There’s more to writing a memoir than sitting down and telling the truth?

Surprised not to see a post on formatting occupying this space, campers? You should be: for the past seven years, I have embraced the decline of the old year and the advent of the new as an opportunity to provide the members of the Author! Author! community with a solid explanation of something that new writers are simply expected to know how to do before they even consider approaching an agent. For some reason that defies human understanding, formatting a book manuscript or proposal as the pros do is implicitly regarded as piece of practical know-how the Literature Fairy bestows on talented writers at birth.

Perhaps my decades of experience as a writer and editor have skewed my sample, but in my experience, approximately no one is born with that knowledge. Innate literary talent has nothing to do with the learned skill of presenting one’s writing professionally, any more than having a naturally good ear for dialogue correlates with the ability to place a comma in the right place or wield a semicolon correctly.

Contrary to popular belief, quite a lot goes into writing a book other than inspiration, patience, and the willingness to sit in one place, typing your little heart out, for a year or two. So don’t panic, rookies: I shall be reviving my annual explanatory tradition next week.

For the next few days, though, I’d like to talk with those of you writing about reality — as memoir, as narrative nonfiction, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel. It’s some of the most difficult writing to do well, yet strangely, we writers tend to discuss walking the truth tightrope far less amongst ourselves than the more fanciful aspects of craft.

Why? Well, fact-based fiction is considerably in less popular than it used to be, for one thing. While 30 or 40 years ago, someone who burned to write would have tended to churn out a slice-of-life piece the first time out — and, in all likelihood, seen it treated as a more serious literary production than a nonfiction piece covering precisely the same subject matter — new writers in recent years have been turning in greater numbers to genre fiction. It’s not that Millicent the agency screener no longer sees the vividly-rendered descriptions of living room slipcovers, meaningful glances, and tense non-verbal exchanges over WASPy Thanksgiving dinners of yesteryear cross her desk; it’s that realism in fiction has very largely been supplanted by fast-paced street fighting, a little light bondage, and sparkling vampires who, in defiance of tradition, wander about freely in daylight.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: publishing has always been a trend-oriented business. The explosion of YA, paranormal, and fantasy in recent years has brought incredible richness to all of those categories, partially through definitional expansion — YA in particular now regularly takes up subject matter that would have made even the most hardened high school librarian blush in the 1970s — and partially, let’s face it, through good writers rushing toward those readerships. Since the economic downturn began, even quite well-established mainstream and adult fiction authors have found themselves gravitating toward these categories — and if they haven’t of their own accords, their agents may well have suggested it. Trends, you see.

Memoir, too, has seen quite a sea change in recent years — and that has generated some immensely positive effects for memoir aficionados and writers alike. My personal favorite: like genre fiction, good memoir writing has very largely lost the stigma it once carried.

Does that sharp collective intake of breath indicate that those of you new to the joys and challenges of memoir were not aware that for many years, it was not considered high literary writing? While there have always been wonderfully-written memoirs, it used to be routine for fiction-lovers to sniff at them as literary efforts — and not only in private. It was an accepted species of snobbery. Blame Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Parker, and their ilk: for a good century or more, even the most beautifully-composed first-hand nonfiction account was generally dismissed in literary circles as a less serious endeavor — or at least one that deserved to be taken less seriously — than garden-variety slice-of-life fiction. Even, interestingly enough, if they covered essentially the same subject matter at a similar level of characterization.

Oh, you may laugh, but writers of promise (what ever happened to that lovely phrase?) were often actively discouraged from writing nonfiction accounts. “That’s journalism,” the literati would say. “You would have to approach your subject matter with absolute objectivity. If you wrote it as fiction, you could be as subjective as you liked! Not to mention using nicer language.”

Today, however, if a novelist snorts derisively at the very notion of telling some aspect of his life story in nonfiction form — or, to put it a bit more bluntly, by being up front about his being a character in his own book — readers and interviewers alike tend to respond in much the same way they would if he said that genre fiction contains no legitimate character development. They’d just assume that he doesn’t read very widely.

Because, let’s face it, there is great writing in every book category. Being a well-read person no longer means reading only certain types of books; the average reader’s tastes are now recognized as being fairly eclectic.

And hallelujah for that, I say. Pretending that consumers of literary fiction never cracked a graphic novel or fantasy was a strain on everybody, was it not? Although watching a literary snob swiftly shove the paperback he was avidly reading into a copy of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT did constitute one of the great amusements of modern life, it’s one that I readily gave up in the service of an expansion of what counts as good writing.

The rehabilitation of the memoir also owes a debt to the narrative nonfiction revolution. Largely the brainchild of novelists, narrative nonfiction brought fiction techniques to real-world subject matter, presenting actual events accurately (ideally, verifiably so) while casting the storyline as a novel would, with a distinct narrative arc, intensive character development, and fleshed-out scenes. Like literary fiction, narrative nonfiction’s language not only conveys the facts; it evokes a mood. And, unlike objective journalism, narrative nonfiction voice often contains a distinct authorial point of view.

Admittedly, as is so often the case in the literary world, definitions of narrative (also known as creative or literary) nonfiction vary. There is a certain amount of debate, for instance, about how much factual research must go into narrative nonfiction: need it be sourced as exhaustively as a journalistic treatment of the same story? If the writer was not physically present for certain scenes, how much can she legitimately make up? How extensively can she embellish a scene? If the storyline includes dull or dramatically unsatisfying sections, may they ethically be glossed over?

A question that does not crop up much in the publishing world, however, but one often hears aspiring writers of the real asking at literary conferences: should a first-person narrative dealing primarily with events in the author’s own life should be categorized as narrative nonfiction or memoir? The confusion is understandable, of course — while a cookbook containing travelogue or extensive personal stories is fairly obviously a cookbook (the recipes are a dead giveaway), where the precise line falls between a personal essay (a distinct sub-category of narrative nonfiction) and memoir can be less clear-cut.

So why don’t the pros get thrown by the question? While a narrative nonfiction book and a memoir might well share a distinct story arc, a strong authorial voice and point of view, and pretty writing, narrative nonfiction tends to be more concept-oriented than memoir. While a personal essay might bring in scenes, events, and characters from the author’s life to speak to an overall philosophical, analytical, or even political point, a memoir would concentrate primarily upon telling the story.

Still confused, writers of the real? Let me put it another way: while the writer can be a character in both memoir and narrative nonfiction, a memoir is first and foremost that character’s tale. A narrative nonfiction treatment of the same set of events might well include the author’s activities, but it’s often as an observer of larger events. Think MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL or IN COLD BLOOD, or, better still, if you happen to be a Capote fan, HANDCARVED COFFINS: while the reader does learn quite a bit about the writer over the course of those narratives, the narrator is an observer of a larger play.

In a good memoir, however, the reader gets not only to see through the narrator’s eyes, but live through her flesh — not only for individual scenes tucked within a mostly descriptive narrative, but throughout the entire storyline. Indeed, a memoir can hardly be said to be successful on a writing level if the reader isn’t drawn into the action sufficiently to feel and think along with the protagonist.

Some eyebrows just hit some hairlines, I’m guessing. “But Anne,” sputter flabbergasted memoirists the English-speaking world over, “I hadn’t been thinking of myself as the protagonist of my story, as if I were writing a novel. I’m the narrator in a nonfiction book — naturally, I’m bound by the truth, but I’m telling the reader what happened, the way I would recount my adventures to a friend. Or to someone I met at a party. Or, ideally, to the agent of my dreams, shortly after she claps eyes on my query letter.”

That may well be your intent, memoirists, but to an editorial eye, those three audiences would call for three completely different levels of narrative intimacy. You would almost certainly include more personal details in regaling your friend with your adventures, would you not, than a total stranger at some dubious social gathering? And wouldn’t you be more inclined to make yourself look good as a character if you were trying to impress the hearer?

I get what you’re saying, though: aiming for a chatty, anecdotal-style voice is a fairly common memoir tactic. Common enough, unfortunately, that it can be a problematic narrative choice at submission time. I’ve said it before and shall no doubt say it again: just as real-life dialogue is often stultifying if transcribed directly to the printed page, the storytelling norms of everyday speech tend to be rather boring to read.

For starters, spoken sentence structure and word choice typically fall far below the standards of good memoir writing. Everyday speech also leans pretty heavily on stock phrases. New writers often don’t think about this, but using the same words, phrases, and kinds of sentences over and over again, as most of us routinely do when chatting with our friends, is rather tiring for the reader. Take, for instance, how I might legitimately describe something that happened to me recently should you be unfortunate enough to allow me to buttonholed you at a cocktail party whilst I was still miffed:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading: THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Not precisely Dickens, is it? Or perhaps it is, if we consider the notoriously word-repetitious opening sentence of A TALE OF TWO CITIES:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted upon its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Funny, certainly, but equally certainly stuffed with sweeping generalizations and eye-distracting word, phrase, and structural repetition. Not to mention being one lulu of a run-on sentence. Poor old Charles would have a heck of a time getting this opening past Millicent today — and not only because anything that read remotely like this would now be immediately dismissed as derivative of Dickens. That’s the trouble with those much-vaunted experiments in which disgruntled writers submit the opening pages of something like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to agencies in an attempt to prove that good, solid writing no longer stands a chance, by the way: any Millicent who has been at it a while would recognize, if not the first few lines of P&P itself, then at least a manuscript attempting to copy Austen’s well-known satirical voice.

What was fresh in 1813 can hardly be called the cutting edge of literary style today. Had I mentioned that this has always been a trend-driven business?

My point, should we all care to veer back to it, is that while some stalwart soul with magnificent lungs might conceivably be able to utter Dickens’ epic opening sentence within a single breath to a crowd of hearers who would not necessarily wince at all of that textual repetition, it would be significantly harder for a reader to plow through a similar speech on the page. (As perhaps you recall from sophomore English class.) People in publishing would find it even more difficult: because most adult readers become bored and/or distracted by repetitious prose — if you don’t believe that, consider how annoying it’s been that I’ve kept using various forms of repetition throughout the last few paragraphs — agents and editors develop a sharp eye for it.

So, as it happens, do experienced Millicents. Now that Uncle Charles has been kind enough to irritate you into noticing repetition (there’s that darned word again!), let’s take a peek at how our favorite screener would read our earlier example of ordinary-voiced memoir writing:

I’m starting to think my UPS man can’t read. Since getting to my front door from my studio means climbing down a couple of flights of stairs, I put a great big sign over my doorbell reading: PLEASE LEAVE PACKAGES ON RIGHT SIDE PORCH. Every time I have a package delivered, I put it in the address line. My side door has a sign reading : THANK YOU FOR DELIVERING PACKAGES HERE. Yet on each of the last three business days before Christmas, there he was, standing at my front door, ringing the doorbell over and over again, whistling, expecting me to climb down all of those stairs to give him a signature. No amount of shouting down from second-floor windows can make him budge.

Awfully hard to follow what’s going on in the face of all of that visual noise, isn’t it? And that’s not even factoring in how high the generalization to detail ratio is here: as is so often the case with verbal storytelling, this paragraph is a festival of telling, not showing. That’s entirely appropriate for interpersonal communication, but not necessarily the best tactic for sharing a real-world story in print.

Why? Well, verbal anecdotes tend to be light on specifics, relying on swiftness of telling and sudden reversals to maintain momentum. As a result, they often don’t work well when translated directly to the page, which cries out for detail and fully fleshed-out interactions.

That often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time memoirists — especially if they happen to be funny people. They expect, and with good reason, that the same story told in the same words will evoke the same reaction in any context. Yet as Millicent knows to her sorrow, many an anecdote that’s been slaying ‘em at parties for decades falls completely flat on the printed page.

A spoken anecdote’s success with hearers is frequently dependent upon the teller’s storytelling skills — a different set of skills than a writer wields, and requiring a significantly different sense of timing. That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, a reader with a personal relationship with a writer of memoir (or personal essay, for that matter) will often have a significantly more positive response to reading that memoir or essay than a stranger would. The writer’s kith and/or kin will be mentally hearing the prose on the page in the writer’s spoken voice.

That’s impossible, obviously, for readers who don’t already know the author — a group which for your garden-variety aspiring writer includes Millicent, the agent of his dreams, his future acquiring editor, and, if we’re being honest, virtually everybody who will ever buy his book. I wish more aspiring memoirists thought about that; I can’t even begin to count how often I’ve seen great personal stories not be able to fly as memoir, simply because the narratives relied upon the reader to imagine tone and delivery style that just didn’t show up on the page.

Celebrity memoirs, particularly those written by comedians, are notoriously susceptible to this pitfall: if the reader can imagine the text read in the celebrity’s voice, it’s funny, but otherwise, the prose just sits on the page, unremarkable, crying out for a dramatic reading. These literary efforts represent, I think, a fundamental pessimism about the possibilities of readership. Presumably, the celebrity, the acquiring editor, and any ghost who might happen to have contributed some text to the festivities (allegedly) all believe in their heart of hearts that absolutely no one who has not heard the author’s speaking voice often enough to be able to produce a spontaneous and reasonably accurate impression would ever consider picking up his book. Were I a celebrity with something to say, I might find that a trifle depressing.

While stand-up comics and their ilk can indeed sell books that suffer under this presumption, it’s not the best strategic move for writers trying to make a name for themselves. Millicent does not use a smile for her umbrella, typically; she’s seen too many attempts at humor die a miserable death on the submission page. Unless you are absolutely positive that something is funny — and would be funny to a complete stranger who had never heard you utter a syllable out loud — you might want to consider punching it up. If you’re not sure, track down some objective feedback.

And don’t try to wiggle out of it by saying that your witticisms left your kith and kin rolling in the aisles. “But my mother thought it was hilarious!” has literally never convinced an agent or editor — or anyone else, for that matter — that an anecdote was funny if it didn’t elicit a chuckle on a first read. If there’s any rule to which those who work with writers cling tenaciously, it’s that the person who gave a writer birth — or shares his bed, or has been her best friend since the second grade — is not the ideal first reader for a memoirist. They’re simply too likely to read something into the text that isn’t actually on the page.

That’s true to a lesser extent of any form of writing, of course, but for memoir, the response of someone who knows the writer is likely to deviate even more wildly from the average reader’s. Even if your chum/relative/guy unwise enough to say, “Oh, you write? I’d love to read something of yours sometime,” isn’t actually a character in your memoir, s/he will already have formed opinions about you as a person, right? That relieves the narrative of the burden of character development for you, at least for that particular reader. Ongoing relationships also, more often than not, cause too-close first readers to peruse the text with a too-indulgent eye — or a too-critical one.

And although your kith and kin are no doubt delightful people, charming to know in any other context, when they are reading your memoir, they will probably also fill in necessary logic, should your narrative have happened to omit it. Indeed, many first-time memoirists so firmly picture their kith and kin’s past reactions to their verbal anecdotes that they elect to leave out connective logic, description, and character development requisite for an impartial reader to follow what’s happening.

Much to Millicent’s chagrin, many of these well-meaning writers — who, after all, are quite sensibly, they think, relying upon their past storytelling experience in constructing their memoir voices — will believe that telling their tales in a conversational manner will be an asset to the story. You wouldn’t believe how many memoir submissions open something like this, as if the narrator were addressing a close friend:

You’re not going to believe this, but that crazy UPS man appeared on my doorstep again. You know, the one who believes that the only physical space in the universe where it’s possible for a human being to sign for a package is the front doorstep?

I could go on, but why? There’s nothing wrong with the phrasing here, but already, the anecdote is predicated on the assumption that the reader will be willing to accept this rushed, limited back-story as a legitimate means of setting up what’s about to happen. Instead of showing us precisely how and why the guy’s nutty — or giving us enough insight into the narrator’s character to be able to discern whether we should take her word for this casual diagnosis — the text just expects us to try to picture what’s already happened before the story began, even though we don’t have access to enough information to be able to guess.

But that’s not the usual narrative presumption in a verbal anecdote, is it? We seldom assume that total strangers will already know what’s been going on in our lives, but fortunately for speed in storytelling, we’re often in the comparatively easy narrative position of relating our anecdotes to people who have already heard about our earlier interactions with the same characters. In this case, if I were actually telling this story to a friend (let’s call her Antoinette) I would have already regaled with my earlier interactions with the UPS man (which were positively hair-raising, incidentally). She also might have seen first-hand that since I’ve been walking with a cane since a car crash, hobbling down a flight of stairs, much less two, might be a trifle dangerous.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that any of the three times I shared this anecdote as memoir text? Changes your mental image of what’s going on, doesn’t it? An objective first reader might have caught that, but Antoinette probably wouldn’t.

That expectation of familiarity frequently haunts the anecdote-teller committing her tales to the page: the verbal anecdotalist can legitimately construct a tale under the assumption that the hearer will remember past accounts. Had Antoinette chatted with me on any day since midsummer, she might well have stood, glassy-eyed, while I treated her to a vivid account of how this sterling deliveryman raised my hair, as well as my hackles.

In essence, I am expecting Antoinette to follow a serial already in progress; woe to her if she had not paid attention to the earlier installments. She might have, but I can tell you now that Millicent hasn’t.

Yet you’d be astonished at how many memoir submissions toss poor Millie into the middle of an ongoing series of anecdotes. Perhaps not as obviously as Antoinette was, but honestly, would a screener not need to have pre-knowledge of the writer’s life to be able to make sense of a first paragraph like this?

I walked into my usual bar, ordered my usual drink, smiled at the lady who’s always sitting on that stool where the bar bends. So far, a completely ordinary day.

“I have no doubt of that,” Millicent sighs, “but since neither the reader nor I have any idea what your ordinary days are like, you’re leaving us in the dark here, narratively speaking. I suppose I could make the effort of conjuring up what the bar looked like, smelled like, and felt like underfoot, but that’s not the reader’s job, is it? Nor does my job description compel me to guess what you like to drink, the lady’s back-story, or even what time it is when you walked into the bar, so I can form no opinion about whether I should draw any conclusion whatsoever from your day’s including this activity. Next!”

Why, yes, that’s quite a bit of reaction to only two sentences of text, now that you mention it. But tell me truthfully: if you were Millicent, would you keep reading?

Yes, yes, I know: that’s an extremely difficult question for a memoirist to answer, and probably one that calls up an emotional response. Not only does it require an objective assessment of how the story’s being told here — an objective assessment which, by definition, no memoirist can possibly derive from her kith and kin, who will automatically bring their knowledge of you to the text — but it implies a critique of the events described, too, doesn’t it?

“How dare you?” the memoirist shouts. “Are you calling my story too boring to maintain anyone’s interest? Or are you saying that it’s badly written?”

Neither, necessarily. From Millicent’s perspective — which, lest we forget, will be shared by her boss, an acquiring editor, and the future readers of your book — the question of whether to read on past this paragraph has nothing to do with what’s actually going on in the scene. So far, all that’s happened is that the narrator has walked into a bar and ordered a drink: not a lot to judge there. The narrative style is plain, but perhaps that’s appropriate for the book’s subject matter and target audience.

“Wait a sec,” our beleaguered memoirist interrupts. “Target audience? What does that even mean for a memoir?”

Glad you asked. Most first-time memoirists don’t give any thought at all to who will want to read their books, much less who will be willing to shell out cash to read them. Or, if they do ponder it, the audience they have in mind consists largely of, you guessed it, the array of kith and kin who have already heard at least some of the memoir’s storyline in anecdotal form.

Now, I’m not saying that your Aunt Sadie, your best friend from work, and your significant other won’t be delighted enough to see you in print at last to rush out and buy your book. They probably will — especially if you’re clever enough to explain to them now that published authors get very few free copies; any you distribute to your loved ones gratis will not count toward your sales totals, and you may actually have to purchase them yourself. The sooner the fine folks who love you come to accept that the best way to support an author one happens to know personally is to buy their work, the happier you will be as a working writer.

But as your literary cheerleader and friend in the biz, is it wrong of me to hope that the people who already know you will not make up the entirety of the readership for your memoir? You want complete strangers to be enchanted with your prose, right? Presumably, if you didn’t want to reach readers outside your doubtless warm intimate circle, you would not be going to the effort and taking the considerable emotional risk of sending your work out to agents.

Especially because that risk is quite a bit higher when it’s your own story told as nonfiction, isn’t it, memoirists? I’m inclined to think, then, that you’re pretty committed to reaching some sympathetic strangers.

I applaud your bravery, but that means, in practice, that objective readers’ opinions of your memoir matter. Inevitably, like any book, your memoir will appeal to some readers and not others.

And before you get your mouth fully open to retort, let me stop you from asserting that anyone interested in good writing will like your book because it is a good story well written. I can tell you now that your future agent and editor will be amused, not convinced, by that argument.

Why? Well, from a publishing perspective, there is no such thing as a universally-appealing piece of writing. Some readers are drawn to one type of story, others another. That’s just a fact of pushing books. Even if you happen to have produced a memoir that both taps into an under-mined literary niche and catches the public imagination at just the right time (like, say, ANGELA’S ASHES), your future agent and editor will not think of it as just good writing about your life.

How will they think of it? As a memoir about a specific place and time, told in a specific voice — and as a book that will need to be sold to readers already in the habit of reading similar books.

“Similar books!” memoirists everywhere shout, insulted. “But my story’s unique! So is my narrative voice. How could any reader possibly form a sense of whether he will like it without reading it?”

Yes, yes, you’re a snowflake, but think about it: don’t you decide whether to pick up a book in a bookstore or search for it online without having read it? Don’t you as a reader gravitate toward certain types of narrative, particular varieties of story, a specific species of tone? Don’t you in fact do it all the time?

So does everybody else — including agents, editors, and anyone in a position to help you get your book published traditionally. No agent or editor, even those who handle nothing but memoir, will be attracted to every conceivable personal story that’s written well. Like every other individual reader currently milling about the earth’s crust, they have individual preferences.

And — brace yourselves; this next bit often comes as a shock to first-time memoirists — not all of those preferences concern writing style, or even having a compelling story to tell. Agents, editors, and memoir readers in general also tend to gravitate toward stories about specific types of experiences. From the publisher’s point of view — and thus an agent’s — memoirs are always about something other than the author’s life.

Mostly, I suspect, because to anyone familiar with the concept of a memoir, the statement “What’s the book about? Why, it’s about the author’s life!” is self-evident. It’s also self-evident to Millicent that not every interesting life translates easily into a page-turning memoir.

All of that can be difficult for writers fond of slice-of-life fiction to accept. “Isn’t the point of memoir,” they demand, and who could blame them? “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature? Good books about ordinary life are valuable. If a well-written story happens to be true, it’s automatically going to appeal to memoir readers, right?

Actually, no: thousands of memoirs come out every year, and by definition, all are about real events, yet only a few capture large readerships. Partially, that’s a matter of scarce marketing resources; it’s also often a matter of luck. Sometimes, it’s a function of the writing, but again, no publisher with her head screwed on straight would dream of promoting a memoir by saying, “Oh, it’s really well written. And had I mentioned that it was about the author’s life?”

Of course it is, but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, you thought I’d dropped my earlier point about textual repetition?), not every true story is equally appealing to every reader. Truth is a necessary attribute of memoir, not an optional extra. So are solid, clear writing and a dramatically-satisfying story arc.

If that last paragraph left you grumbling, well, you’re not alone. Most aspiring memoirists think of their books primarily as opportunities to share their life stories with a potentially admiring world. To them, the fact that they are telling their truth couldn’t possibly be more important: who in her right mind would put herself through the genuinely emotion-wracking process of reliving her ups and downs vividly enough to write about them well unless she felt her story burning inside her?

I’m entirely sympathetic to that yearning to shout the truth to the skies. However, as a memoirist myself — and as an author who has written a minor political celebrity’s memoir as well, a fascinating exercise in mind-melding — I know that there’s considerably more to constructing an emotionally and factually truthful memoir than simply telling the reader what happened. It’s not as though one can simply provide a list of events and expect the reader to extrapolate human feeling. A memoirist has to dig deep, be profoundly honest with himself — and then figure out what does and does not belong in the book.

Didn’t see that last bit coming, did you? As much as we memoirists like to claim the mantle of truth, not everything that occurs in even the most fascinating person’s life will be gripping on the page. Part of the art of memoir lies in selectivity — a good memoir tells the story of a particular part of a particular life, not everything that happened. That means, at both the book structuring and writing stages, you will need to weed out actual events that undoubtedly happened, ones that may in themselves be interesting, but do not advance the story arc of the book.

Let’s pause for a moment to consider that; it’s is an aspect of memoir-writing that often confuses those new to the game. Telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth may work admirably on the witness stand, but the goal of a memoir is not simply to provide the reader with either a complete transcript or general summary of the author’s life. It’s to recount a specific set of connected events in a truthful, well-written, and entertaining manner, in a narrative voice likable enough that the reader will want to accompany the narrator on that absorbing journey.

That’s necessarily the case, because, let’s face it, the alternative would not be much fun for the reader. In fact, it could be a heck of a lot of work: in an indiscriminate, sprawling memoir, the reader must try to determine which of many protagonist-centered activities are important to the central storyline. Indeed, it’s not at all uncommon for a loosely-organized memoir manuscript not to have a clearly-defined central storyline at all, for the exceedingly simple reason that most new memoirists don’t think of their lives that way.

But if you, the narrator, don’t know what the core story arc of your memoir is, how can a reader possibly figure it out? And is it really the reader’s job?

So I ask you again: what is your memoir about?

While you’re pondering that gargantuan and quite possibly terrifying question, let me share my favorite analogy for creative selectivity in nonfiction: throwing a stone into an otherwise still pond. That will cause a series of concentric ripples, right, altering the surface of the pond over time? A well thought-out memoir will depict the pond, as well as the thrower and the flinging process, following those many small waves as they change everything in their path.

How might that translate into a story arc derived from a rich and diverse life story? Think of the pond and its environs as your day-to-day life prior to a defining moment or decision. In order to gain a clear sense of just how much throwing that stone disturbed the pond, the reader is going to need to experience it as you did: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, what you loved and wanted, what you feared and avoided.

You could simply summarize all of that, I suppose, but wouldn’t the reader gain a stronger impression of what it was like to be you standing on the shore, weighing whether to toss that rock, if you conveyed your experiences via small, evocative details and fully fleshed-out scenes? With all of those sensations filtered through your psyche and perceptions, wouldn’t the reader get to know you pretty well as the protagonist of your own story?

Once you’ve established yourself as an interesting person in an interesting situation, and an intriguingly observant one at that, the reader is going to care about where and whether you cast that rock — or, in a story about being overwhelmed by larger events, about how you were flung bodily into the middle of that pond. How did your life change as a result? What did you do in response? What did you want to have happen, and what barriers did you face?

Starting to sound much more like a cohesive storyline, isn’t it? Much as in fiction, figuring out what is and isn’t central to the overall story you’re telling is not merely a matter of explaining what happened: it’s a matter of identifying the most important conflict the protagonist faces, what obstacles she must overcome, and showing the reader how that conflict played out.

That conflict, my friend, is what your memoir is about. It’s every bit as unique as you had originally thought; it’s merely structured in a manner that’s easier for a reader who doesn’t already know you to follow.

Does it make more sense now that “What is your memoir about?” would be the first thing Millicent, her boss, your acquiring editor, and the reader who will ultimately buy your book would want to know? At least, unless you have had the foresight to have established yourself as a celebrity, giving rise to a reasonable expectation that the very sight of your name on a book jacket will make your target reader gasp with incredulous pleasure and reach for the volume. Barring that kind of extremely helpful platform, it honestly does make sense that your future publisher will want to aim your book at readers most likely to respond positively to it.

Which is why, in the extremely likely event that those of you grumbling your way through writing a book proposal had been wondering, agents and editors expect memoirists, like all hopeful nonfiction writers, to give some serious advance thought to who is likely to buy the book and why. It’s also part of the reason memoirs — again, like other nonfiction — are typically sold in the U.S. not based upon a full manuscript, but merely upon a book proposal and a sample chapter. In all likelihood, your acquiring editor will want to have some input into the selection process, to help define your story arc in the manner most likely to capture the interest of readers already buying similar stories.

But let me guess: you’d been thinking of the proposal as just an annoying hoop through which you would have to leap in order to land an agent for your story, right? Believe it or not, the proposal’s requirements genuinely are intended to help nonfiction writers think about their books — and for memoirists to think of their life stories — not merely as writing about facts, but as gripping stories aimed at a specific readership predisposed to like ‘em.

I wouldn’t lie to you about that; I’m a memoirist, selectively drawing from the world as I find it to create a narrative true on a wide variety of levels. Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part XII: a few words about respecting one’s readership, plus an answer to the burning question but how do I know which category to enter?

I could blame my last few days of visible silence on having polished off the task I set for myself in this series: we did count down to the entry deadline for a major literary contest, and I did manage to talk about the major technical bugbears that dog contest entries. I could also pat myself on the bat for giving those of you that did enter that contest a few days to recover afterward. Let’s face it, while entering a writing contest is one of the best ways for an aspiring writer with no previous publications to garner ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), it’s also exhausting, demanding, and more than a little stressful to prepare an entry well.

Oh, those are both true, and both pretty good justifications for not posting for a few days. But the fact is, I’ve just been too depressed to blog. It being your humble correspondent, my reasons for tumbling down the great blue hole that writers know so well were almost entirely literary.

How so, you ask, backing away because you fear whatever it is might be catching? Well, over the past week, I’ve had occasion to observe first-hand a couple of dozen authors (first-time, established, old hand) promoting their books. Or at least trying to promote them. Surprisingly often, that takes the form of contacting someone like me.

Not a bad choice: my family’s been in and out of publishing since the 1920s, and substantial portions of my kith and kin were writing political fiction in the 1930s and 40s, or science fiction and fantasy in the 1950s and 1960s, both now-recognized genres that nice, literate people used to pretend in public that they didn’t read, then devour in private. Just sitting back and assuming one’s publisher would take care of book sales was a luxury these authors did not have. As a direct and, I think, entirely laudable result, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know that no matter how good a publishing house’s marketing department might be, it was ultimately up to the author to convince at least a few readers to buy a book.

And I have distinct memories of events seen through the bars of my playpen. That being literarily gifted does not excuse one from attending to the business part of the publishing business has always seemed as much a fact of life to me as gravity making things fall down instead of up.

Imagine my dismay, then, when a very good author of a decade’s worth of exceptionally fine novels asked me for advice on how to promote her soon-to-be-released book. Immediately, I began churning out suggestions for online promotion, as is my wont.

She stopped me after three low-cost promotional ideas. “Oh, I can’t do any of that. I would look desperate.”

“Um, Ambrosia?” I asked, for Ambrosia was not her name but an undetectable pseudonym. “Have you not noticed that pretty much everyone with a book out is just a touch desperate these days? Or are you under the impression that people who read don’t understand that authors would like to make a living at it, and that making a living at it is dependent upon readers buying books?”

She lit up at what I can only guess in retrospect were a few non-consecutive words in that last sentence. “Yes, exactly — my last book did not sell very well, and I’m worried about the next. If only the author weren’t completely helpless in this situation!”

Was it heartless of me to burst into peals of laughter, campers? I’d just given Ambrosia at least a month’s worth of ways not to be helpless, promotional moves that would have cost him nothing but time and energy. To add icing to what was already a mighty fine cake, she’s a friend, so this was free advice, too. (Oh, you thought Author! Author! was the only place I couldn’t stop myself from holding forth?) Yet here she was, falling all over herself not to take it.

Now, I could have just given up. It’s the golden age of authorial outreach, after all; it’s now more or less expected that an author will get actively involved in online promotion. Yet I get Ambrosia’s point of view: she started writing back in the days when it was in fact considered a bit gauche for a high literary fiction author to do anything but wait to see if the reviews were good and smile graciously at the signings her publisher’s hardworking marketing department set up for her.

Of course, I talked her down — what do you take me for? After the requisite half an hour of disbelieving what I was telling her, followed by the equally requisite ten minutes of acting as though the new realities of authorship were entirely my fault, she hung up the phone a sadder but wiser pseudonym. She might even take some of my advice.

This kind of exchange is, alas, far too common these days for it alone to have depressed me — although it does make me sad to see a good author not understand how reaching her audience has changed over the last ten years. Especially when I’m relatively certain that her assigned publicist (a terrific lady who definitely knows the current market and is enough of a boon to her publishing house that if she hadn’t specifically forbidden me to name her on my blog, lest incoming authors stampede her office, would now praise to the skies) had already tried to get Ambrosia to do some of the things I was suggesting. I did suggest that she tell her that she, like the overwhelming majority of authors new to online promotion, had been thinking of her Facebook and Twitter accounts as if they were book signings: if it’s there, the fans will just show up, right?

More on that half-true authorial presumption in a moment. I want to tell you about something that happened the next day.

I was enjoying a nice cup of tea with Trevor, another author friend and someone who also has a book in the spring’s new offerings list. As a shameless friend (and every good writer needs many), I naturally had bought a copy of his book the nanosecond it came out, because those gratis copies his publisher gave him were intended for promotion, not to hand out to kith and/or kin. (You’ve already started disabusing your friends and neighbors on that point, right? The best way to help an author is to buy his book, and the sooner your Aunt Sadie accepts that, the happier you’ll be when you have a book out. Tell her you’ll be happy to sign it.) I also, although Trevor did not think to ask his shameless friends to do this, cranked out a review and posted it on Amazon and a few other sites.

“Oh, and before I forget,” I told him, “I noticed mine is the only review on Powell’s and B & N. A single reader review can come across as a fluke, so you’re going to want to ask a few friends to post there, too, as well as Amazon.”

As a fan of the gentle art of comedy, I can tell you that his subsequent spit-take was flawlessly executed. After he had rushed over to the nearest table with back-up napkins, apologizing profusely, he returned to help me sop up the remains of our shared cookie plate. “How did you know,” he hissed as soon as our neighbors stopped staring at us, “that I’d recruited any reviews at all?”

“Experience? And the fact that nobody but your mother and the second reviewer has ever called you Trevvie?”

Okay, so I made up that last part to amuse you; his mother’s review was far subtler than that. I did hasten to assure him, though, that he had been smart to ask his relatives, friends, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends to read the book and post reviews. It’s a fairly standard practice now, if only to get the ball rolling during the inevitable lag between the professional reviews (which sometimes appear quite a bit before the book’s release) and readers who do not know the author personally having read the book.

He did not, therefore, suffer from either a shortage of helpful friends (thanks, Mom!) or qualms about accepting their help. Subsequent conversation revealed, however, that he had been squeamish about asking those very same people to post a simple hey, my son/college roommate/coworker in his hated day job had a book out — and here’s a link! on their already-extant social media pages. Or — and this made me choke on my fresh cup of tea — to post such a request on his Facebook fan page.

I’ll spare you the conversation that followed, as well as an enumeration of all the café staff and habitués that pounded me on the back in turn. Suffice it to say that I was surprised: as far as any of us knew, the people who read his fanpage were, in fact, fans. Why wouldn’t people who already enjoyed his writing want to help him promote his book, especially when he could make it so easy for them by posting a link with the request?

Since we were already the pariahs of the teashop, he had no qualms about answering that last question out loud: because most of the people kind enough to have hit the LIKE button on his fanpage were — you saw this coming, didn’t you? — precisely the same generous souls he had asked to write reviews. Since he’d already asked a favor — two, since he’d asked most of them to take pity on him and hit LIKE — he felt funny about asking another.

“I guess that means that you wouldn’t be comfortable asking them to turn your book cover-outward anytime they’re in a bookstore,” I said. “A browser’s much more likely to pick it up.”

As with Ambrosia, what made me sad about this exchange (other than that last suggestion’s practically driving Trevor to tears) was not that he was too shy to make these relatively simple requests of people he already knew loved him, but that he was apparently unaware that it would behoove him to reach out to potential readers he did not already know. Indeed, he argued with me on that point, during that requisite ten minutes of target practice aimed at the messenger I mentioned earlier: “If you don’t know,” he sniffed, as though my suggestions were terribly lowbrow, “nothing makes people more uncomfortable than a sales pitch. If the reviews are good, then the book will sell.”

“Not always,” I said gently, bracing myself for the next barrage. “And not if your potential readers don’t know about them. All I’m suggesting is that you ask your established readership to offer their friends some encouragement to follow a link to those reviews.”

Again, I’ll spare you the subsequent debate; I’m sure you clever, imaginative souls can flesh it out unassisted. To get you started: apparently, it’s cynical and literature-hating to believe not only that readers will not buy a book if they have never heard of it, but that posting something — anything — online won’t instantly attract millions of looks. Call me zany — and Trevor did, several times — but I believe that signposts are helpful in getting people from Point A to Point B.

“But you’re a blogger,” he accused, in a tone that implied the term was synonymous with convicted poisoner of dozens; need I mention that his marketing department has been urging him fruitlessly for years to start blogging? “You of all people know that if you post it, they will come.”

“Ah, but I’ve been blogging for nearly seven years.” I did not add that when I started blogging, my memoir’s scheduled release was within six months. “And I’ve only had a Facebook fanpage for about a year. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever asked my blog’s readership if they would be kind and generous enough to follow a link there and press the LIKE button; I shall have to rectify that sometime soon. It would certainly make my agent happy.”

“Oh, come on,” Trevor said. “You know there’s no way to do that gracefully.”

I swear I did not that last observation up. Trevor has promised to keep an eye on my fanpage‘s likes over the next few weeks. Would you mind terribly helping me convince him that it would be worth his while to make a polite request of people who already know and appreciate his writing by following that link and LIKE-ing my page?

Again, though, I do understand why he feels overwhelmed: there’s just a lot more for an author to do these days. My upbringing leads me to believe that’s a good thing — what makes one feel more helpless than not being able to do anything to improve one’s prospects? — but I do realize that Trevor, like the vast majority of aspiring writers, began writing under the assumption that if he wrote a good enough book, it actually would sell itself. Or at least that the fine folks employed by his publishing house would do it for him, which, in terms of effort expenditure, amounts to very much the same thing.

Before I leave you to ponder all of this vis-à-vis your own current and future books and get back to talking about ECQLC-generating contest entries — oh, you thought I had abandoned my teaching goals for the day? — I would like to share the final literary depressive factor of the week. It will amuse you, Trevor, to see that it was an event a publisher had arranged in order to promote not just one, but several quite good books. It was a group signing at a large, well-stocked bookstore.

Naturally, I hied myself hence: I know one of the authors, and one of the nicest things a shameless friend can do to help an author is to help swell the ranks at a book signing. (If one wants to be a genuine peach, one ostentatiously buys the book at the signing, to encourage others to do so; of course I did.) To make it an even more efficient use of my literary booster time, another of the authors on the dais writes in the same book category I do — and if I have to explain to you why it’s in a writer’s best interest to make sure her chosen book category sells well, or why one of the best ways to assure editors to keep publishing writing in that category is to buy those books, and regularly, well, I can only wring my hands and wonder where I went wrong in the past seven years.

Hying myself hence was no easy task, however, because one of the local arts-oriented websites had misreported the time it started. Another paper, a free one that’s the only print paper to list author readings habitually, had recommended the signing and listed the correct time, but had referred readers to another page of the publication for an explanation of why it would be worth their time to attend. There was no mention of the event on the other page.

No way to anticipate any of that, of course, but those were not the only attendance-discouraging factors. The event had been scheduled for the same time as the opening of the Seattle International Film Festival — and about a block and a half away. Parking was nonexistent. John Irving was also speaking across town that night; even I thought twice about which event to attend.

Considering everything, then, the event’s organizers should be quite proud of themselves: about 25 people showed up. (And in response to those of you who just clutched your chests: that’s quite a respectable turn-out for a book signing; it’s not all that uncommon for authors to end up spending an hour or two addressing one fan, two bookstore employees, and a roomful of empty chairs.) They also had piles of the various authors’ books readily available — well done! — and had obviously collected a group of intelligent, articulate, interesting authors.

Most of whom looked positively terrified throughout the entire event. A few made a substantive effort to interact with the audience, but not all of them participated in answering questions. A couple of them did not even try to have conversations with the fans handing them books. The sweet 12-year-old who’d lugged his copies of every book one of the authors had ever written was, to say the least, a little surprised that his hero talked to one of the other authors while signing his way through the stack.

Sensing a pattern here, or at least a similarity to Ambrosia and Trevor’s promotional attempts? No? Okay, let me fill in a few more depressing details.

It’s fairly standard at book signings for authors to read from their work…and do I even need to finish this sentence? Not a word. It’s also usual for the authors, or at any rate the person introducing them, to give a short overview of what the books they would like to sign are about. Nor a murmur. Why would they? Everyone in the room had already read those books, right?

Anyone but me see this as a problematic assumption at an event devoted to selling the books in question? But it’s understandable, in the light of Trevor and Ambrosia: since the books would of course sell themselves, one shows up to a book signing to reward those that have already read them, not to try to coax new readers. If I have to explain why that attitude might be a trifle self-defeating at an event featuring more than one author…again, where did I go wrong in raising you?

In the unlikely event that I am now or have ever been too subtle on this point: book signings and readings are not about bolstering the authorial ego; they’re about selling books. They’re performances.

Speaking of which, as if all of that were not enough to keep nearby browsers from dropping by to see what was going on — none of them did, although that’s pretty standard for author signings, too — not all of the authors were audible to the back row of the audience when they did speak. Nor did the moderator repeat questions, so everyone there could hear them.

Now, I’ve given talks in that particular room of that particular bookstore, so I would be the first to admit that the acoustics are terrible. The bookstore’s wonderful staff admits it, too; as I can tell you from experience, they routinely offer to set up microphones for occasions like this. So if chatterers wandering around the shelves were sometimes more audible than some of the authors, I’m disinclined to blame the bookstore’s acoustics.

Will anyone accuse me of being cynical if I suggest that it might be prudent for authors to arrive a little early check out the acoustics at any venue at which they plan to speak? Or to rack up a little practice in being charming to readers nice enough to want to have their books signed?

Or at least not to be surprised when only 7 of those 25 audience members bought books?

To be clear, I’m not saying any of this to be critical of those authors, the bookstore’s staff, or the publisher that set up the event. (Although personally, I might have checked the local events listings before I set it up.) I’m just saying that it might have gone better had everyone concerned thought about it from the attendee’s point of view. Especially that delightful 12-year-old: should I have been the only adult in the room who asked him why he loved that armload of books?

I know: hands up if you have ever been that kid. Can you imagine how thrilled he would have been had his favorite author taken the time to treat their interaction as anything but routine fan maintenance? It’s not hard to make a devoted reader feel special, especially one that staggers into an event like this with a dozen hardcover books.

Lest anyone suggest that since this bright, articulate kid had already bought the books in question, the event was not really aimed at him: that kid goes to school; that kid goes online; that kid has friends and siblings that read (his older sister staggered under her own armload of books). Wouldn’t it actually have been a great way to get the word out the author’s new book to treat him in a way that will make the boy rush to tell everyone he knows about how nice his idol was to him? And, since this was a group event, wouldn’t it have helped everybody if the author had made a few recommendations for future reading?

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, I was so adamant throughout last winter’s Queryfest that it’s in a writer’s best interest to give some pretty serious thought to who her target reader is. I could have told the author in question that smart 12-year-olds read his work; after talking to the fan, I can tell you now that there’s a better than even chance this 12-year-old is going to grow up to be a writer. And that means that he’s going to be looking to his favorite authors for guidance about how to act while promoting a book.

Oh, that hadn’t occurred to you? It probably didn’t occur to the author, either, but it could not have been more obvious to me. I grew up watching devoted readers toting stacks of books into science fiction conventions and book signings, so my relatives and friends could sign them. An inspired fan has a light in her eye, a glow to her face; it’s visible from across the room.

So am I cynical or literature-loving to believe that creating a positive experience for that reader at a signing is an essential part of the author’s job? Or that the opportunity to do so is something for which a savvy author should be exceedingly grateful?

Can you wonder now that I left depressed? Not all of the authors missed those fundamentals, but enough did that even I, who loves good writing enough to have devoted my life to it, wondered if I should have attended the event at all.

I have not asked my friend on the dais (who, I am delighted to report, interacted with her fans exceedingly well) if her colleagues, the bookstore, or the publisher were disappointed by the sales generated by the event; my guess is that they were not. Lackluster sales at readings and signings are one of the reasons many publishers sponsor fewer these days. It’s common to blame the fans for that.

Just something to ponder. If even one of you finds yourself facing an eager 12-year-old fan across a signing table and decides to make not only his day, but change the course of his life by taking a sincere interest in him, I will indeed feel that I have done all I can here.

Back to business — and yes, I’m going to talk about contests now, because I know that some of you tuned in for it. It’s important not to disappoint one’s readership, after all.

For the sake of those of you who tuned in because you’re in the habit of tuning in, though, bless you. I’ll keep it relatively brief. I wouldn’t want to eat into any time you were planning to devote to liking things on Facebook this weekend, after all.

As I pointed out earlier in this series, although marketability is surprisingly seldom listed as one of the judging criteria in contest rules, it is very, very frequently in the judges’ minds when they read — which means, all too frequently, that if you offend their sensibilities, they will conclude that your work isn’t marketable enough to make it to the finalist round. Or at least not enough so to please current market tastes.

I introduced the change of subject too abruptly, didn’t I? As soon as I typed it, I heard the moods that had risen again after my downer of an opening over deflate hissingly once again. Sorry about that; I’m afraid that there’s just no upbeat way to shatter the ubiquitous misconception that the only thing a literary contest judge ever considers is the inherent quality of the writing in the entry.

But as we’ve been discussing, what constitutes good writing at one time — or in one book category — is not necessarily what was or will be considered good writing at all times or in all settings. The literary market is notoriously volatile. Then, too, contest judges, like agents, editors, and any other reader, harbor personal tastes. We would all have different takes on what makes a book good, what sentiments are acceptable, and, perhaps most for the sake of contest entry, different ideas of what is marketable. Or even of what fits comfortably under a particular contest category.

However, there are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of raising red flags before the eyes of our old pal, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, quite a few of these pitfalls tend to turn up on pet peeve lists in agencies and publishing houses as well.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #1: avoid clichés like the proverbial plague.

Oh, you may laugh, but clichés are amazingly common in contest entries, for some reason I have never understood — unless it is simply that clichés become clichés because they are common. It puzzles Mehitabel, too, because isn’t the goal of entering writing in a contest to show how you phrase things and conceive of stories, not how people tend to phrase things in general or how TV shows present storylines?

You really do want to show contest judges phraseology and situations they’ve never seen before, so try to steer clear of catchphrases (I know, right?), stock characters (Here’s your badge back, rookie-who-cannot-follow-the-rules, and here’s your new partner. He’s supposed to retire next month!), tried-and-true plot twists (You don’t mean — you’re my FATHER?!?), and anything, but anything, that you’re tempted to include just because it’s cultural shorthand for how a particular group of people act (“Whatever!” said the teenager, rolling her eyes.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #2: minimize current pop culture references.

In general, you should avoid pop culture references in contest entries, except as indicators of time and place. Not only do they tend to be clichés (Hey, Betty Sue, want to go down to the malt shop and sock-hop to the latest Chuck Berry record in your poodle skirt?), but in a contest entry, they take up space that could be used for more original description.

Yes, yes, I know: dropping in the odd Bee Gees reference to a story set in 1976 feels like verisimilitude. It can be. But you wouldn’t believe how often Mehitabel sees entries that seem intent upon proving that every single soul on the planet liked the same music in 1976.

Current cultural references run all of these risks, but they suffer from an additional problem: even the most optimistic judge would be aware that an unpublished work entered in a contest could not possibly be in print in less than two years from now — and thus the reference in question needs to be able to age at least that long.

In answer to that collective gasp I just heard from those of you new to the publishing world: books don’t typically hit the shelves for at least a year after the publication contract is signed — and often more than that. Print queues are long, and before a first-time author’s work enters one, the acquiring editor often requests changes in the text.

That’s not counting the time the agent spends shopping the book around first, of course. And that clock doesn’t even begin to tick until after the writer has found an agent for the book in the first place.

So even if a cultural reference is white-hot right now, it’s probably going to be dated by the time it hits the shelves. For instance, do you really think that anyone will know in five years who Paris Hilton is, or why she was famous? (I’m not too sure about the latter now.)

Also, writers tend to underestimate how closely such references tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. Which brings me to…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #3: never assume that the judge will share your worldview.

You would be astonished at how often the writer’s age — or, at any rate, generational identification — is perfectly obvious from the cultural references used in a contest entry. Ditto with political views, or lack thereof, sex, gender (not the same thing), socioeconomic status…

All of that is fine, especially for a memoir or first-person fiction, but you need to be careful that the narrative does not assume that the judges determining whether your work makes it to the finalist round share your background in any way. Why? Well, nothing falls flatter than a joke that the reader doesn’t get, unless it’s a shared assumption that’s shared by a group to which the reader does not happen to belong.

It’s exceedingly common for contest entrants to assume (apparently) that the judges assessing their work are share their age group, sex, sexual orientation, views on foreign policy, you name it. So much so that they tend to leave necessary references unexplained.

And this can leave a Mehitabel who does not happen to be like the entrant somewhat perplexed. Make sure that your story or argument could be followed by any English-reading individual without constant resort to the encyclopedia or MTV.

Did you catch the problem with that last sentence? It shows my age.

That’s right: I’m old enough to remember when MTV was entirely devoted to music videos. Seems strange now, doesn’t it? I’m also old enough (but barely), to shake my head over the fact that if Mehitabel is of the Internet generation, she may never have touched a hard-copy encyclopedia.

It could easily go the other way, of course — and probably will, in a contest entry. (Most literary contests require some writing or publishing background before allowing someone to judge.) It’s not beyond belief that Mehitabel will never have seen a music video. Or know what Glee is, beyond a good mood.

The best way to steer clear of potential problems: get feedback on your entry from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, so you can weed out references that do not work universally. Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #4: if you are taking on social or political issues, show respect for points of views other than yours.

This is really a corollary of the last. If you’re going to perform social analysis of any sort, it’s a very, very poor idea to assume that the contest judge will already agree with you — especially if everyone you know agrees with you on a particular point. A stray snide comment can cost you big time on a rating sheet.

I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — contest judges tend to be smart people, ones who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But it’s worth bearing in mind that Mehitabel may well get her news from sources different than yours; her view of current events might well make your jaw drop, and vice-versa.

And that’s a problem, because an amazingly high percentage of contest entries, particularly in the nonfiction categories, are polemics. Novels often they use the argumentative tactics of verbal speech. But while treating the arguments of those who disagree with dear self as inherently ridiculous can work aloud (although it’s certainly not the best way to win friends and influence people, in my experience), they tend to work less well on paper.

So approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. And watch your tone, especially in nonfiction entries, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work.

This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well. Your mother was right about that, you know.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #5: recognize going in that you have absolutely no control over how an individual judge will respond to your work. All you can control is how you present it.

Trust me, you will be a much, much happier contest entrant if you accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you enter it into a contest. Sometimes, you’re just unlucky. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do about it.

Those of you trying to land an agent recognize this dilemma, right? It’s precisely the same one queries and submissions to agencies face.

To revert to my favorite gratuitous piece of bad luck: if Millicent the agency screener has scalded her tongue on a too-hot latté immediately prior to opening your submission, chances are that she’s going to be in a bad mood when she reads it. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.

The same holds true for a contest entry. Ultimately, you can have no control over whether Mehitabel has had a flat tire on the morning she reads your entry, any more than you can control if she has just broken up with her husband, or has just won the lottery.

All you can do approach the process with a sense of professionalism: make your work the best it can be, and keep sending it out until you find the reader who gets it. Which brings me to…

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #6: don’t expect a single contest entry to make your writing career all by itself.

Okay, so this one is really more about your happiness than the judges’, but do try to avoid hanging all of your hopes on a single contest. That’s giving way too much power to a single, unknown contest Mehitabel.

Yes, even if there is only one contest in your part of the world for your kind of writing. Check elsewhere.

And, of course, keep querying agents, magazines, and small presses while your work is entered in a contest. (No, this is not a contest rule violation, in most cases: contests almost universally require that a entry not be published prior to the entry date. You’re perfectly free to keep submitting after you enter it — and to enter the same work in as many contests as you choose.)

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #7: be alert for subtle clues about style expectations that may not match your writing.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, if a contest does not have a track record of rewarding your type of work, it’s just not a good idea to make it your single entry for the year. You might even want to think twice about entering that contest at all.

Yes, even if the rules leave open the possibility that your kind of work can in theory win For instance, a certain contest in my area has a Mainstream Fiction category that also accepts literary fiction — and in many years, has accepted genre as well.

Care to guess how often writing that wasn’t explicitly literary has won in this category? Here’s a hint: for many years, the judges had a strong preference for work containing lots and lots of semicolons.

Still unsure? Well, here’s another hint: in recent years, the category description had devoted four paragraphs to defining literary fiction. Including a paragraph specifying that they meant the kind of work that tended to win the Nobel Prize, the Booker Award, the Pulitzer…

In case that didn’t shake up those of you considering entering an honestly mainstream work, I should also add: there have been years in which there were only four paragraphs in the description.

This is yet another reason — in case, you know, you needed more — to read not only the contest rules very carefully, but the rest of a contest’s website as well. Skim a little too quickly, and you may not catch that contest organizers have given a hint to what kinds of work they want to see.

You know, something subtle, like implying that they expect their contest winners to be future runners-up for the Pulitzer.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #8: be alert for subtle clues about content.

Most literary contests will break down judging categories by writing style and book category, rather than content, but a surprising number of them harbor content preferences. They tend to be fairly upfront about them, too., referring to them either overtly (in defining the categories) or covertly (in defining winning criteria for the judges).

This is particularly true in short story and essay competitions, I notice. Indeed, in short-short competitions, it’s not at all uncommon for a topic to be assigned outright. At the risk of repeating myself, read ALL OF THE RULES with care before you submit; such contests assume that entrants will be writing work designed exclusively for their eyes.

This should not, I feel, ever be the expectation for contests that accept excerpts from book-length works. Few entrants in these categories write new entirely new pieces for every contest they enter, with good reason: it would be quixotic. Presumably, one enters a book in a contest in order to advance the book’s publication prospects, not merely for the sake of entering a contest, after all.

Because the write-it-for-us expectation does sometimes linger, make sure to read the category’s definition before you decide to enter work you have already written. If the category is defined in such a way that writing like yours is operating at a disadvantage, your chances of winning fall sharply. The best way to careful with your entry dollar, and enter only those contests and categories where you have a chance of winning.

Mehitabel-pleasing strategy #9: make sure that you’re entering the right category — and that it’s the category you think it is.

Stop laughing. I would love to report that entries never come in labeled for the wrong category, but, alas, sometimes they do.

Why should you worry about something so easily corrected on the receiving end? Contests almost never allow judges to drop a misaligned entry into the correct category’s pile. Leaving Mehitabel to read the out-of-place entry, and to wonder: did the entrant just not read the category descriptions closely enough?

Often, this turns out to be precisely what happened.

This is not a time merely to skim the titles of the categories: get into the details of the description. Read it several times. Have a writer friend read it, then read your entry, to double-check that your work is in fact appropriate to the category as the rules have defined it.

This may seem like a waste of time, but truly, it isn’t. I have seen miscategorized work disqualified — or, more commonly, given enough demerits to knock it out of finalist consideration right away — but never, ever have I seen an entry returned, check uncashed, with an explanation that it was entered in the wrong category.

Next time, I shall discuss category selection a bit more. Yes, entering a literary contest is a complex task, but you’re a complex writer, aren’t you? You can do this.

Admit it: you’ve known that you could do it since you were 12 years old. And if you are 12 years old now, do you have any idea how jealous your elders are that blogs like this exist now? Why, back in my day…

Notice how close to 100 years old I sound already? Not an accident. Mind those cultural references, and 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 dawning of a new day, or, a word of advice to queriers and submitters who make New Year’s resolutions

change of day on the beach

Happy New Year, everybody! I’ve logged in bright and early on this very first day of 2011 neither to add another entry to our ongoing Formatpalooza series (although what could be a better way for an aspiring writer to start off a new year of querying and submitting than learning how to format a manuscript professionally?) nor to urge you to invest a bit of time in entering the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition (ditto, and the deadline is a mere week away). No, I set finger to keyboard today in a last-ditch effort to talk you out of kicking off the year with a querying and submission mistake that literally millions of aspiring writers make every January 1.

I’m referring, of course, to the formulation of New Year’s resolutions.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a promise or two about writing more — or writing more often — in 2011 than you did in 2010. Or in committing yourself to finishing that book or book proposal you have been meaning to complete for eons now. In fact, that would be laudable: forming a practical, incremental plan to work toward a much-desired goal is a reasonable way to move toward it.

But those are not the kind of New Year’s resolutions most aspiring writers make, are they?

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her new year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning encourages us to believe that it’s easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year. We buy this, even though our bodies tell us the opposite: not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript‘s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

Although were I advising in any individual case, January 1 — or 3, since that’s the first business day of this year — would not be the day I would pick.

Then, too, the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. The NYC-based publishing industry more or less shuts down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; with so many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing — mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

Was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing? — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries — or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If that seems like a cop-out, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical. (But if you’re new to this blog and are curious about common query, synopsis, and manuscript red flags, you might want to invest some time in going through the Querypalooza, Synopsispalooza, and Formatpalooza series.)

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 3!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right? If not, you might want to take a gander at my recent How to Find Agents to Query series.) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions: the average one lasts less than three weeks.

But let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

She’s particularly likely to be in a take-no-prisoners mood on Monday mornings, by the way — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated aunts, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask eagerly, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 18. The average New Year’s resolution lasts about three weeks, so it would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1? Two reasons.

First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It was also the first year that there were roughly the same number of self-published and print-on-demand books published as those produced by traditional publishers. Admittedly, the average self-published book still sells less than a couple of hundred copies, but in terms of sheer volume, that was a hard blow to the publishing houses. My sources tell me that in 2010, three times as many books were self-published or produced via print-on-demand than by traditional U.S. publishing houses.

It’s probably safe to assume that the mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that people who work in agencies tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the requested materials. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without burning yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off.

Next time, I shall be talking about the ins and outs of formatting nonfiction proposals — but if you have more general manuscript formatting questions, please keep posting them in the comments. I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript.

Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, part XII: pushing boldly forward…and let’s talk about this

buster_keaton_train

Before I wrap up this series on how to figure out which agents do and do not belong on your querying list, I have two quick questions to ask of you, campers: what clever means do you use to find agents who represent books like yours — and what’s the one thing you most wish someone had told you just before you sent out your first query?

If that second one sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve asked it of members of the Author! Author! community before — and received some very enlightening answers. I’m a big fan of mutual aid: let’s allow our individual experiences to help one another.

So please be generous with your reminiscences, folks. The Comments function below is hungry for ‘em.

Why end this series with questions, you ask? Because, really, the publishing world is changing so fast that rather than providing prescriptions for agent-finding, I feel as though I’ve been mostly writing about preliminary questions aspiring writers can ask themselves in order to prepare to examine an agent’s listing in one of the standard guides, page on an agent search site, conference brochure blurb, and/or agency’s website.

Why is know thyself (and thy book) an absolutely indispensable prerequisite to generating a recherché querying list? Because — feel free to pull out your hymnals and sing along, campers — the surest path to rejection is to query agents who do not (or do not still) represent books in your chosen category. No matter how beautifully-written your manuscript or proposal is, or how exquisitely crafted your query letter may be, it is a waste of your valuable time to approach agents who do not have both a current interest in and a solid track record selling books like yours.

Obviously — at least I hope it’s more obvious to you now than at the end of the summer — it’s going to be a whole lot easier to avoid wasting your time with non-starters if you know what it is you are trying to market: your book’s category, target audience, and why your book will appeal to those readers in a manner that no other book currently on the market will.

Yes, yes, it’s sounds like a tall order, but I sincerely hope you find it empowering, rather than depressing. Of all the many, many things about the path from finished manuscript to publication that are completely outside a writer’s control, you have absolute authority over this one aspect: you, and only you, can decide whom to query and how.

Besides, now you have the tools in your writer’s marketing kit to pull it off with aplomb. As may not have entirely escaped your notice in recent months, I’ve been devoting quite a lot of blog space to helping you do just that. In Querypalooza, we spoke at length about how to customize a query letter for each individual agent on that carefully-selected list you are now contemplating; late in that series, and in the Synopsispalooza and Authorbiopalooza series that followed, we discussed query and submission packets and the things you might be asked to tuck inside them.

So if you have made it all the way through this fall of ‘Paloozas, either reading them as I posted or in retrospect, please give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. By committing to learning how querying and submission works, you can avoid the most common mistakes that lead to rejection — and approach the process of finding an agent for your work not as a massive, ugly mystery, but as a professional endeavor that’s going to take some time.

You know how I’d like you to celebrate? Devote some time this weekend to researching a few new agents to query. Five is a nice number. (Ten is better, but I know how busy you are this time of year.)

Did I hear a few exasperated gasps out there? “But Anne,” those of you who have been paying close attention point out, and not unreasonably, “wouldn’t now be a rather un-sensible time to be sending out a flotilla of queries? Doesn’t the publishing industry slow to a crawl between Thanksgiving and the end of the year — and then get overwhelmed with new queries just after New Year’s Day?? If I haven’t gotten a raft of queries out by now, shouldn’t I wait until after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? (That’s the third week of January, for those of you reading outside the US, and are we not clever to be able to convey parentheses in speech?)”

I have to admit, that’s quite the reasonable, well-argued objection. I’m not going to tell you it’s okay to put beefing up your query list on hold, mind you, but I give you full points for a good argument. Happy now?

Even this late in the season, the autumn is an excellent time to be combing book reviews for agent leads, much better than the dead of winter. There are always a lot of great new books hitting the shelves in the fall, including most of the year’s crop of literary fiction and culture books. Traditionally, the fall is when publishers release books they expect to be in the running for big awards, although that calendar, like the century-old practice of releasing first novels in the spring, when they will not have to compete as directly with all of those established potential award-winners, has been becoming more flexible recently.

But some parts of the calendar have not changed: you’re quite right that if you actually send out queries now, you’re likely not to hear back for a couple of months. Not just because of the many, many holiday functions between the beginning of Hanukah and New Year’s Eve, but due to the tens of thousands of aspiring authors who will suddenly decide at the end of December that their New Year’s resolution is going to be to query fifteen agents per month.

They’d better get cracking on those query lists, hadn’t they?

Actually, most of needn’t: since the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks, January is when all of those well-meaning resolvers’ missives hit agents’ desks — right after a long holiday break and in the middle of tax-preparation time for agencies. (Legally, agencies must provide clients with the previous year’s tax information on royalties by the end of January.) With the monumentally increased volume, agents and their assistants tend to get a mite testy around then.

Since the vast majority of those rejected during that period will not query again until, oh, about twelve months later — if they try again at all — Millicent the agency screener’s life calms down considerably after the long Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And wouldn’t you rather have your query under her nose while her joie de vivre is on the upswing?

The moral of the story: if you didn’t get your queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’re better off sitting out the Christmas vacation and New Year’s rush. Wait until Millicent will be happier to see you headed her way.

All that being said, even with predictably slower turn-around times over the next month and a half, making a big push to generate a really solid query list now — or update your old one, if you haven’t done so within the last six months –rather than after the New Year, will make it easier to keep up the momentum an aspiring writer needs to keep a query cycle going as long as necessary to land an agent.

Stop groaning. If your manuscript deserves to get published — and I’m betting that it does — it deserves to make the rounds of the fifty or hundred agents that even the best books sometimes make these days. Yes, that’s a long haul, but nothing extends the querying process like running out of steam. Or not picking oneself up after a rejection, dusting off that query list, and moving on to the next name on it.

Believe me, that’s a whole lot easier to do if you have a lengthy, well-researched, and up-to-date query list. It’s especially helpful if you are going to be trying to keep 5-10 queries out at any given time, beginning the end of January.

Yes, I do mean sending that many out at once at once — hey, your time is too valuable to query them singly. The moment one rejection comes in, send out another query, so there are always a constant number in motion. Keep that momentum going.

Why send out a new query on the same day as the last comes back? Because it’s the best way to fight off rejection-generated depression, that’s why: it’s something you can do in response to that soul-sapping form letter. Recognize that rejection by an agent, any agent, is only one person’s opinion (or, more commonly, one person’s screener’s opinion), and move on.

At the risk of repeating myself: it can take a lot of asking before a writer hears yes, even a very good writer with a great book. Remember, you don’t want to sign with just any agent, any more than you would want to marry just anyone the law says you can. A relationship with an agent is, ideally, a very long-term commitment.

You want to find the best one for you. Finding that special someone may well take some serious dating around.

And that is not, contrary to popular opinion, necessarily any reflection at all upon your level of writing talent. Oh, you’ll want to write a good query letter, as well as avoiding the most common writing problems that lead submissions to be rejected. That, like other matters of format and craft, can be learned.

Talent, however, can’t — but you can’t know for certain how talented you are until you get the technical matters right, so you can get a fair reading from the pros.

But if you’ve been following the fall of ‘Paloozas, you already have the skills to write a professional-quality query letter, don’t you? At this point, you’re probably not going to hear back for a month or more, anyway. That’s plenty of time to work on polishing your manuscript.

Oh, and to generate a truly top-notch query list, specialized for your particular book. Perhaps it’s not the best time to query, but you certainly can keep moving forward toward your goals in the interim.

I feel in my bones that some of you out there are resisting my pep talk — I’ve been hearing it bouncing off your psyches like bullets off Superman’s chest. “But Anne,” those of you who are suffering from query fatigue wail, “I’m just so tired of querying. I hate being rejected, either via e-mail, that SASE I’m supposed to stuff in my mailed queries so I may pay the postage on my own rejection, or, most soul-sucking of all, by simply not hearing back at all on a query or submission. Can’t I just take a breather until, say, next March? Or June? Maybe by then, I will have gotten my second, third, or fifteenth wind.”

I feel for your plight, fatigued ones, but in my experience, it requires considerably more energy for an aspiring writer to re-start a stalled querying push than to keep putting energy in it consistently over a long period. So ’m going to pull out all the stops, and end this series with one last blast of kryptonite-laden truth, to try to dissolve that most common of query-process stallers: the tendency to take the vagaries of this often attenuated process personally.

It doesn’t make sense to do so, you know.

And you should know, if you’ve been a regular part of our ongoing ‘Palooza party this autumn. I have been trying, in my own small way, to educate aspiring writers to the hard facts of the current literary market: it is, in fact, as difficult as it has ever been to land an agent and/or sign a publication contract. In my experience, understanding the basics of how the acceptance (and rejection) process works can save good writers time, chagrin, and wasteful expenses of despair.

Falling prey to despair is a genuine danger here: we’ve all, I’m sure, been hearing gloom-and-doom predictions of the death of the printed word over the last few years. Oh, I certainly haven’t been exaggerating, say, how small, inadvertent mistakes can and do lead to instant rejection or the level of competition one must beat in order to sign with a good agency; by comparison with the conversation you’d be likely to hear behind the scenes at a top-flight writers’ conference, my rendition has been positively sunshiny.

Of course, the printed word has been declared dead by naysayers with clockwork regularity since the mid-19th century. And, frankly, if the most recent batch of predictions had been correct, the last book in existence would have been bound a couple of years ago. Yet the sale of books seems to be marching on — weakened, perhaps, but still moving forward.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a news item from 2007.

Hachette moves to firm sale on backlist
Hachette Livre UK is taking the radical step of moving its backlist publishing to a firm sale basis for environmental reasons. The UK’s largest publishing group, which includes Orion, Hodder, Headline, Octopus and Little, Brown, told staff and authors this morning…that it intends for all of its trade publishing to be put on a backlist firm sale footing by the end of 2008, following consultation with retailers. (For the rest of this article, follow this link.)

If this piece of news did not make you gasp spontaneously, I would guess that you are only dimly aware of just how many books are already pulped each year — that is, sent back to the publisher unsold for paper recycling — or how backlist sales typically work. Most bookstores buy new books from publishers on a provisional basis, with the understanding that they can send clean, unread copies back if they do not sell within a specified period of time. Often, the returns, especially paperbacks and trade paper, will be ground down into pulp to provide the raw material to print other books (thus the term pulping: they are reduced to paper pulp).

From a marketing point of view, this arrangement makes quite a bit of sense: with certain rare exceptions (think Harry Potter), it’s pretty hard for a bookseller to know in advance how well a book will sell. Stocking extra copies encourages browsing, potentially good for brick-and-mortar bookstores, publisher, and reader alike. In recent years, however, books have been remaining on shelves for shorter stints than in the past. The length of time a bookseller will choose to keep a particular book on a shelf varies considerably by book and retailer; the same book may be allowed shelf space for a year at a small bookstore, yet last only a few weeks at a megastore like Barnes & Noble.

Now that online and electronic book sales make up such a hefty proportion of the book market, fewer and fewer books are ever occupying retail shelves at all. That, too, encourages smaller print runs, in order to reduce the number of books ultimately pulped. This, in theory, is the primary benefit of print-on-demand (POD) publishing: only the actual number of books needed are produced, thus reducing pulping.

It also, of course, reduces browsing. All of which means, in practice, that these days, a new book typically does not have very long to establish a track record as a seller before being subject to return. This, in turn, renders it more expensive for publishers to promote books, as the window of opportunity can be pretty small.

See why publishers might be willing to pay a premium to have their books displayed face-up on tables for the first few weeks, rather than spine-out on a shelf? (Knowing that space is often rented can really change how one walks through a big chain bookstore, let me tell you.) Or why authors sometimes see fit to hire their own publicists for the first month after a book’s release?

Backlist titles, by contrast, have been out for a while; they’re the releases from past seasons that the publisher elects to keep in print. Although they do not receive the press attention of new releases, backlist books have historically been the financial heart of most publishers’ business. This, too, has tended to work to all of our benefits.

How often, for instance, have you discovered a genre author three books into a series? Or fell in love with a writer’s latest book and went back to read everything she ever published? (As I sincerely hope you do; after all, if we writers won’t purchase the more obscure works of living writers, who will?)

If you’ve been able to find these books at your local bookstore or online, you’ve been buying backlist titles, gladdening publishers’ hearts and keeping the heartbeat of the industry alive. Because of readers like you, stocking backlist titles has been good bet for retailers: you might not move many copies of Clarissa in a given month, but when a reader wants it, it’s great if you have it to hand.

But if a bookseller has to buy those backlist titles outright, with no opportunity to return them, it becomes substantially more expensive to keep, say, the complete opus of Sherman Alexie in stock in the years before he won the National Book Award. (His latest, an excellent and intriguing collection of shorts entitled War Dances, is now out in paperback, should your Secret Santa be casting about for gift ideas.)

Let’s get back to that old news clipping about Hachette. Speaking as a hardcore reader of English prose, I was darned worried when I first read this: having heard on the literary grapevine that other UK publishers were considering implementing similar policies, I fretted myself sick about all of those British writers whose work might have gone out of print before those of us on this side of the pond have had a chance to hear how wonderful they are.

Hasn’t happened yet, however. Why, I just sent away for some backlist volumes last week. Only now, I order directly online from a U.K. distributor.

See? Change does not always equal demise.

But, of course, the overall trend toward shorter shelf times is genuinely worrisome, especially if one ponders the financial prospects of authors already in print. Just as increasingly quick shelf turn-around for a current season’s books have rendered retailers less likely to take a chance on new authors (how much word-of-mouth can a small book garner in under a month, after all?), it’s probably safe to assume that a policy shift like this will make it harder for backlist authors to remain in print.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you saying, “you’re always telling us that publishing trends change all the time — and that even if I get an agent tomorrow, it might be a couple of years before my book hits the shelves. Do I really need to worry about return policies now, while I’m plugging away at building my query list, as you have successfully guilted me into moving up on my to-do list?”

Well, perhaps worry is too strong a word, but it is something to keep in mind when thinking about your writing career in the long term. Working authors often rely upon sales of their backlist works to pay the bills. If backlist sales decline — as they well might, if such a policy is embraced industry-wide — it may be significantly more difficult to make a consistent living as a writer of books in the years to come.

In other words, this change may affect your ability to quit your day job after you’re published. Indeed, many of the quite solid debut novelists of the last few years have not — which, naturally, affects their ability to promote their current books (now largely the author’s responsibility, especially online) and write their next ones.

In the short term, however, I think it’s always helpful for an aspiring writer to be aware that there is almost always more to an editor’s decision to acquire a book — and by extension, to an agent’s decision to offer it representation — than simply whether the writing is good. During periods when booksellers are taking fewer risks, publishers have historically relied more upon their tried-and-true authors than upon exciting new talent.

Thus tightening the already tight market for what used to be called writers of promise, excellent authors who don’t catch on with the public until the fourth or fifth book. (Mssr. Alexie’s first book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, was originally published in 1993. Fortunately, it’s still available as a backlist title.)

Do I think this change is cause for rending your garments and casting your hard-collected query lists into the nearest fire? No, certainly not. But I do think that aspiring writers who approach the querying and submission processes as though the book market has not become significantly tighter in recent years are more likely to give up when faced with rejection than those with a more up-to-date view of how the business works.

Why are the former more likely to succumb to querying and submission fatigue? Unfortunately, no matter how much publishing does or doesn’t change, one constant is apparently immortal: that perniciously pervasive myth out there that the only reason a manuscript, or even a query, ever has trouble finding a professional home is because of a lack of writerly talent.

That is simply not true. Like the common fantasy of walking into a writers’ conference, pitching to the first agent in sight, getting signed on the spot, and selling the book within the month, that misapprehension makes too many good writers stop trying after only a handful of efforts.

What is true is that the competition is fierce, and the more a writer learns about how the business works, the more she can hone her queries and submissions to increase their likelihood of success. There is an immense gulf between the difficult and the impossible — and, as I have stressed time and again, the only impossible hurdle for a book to overcome is the one that confines it in a desk drawer, unqueried and unread.

No matter how tight the book market becomes, it’s not the industry that controls the lock on that drawer; it’s the writer. Never, ever allow the prospect of rejection to seal that drawer shut permanently.

This is your dream — give it a fighting chance. Keep that querying momentum going.

One more ‘Palooza is lurking in the wings between now and the solstice, the official end of autumn. Tune in tomorrow for its unveiling — and, now and always, keep up the good work!

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

Willy-Wonka-in-Chocolate-Factory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears a bit of thought, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

imshocked

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

OR:

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

OR:

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

These, you can take at face value.

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

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

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

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

Thoughts about Self-Publishing, by guest blogger James Brush

James Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard coverJames Brush postcard cover

Hello there, campers –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

james-brush author photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be patient and keep writing.

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

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

sunshine-moving-in-trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to the village center

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

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

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

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

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

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

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody wins, in short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just mention. Keep up the good work!