Anybody who writes a novel is an optimist. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on the most angst-ridden, depression-inducing, suicide-provoking piece of prose ever drafted by the hand of man–if you entertain even the slightest notion of being published, you’ve got even higher hopes than that schlub who thinks he can train his dog to open a can of beer for him. After all, if the dog was smart enough to crack open a brew, wouldn’t he be smart enough to just drink it himself? I thought so.
From the sound of things, you might get the impression that the odds of a new writer getting a book published are about the same as getting struck by a meteor. That’s not entirely true. Lots of debut novels get published, while comparatively few people are crushed by falling space debris–but the timing of both seems equally random. The ugly fact is that there are thousands of manuscripts floating around out there and only so many editors with time to read them. And even after you separate the good stuff from the mediocre, there are only so many spots to fill–most of which are already taken by established writers.
Depressing? It is. Fortunately, there are ways to game the system to your advantage. Of course, making use of these sneaky methods is no guarantee of success (witness my own 18 years of failed attempts and eight unpublished books); but if you’re looking for a way to rise above of the slush pile, some of these simple truths might help. At the very least, you’ll know going in what you’re up against. If that doesn’t scare you, then you just might have what it takes to make it as a writer. That, or you’re certifiably crazy.
THE TRUTH ABOUT LITERARY AGENTS
Admittedly, I’m a little biased on this one. I have the best literary agent in the world, and I’m not just saying that because she got me my first sale. My agent is part editor and part friend, with a savvy businesswoman and tireless fan tossed in for good measure. To say I was lucky to find her would be an understatement.
But I’ve also had some less-than-stellar experiences with agents–nothing like the horror stories other writers have endured, but enough to inspire a healthy skepticism. A case in point was the agency that initially represented Hammerjack. When the person who signed me left the agency, his boss promised that they would still honor their contract and market the book; but as soon as I turned in the first draft, they cut me loose because “they no longer handled science-fiction.” Sure would’ve been nice to know that during the year it took me to finish the damn thing. Thanks a lot guys!
All of which begs the question: do you really need an agent to get published? That’s one of the things struggling writers always ask (along with, “Where’s the aisle with the ramen noodle soup?”), and I’m more than happy to settle the issue once and for all.
The answer is yes and no.
My friend Payne Harrison sold his first book Storming Intrepid by sending it to exactly one publisher. He only hired an agent afterward to negotiate for him. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King said he didn’t even think about getting an agent until after he’d already made millions of dollars. So in the broadest sense, you can do it on your own–in fact, some writers like the feeling of control that comes with marketing their own work. But you’ll also find that it’s a lot harder to get noticed when your manuscript is one of a hundred sitting on some poor editor’s desk. If you plan to go it alone, I have one but one warning: be prepared to wait.
Agents, on the other hand, can move things along much faster, and offer other tremendous advantages. They know the marketplace and have expertise in contracts and negotiations–things a writer doesn’t know piff about. More importantly, they’ve built personal relationships with editors, who trust agents to send them awesome material. The right agent can put your book at or near the front of the line, thus avoiding the slush pile altogether.
What’s the downside? Well, finding a good agent can be almost as difficult as finding a publisher. Plus there are a lot of bad agents out there–people who will take advantage of your dreams and fleece you until your wallet runs dry, then send you out to get a loan so they can fleece you some more. Others will just string you along, not really doing much of anything while your manuscript languishes in some dark drawer, a chore to be put off until later. The trick is being able to tell the difference.
Toward that end, here are a couple of guidelines to keep you out of trouble:
Make sure your agent is a member of AAR. No, that doesn’t stand for Authors Always Rejected–it’s the Association of Author’s Representatives, a group that maintains standards and practices for the agenting business. Membership assures you that your prospective agent is one of the Good Guys. A quick visit of their website can tell you in a flash. Always check before sending a query out.
Don’t ever pay money up front. Honest agents derive almost all of their income from commissions on sales–which means they don’t get paid unless you get paid. You’ll probably be charged for miscellaneous expenses (such as postage and photocopying), but even that stuff should come out of your advance and royalty payments. Avoid anyone who charges reading fees like the plague. If the agent is making money and you’re not, something is most definitely wrong.
Outside of that, just make sure you do your research. If you write genre fiction, it’s probably a bad idea to query an agent who specializes in cookbooks. Most agencies will let you know up front what types of material they handle, so this shouldn’t be a problem; but you should also take a look at recent sales to see if your prospective agent has moved books similar to yours. If so, then you might have found yourself a good match. Query away and see what happens.
There are a million resources out there that can tell you how to write an effective query, so I won’t rehash any of that here. I will, however, add one piece of advice: keep it short and sweet. There has never been a thought so brilliant that it couldn’t be expressed in a few simple paragraphs (even the Gettysburg Address was a mere 278 words), so you should be able to boil the essentials of your novel down to a brief, snappy teaser.
And I do mean teaser. Be a little coy. Be a little mysterious. Flash ‘em a little skin and let their imaginations take care of the rest. If they’re intrigued, they’ll want to see more. When I first pitched Hammerjack to my agent, I deliberately made the language read like one of those blurbs you see on the inside cover of a book. Mind you, I was careful not to blow my own horn too much (“Yes, it’s kind of like The Road Warrior meets Gone With the Wind, with some Silence of the Lambs thrown in.”), but I worked hard to sell the concept–and it worked. The rest, as they say, is history.
Oh, and one final truth about agents: most of them love to discover new talent. My agent has told me that there’s nothing quite like launching the career of a novelist, bringing a new voice into the world. Personally, I think they just like to hear us scream like little kids when they tell us our first book has sold. Whatever the reason, there are lots of agents out there who actually do give unpublished writers the time of day–all you need to do is find one. It can be an arduous quest, but one well worth taking.
THE TRUTH ABOUT EDITORS
The unpublished author typically has one of two views regarding editors. The first, which we’ll call the Olympian Model, casts editors as godlike creatures who will, when the stars are aligned just so, anoint one of us mere mortals to step up from the rabble and join their literary ranks. The second is more nefarious, so we’ll call it the Enron Model–where heartless, jackbooted editors live to crush the hopes of the struggling writer like cigarette butts under an iron heel, cackling with delight over every rejection letter they send out. “Nooooooo,” they sneer, like a vain cheerleader taunting some guy from the chess club, “you’re just not gooooood enough for me!“
In truth, neither of these images is remotely accurate (and no, I never was a member of the chess club). Editors are, in fact, incredibly smart and dedicated people who assume a truly Herculean task: turning rough drafts into a finished product suitable for bookstore shelves. Add to that all the manuscripts they wade through, searching for that one shiny nugget among the grains of sand, and you’ve got one demanding job. Quite frankly, I’m amazed they ever get any sleep.
If you still aren’t sure what that’s like, picture yourself swimming in a sea of paper and you’ll get the idea. You’ll also see why it’s very difficult for editors to find time to read unsolicited material. There’s literally tons of it, and only so many hours in a day–which is why it can take a year or more for you to get a response if you submit your work directly. As the old saying goes, “Don’t hate the playa–hate the game.” Same goes for the publishing biz.
That said, in my experience most editors are still willing to give you a shot, provided you approach them the right way. Your best chance is if they have a sense of your abilities, either from reading your previous work or getting a reference from somebody they know. Editors will often attend writers conferences and conventions, so that might be another way you can make contact. Be nice, be professional, offer to buy them a beer. You never know what might happen.
Whatever you do, though, you should never send a manuscript in cold. Always query first, and make sure enough interest is there to warrant a submission. After that, try not to bug the editor too much. A gentle “Hey, what’s happening?” e-mail every five months or so makes for a gentle reminder, but much beyond that and you could be accused of stalking. Give it time. And in the meanwhile, keep working. An editor might turn down one project, but like your style enough to ask if you have anything else (it happened to me more times than I can count).
Above all, keep the faith. Nobody ever said this would be easy–and if someone did, you have my permission to smack that person upside the head. After all, somebody has to write all of those books. With a little bit of luck and a lot of patience, yours could be the name on that cover.