into other people’s lives. That does not mean, however, there’s a huge book-reading audience out there potentially fascinated with what any given writer had for breakfast, his interactions with his cat, and how he sweeps dried mud from his shoes.

Sort of seems like sacrilege to say it, given how the media tends to celebrate the Twitterverse these days, doesn’t it? Yes, there are plenty of venues where it is perfectly acceptable — nay, encouraged — to share even the smallest details of one’s personal life, but by and large, strangers do not pay to find out what Writer X had for lunch today.

Oh, sure, your Facebook friends might like to hear about it, but it’s hard to imagine plowing through 400 pages of printed-out status updates, isn’t it? I hope it has not escaped your notice, memoirists, that by and large, the people vitally interested in those day-to-day specifics are not total strangers, but those who already know you personally.

In case I’m being too subtle here: the no doubt well-deserved loving attention of your kith and kin to the contrary, writing down everything that happens to you seldom works in a book. Real life is too random, and, frankly, it’s lousy at plot development.

Indeed, reality is not always even particularly believable, at least on the page. As Mark Twain liked to say — wow, I’ve been quoting hi a lot lately, have I not? — truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

Sorry to break that to those of you who had been following those gusty sighs with, “Well, this really happened to me.” Of course it did. You’re writing a memoir. The mere fact that you lived it doesn’t excuse you from making it one heck of a great read, does it?

Or, to put it another way, the simple fact that something really happened does not render it inherently interesting for a reader; that’s the writer’s job. Agents and editors like to say that it all depends on the writing, but for a memoir, I would add that it also depends upon understanding what is and is not essential to the story you’re telling.

The reader does not need to know what every cobblestone on the street looked like in order to be thrilled by the scene when bloodhounds chased you from one end of that street to the other. (Oh, did I bury the lead there? That’s also a pretty common problem in memoir manuscripts: the most important element is hidden in the middle of a paragraph ostensibly about something else. Rather like this piece of advice: annoying for a skimmer, isn’t it?) To entice a reader to keep following a protagonist, real or not, through hundreds of pages, a narrative needs to convey a sense of forward motion based upon dramatic development, not just the progression of time.

“But Anne!” social media enthusiasts shout, and who could blame you? “Celebrities tweet about mundane personal details all the time, and I’ve heard that publicists tell the famous point-blank that posting about real-like activities (especially with pictures!) is one of the best ways to build up a social media following. People like to feel they are in the know — and while we could quibble about whether anything said to People magazine could be construed as private, there’s certainly a demonstrable market for it. So while I agree that quite a lot of it is stultifying, both on the screen and on the printed page, you can’t deny that celebrity memoir often does get down to the what-I-ate-for-breakfast level. And those books sell.”

Good point, enthusiasts, but from a publishing point of view, celebrity memoirs that dwell upon the ordinary sell despite containing ho-hum specifics, not because of them. What causes a reader to pick up the book is already being familiar with the author, at least by reputation. The ability to draw that type of instant recognition is integral to a celebrity author’s platform.

I hear some of you grumbling about how celebrity-chasing limits the number of publishing slots available for non-celebrity memoir, but honestly, public attraction to the private lives of celebrities is hardly a recent development. Cartoons of Marie Antoinette’s alleged palace escapades were hot sellers in the years leading up to the first French Revolution. A satire of Julius Caesar’s relationship with a prince he’d bested in battle enjoyed wide circulation. Cleopatra’s P.R. people worked overtime not to get the word out that, unlike her dim-witted brother, she spoke so many languages that she could conduct treaty discussions with foreign dignitaries herself, but to convince regular folk to regard her as the incarnation of Aphrodite. Just ask the hundreds of spectators who showed up to watch her have dinner on a boat with the earthly embodiment of the war god, Marc Antony.

I venture to say, however, that just because the world is evidently stuffed with people willing to read half a page about a celebrity’s breakfast-eating habits because they hope that the following page will talk about something more glamorous, it does not render that half a page inherently exciting. Unless the celebrity in question happens to wake up one day and decides to consume something genuinely remarkable — like, say, an elephant or the cornerstone to the Chrysler Building — it’s just ordinary stuff.

I say this, incidentally, as someone who regularly gets accosted by biographers trying to find out what certain literary luminaries preferred in a breakfast cereal. Which just goes to show you: the more famous a writer becomes, the more likely he is to be judged by something other than his writing.

There are, of course, quite a few genuinely interesting and well-written celebrity memoirs and biographies; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those book categories. I’m merely suggesting that it might be quite a bit easier for someone who already has a national platform to get an ordinary breakfast table scene published than it would be for anyone else.

Like, say, Diane. I think that Grace was doing her a favor, actually: most memoir readers would be more critical than she of a memoir that got bogged down in mundanties. When is it better for a writer to hear a hard truth like that, do you think — early enough in the publication process that she can do something about it, or after the book comes out, in the online reviews?

Speaking as a person who would rather identify and nip problems in the bud, rather than the more popular tactics of ignoring them or waiting until they have grown into trees to chop them down, I must admit that I’m a big fan of the former. Yes, it’s nice to hear nothing but praise of one’s writing, but to improve it, trenchant critique is your friend.

Which, I am happy to report, Diane did quickly come to realize. Grace’s revision requests were not unreasonable; they were aimed at making the story they both loved more marketable. Together, they managed to come up with a final version that this reader, at least, found pretty compelling. Streamlined to within an inch of its life.

What may we conclude from Diane’s story? Perhaps nothing; like so many real-life sagas, it may well be just a series of events from which a bystander can learn little. It’s also possible, I suppose, that this tale was just my heavy-handed, editorial-minded way of saying hey, writers, you might want to consider the possibility that your editor is right. It has been known to happen, you know, and far more frequently than revision-wary aspiring writers tend to presume before their work has had the benefit of professional feedback.

No doubt due to my aforementioned fondness for tackling writing problems as soon as they pop their green shoots above ground, I believe that Diane’s problem evolved from that lengthy pause and gusty sigh after being asked, “So what is your book about?” Like the overwhelming majority of first-time memoirists, she simply hadn’t thought about it much — not, that is, until writing on a deadline and to a publishing house’s expectations forced her to contemplate the issue.

So in the interest of saving you chagrin down the line, I ask you, memoirists: what is your book about? What is its essential story arc? And how can you sift through the myriad events of your fascinating life to present it to the reader as fascinating?

Why, yes, those are some mighty big questions, now that you mention it. Would I really be doing your book a favor if I asked easier ones?

To forearm you for the moment that most good memoirists face, the instant when you honestly cannot tell whether a particular detail, scene, or relationship adds to or distracts from your story arc, let me leave you with my favorite memoir-related image. It requires some set-up: while autobiographies consist of what the author can remember (or, as is common for presidential memoir, what ended up in a journal) of a particular period of time, memoir frequently concentrates upon a single life-changing event or decision — and the effects of that occurrence upon one’s subsequent life and world.

Imagine that event or decision as a stone you have thrown into the pond of your life. Show the reader that stone’s trajectory; describe it and the flinging process in as much loving detail as you like. Make the reader feel as though she had thrown it herself. Then, and only then, will you be in a position to figure out which of the ripples on the pond resulted from shying that rock, and which were caused by the wind.

Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part VIII: a bit of perspective, or, had I mentioned that things change?

One of the things that intrigues me most about blogging is how well its slow build-up of layers reflects the complexity of real life. As much as some of those encountering this blog for the first time might like for me to post a single (or even single-page) essay that covers everything an aspiring writer might need to know about, say, querying (presumably presented as bullet points), it’s too multifaceted a process to be conducive to quick, one-size-fits-all answers. By addressing its mysteries over a number of posts, I endeavor to move all of us here in the Author! Author! community toward a deeper understanding of how querying — or synopsis-writing, or narrative construction, or whatever the topic at hand happens to be — actually works. It’s not for someone looking to glean enough to get by in the course of half an hour of net surfing, admittedly, but if landing an agent actually were so simple that a winning strategy could be conveyed in a single page’s worth of bullet points, blogs like this would not have an audience.

Reality is just more complex than that. My apologies to those of you in a hurry.

If it’s any consolation to those who would prefer easy answers, I think about this issue quite a lot, far more than is apparent from any given day’s post. Because I do try to answer every reader question, a significant portion of any blogging session is usually devoted to addressing readers’ comments on archival posts. Occasionally, as happened yesterday, the volume and complexity of your fine questions is high enough that answering them eats up all of the time I had scheduled for blogging.

I’m bringing this up not merely to justify skipping yesterday, nor even to encourage archive-combers to keep coming up with good follow-up questions (but do keep ‘em coming, folks), but because the overall pattern of readers’ questions could not possibly be apparent to those reading only the most recent posts. Practically every time I log onto Author! Author! to construct a new post, I am greeted with at least one reader question that runs like this:

I am trying to land an agent, but I just read online/heard a rumor/gleaned from a writers’ conference that there is a secret rule amongst agents to reject any query/submission/writer that does X. Since the professional disgust to X is universal, why aren’t you warning aspiring writers about it?

I could, of course, save myself a lot of time by resorting to a generic answer: because the reality is far more complex than that most readily pops to mind. However, that’s not an answer likely to soothe any aspiring writer’s fears. Sometimes, allaying them is easy: many a supposedly inviolable Rule X is simply untrue, or at least not universally true. Sometimes, someone will have misheard an agent’s statement at a conference and passed that misconception along as a Rule Eternal; equally often, individual agents’ personal preferences get reported widely as a great sea change in the industry. Then, too, debates rage online about issues that barely raise a ripple at the average agency.

Or, to put it another way: the array of information being flung at aspiring writers these days is complex. Believing every passing rumor, even if one limits one’s credulity to those that seem to come from relatively credible sources, is a good way to drive oneself nuts.

But the fact is, beyond a limited number of professional expectations — manuscripts being presented in standard format, for instance, or a query letter’s being limited to a single page — there actually aren’t all that many universal knee-jerk rejection or acceptance rules. As tempting as it might be to believe that the publishing world is that simple, it just isn’t. Every book category, every agency, and even every individual agent or editor has individual preferences.

Compounding the confusion for those who long for one-size-fits-all guidelines for publishing success, the industry itself changes all the time. Not necessarily in the way that tends to be the focus of online debate — at this juncture, haven’t we all devoted more than enough precious seconds of our lives to the tired old debate about one space or two after a period or colon, when for aspiring writers, the answer can be summed up in nine words: it depends upon the agent or editor reading it? — but in terms of what is selling now.

Or, more important to agents but not as visible from the outside, what editors are buying now with an eye to publishing a couple of years from now. Since those selections are inherently speculation-based — an acquiring editor would have to possess an awfully good crystal ball in order to know for certain what the world will be like two years hence — how could the supposedly constant rules of what manuscripts will strike a pro as marketable not alter constantly?

This is a vital question for any writer approaching the industry for the first time to consider. One of the peculiarities of the publishing world is that statements about what is selling right now (or, more accurately, what agents believe readers will be buying in 2013) are almost invariably phrased as aphorisms, as though the statements being made are true for all time. Even when they are not, aspiring writers often hear them that way: while to an agent or editor, nobody is buying Book Category Y anymore is merely a statement about current market conditions, to a writer who happens to be shopping around a novel in Book Category Y, it can sound an awful lot like nobody will buy a book like yours, ever.

Allow me to illustrate the difference graphically.


It would be completely accurate to look at this picture and make a statement like it’s cold in that back yard; flowers do not bloom there, right? Yet look how completely the situation has changed when we look at the same wind chime just a few months later:


That eternal-sounding statement isn’t applicable anymore, is it? 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 one looks 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 in mind for the rest of this post, will you, please? Today, we will be talking about how to maintain perspective.

For most aspiring writers, maintaining perspective — or even gaining an accurate view — on where their efforts to get published or land an agent, fall into the larger scheme of things is exceedingly difficult. Your manuscript is your baby, after all: it’s hard to think of it, or even the query for it, as just one amongst the tens of thousands that Millicent the agency screener will see this year. Because one’s own book is so important to oneself, it’s awfully tempting to regard it as inherently exceptional — or, on the flip side, to decide that its rejection could only be the result of newly-minted Rule X, a knee-jerk rejection trigger about which the average aspiring writer knows nothing.

In practice, neither is likely to be the case. Queries and submissions are rejected for a wide array of reasons, some generic, some agency-specific — and some related to purely temporary market conditions. Learning how agencies and publishing houses actually handle manuscripts can go a long way toward helping an aspiring writer figure out the difference between what he can control and what he cannot.

Not to mention whether he should regard a currently chilly reception for his book concept as a permanent condition, or merely a passing blizzard. Gaining the knowledge to tell one from the other can make the difference between pushing forward valiantly with a manuscript and just giving up on it.

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
Throughout this series, 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 path, a writer needs an agent.

Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: 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? Well, we could, and often do: indeed, 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.

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

Personally, 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. After all, 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 their manuscript screeners 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.

Or, to cast it in the terms we were discussing above, another level of personal preference and future-prediction by which any manuscript by a first-time author must pass in order to get published.

But it’s easy for a 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 thought, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way? Seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, agent-seekers everywhere gasp, aghast? 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.

Working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
The main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books. It’s an accurate perception, usually: the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

*when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH, and, given that the initial answer will almost certainly be no, what revisions need to be made in order to render it so;

*when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s in 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 marketing materials at this stage);

*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;

*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);

*whether to pass along the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do);

*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 the agent can market that.

I make no pretense to 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 these points. 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 the contract? Sorry to burst that pretty bubble.

Take another gander at the list above, taking note of just how much the writer actually does under this arrangement: producing the manuscript or proposal, revising it according to the agent’s specifications, writing any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider taking this weekend to go through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), making 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 on your next book project.

Yes, what you just thought is quite correct: in considering whether to take on a new client, an agent may well want to know not only about the manuscript he requested, but any future books the writer might have in mind. There’s a good reason for that, too: “What are you working on now?” is one of the first questions an editor interested in your book will ask your agent, so don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking it about 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place.

Why? Well, a career writer — one who has more than one book in her, 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.

So you might want to start working on it during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — or is getting ready to shop your book around, a process that can take many months. It’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than rending your garments.

What does the 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 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. (And 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, 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, planning to 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.) Most agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

I can feel some 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, and 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: remember how I discouraged you from querying or submitting in January, because agencies have so much to do then? 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?

In short, you 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. Generally speaking, it’s considered fair for a new client to ask once for a submission schedule, but not to check in more than once a month or so thereafter. Nagging will not move you up in the queue.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that your book’s submission date has arrived: your agent 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; the manuscript is thus expected. The agency then sends it out. As I mentioned above, submission strategies differ:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question (or the person in-house to whom the editor passes it; that happens quite a lot) has said yea or nay. Since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, this can take months; 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 the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

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 GBNYCBPH, congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the inherent slowness of the submission process.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once. 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.

If you’re now thinking that because there are now 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. The options honestly aren’t unlimited here.

(c) Some especially impatient 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. If none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent will want to move on to the writer’s next project. If the writer does not have one waiting in the wings, or if the agent has a high client turn-over, the representation relationship may be terminated at this point.

If your jaw is currently occupying space on the floor, I would guess that you haven’t hung out at many writers’ conferences, chatting with agented writers. Since (c) is so common, pretty much everybody who has spent much time around publishing knows at least a couple of writers who got dropped this quickly.

“But Anne,” many a disillusioned soul calls out piteously, “isn’t this strategy pretty inefficient for the agency? It seems like it would require far more energy — and Millicent-hours — to recruit a dozen short-term clients, in the hope that one of their books will sell to those three or four editors, than to sign one in whom the agent truly believed and shop her work to forty editors.”

Not everyone would agree with that logic — riding the winds of change can require flexibility. Agents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence, sometimes to embrace this strategy; unfortunately for some writers, 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 a year ago. If the book happens to sell quickly, this strategy can work out well for the client, but otherwise, the writer who signs on for this had better have quite a few other projects up her sleeve.

The problem is, agents who embrace this strategy are not always very communicative about it with prospective clients. 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; 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. Part of the reason to attend a conference is to benefit from other writers’ experience, right?

One of the things they are likely to tell you: the possibility of a short attention span is a very good reason to ask an agent interested in representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. If that 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.

There is, of course, another submission strategy. May yours be the manuscript lucky enough to prompt it.

(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.

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors at the major houses, one of four things can happen next. First, he can start 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, 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.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again, especially if several editors have expressed the same reservation about the book. See why an agent might instruct her Millicents to pay attention to whether a prospective client has followed the agency’s stated submission guidelines? Since requested revisions are not usually welcomed by writers — “What do you mean, cut out my protagonist’s sister? There’s an entire subplot based around her…oh, you want that to go, too?” — who displays difficulty following written directions may reasonably be expected to require more coddling at revision time.

Fourth — and this is the one most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list. If that seems shocking, you might want to brace yourself for the rest: it’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this fourth strategy not 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. 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 — or him — with useless recriminations or box yourself in with ultimatums. If your agent does not respond to reasonable requests for contact, just quietly 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.)

Enough dwelling on the worst-case scenario. 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 recap now; suffice it to say that approval by the committee is not the only prerequisite for acquiring a book.

But 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, you should already know: 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 to the agent representing the book.

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 offer tends not to change much; 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. 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 — the agent and the 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 quite a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do.

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, in some format. 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 — how much publishing with a GBNYCBPH will differ from going with a smaller press five or ten years from now remains to be seen.

After all, things change. Keep up the good work!

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!