A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, 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 coming 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 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, 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 highly laudable 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, 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. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, 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 the agency needs 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?

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.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves 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 (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently 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, interestingly, 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 spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, 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, well-intentioned 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.

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.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. 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 that 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. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: 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 Millie’s 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.

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?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) 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 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of 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?) 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. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

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. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — 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 ants, 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, “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 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, 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 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’s probably safe to assume that this year’s 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, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

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 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 — yet another annual phenomenon.

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 agency denizens 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 well 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, not: 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. Or maybe you don’t 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, you 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 manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. 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. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. 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 for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

Pet peeves on parade, part XXII: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to Millicent.

Ooh, we have a burgeoning buffet of professional readers’ pet peeves on the Author! Author! sideboard today, campers. Let’s begin with a personal least-favorite of mine that I hope and pray will shortly be a least-favorite of yours.

In anticipation of that happy day, may I ask a favor of all of you involving the eradication of an unfortunately ubiquitous query letter pet peeve? Would those of you who have been sending out queries containing the phrase complete at X words kindly erase them?

Right now, if it’s not too much trouble. I’ve just seen my 500th query this year to include the phrase, and while I pride myself on being a tolerant, writer-friendly professional reader, I’m sick of it. It’s clumsily phrased, unoriginal, and it’s not as though it will do a query any good.

Yes, you read that correctly: this phrase can only harm a query packet’s chances of success. Stop it, please, before it kills again.

Is that giant collective gasp an indication that this phrase is lifted from some soi-disant foolproof online boilerplate? As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while are already aware of how I feel about those pernicious one-size-fits-all query patterns, I shan’t reflect yet again on their overall efficacy, but even amongst those who don’t moan, “Why do all of today’s queries read identically?” on a regular basis have been perplexed by this awkward phrase’s sudden rise in popularity. It popped into usage only fairly recently — one seldom saw it before ten years ago — but it is far too pervasive to have been passed along by word of mouth alone. Since it contains a piece of information anyone who has taken a conference course on query-writing should know does not need stating, this stock phrase is unlikely to have originated from the writers’ conference circuit.

So whence, the pros wonder, did it emerge? Some doors mankind is not meant to open, I guess.

More importantly for pet peeve-avoidance purposes, why might this innocent-seeming phrase set Millicent the agency screener’s teeth on edge? Simple: if the manuscript being queried is fiction, any agency employee would presume that what the writer is offering is a finished version of the book. First novels are sold on complete manuscripts, period; it would not make sense, therefore, to approach an agent with an incomplete draft. Using precious query letter page space to mention something so obvious, then, is a quite reliable sign of inexperience.

“Besides,” Millicent grumbles, “isn’t part of the point of the query to impress me with one’s writing skills? How on earth am I supposed to be impressed with a writer who stuffs her letter to the proverbial gills with uninspired stock phrases? Show me your phrasing, not some canned clause lifted from the same allegedly sure-fire template half of the queriers who will contact my boss this week will be using!”

Through the whish-whish-whish of frantic erasing on query letter drafts all over the globe, some faint cries of protest arise. “But Anne,” those of you who habitually tuck the phrase into your opening paragraphs argue, “I just thought that was the professional way of including the word count. I realize that Millicent wants to see some original writing, but honestly, isn’t this information to express as quickly as possible and move on?”

The short answer is this: why include it at all? (And the long answer is W-H-Y-I-N-C-L-U-D-E-I-T-A-T-A-L-L?)

No, but seriously, folks, word count is not a standard, necessary, indispensable part of a query. Yes, some agents do prefer to see it up front (and if they have expressed that preference in public, by all means, honor it), but as including it can only hurt a submission’s chances, I’m not a big fan of mentioning word count in a query letter at all. Don’t lie about it if an agency’s guidelines ask for this information, of course, but don’t volunteer it.

And don’t, whatever you do, assume that because some agency guidelines request word count that every agent will expect to see it. As those of you familiar with last autumn’s Querypalooza series may recall, it’s very, very common for an individual agent’s personal preference, once expressed in passing at a conference or in an interview, to be broadcast by well-meaning aspiring writers as the newly-revealed universal key for landing an agent.

But individual preferences are just that: individual. Pretending that every agent currently accepting clients in the United States wants to see word count in the first paragraph of the query letter (and, the accompanying logic usually goes, will automatically reject a query that does not announce this information within the first three lines), despite the fact that the majority of posted submission guidelines do not ask for it, makes about as much sense as including the first 5 pages of text in your query packet as a writing sample just because one of the fifteen agencies you decided to query last week called for you to include it. Out comes the broken record again:

When querying, as when responding to a request for materials, send precisely what that particular agent wants to see — no more, no less. Because part of what a querier is demonstrating in a query packet is the ability to follow directions — a perennially agent-pleasing trait — there is just no substitute for checking every individual agency’s submission guidelines every single time.

Or, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it — and let ‘em have it just that way.

It’s a matter of respect, really. Adhering to any given agent’s expressed querying preferences is a laudable means of demonstrating from the get-go that you are serious enough about your writing not to want just any agent to represent it — you want a specific agent whom you have determined, based on his past sales record, would be a good fit for your book.

According to this principle, an aspiring writer’s including word count is a courtesy to those who ask for it. Offering it unasked to those who do not is, while certainly not required, something that Millicent is likely to regard as a positive blessing — but that doesn’t mean it’s in your best interest to do it.

Why? Knowing from the get-go that a manuscript is too short or too long for its stated book category can save a query-screening Millicent masses of time. Shouting, “Next!” is, we all must recognize, quite a bit speedier than sending out a request for materials, waiting for them to arrive, then seeing first-hand that a manuscript falls outside the length norms.

Heck, if the querier followed the extremely common precept that complete at 127,403 words should appear in the letter’s opening paragraph, she might not even have to read a single additional sentence; if her agency happens to adhere to the belief that 100,000 words is the top cut-off for a first novel — as is the case in most fiction categories — she would have no reason to request the manuscript.

“How kind of this writer,” she murmurs, reaching for the never-far-off stack of form-letter rejections, “to have waved that red flag up front. This way, there’s no possibility of my falling in love with the text before realizing it’s too long, as I might easily have done had I requested pages.”

That one-size-fits-all boilerplate is no longer fitting so comfortably, is it? Typically, agencies that request word count up front like to see it for precisely the same reason a Millicent at a non-requesting agency would be so pleased it appeared: it enables them to reject too-long and too-short manuscripts at the query stage, rather than the submission stage. In essence, it’s asking the writer to provide them with a means of speeding up her own rejection.

But should you include it in a query, if the agency guidelines ask for it? Absolutely: it’s a matter of respect.

I hear you grumbling, campers, and who could blame you? But you might want to brace yourselves, complete at… users; you’re going to like what I’m about to say next even less: many queries rejected for on the basis of excessive word count are actually not too long for their chosen book categories. The listed word count merely makes them appear too long.

“How is that possible?” word count-listers everywhere howl, rending their garments. “I’ve been including what my Word program claims is the actual number of words in the document. By what stretch of the imagination could that number be misinterpreted?”

Quite easily, as it happens: that 100,000 word limit I mentioned above does not refer to actual word count; it is an expression of estimated word count. Although actual word count is appropriate to list for short stories and articles, it is not the norm for book manuscripts — but again, individual agents’ preferences do vary. Therein lies the miscommunication: the overwhelming majority of the considerate souls busily typing complete at… up use actual word count, not estimated, leading Millicent to conclude that a long manuscript contains quite a few more pages than it really does.

Why would she assume the word count is estimated? Respect for the traditions of her industry, mostly: before the rise of Word and its automatic word-count function, estimating was hours more efficient than laboriously counting each and every word. Just as magazines and newspapers used a standard number of words per line, the publishing industry came up with an average for the two most common typewriter key size’s words per page: 250/page for Elite, 200/page for Pica.

With the rise of the home computer, that expectation carried over to the most similar fonts: the standard estimation for a standard manuscript in Times New Roman is 250 words/page; for Courier, it’s 200 words/page. Since TNR is the industry standard, when Millicent sees 100,000 words, she automatically thinks 400 pages.

I see some of you shaking your heads and calling her a Luddite, but for the agency’s purposes, an estimate is more useful than a toting-up of every word. Think about it: since the number of words that appear on a page can vary wildly, actual word count does not tell an agent or editor how many pages to expect, does it? That’s legitimate information for Millicent to consider: the page count is part of the publication cost calculation generally included in the paperwork an editor has to fill out before taking an exciting new project before an editorial committee.

While there is not a one-to-one correlation between the number of pages in a manuscript and the number of pages in its published form — most submission manuscripts shrink by about two-thirds by the time they hit hard copy — page count is hugely important in figuring out how expensive it will be to publish a book. The more pages, the greater the amount of paper and ink required, obviously. Perhaps less obviously, longer books are substantially more expensive to produce than shorter ones: at about 500 pages (an estimated 120,000 words), the binding costs rise dramatically.

Starting to see why our Millie might reject a query that told her in line 3 that it was complete at 127,403 words?

Unfortunately, the majority of queriers who use actual word count, as would be appropriate for a short story or magazine article, are unaware of this publishing reality. Compounding the problem: almost invariably, this number is higher than the estimate would lead one to expect: it is well within the realm of possibility that 127,403-word manuscript would be closer to 400 pages than 500. (Which is why, in case those of you who already have agents had been wondering, agents representing long first novels generally leave the word count off the title page.)

The actual number of pages is irrelevant at rejection time, though, if querier and query-reader are operating on different sets of expectations. While the last digit in that actual count might tip off a professional reader that the writer is using actual count, not an estimate a Millicent in a hurry — and with good math skills — is prone to spot that number and mutter, “509 pages! That’s far too long for a first novel in this category! Next!”

It makes the muses sad enough if the title page prompts this reaction. Imagine, then, how bitterly the muses weep when a good novel gets rejected in this manner because the writer thought the first paragraph of her query needed to contain the words complete at…

Just take it out, willya? I’m tired of listening to the old girls bawl.

Speaking of notorious query-related pet peeves that often engender a cry of “Next!” — and speaking of ungraceful phrases; that segue was a lulu — it would be remiss of me not to mention two others. Since they are such perennial favorites, annoyances to Millicents dating back to at least the Eisenhower administration, let’s haul out the broken record player again, shall we? Nothing like a one of those old-fashioned phonographs when one wants to dance to the oldies-but-goodies.

When approaching an agency with several agents who represent your type of book, it’s considered rude to query more than one of them simultaneously. Pick one — and only one — to approach in any given year.

In publishing, as in so many other areas of life, no means no. If an agent has rejected your query or submission, it’s considered rude to re-approach that agent with the same project again, ever. If the agent wants you to revise and submit that particular manuscript, he will tell you so point-blank; if he likes your voice, but does not think he can sell the manuscript in the current market, he may ask to see your next book.

The second is fairly well-known, but aspiring writers new to the game are constantly running afoul of the first. In a way, that’s completely understandable: if one doesn’t take the time to learn what each agent at a particular agency has represented lately — and few queriers do — it can be pretty difficult to tell which might be the best fit for one’s book.

“I know!” the aspiring writer says, feeling clever as it occurs to her. “I’ll just send it to both of ‘em. That way, I can’t possibly guess wrong which is the agent for me.”

And then both of those queries appear in the inbox belonging to those agents’ shared Millicent. What do you think will happen?

Hint: it has to do with respect. And if you were about to say, “Why, Millicent will weigh carefully which agent would be the most appropriate for my work and forward my query accordingly,” you might want to reconsider you answer.

I don’t care who hears me say it: this is a business where politeness counts. Sending queries to more than one agent at an agency or over and over again to the same agent is, quite apart from self-defeating behavior, an annoyance to those who have to deal with those queries and manuscripts. Need I say more?

Oh, I do? Okay, try this explanation on for size: no one, but no one, likes to be treated as a generic service-provider. Most agents pride themselves on their taste, their insight into current market conditions, and their client list. So when an aspiring writer targets agents with side-by-side offices, as though it were impossible to tell the two of them apart, it’s tantamount to saying, “Look, I don’t care which of you represents me; all agents look alike to me. So what does it matter that one of you already said no?” The same logic applies when a writer queries the same agent who has already rejected that book project: respect for an agent’s choices would dictate honoring that no the first time around.

Speaking of respect issues, let’s not forget the single most common screeners’ pet peeve of all: unprofessionally formatted manuscript submissions. While this is seldom an instant rejection trigger all by itself, not presenting one’s writing in the manner in which the pros expect to see it does mean, effectively, that one is walking into the submission process with one strike against the book.

See why that might prove problematic, in a situation where a manuscript seldom gets more than two strikes before being tossed out of the game?

While veteran members of the Author! Author! community sigh with recognition, those of you new to this blog look a trifle bewildered. “Whoa!” perplexed agent-seekers everywhere cry. “How is formatting a respect issue? Baseball metaphors aside, how on earth could how I choose to present my words on the manuscript page be construed as in any way indicative of my general attitude toward the agent to whom I am sending it? Or, indeed, toward the publishing industry?”

Fairly easily, from the other side of the submission envelope. As it may not be entirely astonishing to you by this point in the post, when Millicent spots an improperly-formatted manuscript, she sees not only a book that needs at least some cosmetic revision to bring up to professional standards, but a writer who does not have enough respect for the industry he aspires to join to learn about its expectations and norms.

“Oh, presentation doesn’t matter,” Millicent imagines the brash new writer saying as he doesn’t bother to spell-check. “That’s my future editor’s job to fix. All that matters is the writing, right?”

Actually, no. Any good agent receives far, far too many beautifully-written manuscripts from aspiring writers who have taken the time to present them properly to waste her time with those that do not. This is such a common rejection reason that there’s even a stock phrase for it.

“That writer is talented,” publishing types will say to one another, “but he hasn’t done his homework.”

Yes, this is often said of talented writers who have yet to develop technical skills, but as any Millicent could tell you, rejection reasons are like wolves: they tend to travel in packs. Improper formatting is merely the quickest indicator of a lack of professionalism to spot. Since all professional book manuscripts and book proposals in this country look alike, adhering to a standard format distinct from what is de rigueur for short stories, articles, academic writing, and even many contests, Millicent can often literally identify a submission from someone who hasn’t done her homework at five paces.

To a literature-lover who handles manuscripts for a living, that’s a genuinely astonishing authorial choice. Unhappily, not doing one’s homework is infinitely more popular than doing it — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a great deal of sense as a long-term strategy for publishing success. Even the most naturally talented baseball player doesn’t expect to hit a home run the first time he steps up to the plate, after all; he knows that he must learn the rules and hone his skills before he has a chance at the big leagues.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers, by contrast, seem to believe that the New York Yankees are going to sign them the first time they pick up bats and don gloves. Can you really blame Millicent for feeling that’s just a trifle disrespectful to all of the great authors who have invested the time in learning to play the game?

“But Anne,” those of you new to querying and submission point out huffily, “why should it surprise anybody that a first-time novelist, memoirist, or book proposer should not already know every nuance of how the industry works? Why is being new a problem to a business ostensibly concerned with seeking out what is fresh and exciting?”

Good question, neophytes. To those used to dealing with professional manuscripts, everything that appears on the page is assumed to be there because the writer made an active choice to include it. By that logic, a typo is never just a typo: it’s either a deliberate misspelling for effect, a proofreading omission, or evidence that the writer just can’t spell. The same holds true for holes in a plot, voice inconsistencies — and yes, formatting.

As I may seven or eight hundred times recently, good agents are inundated with fresh, exciting manuscripts that do not have these problems; clearly, then, it is possible for a writer brand-new to the biz to learn how to avoid them. So when a promising writer has not taken the time to burnish her submission to a high polish, it’s likely to look an awful lot like an assumption that his future agent is going to do all the work of bringing that manuscript into line with professional standards for her.

In other words, not formatting a submission in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect will effectively mean that she will start reading it already assuming that it is not the final draft. How could a manuscript that does not adhere to professional presentation standards be considered a completely polished manuscript?

It’s not as though the agent of your dreams could submit it to an editor that way, after all. An agent who permitted her clients to deliver work in any of those formats would have to waste her own time changing the cosmetic elements so it would be possible to take it to a publishing house. For this reason, Millicent regards incorrectly-formatted work as indicative of a writer not particularly serious about his work .

Or, to put it a trifle more bluntly: she’s not judging it on the writing alone. Necessarily, she has to consider how much extra time her boss would have to invest in a writer who would have to be trained how to put together a manuscript.

I see those of you who worked your way through last autumn’s mind-achingly detailed Formatpalooza series rolling your eyes. “Yes, yes, we know, Anne,” veteran format-contemplators say wearily. “You walk us through standard format at least once a year, addressing at length the digressions from it in which aspiring writers all too frequently unwittingly indulge at great cost to their books’ submission chances. I now no longer add a row of asterisks to indicate a section break, allow Word to alter my doubled dashes with spaces on either end to emdashes bridging the space between the words before and after, nor embrace the AP style practice of capitalizing the first word after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence. Heck, I even know what a slug line is. I still secretly agonize in the dead of night because another website — one that does not draw a firm distinction between the correct format for a book manuscript and how a short story should be submitted to a magazine, perhaps — says I should place the chapter title on the line directly above the first line of text, as is proper for a short story, rather than on the first line of the page, as is appropriate for a book manuscript, but overall, I feel pretty good about how professional my submissions look. Why keep nagging me about it?”

Actually, my frequent reminders of the importance of adhering to standard format are not aimed at you, conscientious researchers, but toward those who have not yet learned to emulate your laudable example. Aspiring writers who have taken the time to learn the expectations of the industry into which they are trying to break are not, generally speaking, those whose submissions make Millicent grind her teeth down to nubs. If you’re already following the rules, chances are good that she is judging your manuscript on your writing.

Congratulations; that’s a relative rarity. Unfortunately for the overall happiness of aspiring writers everywhere, most submissions reflect an almost complete lack of awareness that standard format even exists. Oh, most are double-spaced and feature page numbers (although you would be astonished at how often the latter are omitted), but beyond the application of one or two isolated rules, it’s quite obvious that the writers who produced them think presentation doesn’t matter.

Surprised to hear that’s the norm? You’re in good company — Millicent is flabbergasted. Despite a wealth of formatting advice floating around the Internet — some of it accurate, some of it not — the average manuscript landing on her desk displays a blithe disregard of standard format. It’s almost as though it’s daring her to like the writing in spite of the careless presentation.

It is, in short, disrespectful. And we all know how Millicent, the industry’s gatekeeper and thus the person who sees far more promising writing gone wrong than anybody else, tends to respond to that: “Next!”

I’m bringing all of this up in the middle of our ongoing discussion of craft not to say that presentation is more important than the writing quality — no one who dealt with manuscripts for a living would argue that — but to remind everyone that to a professional reader, everything on that page matters.

There are no free passes for careless omissions; with any given agency, there are seldom even second chances after an insufficiently-polished first approach. Yet despite the vital importance of making a good first — and second, and third — impression, most good writers become so impatient to see their words in print that they start sending out queries and submissions half an hour after they type THE END.

Sometimes even before. Had I mentioned that it’s considered disrespectful to query a manuscript that is not yet completed? (It is, perversely, acceptable to give a verbal pitch at a conference under the same circumstances, however. Agents and editors who hear pitches know how stressful it is; most would agree that a practice run at it a year or two before one is doing it for real isn’t a bad idea.)

As exciting as the prospect of getting your baby published may be, sending it out before it’s ready to meet Millicent is not the best long-term strategy. At least not now, when personalized rejection letters have become exceedingly rare: while up to about a decade ago, an aspiring writer could hope to gain valuable and useful feedback from the submission process, now, the volume of queries and submissions is so high that the manuscript that prompted Millicent to mutter, “Oh, here’s another one who didn’t do his homework,” and the carefully-polished near-miss are likely to receive precisely the same form-letter rejection: I’m sorry, but I just don’t think I can place this book successfully in the current tight literary market.

The wording may vary slightly, but the sentiment is the same. Aspiring writers are not the only population fond of boilerplates, apparently.

Choose your words thoughtfully, take the time to learn the rules of submission, and treat your future agent — and his Millicents — with respect. Believe me, once you are working with them on an intensive basis, you’ll be glad you did.

Next time, we’ll wend our way merrily back to the Short Road Home. Keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: what we have here is a failure to communicate — in a business that’s all about communication

What do you mean, most manuscrips get rejected on page 1? That’s ridiculus.

I can’t believe you’re telling us that presentation can count as much as writing style. Agents know to look past any minor problems to the actual writing.

I hate Millicent. She must hate literature, or else how could she possibly reject subission so quickly?

The publish industry has become completely shallow. They only care about what sells, so it’s impossible for a genuiney talented new voice to get heard. Why even bother?

You got me, commenters on my series on professional readers’ pet peeves: the publishing industry doesn’t care whether books sell or not; it’s a non-profit enterprise devoted to the promotion of literary art. Nor are agencies at all market-oriented: while they don’t actually object if one of their pet authors happens to have a book that sells well, they can all afford to take on every project that appeals to them, regardless of whether they think they can sell it or not. Agents have limitless time to proofread — or even copyedit — their clients’ work before submitting it to editors, so it doesn’t matter what shape a manuscript is in when they take it on, and since they never specialize in a particular kind of book, they take chances on writing they just like all the time. In fact, they have so much time on their hands in any given workday that Millicent the agency screener doesn’t actually exist: she’s a figment of my imagination, intended to fill you with fear. In practice, every agent in the United States sits down to read every single query submitted, as well as every syllable of every requested manuscript, before making up her mind whether to reject it or not. Since only bad writing gets rejected, this of course an easy task.

In short, there’s no need for a naturally talented writer to take the time to learn how to format a manuscript, much less proofread it. Or, heaven forfend, find out how the publishing industry actually works.

Do I even need to shout, “April Fool,” campers?

I sincerely hope not. I’m writing about real-world phenomena here, not my opinion about how promising new talent ought to be discovered. I’m only telling you about the norms; I didn’t invent them. But now that some of you have brought your concerns about how difficult it is to get published to my attention, I’ll just wave my magic wand, and…

Oh, wait a minute: not being the Literature Fairy, I can’t change the publishing world upon request. No matter how often aspiring writers plead with me to say I didn’t really mean it when I said that there are practical things they can do to maximize the probability of their work making it past Millicent, I’m simply not in a position to alter reality in this respect. Sorry.

Which is why, in case any of you had been wondering, I’ve chosen to take the hard path here at Author! Author!, concentrating on craft and marketing issues, rather than just being a cheerleader for writers in general. I don’t believe (as some writing gurus out there apparently do) that it helps aspiring writers much to view the submission process through a rosy, hazy glow: as both a lover of literature and a great believer in the intelligence of writers, I would rather show you the actual conditions under which your work is going to be evaluated, encourage you not to worry about the factors that are outside your control, and, yes, to urge you to consider altering your texts to improve your chances of impressing Millicent.

Rather than, say, investing your energies in resenting Millicent for existing at all. It’s not her fault that the competition to grab an agent’s attention is so very fierce.

Surprised to see me defending her? Don’t be: I’m rather fond of our Millie. Without her, it simply would not be possible for agents to give even a passing glance to the avalanche of queries that constantly arrive in their offices. Then, too, it’s hard not to feel protective toward someone writers routinely blame for a system she did not create.

Heck, blame is putting it nicely: because most aspiring writers understandably don’t tend to think of their own queries or submissions as just one amongst the thousands an agency receives, many just assume that if they are rejected, the problem must lie in the obtuseness of the reader, rather than in any problems in the manuscript.

From Millicent’s perspective, this doesn’t make sense: there is quite a bit of truth to the industry aphorism that most manuscripts reject themselves. Not merely via the kind of opinion-influencing pet peeves we’ve been talking about throughout this series, but through plain old weak writing. Or a story that’s just not very interesting, or one that’s not original. Or — and this often comes as a gigantic surprise to those new to the process — because it’s not the kind of book that her boss habitually sells.

And frankly, in most cases, it genuinely is possible for a sharp reader to spot these problems within the first page. Sometimes with in the first couple of lines. Most of the time, it’s not a particularly hard decision, or one that ties her up in agonies of indecisiveness. To put it bluntly, from where Millicent is sitting, the vast majority of submissions deserve to be rejected.

To most aspiring writers, this attitude would come as a surprise, and with good reason: all they believe is being judged in a submission is the writing style and the overall story. The former is either good or bad, their logic tends to run, with few possibilities in between: if the writer is genuinely talented, it will be instantly obvious to an agent or editor.

If the prose needs work, well, that can always be fixed down the line: it’s the voice that counts. Regardless of how hard the text may be to read due to typos, skipped words, light gray type because the printer cartridge was running on empty, etc., an agent who truly loves literature is going to read the entire submission, because, after all, why would she ask for 50 pages if she didn’t intend to read every word? Nor will she worry about niggling marketing issues like who the target audience is for the book: good writing sells itself. And even if it didn’t, that would be the publishing house’s problem, not the author’s.

Is here where I get to shout, “April Fool!” again?

Unfortunately, no: while not all aspiring writers draw out the logic to this extent, this is the basic mindset reflected in the comments at the top of this post. These sentiments — including, heaven help us, the spelling — are not exaggerations to make a point: they are honestly representative of the feedback I have gotten from aspiring writers over the years whenever I have gotten specific about red flags in manuscripts.

Oh, not all of the feedback takes this tone, of course; this is merely a vocal minority. The Author! Author! community is rife with urbane, sensible aspiring writers who honestly do want to find out why some manuscripts get rejected and others do not. Which is why most of the protests that inevitably arise whenever I start going through common reasons that submissions get rejected on page 1 — as the vast majority of them do, much to the chagrin of aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world — tend to take a much more dignified, thoughtful tone.

Not to mention being spelled better. Why, just today, incisive reader Nancy posted this well-argued comment on yesterday’s celebration of pet peevery:

Thanks for the post. I’ve been giving some thought to page one & chapter one revisions. But one thing bothers me about this post & how you present it. It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.

I love this kind of comment, because it both reflects a very natural resentment common amongst aspiring writers and an understanding rare amongst submitters that Millicent actually has an incredibly difficult job — much, much harder than it used to be before the advent of the home computer permitted the number of queries and submissions she has to get through in any given week to skyrocket. I’m not convinced that there are more people who want to get books published now than ever before, but technology has certainly made it significantly easier for the aspiring writer to get her work in front of Millicent’s aforementioned bleary eyes.

Oh, you had thought that she uses form-letter rejections — or, increasingly, no rejection letter at all — because she likes them? Au contraire, mon frère: it’s a matter of available time. Think about it: it’s her job to narrow the tens of thousands of queries and hundreds of requested materials packets down to the couple of dozen of manuscripts her boss, the agent of your dreams, could possibly read himself for consideration for the four or five (at most) new client slots he has this year.

Which is to say: our Millie doesn’t magically get more hours in the day if the current flock of submissions happens to be especially good. Talk to the Literature Fairy about that.

But that’s not how aspiring writers think about the submission process, is it? To the garden-variety hopeful querier or submitter, it’s practically unthinkable that the other writing projects the agency receives would have any effect on how an agent might view her book.

All that ever matters are the story and the writing style, right? Right?

From Millicent’s point of view, no. She is in charge of mediating the competition for those few client spots, not rewarding every prettily-worded submission that she sees. If her agency hasn’t been able to sell a story like the one in front of her for the last couple of years, she’s going to lean toward rejecting it. Furthermore, she reads too many manuscripts to believe that the way the text appears on the page is not reflective of how serious a writer is about his craft; she has observed too many book sales to regard whether an editor is likely to find the opening pages too slow as irrelevant to whether the manuscript would appeal to her boss.

What we have here, in short, is a failure to communicate, exacerbated by form-letter rejections that don’t let the writer know whether Millicent rejected a manuscript on page 1 or page 25. Or if abundant typos prompted her to stop reading, or if the story just didn’t interest her. Or — and this is positively mind-boggling, from a writerly perspective — whether she loved everything about the manuscript, but her boss just didn’t think it would sell in the current literary market.

Don’t think that’s a legitimate concern? Okay, let me ask you: why are you seeking an agent for your manuscript? Do you not hope and expect that agent to sell your book to a publisher?

Interesting to think of it in those terms, isn’t it?

Now that we are in a marketing mindset, let’s return to Nancy’s central question about yesterday’s post: if a writer bases a decision about what scene should open a manuscript upon what she thinks will appeal most to Millicent — or even gives some serious thought to how her book might appear to someone who read only the first page — is she pandering to the agency and, by implication, compromising her art? Or is she merely being market-savvy, and are the two mutually exclusive?

A perfectly legitimate set of questions from a writer’s point of view, right? To Millicent, they wouldn’t even make sense.

Why? Well, for the same reason that the question of selling out vs. artistic integrity has traditionally been much more of a concern for aspiring writers than ones who already do it for a living. From a professional point of view, there is not a necessary trade-off between good art and good marketing. If there were, getting published would be solely the province of those who don’t care about literary style, right?

“If an aspiring writer believes that,” Millicent says, scratching her head, “wouldn’t my being interested in his book be an insult? And how could a writer justify admiring an established author, who by definition writes for a specific market? This sounds like a Catch-22 to me — an unusually-structured novel that became a major bestseller, by the way — if playing to an audience necessarily means throwing one’s artistic values out the window, why would anyone who liked good writing ever read a successful author’s work?”

Allow me to translate, Millicent: aspiring writers sometimes assume that there’s only one right way to tell the story they have in mind — and that the author is only person who can determine what that running order is. From this point of view, it’s equally harmful to artistic freedom of expression for an editor to ask a writer to change the opening scene as for the writer to feel compelled to rearrange the text to begin with action, because someone giving advice on the Internet said — accurately, as it happens — that you tend to reject slow openings. In essence, both imperatives are based upon the assumption that it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice the most effective way of telling a story in order to sell a book.

“Please tell me,” Millicent replies, “that you’re about to shout, ‘April Fool!’ Are you seriously suggesting that it’s artistically inappropriate for an agent to say, ‘Okay, new client, I like your book, but it would resemble other books in your chosen category — and thus be easier to sell to the editors who acquired those books — if you rearrange the running order?’ Most published novels get revised fairly heavily between when an agent picks them up and publication, and while new authors tend to kick up a fuss about it, most ultimately agree in the long run that the requested revisions actually improved their books. So I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find anyone on my side of the submission packet who would say with a straight face that the author’s original version is the best or only way to structure a book.”

If you listen closely to both sides of this argument, you can hear how it comes back to that perennial difference of opinion about how and why books should get published. On the one hand, many aspiring writers would like to believe that it’s Millicent’s job — and the publishing industry’s duty — to base decisions upon what to accept and what to reject solely upon writing talent (defined by potential, rather than what’s actually on the page) and the inherent interest of the story (defined in artistic terms, and not by what readers might actually buy). On the other hand, many agents and editors — and their Millicents — proceed on the assumption that it’s the writer’s job to create interesting, marketable manuscripts written in a strong, unique authorial voice appropriate to the target audience’s already-established likes and dislikes.

A good writer, in their opinion, is one who can pull off this high-wire act without compromising the book’s artistic value.

Which is in fact possible, as the work of all of our favorite authors attest. But if a writer trying to break into the biz chooses to think of the demands of art and the market as necessarily mutually exclusive, it’s a significantly more difficult high-wire act to complete without tumbling to the ground.

And honestly, in my experience, speeding up an opening scene or making it read more like a story in its chosen book category seldom involves doing great violence the text. It’s often as simple as moving that great exchange on page 4 up to page 1, or drafting a conflict-ridden scene from later in the book to use as a prologue.

Or — brace yourselves, purists, because this one is going to sting a little — going into the composition process realizing that it would be desirable to open the book with conflict, rather than a scene where very little happens or one loaded with constant digressions for backstory. While you’re at it, including a strong, sensual opening image would be nice.

That’s not a matter of the market dictating content. That’s a matter of understanding how readers decide whether to get invested in a story or not.

I’m not just talking about Millicent, either. Plenty of readers habitually grab volumes off bookstore shelves and scan the first page or two before buying a book, after all. While readers’ pacing expectations vary widely by book category (and sometimes by country: even literary fiction published in the U.S. tends to start much faster than similar books published in the U.K.), you must admit that it’s rare to find a reader who says, “You know what I like? A story that doesn’t appear to be going anywhere until page 148.”

Is that blinding glare spreading across the horizon an indication that a whole lot of light bulbs just went off over a whole lot of writers’ heads? You performed the translation for yourself this time: the publishing industry — and its first reader, Millicent — believes it is doing right by its customers by habitually rejecting slow-opening books or those with plots that don’t seem to be going anywhere for the first 200 pages. It’s protecting them from — well, perhaps boredom is a harsh term, but certainly disappointment.

What makes publishing types think that they know what readers want? They have the sales statistics for what readers are already buying sitting in front of them.

Instead of debating whether past sales are necessarily indicative of the kind of book that will strike readers’ fancies a few years hence, let’s take a moment to consider from what Millicent is protecting the reading public. Generally speaking, it’s not vividly rendered, fascinatingly written exemplars of cutting-edge prose that send her groping for the form-letter rejection pile. A startlingly high percentage of what any screener or contest judge sees reads like this:

It was a dark and stormy night. It was cold in the castle. Myra shook her long, red hair down her back, shivering. She was tall, but not too tall, a medium height just perfect for melting into Byron’s arms. She walked from one side of the room to the other, pacing and thinking, thinking and pacing. The walls of the room were covered in tapestries needled by her mother who spent years bent over them. Myra barely glanced at them now.

Come on, admit it — you wouldn’t really blame Millicent if she rejected this, would you? The writing’s not interesting, the sentence structure is far too repetitive, and nothing’s really happening. About all it has going for it, from a professional perspective, is that all the words are spelled right.

Oh, you may laugh, but part of Millie’s job consists of saving the literary world from the rampant misspellings that characterize the average submission — and an astonishingly high proportion of otherwise rather well-written ones. Let’s don her super heroine’s cloak for a moment, to see just how difficult the decision to reject such a manuscript would be.

If you opened the day’s submissions and saw this novel’s opening, how likely would you be to recommend that your boss read it? Or even to turn to page 2 yourself?

This is not a particularly egregious example of the type of manuscript problem Millicent sees on a daily basis. If the formatting, spelling, grammar, and capitalization issues bugged you, you were reading like a professional: when a pro looks at a page like this, what she sees is how it could be improved. In this case, so much improvement is needed that she would automatically reject this submission. Better luck next time.

But if you were reading this page as most aspiring writers read their own work, you probably saw something different: the charm of the story, the rhythm of the writing, the great use of specifics. You would have reacted, in short, rather like Millicent would have had the page above been presented like this.

Now that the distractions are cleared away, it’s rather nice writing, isn’t it? It ought to be: it’s the opening of Nobel laureate in literature John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

As those of you prone to thinking cynically about how hard it is to get published nowadays may be pleased to note, it would be nearly impossible for an aspiring writer to get this first page past Millicent today, even in the second format. Actually, even a very well established author might have difficulty getting this published now: that many ands in a row would put many a professional reader off. Essentially, this is a long list, rather than a fully fleshed-out description.

It’s also, by current standards, a rather slow opening. “Who is the protagonist?” Millicent cries. “And what is this book about?”

Based upon this page alone, it appears to be primarily about the writing — and that renders the peculiar sentence structure and choice to open with this material even more pertinent. John Steinbeck, no doubt, considered those run-ons artistically necessary; presumably, he also had a reason for electing to begin his story with this series of lists. When you have a Nobel Prize in literature, your readers may well be tolerant of this kind of thing. Even as a reader quite fond of the book that follows, though, I can’t concur in his choices: this page 1 does not even remotely do justice to the fabulously quirky characters and hilarious plot twists to come.

“This book is funny?” Millicent asks incredulously. “Could have fooled me.”

Actually, the opening page fooled you, Millie, and it’s hard to hold anyone but the author responsible for that. In Uncle John’s defense, though, his target readership would have grown up on Victorian novels, books where the early pages were often devoted to establishing time and setting through generalities. (And in the passive voice: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, etc.) It just goes to show you, the standards of what constitutes good writing are constantly evolving.

“Aha!” Millicent shouts triumphantly. “So much for the notion that good writing is always good writing. Take that, writers who want to blame me for readers’ ever-changing tastes! If I advised my boss to snap up every manuscript that would have sold readily 10, 20, or 150 years ago, I would not only be ignoring current literary tastes, but doing a disservice to those old-fashioned writers. It breaks everyone’s heart when we can’t place a book we love.”

That doesn’t require translation, I hope. Part of my goal in presenting Millicent’s pet peeves is not only to help aspiring writers realize that there is a human being, not a literature-evaluating machine, reading their submissions, but that since professional readers honestly do tend to like good writing, it genuinely annoys them to see a nicely-written opening marred by technical problems. Or a story with a lot of potential squandering the reader’s attention with too much backstory up front. Or — you were anticipating this one, weren’t you? — a beautifully worded first page making itself hard to market by eschewing conflict.

Is that the same thing as requiring a writer to compromise his artistic integrity or harm the story he is trying to tell? She doesn’t think so, nor, I suspect, would anyone else who reads manuscripts for a living. They have faith, even if aspiring writers don’t, that a genuinely talented storyteller will possesses the skills and creativity to structure her tale to grab the reader from the top of page 1.

Which most emphatically does not mean, as today’s commenter suggested, that every opening needs to read like the first scene of a thriller: “I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”

Yes, she is — and so was the argument in yesterday’s post. If I may take the liberty of quoting myself, I specifically urged everyone not to begin page 1 with explosions or other genre-inappropriate activity:

Not enough happens on page 1 is often heard in its alternative incarnation, the story took too long to start. . On behalf of agency screeners, sleep-deprived and otherwise, all over Manhattan: please, for the sake of their aching heads and bloodshot eyes, get to the action quickly.

And not merely, as so many writing gurus recommend, just any action: toss the reader directly into conflict, by all means, but let that conflict be directly relevant to the story you’re about to tell. Remember, the goal here is to surprise and delight Millicent, after all, not to trick her into thinking that the story that follows is more plot-heavy than it actually is.

Many, many aspiring writers misunderstand this point, so I am glad that Nancy brought it up. Allow me to restate it in clearer terms: no one is seriously suggesting that it would be desirable, or even appropriate, for a good writer to shoehorn conflict onto page 1 that doesn’t arise from legitimate plot elements and/or character development. Nor is anyone telling you that action-movie pyrotechnics are necessary to attract Millicent’s positive attention. To conclude that the publishing industry insists upon this kind of action at the opening of every book it decides to publish is to ignore what has actually appeared on page 1 of the vast majority of novels published in the United States this year — or, indeed, any year.

To professional readers, then, it’s downright puzzling to hear aspiring writers complain that the publishing industry has turned its back on non-sensational writing. Once again, we run into a translation problem.

This one arises, I suspect, from responding too literally to the words action and conflict. Although countless aspiring writers misinterpret marketing admonitions like open with action, throw the reader right into the book’s central conflict, and make sure there is action on page 1 to mean we’re not interested in any stories that could not be made into action films, that’s simply not what the advice means. (That’s why, in case anybody had been wondering, I was careful to phrase the rejection reason yesterday as not enough happens on page 1 and the story takes to long to get started, not as the more commonly-heard open the book with action.)

In literary circles, action and conflict can refer to relatively quiet activities. Yes, nearby objects blowing up are one kind of action, but so is the protagonist taking steps to try to challenge a situation she finds onerous, even in a very small way. Conflict can involve a Bruce Lee-style kung fu brawl, but it can also be a character silently disagreeing with the speech his boss is making, his subtle body movements demonstrating his ire. Neither term could be fruitfully applied, however, to the protagonist’s sitting around and thinking, multiple characters complacently agreeing with one another, or paragraph upon paragraph of backstory distracting from the current scene.

Even as feedback on a specific text, the advice open with action seldom means supply all of the ladies in the opening quilting scene with switchblades, and make sure that quilt is bloody by the bottom of page 1! Typically, when a professional reader suggests rearranging the running order or revising the scene to add action, it’s as an antidote to a scene that drags. Adding interpersonal conflict, placing a barrier in the protagonist’s path, or just plain having something exciting happen (“Look, there’s an albatross flying by, Grandma!”) are all standard ways to speed up a slow scene.

Again, none of these tactics would necessarily involve compromising the artistic integrity of the manuscript, interfering with the basic storyline, or tossing a Molotov cocktail into the middle of a sedate tea party. Implementing them successfully may, however, require some good, old-fashioned creative thinking to come up with a means of introducing believable conflict onto page 1 — and, indeed, onto every page of the text.

Why? Because conflict is interesting; readers like it. Do you need a better reason than that? Keep up the good work!

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

seagull-prints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The room fell silent.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s right, campers: after yesterday’s post, which concluded that most aspiring writers give up before they’ve given their manuscripts a sufficient chance to succeed, I’m going to talk about how they can falter after they do succeed, at least at clearing the first major hurdle on the path to publication. Today, we’re going to discuss the often astonishingly disorienting moment when a writer receives an offer of representation.

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

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

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

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: as we have seen throughout this series, it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer.

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

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

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

As we saw earlier in this series, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. The result is that agents and editors at small publishing houses (who sometimes also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

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

When I pointed this out to my class, however, my students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

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

Thus, that story we all so often hear at conferences: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it. Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor.

Especially if the agent has a track record of giving up after just a handful of submissions. As with querying, until a manuscript has been circulated for a while, no one can really say for sure how marketable it actually is.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers. Now, it is the NORM for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal BEFORE sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor. Which means that it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

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

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

Naturally, I explained all of this to my class. By this point, my students were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. As much as I would have liked to reassure them that their work would sell well and immediately, the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare.

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

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF to signing with my agent to book sale was only eight months, positively lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed the agency contract through when the book was first sent out to editors was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal my agent’s behest.

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

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

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

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

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

Ponder that for a moment, please, while I move back to the point in your writing career when your answer could hardly be more important: the days immediately following your receiving an offer of representation from someone who may or may not be the agent of your dreams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bears a bit of thought, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations on making it all the way through this long, serious series; I hope it will prove helpful to you. And, as always, keep up the good work!

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

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

sunshine-moving-in-trees

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

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

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

Keep this in mind as you read merrily through today’s post, please: clinging too rigidly to preconceived notions of how things are supposed to work may lead to a distorted view of what’s actually going on.

That observation should feel at least a trifle familiar by now: throughout this series, we have seen a number of ways in which the prevailing wisdom about how books get published is, to put it charitably, a tad outdated, if not outright wrong. If it was ever true that the instant a brilliant writer wrote THE END, agents and editors magically appeared on her doorstep, clamoring to represent and publish, respectively, the just-finished book, it hasn’t happened recently.

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

At least, it doesn’t work that way for writers who weren’t already celebrities in another medium. (If you happen to have won the Nobel Prize in economics or spent your formative years starring in movies, I’m afraid that different rules apply; you’re going to need to find somewhere else.)

For the rest of us, getting our writing recognized as marketable by those in a position to do something practical about it — like, say, an agent with connections to editors who handle your book category — is darned hard work.

And as I pointed out earlier in this series, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers, all of that nerve-wracking labor and waiting doesn’t stop once one lands an agent to represent one’s manuscript. What the work entails may change, but the imperative to produce one’s best writing, presented in the best possible manner, never goes away.

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

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

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

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

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

To put it even more bluntly: what a writer regards as a finished book — which is how most aspiring writers think of their books prior to submission, right? — often isn’t. In the traditional publishing world, a whole lot of people have the right to request changes.

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

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

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

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

Last time, I brought up an increasingly attractive way out of this dilemma: self-publishing. These days, you can hardly throw a piece of bread at a respectable-sized writing conference without hitting an aspiring writer who, exasperated by the ever-increasing difficulty of breaking into the world of traditional publishing, are at least toying with striking out on his own.

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

Yet if you ask representatives of the traditional publishing houses about self-publishing at writers’ conferences, you’re likely to receive a dismissive answer, as though nothing much had changed — unless, of course, the book about which you are inquiring happened to sell exceptionally well and ultimately got picked up by a major publisher as a result.

In case you were wondering, exceptionally well in this context usually translates into something over 10,000 books, give or take a hundred or two depending upon book category. The last time I checked, the average self-published book sells less than 500 copies.

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

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

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

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

In practice, this can make self-publishing a pretty hard row to hoe, unless the author happens already to have her pretty mitts on some hefty promotional credentials, a mailing list of thousands, or connections at bookstores nationwide that would make Jacqueline Susann weep with envy. (Any writer seriously considering self-publishing, or even promoting her own book, should run, not walk, to rent the uneven but often very funny Susann biopic, Isn’t She Great?. It has some problems on a storytelling level, as real people’s lives often do, but there’s no denying that it’s a great primer on how to promote a book.)

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

In practice, this means it’s harder to convince a library or bookstore to carry a non-traditionally published book. And since fiction is traditionally more review-dependent than nonfiction — it all depends on the writing, right? — almost anyone in the traditional book selling or buying biz will tell you that self-publishing a novel is just a poor idea. (Which isn’t necessarily true anymore — as two guest bloggers, Mary Hutchings Reed and Janiece Hopper, have been kind enough to explain to members of the Author! Author! community.)

Then, too, since bookstores must purchase self-published and POD books up front, they don’t have the option to return them to the publisher if they don’t sell. As a result, it can be substantially more expensive for a bookstore to carry them than books from a traditional publisher.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, what you just thought is absolutely correct: this logic is indeed circular. However, that doesn’t mean the argument doesn’t have any merit, or that the publishing industry and those who feed it for a living are simply hostile to any book they didn’t handle themselves. It’s substantially more complicated than that.

In essence, the underlying objection here is that for a book to be self-published, only its writer has to consider it of publishable quality.

Breaking into print via single person’s say-so is, as we have seen throughout this series, a far, far cry from how mainstream publishing works. Traditionally published books must jump through a rigorous series of hoops before hitting print, hurdles intended (at least ostensibly) to sift out the manuscripts that are not yet up to professional standard by passing them through an increasingly fine set of mesh screens, as it were.

A trifle startling to think of it that way, isn’t it? But ponder the process from the publishing industry’s point of view for a moment with an eye toward figuring out why they might consider it a selection process akin to panning for gold:

The querying stage: agencies evaluate hundreds of thousands of queries and verbal pitches in order to weed out book projects that don’t fit easily into an established book category (if you don’t know what that is, I implore you to peruse the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the list at right), concepts that have been done too many times (every bestseller spawns thousands of copycats), premises that are unlikely to sell well in the current literary market (which changes all the time), and works by writers that cannot write clearly (I’m sure that all of my readers are sending off gems, but you’d be amazed at how many query letters border on the incoherent).

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

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

By this point, the initially immense applicant pool has been narrowed down to just a few thousand of any year’s queriers — or, depending upon book category, possibly a few hundred. Ostensibly, the manuscripts that make it past this stage are all professionally formatted, grammatically impeccable, are written in a voice and style appropriate to the chosen book category, and are stories well told and/or arguments well made. (Yes, yes, there are other criteria at play, too. Keep picturing those sieves and prospectors panning for gold.)

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

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

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

I could feel many of your going pale as I mentioned actual numbers. I’m sorry to shock anybody, but if we’re going to understand the odds that render self-publishing attractive to many aspiring writer, it’s vital to bear in mind that it’s rare that the annual percentage of releases by first-time authors exceeds 4% of the books sold in the United States. Take a deep breath and remember what we learned earlier in the series: draconian winnowing-down techniques are not the result of agencies and publishing houses being inherently hostile to promoting new voices, but the flat necessity of narrowing down the avalanche of book projects to the relatively few that publishers, even behemoth ones, can actually publish in a given year.

When you’ve recovered sufficiently from the shock, I would invite you to consider two possibilities that fly in the face of some of the prevailing wisdom floating around out there. First, the hurdles a first book (particularly a first novel) must clear are high and numerous enough that at least considering self-publishing is a fairly rational response to a difficult situation, if one happens to have the resources to pull it off.

Second — and this one is going to challenge some of the prevailing notions floating around the writers’ conference circuit — those who work in traditional publishing honestly do have legitimate reason to regard their acquisition process as literarily rigorous. Contrast the process of self-publishing a book as an agent or editor might conceive it:

Step 1: write book.

Step 2: pay publisher.

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

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

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

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

By contrast, such decisions lie entirely in the hands of the self-publishing author. While many presses that cater to self-publishers do offer design services (at a price, of course), the final call is the author’s. If a writer was absolutely married to a particular typeface — something that would be utterly beyond his control at a traditional publisher — it’s his for the asking. Heck, if he wanted to have each character’s dialogue appear in a different font, while a press might try to talk him out of it, it would be up to him.

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

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

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

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

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XI: routes to publication other than through a major house

a-winding-road

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been going over what I consider the absolutely most important information for any aspiring writer to know prior to beginning to market her work. As so often happens when I really get my teeth into a topic, I began by thinking, “Oh, I can polish this off in a couple of days. And now, ten awfully long (even by my rather prolix standards) posts later, I keep coming up with more to say.

Several lessons to be learned from this, I suspect. First, the simplest questions –in this case, How do books get published? often have really, really complicated answers, and having the space and audience to give them their due is an invitation not to minimize their complexity. Hey, boiling down multifaceted reality into bite-sized aphorisms is hard. Glancing back through what I’ve written so far, 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.”

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 he has misheard the response. To be safe, 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 each post in this series was 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 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 conferences.

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, which tends to be expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts.

See my earlier post on translating these truisms.

The problem is, 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 in this case, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple — which brings me to the second lesson to be derived from this series (other than the masses and masses of information contained within it, of course).

Lesson #2: it’s profoundly important that an aspiring writer learns that the prevailing wisdom is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

In other words, there’s a whole lot more to know about getting published than the brevity of the usual saws imply. I firmly believe that 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 very often leads good writers to waste time along the road to publication.

Or, even worse, to assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away, the problem must be in the quality of the writing.

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

Am I being profound, you’re probably wondering, or am I 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.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes of my own about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about 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. And 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, I’m going to posit Lesson #3: 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 in what they acquire than usual.

In other words: hang in there. To produce 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, would be 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.

Which is why, in case those of you with agents have been wondering, it makes 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. 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 this paragraph sounds 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 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.

Which might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice, by the way; there’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question even before the ink is dry on the representation contract. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers — planning to write several marketable books makes very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

The fact is, though, that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal. 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. Others may feel that the large or mid-sized publisher route isn’t for them, 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.

The good news is that there are other options — and I imagine those of you who have been sufficiently virtuous to keep working through this series’ concentrated account will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the last 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.

For the rest of today’s post, I’m going to be talking about the various stripes of small publisher. So for the vast majority of you who have your heart set on a contract with a major publisher, take the rest of the day off.

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. Going this route can sometimes pay off big time for an author: 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, one approaches them 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. (Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers.)

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

I cannot stress sufficiently how important doing your homework is — 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. Check the copyright page of a published book to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house.

Also, it’s important to 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.

Translation: the advance is often small or non-existent. (For an explanation of how the size of the initial print run affects the size of the author’s advance, please see the ADVANCES category on the archive list at right.) Also, the author usually ends up arranging the book tour himself. (While I’m referring you elsewhere, tor some useful tips on posts about how one might go about doing that, check out the posts by guest blogger 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 it 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 might be problematic 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.

On the bright side, an author often has much 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, 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: 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; as those of you who recall my GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series may recall, 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 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). If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

However, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon 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 clause over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. 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. 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 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 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 have 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. (Remember, 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.)

Here’s another bit of bouillon for you: 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 — 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.

That recognition doesn’t necessarily mean that a regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, 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.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reported above, 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.) 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. Given that regional presses have mostly been concentrating on nonfiction for a couple of decades now, I’m not sure why pros at conferences so frequently glibly refer aspiring novelists in their direction.

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 in recent months. So much so that agents who might not otherwise have considered taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher a year or two ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed.

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 often more polished competition. 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 fees.

And 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 should do extensive research on the subject. One of the best places to start: 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.

Keep up the good work!

bunny-eggPS: yes, I know that this series has been long and dense, but I have a fabulous reward in store for you at the end of it: a guest post from an author I’ve been eager to get here to talk to you for a very long time. Hint: he’s funny, and appropriately for the season, there will be small, fluffy animals involved.

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

imshocked

This series on the basics of publishing has been quite a slog, hasn’t it? First, we debunked a few common myths about getting published (most notably, the one about good writing always finding an agent or publisher relatively quickly), approaching major publishing houses (if the houses you have in mind are located within the United States, you need an agent to do it for you), how agents handle queries and submissions from aspiring writers, and finally, what happens to a manuscript after an agent picks it up.

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

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

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

As I’ve been going through the basics, I’ve been sensing a strange combination of discomfort, disbelief, and outright outrage floating around in that part of the cosmic ether where I choose to imagine my far-flung readership resides. Oh, the discontented have been too nice to kick up much of a protest over my account of these rather grim realities, but since the commenter-to-non-commenting-reader ratio on any blog is quite top-heavy, I’ve gotten good at sensing unspoken confusion. If I had to guess the single sentiment that has been muttered most often by readers of this series, it would be this:

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

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

That can be an awfully tall order; as most of you are probably already aware, there’s a LOT of conflicting advice out there.

Including, incidentally, the information writers pick up at literary conferences. On the conference dais and even during pitch sessions, aspiring writers sometimes hear radically mixed messages. See if any of these scenarios sound at all familiar:

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

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

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

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

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

Well, you know how I’ve been yammering for the last couple of weeks about how much easier life is for a writer who has realistic expectations than one who does not? Expecting to hear at least partially conflicting advice from the pros will at least relieve a writer of the substantial stress of suspecting that there’s a secret handshake required to break into print, a trick that may be learned by following every single piece of advice one hears to the letter.

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

I’m also bringing it up to encourage all of you to use caution in evaluating whether to pay to attend writers’ shindigs in the upcoming spring and summer conference season. Many conferences promote their conferences by implying, if not outright stating, that they’re flying in agents and editors who will sign attendees on the spot. However, that’s seldom the norm: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend.

I tremble to mention this, but there is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. The ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.

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

Nor are mixed messages limited to conferences. See if this one rings a bell:

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

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

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

Why would an agent advertise that he is looking for genres she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope. An agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike.

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

Yes, Virginia, that’s very, very annoying for the writers who believed his blurb in a conference guide or website. (For some tips on how to decipher these, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

Because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, rendering it very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears. Giving advice to would-be authors is big business these days; just because a writer pays anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars to attend a conference or intensive seminar doesn’t necessarily mean that what he will hear there is a single coherent explanation of what to do in order to get his book published.

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

Or at least information that sounds contradictory to a writer. Allow me to explain.

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

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

I wish I could refer you to a reliable translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences, in agents’ guides, and on their websites. Although aspiring writers often decide in retrospect that these statements were, at best, inaccurate and/or misleading, these are not lies so much as polite exit lines from conversations, statements of belief, and as often as not, sincere attempts to make struggling aspiring writers feel better about facing the genuinely daunting task of finding representation.

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

So here’s my top ten list of confusing statements agents and editors tend to make at conferences. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each that makes sense in writer-speak; I suspect some of the translations may surprise you.

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

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

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

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

OR:

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

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

OR:

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

OR:

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

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

OR:

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

OR:

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

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

OR:

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

OR:

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

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

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

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

OR:

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

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

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

OR:

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

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

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

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

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

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

These, you can take at face value.

Again, I’m bringing all of this up not to depress you, but to prepare those of you new to the agent-seeking process for the earth-shattering notion that you honestly don’t want to work with an agent who isn’t excited about your type of book. In the hurly-burly of a conference or in the frustration of trying to come up with a list of agents to query next, it can be very, very easy to forget that.

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

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

Keep up the good work!

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

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

And after:
crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personally, although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warranted it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Certainly, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as their manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

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

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

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

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH. Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

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

In other words: things change.

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

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

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

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

*which editors should see it and in what order;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies, like mine, will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission; other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. (Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them.) Some agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

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

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff, and in a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission: remember how I mentioned a few days ago that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors, one of four things can happen next. First, the agent can choose to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As always, keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known about how books get published before you started trying to market your work?

ducks-in-the-yard

For the last week and a half, I’ve been discussing in general terms how books make it from manuscript to publication, but the fact is, every author’s experience is slightly different. As is every submitter’s, pitcher’s, and querier’s, to a certain extent. So now that I’ve brought the trajectory of the manuscript up to the point of an agent’s offering to represent it, this seems like a good time to ask those of you who have personal experience in these areas: how was (or is, if you’re still in the throes of any of these activities) different from the norm?

Specifically, what do you wish you had known before the first time you submitted — or even queried?

If those of you farther along the path to publication have any acquired wisdom to share, this would be the place to do it: as a comment in the midst of the series I hope that aspiring writers brand-new to the biz will read first. Go ahead, make the path a little easier for those who will trod it after you; generosity is fabulous for one’s karma.

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

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials when another agent asked to see my proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project. Unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche; I was too afraid to bug her to let her know that someone else was looking at my book proposal.

Big mistake — if more than one agent asked to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, my book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

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

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

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d said yes to someone else, all she wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was still in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

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

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

As it turned out, I should have listened to her, because Agent #2, being relatively new to the book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book, something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. So my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

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

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off — under the circumstances, I doubt that #2 would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind — but in the long run, it would have been far better for me and my book (which ultimately never sold) had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. (I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won; it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Okay, now I’ve ‘fessed up. Your turn: what do you wish you’d known sooner and why?

Oh, and keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part VIII: what happens after a writer lands an agent?

first-tulip-of-spring

This photo looks as if the tulip were growing inside an aquarium, doesn’t it? Not so: there actually are that many different colors of stone shards in my yard at the moment. (The WWL is noted for uncanny ability to pulverize seemingly solid rock.)

It’s my first tulip of the year, a good month later than usual, due no doubt to the unusually late snow. (As in a few days ago.) Oh, sure, I’ve enjoyed some minor dalliance with an early daffodil or two, and my snowdrops lost their reputation a month and a half ago, but this is the first honest-to-goodness tulip. This brave little bloom seemed like a great emblem of my topic du jour, which is all about new beginnings: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a contract.

After the celebration dies down, that is.

Wait — let’s back up a moment and savor the moment of the author. Typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone, rather than send a letter or e-mail. (Agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time.) She will undoubtedly have a few questions for you, so you should feel free to ask a few of your own.

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

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

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

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment. (Oh, and in case I forgot to mention earlier in this series, this is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, too; it will not engender a pleasant response. For tips on handling requests for materials so you never need to find yourself in a position to make such a shame-faced confession, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal, work off some of your nervous wait-time energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say when that much-anticipated phone call comes, I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

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

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

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

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

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

Some things an agent cannot do (and you should start asking many, many questions if he says he can):
*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

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

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

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

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

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

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

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how her process works. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

Which has long caused philosophers to ponder why all such details are not necessarily spelled out in the agency contract. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Trust me: this is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

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

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — i.e., you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. So either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. Typically, in literary agencies, the cut is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so you will not asking about them up front and/or examining your contract in order to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Just so you know, the timing cutting the check for the agent’s cut will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience. If you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.

See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

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

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Before you laugh out loud, I should tell you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. (Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.)

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

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

I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort all of this out later?”

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

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything nefarious. As I mentioned above, agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent (as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements), do make a point of asking the agent for a brief overview of its major points. Again, it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

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

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

What might other people’s involvement entail? Well, among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

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

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it?

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

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

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

Do find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. As I mentioned in passing above, agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans.

If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.

Again, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. If your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 3-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do assume, however, that you may never see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy — yes, even before the agent has countersigned it — so you may refer to it later.

I know that this post has occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you.

I had meant to get to what agents do with manuscripts after the contract is signed, but I seem to have run long. It will have to be a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!