I’ve had a number of people ask me that "now what" question in the last
few months. There’s tons of info out here in Cyberia, but not everybody knows
how to access it. And along with the good info, there’s plenty of
bad—especially from predatory vanity publishers and bogus agents
So here are some basics for the newbies around here.
You’ll see I don’t get to the self-publishing option until
#22. That’s because I think the query process is the best way to learn about
the publishing business as well as hone your writing and sales skills. Learning to sell a book to an agent prepares you for selling your book to readers. Because promoting and selling books takes at least 50% of your writing time, I think you should write and polish at least two novels before you think about self-publishing.
Plus a good agent can
help the self-publisher as well as the author who wants to be traditionally
published. Most of the self-publishing gurus like J. A. Konrath, Barry Eisler
and John Locke have agents. (And Eisler is married to one.)
Don’t sign any
agency contracts without having them looked at by a lawyer or somebody who
knows intellectual property law. Some agencies have pretty bad contracts these days, and you don't want to sign one that gives them a cut of your profits even if you terminate the relationship.
So your book has been critiqued, edited, and polished to a
glittering sheen. What do you do next?
Break out the champagne, chocolate, fireworks, old Prince CDs, or whatever puts you in a festive mood. Contact a few people who remember who you are after your time in your writing cave, and toast your accomplishment. 80% of people in the US say they want to write a book. A fraction of a percent actually do. You’re one of them. Woo-hoo!!
2) Make sure you know your genre.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but pick one to three genres as a tool to help agents and publishers—and especially, readers—know what kind of book they’re dealing with. When you’re querying, make sure you use established categories like “paranormal romantic suspense” not “vampire bunny western.” Creativity doesn’t work in your favor here.
But you are allowed change genres according to who you query. Genre boundaries are oddly flexible these days. Both Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” vampire books and Lisa Lutz’s dysfunctional-family comedies are categorized as mysteries. Women’s fiction is an umbrella that covers everything from Danielle Steel to Margaret Atwood. And anything with a protagonist under 19 can be YA (the most sought-after genres are in YA these days.)
Two caveats here: 1. don’t call it “literary” unless the writing is to-die-for gorgeous (an MFA helps.) 2. Never use the term “chick lit” unless you’re querying a small press that specializes in the genre. You’ll find it listed on most query websites, but it’s still the kiss of death in New York.
3) Research and read the latest books in your genre(s) if you haven’t already.
It’s important to have an idea of the market. A query letter is more effective if you can offer “comps”—similar titles that are selling (but not blockbusters—that looks like bragging.) Also, the authors of these books may blog or Tweet and you can follow them and get advice. Network. Find out who represents them. Eventually you might even get a recommendation, which is a golden ticket out of the slushpile.
4) Write your synopsis, hook, author bio and a basic query letter template.
You can find helpful guides in any number of places. AgentQuery provides solid basics. Most agents have similar information on their websites.Nathan Bransford’s blog gives the info in a fun and friendly way, and Janet Reid's Query Shark Blog is a boot camp for query writers. A number of forums and agent blogs provide critiques of queries—as well as Public Query Slushpile I give the basics for writing an author bio here.
5) Start a blog or build a website if you don't have one already.
Don’t spend a lot of money on it. In fact, a free blog like this one makes a fine author website. If you want to blog, I’ve got all the skinny on how to start a blog here
. On some blogging platforms you can even have a static first page just like a formal website.
But if you don’t want to deal with the responsibility blogging, and you don’t have a lot of money, you can build a simple website on a shoestring at GoDaddy
or dozens of other hosts.
Even if you have the money for a drop-dead gorgeous design, this isn’t the time to do it. And you don’t want anything you can’t update yourself. Waiting until a designer is free to change things can make your site look dated very quickly.
All the site needs is a professional-looking photo and a simple bio, with your contact information and something about your book and/or other publications. Nothing fancy. No bragging. Nothing is sadder than a pretentious website for an unpublished writer. And don't post any excerpts from your work that you're trying to sell. You'll be publishing it and making it unmarketable.
Facebook, Goodreads or other social networking sites that require membership aren’t a substitute for a website. Be Googlable, reachable and professional.
6) Start researching agents.
You can do this by subscribing to WritersMarket.com
, but you can also get free information at AgentQuery.com
, which has a searchable database. You can put in your genre and immediately find what agents represent your work. Then check QueryTracker.net
for further information on the agents you’ve chosen and get valuable comments from other queriers.
Then start Googling: look for interviews and profiles of agents to fine tune your queries.
If you write YA, a lot of the research has been done for you by the wonderful Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre. They have a blog called “Literary Rambles
” that is a treasure trove of profiles of agents who rep YA (worth a check even if you don’t write YA, since many agents rep a wide spectrum of genres.)
Literary Rambles was named one of the top 101 Sites for Writers by Writers Digest! Very well-deserved!!
Casey has been doing these profiles for a number of years and last year Natalie joined her on the blog. (Congrats, you two!)
7) Send out your first five queries.
You only do this after your book is finished, honed and polished. You knew that, right?
8) Start your next book.
Yes. Right now. Don’t sit around waiting to get rejected and depressed. Start writing when you’re feeling great about yourself for sending those queries.
9) Get rejections. Mourn.
Yup. You now are officially a member of the professional writing community. The one thing we all have in common? Rejections. For more on rejections, read Ruth Harris's great post
on exactly what they mean: nothing
10) Send out five more queries.
Tip: If you join QueryTracker’s premium membership, you can track your queries on their site. It’s a useful service. And their forums are a great place to network. (No, I'm not affiliated with QueryTracker in any way. I'm just impressed with their great work and up-to-date information--most of which is free.)
11) See if you’ve had any silent rejections.
Go to the websites of agents who don’t send rejections. Under submission guidelines, it will say “if you haven’t heard from us within two months, it’s a no.” There will be some silent “no’s”.
Mourn. Fine tune your query
. But NOT your book. Not yet anyway. Chances are your book is just fine. Queries, on the other hand, are worth taking a second (and third and fourth) look at.
12) Sent out five more queries.
Yeah. This time you think you really nailed that puppy. You’ve got it down to three paragraphs and your synopsis is 250 words of distilled brilliance.
13) Maybe get a request for a partial!
(The first few chapters of your book.)
But before you send it, go to the agent’s website and double check guidelines for formatting and sending documents. Most formatting is pretty standard, and they will probably ask you to send it as a Word (.doc or .rtf) attachment. But some agents are quirky and will request something like “no italics” or “number your pages on the bottom of the page.” Do whatever they say, no matter how silly.
14) Get the partial rejected.
Nobody gets their first partial accepted. This is part of the process.
It may come with a note. This will say something like “I couldn’t connect with these characters,” or “the protagonist wasn’t strong/sympathetic enough,” or “the plot is too complex/simplistic” or even “this is perfect, but I have no idea where to sell it.” DO NOT take these too seriously or start rewriting your book.
They’re mostly just polite words to say, “It didn’t give me screaming orgasms, so it’s not worth the energy it would take to sell it.”
15) Get a request for the full manuscript!!
Remember to check those guidelines. Some agents still want to see a ms. on paper. If so, put a big rubber band around it—do not bind—and mail it in a flat-rate box from the P.O. with a #10 stamped, self-addressed envelope inside for their reply. NEVER send it in an annoying way that requires a receipt.
Celebrate. Get the really good chocolate this time
16) Send out more queries.
Don’t wait for that full to be read. It may take a year. It will probably first be read by a young unpaid intern. If she likes it, she’ll give it to the busy agent, who will put it on her pile of 150 TBR manuscripts.
17) Get another partial rejected
. And another. Start building calluses on your soul.
But—if the rejections start to sound the same—like everybody says the same thing about your unsympathetic, wimpipotamus hero, this is when you might give your ms. another once-over to see if you can figure out how to tweak things without doing serious damage to the book.
18) Get the full rejected
You may get some more detailed feedback on this one. Pay attention, but don’t despair. It may not be your book that needs a rewrite. Maybe you’re targeting the wrong agents or pitching your book wrong. Maybe it turns out you’ve written a domestic drama (women’s fiction) not a romance. Try changing your query and hook before you change your book.
19) Finish book #2.
Woo-hoo! Don’t forget to celebrate. It may not feel as momentous as your first ms. But it’s a triumph. You’re now acting like a professional writer. That means you ARE a professional writer. Even if nobody’s paying you quite yet.
20) Start all over again with #2,
but keep sending out #1 until it collects at least a few hundred rejections.
If you’re luckier than me, you may…
21) Land an agent
somewhere along the way here.
22) If you don’t, you may want to consider a small press or self-publishing
This isn’t “settling” or giving up. All this means is you’ve discovered your work isn’t part of the predicted trend curve at the moment and may not be what corporate marketers think is the hot item for next season.
This is the point at which people like Amanda Hocking,
Saffina Desforges, and John Locke jumped into self-publishing. And look where
Some agents consider the successful self-pubbed ebook
the best query these days, so if you’re good at marketing and you know you’ve got the best
books you can write, go get yourself Kindlized. You could be the next self-pubbed millionaire. Just make sure you have some inventory before you start (Amanda Hocking had eight books completed before she self-published.)
Or if you’re a little more traditional like me, you might
start querying presses that don’t require agents.
Even some bigger presses still take
unagented work. If you write SciFi, you can still direct-query Daw (Penguin) or Tor (MacMillan). And for romance writers, a few Harlequin lines also take unsolicited
manuscripts. There are also a number of mid-sized mystery publishers that welcome writers
without agents. (Alas, Midnight Ink now requires an agent.)
Or start researching the smaller presses.
There are hundreds
of them. Here’s a list of presses that don’t require agents
. Be sure you talk to other authors, though, and check Writer Beware and other
watchdog sites before you query. They operate on shoestrings and can often go
under, leaving your book in limbo and your royalties unpaid.
But I’m working with two small presses, and it’s working
very nicely for me.
Just don’t let that book languish in a drawer!
What about you scriveners? Do you have advice for new
writers who are beginning to learn the publishing ropes?
RUTH HARRIS NEWS!
Ruth has another new book coming
It's something completely different:
An orphan. A love story.
Labels: AgentQuery, Casey McCormack, How to publish a novel, Janet Reid, Literary Rambles, Nathan Bransford, Query Shark, QueryTracker, Saffina Desforges, Spywriter