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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 IV: what happens AFTER a successful query or pitch?

smiling-rock

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail.

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Besides, you can always come back and refresh your memory later. Seriously, it’s easy, if a bit time-consuming. One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere, and the archives are organized by subject. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delving into the more specific posts on individual topics grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page. There is also a search engine in the upper-right corner, so searchers may type in a word or phrase.

And, as always, if you can’t find the answer to a particular writing question, feel free to ask it in the comments. I’m always on the look-out for new subjects for posts, and readers’ questions are far and away my best source.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch.

Which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean. Or calling you and demanding that you give a three-hour dissertation about your book on the spot. Not that these are unreasonable fears, by any means: given how intimidating the querying and pitching processes can be but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried or pitched.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive or curt. There’s a big difference. Dismissive and/or curt responses are not personal, usually; overt meanness is.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.)

At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

You can handle that, can’t you? I hope so, because any writer who is in it for the long haul just has to get used to the possibility of hearing no. Because hear it you almost certainly will, no matter how good your manuscript is.

Yes, you read that correctly, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.”

Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. (Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?) That’s just the way the game works these days.

Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query or pitch does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

Some of your hearts are still racing at the prospect anyway, aren’t they? “Okay, Anne,” a few of you murmur, clutching your chests and monitoring your vital signs, “I understand that it may take a few nos to get to yes. But if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? I’d like to be prepared for either the best or the worst.”

An excellent plan, oh ye of the racing heart rates. Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials as a result of it, it was. If not, it wasn’t.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. First-time pitchers and queriers often get carried away by a provisional yes, assuming that a request for materials means that they will be able to bypass the heart-pumping, nerve-wracking, ego-shredding, and time-consuming process of continuing to query and/or pitch.

And then, a week or a month or three months later, they’re shattered to receive a rejection letter. Or, still worse, they’re biting their nails six months later, waiting to hear back from that first agent who said yes. Shattered hope renders it harder than ever to climb back onto the querying horse.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: writers who walk into the querying and pitching process armed with a knowledge of how it works can avoid this awful fate through a simple, albeit energy-consuming, strategy. Send what that first agent asks to see, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

In other words, be pleased with a request for materials, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise to love it, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been unsuccessful?
If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is generally informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

Let’s get back to the happy stuff: what if I’m asked to send pages?
If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York (or wherever the agent of your dreams may happen to ply his trade). Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath — and realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — specifically, the day after tomorrow. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, do not say yes before you have done a little homework. In the US, reputable agencies do not charge reading fees — for a good list of what an agent may charge a client, check the Association of Authors’ Representatives website. It’s also an excellent idea to look up an agency that asks for money on Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question about the agency on Absolute Write; chances are, other aspiring writers will have had dealings with the agency. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. The fact is, anyone could slap up a website with the word AGENCY emblazoned across the top. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and apparently writer-friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers desperate to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or in the case of many scams, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct reading; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of its clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard, especially if your primary means of finding agents to query is trolling the internet.

What if a writer receives no response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last few years, an ever-increasing number of queries — and even submissions, amazingly — were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here?

I certainly hope so. There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned last time, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and many agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written.

The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it. Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again — again, extremely rare — a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for decades, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as last week), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though. People who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one. In an industry notorious for labeling even brilliant writers difficult for infractions as innocuous as wanting to talk through a requested major revision before making it, or defending one’s title if the marketing department wants another, or calling one’s agent once too often to see if a manuscript has been sent to an editor, writers new to the game frequently find themselves breaking the unwritten rules.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. Trying to get a rejection reversed is just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a victory here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it.

What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agents-in-training called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well. And even come to respect her, because, let’s face it, she has a hard job.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; most of the time, it’s just a matter of fit.

What is fit, you ask, and how can you tell if your book and an agent have it? Ah, that’s a subject for tomorrow’s post.

For today, let’s concentrate on the bigger picture. Finding an agent has changed a lot over the last ten or fifteen years; unfortunately, a great deal of the common wisdom about how and why books get picked up or rejected has not. The twin myths that a really good book will instantly find an agent and that any agent will recognize and snap up a really good book are just not true anymore, if indeed they ever were.

I’m not going to lie to you: finding an agent is work; it is often a lengthy process, even for the best of manuscripts. More than ever before, an aspiring writer needs not just talent, but persistence.

I know you have it in you. Keep up the good work!

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

tug-of-war-photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or even original.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

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

gutenberg press drawing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XIII: the fine art of getting what you want

seagull-prints

Yes, yes, I know: the photo du jour is a trifle on the wide side, but I love it. I must be feeling expansive today.

That was not, I gather, the prevailing mood at post offices across the country today as last-minute tax filers raced to get their income tax returns postmarked on time. (For those of you reading this outside the United States: here, federal income taxes are due April 15, the anniversary of the day President Abraham Lincoln was shot.) I’m a get-it-out-of-the-way-as-soon-as-possible sort, but apparently, many of my fellow citizens are not, judging from the lines around the block at my neighborhood post office.

While taxes are already on your mind, US-based writers, now is a great time to think about next year’s returns, and not only because you hope you’ll be shaking your head over the sometimes complicated paperwork associated with collecting royalties. While that Schedule C you’re using to itemize your writing and promotion expenses is fresh in your mind, why don’t you go ahead and organize your 2009 accounting system/homemade spreadsheet/shoebox that holds your retreats so that it will be easy throughout the year to come to keep your receipts from writers’ conferences neatly separate from your submission-related expenditures?

If you’re not already filing a Schedule C to formalize your writing as a business — a move that could, for instance, legitimize deducting things like postage for your queries and submissions, writers’ conference fees, and other expenses you may be incurring while trying to get your work published — you might want to consider having a nice, long chat with a tax professional well versed in preparing writers’ returns (rather than, say, talking with someone like me, who is neither a tax professional nor plays one on TV) about whether this option might make sense for you.

Why a tax pro who specializes in artists? Because someone unfamiliar with how genuinely strange our road to success can be may not be aware that a writer needn’t necessarily earn income from writing in order to file a Schedule C. But as a non-earning writer must meet a number of specific conditions before, say, writing off the cost of buying new releases in one’s chosen book category as market research or deducting the fees of a freelance editor, get the low-down from someone licensed to dispense advice on the subject before you file any paperwork with the IRS.

Where might you find such an expert? Try contacting your local writers’ association and asking for a recommendation. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a good one, you may have to get a trifle creative. Show up at a book sighing by a local author and ask for a recommendation at question time. Find out who your community theatre uses as a tax pro, or call a good art gallery; tax pros who deal with one kind of artist sometimes work with other types. For more suggestions, take a gander at Carolyn See’s excellent MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, for my money still one of the best how-to guides for aspiring writers out there.

What you should most assuredly NOT do is just grab a bunch of tax forms next April 14 and start filling in unsubstantiated amounts. Like any other deductions, it’s in your best interest to make sure that your writing expenses are exceedingly well-documented, both in your no doubt impeccable financial records and in the form of receipts, and unquestionably tending to advance your writing career. Proving that generally requires quite a bit of advance preparation.

Which is not, as I mentioned above, every taxpayer’s cup of tea. Writer, know thyself!

Why, just yesterday, 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 laughed. Judging from his reaction, 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.

Case in point: 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 and NF books 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.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point. “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.

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.

That’s right, campers: after yesterday’s post, which concluded that most aspiring writers give up before they’ve given their manuscripts a sufficient chance to succeed, I’m going to talk 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.

I know, I know: I’m addressing this topic out of chronological order. Can you blame me for wanting to end this sometimes depressing series on a high note?

As we saw 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.

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: as we have seen throughout this series, it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. 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, 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.

As we saw earlier in this series, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. The result is that 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.

When I pointed this out to my class, however, my students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “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 we all 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. 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 that 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 explained all of this to my class. By this point, my students were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. As much as I would have liked to reassure 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 process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF 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. (Yes, 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, while I move back to the point in your writing career when your answer could hardly be more important: the days immediately following your receiving an offer of representation from someone who may or may not be the agent of your dreams.

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? The best antidote to an uninformed decision 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?

And so forth. The AAR’s website an excellent list of preliminary questions new authors should ask agents, to get you started.

While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the 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.

It behooves you, then, 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, for instance? 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; as I mentioned yesterday, 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 their 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.

See why I have been so adamantly pushing the idea of querying several good agents simultaneously — and continuing to query and submit while any given agent is reading your manuscript? Ideally, I would like you to have the luxury of having these conversations with several agents before you decide who should represent you and your work.

I speak from experience here: I e-mail and talk with my agent very frequently, and not just because he and I are both charming conversationalists; when I have an idea for a new book project, he is my sounding board. The very idea of having that much unalloyed contact with an agent with whom I could not communicate well is laughable. Thank goodness I had listened to the excellent advice my more established writing friends had given me, and made absolutely certain that I was signing with an agent I LIKED.

Oh, and he professes to love my writing, too.

But our rather joking relationship certainly wouldn’t work for every writer and agent, any more than his rather sparse feedback style would be optimal for a writer looking for serious editorial feedback from her agent. Just as all of our manuscripts are different, so are each of our needs and desires for this peculiarly intimate relationship.

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. And, as always, keep up the good work!

bunny-rabbitPS: don’t forget to check in this weekend for the promised special treat!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XII: the changing face of self-publishing, or, not everything is up close as it appears to be from afar

sunshine-moving-in-trees

Believe it or not, this 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.

As you may see, 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 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.

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. 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, 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 or spent your formative years starring in movies, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find 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 handle your book category — is darned hard work.

And as I pointed out earlier in this series, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, 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.

(Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But if I don’t, who will?)

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 mostly 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 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 even — sacre bleu! — in the minutes before the book goes to print.

To put it even more bluntly: 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.

If I haven’t already hammered this particular point home in 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.

As you may imagine, some writers find this rather trying. 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.

In fact, as those of you who have gone wading through my archives lately are no doubt already aware, the majority of my blog posts have been either direct or indirect discussions of various nuances of this balancing act.

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. 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 traditional publishing, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

And with good reason: 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.

Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — 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.

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. The last time I checked, the average self-published book sells 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 challenges 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 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.)

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 sources (i.e., the one that review books before distributors get them, such as Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly) won’t do it.

In practice, this means 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 two guest bloggers, Mary Hutchings Reed and Janiece Hopper, have been kind enough to explain to members of the Author! Author! community.)

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.

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 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?)

And then there’s the conceptual barrier
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, or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves. It’s substantially more complicated than that.

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.

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? But ponder the process from the publishing industry’s point of view for a moment with an eye toward figuring out why they might consider it a 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 list at right), 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 here — 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 enough to 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.

I could feel many of your going pale as I mentioned actual numbers. I’m sorry to shock 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 it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States. 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. First, 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. Contrast 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?

The good news — and how to go about it
All that being said, 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. 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 — it’s his for the asking. 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.

As with any other aspect of publishing, however, 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.

As always, tread with care in pursuit of your dreams. 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 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.

Only one more post in this series, you’ll probably be delighted to hear! Keep up the good work!

chickenbPS: don’t forget to tune in on Friday for our end-of-the-week treat!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part X: wait, that’s not what I heard!

imshocked

This series on the basics of publishing has been quite a slog, hasn’t it? First, 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.

Given how complex, counter-intuitive, and let’s face it, contrary to the prevailing societal notions of how books get published so much of this has been, it’s no longer just a bit puzzling that folks in the publishing industry just expect aspiring writers to pick up the basics on their own, is it? I, for one, find it genuinely astonishing that anyone who has spent years getting familiar with the process would believe that those new to the biz know anything about it.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who have been 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.

As I’ve been going through the basics, 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 throughout this series or when getting the skinny from some ostensibly authoritative source like me. In a way, I applaud this reaction — 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’s a LOT of conflicting advice out there.

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. 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/or a particular genre, 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 odd with the rather tepid communications during the submission process, a drop in enthusiasm that sometimes extends even past acceptance of a manuscript. “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, you know how I’ve been yammering for the last couple of weeks about how much easier life is 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 season. 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 norm: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend.

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. 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, 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. 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. 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 genres 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. 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.

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

Yes, Virginia, that’s 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.)

Because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, rendering it very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears. 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 sounds contradictory to a writer. 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 translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. 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. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak; I suspect some of the translations may surprise you.

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. Don’t waste both of our time; 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 an author 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.)

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.

OR:

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?

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 summer 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.

OR:

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.

OR:

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.

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.)

OR:

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.

OR:

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

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.

OR:

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.

OR:

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.

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.)

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.)

OR:

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.

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If it 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.

OR:

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

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

OR:
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.

There are two sentiments, however, that always mean exactly what they say:

“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. 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.

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.

Okay, I really do mean it this time: that’s it for the agent-related part of this series. Next, on to small publishing houses and self-publishing.

Keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part IX: things change

As illustration: before:
a-windchime-in-the-snow

And after:
crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

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

Bear that in mind for the rest of this post, will you, please? This series has, after all, been all about perspective.

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. (Next time, I shall consider some alternate roads.) As we have seen, in order to pursue that path, a writer needs an agent.

Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction. So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming.

Should we writers rend our garments over this? Well, we could, and one can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not.

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

Personally, although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warranted it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Certainly, 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 their 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 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 thought, 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 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.

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

In other words: things change.

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

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

*when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s in a serious recession);

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

*which editors should see it and in what order;

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

*how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while;

*whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off);

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed the contract?

Take another gander at the list above, taking note of just how much the writer actually does under this arrangement: produces the manuscript or proposal, revises it according to the agent’s specifications, writes any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider taking a weekend now to go through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), makes any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…and all the while, you’re supposed to be working on your next book project.

Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions an editor interested in your book will ask — and don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking it about 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. 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.

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

Wait — so what does the agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Okay, let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time: let’s say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three. (And if that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.) What happens next?

Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies, like mine, will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission; other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out 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.) Some agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

I can feel some of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff, and in a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission: remember how I mentioned a few days ago 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.

In short, you may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that your book’s submission date has arrived: your agent has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail; the manuscript is thus expected. The agency then sends it out. As I mentioned above, submission strategies differ:

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

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the GBNYCBPH, congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the inherent slowness of the submission process.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once. Since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants.

If you’re now thinking that because there are so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order. The options honestly aren’t unlimited here.

(c) Some especially impatient agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship. If none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent will lose interest and want to move on to the writer’s next project.

Agents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence, tend to embrace this strategy; unfortunately for some writers, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling before. And if the book happens to sell quickly, this strategy can work out well for the client, but otherwise, the writer who signs on for this had better have quite a few other projects up her sleeve.

The problem is, agents who embrace this strategy are seldom very communicative about it with prospective clients. If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this; they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. Part of the reason to attend a writers’ conference is to benefit from other writers’ experience, right?

One of the things they are likely to tell you: short attention spans are a very good reason to ask an agent interested in representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. If that seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction. This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

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

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. 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, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again. Fourth — and this is the one most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list. It’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this fourth strategy not to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

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

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

Enough concentration on the worst-case scenario. On to happier topics!

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

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

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

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

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the offer tends not to change much; the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

With a multiple-submission strategy, events get a little more exciting 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 — the agent and the editor will hammer out the terms of the publication contract and produce what is known as a deal memo that lays out the general terms. Among the information the deal memo will specify: the amount of the advance, the date the editor expects delivery of the manuscript (which, for a nonfiction book, can be a year or two after the contract is signed), an approximate word count, the month of intended release, and any other business-related details.

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

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

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world. I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quire a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do. Frankly, I think those are topics for another day, if not another series.

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 — 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.

As always, keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part VII: why a talented writer should not see rejection as the end of the line

seaside-rocks

Did you miss me yesterday? I assure you, I had the best of all possible reasons for not posting. Like pretty much every entertainment source released on a daily or near-daily basis, I had planned on running an April Fool’s day-themed post yesterday, complete with a shaggy dog story that would ultimately turn out not to be true. But when I was a good eight paragraphs into writing it, I thought, “Wait a minute — my readers are intelligent people, and intelligent people over the age of 10 expect things they hear and/or read on April 1 not to be true. Is there a reason, therefore, to waste their time — or any more of mine?”

The answer, as it turned out, was a resounding no.

I’m perpetually astonished at the things that are supposed to flabbergast otherwise reasonable adults. That characters on television shows who have been flirting for seven consecutive seasons suddenly end up romantically entangled during episodes aired during sweeps week, for instance: um, who precisely is not going to have seen that coming? Or that any major political initiative is greeted by anything but the unanimous approval of any given legislative body: as nearly as I can tell from the news every night, we’re all supposed to be floored by the fact that politicians disagree with one another from time to time, even when those splits run along precisely the party lines that characterized the last 17 major disagreements. Or that anyone’s cockles wouldn’t be warmed by the magic of Christmas.

Frankly, I like to think that people are a trifle less credulous than that — and more inclined to learn from experience. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think too much of people who are not wiser today than they were yesterday.

Which is one aspect of how the publishing industry treats writers that I really like: it assumes not only that anyone who can write well enough to deserve to be published is an intelligent human being, but also that a good writer can and will learn the ropes of the business side of publishing. In this era where even news shows operate on the assumption that the average adult has the attention span of a three-year-old — and one who has been stuffing candy into his eager mouth for the last two hours at that — I find agents’ and editors’ presumption of authorial intelligence rather refreshing.

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers see only the negative fallout of this industry-wide assumption; since the pros expect writers to do their own research before trying to get their books published, those brand-new to the biz are often stunned that nobody in the industry just tells them what to do. From a first-time querier’s perspective, it can seem downright counterproductive that agents just expect her to know what a query letter should look like, what information it should contain, and that it shouldn’t just read like a back jacket blurb for the book.

Heck, how is someone who has never met an agented author in person to know not just to pick up the phone and call the agent in question? Magic? Osmosis?

Similarly, agents, editors, and contest judges presume that anyone genuinely serious about her writing will have learned how professional writers format their manuscripts — an interesting presumption, given that many, if not most, aspiring writers are not aware that professional manuscripts are not supposed to resemble published books. (To those of you who just gasped: don’t worry; I shall be going over the differences again quite soon.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not information that the average writer is born knowing — which is a real shame, since professionally-formatted manuscripts tend to be taken far more seriously at submission time than those that are not.

Why? Because people who read manuscripts for a living tend to assume that since good writers are intelligent people, the only reason that a manuscript would not be formatted properly is that the submitter did not bother to do his homework.

In other words, from their perspective, a query or submission that does not conform to their expectations of what is publishable (in terms of writing) or marketable (in terms of content or authorial authority) is a sign that the writer just isn’t ready yet to play in the big leagues. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer will never produce professional-level work; indeed, folks in the industry tend to assume (and even say at conferences) that they’re confident that if a truly talented writer gets rejected, she will take it as a sign that she needs to improve her presentation. Since the information on how to do that is available — although nowhere near as readily or conveniently as most agents who say this sort of thing seem to think — why wouldn’t someone with a genuine gift invest the time and effort in learning to do it right?

In my experience as a freelance editor and conference presenter, there’s a very straightforward answer to that: because the average querier or submitter, gifted or otherwise, doesn’t have a clear idea of what he’s doing wrong. And since most rejection letters these days contain absolutely no clue as to what caused the agent (or, more commonly, the agent’s screener) to shove the submission back into the SASE — heck, some agencies no longer respond at all if the answer is no — I don’t find it all that surprising that the aspiring writer’s learning curve isn’t always particularly steep.

All of this is why I am bringing up the expectation of intelligent research toward the end of this series on how writers bring their books to publication. Indeed, it’s a large part of the reason that I write this blog: from an outside perspective, it’s just too easy to interpret the sometimes esoteric and confusing rules of querying, pitching, and submission as essentially hostile to aspiring writers.

That’s not really the case. While many of the querying and submission restrictions have indeed been established, as we have discussed, in order to narrow the field of candidates for the very, very few new client slots available at most agencies, the intent behind that weeding-down effort is not to discourage talented-but-inexperienced writers from trying to get their work published. The underlying belief is that an intelligent person’s response to rejection will not be to give up, but to analyze what went wrong, do some research about what can go right, and try, try again.

Yes, what you just thought is correct: the fine folks who toil in agencies and publishing houses don’t expect the writers they reject to disappear permanently, at least not the ones with genuine talent; they believe that the gifted ones will return, this time better equipped for life as a professional writer.

To cite the old publishing industry truism, good writing will always find a home. What the agents and editors who spout this aphorism seldom think to add is: but not necessarily right away. Like learning any other set of job skills, becoming a professional writer can take some time.

Which means, from the business side of the industry’s perspective, writers who give up after just a few rejections — which is the norm, incidentally, not the exception — are those who aren’t seriously interested in making the rather broad leap between a talented person who likes to write and a professional writer in it for the long haul. Trust me, they don’t waste too many tears over the loss of the former.

I don’t see it that way, personally: I see the crushed dreams. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most talented aspiring writers take individual rejections from agents far, far too seriously.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, I didn’t move on to my promised topic du jour, what happens after an agent agrees to represent a manuscript. There will be time enough for that happy contingency tomorrow. Today, I want to concentrate on the importance of keeping faith with your own work.

These days, it seems as though every other aspiring writer I meet has either:

(a) had sent out a single query, got rejected, and never tried again,

(b) had a few queries rejected two years ago, and has been feverishly revising the manuscript ever since, despite the fact that no agent had yet seen it,

(c) had pitched successfully at a conference, but convinced herself that the only reason four agents asked to see her first chapter was because those agents were just saying yes to everybody,

(d) had received a positive response to a query or pitch, then talked himself out of sending the requested materials at all, because his work isn’t good enough,

(e) had sent out the requested pages, but in order to save herself from disappointment, decided in advance that none of the replies will be positive,

(f) had received the first manuscript rejection — and expanded it mentally into a resounding NO! from everyone in the industry, and/or

(g) concluded from conference chatter that no one in the industry is interested in any book that isn’t an obvious bestseller.

In short, each of these writers had decided that his or her fears about what happened were true, rather than doing the research to find out whether the response that fear and hurt dictated was in fact the most reasonable one. Let me address each of these quickly here, to save time:

(a) a single query is not — and cannot — be indicative of how every agent on earth will respond.
A better response: why not try again?

(b) until agents have actually seen the manuscript, there’s no way a writer can know how they will respond to it.
A better response: work on improving the query.

(c) no, the agents and editors WEREN’T asking everyone to send chapters — pitching doesn’t work that way.
A better response: assume that you did something right and send out the requested materials.

(d) how do you know for sure until you send it out?
A better response: learn how to present your work professionally, then submit it.

(e) in my experience, foretelling doom does not soften future misfortune, if it comes — it only serves to stultify present hope.
A better response: hedge your bets by continuing to query other agents while waiting to hear back from the first round.

(f) ANY agent or editor’s opinion of a book is just that, an opinion.
A better response: see (a)

(g) the publishing industry makes MOST of its money on books that are neither bestsellers nor small-run books. Most of the time, the mid-list titles are paying the agency’s mortgage.
A better response: take the time to learn how the industry works, rather than killing your chances entirely by not continuing to try.

None of this is to say that bouncing back from rejection is easy, or that landing an agent is a snap. The road from first idea to publication is long and bumpy, and seems to get bumpier all the time.

As Maya Angelou tells us, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

Yes, it’s emotionally hard work to prep your pages to head out the door to agents and editors; yes, it is hard to wait for replies to your submissions. To give you a foretaste of what’s down the road, it’s also psychically difficult to watch the weeks tick by between when you sign with an agent and when that sterling soul decides that, in her professional opinion, the time is ripe for her to submit your book to editors. And then it’s rough to wait until those editors get around to reading it, just as it is agonizing to hang around, feigning patience, between the time a publisher acquires your book and it appears on the shelves.

I’m not going to lie to you: it’s all incredibly wearing on the nerves.

That being said, if you are thinking about throwing in the towel on your book before you have given the querying and submission processes a thorough test, I’m just not the right person to look to for validation of that decision. Sorry. I’ll give you practical advice on how to query; I’ll hand you tips on how to improve your submission’s chances; I’ll share pointers on the fine art of revision; I’ll answer your questions along the way. I will cheer from the sidelines until I’m blue in the face for your efforts as a writer.

As long as you keep trying.

One of the few industry truisms that is actually true 100% of the time: the only book that has ABSOLUTELY no chance of being published is the one that stays hidden in the bottom drawer of the author’s filing cabinet.

Keep pushing forward; keep sending your work out. Because while it’s time-consuming, expensive, and emotionally wearing, it’s also literally the only way that your book — or any book — comes to publication.

Long-time readers of this blog will groan with recognition, but once again, I feel compelled to remind you that five of the best-selling books of the 20th century were rejected by more than a dozen publishers before they were picked up — and that was back in the days when it was considerably easier to get published. Everybody count down with me now:

Dr. Seuss, AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET (rejected by 23 publishers)

Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)

Thor Heyerdahl, KON-TIKI (20)

Richard Bach, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (18)

Patrick Dennis, AUNTIE MAME (17)

The lesson to derive here: keep moving forward. Please, please, PLEASE don’t dismiss your book too soon, on the basis of some preconceived notion of what will and will not sell — even if that preconceived notion fell from the ostensibly learned lips of the agent of your dreams.

Concentrate on what you CAN control, not what you can’t. In order to do that effectively, you’re going to need to learn about how the process actually works. The good news is that the writer does have practically absolute control over the technical and cosmetic aspects of the submission.

Yes, I know — for most of us, getting our thoughts, stories, and worldviews out there is the primary goal of writing a book, so concentrating on the details seems comparatively boring. Most of us want to move directly to unfettered self-expression — and then are surprised and frustrated when the resulting book has difficulty finding an agent, getting published, or winning contests.

But this is a bad idea, both professionally and emotionally. Concentrating almost exclusively on the self-expressive capacity of the book, we tend to read rejection as personal, rather than as what it is: an industry insider’s professional assessment of whether she can sell your work within her preexisting sales network. Ask anyone in the biz, and he will tell you: 99% of rejections are technically-based; the rejection usually isn’t of the submitter’s style or worldview, for the simple reason that those are not considerations unless the basic signs of good writing — in the sense of professional writing — are in the submission.

This can be a very empowering realization. As can coming to terms with the fact that while people may be born with writing talent, the ability to present writing professionally is a learned skill.

Once a writer grasps the difference between technically good writing and stylistic good writing and the distinction between a well-written manuscript and a professionally-formatted one, rejections become less a personal insult than a signal that there may be technical problems with how she is presenting her writing. The question turns from, “Why do they hate me?” to “What can I do to make this submission/query read better?”

Yes, yes, I know: emotionally speaking, it’s not much of an improvement, at least in the short term. But at least when the question is framed in the latter manner, there is something the writer can DO about it. I’m a big fan of tackling the doable first, and getting to the impossible later.

Without a doubt, absolutely the best thing you can do to increase your chances is to make sure that your submission is crystal-clear and professionally formatted before you send it out. Out comes the broken record again: pass it under other eyes, preferably those of other writers, people who both know basic good writing when they see it AND have some idea how to fix it.

Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: as marvelous as your kith and kin may be as human beings, they are unlikely to give you unbiased feedback — and only unbiased, knowledgeable feedback is going to help hoist your work up over the professional bar.

What else can you control, even a little? Well, you can avoid sending your query or submission during the traditional industry dead times (between the second week of August and Labor Day; between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day), or predictable periods of heavy submission (immediately after New Year’s, right after school gets out for the summer). You don’t want to have your work end up in the “read when we get around to it” pile.

So for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to take a great big marker and write REQUESTED MATERIALS on the outside of your envelope, so your marvelous submission doesn’t get tossed into the unsolicited manuscript pile for a few months. It’s a good idea, too, to mention that these are requested materials in your HUGELY POLITE cover letter that you enclose with the manuscript: “Thank you for asking to see the first three chapters of my novel…”

While I’m being governessy, I might as well add: always, always include a SASE — a stamped, self-addressed envelope – with enough postage (stamps, not metered) for your manuscript’s safe return, and MENTION the SASE in your cover letter. This marks you as a courteous writer who will be easy to work with and a joy to help. If you want to move your reputation up into the “peachy” range, include a business-size SASE as well, to render it a snap to ask you to see the rest of the manuscript. Make it as easy as possible for them to get ahold of you to tell you that they love your book.

And no, green-minded aspiring writers: asking them to recycle your submission if they do not like it is no substitute for an appropriately-sized SASE. Sorry. In the first place — hold on to your hats here, because this is a genuine shocker by local standards — most of the offices in the industry do not even have recycling bins. (I know; it’s appalling, when you think about how much paper they see in a day.) And in the second place, they’ll just think you’re being rude. Sorry again.

One last thing, another golden oldie from my broken-record collection: do not overnight your manuscript; priority mail, or even regular mail, is fine. This is true, even if the agent who has your first chapter calls or e-mails you and asks for the rest of the manuscript immediately. It’s neither appropriate nor necessary to waste your precious resources on overnight shipping. Trust me on this one: you may be the next John Grisham, but honey, it is unlikely that the agent’s office is holding its collective breath, doing nothing until it receives your manuscript. Hurrying on your end will not speed their reaction time.

Another way to keep your momentum going while you wait: since turn-around times tend to be long (a safe bet is to double what the agent tells you; call or e-mail after that, for they may have genuinely lost your manuscript), do not stop sending out queries just because you have an agent looking at your chapters or your book proposal. If an agent turns you down — perish the thought! — you will be much, much happier if you have other options already in motion.

The only circumstance under which you should NOT continue querying is if the agent has asked for an exclusive look at your manuscript — which, incidentally, you are under no obligation to grant. However, politeness generally dictates agreement. If you do agree to an exclusive (here comes another golden oldie), specify for how long. Three weeks is ample. Then, if the agent does not get back to you within the stated time, you will be well within your rights to keep searching while she tries to free enough time from her kids, her spouse, her Rottweiler, etc. to read your submission.

Don’t let the hobgoblins of self-doubt carry you off, my friends. Have faith in your writing — and work hard to learn as much as you can to maximize your book’s chances of success.

Next time, I honestly will talk about what happens if an agent decides to take on a manuscript. Keep the faith, everybody — and keep up the good work!