The Next Step

So, you’ve written a book. You’re convinced it’s really good — the type of thing a mainstream publisher would love to publish. What’s your next step?

This question came up today in a Facebook writers’ group. Great source for blog topics, Facebook. This particular group has the term “literary agents” in its name, and a newbie had the impression the group would be a place to find an agent. If only it were that easy!

If you’re in that boat, I imagine you’re hoping to find a short cut to success. Really, there aren’t any short cuts. Well, maybe one, which I’ll get to in a moment. But basically, it’s a grind. Assuming you want to try to get your foot in the door with traditional publishing, and aren’t sure where to start, possibly I can offer a few tips. You won’t like them, but here they are, for better or worse. Nothing in what follows will apply to self-publishing or to the you-pay-the-publisher services. This is about going for the big leagues.

Traditional publishing (the kind that gets books into bookstores) is an intensely competitive business. Before you start writing, or while you’re writing, you will need to study the market. There are two reasons for this. First, you don’t want to be using old-fashioned, threadbare ideas — a frequent misstep among amateur science fiction writers. Second, you want to know what the criteria are for your genre.

The length of the manuscript is a basic criterion. You won’t be able to sell a mystery that’s 50,000 words long, or 150,000 words. Publishers won’t be interested. You may be outraged by this cavalier dismissal of your wonderful book, but get over it. In addition, there are taboos in certain genres to do with explicit sex, levels of violence, and stuff like that. So do your market research.

You’ll probably want to have your manuscript proofread (by a professional, not your cousin Bernie) before you submit it. No matter how good your story is, an agent is going to toss it on the reject pile very quickly if there are typos or grammatical errors, or if it’s formatted in some weird way. Getting a couple of beta-readers to read your work and make suggestions is not a bad idea. But let’s say your manuscript is solid. You’re ready for the next step.

Here’s the short cut I was talking about. If you happen to know, personally, an author who has succeeded in traditional publishing in your genre, you may very politely ask this author if he or she would consider reading your manuscript and possibly, if they feel it’s good, recommending it to their agent. This may or may not work. The author may politely decline. But as long as you’re polite and professional, it never hurts to try.

Yes, you will need a literary agent. Mainstream publishers simply don’t look at direct submissions from authors, not in the fiction field. (I’ve sold several nonfiction books to specialty publishers without an agent, but that’s a story for another time. Let’s stick with fiction here.) The agent knows which acquisition editors are looking for books of your type. The agent can pitch your book using terms the editor will understand. When it’s time to negotiate a contract with the publisher, your agent will — we hope — understand contract law and the norms of the market, and will get you the best possible deal.

So how do you get an agent? I’m told agents do sometimes attend conventions. It’s possible to meet one at a panel discussion, at a party, or in an elevator, and pitch your book. I’ve never tried it, so I can’t testify how well it works, but I know the personal touch is important. This is where the phrase “elevator pitch” comes from, by the way. You’re in an elevator and you have 30 seconds to pitch the agent on your book. That’s two or three sentences, tops. What do you tell them that will entice them to think your book might actually be marketable?

If you’ve struck out on personal contacts and aren’t able to attend a convention, you’ll have to fall back on the exhausting process of pitching agents via email or web form. I’m sure this type of pitch can work — but bear in mind, this is a statement of religious faith on my part. I have not a shred of evidence to back it up. Nonetheless, like life after death, it’s all we have, so we’re all hoping it will lead to something good.

At this point, your search engine is your friend. Search for literary agents in your genre. You’ll find a number of links. You’ll also find aggregator pages with lists of 20 or 30 agents. Some of the items in these lists will be out of date. The agent will have moved to a different agency, or the contact link may be dead. That’s life.

Make a spreadsheet containing all of the relevant information on 20 or 30 agents who say they’re looking for books in your genre. For each agent, list the agency name, the agency URL, the agent’s name and contact info, the precise things that agent wants to see, the date on which you submitted your query, and the results (if any).

If you don’t know how to make a spreadsheet, it’s pretty easy. I’m sure Microsoft Office has one. I wouldn’t use Office if you paid me. I use LibreOffice.

Be sure to read the agent’s statement of desiderata with care! Some agents are looking for YA, others only for adult fiction. Some are seeking literary fiction, others aren’t. Almost none of them will represent plays or poetry. Many of them claim they’re especially excited about reading manuscripts from marginalized voices (meaning, gay and trans writers and writers who are not white), but whether that will give you any extra credibility I wouldn’t know.

Some agents are closed to submissions “until February” or whenever. You may want to make a note on your desk calendar about that, because you may still be agent-hunting in February. Some agencies are large, and you’ll have to choose one particular agent to submit to. If one agent in the agency passes on your manuscript, you may or may not be allowed to submit to another agent at the same agency. Their web page will tell you that. The web page will also tell you whether you can expect a reply in every case, or whether “no reply means not interested.” Some will say, “If you haven’t heard from us in two months, send a brief follow-up email.” Make a note of that in your spreadsheet.

Once you’ve identified some agents who look like good prospects, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and send them exactly what they’re looking for. If they want a one-page synopsis, send them a one-page synopsis. If they want to read the first five pages, don’t send them 20 pages! If they don’t want to receive emails with attachments, don’t use attachments.

Many agents use an online service, such as Query Manager. You fill out the fields in the form on the web page, attach files (properly formatted!), and click Go. Then you wait.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you’re special, the agent’s normal rules for submissions don’t apply to you. You’re not special. You’re hoping to develop a professional relationship with this agent, so act like a professional. Don’t try any tricks. They’ve seen all the tricks, and they don’t appreciate having an author try to manipulate them through trickery. For instance, if your synopsis is written in a way that deliberately hides the ending of the story, because you’re hoping to make the agent eager to read the whole thing, that’s trickery, and you’ll fail. Put the ending in the synopsis.

The one exception I would make to the above guidelines on submission is this: If an agent says they won’t look at materials that are simultaneously submitted to other agents, just ignore that. Go ahead and submit to them simultaneously. (And don’t tell them you’re doing it.) If you happen to get a positive response both from that agent and from another agent, then you have a wonderful problem to solve. Choose the best agent and tell the other one you’re very sorry. No harm done.

Simultaneous submissions to agents are the norm. Send out as many queries as you can manage. And use the spreadsheet to keep track of the responses.

Above all, you need to understand that agenting is a tough business. It’s a 100% commission business, which means that if an agent tries to sell your book to a publisher and fails, the agent will make no money for the work they put in. (And by the way, you should never have to pay an agent up front for their work. Legitimate agents do not ask to be paid by the author. They make their money when the book sells.) Because it’s a 100% commission gig, the agent will very, very seldom take a chance on representing a work that’s quirky, exotic, or in any way outside the mainstream. They only want to represent manuscripts that they have a reasonable expectation that a publisher will want.

The other factor to bear in mind is that every literary agent receives dozens of queries every week from hopeful authors. Out of that flood, an agent may take on two or three new clients per year. Or none. The agent can afford to be picky, and has to be. A manuscript will be chosen by the agent only if it is exactly what the agent is hoping to see, and only if the author treats the agent as a fellow professional.

While you’re waiting to hear from agents, go ahead and start writing your next book. And try not to give way to discouragement. If it was easy, everybody would do it!

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