Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Congratulations, You’ve Decided To Become A Published Novelist! Now What?

I’ve been meaning to blog about writing — both the technical mechanics of the craft and the business side of it — for ages. Back up. I’ve been meaning to blog for ages. Unfortunately, my work-in-progress was taking forever, and I’ve been snowed at the office, and family this and life that and blah blah blah…

Anyway, quite a few people have asked how one goes about getting published. And I’ve gotten so many requests for a roadmap that I promised to blog about it. Well! Ask and (four months later) ye shall receive!

To give you an overall analogy, the road to publishing isn’t unlike the road to building a house. There’s the actual writing of a novel (more on that in another post) — the actual building of the house, the blueprints and nails and hammers and load-bearing walls and electric wiring and plumbing and whatnot. And there’s the publishing of a novel — the bureaucratic process of having a house built, the permits and approvals and inspections and so forth. To publish a novel, you need both. Yes, even you, the Next-David-Foster-Wallace of Boise, Idaho who’s got connections. And while I’m by no means an expert in the field, I have been through the looking glass and can give you my two cents on the matter (this is my way of saying, “take this post for what it’s worth”). So, without further, ado, here are the eight easy steps (ha!) to getting your Great American Novel published * **:

1. The Novel. Write your novel. The entire novel. Edit it. Have your literate friends and family read it. Demand that they give you brutally frank critiques. Join a writer’s group if it helps. Have them read and give you brutally frank critiques. Check your spelling and grammar. Use Times New Roman, 12-font. Double-spaced. 1” margins all around. Don’t justify your margins. These are industry standards. Follow them. In other words, present your work as perfectly and professionally as you can.

2. The Agent. If you are writing fiction, then you absolutely must have an agent. Due to the overwhelming volume of submissions (and copyright liability issues), most publishing houses will flat-out refuse to read anything unless it comes from an agent. The vast majority of agents lives in New York, but don’t be afraid to scout those who live elsewhere. Check out The Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. (AAR) ( The AAR site is chock full of information and includes its Canon of Ethics. Agents should not charge you money up front. Ever. There are just as many scammers as there are legit agents. Beware the agent who guarantees that you’ll be published. He might as well promise you that you’re going to win America’s Next Top Model. Might happen. Might not. A note: don’t preclude agents who are not members of the AAR, either. Some of the best agents are not. But be sure to confirm that he or she follows the AAR’s Canon of Ethics.

Which agents should you target? Check out if the agent you’re researching represents your genre. Some only deal with adult fiction. Some only work with YA writers. Some are exclusively non-fiction agents. And so on and so forth. Kathryn Brogan’s Guide to Literary Agents is a good resource. So is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. These books are rather pricey and change very quickly, so visit your local library for current editions. While you’re there, look at books in your genre. Check out the acknowledgements page. Every author thanks her agent. See who rep’ed said author. Check out authors’ websites and look at their contacts page. Stalkerati, much? Indeed. It’s called Due Diligence. Make a list of your favorite dozen (or two or three or hundred) agents. Know what their submissions guidelines are.

3. The Query Letter. The dreaded query letter. Your chance to show the agent in very few words why you’re the shiznit. There are many ways to do this, but they should generally be limited to one page, single-spaced. In a few succinct paragraphs, state what you wrote (general idea of the novel in as interesting a way as you can manage) and who you are (background, education if relevant, writing awards if any, why you’re uniquely qualified to write this book). If the submissions guidelines request sample pages, include them. If they specifically ask that you don’t, don’t. You don’t want to come across as being unable to follow directions from the get-go. Use white paper, for God’s sake. Don’t spritz it with perfume. Don’t include a picture of yourself nude on a chaise lounge. Seriously. I’ve been told that way too many people actually do this. Triple proofread it before you send. Make sure you’ve addressed it to the right person. Sounds ridiculous that I should include this advice, but when you’ve got fifteen (or three dozen) query letters in front of you, all of them following varying guidelines, you might be surprised how easy it is to make a mistake.

Because I am hopelessly OCD and Type-A, I made an excel spreadsheet that listed which agents I sent query letters to, when and with what. Why? So that I wouldn’t send repeat letters to the same people. So that I knew how long it had been since my submission (i.e., when I might sent an email to the agent asking if he or she had received my query letter). So that I felt like I had some modicum of control over the process.

4. Wring Hands and Wait. Many agents’ websites will say that they’ll get back to you within 4-6 weeks. Many of them won’t. Not because they’re evil and want to personally torture you. But because they often get a thousand (no joke) query letters a week. A week. And reading query letters isn’t their only function. They’re negotiating deals for their current authors, reading and editing (if they’re of the editing brand) their authors’ work, reading requested drafts of submissions, speaking at conferences, raising children, etc. They’re wicked busy. When can you call them to see if they like you? Pretty much never. Don’t call them. It’ll irritate them. It’ll likely get you dinged before you’ve even had the chance to get your work before them.

This was probably the most difficult part of the process for me. I am a lawyer. I worked for ages in an environment that screamed if a draft wasn’t ready in a day, lost its shit if the brief wasn’t perfect in two. Partners were always at my door, asking when I would be finished, where was the GD pleading, how much longer, why isn’t it ready, are we there yet? I am also incredibly impatient by nature and push myself to exhaustion on a daily basis. My unfortunate personality and my job made me expect that everyone — agents included — were just like me. Where were these agents? I’d ask. Have they read my query yet? Why not? My God, but it’s been thirteen days and six hours! What. Is. Taking. So. Long?? I was fortunate enough to have what I now call my Writing Fairy Godmother basically wring me out and tell me to calm the f*ck down. That publishing doesn’t work like the legal field. That I would quickly make myself persona non grata if I couldn’t learn to Sit Down, Shut Up And Wait. That would be my advice to you (without the neck-wringing and the F-bombs). To be patient when you’re practically bursting at the seams with anxiety and anticipation. To keep in mind that agents are working as quickly as they can. That they are looking for the next Brilliant Work as much as you’re trying to get your Brilliant Work in front of them.

(Now, if the guidelines said 4-6 weeks, and it’s been eight, yeah, it’s okay to send an email or a letter asking if said agent received the query (but don’t call)).

5. Rejections. Horrible. Horrible. But if you get one (or 200), welcome to the club! You’re now officially one of us. Every author has gotten a rejection. Some rejections will bear a stamp with a single word: “No.” Some agents might feel generous and stamp, “No, thanks.” Others will have nothing written on your letter. It’s simply returned and you can assume they’re just not that into you. Some will take the time and explain why your work isn’t what they’re looking for. Don’t sweat it. Don’t take it personally. Don’t think you’re a lesser person or untalented because of it. All you need is one to say “yes.” So much easier said than done, no?

My husband saved all of my rejection letters, by the way. The entire two-foot stack. So that when I was rich and famous, I could look back on it and gleefully shout, “So, who’s the reject now, suckas?” I don’t know if you’re into that. I still haven’t shouted at it. He has. He clearly doesn’t understand what “rich and famous” means.

6. The Agent Likes You! and wants you to send the first chapter. Or the first three. Or the entire novel. This is why you need to have your novel perfected and ready to go. This industry is notoriously wait-wait-wait-wait-I-want-it-all-NOW. You might get a response from your query in a week. And the agent might want the entire work immediately. If it’s not finished, she may pass. She might find someone who’s written something very similar to yours. She might not be willing to wait while you take the next two years to finish your masterpiece. So, git ‘r done before you query.

7. What Now? If the agent likes your work, she may ask to represent you. A contract might be involved. Or she may be old school and request an oral agreement with you. There’s no right or wrong way of going about it. If you’re not an attorney and skittish, it’s not a bad thing to take the contract to a lawyer (caveat: make sure he specializes in these matters. Trust me. Just because someone has an “Esq.” by his name doesn’t mean that he knows jack about publishing. The industry is an animal onto its own, and the lawyer must be versed in it). But if she’s an AAR member (or follows it’s ethical guidelines), you probably don’t need to worry. Do whatever makes you sleep well at night.

8. Submissions to Publishers. The agent will send your work to appropriate publishers. Let the waiting games —and teeth gnashing and nail biting and howling at the moon — begin. No one ever talks about what actually happens once the manuscript goes to, say, Random House or Penguin or Simon & Schuster. The process is often affectionately (read: exasperatedly) called the Black Box. But from my stalkerati research, blog-reading and agent-questioning, I’ve gleaned that the process goes something like this:

- manuscript lands on junior editor’s desk. Junior editor reads, adores it.
- Junior editor sends to senior editor (there may be several senior editors who read them in seriatum or all together). Senior editor(s) love(s) it.
- Senior editor(s) sends to acquisitions editor. Acquisitions editor reads, adores it.
- Acquisitions editor sends to acquisitions board.
- Every member of the acquisitions board reads, loves it.
- Acquisitions board sends to publishing board. Also sends to marketing/accounting group.
- Every member of the publishing board reads. Number crunchers decide whether the book will make money.
- Publishing board loves it. Number crunchers see profit.
- Manuscript goes to publisher. An actual person who has the final yay/nay vote.
- Publisher loves it. Calls agent. Offers advance money.
- Agent calls author. Relays offer. Discuss whether to demand more, take to another house or accept (this, I can’t comment on. This is strictly between you and your agent as to what to do).
- Author accepts. Everyone is happy. Author goes out and gets tanked to celebrate.

Depending on the agent’s clout, several steps at the beginning may be skipped. And depending on the size of the publishing house, there may be one, several or no acquisitions/publishing board. What I do know is that should anyone say “no/pass,” then it’s game over. It’s a wonder that anything ever gets published.

Okay, so that, in a very long nutshell, is what happens up to the point of sale. The aftermath — the editing that occurs in-house, the release date, sales, publicists, marketing, etc., is the icing stress that really, really varies.

Also, I know that as much info as I’ve tried to give, clearly, it’s not enough. There’s never enough answers to an aspiring writer, I’ve found. But, there are resources. I love I love Backspace ( I love (from an agent’s point of view). These forums will have topics on anything you could possibly wonder. And if not, you can always pitch the question. Hell, if you really want, feel free to pitch me a question, and I’ll do my best to answer or point you in the right direction. Just give me four months or so. ☺

* Disclaimer: there are, of course, many exceptions to these steps. You might be Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua, for example, or Tila Tequila, and have an automatic in. In fact, publishers likely came running to you to get your awesomeness immortalized in print. But if you were not born a pampered Taco Bell dog or have shot to MySpace/MTV superstardom by being an exhibitionist leprechaun, then you will need to follow these steps.

** This post only relates to fiction. I can’t speak on non-fiction or poetry or anything else. The motormouth in me would very much like to, but I’d be making things up.

1 comment:

Johnny said...

Great words of advice, Christine!
Johnny Peregrine