The all-you-can-eat hopefulness buffet, or, you’re already sending those queries out again, aren’t you?

I heard your jubilation in the wee hours, campers: at 12:01 this morning, those of you who had been holding your proverbial horses since November’s series on how to focus your querying list so you don’t waste your valuable time approaching agents who do not represent your type of writing gave a giant whoop of joy and reached for your already-stamped SASEs. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day long weekend is now over, and starting this week, the annual tidal wave of New Year’s resolution queries and submissions will be starting to recede.

Translation: a savvy writer may begin thinking about sending off those long-delayed queries and requested materials. Millicent the agency screener will now have time to consider them more carefully.

For the benefit of those new to the perversities of Author! Author!, not so long ago — to be specific, on the first day of this very month — I gave some advice to eager New Year’s resolvers all over this great land of ours: hold off for a few weeks before you start querying and submitting again. Why? Well, for a couple of excellent reasons, up to and including the fact that every year, thousands upon thousands of aspiring writers resolve that this year, by gum, they’re going to get that novel published.

The results are clearly visible on the second mailing day after the New Year’s holiday: our old pal Millicent is up to her eyebrows in queries. It does not, to put it mildly, put her in the best of moods — and one does not need to be the Amazing Kreskin to guess whether a grumpy, overworked screener with 740 queries cluttering up her desk or in her e-mail inbox will be more or less inclined to reject at the sight of the first typo than a happy, well-rested one greeted by a mere 327 queries at the beginning of her workday.

The same principle holds true, of course, for requested materials. As we’ve been discussing throughout our recent series of standard format for manuscripts (and don’t worry, e-queriers and submitters: there’s another Formatpalooza post in the offing especially for you), it’s Millicent’s job to be nit-picky and rejection-happy. If she weren’t, her boss — the agent for whom she screens queries and submissions — would end up spending so much time reading potential clients’ work that she would have no time to sell her existing clients’ books.

You wouldn’t want that, would you?

If you harbor aspirations of making a living as a writer of books, you shouldn’t. After all, reputable agents don’t stay in business by tracking down exciting new talent, at least not directly: they make their livings, and their clients’ as well, via placing works by already-signed authors.

Believe me, once you are one of those authors, you will be grateful for this arrangement.

Seriously, reading time is a scarce commodity for many a successful agent. Since those authors are constantly producing new manuscripts, and since the literary market is constantly changing, agents do indeed need to be reading constantly — but not necessarily submissions from would-be clients. Even the most literature-loving agents may devote only a small fraction of their time to scanning new writers’ manuscripts.

Thus Millicent’s job security: the agent relies upon her to winnow out the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions, so that he may devote his scant reading time to only those most likely to catch his fancy.

But that’s not how most writers trying to break into print think agencies work, is it? “But Anne,” aspiring writers everywhere mutter, “that’s appallingly cynical. Isn’t it the agent’s job — not to say responsibility, obligation, and/or glory — to ferret out the best and brightest of new talent? Isn’t it, in fact, his role in the literary world to discover brilliant undiscovered talent like me?”

Actually, no, it isn’t. It’s his job to sell books by his existing client base, period. But don’t lose heart: you have the ever-malleable market to thank for his impulse to seek out new talent. What is selling today might well not be selling next week.

So yes, that agent does need you. Or someone like you. Fortunately, around this time of year, Millicent is still getting upwards of 800 queries a week from your adorable ilk.

I hear that undercurrent of grumbling out there: this deck seems a trifle stacked against those new to the game. Especially if, like the overwhelming majority of new queriers, you had previously believed that the guiding purpose of the literary agency as an institution was essentially charitable — to discover new writing talent and bring it, lovingly cradled, to an admiring public.

If that last paragraph made your stomach drop to your knees, you’re not alone. Most new queriers and submitters are stunned to learn that the agency system is not set up primarily to discover them.

It will save you a lot of heartache to learn how the process actually works, as well as what to expect. Not to mention to grasp how the publishing world has changed in the last twenty years: in 1990, there were roughly 48,000 different books published in the United States; last year, there were about 250,000.

Starting to make sense that the agent of your dreams needs Millicent to do his preliminary reading for him? There are a heck of a lot of manuscripts floating around out there.

So welcome, neophytes — and kudos to you for being smart enough to do your homework before you start boxing up your hopes and dreams and sending them off to strangers. Welcome, too, to those preparing to send out your next raft of queries or that long-delayed packet of requested materials, as well as all of you who are trying to work up nerve to start querying again after a painful rejection. And a big, hearty how-are-you-doing? to the many, many aspiring writers out there intent on finishing up a writing project while contemplating the challenge of landing an agent from out to the corners of their eyes.

I’ve got a treat for you, wrapped in a bitter coating. Today, we’re going to talk about the history of writers just like you — and while we’re at it, debunk a few widely-believed myths.

How books used to get published during the Taft administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers 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; 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. Think about it: in 1910, there were only 13,470 book published; assuming that a good newspaper ran its book review section once per week, and covered ten books each time, any given new release had about a 1 in 25 chance of getting reviewed. Even greater, if the subject matter had local interest.

Now, so many books are published in any year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine review. Not only are there exponentially more new releases, but fewer and fewer print sources publish book reviews at all.

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 commercially 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. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, 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.

It’s still not bad advice, by the way. Hard disks do crash from time to time.

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 acquiring editor, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when the hefty Taft was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.

Times change, as they say. One of the ways 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 sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, they 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. Or, to turn that around to the author’s perspective, that a book she had spent five or ten years perfecting might have been just a trifle more polished when it hit the shelves than one her publisher expected her to crank out in the year after her first book was released. While she was on a book tour, no less.

As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in YA and genre fiction, markets conducive to series — they have become substantially less common for fiction. 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 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.

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. (For some guidance on how to put one of these intimidating packets together, check out the mysteriously-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this very page.)

That does not, however, mean that the writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Because buying something that does not 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 they can write a book is to have already written one.

Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.

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 in the current market, 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 publishers that do accept direct submission. 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 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. NF 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. 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-books-only policy?

The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as a necessary evil at best, 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.

How so? 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. In other words, they reject 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 would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is 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?

Think about it. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.

“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. 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.

Again, think about it: 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.

As we discussed above, agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?

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 want this level of verifiability. Trust me on this one.

To recap: how things have changed since William Howard Taft 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: they 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.

Um, Anne, I was not laboring under the misconception that Taft was still president. Why are you telling me all of this while I’m gearing up to send out my next round of queries and/or submissions?
An excellent question, campers, and one that fully deserves an answer: because all too often, even market-savvy queriers and submitters assume, wrongly, that the only conceivable reason their work might get rejected is the quality of the writing. If the manuscript were well-written, they reason, any agent in her right mind would snap it up right away, right? So if the first says no, they all will.

These days, more than ever, that’s just not true. Agents specialize, market conditions change, and as any writer who has landed an agent within the past five years can tell you, whether a hundred agents have said no has no effect whatsoever on whether Agent 101 will say yes. It’s a matter of personal literary taste — and a thousand other factors.

Translation: keep moving forward, in spite of rejection. The right agent for your work may well be out there, but if you don’t try to find her, she’s never going to find out that you’re the client of her dreams.

Remember, the only manuscript that has no chance of getting published is the one that just sits in a desk drawer, gathering dust, because the writer doesn’t have the nerve to send it out.

Again, that flies in the face of common writerly conceptions of how the next big talent gets discovered, doesn’t it? The fantasy runs a little something like this: if a writer is really talented, an agent would spontaneously appear on his doorstep the instant he finishes typing THE END and sign him to a long-term representation contract on the spot (and without reading the manuscript, apparently). By the end of the week, an editor at a major publishing house offers a million-dollar advance — and by the end of the month, the author is smiling at Oprah’s studio audience, saying, “Oh, it’s all been such a whirlwind.”

Except that’s not how 249,980 of those 250,000 books got published in the United States last year. Most of the ones who ended up on Oprah were nonfiction writers, anyway, and not talking about their first books.

That’s not going to make the starry-eyed writer of a genuinely good first novel feel less disappointed when only one of the fifteen agents she queried asks to see pages, though, is it? Or when the one who asks to see it doesn’t respond for three or four months, as is now quite common. Or even — brace yourself, dreamers — doesn’t respond at all if the answer is no.

Nothing I mentioned in the last paragraph is any reflection whatsoever on the quality of the writing in the manuscript in question, right? It’s just how the process works these days.

Realistic expectations might not be very sexy, but learning the basic contours of how real writers actually get their books into print will help you keep the faith through the long and often frustrating querying and submission process. And that, my friends, is the best way to get your manuscript published: not by waiting for lightning to strike you, but by bellying up to that buffet day after day, week after week, and, if necessary, year after year.

Why? Because Taft isn’t president any more, and it’s a heck of a lot harder to sell a book to a publisher now. You don’t want to land just any agent; hold out for the one who can help you do it beautifully.

Next time, I shall be talking a bit more about what happens to your query and submission after it lands on Millicent’s desk. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XVII: the fine art of figuring out what you want, or, planning for life inside the chocolate factory


We have so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute! Strike that…reverse it! Thank you.

Has this series on how manuscripts move from great idea to publishing contract left your collective heads spinning, campers? It wouldn’t be surprising — as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the prevailing notion of how, and even why, books get published is frequently at odds with what first-time authors actually experience. I constantly meet aspiring writers who walk in expecting to land an agent with their first query, their agents to generate a bidding war for their books within days of having signed them, their unchanged manuscripts bound and available for sale at Barnes & Noble a month after that, and their smiling visages filling the screen next to Oprah a week later.

It’s the writer’s version of that magical moment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when our downtrodden little hero realizes that he — yes, HE — is one of the lucky few who will get to see first-hand how Willie Wonka makes his marvelous candy. Suddenly, all of Charlie’s troubles are over, and a magical world opens up to him.

As those of you who read the book may recall, it wasn’t that simple for Charlie. It isn’t for a writer who lands an agent, either.

Believing otherwise while trying to get published will just leave an aspiring writer feeling astonished, bruised, and undervalued. And hurt feelings aren’t the only danger here: if a writer insists upon clinging to the amazingly pervasive twin fantasies that (a) agents and editors are workers in a non-profit industry solely devoted to the discovery and revelation of literary talent, and (b) therefore the only possible reason a manuscript might meet resistance is low writing quality, he often ends up concluding, wrongly, that it’s not worth his while to keep trying.

Many a marvelous manuscript has been lost to the world as a result. That should sadden all of us who love good writing.

What should a talented newcomer expect instead? Well, for starters, a great deal of homework, to ferret out which agents have the best track records for selling her kind of book and learn how to present her work professionally; a fairly high percentage of rejections on the way to acceptance; an agent who demands changes to the manuscript or book proposal before submitting it to editors; months of submission to editors; further revisions after a publishing house acquires the book, and an expectation that she will have to do a good deal of the legwork to market her own book after it comes out.

In other words, a long, hard road. And when you get inside the chocolate factory, it isn’t all that magical; it’s just a business, albeit a glamorous one.

Accepting that, and learning not to stress too much over the vast majority of the process that’s completely outside a writer’s control, is crucial to writerly happiness. The stress-control method I recommend may not be as immediately appealing as some of the ostensibly sure-fire quick query fixes out there, but it has been road-tested: find out what the pros expect and learn how to present your writing in that way.

I know, I know: I may be fighting a losing battle here, urging creative people to be practical. For many, many writers — published and aspiring both — concentrating on the creation of beautiful prose to the exclusion of dealing with mundane practicalities is not only a way of life; it’s a point of pride.

Case in point: last April, I was sharing a delightfully steamy bowl of Thai coconut soup with an exceptionally talented author of literary fiction (who shall remain nameless for the nonce, but rest assured, I’ll let you know when his next novel comes out) when the waitress informed us that we had just spent many hours discussing things writerly, and the kitchen would like to close. At the end of a roughly ten-minute discussion of the locations of places that might conceivably be willing to serve us coffee at that hour, the author sighed and said, “Well, maybe I should just go home and start my taxes.”

Since it was by then 10:30 pm on the night before said taxes were due, I naturally assumed that he was joking. Judging from his reaction to my hearty guffaw, though, he hadn’t meant it as a joke: he honestly had not begun to think about his imminently-due return.

I would be tempted to think of this reluctance to plan for the hard realities of life as merely part of his substantial and complicated personal charm, but the fact that most of the working artists of my acquaintance seem to indulge in this particular form of procrastination leads me to suspect that it may be endemic to our breed of creative dreamers.

Let’s face it: as a group, we tend to defer serious thought on the business side of being an artist until we actually find ourselves in the situation, don’t we? As we’ve discussed throughout this series, many, if not most, aspiring writers long for publication with a major house, but don’t take the time to learn what that would actually mean in practical terms, let alone prepare for it.

For example, several years ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries to a room stuffed to the gills with intelligent, well-read writers. These folks had really done their homework, and most of them had novels, memoirs, and nonfiction proposals very close to being ready to be sent out the door.

As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their descriptions of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.

“That’s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want from your agent?”

The room fell silent, as if I’d just said something tremendously rude. And no wonder: like most aspiring writers, my students wanted desperately to believe that once Willie Wonka had cracked the gate for them, all of their dreams would come true.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point in my classes. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”

Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice. As we discussed why that might be a plus, however, I could tell that they were uncomfortable with the prospect of adding something this specific to their wish lists — an interesting reluctance, considering that as we saw earlier in this series, an agent who does not have those connections is going to have a significantly harder time selling a writer’s manuscript than one that does.

So I persisted: “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”

This one was difficult even to get the students to talk about in theory, let alone express a personal preference; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation scared them a little. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.

This truth is so important to a writer’s happiness in working with an agent that I’m just going to go ahead and restate it as a rule: a writer needs not just any agent to represent her work; she needs the right agent.

Given that most aspiring writers give up before they’ve given their manuscripts a sufficient chance to succeed, I’m going to round out this series by talking about how they can falter after they do succeed, at least at clearing the first major hurdle on the path to publication. Today, we’re going to discuss the often astonishingly disorienting moment when a writer receives an offer of representation.

Yes, yes, I know: we’ve already talked about this. I’m revisiting it because in this decision, above all others, it’s vital for a writer to be practical, rather than romantic.

Because, really, do you know much more about what goes on in that agency than what Charlie knew about how Willie Wonka made his chocolate? Most of the time, all a writer offered representation really knows is that the agent in question sells books to publishers for a living.

Pardon me for asking, but are there Oompah-Loompahs involved?

Seriously, process is important to consider. As we discussed earlier in this series, how an agent chooses to handle a manuscript can have almost as strong an impact upon its market prospects as whether he chooses to handle it in the first place. It’s not all that uncommon for good writers to end up feeling that their careers are being stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.

For a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who are unrepresented or between agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. After a long, hard spell of querying and/or submission, ANY agent willing to represent a book can start to look pretty good. So when the aspiring hear such complaints, they may be tempted to conclude that if the complainer’s book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the manuscript itself had some irredeemable fault.

Sound familiar? They should: if you’ve ever queried or submitted, you’ve probably heard one or more of them ringing in your head throughout countless hours of self-doubt. They’re the same set of justifications aspiring writers often level at themselves when their queries or submissions don’t immediately get picked up.

Whether the writer thinks these things of herself or others think it of her, these unwarranted critiques stem from the same source — those twin fantasies I mentioned above, the myths about how publishing is supposed to work. And why shouldn’t we think that of one another? Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer.

There is a perfectly good reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable. Many, many self-styled experts make quite good livings in this manner.

And more power to the ones who are gifted at it, I say: when aspiring writers improve the aspects of the road to publication that actually lie within their control, while learning not to obsess about the myriad aspects of querying, submission, marketing, and publication that are utterly outside the author’s ability to affect them, the process becomes not only easier, but substantially less frightening. Like using language correctly and effectively, promoting one’s writing utilizes a set of learned skills.

I regularly teach this type of class myself (for both writers’ organizations and small writers’ groups, should any of you be interested), regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent or Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.

The power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes, as we saw earlier in this series. The reason for this easy to explain — the consolidation of the major publishing houses, abetted by fears about the recent contraction of the economy and the perceived threat of electronic publication — but hard for a gifted writer trying to break into the biz to accept. Agents and editors at small publishing houses (who sometimes also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

This should all sound familiar to you by now, right? Since you are already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not continue to harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.

Whenever I point this out to my classes, however, my students do not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them will inevitably ask, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections.

Thus, that story writers so often hear at conferences: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it.

Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor. Especially if the agent has a track record of giving up after just a handful of submissions.

What may an aspiring writer learn from this? As with querying, until a manuscript has been circulated for a while, no one can really say for sure how marketable it actually is.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers. Now, it is the norm for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal before sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor.

Which means — chant it with me now, campers – it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it (or were before we discussed it in this series). Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my memoir’s representation contract revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.

Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask for mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.

Naturally, I explain all of this to my classes. By this point, my students are usually sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. As much as I would like to reassure each and every one of them that their work would sell well and immediately, the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare.

As I MAY have intimated once or twice earlier in this series, I think it is quite unfair to aspiring writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my first book was one of the few exceptions: from winning a major nonfiction award at a conference to signing with my agent to book sale was only eight months, positively lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed the agency contract through when the book was first sent out to editors was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal my agent’s behest.

Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually rapid, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.

This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. We all like to think that once the inspiration fairy has bonked us on the head often enough to get us to churn out a complete manuscript, that’s that. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. (Again, I know I’m reviewing material we’ve covered already in this series, but since this is the last post, I’m entitled to a spot of review.)

“Phew!” these writers tend to think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”

With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon. The agent, in this fantasy, is just a one-time broker.

Now that you know from having slogged faithfully through this series that working with an agent is quite a bit more complicated — and lengthier — than that, I ask you the question I put to my students: what do you want your agent to do for you other than to sell your book?

Ponder that for a moment, please. It honestly couldn’t be more important to your long-term happiness as a writer.

Remember a few posts ago, when I mentioned that too many aspiring writers take the time to learn a little about their soon-to-be agent before gasping a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation from someone who may or may not be the agent of their dreams? The best antidote to an uninformed decision, I suggested, is to ask the offerer a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?

Again, this should all be sounding familiar, right? So why am I bringing up this discussion yet again?

For practical reasons, I assure you. While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the ensuing discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months after you sign, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.

Strange to think of your future agent that way, isn’t it? It’s a pragmatic view of working with an agent, rather than a romantic one.

How might a savvy writer go about being pragmatic in this conversation? Well, by asking practical questions. It behooves you, for instance, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; is this a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor? If you’re the type of person who is driven crazy by uncertainty, for whom no news is definitely not good news, you will want to know whether the agent prefers to issue periodic updates on the status of books being circulated, or whether you should feel free to ask whenever the wait starts to seem long. Knowing in advance how frequent contact has to be before the agent starts to feel hounded can save a writer a heck of a lot of chagrin down the line.

Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Find out whether the agent likes to give extensive, line-specific feedback, general feedback, or no feedback at all on a manuscript. If you are the kind of writer who hesitates to change so much as a comma without double-checking with someone else, you’ll probably be happier with a heavier commenter.

If, on the other hand, you tend to fly into an ungovernable rage at the slightest suggestion that your work is less than perfect…well, you’re probably going to want to see a doctor about your blood pressure before you sign either an agency or publication contract; the professional writer’s life tends to be stuffed to the gills with agents, editors, marketing specialists, etc., suggesting forcefully that changes really ought to be made to a manuscript. But if you already know that you would prefer to keep editorial input minimal, a more hands-off agent may be a better choice for you.

You should also ask for a current list of clients — listings on agency websites are not always up-to-date — and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what those writers’ books are like. (Don’t even CONSIDER skipping this step; skimming over the first chapter of several of an agent’s clients’ books can tell you a great deal about both her literary tastes and how heavy-handed an editor she is.) You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.

That’s not to say, of course, that what makes another author happy will necessary work for you. Just as all of our manuscripts are different, so are each of our needs and desires for this peculiarly intimate relationship. It is, however, more information for you to consider as you walk into representation with your eyes wide open.

So I ask you again: what do you want from your agent, other than to sell your books? How do you want to work together? Or, if you’re being honest about it, has your only criterion been that the agent in question would say yes to you?

Bears a bit of thought, I think.

Especially for those of you who are hoping to be career writers, rather than simply the authors of a single, well-respected book. While the common fantasy of being swept off one’s feet by someone spouting fabulous promises of fame, fortune, and a spot on Oprah’s book club list is all very nice, being aware of the realities of how books actually get published, what role your agent will play in that process, and how you would like your work to be handled will enable you to come up with realistic expectations that will help preserve you from the awful fate that often dogs aspiring writers who suddenly find themselves with agent: having gotten precisely what you thought you wanted, yet still feeling disappointed because what you got was not a fairy tale.

Down-to-earth expectations can, perversely, render it easier to achieve magnificent outcomes — and not just for you. If you choose well, aligning yourself with an agent who both has the connections to sell your work, expectations for it that similar to yours, and communication preferences compatible with your own, you’re probably going to end up being a better client. By approaching finding an agent deliberately, cautiously, and with an understanding of your own goals and working style, rather than blindly rushing into a contract with anyone who is interested in representing you, you are much, much likelier to feel supported throughout the publication process — and end up with the results you want.

So investing some thought in figuring out just what it is you do want is writerly time well spent.

If all of this sounds like dating, well, it is: writer-agent relationships often outlast the average marriage. You don’t want to wake up in a year and find yourself in a long-term relationship with an agent who no longer makes you feel your work is special, do you?

Why am I bringing this up at the very end of a dense series on publishing realities, you ask? So you may lift your eyes from the long, hard road to publication and ponder not only the ultimate goal of seeing your book in print, but the professional marketer — which is, after all, what an agent is, right? — you hope will help you get it there.

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long, serious series; I hope it will prove helpful to you. May each and every one of your books end up in the chocolate factory best suited to it.

Next week, I shall get even more practical, delving into the often-misunderstood nitty-gritty of how professional writers present their work. As always, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XVI: wait, but I heard…


Sorry about the several-day silence, campers. Apparently, there are two strains of flu going around this winter; both were kind enough to stop by my house. I’m going to keep it short today, so I can get right back to such intellectually stimulating endeavors as forcing liquids and lying helplessly under a cat.

I didn’t want to leave you hanging so close to the end of this long series on how books do — and don’t — currently get published in the US market. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? We debunked a few common myths about getting published (most notably, the one about good writing always finding an agent or publisher relatively quickly), approaching major publishing houses (if the houses you have in mind are located within the United States, you need an agent to do it for you), how agents handle queries and submissions from aspiring writers, and finally, what happens to a manuscript after an agent picks it up.

Did you find all that empowering, or just depressing? The former, I hope: once a writer can recognize that the formal hurdles she’s expected to jump to land an agent and/or find a publisher for her manuscript are just that, formal hurdles designed to discourage writers who haven’t done their homework, rather than a series of referenda on how talented she is, she can plan accordingly.

How so? Well, if a query, submission, or book proposal does not follow the rules, it tends not to matter how good the writing in the manuscript is. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professionalism is almost as important as talent, at least in the initial approach.

Or, to put it less delicately, not taking the time to learn the ropes only seems as if it would speed up the trip from completed manuscript to publication. In reality, just leaping into querying or submission unprepared usually lengthens that trip.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who have been querying or submitting for a nice, long while are shocked, shocked, to hear that the learning curve for those new to the trying-to-get-published game can be pretty steep. But remember, this honestly was news to every currently-published writer at some point.

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

Thus this series. I habitually devote a great deal of blog space to showing aspiring writers a few short cuts, but once a year, I like to place that advice within a larger context. And frankly, every year, I take a lot of flak from the pros for doing it. Seriously.

Why, you ask? Well, every pro has a slightly different reason, but the one I (and others devoted to helping aspiring writers over the technical hurdles) hear the most tends to run a little something like this: blogs like yours have made it harder to tell the good manuscripts from the rest. Back before it was so easy for writers to find out what to do, far more queries were instantly rejectable; before you started yammering about standard format, most submissions could be dismissed at a glance.

I take this as a compliment — because why, really, should a writer brand-new to the game know how these things are done? Given how complex, counter-intuitive, and let’s face it, contrary to the prevailing societal notions of how books get published the realities are, it’s just a bit puzzling that folks in the publishing industry just expect serious aspiring writers to pick up the basics on their own. It’s not as though rejections typically include admonitions to learn how to write a professional query letter, for instance, or come right out and say, “Look, we read only the first paragraph of your submission because it was not double-spaced, contained three typos and a cliché in the opening sentence, and was printed on off-white paper instead of bright white. That’s no reflection on your writing style — but if you want to have a better shot next time, learn a little something about what we expect to see.”

What do rejected writers see instead? We’re sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. Or I just didn’t fall in love with this story.

“But what does that mean?” aspiring writers constantly ask me in despair. “I know that this agent is telling me something about how I can improve my query/submission, but I can’t figure out what!”

Actually, the agent probably isn’t: most rejections are form-letter boilerplate, and thus not personalized at all. The whole point of a form rejection is to minimize the time Millicent the agency screener has to devote to a query or submission her agency isn’t going to pick up, right? So unless a rejecter gives a specific reason, it’s just a waste of an aspiring writer’s energy to try to read anything into prepackaged phrases that are equally likely to be applied to a poorly-written query that Millie never even considered and a professional-sounding one that just didn’t read as though her boss agent would be interested in the story.

Except to consider the possibility that Millicent is implicitly saying, look, I can’t take your work seriously until you learn the ropes.

Notice how often the word serious has cropped up in the last few paragraphs? There’s a reason for that: in the publishing world, a serious writer is by definition someone who not only has talent and good ideas for books, but has taken the time to learn how to present her work professionally.

That made some of you roll your eyes, didn’t it?

I’m not too surprised. Throughout this series, I’ve been sensing a strange combination of discomfort, disbelief, and outright outrage floating around in that part of the cosmic ether where I choose to imagine my far-flung readership resides. Oh, the discontented have been too nice to kick up much of a protest over my account of these rather grim realities, but since the commenter-to-non-commenting-reader ratio on any blog is quite top-heavy, I’ve gotten good at sensing unspoken confusion. If I had to guess the single sentiment that has been muttered most often by readers of this series, it would be this:

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

Hands up, everyone who has thought some permutation of this sentiment, either earlier in this series or when getting the skinny from some ostensibly authoritative source like me. In a way, I applaud this reaction — since there’s such a lot of advice out there for writers, you should be thinking critically about all of the marketing and writing advice you hear. If I haven’t mentioned recently, it’s not a good idea to take any self-described publishing expert as gospel, even if that expert happens to be yours truly.

That can be an awfully tall order; as most of you are probably already aware, there are a LOT of conflicting prescriptions for writing success floating around. Including, incidentally, the information writers pick up at literary conferences. On the conference dais and even during pitch sessions, aspiring writers sometimes hear radically mixed messages.

Don’t believe me? Okay, see if any of these scenarios sound at all familiar:

* A writer preparing to attend a conference diligently wades through both the standard agents’ guides and the websites of the agents scheduled to attend the conference. Once she hears those agents speak at the conference, she finds head spinning at how different her dream agent’s speech about what she wanted to represent right now was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

* After waxing poetic behind a podium about how much he loves literature in general and his favorite genre in particular, an agent or editor brushes off those aspiring writers brave enough to take him at his word and approach him to pitch, giving cold responses ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that, whether or not he specified during his speech) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

* The agents at a particular conference say that they are eager to find new clients, yet none of them actually end up signing anyone who pitches to them there. (A more common occurrence than most of us who teach at conferences tend to admit.)

* An agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to a writer’s conference pitch is very much at odds with her rather tepid and slow communications during the submission process. “But she loved my idea at the conference!” the writer will protest, tears in her eyes, wondering what she has done wrong. (The probable answer: nothing. The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.)

Why am I bringing up these mixed messages here, toward the end of this series on the basic trajectory of publication, other than to validate some writers’ well-justified confusion?

Well, remember how I mentioned that the long, long road to publication tends to be quite a bit easier for a writer who has realistic expectations than one who does not? Expecting to hear at least partially conflicting advice from the pros will at least relieve a writer of the substantial stress of suspecting that there’s a secret handshake required to break into print, a trick that may be learned by following every single piece of advice one hears to the letter.

Trust me, that way lies madness. Do your homework, figure out what you’re going to do, and do it. Listen to new input, certainly, but use your acquired knowledge of how the industry does and doesn’t work to weigh how likely any fresh piece of advice is to help you.

I’m also bringing it up to encourage all of you to use caution in evaluating whether to pay to attend writers’ shindigs in the upcoming spring and summer conference seasons. Many conferences promote their conferences by implying, if not outright stating, that they’re flying in agents and editors who will sign attendees on the spot.

However, that’s seldom the case: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. And that’s in a year when the economy isn’t bottomed out and the publishing industry isn’t trying to figure out the whole e-book phenomenon.

I tremble to mention this, but there is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. They attend simply to educate, as if their names on a conference brochure didn’t at least imply otherwise. Then there are the ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, and couldn’t be less interested in the writers’ conference whose dais they will be gracing.

Those last few are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.

The good news is that doing your homework about any conference you are considering attending can help you avoid wasting your time pitching to people who aren’t interested in helping you get your work published. For some tips on figuring out how to maximize your chances of ending up at a conference where you will be able to pitch to — or at least hear useful, up-to-the-minute advice from — agents who are genuinely looking to represent books like yours, please see the posts under the CONFERENCE SELECTION category on the list at right.

Nor are mixed messages limited to conferences — there’s plenty of confusing information out there, posing as authoritative behind-the-scenes skinny. See if this one rings a bell:

An agency states categorically in one of the standard agency guides and/or on its website that it is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, a list that apparently doesn’t change from year to year? Yet when a writer queries with a book in one of the listed categories, he is crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work.

I have personal experience with this one, I’m sorry to report. I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the end of our rather tumultuous association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

Why would an agent advertise that he is looking for book categories she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope.

No fooling: an agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike.

A broad advertiser is always a gambler, at some level.

And yes, now that you mention it, that vagueness is very, very annoying for the writers who believed his blurb in a conference guide or website. (For some tips on how to decipher these, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

The fact is, not everything in this process is what it appears to be at first glance. Had I mentioned yet that those who do their homework tend to have an easier time?

The problem is, the very difficulty of the endeavor discourages many aspiring writers from approaching publishing as a business with ropes to learn. Fearful, they become downright superstitious: because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, it can be very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears.

I’m not going to lie to you: giving advice to would-be authors is big business these days. Just because a writer pays anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars to attend a conference or intensive seminar doesn’t necessarily mean that what he will hear there is a single coherent explanation of what to do in order to get his book published.

Don’t expect it. Good seminars and conferences can be extremely informative — as long as you keep your critical faculties active at all times, because you are most assuredly going to be receiving some conflicting information.

Or at least information that might sound contradictory to a writer unfamiliar with the process. Allow me to explain.

The fine folks on the business side of publishing and those of us on the creative side of the business often speak rather different languages. If you’ve learned anything throughout this series, I hope that it was that necessarily, a writer thinks about her writing quite differently than an agent or editor does, and for the best possible reasons: for the writer, it’s self-expression; for the agent or editor, it’s a commodity to be sold.

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

I wish I could refer you to a reliable, comprehensive translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. Like other norms of publishing, a professional writer just sort of picks ‘em up by osmosis.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences, in agents’ guides, and on their websites. Although aspiring writers often decide in retrospect that these statements were, at best, inaccurate and/or misleading, these are not lies so much as polite exit lines from conversations, statements of belief, and as often as not, sincere attempts to make struggling aspiring writers feel better about facing the genuinely daunting task of finding representation.

Yet from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

So here’s my top ten list of confusing statements agents and editors tend to make at conferences — and, increasingly, in form-letter rejections. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each in writer-speak, as well as a prescription for reacting to it.

Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score — and your sanity.

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may well have something to do with what is selling at the moment, but may also relate to my not having the connections to sell this particular kind of book at this juncture.

Prescription: don’t waste both your time and his by approaching him with books in categories he hasn’t sold recently; move on.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: I have a very strong preference for representing previously published authors. Since it is now possible for any aspiring writer to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

Prescription: approach someone who says this only after you have a few solid writing credentials gracing your query letter.

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something that more closely resembles the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else right now. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.


You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?


The literary market is changing rapidly right now, and so are my connections. So while I may have a respectable track record in selling books just like yours, I’m not certain that I can do it now.

Prescription: assume this one isn’t taking on new clients right now and move on.

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”
Translation: like most submissions, we probably invested less than a minute in reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really, really busy.


If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.


Your manuscript made it past the screening eyes of three Millicents, and I stuck within it for the first 20 pages before I got distracted. But I just don’t think that I can sell this right now.

Prescription: no means no, no matter how it is phrased. Unless the rejection includes some feedback overtly applicable to your book, assume that this is a form letter and move on.

6. “The length of the manuscript doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is high.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 400 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. (Anne here, breaking in mid-translation: for the benefit of those of you who just turned pale, you’ll find an explanation under the BOOK LENGTH category at right. Also, these page counts assume standard manuscript format — and if you don’t know what that is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category.)


Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.


I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

Prescription: walk into a well-stocked bookstore and flip though ten or twelve recently-published books similar to yours. (Avoid those that have been out more than three years, or it won’t be a helpful sample.) How many pages are these books, on average?

Then consider your manuscript: is it longer, bearing in mind that page count shrinks by about 2/3rds between manuscript and printed page? Much longer? If so, is there anything you could do to bring it more in line with the standards of your book category?

If not, should you really be mentioning the word count in your query letter, when a too-high count may lead to instant rejection? Contrary to popular belief, the word count is not a required element in a query letter. (See? It really does pay to do your homework.)

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.


We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is. I may also pass your query along to the right agent within my agency.


We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

Prescription: do a little checking, to find out what book categories this agency actually does represent. If they don’t have a track record of selling books like yours, you’ll probably have better luck approaching those that do.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”
Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

(I wish I had an alternate translation to offer for that one, but frankly, I’ve never heard this statement used any other way at a conference. Sorry about that. Agents looking for literarily strong plots are usually more specific about what they’re seeking.)

Prescription: if your book is filmic, go for it!

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)


We honestly are looking for new writers, but that does not mean that we’re going to be willing to represent work that we don’t think we can sell in the current market. Please send us only genuinely marketable work.

Prescription: again, time spent in your local bookstore can only help you. Find out what kind of stories are selling in your book category these days. If your manuscript does not overtly resemble them, is there a way you could regear your query letter to make your book’s appeal to the readers currently buying books in your category more obvious?

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If the book concept is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

Yes, really. For an intensive examination of the prevailing logic, please see the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.


We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

Prescription: here, too, you’re going to need to do some homework to find out who the speaker represents/publishes. If he actually does habitually seek out exciting new voices, that will soon be apparent.

Remember, though: contrary to popular opinion, merely being a previously unpublished writer does not necessarily equal being a fresh new voice.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”
Translation: But not necessarily with my agency.


Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

Prescription: this pro is telling you to do your homework. Do it; in the long run, you’ll be happier.

Confused by all of this double-speak? I don’t blame you, but don’t lose heart. There are two sentiments that always mean precisely the same thing in industry- and writer-speak:

“I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and

“I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.”

These, you can take at face value.

Again, I’m bringing all of this up not to depress you, but to prepare those of you new to the agent-seeking process for the earth-shattering notion that you honestly don’t want to work with an agent who isn’t excited about your type of book. And they often try to tell aspiring writers just that: if it’s a waste of your time to query someone who doesn’t have the connections to sell your book, it’s a waste of both of your time to approach someone who doesn’t even consider your book category.

In the hurly-burly of a conference or in the frustration of trying to come up with a list of agents to query next, it can be very, very easy to forget that. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, agents are not identical; they specialize.

Please remember that there are plenty of good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help talented writers sell their work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Next time, I shall wrap up this series, then it’s on to the mysteries of manuscript formatting. Keep up the good work!

Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

It seems like only yesterday that we were talking about the pros and cons of self-publishing in the rapidly-changing literary market…oh, wait: it was just yesterday. Because we raced over the topic so very quickly, I am more than delighted to bring you an insider’s look at the subject, generously provided by poet, blogger, and self-published first novelist James Brush.

And let me tell you, this post’s a lulu. I’m tickled to death to be bringing it to you — and to introduce the Author! Author! community to the multiply-talented James.

But first, a few words about how and why I periodically bring you this kind of behind-the-scenes-of-publishing account. As those of you who have been following this month’s Getting a Book Published Basics series are, I hope, already aware, I am deeply committed to making this blog as genuinely, practically helpful to writers at every step of their careers as humanly possible. To that end, I occasionally ask beg blandish published authors into coming here to Author! Author! and sharing their first-hand experience in the literary trenches. Their wit, wisdom, and, at times, deep-dyed cynicism is collected under the GUEST BLOGS AND INTERVIEWS category on the archive list at right.

Because I love you people, I am very, very selective in offering space here. Only authors kind and community-spirited enough to want to teach aspiring writers the ropes need apply.

So why, out of the dozens of successful self-published authors I know, was James the one I asked to be here now? Well, several reasons, actually. First, he’s not only written and self-published a darned good book; he’s written and self-published a darned good first novel.

As literary risk-taking goes, that’s a triple back-flip from the highest dive — and he’s pulled it off. Here’s the back jacket blurb:

James Brush postcard cover Paul Reynolds, a photographer who creates fake photos for tabloid magazines, wakes up with no idea where he is or how he got there. He can’t even recall his name. A strange man lurks nearby, breathing heavily and slowly flipping through a book. Paul hears the man’s breath, but he cannot see him. He realizes with mounting panic that his eyes no longer function.

He remembers racing down a desolate West Texas highway. He remembers a cop who pulled him over for speeding. He remembers a shotgun-brandishing cook chasing him out of a diner. And he remembers a life abandoned, but he cannot put together the jigsaw puzzle that brought him where he is: blind, wanted by the law, and in the company of this invisible stranger.

In the backcountry town of Armbister, Texas, where temperatures hover around a hellish 110 degrees, Paul’s memory, intangible as a heat mirage, lies just beyond his reach, and God may be a coyote.

Intriguing, eh? Not to mention being an awfully good elevator pitch. (Not sure why? Okay, let me ask you: did it immediately introduce you to an interesting protagonist in an intriguing situation? Did it contain unusual details instead of generalities? And if you’d heard 150 pitches in a day, wouldn’t you remember the one where God was a coyote? That’s a good pitch.)

I also thought James might be a good fit for this series because, like so many novelists, he found that A Place Without a Postcard did not fit neatly into a single book category. Something tells me that more than a few of you out there could identify with that maddening dilemma.

Since learning how to narrow down a complex book into the appropriate marketing category is an essential skill for any professional writer, here’s a pop quiz — given the description below and the pitch above, what category would you have picked for it?

A Place Without a Postcard is an unusual story about a man who gets lost. That’s about as simple as it can be put. It’s about more than that, though. It’s about friendship, redemption, belief, and self-discovery.

It is part science fiction and part murder mystery and part myth. It takes place in West Texas. Not so much the western part of Texas, but the mythical West Texas where one might run into a coyote named Mercury or a man who dreams of invisibility.

Stumped? Well, would it help or hinder you to know that the writing is quite literary? As one reviewer noted,

His descriptions of this landscape alone are well worth the read… In fact, this book is filled with sense-based ways of looking at ordinary things and, in so doing, Brush has created a unique story, full of mystery, suspense, and outright terror. He is quite good, however, in first creating a thread in the plot and then resolving it soon or later. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy mystery stories, as well as a good old-fashioned story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity.

Tell me: what did you pick? Literary or science fiction? Paranormal or Western mystery? Thriller or regional interest?

If you flung your hands over your eyes and shouted, “Stop! Stop! How on earth could I possibly answer this without having read at least a few pages of the book?” congratulations: that is precisely what a seasoned book category-chooser would say. (And should you be interested in doing so before I reveal James’ answer, you can check out the first few pages at the book’s Amazon page.)

So how was A Place Without a Postcard categorized? James made a simple, elegant, and most market-savvy decision: it’s simply categorized as Fiction (a.k.a. General Fiction, Fiction — Other, or Adult Fiction). That’s is both an accurate descriptor of the book and gave him the most marketing leeway. (For more insight into how and why he made that choice, check out this interview; as always, if you’re looking for direction in narrowing down your own book’s category, see the posts under the BOOK CATEGORY section of the archive list at right.)

Finally, I asked James to come here and talk to you because he is a smart author with a lot of experience promoting that most difficult of book types, a novel with regional appeal. He’s thought a lot about this, made good choices, and successfully survived what can be for many self-published authors a very intimidating experience.

Peruse very carefully what he has to say. And if you’ve ever wanted to ask questions about self-publishing, this would be an excellent time to do it.

Please join me in welcoming today’s very helpful guest blogger, James Brush. Take it away, James!

james-brush author photo

In 2003, I self-published my first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, using iUniverse. Self-publishing was a good experience for me and I learned a lot. In the interest of sharing some of what I learned, Anne invited me to write a guest post in which I thought I’d answer the questions I’m most frequently asked.

Are rescued racing greyhounds really such great pets?
Yes, they really are, but we’re talking about writing and self-publishing.

Oh, sorry. Should I self-publish my book?
That depends. The conventional wisdom is that nonfiction writers do better self-publishing than fiction writers. There isn’t a strong market for poetry, so many poets self-publish.
If you’ve got a fiction book, and you want readers, then you need to think about how you’re going to get people interested in your book.

These days, even authors published by the big houses are expected to do more and more of the promotional work themselves, but they have more tools at their disposal. Whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, your sales will depend largely on the work you are willing to do to market your book. More so for the self-published author.

Since your sales will likely depend on your effort, the writer who does self-publish and is willing and savvy enough to promote himself effectively and relentlessly stands to sell a lot of books and maybe even make some good money. But there is still one thing stacked against you: bookstores.

The big bookstore chains will rarely stock a self-published book. You may be able to convince your local Barnes & Noble or Borders to sell a few of your books on consignment, but to get your book in stores, you need to approach those indie booksellers who might be interested in quirky titles by local authors. That’s where I found the most luck.

Having said that, the big box stores will order your book for a customer who wants it, and it is likely to be available through that store’s website as well.

What you’ve got going for you, however, is the internet. In the years since I published A Place Without a Postcard, e-books have become viable. The internet has grown and blogs and social networking have gone mainstream. All of these things give writers, self-published or otherwise, even more ways to reach readers and promote themselves and their books.

The question then becomes, how hard do you want to work to find readers? As a self-published author, that will be entirely on you.

Ok, I’m going to do it. What should I do before I self-publish?
Don’t jump into it. Never publish your first, second or even third, fourth or fifth draft.

I had the advantage of working out the plot and dialog in grad school, where I received awesome and painfully honest critiques. Make sure your book is read by as many people–hopefully a few of them writers who will tell you the truth about your work–as you can find.

Have it edited. As an English teacher, I trust myself to do a solid proofread, but I’ll still miss a lot in my own work. You need to have someone else edit it.

Read the entire thing, out loud to yourself from a hard copy. I’ve seen Anne give this same advice here at Author! Author!, and she is absolutely correct. Do it. Much will be revealed.

In addition to making your manuscript the best you can possibly make it, you should develop a marketing plan of some kind prior to publishing, which brings us to…

What would you have done differently?
I would have spent more time thinking through marketing before I published.

When I published Postcard in 2003, blogs were not on my radar. The internet was something for tech savvy people. No one read e-books. Those were my perceptions, anyway.

I built my website, Coyote Mercury, in 2003, after publishing Postcard. In 2005, I rebuilt the site with a blog and fell in love with blogging. I also began building a larger audience for my writing. Now, most of the sales of my book come from people who have found my blog and enjoyed my writing there.

I suspect that a self-published author (or likely any author) will sell more books if she already has a readership, even a small one, prior to publication.

If I were self-publishing for the first time today, I would start a blog, maintain it, write regularly and build a readership before publishing the book. Maybe a year or two before publishing. Remember when I said don’t jump into it? Building a website and blogging are fun diversions for you while your manuscript cools before the next round of revisions. You might also be able to find an audience who will be as excited as you are the day your book hits the market.

I would also look around at other self-publishing options. I was happy with my experience with iUniverse, but there are more companies out there with different approaches and different ways of doing things. I would research those options.

Lulu intrigues me because they will allow you to publish your book in such a way that your own publishing company becomes the publisher of record. I like that and that would appeal to me if I were doing this again.

Do you plan to self-publish again?
I always intended A Place Without a Postcard to be something I would do on my own. It’s been a very rewarding experience, and I have no regrets.

I have a second novel now, A Short Time to Be There, that I’m shopping around to agents. I intend to do the traditional route for this book for a variety of reasons. I don’t have the same DIY desire for this book, though I know that when it is published, I will still have to do much of the marketing work myself and apply much of what I learned from A Place Without a Postcard.

I do write poetry, which I publish on my blog, and I’ve had some luck getting my poems published in various e-zines and journals. At some point, I will have a complete collection of poetry, and I may publish that myself.

Anything else?
I’ll say it again: make sure you’ve gotten other people to read and critique your work. Pay them if you must in dollars, chickens or eighteen-year-old Scotch because if you’re self-publishing, you’re going to have to accept the fact that some people consider all self-published books to be failures. This is simply not true, but you have a duty to make sure that you aren’t providing the world one more reason to categorically reject all self-published works.

Ultimately, you need to believe in your book, maybe even more so than when you submit to agents and editors. When you do that, you are looking for someone else to believe in your work and help you make it even better. You won’t have that when you self-publish. You’ll be on your own and you have to know down to your core that your book is good enough for you to look a stranger in the eye and tell him that your book is worth his time.

Mine is, but it took almost ten years to get it there.

Finally, the most important advice I know for anyone seeking to publish anything by any means:

Be patient and keep writing.

james-brush author photo James Brush is a writer and teacher living in Austin, TX with his wife, cat and two greyhounds. He teaches English in a juvenile correctional facility, and was once a James Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers. He published his first novel, A Place Without a Postcard, in 2003. His writing has been published by qarrtsiluni, Thirteen Myna Birds, ouroboros review, Bolts of Silk, a handful of stones, The Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing and Good Gosh Almighty! He can be found online at Coyote Mercury.

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XV: the rapidly-changing face of self-publishing, or, objects in motion may not look the same as objects at rest


This, believe it or not, is a photo of something exceedingly straightforward: a wind-blown stand of trees alongside a rural road in Oregon, shot as I was driving by at sunset. Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — my camera has an annoyingly stubborn propensity to assume, contrary to all empirical input, not only that any object I might choose to photograph is going to be stationary, but that I am as well.

News flash, camera: I move occasionally. So do objects in the material world.

(And I don’t appreciate how judgmental you’ve become lately, camera. Yes, I am a writer, and like so many of my breed, may generally be found in front of my computer, day and night. It’s my natural habitat, but I’m not a mushroom. I’ve been known to uproot myself and walk around. Look, I’ve just wiggled my toes. But did you bestir yourself to capture it? Not a chance.)

To give the camera creative credit, sometimes the clash of logically-exclusive presuppositions can lead to unexpectedly interesting results. Since both the trees and I were moving, the camera elected to move from the realm of realism, its usual forte, to impressionism.

Keep this heavy-handed (and tree-filled) metaphor in mind as you read merrily through today’s post, please: clinging too rigidly to preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work may lead to a distorted view of what’s actually going on. So can taking a brief preliminary peek at a process in motion and assuming that momentary snapshot is in fact representative of the whole.

I assure you, forests in Oregon don’t really look like that. My camera’s opinion notwithstanding.

That observation should feel at least a trifle familiar by now: throughout this series, we have seen a number of ways in which the prevailing wisdom about how books get published is, to put it charitably, a tad outdated, if not outright wrong. Contrary to popular opinion, sheer speed of landing an agent or garnering a publishing contract is not a particularly reliable indicator of how good a manuscript is, presenting a manuscript or book proposal professionally does make a difference in how agency screeners respond to it, and advances, particularly for first books, are seldom so large that the writer can afford to quit her day job and live on it, unless she happens to have an unusually developed capacity for deriving nutrition from the air she breathes. If it was ever true that the instant a brilliant writer wrote THE END, agents and editors magically appeared on her doorstep, clamoring to represent and publish, respectively, the just-finished book, well, let’s just say that it hasn’t happened recently.

To be precise, since the days when Cinderella’s fairy godmother was still making regular house calls. If you catch my drift.

At least, it doesn’t work that way for writers who weren’t already celebrities in another medium. If you happen to have won the Nobel Prize in economics, spent your formative years starring in movies, or are the recently-deposed dictator of some interesting small country, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find guidance somewhere else.

For the rest of us, getting our writing recognized as marketable by those in a position to do something practical about it — like, say, an agent with connections to editors who regularly handle your book category — is darned hard work. And, as I pointed out earlier in this series, all of that nerve-wracking labor and waiting doesn’t stop once one lands an agent to represent one’s manuscript. What the work entails may change, but the imperative to produce one’s best writing, presented in the best possible manner, never goes away.

It’s part of the job description of the professional writer. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But if I don’t, who will? Last I heard, the fairy godmothers’ guild was still on strike. Must have been all of those house calls. )

But that does not necessarily mean that someone else will be calling the shots.

Which brings be back, thank goodness, to the matter at hand. Last time, I touched upon several reasons that an aspiring writer might decide to bypass the traditional agent-to-major-publisher route to publication in favor of other options such as approaching a small publisher directly or self-publishing. A writer might conclude that his life was too short to spend querying every agent in the last three years’ editions of the Guide to Literary Agents, for instance; rather than shooting for the big publishing contract, he might be thrilled to see his book in print, even sans advance, through an indie press.

Or, to borrow the rather more poetic rendering of the late, great Hilaire Belloc: When I am dead, I hope it may be said, “His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”

Strategic reasons might weigh into the decision to go indie as well. A writer might feel, for example, that a regional press would be a better bet for her book on migratory waterfowl of the Mississippi delta. (There must be some, right?)

Or the writer might just find the prospect of an agent’s having the right — nay, the obligation — to dictate changes in his manuscript, changes that may well be countermanded by the editor who acquires the book. Even that’s not necessarily the end of the revision road: since editors come and go with dizzying frequency at the major houses these days, the editor who acquires the book may not be the editor in charge of the project when it’s time for the writer to deliver the manuscript, or when she’s finished making the changes requested in the initial editorial memo. Or in the days before the book goes to print.

Yes, it’s been known to happen. So have requested revisions — sacre bleu! — after the review copies have gone out to the advance reviewers (i.e., the one that review books before distributors get them, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly). If those reviews are dismal enough, editors have been known to get a mite nervous, and the editorial memos start flying.

The moral: what a writer regards as a finished book — which is how most aspiring writers think of their books prior to submission, right? — often isn’t. In the traditional publishing world, a whole lot of people have the right to request changes, right up to the point that the spine is about to be pressed against the pages. And sometimes even after.

If I haven’t already hammered this particular point home throughout this series, let me do it now — and since it’s a truth that long-time readers of this blog should find familiar, feel free to open up your hymnals and sing along: in the eyes of the publishing industry, no manuscript is beyond revision until it is actually sitting on a shelf in Barnes & Noble.

Some writers find this rather trying, as you might imagine. Being a writer, Lawrence Kasden wrote, is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.

I am hardly the first to point out that art and the business of promoting it have not invariably been on the friendliest of terms, historically speaking. One of the perennial frustrations of the aspiring writer’s life is the paradoxical necessity of bringing one’s submissions into conformity with what an unknown agent (or agency screener, editor, editorial assistant, contest judge, etc.) expects to see on the page without unduly compromising one’s authorial voice and artistic vision.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing.

Don’t roll your eyes, those of you dead-set on traditional publishing — it’s an increasingly attractive option, especially for nonfiction. These days, you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a respectable-sized writing conference without hitting an aspiring writer who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of the major houses, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

Self-publishing has come a long way in the last few years. The rise of print-on-demand (POD) and Internet-based booksellers’ increasing openness to featuring POD books has rendered the self-publishing route a viable option for those who balk at the — let’s face facts here — often glacial pace of bringing a book to publication via the usual means, working with the usual suspects.

Yet if you wander into a writers’ conference and ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing, you’re likely to receive a dismissive, if not overly scornful, answer. Often, agents and editors will act as though self-publishing was purely an act of vanity reserved for those who couldn’t hack it in the big time– unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

Which does indeed happen — not often, but from time to time.

In case you were wondering, exceptionally well in this context usually translates into something over 10,000 books, give or take a hundred or two depending upon book category. That’s not only good ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you new to the Author! Author! community); that’s a statistic that an agent can carry to an editor at a publishing house as evidence that there’s already a demonstrated readership eager for your next book.

Those are the exceptions, though. The last time I checked, the average self-published book was selling less than 500 copies.

Yes, even the ones posted on Amazon. Just as the mere fact of throwing up a website doesn’t automatically result in the world’s beating a path to one’s virtual door, having a book available for sale online doesn’t necessarily translate into sales. The web is, after all, search-oriented: if a potential reader doesn’t know that a particular book exists, s/he’s unlikely to be Googling it, right?

Someone needs to give that reader a heads-up. Increasingly, that someone is the author.

The many, many obstacles facing the self-published book
There’s a reason for the comparatively low sales statistics, of course: self-publishing generally means that the author is solely responsible for promoting his own book — and placing it in bookstores. At a traditional publishing house, large or small, while authors are increasingly expected to invest their own time and resources in hawking their writing (it’s fairly common now for an author to be responsible for setting up her own website, for instance, and to handle virtually all web promotion), but the publisher will handle getting the book to distributors and book buyers.

A self-published book, on the other hand, almost always has a promotional staff of one: the author.

In practice, this can make self-publishing a pretty hard row to hoe, unless the author happens already to have her pretty mitts on some hefty promotional credentials, a mailing list of thousands, or connections at bookstores nationwide that would make the late Jacqueline Susann weep with envy. (Any writer seriously considering self-publishing, or even promoting her own book, should run, not walk, to rent the uneven but often very funny Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great?. It has some problems on a storytelling level, as real people’s lives often do, but there’s no denying that it’s a great primer on how to promote a book, based upon the undisputed mistress of the art. Seriously, she would stop in every bookstore she passed, sign every copy of her books they had, and send individual thank-you notes to everyone who worked in the bookstore afterward. The lady worked for her sales.)

Also, as I mentioned yesterday, self-published works (as well as POD books) currently face some pretty formidable structural obstacles in a literary world that is still very much oriented toward traditional publishing. Most US newspapers and magazines won’t even consider reviewing a self-published or POD book, for instance; even the standard advance review sources won’t do it.

So there goes the standard source for free publicity. But what about distribution?

In practice, anti-review policies mean it’s harder to convince a library or bookstore to carry a non-traditionally published book. And since fiction is traditionally more review-dependent than nonfiction — it all depends on the writing, right? — almost anyone in the traditional book selling or buying biz will tell you that self-publishing a novel is just a poor idea. (Which isn’t necessarily true anymore — as tomorrow’s guest blogger will be here to attest. But shh; I’m not letting that particular cat out of the bag just yet.)

Then, too, since bookstores must purchase self-published and POD books up front, they don’t have the option to return them to the publisher if they don’t sell. As a result, it can be substantially more expensive for a bookstore to carry them than books from a traditional publisher. So both big chains and small indie stores tend to shy away from self-published books; the author tends to have to talk his book into some shelf space, venue by venue.

And then there’s the conceptual barrier
As if all that didn’t present an intimidating enough obstacle course for the self-published writer, there’s also quite a bit of lingering prejudice against self-published work — an attitude still strong enough in literary circles that an author’s already having brought out even a comparatively successful self-published book will not necessarily impress an old-school agent or an editor.

Yes, really. Despite some notable recent successes, reviewers, librarians, agents, and editors still remain, at least overtly, relatively indifferent to the achievements of self-published books, to the extent that not all of them even make the decades-old distinction between so-called vanity presses (who print short runs of books, often at inflated prices, solely at the author’s expense, so the author may distribute them), subsidy presses (who ask authors to contribute some portion of the printing expenses; the press often handles distribution and promotion), desktop publishing (where the author handles the whole shebang herself), and print-on-demand (which refers to how the books are actually produced, rather than who is footing the bill to produce them).

Why would any reasonable human being lump all of those quite disparate categories together, you ask? Well, practical reasons, mostly: as I mentioned above, the average self-published book does not sell awfully well, so the whole species tends to be dismissed by those who sell books for a living as irrelevant to the book market as a whole.

Interestingly, the prevailing opinion on this point hasn’t changed all that much over the last decade or so, despite the fact that many POD and self-published works have proved quite profitable. Remember what I said above about rigid assumptions sometimes leading those who cling to them to misapprehend reality?

The other reason is philosophical: they just don’t think self-published books are inherently as good as those produced by traditional publishers. If the book in question were genuinely of publishable quality, they reason, why didn’t an agent pick it up? Why didn’t a mainstream publisher bring it out?

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely correct: this logic is indeed circular. However, that doesn’t mean the argument doesn’t have any merit — we’ve all seen dreadful self-published books that have only too obviously never passed under the eyes of a reasonably competent proofreader, let alone editor. — or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves.

Like so much of reality, it’s substantially more complicated than it appears at first glance.

So what precisely do they have against self-publishing, other than that it’s not what they do?
In essence, the underlying objection here is that for a book to be self-published, only its writer has to consider it of publishable quality — which is to say, it has inherently violated the rules by which traditional publishing operates. Breaking into print via single person’s say-so is, as we have seen throughout this series, a far, far cry from how mainstream publishing works. Traditionally published books must jump through a rigorous series of hoops before hitting print, hurdles intended (at least ostensibly) to sift out the manuscripts that are not yet up to professional standard by passing them through an increasingly fine set of mesh screens, as it were.

A trifle startling to think of it that way, isn’t it? To try to understand the traditional publishing industry’s view of self-publishing, let’s take a gander at why they might consider it their selection process akin to panning for gold:

The querying stage: agencies evaluate hundreds of thousands of queries and verbal pitches in order to weed out book projects that don’t fit easily into an established book category (if you don’t know what that is, I implore you to peruse the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right without delay), concepts that have been done too many times (every bestseller spawns thousands of copycats), premises that are unlikely to sell well in the current literary market (which changes all the time), and works by writers that cannot write clearly (I’m sure that all of my readers are sending off gems, but you’d be amazed at how many query letters border on the incoherent).

Based upon these assessments — and other criteria, of course, but we’re thinking in generalities for the moment — the agent (and her Millicents) select a small fraction of the queried or pitched projects to read in manuscript form. In theory, then, any book project that makes it past this stage is considered to be conceptually acceptable and in accordance with professional querying standards.

The agency submission stage: Millicent and her boss agent remove from the pool of possible manuscripts that exhibit grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, formatting problems, storytelling difficulties, pacing angst, a not-very-compelling voice, and a whole host of composition problems. Not to mention those that just don’t grab the agent’s interest or he doesn’t think he can sell in the current market.

By this point, the initially immense applicant pool has been narrowed down to just a few thousand of any year’s queriers — or, depending upon book category, possibly a few hundred. Ostensibly, the manuscripts that make it past this stage are all professionally formatted, grammatically impeccable, are written in a voice and style appropriate to the chosen book category, and are stories well told and/or arguments well made.

Yes, yes, there are other criteria at play, too. Keep picturing those sieves and prospectors panning for gold.

The editorial submission stage: agents take manuscripts and book proposals to editors (and their assistants, known here at Author! Author! as Maury, Millicent’s cousin; their aunt Mehitabel is a veteran contest judge) who assess the submissions for voice, content, and pacing appropriateness for the audience the imprint or press is already targeting (like agents and editors, imprints within major publishing houses specialize, right?), potential marketing pluses and minuses, cost of publishing (one of the primary reasons too-long manuscripts have a hard time making the cut), and what the publishing house’s powers that be believe readers will want to buy a year or two hence.

The miniscule fraction of the original querying pool that clear the hurdles of this stage AND impress an editor more than books by already-established authors (whose books always make up the overwhelming majority of releases in any given year) will then move on to the editorial committee. Every book that makes it to this stage should be of publishable quality by professional standards; in theory, the selections from here on are amongst the best the current aspiring writers’ market has to offer right now.

The decision-making stage: editors pitch the books they have selected of an editorial committee and/or higher-ups at the publishing house who will make the ultimate decision about which books to publish, possibly after consultation with the good folks in the production, marketing, and legal departments. By now, the original querying pool has usually been narrowed so much that the group of accepted first-time authors in a given year could fit quite comfortably into a good-sized movie theatre.

Contrast all of this to the process of self-publishing a book, as an agent or editor might conceive it:

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

Step 3: receive a stack of books with one’s name on the cover.

Of course, there’s far, far more to it than that, but you can see their point, right? Unless a self-published book really wows the market, the streamlined road to publication itself more or less guarantees that the mere fact that it is in print is not going to impress those who work in traditional publishing.

Again, sorry to be the one to report that, aspiring self-publishers. But wouldn’t you rather know the pros and cons up front, rather than finding out about them after you have already invested in bringing out your book yourself?

Yes, yes, I know: I could feel many of you slowly going pale throughout that last part. I’m sorry to sadden anybody, but if we’re going to understand the odds that render self-publishing attractive to many aspiring writer, it’s vital to bear in mind that in traditional publishing, it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States.

That statistic, by the way, is from before the recent economic downturn.

Try not to let that depress you into a stupor. Instead, take a deep breath and remember what we learned earlier in the series: draconian winnowing-down techniques are not the result of agencies and publishing houses being inherently hostile to promoting new voices, but the flat necessity of narrowing down the avalanche of book projects to the relatively few that publishers, even behemoth ones, can actually publish in a given year.

When you’ve recovered sufficiently from the shock, I would invite you to consider two possibilities that fly in the face of some of the prevailing wisdom floating around out there. Time to squint our eyes and try to pick out some trees.

First, in the unlikely event that none of you out there has noticed, it’s been getting harder and harder for a new writer to land an agent, much less get a first book published. The hurdles a first book (particularly a first novel) must clear are high and numerous enough that at least considering self-publishing is a fairly rational response to a difficult situation, if one happens to have the resources to pull it off.

Second — and this one is going to challenge some of the prevailing notions floating around the writers’ conference circuit — those who work in traditional publishing honestly do have legitimate reason to regard their acquisition process as literarily rigorous. Yet as recent literary history has shown, that does not necessarily mean that self-published books are invariably less polished than their traditionally-published counterparts.

Which is to say: just because traditional publishing types sneer at self-publishing doesn’t mean that it might not be the right route for your book. Believe me, if you have the gumption, push, and creativity to sell enough copies, they might actually be more impressed than if you’d sold the same number via a traditional publisher.

And then there’s the control
Many self-published authors report that they’re quite happy that they grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and released their books themselves. Nowhere in the publishing world can a writer enjoy such complete control over what will and will not appear on the page; as most first-time authors working with traditional publishers can tell you to their cost, marketing departments change book titles all the time, and while authors sometimes have consultation rights over their book’s covers, it’s rare that they enjoy much actual input into the finished image.

By contrast, such decisions lie entirely in the hands of the self-publishing author. (Go ahead, take a moment to bask in the glow of that mental image. It’s a pretty one.)

While many presses that cater to self-publishers do offer design services (at a price, of course), the final call is the author’s. If a writer was absolutely married to a particular typeface — something that would be utterly beyond his control at a traditional publisher, right? — it’s his for the asking. DItto with the cover art, or the title.

Heck, if he wanted to have each character’s dialogue appear in a different font, while a press might try to talk him out of it, it would be up to him.

But how might an interested writer get started?
As always, tread with care in pursuit of your dreams. This is yet another area of publishing where it genuinely pays to do your homework.

As with any other aspect of publishing, it really does behoove a writer to think very seriously about what she wants out of the publishing process, which type of publication is most likely to meet those expectations, and to do her homework very thoroughly before committing to any route to publication. Never having self-published anything myself, I don’t pretend to be an expert, but I have collected advice from a number of happily self-published authors under the SELF-PUBLISHING category on the archive list at right. These posts do not constitute an exhaustive how-to by any means, but they will give you some tips on what to expect, how to get started, and ways to avoid getting burned.

Remember, not all presses are equally reputable, and the range of charges can vary wildly. While there are many presses that work very well with writers for a reasonable per-copy price, there are also many that operate on the assumption that self-published books should be glossy, high-cost personal calling cards. So even if you don’t have your heart set on leather binding, you’re going to want to inspect very carefully what you’ll be getting for your money.

Ask lots of questions. Not only of any press that you’re considering entrusting with your work, but of successfully self-published authors as well. Don’t be shy — trust me, if you’re willing to show up for a book reading she’s set up at great trouble, she’ll be more than happy to tell you all about her experience with her press.

But please, be kind: if you ask her for advice, buy a copy of her book. She’s probably hand-selling each one.

As a first step toward learning more about self-publishing — and as a reward for your virtue in sticking with this series to close to the bitter end — I’ve recruited a successful self-published author, the erudite and charming James Brush, to give us the low-down on what he wishes he had known before plunging into the wonderful world of doing it for himself. I’ve taken an advance peek at his guest post, and trust me, each and every one of you who has ever given a passing thought to self-financing a book is going to want to see what he has to say.

So don’t forget to tune in this weekend — same Author! Author! time, same Author! Author! channel.

I’ll be wrapping up this series next week, you’ll probably be delighted to hear, and then be moving on to that topic most vital to submitters, how to format a manuscript. Yes, it’s not a very sexy topic, but as long as I have the energy to blog, not a single one of my readers is going to get her submission rejected because she didn’t know how professional authors present their work to agents.

Besides, after all the forest-gazing of recent weeks, I thought it might be rather refreshing to zero in on some individual trees. 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:


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):


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 XI: a few more observations on offer-acceptance etiquette, and a cautionary tale

lily tomlin operator

There I was, peacefully enjoying some well-deserved rest this weekend, when a prime specimen of that species so justly dreaded by writers, the hobgoblins of self-doubt, abruptly pulled up a pillow and sat down on my bed. “Um, Anne?” the wily fellow asked, playfully poking at my cat with his tail. “You know those last couple of posts about what to say and do when an agent calls and offers representation. What if some gifted writer out there mistakenly believes that the questions you recommended are the only ones it’s polite, reasonable, and necessary to ask?”

I yanked the pillow out from under him. “Demon Joe,” — that’s the name of the hobgoblin who specializes in tormenting advice-giving bloggers in the dead of night, so you’ll know should you ever run into him — “Author! Author!’s readers are much, much smarter than that. They know that just as every manuscript requires different revision, and that every book category requires a slightly different kind of agent, every offer from an agent and every subsequent conversation will differ. Now unhand my cat and get out of here.”

Demon Joe slithered across the comforter until he was nose-to-nose with me. “Perhaps. But did you talk about what a writer’s supposed to say if she has manuscripts out with other agents at the time that she receives the offer?

“I talked about that indirectly,” I said defensively, extracting my cat’s tail from Joe’s grasp. “Last weekend, when I was discussing what to do if an agent asks for an exclusive while another agent is already reading the manuscript. You ought to remember — you yanked me out of bed to write it.”

“True enough.” Demon Joe stroked his small, pointed beard thoughtfully. “And I wouldn’t want to disturb your sleep. I Just can’t help worrying about whether an excited aspiring writer, burbling with glee over a phone call from a real, live agent, is going to be in any mood to, you know, extrapolate. But if you’re confident that you’ve covered all of your bases…”

I hate it when Demon Joe is right. If you’ve ever wondered why some of my posts bear timestamps at three or four in the morning, blame him.

I certainly do.

Here, then, is an extra-special bonus middle-of-the-night end-of-the-weekend post, devoted to that most burning of problems most aspiring writers pray someday to have: what you to say to an agent who wants to represent you, when one or more other agents are also considering your manuscript?”

Seem like an unlikely scenario? It isn’t, actually, for any aspiring writer sending out simultaneous submissions. Any time more than one agent is considering the same manuscript, one possible outcome — the best one, actually — is that the writer will need to say something along the lines of, “Gee, I’m flattered, but I’m afraid that I shall have to talk to the X number of other agents currently reading my book. May I get back to you in, say, two weeks?”

The very idea of saying that to an agent who wants to represent you made some of you faint, didn’t it? Believe me, I’ve been there.

Seriously, I have. I wish I had known from the very beginning that having more than one agent reading a manuscript at a time is actually a very good thing for a writer. At least, if all of the agents concerned are aware that they’re in competition over the book.

“What makes you do darn sure of that?” Demon Joe demands. “Stop eyeballing that head-shaped indentation in your pillow and share your experience.”

Okay, okay — I’ll tell the story, but then I’m going back to sleep. Everybody but me comfortable? Excellent. Let’s proceed.

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials — memoir book proposal plus the first three chapters of a novel — when another agent asked to see my book proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project.

Thanks, Demon Joe, but I’m way ahead of you on this one: all of you multiple submitters do know that you should always mention it in your submission cover letter if another agent is already reading any part of your manuscript or book proposal? And that you should always drop any agent already reading your work an e-mail if you submit your work to another agent thereafter?

Well, now you do.

Although I knew to be conscientious about that first part, back in those long-ago days of innocence, I was not aware of the second. Indeed, the hobgoblin of doubt dedicated to torturing aspiring writers waiting to hear back on their submissions — Demon Milton, if you must know his name — would have forbidden my acting upon it if I had known: unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche.

In other words, I was too afraid to bug Agent #1 to let her know that Agent #2 was looking at my book proposal. Big, big mistake.

Okay, Demon Joe, stop battering my head with your tail: I’m going to show them how to avoid that particular pitfall before I reveal the hideous consequences of not playing by this particular not-very-well-known rule.

So what should I have done instead? If more than one agent asks to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly.

No need to name names, of course, or even to go back and tell Agents #1 and #2 that Agents #4-6 also asked to see it a month later. All that any given agent in the chain needs to know is that she’s not the only one considering it.

But I didn’t know that; frankly, I was too tickled to have attracted so much interest. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

A month later, Agent #2 called me to offer to represent the book. Since Agent #1 had at that point held onto the proposal for over six weeks without so much as a word, I assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that she just wasn’t interested. So I accepted the only offer on the table, and sent Agent #1 a polite little missive, thanking her for her time and saying that I had signed with someone else.

Demon Joe is prompting me to pause here to ask: did that sweeping, unjustified conclusion make you gasp aloud?

It should have, especially if you have been submitting within the last couple of years. Six weeks really isn’t a very long time for an agent to hold onto a manuscript, after all; now, six months isn’t an unusual turn-around time. But even back then, when about eight weeks was considered the outside limit of courtesy, I should not have leapt to the conclusion that Agent #1 had simply blown me off.

Two days later, the phone rang: you guessed it, an extremely irate Agent #1. Since she hadn’t realized that there was any competition over the project, she informed me loudly, she hadn’t known that she needed to read my submission quickly. But now that another agent wanted it, she had dug my materials out of the pile on her desk, zipped through them — and she wanted to represent it.

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. I had, after all, already burbled an overjoyed acceptance to Agent #2. I couldn’t exactly un-burble my yes, could I?

Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d already committed to someone else, all Agent #1 wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

Had I been too gentle in my refusal? What part of no didn’t she get? “I don’t think you quite understood me before,” I said as soon as she paused to draw breath; #1 must have been a tuba player in high school. “I’ve already agreed to let another agent represent this book.”

“Nonsense,” #1 huffed. “How could you possibly have made up your mind yet, when you haven’t heard what I can do for you?”

I’ll spare you the 15-minute argument that ensued; suffice it to say that she raked me over the coals for not having contacted her the nanosecond I received a request for materials. Agent #1 also — and I found this both fascinating and confusing — used every argument she would invent to induce me to break my word to Agent #2 and sign with her instead.

Unscrupulous? Not exactly. She was merely operating on a principle that those of you who have been following this series should have by now committed to heart: until an agent offers a representation contract and a writer actually signs it, nothing that has passed between them is binding.

As I so often tell first-time pitchers who have just been asked to send pages: until there’s a concrete offer on the table, that nice conversation you just had with that agent about your book is just that, a nice conversation.

Of course, #1 may have taken the axiom to heart a little too much — I had, after all, already said yes to another agent, somebody equally enthusiastic about my proposal — but as it turned out, I should have listened to her. I should also have done my homework better: Agent #2, a charming man relatively new to my book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book.

Yes, Demon Joe: that is something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. Thank you for pointing that out. Now stop rolling around on my flannel sheets.

What happened here? Well, my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

So what should I have done instead? Contacted Agent #1 as soon as I received the second request, of course — and called her before I gave Agent #2 an answer.

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off; if #2 was deliberately rushing me to commit before I asked too many questions about his track record in selling my type of book, I doubt that he would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind. (His agency went out of business within the year, after all; he gave up on my proposal after showing it to only five editors. I received a letter from one of them, saying that he had not submitted it through the proper channels.)

In the long run, though, it would have clearly been far better for me and my book proposal had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

The story does have a happy ending, however: fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won. (It’s always worth tracking down past winners, if you happen to be a finalist: it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Just so I can convince Demon Joe to remove his pitchfork from my foot region, let’s recap what a writer should do if more than one agent is considering a manuscript when a representation offer gladdens his heart:

(1) Thank the offering agent, but remind her that other agents are currently considering the manuscript.
That should not be news to her, right?

(2) Ask for 3 weeks to check in with the others and make up your mind.
Since this is precisely what she would expect you to do for her if another agent had made an offer first, she should be fine with this. If she isn’t, offer not to commit to anyone else until you have spoken to her again — and set up an appointment a couple of weeks hence to do just that.

Why as much as three weeks? Because it’s entirely possible that none of the other agents have yet so much as glanced at the manuscript. You don’t expect them to make a representation decision before they’ve read your book, do you?

Demon Joe likes that so much that he’s doing a little jig on my bedroom slippers. “Let me be the one to draw out the implication here: yes, some agents who are aware that a manuscript is being multiply-submitted will wait to hear that someone else has made an offer before they give the manuscript a serious once-over.”

The hobgoblin in charge of that particularly nasty (from the writer’s point of view, anyway) game of chicken is called Harold, in case you were wondering. You might want to mutter at him under your breath, should you ever be the writer caught in this situation.

Which is, lest we forget, a good outcome for a submitter. Back to our to-do list:

(3) Then ask all of the other questions you would have asked Agent #1 if she had been the only agent to whom you submitted.
You want to have a basis to decide between her and any of the other agents who say yes, don’t you?

(4) As soon as you get off the phone with #1, e-mail ALL the other agents currently reading any part of your manuscript. Let them know that you have had another offer — and that if they are interested, you will need to hear from them within the next ten days.
Seem fast? It is. It’s also a reasonable amount of time for a rush read, and it gives you a little leeway if any of the other agents needs more time.

After all, the fact that others are reading it isn’t going to come as a surprise to any of them, right? Besides, you don’t want to keep Agent #1 waiting too long, do you?

Stop poking me in the kidneys, Demon Joe. I was getting to the leeway issue.

It’s not uncommon for agents in this situation to ask for more time to read your work. That’s up to you, but do be aware that if you grant extensions, you’re going to have to tell Agent #1 about them.

Doesn’t sound like such an attractive prospect, does it? Wouldn’t you rather build a little extra time into your arrangement with #1, so #2-16 can miss the mark by a few days without sending you into a nail-gnawing panic?

(5) Try to obtain similar information from every agent who makes an offer.
That way, you will be comparing apples to apples, not apples to squid. So if you ask one for a client list — and you should — ask each one that makes an offer. If you talk to a client of #1, talk to #3′s client as well. Otherwise, it’s just too tempting to sign with the one who spontaneously offered you the most information — who may or may not be the best fit for your work.

(6) Make up your mind when you said you would — or inform everyone concerned that it’s going to take a little longer.
But don’t push it too long, and don’t try to use what one agent has said to hurry another. (Over and above simply informing them that another has made an offer, that is.) This is not a bargaining situation; it’s a straightforward collection of offers from businesspeople about whom you should already have done your homework.

And try not to move the deadline more than once. Why? Well, you’re going to want to have a pleasant working relationship with whomever you choose — and although writers often feel helpless when torn between competing agents, that is not how they will see it. The last impression you

(7) After you’ve chosen, inform the agent with whom you will be signing first.
This is basic self-protection, especially if you’ve had to push the decision deadline back more than once. It’s unusual for an agent to change her mind after making an offer, but if she does, you will be a substantially happier camper if you have other offers in reserve.

(8) After you have sealed the deal with your favorite, inform the others promptly and politely.
Do this even if some of the others didn’t bother to get back to you at all — some agents do use silence as a substitute for no, but it’s not courteous to bank on that. They honestly do need to know that they’re no longer in the running.

Resist the urge — and believe me, you will feel it — to explain in thanks, but no thanks e-mails why you selected the agent you did. The agenting world is not very big, after all, and the other agent(s) really don’t need to know anything but that you have indeed made a decision.

Above all, make sure to thank them profusely for their time. After all, they were excited enough about your writing to consider representing you; don’t you want them to buy your book when it comes out?

Hey, my cats are asleep, my various body parts seem to be free of pitchforks, and the hobgoblin all-clear has sounded. (It sounds a lot like a snore from my SO.)

That means it’s time for me to turn in, campers. Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt bite. Oh, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part X: the agency contract revisited, or, excuse me, sirs, but could any of you tell me which one of you will be representing my book tomorrow?

police line-up

Last time, I broached the seldom-discussed issue of agency contracts — you know those handy documents that spell out explicitly what the agent offering to represent you will do for you in exchange for how much. While most aspiring writers simply squeal and shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the nanosecond an offer emerges from an agent’s mouth, it’s very much in your interest to know what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it.

In other words: not all agencies are created equal. Nor do they all operate in the same manner.

There are, however, some norms. As those of you who pored over yesterday’s post may recall to your sorrow, in going over how (and how much) US-based agents typically get paid for representing their clients’ work, I mentioned that US agency contracts typically specify 15% for books sold to a North American English-language publisher, 20% or more for sales to non-North American publishers, whether the book is published in English or not.

“Um, Anne?” a small, confused chorus has been piping out there in the ether ever since I first brought it up. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated, drawn-out typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes.

North American vs. world rights
From the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America (meaning in the US and Canada), those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. So when folks in the industry speak about a US-based agent selling a book to a US-based publisher, they’re generally talking about the first North American rights: the publisher has bought the ability to be the only source of the first addition of the book in the US and Canada.

Of the three categories, only North American rights are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales, which is why — pay close attention here — if your agent manages to sell your book to a UK-based publisher, you will be selling the world rights. Believe it or not, the world excludes North America — which I imagine might come as something of a surprise to those of us who live here.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense.

What might all of this rigmarole mean for the writer? Perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Sometimes, the Canadian rights are subsumed in the world rights (if, say, the publisher is UK-based), instead of under the North American rights.

Before you laugh out loud, I should warn you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales — it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, do the math: if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I cannot stress enough, though: read your contract. Ask some questions. Norms are just norms; individual agencies’ policies do vary.

But what if I am represented by an agent based outside North America — or if I’m unsure if a North American one is asking me to agree to legitimate terms?
Obviously, what constitutes a domestic sale would vary depending upon the country in which the agent does his primary business. So if you are reading this somewhere outside North America, or translated into a language other than English, you should not blithely assume that what I am saying here applies to your home country; it’s always worth your while to check with your national literary agents’ association. For the English-speaking world, the top ones are:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work. So are writer-protection sites like Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2010 is fast receding into memory.

I just mention.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that the agency lucky enough to land you as a client — strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? — is as reputable as reputable can be. Most agencies are. Even under that happy circumstance, it’s very much in your best interest to understand how and to whom an agent might market your book before you read, much less sign, an agency contact. Not only because these distinctions are rather counter-intuitive, but because they’re the criteria used to determine what percentage your agent will take out of your advance and royalty checks.

Again: read your representation contract before you sign it. Ask some questions. The only way this relationship is going to work to both your benefit and the agent’s is if both parties understand precisely what each of them is supposed to do.

Tell me again how I’m supposed to cover all of this in my first conversation with a prospective agent without sounding like a paranoid jerk?
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort the details out later?”

Well, of course you could — as I said, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this impulse: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you.

Yes, YOU. How thrilling!

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything especially nefarious. Remember, agents move from one agency to another all the time, especially in this economy. If this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent. (Either is possible.)

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts. And so forth.

The agency contract is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. It’s perfectly legitimate to request time to pore over it. Then pick up your notes, hie yourself to a telephone, and start asking follow-up questions.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent — as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements — do make a point of asking the agent in your first conversation for a brief overview of its major points.

That’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship.

The agency, not the agent, produces that contract I keep yammering about, after all; the agent may not even sign it. So a savvy writer should be very, very interested in the policies and procedures of any agency to which she is about to commit herself and her writing.

Wait — what do you mean, I’m committing to the agency, not just the agent?
That’s right — agency policy will affect you, and that agent who is being so nice to you on the phone will not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work. Among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (For a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it? Or, in some cases, people that you may not even know exist?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; is it really all that surprising, then, that few are on friendly terms with the rest of the agency’s staff? It’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

At minimum, find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Remember, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her, or will at least be given the option of doing so. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

Again, asking about this is not being paranoid; it’s being prudent. Few human relationships are permanent, after all.

Let’s face it: some agencies have pretty short lifespans. It’s also not all that uncommon for agents simply to burn out on the biz; selling books is hard work, after all. And since many agents have a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that how the agency is set up may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Don’t think that nice agent who called you to offer to represent you would drop out of sight? Okay, cover your representation contract — no peeking now — and answer these trenchant questions:

(1) If your agent retired, would you still be represented, or would you need to find a new agent?

(2) What about if she got laid off and the agency did not replace her, as is happening in agencies all over the country right now? Would you still be represented then?

(3) What if she got into a car crash, God forbid, and had to cut her client list in half?

(4) Does the agency have any hierarchy in place to mediate any disagreements that may If you had a fundamental disagreement with your agent, could you move to another agent within the agency, or would you need to find a new agent elsewhere?

(5) On the brighter side, what if your agent started an agency of her own?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking. None of them had even considered any of these possibilities until the realities hit them in the face. And virtually all of them now say that it never occurred to them to question whether the agency would be there to support them if something happened to their again.

But perhaps that’s not too surprising: many an author could not pick any member of her agency’s staff but her agent out of a crowd at a writers’ conference. Or out of a police line-up, for that matter.

So I take it you’re saying that this isn’t a business that runs on handshakes
Sometimes it is, but you should be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 5-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established.

Protect yourself. A good place to start: reading your representation contract and asking some intelligent questions.

Assume, too, that at some point, you will want to revisit some of these issues. If you are offered a written contract, make yourself a photocopy so you may refer to it later.

Yes, even if the agent or agency’s head has not yet countersigned it. Many agented writers report that they have never seen another copy of the contract again after they signed it.

Dare I hope that those great, gusty sighs I hear wafting from my readership mean that this is all sinking in? “Okay, Anne,” sadder-but-hopefully-wiser writers everywhere concede. “I get it: it’s not in my interest to take the details of the agent-client relationship on faith. I need to ask questions when I don’t understand something. But right now, I don’t think I have the energy to do that, because you’ve depressed me into a stupor. The last couple of posts have occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors.”

Of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers — but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

So read that contract; act those questions; walk into that agency with your eyes wide open and your reading glasses firmly on.

And please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you. Put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone’s care.

Next time, I’ll talk about what agents do with manuscripts after the representation contract is signed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!