Sunday, June 5, 2011

Take a Chance with a Weird Book

I have a pretty awesome job for a book nerd.  I get to read books only a handful of people will ever read.  Sometimes I read great books with fascinating characters and engrossing plots.  The trade-off for this privilege is that I also have to read a lot of really awful books as well.  I also get to sit by and grumble as decent, but mediocre, books climb the best-seller lists while the books I like collect dust on an editor's desk.

The only thing more painful than having a book one champions continually rejected is the practice of self-censorship one must engage in from time to time just as a matter of expediency.  Some books that I find fascinating, I know from experience, most editors won't touch.

It pains me to think of all the average, but marketable, books that get published every year, and all the weird, but deliciously good, ones that don't.  If you're curious about how this fascinating selection process works, I'd recommend taking a look at my colleague Denise Little's blog post about the way books are acquired and published entitled Two or More Years Before Publication: The Publisher at Work.  

To summarize: the acquisitions process is a group process involving the editorial staff, as well as marketing, sales, and the art departments.  Books are chosen by popular vote and evaluated not just for their artistic merits, but for their saleability.  Lots of funny things can happen in these meetings that can prevent a book from making it to publication.  Often times editors are crestfallen that their pet project didn't survive the scrutiny of their co-workers.  I've been on the receiving end of many a regretful rejection letter from an editor who, as much as they loved the book, failed to get it picked up at their acquisitions meeting.  Separate from the acquisitions process, some imprints also have editorial meetings, wherein they winnow down selections before even presenting them for acquisition.

There are many ways that this process is effective from a practical standpoint.  Group decisions help build coalitions and foster a sense of group responsibility that will guide a book through each stage in the process of production and sales.  The hope is that these group decisions will more closely mirror the current zeitgeist, and that the books chosen will therefore reach the maximum number of readers.  This is sometimes the case, but  the downside of these group decisions, in my opinion, is that they create a culture of self-censorship which then trickles down to agents like me.  Editors don't want to bring oddball projects to their editorial or acquisitions meetings if they know they're going to get shot down, and so they avoid them altogether. 

I don't believe that there's any special talent editors or agents possess that make them any better in their role as taste-makers than your average reader.  The decisions they make about which books to keep and which books to toss, are similar to the type of decisions shoppers make at bookstores every day.  No one likes to be bored, and editors and agents are no exception.  The one thing that differentiates them from other readers is the surrounding cultural influences of the industry itself, and the narratives constructed around the successes or failures of the books they publish.  While publisher's like to think they're giving their customers what they want, in truth it is a publishing professional's preconceived notions about what a commercial book should look like that most influences what readers end up with.

The lessons a publisher extrapolates from the data compiled on a book can be rather unscientific.  One poor showing can mean writing off an entire sub-genre and some successes are falsely attributed to the popularity of a theme when they're really based on the popularity of an author (or visa versa).  In leaner times, like the ones we're experiencing now, this sort of problem only gets exacerbated. On the one hand publishers are being very cautious about trying different sorts of books, and on the other they are looking to throw their weight behind previous successes that are rapidly approaching their expiration date.  People tend to respond to scarcity by being more conservative, and that can be a recipe for stagnation. Is it possible that in our efforts to better serve existing readerships that we're limiting the opportunities to connect with new readers, and to open the door to new styles and genres? 

What are we so afraid of?  There are several admirable books that pass muster with the acquisitions team, but which flop anyway.  No one has a complete lock on the marketplace, and bubbles are bursting all around us.  What would be the harm in taking a crazy risk once a season, rather than once in a career?  If your bubbles are bursting, why try to prevent the others from bursting when you can just blow more bubbles? 

I propose that imprints seriously consider publishing one hare-brained book a season, and market it as such.  Restaurants have specials every day as a way of experimenting with which dishes to add to the menu, why can't imprints create a slot each season for that one experimental book that editorial can agree is so crazy it just might work?  The rest of the list can be meat and potatoes, but once a season a book should make it to publication that will either blaze a trail to the stars or end up as a beautiful pillar of smoke at the end of the runway. Otherwise, why bother?

Likewise, readers should get their sense of adventure back.  Read something freaky once a year, why don't you?  You could read something that you don't connect with at all, or you could wind up having a revelation.  Either way, at least you won't be bored, and you'll be saving the publishing industry from itself.

Monday, April 25, 2011

404 Error: Blog Post Missing

I've got a new idea for a post, but no time to post it.  I was just reminded of the idea by this Tweet from @bradfordlit: 

I totally want to reminsce about this fab scene from a ms I was never able to sell & it makes me sad that so few ppl have read it.

I know many agents can sympathize with this.  Not every book is a great success.  Sometimes we have to pass on books that we really quite enjoyed.  Sometimes agents just have to face facts: just because you like it, doesn't mean everyone else would.  

I will ruminate more on the subjective nature of the publishing business, and how agents try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to navigate the mine-field, as soon as I don't have a quadrillion things to do.  

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Plan B: What's to be expected after getting rejected

As I'm sure you may already know, a lot of things in life don't work out the way you would like them to.  A lot of prospective authors throw their hat in the ring with high expectations, only to end up with a file full of rejection notices rather than a book deal.  It happens.  Frequently.

Some may think that as an agent I don't think about the books I reject daily, or the plight of their authors.  While it's true I don't have much sympathy for poorly written books, I'm not unsympathetic to authors (even the bad ones) who have put it all on the line only to come up with bupkis.  It is with this in mind that I'm blogging today for those who need a Plan B.

I like to joke sometimes that I'm a professional rejectionist.  I have a lot of experience rejecting things. I do it every day.  In addition to rejecting things, I'm also pretty expert at being rejected.  Getting rejected by editors is just part of the grind.  As someone who is constantly rejecting books, and having clients' books rejected by editors, there is a lot I can tell you about rejection, what it means, and what you should know.

The Dreaded Letter

Rejection letters can often be just plain unhelpful. Agents/editors don't often have a lot of time to compose these letters, and they don't have a lot of incentive to give you an exhaustive inventory of all the reasons why your book is not suitable for representation/publication.  To compound this problem, they often try to choose words carefully so as not to offend, rather than give you the straight dope on why your book doesn't work for them.  For these reasons, it is always good to look at rejection letters with a fair bit of suspicion.  Because they are incapable of telling the whole story, and the part they tell isn't always completely accurate, trying to discern your next course of action from them is often a fool's errand.  There are a few things, however, which you can reasonable assume.

If the letter is short that usually means that the agent/editor didn't consider your book for very long.  They either made a summary judgment, or something was immediately unappealing to them about your book.  Usually the shorter the rejection letter, the more is probably wrong with your book.  It could be spelling, grammar, failure to suspend disbelief, cliches, annoying characters, or just a simple matter of taste.  You will never be able to discern what you've done wrong from a rejection letter with only a few sentences or paragraphs, so I wouldn't recommend reading too much into any single rejection letter. I certainly wouldn't rewrite your book according to criticisms in any individual short rejection letter.  There simply isn't enough information to go on.

Now, taken cumulatively, several short rejection letters can give you an idea of where you may have gone awry.  If several agents/editors have the same or similar criticism of your book then you should probably consider revising according to that criticism, but only if that criticism is very specific (i.e. the dialog wasn't as good as it could have been, the ending was a bit predictable).  Editors/agents can often employ similar vague and unhelpful statements such as "I didn't connect with the main character/characters".  There's no way you can fix the fact that an agent/editor just didn't find the fundamental structural components of your book appealing.  If you get a lot of vague rejections like that, then there's probably several serious things wrong with your book, and you need to evaluate whether you should try to find what those things are and fix them, or move on to a better project.

If an editor/agent takes the time to write you a long rejection letter (more than two or three paragraphs with several long sentences each) and lets you know specifically what the dealbreakers were for them, take those criticisms to heart.  You may not realize it, because you were preoccupied with all the nasty and dismissive things they were saying about the work of art you painstakingly created, but that agent/editor just did you a huge favor.  They told you what it would take for them to like your book.  If you really want them to be your agent/editor, they've given you some guidelines on what can be done to fix your book.  Be aware, however, that those criticisms might not carry over to another agent/editor.  Some things they request, might be dealbreakers for someone else.  Also be aware that you take a risk by revising the book, because there's always the chance that they simply won't like your revisions.

No Response/Form Rejection

Eli Wiesel says that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference.  People think rejection is bad, but getting no response, or a form response, is in many ways worse.  Don't mistake months of silence to mean careful consideration.  I would take any prolonged silence to mean that you've been rejected.  There are caveats to this, of course, which I will explain later.

A form rejection is only slightly better than not hearing anything.  A form rejection is a standard "no thanks" either on a postcard or an automatically generated response.  There's no way to tell, based on a form rejection, just how carefully your submission was considered.  The agent/editor may not have made it past the first paragraph of your query letter before giving up, they may have read your entire submission including sample chapters.  The form reject provides about as much insight into the decision to reject your submission as not receiving any notice at all.

If you have a box full of form rejections, or you get no response at all (after a matter of weeks or months) then I would seriously consider revising your query letter.  It may be that your bad query letter is selling your book short, and making a bad first impression.  If that doesn't help, then I would recommend scrapping your current project, and moving on to something different.  There's no use plugging away at a project which has been continually rejected.


Sometimes agents have a policy (as our agency does regarding email submissions) of not responding to queries/submissions unless they are interested.  Typically there's a time frame attached to this (ours is 2 weeks).  Emails come into the box, we read them (usually the day of) and if we don't like what we see, we delete them.  The volume of emails (hundreds a day) means that we hardly have time to read all the emails we get, much less respond to every one we're not interested in.  Two weeks is our best estimate of the maximum amount of time it would take us to mull whether to request a full manuscript for any email we save.  If you don't hear from us in two weeks, consider that a rejection. Paper submissions with an SASE we give a form rejection as a courtesy.

Sometimes, though, we get really busy.  Things can languish.  Things can be forgotten, only to be unearthed weeks later.  I have, in the past, requested manuscripts based on queries I received a month or two previously.  This, however, rarely happens.  It's not wise to hold out hope that you're the person whose submission was simply misplaced.  Likewise, if you're querying several agents at once, and you don't hear back from any of them, the chances that your query was simply misplaced by all of them is improbable.

In any case, waiting around several months for an agent to finally get back to you is a sucker's game.  You should be making productive use of that time to research new agents, make new submissions, or to revise, re-write, or write something new.

Now, if you're the impatient type, I want to be clear, don't abandon hope immediately.  For paper submissions the response time is usually slower.  Things are usually slower when the Post Office is involved.  Don't expect to hear back on a paper submission in under a month.  I would say give it two months.  Email submissions, give it two weeks (three if you're patient) if you don't hear back then move on.  If you receive no response to an unsolicited submission, don't bother to follow up.  You don't owe an agent who hasn't responded to your initial query any of your time.  If they miss out on the opportunity to represent you because they're disorganized, or slow to respond, that's their problem, not yours. If you have run out of options, and the only agent who hasn't rejected you is one that hasn't responded to your query in six months, don't bother following up. They probably won't respond, and even if they did, would you really want them to be your agent anyway?

Back to Square One

Okay, so you've been universally rejected by every agent/editor.  Are you a bad writer, or just unlucky?  It could be one, the other, or a mixture of both.  Some people just aren't cut out to be writers, some people just need practice, and some people are just plum unlucky.  I'll try to address each scenario.

Bad writers

It's time to pack it in.  You thought your book was equal parts J.K. Rowling and Dostoevsky, but it turns out your spelling is hit or miss, your grammar is atrocious, your plot is a bit hackneyed, and your characters are two dimensional.  Don't sweat it.  You're not the first person (and you certainly won't be the last) to have written a truly awful book.  You  may have pumped this jewel out during NaNoWriMo and done zero revising, or you may have painstakingly written, re-written and work-shopped your baby over the course of decades.  One thing is certain, however, you were probably the recipient of some bad advice.  I'm here to set the record straight.  Your book stinks.  It just stinks.  It's irredeemably bad.  There's no way to fix it, and there's little hope that you can ever write a better book.   No one in the publishing industry will tell you this outright, because they are afraid you'll get angry with them.  They are doing you a great disservice.  You need to seek out someone who can give you an honest assessment of your talent (or lack thereof).  Someone that you can be certain will unabashedly tell you that you suck and, in detail, why you suck.  You will know you have found this person when you receive your manuscript back covered in red ink, and full of criticisms that will make you want to curl up into the fetal position and cry for weeks.  If, after this assessment, you can find the strength to continue writing, you are either a true artist or you're delusional (at a certain point there's little distinction).

Bad books

Maybe you're not a bad writer, you've just produced a lemon, and now you need to fix it or let it go.  You had a great concept, but you flubbed the execution, or maybe you're decent craftsmen that built something nobody needs.  In either case, you're just slightly off the mark.  It's time to adjust your aim.

If you're brimming with great story ideas, but you're not so great at bringing them to fruition, then maybe you just need more practice, or a bit of education.  Writers workshops can be a good resource, but they can also be bastions of bad advice.  I'd recommend a three pronged approach.  1. Read more of the type of book you'd like to write, and think critically about how your favorite writers  make their books work. 2. Read a few books on writing and see if you can learn anything  3. Write more, and have that writing evaluated (as in a workshop).  Practice makes perfect, and the more you write the better you'll get.  Workshops can be helpful, if only to get a different perspective on your writing, and to get yourself thinking differently about your work.

If you're a decent writer but you find yourself the recipient of several complimentary rejects, maybe it's not your writing, but the subject matter you choose to write about.  If you choose topics most people find boring, or topics so far outside the zeitgeist that no one can sympathize with the characters, then maybe you're heading in the wrong direction.  While it's true that a really excellent writer could make a book about a family of head lice a compelling read, maybe you don't have that level of genius.  You should probably learn to recognize your own limitations, and realize that your book about the secret life of dung beetles, while comprised of all the necessary components, probably isn't going to net you a book deal.  You need to think about who your readers would be and try to find a story you both can appreciate, rather than explore your own more esoteric interests.

Bad Luck

I feel for you unlucky folks.  I really do.  You've written a great book, but alas the the universe conspires against you.  You've got everything that agents and editors say they want, but for some reason your rejects are piling up.  Agents and editors are all very complimentary, but none of them want to take you on.  WTF?!  There's a real simple answer to this: market conditions.  You may have just missed the tail end of a trend, you may have written a book for a smaller market and the publishers rosters are already full, you may have written a book that's too close in style and content to other major books that were acquired ahead of yours.  It's not your fault.  You did your job, and you did it well, but no one wants to take the risk that your book won't sell.  My suggestion is to just shake it off.  You've got independent verification that you can write well, now you just need to do some more writing.  Don't try to chase trends, because that can put you in the same sort of trouble you are in already.  Just write the best book you can possibly write.  You may end up in the same place again because--let's face it--you're unlucky, but the only way to beat bad luck is by working extra hard to keep ahead of it.  If you write consistently better books eventually you'll catch your break, luck be damned.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


The Amanda Hocking phenomena has provided a bright ray of hope for authors who have felt stymied by their attempts at commercial publication. While I am pleased by her success, and hopeful for the future it hints at, I am concerned about the debate that's risen in light of her story's popularity. Many megabytes of tweets, blog comments, and facebook prognostications about the imminent demise of the publishing industry have followed this otherwise welcome news.

What I think is missing from this debate is a serious appraisal of just where we're at as authors, as readers, and as publishing professionals.  Publishing has been around for a long long time, and it has survived many pardigmatic shifts in the way the written word is delivered and consumed by readers.  It will survive this shift as well.  In fact, it might just come out the other end in better shape than it has been in a long time.  That is, if we can come together an prevent it from becoming a nightmare.

What has plagued publishing recently is not competition from self-publishers, or piracy, or the internet in general, but the increasing consolidation of publishers, distributors, and booksellers in the physical world.  Even before e-books were doubling their market share every year, print sales were down, independent bookstores were shuttering, and the publishing conglomerates were gobbling up imprints by the dozen. 

The problem that is created by consolidating interests, is that they produced one-size-fits-all products.  Independent bookstores used to cater the specialized needs of their customers, or they'd go out of business.  Big box stores were able to ignore this relationship because their real-estate afforded them the opportunity to draw in more customers, and they could float themselves on a handful of mega best-sellers while using that revenue to carry smaller stocks of a broader variety of other titles.  In the heyday of the nineties consumers had money to burn on entertainment, and books were a good value compared to music and movies. The success of big box stores drove many smaller bookstores out of business.

The dominance of the big box stores warped the priorities of the publishers, who prized better sellers for a general readership over better books for a smaller, more diverse, and more enduring readership. That paradigm couldn't have survived for long, as the readers willing to shell out money for a hardcover of the same sort of thriller they read last week (or more likely last year) become fewer and fewer, and as fewer people were being led to mid-list authors whose books just sat on the shelf in the back of a big box store.

That landscape has shifted through the oughts.  Consumer spending is still recovering and big box bookstores now compete with cheaper and more plentiful entertainment options (Netflix costs less than a trade paperback, and gives you unlimited movies for an entire month).  Some like Barnes and Noble have managed to do okay in adapting to these challenges, others like Borders have run aground.  The publishers that once benefited tremendously  from their relationships with the big box stores, now find themselves having to scale back on number of titles they publish.  Whole imprints have gone away, and further consolidation is only going to lead to a narrowing of potential opportunities for publishers to connect with readers.

No one doubts that the publishing industry is now at a crossroads. Where it goes from here will determine whether it becomes a utopia or dystopia.  In either scenario, the publishing industry is going to survive, because despite the claims of some e-book futurists, the market for print products isn't on the verge of disappearing any time soon.  What it looks like, however, depends not solely on the publishers, but on authors and readers as well.

Because I'm a big Pollyanna, I'm going to address the dystopic vision of publishing first.

In this version of publishing, the industry has become a veritable Pottersville.  It's a fully synergized vampiric horror that seeks to squeeze the last drops of life out of the author's already meager royalties while throwing its publicity weight behind a series of forgettable thrillers, and ghostwritten celebrity books that will molder the second they leave the bookstore.  Mid list authors are more or less ignored, while editors chase best-sellers whose diminishing returns set the bar lower and lower for what a best-seller means.  In the digital world, the publishing giants will simply dump backlists on their e-tailer partners and leave the responsibility for creative marketing in the hands of third-parties.

Meanwhile, the multitude of authors whose books were deemed not commercial enough for "mainstream" publishing will take their raw materials to the readers directly and build small, but loyal, followings selling e-books at pennies on the dollar.  This will work well for some, but for most it will prove disastrous to their careers, their nerves, and their writing. After all, it's hard to run an online media enterprise, while continuing to crank out a book every nine months.  Just ask Amanda Hocking.

The people who will suffer the most, however, will be the readers.  On the one hand they will have a overwhelming abundance of self-published e-books whose quality will range from lunatic ravings to fine literature with no way to differentiate between the two, on the other they will have a "mainstream" publisher who is trying to oversell an overpriced and overproduced version of a warmed-over concept from a decade ago.  In both instances the number of books available per year will shrink, as publishers cut back on the number of titles, and as authors become self-publishers that are too overwhelmed with doing all the other work of publicity and distribution to actually do the job of writing books.   

For those who still love brick-and-mortar bookstores, they will find that the independent bookstores are gone and that their big box store has become a magazine stand full of more knick-knacks, toys, and tie-in products, than books.  

All this version of the future requires is that we continue along the same path we're already on.  Publishers need only consolidate until they are a homogeneous paste, and readers and authors need only isolate themselves in their own fantasy of a digital marketplace that requires no guidance or organization.  The rest will work itself out on its own.

I think I have a better vision of how this whole thing plays out. It's a win win win situation for all parties involved, but it's going to take some work.

In this scenario, publishers realize the golden opportunity that the electronic market provides, and they make it work for them.  They curate lists of mid-list authors and keep backlists alive through creative packaging of online materials to serve more diverse niches in their readership.  They are able to better cross-promote using online media, and draw attention to their mid-list from their front-list and visa-versa.  They will effectively harness the energy of the web to build books in print, and will establish a long-tail model for backlist titles that will help raise revenues.  Those revenues will then be reinvested in finding and building new imprints, and creating a more diverse catalogue that serves the varied interests of many smaller readerships, rather than a singular focus on finding the next mega best-seller.  This growth will only beget more growth.

Parallel to their efforts, a community of online publishers and self-publishers springs up which is able to explore new and exciting frontiers. Without the burden of having their e-editions tied to a print product, these e-publishers will be able to start and establish trends in real time, and create viral successes online.  When a niche becomes popularized there will be a precedent for partnering with publishers to produce print products, which will enable them to build on their success offline as well.  In this way the self-publishing/e-only market will become the trying grounds for larger mainstream success, and will help keep the industry as a whole moving forward.

Bookstores will become the center of communities rather than cold book warehouses.  They will sell not just books, but culture in general, and will be home to events featuring local, national, and international authors, artists, and musicians.

This utopia requires everyone's participation, and a few sacrifices.

Publishers are going to have to step up their investment in online presence and marketing.  Sites like Suvudu, and eHarlequin are steps in the right direction, but publishers need to do better.  They need to market smarter, and they need to better utilize their e-tailer partners.

Publishers also need to be more fair with e-book royalties, or they'll risk losing the enormous revenues they can generate by making use of a long-tail model in backlist sales.  It's hardly worth taking a hard line on e-book royalties if the publisher's share is going to be zero as authors refuse to hand over e-rights for older titles, and revert rights to books that are out-of-print.  

Then there's the issue of pricing, which will require concessions both from publishers and readers.  

Readers will have to pay a premium, whether online or in hardcover, for early adoption.  That's just the way it is.  If you want the newest Apple gadget, you're willing to pay a premium, it's the same thing for books.  If you're buying it the second it's released, expect to pay the hardcover cost whether you're getting a download or the real deal at the bookstore.  Paying the premium price for early adoption will help publishers gain the revenue to build newer and better products, and to invest in the infrastructure that will allow them to offer consumers deals on backlist books.

On that note, publishers need to make concessions about price on the backlist side.  There comes a point when the digital product is no longer undercutting any potential print sale, and the only engine that will drive sales is a lower price.  Selling backlist e-books at $3.99 or lower will help drive backlist sales, and it will delight readers looking for a bargain.  Authors whose books have finished their life cycle in print, can be given new life online at a price point that encourages readers who are looking to explore different styles and genres.

Bookstores are going to have to invest in events planning, and creative marketing, to drive readers into the stores.  You can't just rely on foot-traffic, and a coffee bar.  You need people to find a reason to be there, and you need to connect with your local community in ways that are not simply commercial. 

Authors you're going to have to recognize that publishing is a team effort.  In print it requires the work of agents, editors, publicity departments, reviewers, distributors, bookstore buyers, and even bookstore clerks.  Online it is comprised of e-tailers, bloggers, and social networking sites. Just like Flaubert, you have to realize that books are not like children.  Sure it may take nine months to create one, but once it's written it's not yet a whole entity unto itself, magically imbued with a life of its own.  A finished manuscript is merely the plan for a monument, and it requires not just your effort, but the effort of thousands to erect.  You have to ditch the attitude that you can do this all yourself, and start building partnerships that will help get your book in the hands of readers.

As for me, what I will need to do in this new world?  As an agent, I will have a lot more work to do as the liaison between the parallel enterprises of self-publishers, e-publishers and "legacy" publishers.  It's going to be the agent's responsibility to hammer out the framework for turning an online only product into a print product in a way that doesn't upset the balance between the needs of the print publisher and the e-author/e-publisher.  In many ways the agency I work for has already taken the first steps in this process.  My agency has made reprint and anthology deals with Pocket on behalf of our client the online romance and erotica publisher Ellora's Cave, and helped John Scalzi take the Old Man's War series from his blog to the best-seller list.   My own client Coscom Entertainment has gone from selling thousands of print-on-demand products exclusively through e-tailers to having tens of thousands of books in bookstores through deals with Gallery and Sourcebooks. The results haven't always been great--some reprint deals haven't been the best vehicles for a e-book/print partnership--but we're making strides every day in creating the contractual basis for this utopia, and creating precedents that will help build better relationships between the print and digital worlds in the future.  I'm committed to making this utopia work for authors, publishers, and readers alike.  It's my sincere hope that we will continue to build a better publishing paradigm together.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Really Boring But Accurate and Exhaustive Explanation of How To Get Started and What to Expect

If you want to become a professional author I would recommend getting an agent (and not just because I am one).  Agents are professional advocates for authors, they help to protect the interests of authors, negotiate contracts, and generally get you work.  Most publishers will not take submissions from authors directly and prefer to work exclusively with agents.  If you're going to seek an agent I would recommend making submissions to several agents simultaneously.

Getting an agent is just a first step.  In order to get an agent first you have to search.  I recommend the following resources:

  1. The Association of Author’s Representatives:  They are the governing body for agents, members in good standing must pay dues and abide by a strict code of ethics.  If you go to their website they have a resource which lists agents, and allows authors to search for agents by genre. I would compile as long a list as you can of agents, because there’s no guarantee that the first agent (or the fifth, tenth, or nineteenth for that matter) will like your book and want to represent you.  Read each agent’s submission guidelines very carefully and follow them exactly (I’ll fill you in more on query letters and submissions later)

  1. (aka PubLunch):  PubLunch is a website which agents, publishers, and authors utilize to make announcements about forthcoming books.  You can view profiles of agents, authors, and publishers and see announcements of deals for forthcoming books.  This is an insider, industry, subscription only service ($20 a month).  It’s not absolutely necessary for your agent search, but it can be helpful.  If you wanted to find the agent who represents your favorite children’s books, you can search their “deals” section to find out who made the deal for that author, for that particular book, and you can find that agent’s specific contact info and submission guidelines.  It’s also just a good tool for research in general, if you wanted to see what kinds of projects publishers are currently buying in your particular genre.

  1. Predators and Editors:  P&E is a website which utilizes user input to compile a list of publishers and agents and to rank them by reputation.  There are a lot of scams out there wherein unscrupulous “agents” and “publishers” try to rip off unsuspecting authors by promising them to “publish” their books for a certain fee.  This site is a good way to verify if someone is a scammer or not, and also to find information on agents and publishers.  It’s a bit of a dinosaur, and a little harder to navigate than the others, but still a valuable resource.

Once you’ve compiled a list of agents that you would like to submit your book to, you’ll need to prepare a submission.  Each agent’s submission guidelines are unique, but there are a few things that are commonly asked for. 

The first is a query letter.  A query letter is a brief letter (usually three paragraphs) which introduces your project.  It should be brief and concise, and should get the agent interested in reading more.  There are a few books out there on how to write a query letter.  For a brief summary, see the guide created by the service AgentQuery (I don’t recommend the service, you can save your money and do the same thing yourself) on how to write a query.  It gives the basics.  If you want to learn how to write a really good query that will really sell your project, then you might want to go to the library or search Amazon for a book on the subject (there aren’t any that I’d specifically recommend, not having read any, but I know they exist).   Some agents will ask for the query letter only, and base their decision on whether to request your work solely on how they feel about the letter, so it’s important to get it right. Some authors have a misplaced resentment about the query letter.  It seems like such a miniscule thing to base one’s judgment of your entire work on, but it’s important.  You only get one chance for a first impression, and your query letter is it.  Just keep in mind that your contacting someone you don’t know, and who doesn’t know you, about a book they haven’t read and you have to convince them to read it. If possible tailor your query letter to each individual agent. 

The second thing that is commonly asked for is a synopsis.  This is a brief (one or two page) summary of the major plot points in your book. Not every agent will want this, but it’s good to have it drawn up in advance just in case they request it.  It's also good practice for a query letter, because it helps you to figure out how to best summarize what happens in your book. A synopsis isn't necessary for illustrated children's books.

The third thing is usually a sample.  If you’ve written a novel, it’s usually the first few chapters.  If you’ve written an illustrated children’s book, it’s usually the complete text of the children’s book or “script” (because they’re short), and a few examples (photocopies or images) of the artwork.  Like the synopsis, not every agent will ask for this up front, but they may want to look at it eventually, so have it ready.  

(For non-fiction you will usually be asked for a book proposal, rather than a manuscript or sample materials.  Guides on how to write book proposals are abundant, I would suggest searching online.  The structure varies, as does the advice. So, be forewarned.)

I would recommend having both physical copies available for agents who only accept submission in the mail, and a digital version of your submission.  The physical version should be comprised of: 

  1. Query letter on bond (fancy) paper,
  2. a synopsis (if necessary) and sample (or script) on plain paper, 12 point font, double spaced
  3. (if applicable) two or three examples of your original artwork in high quality digital printouts or photocopies on standard 8 ½ x 11 sized paper.
  4. SASE: stands for Self Addressed Stamped Envelope.  This is an envelope addressed to yourself with proper postage which the agent will use to send you a notice of rejection if they are not interested in representing you.  Some agencies will also return your materials upon request.  You should include a separate envelope in that instance.  In most cases your materials will simply be discarded after being reviewed, so don’t be too fancy.

Your digital (email) submission should be comprised of the same things, but each thing should be pasted into the body of your email. Agents receive hundreds of queries a day, some don’t have time to wait for your attachments to open and load, and will discard your query on that basis.  You query letter should address the agent you're submitting to, and should note the material included in the body of the email (i.e. “synopsis, sample, and sample illustrations included below”).  Your images (if applicable) should be low-resolution (file size under 200 kb) jpeg images which can easily be pasted into the body of your email and transmitted.  Make sure to fill in the subject line with the title of your book.  Email each agent individually, using their name in the query letter, do not send bulk emails to several addresses at once.  You don’t want to get caught in someone’s spam filter, and you don’t want to give the impression that you’re just contacting agents at random.  Monitor your email closely, you may get a response sooner than you think.

Once you’ve made your submissions, the only thing left to do is wait for someone to call you, or for the rejections to roll in.  This process could take at minimum a month or two. Most agents ask that you not follow up on your submissions.  Most agents cannot track when, if, how they decided to reject your submission.  They receive hundreds every day, and have to sort through based on the query letters for projects they find appealing.  If they decide against yours, they will either submit a form rejection letter (i.e. “it’s just not for me, thank you for submitting anyway”) or on occasion they will write you a personalized rejection letter that instructs you how to better fix your project in case you wish to submit it again. If you don’t hear back from an agent, I would recommend resubmitting rather than trying to call or email them only to be stymied by their army of assistants, associates, and secretaries who don’t know anything and can’t help you.  You can also just consider their silence a tacit rejection, and move on to the next possible agent.

If, at long last, an agent contacts you, they will request whatever complete materials they are interested in, including your complete manuscript to review, or a mock-up of your illustrated book.  A two week exclusive review period is typically requested, which means you cannot submit these materials to another agent for the period of two weeks from when you sent in your complete manuscript/mock-up. Review of your materials can take a while.  I would recommend following up if you don’t hear back in a month, and continuing to follow up every two weeks after that.  

If, at the end of your long search for an agent, all you’ve collected is a file full of rejection letters, it may be time to re-evaluate whether the book is really ready for commercial publishing. If that’s the case, there’s not much you can do aside from publishing the book yourself, which will cost you money, and has a very slim chance of ever earning you that money back.  Self-publishing can be done successfully, but I don’t have any experience with it, so if you want to take this route I would recommend heading to the library or Amazon for a book on the subject.  Avoid at all cost any self-publishing services that promise to place your books in stores, and advertise on your behalf, they’re usually a waste of money.

If you’re fortunate enough to have an agent who offers to represent you, congratulations you’ve made it to past step one!

Now, hopefully you’ve heeded my advice about going to the AAR website and only submitting to reputable agents, but just in case you skipped over that part, I’ll mention it again.  Do your research.  Make sure the agent who is offering representation has other clients who have books that are published by an imprint of a major publisher (Simon and Schuster, Random House, Hachette Group, Macmillan etc.).  Make sure to read the AAR’s canon of ethics and see if the agent adheres to them.

An aside about agents, publishers, and getting paid:  agents work on commission, which means that you do not pay them directly, but that they take a percentage of the money paid to you by the publisher.  Standard commission for domestic deals is 15% of net revenue for all books which the agent represents, sales of subsidiary rights are typically 20% with the agent splitting that commission in half with a subsidiary rights agent.  Subsidiary rights agents are agents in foreign countries, or in other fields besides publishing (i.e. film/tv/movies) which aid an agent in negotiating in other languages/countries or in specialized circumstances (film contracts are very different than publishing contracts, and need someone experienced to navigate them).   When a publisher wants to buy rights to publish your book they will pay an advance, which is a lump sum payment based on their estimation of how much money they expect you to earn in royalties for your books.  The advance can be anywhere from a thousand dollars to millions (though typically for first time authors you can probably expect between $7,500 and $30,000).  Provided you turn in a book that satisfies the publisher, you get to keep that advance money no matter how well your book does.  If your book earns royalties in excess of your advance payment (in publishing lingo it “earns out”), then you will receive additional payments.  All these payments will have the 15% commission deducted by your agent in return for their services in getting you the deal, negotiating the contracts, and monitoring whether the publisher is paying you fairly.  Because an agent’s compensation is tied into how much money you are earning, it’s in the agent’s best interest to make sure that you are earning a steady income.

So back to what I was saying.  An agent has offered you representation.  The first thing you have to do is sign an agency agreement.  Most agents aren’t interested in making a handshake deal with you. They know to get everything in writing, and they want a few things from you and you in turn should demand a few things of them.  It’s important to go over your agency agreement and clarify anything you don’t understand with the agent, and make sure that you’re comfortable with the arrangement.  That’s why it’s called an agreement, because you’re both supposed to agree on how your business relationship is supposed to work.  Once this is done the agent is going to help you prepare your work for submission to publishers.

Your agent may want you to fix a few things with your project before submitting it.  Let them help you out, and be responsive.  The more on the ball you are, the easier it is for them to focus on your project (they have other clients too, so they don’t have all the time in the world to spend just on your project).  Typically these revisions are small, but sometimes they can take months. 

Once your book is ready for submission, ask your agent to provide you with a list of editors they plan to submit the book to.  Sometimes they will send it to just one editor they know is looking for exactly what you’ve got.  Most times, however, they’ll send the book to several editors who acquire books in the genre most closely associated with your book.  It’s important to give feedback in this process. Research the editors they choose using PublishersMarketplace, and see if the editors’ past projects are similar to yours.  If there are editors who have edited authors you particularly admire suggest them. Your agent my not agree with you, but they will try to accommodate you, or at least explain their rationale for choosing the editors they’ve chosen.

The submission process can be long and grueling, but thankfully your agent will be doing most of the work.  Getting a book acquired by a publisher can take as little as a month, or more than a year.  Make sure to follow up with your agent every month, or two months, to see about the status of the submission.  Ask to see the rejection letters and strategize about other possible editors than the ones your agent has already submitted your work to. 

While the submission process is ongoing, it’s also a good idea to get started on new projects.  Pitch new ideas to your agent to see which ones they are most interested in (they’re not required to represent you for any project they don’t like) and try to have something new ready. 

If your book doesn’t get picked up by a publisher you might have to shelve it and work on something new.   Don’t fret.  That first book will always be there if you need it.  If you get a new book published, and they want more from you, you’ll have that first book to give them.

If in the end you don’t end up getting published, don’t sweat it.  It happens a lot.  If you’re not too disheartened by the whole thing, dust yourself off, and keep trying.

The Checklist

Here's what you'll need  in order to get an agent:

1. A book (or proposal, depending)

I know this seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people call me on the pone about "this great idea for a book."  I can't pitch ideas to editors.  There's no idea shelf at Barnes and Noble.  Amazon doesn't have a page where you can purchase an idea.  Ideas can't even necessarily be copyrighted.  So if you have a really great idea for a book, I'd suggest you keep it to yourself until you're ready to commit those thoughts to paper in the form of either a book or at the very least a book proposal.  

2. Did I say book?  I meant a good book.

Never written a book before?  Don't expect your first to get published, unless you're some sort of savant (curse you Edwige Dandicat!). You know what Herman Melville's first novel was?  If you guessed Typee you are wrong wrong wrong.  His first novel was...we don't know because he had the amazing foresight to know he should throw the thing out lest some modern day editor find the it in a library somewhere and publish it posthumously.  Melville also wrote several short stories before he ever attempted a novel.  If you're starting from scratch, an agent or editor is the last person on the list of people you ought show your work to.  Writers groups abound in every organized conurbation, and there are plenty of online communities that will help critique your work if you  happen to live in the boonies somewhere.  There are several literary magazines and journals in varying states of failure across America and the English speaking world who would love to receive your fledgling efforts.  Start there and when you've been broken down and remade as a strong and confident author come find me.  I'm waiting for you to overpower my innate urge to reject things.

3.  A query letter

A query letter is a very very very (I cannot stress this enough) short letter, designed to convey everything that is important about your book (or proposed book) and about you as an author.  "How," you may ask "can you expect me to convey the most important kernel of truth that my book is designed around and reveal the most pertinent details of my internal life as an artist and creator in only a few paragraphs?" To which I would reply, "carefully, briefly, and a bit punchy, I don't want to be bored to tears!"  Mark Twain famously quipped "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead".   Take your time drafting this letter, it's the most important thing you will ever write.  Your query is my first introduction  to your work.  I try to make an effort read sample materials, at the very least a synopsis, but most agents never make it past the query, especially if you're query makes them think "TL;DR."  There are tons of guides on how to write a proper query, I would read them all if you have the time.  In the end though, there's really no right way to write a query letter. Each query letter is flawed in it's own special way.   However, if  you try really hard you'll be a step ahead of 90% of the other submissions an agent or editor receives on a daily basis.

4. Patience

Really this should be the first thing on the list.  You're going to need it, regardless of whether you have the first three things ready or not.  Unless you're unbelievably lucky, I would expect to be ignored for the few months your book is on submission.  No one will contact you, repeated follow ups will get you vague answers, or no  answers at all.  This is not uncommon.  Just be patient.  Make several submission and wait.  If you don't hear back from anyone after six months, then start over and try again.  Agents are in the business of representing authors who they believe will create income enough to sustain them both.  They are not therapists, they won't ever provide you with closure.  If they are kind they will reject you, if they are real mensches they'll tell you explicitly why they rejected you and may even provide you with helpful suggestions on how to fix your book.   

You Don't Know What You Want

You may think you do, but it turns out there are other considerations. You may think that you want to be a successful author, that you want to sell five hundred million copies worldwide, and have a theme park named after your main character.  You may have more modest goals of just being a mildly successful published author.  I would caution you to reevaluate those goals in light of the following, because in the end  you might end up wanting to never have started in the first place.  

The publishing industry is designed to be exclusive and inscrutable. A barrier is deliberately and purposely constructed to separate prospective authors and the decision makers responsible for making your book a book. This makes it all but impossible to determine exactly where you fit in the grand publishing paradigm

Now this isn't because publishers are conspiring to destroy the artistic ambitions of a nation of sensitive and well-meaning people.   It's a matter of necessity. They need to be exclusive, because if they had to read every other manuscript to find the good ones, they'd have no time to do all the other things which are necessary for getting books to market.  In essence, they build a wall of inscrutability in order to balance the signal/noise ratio enough so that they can get their jobs done.   

As a prospective author this can be troubling.  There exists little public information about who to contact and where to go if you want to become a published author.  In that way, becoming a published author is a bit like deciding you want to summit Mt. Everest, even though you've never even seen a mountain.  It is a profoundly difficult, if not impossible, thing to attempt alone.

That's where agents come in.  Following the Mt. Everest analogy, agents are like Sherpas.  We've been up and down the mountain a few times, so we can help guide you up.  Much like a Sherpa, however, we aren't about to carry you to the summit, and if you develop altitude sickness halfway up we're probably not going to risk our lives carrying  you back down either.  That's why you're going to need a few things as a prerequisite for any author agent relationship.  The checklist is as follows: 

1. A book  2. Did I say a book?  I meant a good book (yes there's a difference)  3. A query letter 4. Patience

If you've managed to write a really good book, a really great query letter, and if the waiting for a response hasn't driven you totally mad with rage and frustration, you may finally get an agent who is interested in  your work.  Congratulations!   You have a Sherpa and you  just took the first step up Mt. Everest.  Only 16,998 feet to go!

Now, there are caveats to this process.  Editors some times choose manuscripts from contests, or from writers conventions.  Sometimes editors get manuscripts from authors they've seen in literary magazines or journals.  Sometimes an editor has  a manuscript recommended by another of their authors.  There are authors who have had notable success self-publishing, especially with rise of e-books.  These things happen only rarely, however.  As most editors will tell you, the bulk of their published works come from agent submissions.