on getting published, apparently

A friend just emailed me asking for advice for a friend of /hers/; he’s written a novel and while he says everyone who’s read it can’t put it down, he doesn’t know how to get it into a publisher’s hands. He says it crosses genres, so he doesn’t even know where to start, and that he knows it would sell if he had an agent but he knows he can’t get an agent without having sold. He’s considering vanity publishing, because he doesn’t know what else to do. So what, she asks, should he do?

This is what I told her/them:

Tell him not to go the vanity publishing route. If he’s written a good book he can find a real publisher for it, and it’s a crime to do vanity publishing. Tell him to remember that a legitimate publication scheme means money always flows toward the author.

Also tell him that it is in fact possible to get an agent without being published. It’s a lot of work, but so is everything in the publishing industry.

And you’re right: he needs to send it to publishers and, probably more specifically, agents who market things in his genre. All stories cross genres: practically every book you’ll read has a romance, and I use mysteries for the backbones of my fantasy novels all the time. What he needs to do is determine what genre is most like his, and the answer to that may be “mainstream fiction” (that’s what it sounds like to me). He needs to get a Writer’s Market and a guide to literary agents (the book paired with that, ‘Agents Directory’, is actually by someone who used to work for the DMLA, my agency), and he needs to pick up books by authors he enjoys reading/whose work is similar in some fashion to his, and see if any of them thank their agents in the acknowledgments; that’s a very good way to find agents who are actively working in your genre.

A hugely useful resource for legitimate agents and agencies is Preditors & Editors. It’s also got query letter suggestions, proposals, synopses–it’s a really valuable resource.

He needs to come up with a one sentence pitch for the book–an elevator pitch. My book in 15 words or less, that sort of thing. My pitch for URBAN SHAMAN was:

“A Seattle cop with no use for the mystical has a near-death experience and is offered a choice between dying, or life as a shaman. When she chooses life, she finds herself neck-deep in a murder mystery and up against a couple of old Celtic gods.”

Something like that. There’s a whole bunch of ideas at ForwardMotion.

He’ll need something like that for a query letter, but first he needs to study agents and agencies and find out who would be a good match for him.

He should send out query letters, FOLLOWING THE AGENCY’S INSTRUCTIONS on what they ask for in a query letter (some just want a letter, some will ask for the first 5 pages of the manuscript, etc), and just keep trying until he gets a hit.

Where does he live? One of the best ways to get an agent’s attention, or an editor’s, is to go to writer’s conferences. Lots of them have editor/agent appointments where you can pitch (which is why you need to have that elevator pitch memorized!), and they’ll often ask you for your book, or at least a proposal on it, at those things. That’s one way to get past the unsolicited submissions problem that many publishers have. I can’t recommend highly enough going to these things–the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ conference in Colorado every September is what got me actually on the path to publication. I would hugely recommend that one, if it’s possible for him to attend.

Pretty much the last thing I can say is not to get discouraged. This is just not an easy business to break into, but if he has in fact written a good book, then he’ll make it. Publishers want good books. They really do. And most of what they see is absolute crap, so if you’ve genuinely written something good, then you’re already way ahead of the game.

Ok, no, I’ve got one more thing to say after all. :) You’re right: I spent a whole lot of years honing my craft and getting to the point where I could sell. It didn’t actually take me that long to sell, once I’d gotten there, but I was goddamned methodical about it. This is not a crap shoot and it’s not about luck. There’s some aspect of that, sure, but it’s a business, and you need to treat it like one, even if all you’re doing is trying to break in.

Polish your manuscript. Make it the best thing you possibly can. Find the agents you most want to be represented by. Query them.

Start writing your next book.

There’s a hell of a lot of down time in this business. An awful lot of wait time. Do not spend that time fretting. It’s useless. Do what you can–query, query, query, until you get a hit–but don’t wait til you’ve hit it big with the one book to write the next. One of the first things an agent who takes you on is going to say is, “What else do you have?” You want to have something. URBAN SHAMAN was the fifth manuscript I wrote, and I’d written 7 by the time I sold it. That’s paying off for me in a big way now–I’ve been able to sell that series and two others since then because I had either a complete manuscript or a significant partial manuscript completed on those other series. Use that time, because right now it’s all you’ve got on your side. :)

Good luck to him. :)

33 thoughts on “on getting published, apparently

  1. I do believe it was your pitch that made me pick up Urban Shaman and not want to put it down until I finished it.}:)

  2. I’d have added: “publishers want to buy authors, not individual novels.” They’re after your career — unless you’re the new Susannah Clark, they will start relatively small and aim to build your circulation, so they want to be assured that you can pump out the novels regularly, be it every six months, or year, or two years.

    Also, “agents want to buy authors, too.” Breaking in a new author has got to be a hell of a lot of work for not much money (15% of a median agented first novel advance of about $9000). It’s only when they’re producing a couple of books a year like clockwork, and you’re getting them $15K per book plus foreign rights, that they begin to contribute to the bottom line in a serious way. Having that second novel already written is a big plus.

  3. Thank you! I’m going to take this advice – and pick up a copy of Urban Shaman while I’m at it. :)

  4. i seconded Ursula’s motion! and her post. cause i want to be published some day… some day.

  5. I just found your LJ thanks to Ursula, and wanted to thank you for Urban Shaman. It was a great read. I’m agent hunting myself come January, just want to get the MS as clean as possible first.

  6. Oh wow! Cool info… I’m linking this to writeplease… Thanks so much for posting this!

  7. (Here via .)

    My book in 15 words or less, that sort of thing. My pitch for URBAN SHAMAN was:

    Didja mean 150 words or less? ‘Cuz that was more than 15. I can’t really think of much that can fit into fifteen words or less, other than a slogan for a breakfast cerial.

  8. Nope, I meant 15. Go look at the Forward Motion page and you’ll see a bit of an example. The point is to keep it short. 15 words forces you to boil it down to the absolute minimum: Bastard daughter of an Elizabethan queen becomes her mother’s secret assassin (11 words describing the first book of my next series). Reluctant shaman faces ancient Celtic gods in a fight for her own life (13 words). New York City lawyer discovers gargoyles living in the city (10 words describing the first book of my third series). You can then expand a little, but the point is to try to get the absolute guts of it into one very short sentence.

  9. I respectfully disagree. I don’t believe that if a book is good, it *will* eventually be published by New York if you just persist. Some books won’t ever have a lot of commercial potential even if they are good books. There is a certain element of luck involved. I wish I *could* still believe that “if your book is REALLY good, then it WILL sell” is true, but over twenty years I’ve come to finally accept that this is not the case.

    And as far as the first question from an agent who calls you, purportedly to offer representation, being, “What else do you have?” Well . . . the agent who called to tell me that she loved _Camille’s Travels_ and was very excited and so forth backed quickly away as soon as she heard that I had other books in the queue. It seemed to completely turn her off when I sent her the openings of the other books I have been actively marketing. It can apparently overwhelm an agent very easily if you seem to be too excited or if you have been at this a long time. I would recommend that if you’re contacted by an agent, be very humble and let the agent take all the steps. Never say, “Would you like to see the first chapter of my other book(s)?” or “Would you fax or send me copies of the letters you get from editors so I’ll know what’s going on?” Those are the two questions that I think really blew my chances with the one big-time agent who has ever been interested in me. I think I must have seemed too aggressive and not deferential enough. In my defense, I have been on an 800-calorie diet for a while now and my blood pressure medication had just been changed when I got that call, so perhaps I *was* scary as hell. However, the agent passed up the book and me on the basis of that one phone call, so be careful. Don’t seem difficult by asking too many questions–there’s time for all of that later, when you know each other a little bit better.

    Everything’s subjective. Agents and editors will tell you how well you write, that your characters are engaging, that your prose style is smooth, that they fell over laughing at some passages in your book, that the concept is intriguing . . . but they can then turn around and say, “I don’t know how I would pitch this.” Or, “This doesn’t fit the market.” And you’re back at square one. Go ahead and write something else, but don’t be surprised if you keep getting that response. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your book is bad or that you’re a failure.

    Just bringing some perspective to the discussion.

  10. Those are both excellent points. I’ve put this whole thing up on my FAQ on my official site–do you mind if I add those two points in (with credit as due, of course)?

  11. You’re welcome, and good luck! And I hope you enjoy it! :) (Also, that’s a very, very cute userpic. Your kids?)

  12. You read Ursula’s post about as far as she could tell, the way to get published was be nice to newbies in MMORPGs, right?

  13. And thank you for doing so. :) I’d like to bring your post up to my front page to respond to, if you don’t mind. You’ve got some valid and interesting points, and I’d like to put them where people will see them, and also get my responses and point of view and why I come at things from where I do up there as well.

  14. Interesting. I think the key to mine, now that I think of it, was volunteering to do work for a game product so that the company would see I could actually write. No pay, not even writer credit (I got “special thanks to”) but I wouldn’t have the freelance work I do now without it. And Margaret wouldn’t have noticed me as a potential author if I hadn’t worked as a freelancer.

  15. Absolutely. :) It was taken when the baby was a few days old – within twenty minutes of coming home from the hospital. She’s six months now, and she’s the main reason I’ve done almost no writing since then. But I sat down last night and realized why the end of the novel wasn’t working for me, so now I can rewrite it on the days when she actually naps. (By which token I’ll finish it sometime after she starts school. :)

  16. >bring your post up to my front page to respond to, if you don’t mind.

    Sure! Go ahead. I might even get some temporary referral readers from it (I have the least-well-attended LJ ever, I think.) I was just reading agent Jeff Kleinman’s new entry all about why he rejects, and he mentions that if he doesn’t see the spot on the bookstore shelf where your book would fit, he can’t very well offer to represent it (I’m paraphrasing, but not by much). He has to know how to pitch a book. That makes sense from a business standpoint, but is really depressing from the artistic POV. Publishing used to be more artsy, but then the bean counters made it into the cereal business. Cap’n Crunch! Count Chocula! Does it go snack-crackle-flop? Is the box like ours so it fits on the shelf? If not, we don’t want it! *grin*

    (I hope there’s a good discussion about this, yet I suspect that, as usual, the lucky ones who got picked up within a few years of the serious pursuit of novel writing will say that it’s easy if you just don’t write crap and that therefore I must write nothing but drek and should just shut up, and other schlemiels like me will just have to nod and shut up as we always do because that’s our lot in life for whatever reason–we have no way to show that we don’t stink at what we do, because, after all, if it were GOOD, it’d be published. That’s what I have heard my whole life whenever anyone IRL found out that I write novels, and that’s why I just tell people IRL that I do webpages and tutor math. After twenty years, the incredulous looks and chuckles and patronizing laughter that saying “I write novels” elicits gets a little old.)

    I gave myself until the end of this year to get an agent or a contract. Then I promised my family that I would stop wasting time and do something useful with my life. Looks like I’ll get to start teaching piano next year, or maybe start digging landscapes or something. Publication by New York is simply not in my destiny, although I always believed it was. What a stupid daydreamer, eh?

  17. I don’t believe that if a book is good, it *will* eventually be published by New York if you just persist. Some books won’t ever have a lot of commercial potential even if they are good books.

    The squeeze is getting tighter for books who are adequate (well-written, interesting, amusing) but not outstanding. I’ll grant you that, but the only solution I can see is to learn to write better.

    There is a certain element of luck involved.

    Of course there always is in life; every time you cross the road there’s luck (good or bad) involved in getting to the other side. But quite often its luck that you can augment with persistence, caution, and a good knowledge of the rules of the road.

    “if your book is REALLY good, then it WILL sell” is true, but over twenty years I’ve come to finally accept that this is not the case.

    And this will produce the eternal counterquestion – *what evidence* do you have that your book is ‘really good’ as opposed to merely adequate? It’s the adequate books, the eternal midlist, the ‘didn’t grab my attention’, ‘seen this before’ and ‘there was something not quite right/nothing wonderful about it’ books that _don’t_ sell. Part of me says that’s a pity, not in the least because I’ve written a couple; and because those books are staple comfort reading for me and thousands of others. The other part says ‘well, I’ll just have to work out what _makes_ a ‘breakout novel.’
    I’ve recently read two books from award-winning writers. One made me wince a lot more than it made me drool. The other just made me blink and curse, because if _that’s_ where the publication bar hangs, then I’m a long way away.

    It seemed to completely turn her off when I sent her the openings of the other books I have been actively marketing.

    Well, yes. Think about it. If they’ve been everywhere she can submit them, then there’s not much point for her to take them on, is there? And my cynical self says that a writer who trots out a ten-year-old novel _as if it should be publishable now_ is lacking a sense for the requirements of the industry today. (See Miss Snark’s opinions on that topic.)

    However, the agent passed up the book and me on the basis of that one phone call, so be careful.

    It’s a two-way street – you’ve got to be able to work with *each other*. And I think the best advice is to treat it as a date – you don’t want to morph into the other person’s mirror and pretend to love everything they love, you don’t want to pick names for the children you will have,… it’s all common sense, isn’t it?

    Everything’s subjective.

    Of course it is, but a lot of the also makes perfect sense when you consider the industry. ‘Doesn’t fit the market’ is a hard one, but ‘I don’t know how I would pitch this’ shouldn’t be – is there a book like it on the market? Then look how *that* is pitched. My foreign-legion murder mystery with-magic is a high fantasy novel. If it were a David Gemmel type of military Fantasy, if I wanted to emphasize the personal journey, or the whodunnit, or the central romance, I’d pitch (and write) it differently. I think before you get the right to complain, you should sit down and think whether you’ve done everything you could to make it very clear what kind of book you’ve written and what segment of the market it fits in.

    It’s not very palatable, but probably safe to always look for the fault in yourself first.

  18. He has to know how to pitch a book. That makes sense from a business standpoint, but is really depressing from the artistic POV.

    Well, the thing about genres is that they provide readers with a broad guideline of how they should suspend their disbelief. (I won’t repeat all my thoughts on why and how genre works, I’ve laid them out in detail elsewhere.)

    Chicklit can (must?) have a level of outrageousness that will not sit well with a reader in ‘cozy mystery’ mode. Ultimately, you don’t want to disappoint your readers from the start, because they’re the people who’ll recommend the book to all their friends. The pool of people who like one genre _and will stretch into another direction from that safe platform_ is much larger than the pool of people who like both genres equally well.

    And then there’s this weird contradiction that sometimes being forced (or forcing yourself) to follow a certain form (say, the sonnet, or the familiar scale of all-too-few-notes) creates better art than being allowed to do anything you like. When every word counts, you make them count more. When you start with a list of tropes and conventions you can follow them, subvert them, play with them, _and you take your readers along_. When anything goes, you need a much better vision of what you want to accomplish, and I’ll be honest: the concept of having to invent a new genre would scare me to death. I *like* standing on the shoulders of giants. It’s a lot dryer.

  19. The other just made me blink and curse, because if _that’s_ where the publication bar hangs, then I’m a long way away.

    I hate it when that happens, and it happens to me all the time. On the other hand, I guess it gives me something to aspire to.

    And LJ entries like this one give me practical advice to add to the aspiring. Thanks, !

  20. Also–I hope you don’t mind that I added you to my friends-list. This is an interesting journal!

  21. You forgot to tell her *I* sent you over here. So I get credit. *GRIN*

    (I linked to this entry. Will discuss general issue of “if you aren’t getting published, then the fault must be in your work because you aren’t being published” circular argument over on my journal. Awaiting promised entry on the topic here, of course!)

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