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.