Thursday, February 10, 2011

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.

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