Ever since I announced that I was seeking representation for my novel, my wonderful, caring, well-meaning friends have been asking when the movie version of the book will be coming out.
Partly to keep everyone on the same page, and partly as an exercise in writing out what I've learned about the publishing world in the past six months, I'm going to talk today about how publishing works. I also know that several readers of this blog are also amateur writers, and if you've ever kicked around the idea of trying to get published, you can benefit from all the work I've done learning about the field. Leeches.
Step 1, before we get into this, is that your novel must be completed before you try to have it published. Non-fiction works a bit differently, in that you can have just part of the manuscript done, submit a proposal, and if that proposal is accepted, you use the advance to write the rest of the book. (I've read that memoirs tend to work like fiction - they have to be done before you look for a book contract). If you're hung up on step 1, here's how to do it.
And I mean the book had better be done, done. Not first draft done. Polished, edited, ready to go. If the book is accepted by a publisher, it will still go through revisions. But agents and editors expect manuscripts to be already of publishable quality before they get to them. Fix your homophones and format your dialog. Delete most of your adverbs and change most of your weird dialog tags to 'said'. That's right, I said change "he expostulated daringly" to "he said".
Once that's done, we're on to step 2: find an agent.
I am currently on step 2. A good agent helps you make your manuscript better and submits it to publishers for you, works to keep you safe through all the legalities of the contract negotiations, and then takes 15% of your pay. I'd say that 15% is an acceptable fee for doing all those things that I have no idea how to do.
Question: can you bypass the agent and submit manuscripts directly to publishers?
Answer: sometimes, but once you submit your manuscript to any publisher within a company, and it gets rejected (most of the time that's when, not if), you are not allowed to re-submit the manuscript to a different editor within the same company. Even if you later get an agent, and she thinks that your manuscript would be perfect for editor X in company Y, if you've already sent the manuscript to editor Q in company Y, your agent can't resubmit to X. You can really shoot yourself in the foot this way.
Lesson: some authors are published by sending their manuscript directly to publishers, but it is more likely that you will be published through an agent.
There are literally hundreds of literary agents (ha! sort-of-pun). Wanna be authors like me have several internet tools at our disposal in order to figure out which ones might be interested in our work. See, every agent doesn't represent every type of novel. Sites like AgentQuery have listings of agents along with what they're looking for. I've combed through this site and others and am working my way through the list of agents that represent the kind of book I've written. In addition to looking on AgentQuery, I check out the agency website as well as the agent's personal website or blog (if they have them). This helps me further ensure that the agent represents authors like me, that they're accepting queries, and often gives me tips about what kind of communication to send to them. I do my research.
When contacting an agent, there is a specific format the communication should take: the dreaded query letter (dum dum duuummm). A query letter is about 250 words long and sounds very much like the text on the back of a paperback novel. It is the "hook" - a brief summary of the novel's contents that will make someone want to read the whole thing. It's no secret that these are hard to write. The trick is that the query isn't about the whole book, it's just about the first 30 pages or so - the "exciting incident" that kicks off the rest of the plot.
Examples online are plentiful. Several agents have written about what kind of queries they are looking for, and some even host query workshops. The indomitable Query Shark is the best place to start. Queries have lots of dos (do write in the same tone as the rest of the novel, do put the name of the novel IN CAPS) and don'ts (don't use 1st person, don't include dialog from the book, don't end the query with a question).
Now, this should come without saying, but apparently it needs to be said. When you send a query, don't be rude. Duh. You want to work with these people, don't you? It's not a huge industry, and even if you get rejected, an agent may be interested in your second novel.
Which leads me to that unpleasant topic... rejections. Often, during the querying process, rejections are silent. Many agents just don't respond to queries they aren't interested in pursuing. At first glance, that might sound rude, but how many seconds does it take for a writer to fire off an email? An agent receives 50-100 new queries every day. They can't take the time to send a detailed response to each one, because they have to take care of the clients they already have.
Out of those 10,000 queries, an agent might sign a handful of new clients every year. Those are not great odds, and remember that many agents acquire clients through references from other agents, meetings at literary conferences, and the like. I have already been through one round of queries, and just sent off a second round. Yes, I've had rejections. They hurt. But honestly, everyone who wants to be a writer has to learn to deal with rejections, bad reviews, and people who just don't like your work. That's life.
As I've dealt with rejections, I've continued to write. I've changed my query letter - if agents aren't interested, it may be because the query letter isn't selling the project.
Thousands of people want to be writers, and most of them will never realize this dream. That isn't because they all suck (only some of them suck). Most of them will just give up. If an exquisitely talented writer queries 10 agents and then gives up, they will never be published. If a mediocre writer matches the right query to the right agent, and then that agent sends the manuscript to the right publisher - that's all it takes. Talent is important. Luck is important. But persistence is probably the most important.
As Nathan Bradsford says, "Didn't find an agent? Keep writing. Book didn't sell? Keep writing. Book sold? Keep writing. OMG an asteroid is going to crash into Earth and enshroud the planet in ten feet of ash? Keep writing. People will need something to read in the resulting permanent winter."
After my first round of rejections, I did get a nice little boost when I found out that I was a finalist in All Things Considered's Three Minute Fiction contest. I didn't win, but it was neat to have an audience of strangers for basically the first time ever. It was fun to see people analyze the story (especially when they went off into realms I had never even considered). I also got some great constructive comments, including a kick in the pants about my lamentable habit of using passive voice.
The novel that I'm querying is about a woman with magic powers on a quest to stop the genocide of her people (hook!). It's fantasy - specifically high fantasy with some elements of sword and sorcery. This is a niche market with a lot of competition, and I'm thinking that the query I have now makes the story sound too formulaic. Honestly, I'm not sure how to change that. I think that the richness and uniqueness in my story is because of the characters and the cultures they live in. That's hard to get across in a short query, but I will continue to work on it.
I may make it through my entire list of agents and not get a single bite on the hook, no matter how I change the query. That's why I'm writing the next book. My new novel is urban fantasy, which is HUGE right now (thanks, Twilight, though honestly the genre was growing in popularity even before Twilight hit). Plus I think the plot is pretty cool. The new book is about a woman who smuggles contraband through a demon-infested universe parallel to the real world (hook!), and I'm having a lot of fun writing it. And IF I get an agent based on the strength of the new book, I'll have the old book to whip out as well. Look, another manuscript already completed! Can't hurt.
Question: why don't you work on the sequel to the book you're currently querying?
Answer: actually, I've got a very rough first draft of the sequel already done. I did it while I was waiting for my beta readers to finish the manuscript of the finished book. However, I'm not going any further down that road for now, because if you can't sell the first book in the series, you sure can't sell the second.
Lesson: your best bet is to work on something that you can query when it's completed.
We have to take a brief moment here at the end to mention self publishing. As in, why don't you self publish? 15 years ago the answer to that question would be: "because self-publishing is a vanity project that will cost more than it makes, and isn't taken seriously by anyone in the business". The internet has changed that answer dramatically. Print sales are declining and the e-book business is beginning to soar. With the popularity of Kindles and similar e-readers, self publishing is becoming more and more of a viable option for writers.
Still, becoming a rich and successful self-published author is difficult. You have to do everything yourself - or pay other people to do things for you. Editing your manuscript, creating cover art, printing physical copies of the book, these all usually cost money. You also have to pay to have the book formatted into a version that Amazon and others will recognize, and you often have to pay to have your book reviewed. Not to mention, you need to spend a lot of time and effort self-promoting your work.
The big news over the past couple of week was that popular thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down an offer of $500,000 for two books, and is instead self-publishing them. He has a ready fan base who will buy these books. Conversely, internet self-publishing phenom Amanda Hocking has just accepted a $2 million dollar book contract with St. Martin's Press. Amanda recently became the poster child for self-publishing when her series sold 450,000 copies in January alone. According to people who've run the numbers, an author can make more money from self publishing. Yet, there's something to be said for traditional publishing as well.
So will I self publish? It's something that I will consider. Part of me feels like I need the feedback from folks in the industry before considering self-publishing as an option. If my book can't make it the traditional way, perhaps that says something about what the public wants to read.
I love to write. I have hundreds of stories competing for attention in my head, and after I finish my dark fantasy, I know which book I'll write next. And which after that. And which after that. I have to believe that with persistence and patience, I will become published eventually. Just don't look for that movie to come out any time real soon.