IMPORTANT NOTE: Please know that I will attempt to answer any questions I get here, however, I cannot read your manuscript, help you find an agent, or come clean your house. I have my own to do.
I have had numerous requests and inquiries recently, both from relatives, friends, friends asking for their relatives, etc., about how to get published. I put together some information a few years back, and decided I would share it again, due to the interest from friends and relatives.
How do you get published?
In today’s market, there are many ways of getting published. It all depends on what YOU want from your publishing experience. The majority of people want the dream–the six figure contract, the house in the Hamptons (or Bahamas), and nationwide book tours to visit Oprah. The truth is, that RARELY if ever happens.
Most authors with New York book contracts are called “midlist” authors. We get smallish advances, little publicity, and the burden of selling and promoting the book is on us.
But still, we did manage to get a big New York publisher.
So how do you get published? Well, it kind of depends on what YOU are looking for in a publishing experience. Where do you want your book to be published? Are you writing it for yourself? Your kids? Or do you think you have the next Twilight?
If you want a big publisher, you probably need an agent. (I say probably, because if there is one thing I’ve learned in this business, it is that the rules are only the rules until someone breaks them. Then they change.
So how do you get an agent?
First of all, don’t even bother trying to get an agent if your book has not been edited. Editing by a professional can be costly, and while I believe strongly in this, I also know a lot of people can’t afford it. But there are critique groups on the Internet where you critique other people’s work and they critique yours in kind. I joined one of these when I was looking to get published, and got some excellent crit partners, many of whom are now published themselves. The crit group I joined was the Internet Writing Workshop. Here I found writers who were at the same level as I was, and together a lot of us succeeded. You can see the successes on the Website.
So, after you have your work the very best it can be, edited and clean, you need to start looking for an agent. You need to write a query letter. I will cover that later. But first, what do they want? I decided the easiest way to find out was to ask them. .
What Agents Really Want
“I wish I knew what agents are looking for,” a writing friend of mine said the other day.
“If I could only read their minds, I’d be in!” I have heard this same statement repeated time and time again.
In today’s tough publishing climate, most big commercial presses will not accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries from authors, and instead use agents to sort through the slush pile and bring them the best work around.
This means the most important contact a writer can or will have is with his/her agent.
There are many things to consider when choosing an agent, including their sales record, affiliations, reputation, and client list. As you query the agents that meet your criteria, you will undoubtedly meet with much rejection.
You have to be ready for this, and determined and optimistic. And very, very thick-skinned.
And once you have an agent, don’t imagine you’re on easy street. Most agents will tell you to put aside that dream of instant success and royalties that pour in unchecked, and prepare to go to work. New writers must be willing to actively market their work, a job that is both time-consuming and tedious. No agent wants a client who thinks once the book is written, the job is done.
Since I’m seriously short on psychic skills, I decided to do the next best thing and ask a few successful agents some questions. I asked four questions of three agents: Jeff Kleinman of Graybill and English, LLC [JK]; Liza Dawson [LD]; and Felicia Eth [FE]. All three are successful non-fee charging literary agents with proven track records and good reputations. One fact came out loud and clear: Writers are making the same mistakes over and over again. Here’s your opportunity to learn what an agent is looking for, directly from the source.
1. What is the worst thing a writer can do in a query letter?
JK: Hmm, that’s a tough one. How about three things: ramble for more than a page and a half; sound desperate; and make grammatical, punctuation, or spelling mistakes.
LD: Here are two worst things. One, write the letter like it’s a promo piece for Publishers Clearinghouse, i.e. “Dear Ms. Dawson: I’d like to offer you the opportunity at a sure bestseller. I’ve heard you’re brilliant and so successful and that’s why I’m sending you and the other fifty agents on this e-mail submission this letter.” Two, beg me in hysterical language to pay attention because you’ve never written a letter to an agent and you’re really scared and you know that no one will ever listen to you.
FE: Bore me. If the letter does, probably the manuscript will too. Boast about it—tell me it’s sure to be a bestseller, tell me I’ll make lots of money. Send it to me, but address it to another agent. You’d be amazed how often this happens. Make it clear it’s a form letter, where my name is hand-written in. It makes me think it’s been to a million other agents.
2. What catches your eye and makes you want to read someone’s work?
JK: A tightly-crafted letter with a great single- or two-sentence description of the work, and an author with very good credentials—published in national magazines, or with a national platform; winning awards, and so forth.
LD: One, a recommendation; two, a clear description of the work with few superfluous sentences; three, previous publications.
FE: Pizzazz in the query letter. Good, maybe great credentials—either on the person’s expertise, or publishing background. An original approach without being overly corny; sometimes writers cross the line in making something way too cute. It’s strong, original writing that catches my eye.
3. As writers, we hear stories of the “good old days,” where agents and editors would nurture a promising writer with two or three books until they reached top form. In your opinion, was this ever the case, and if so, what changed it?
JK: I think that’s still the case with agents and editors. It’s all about nurturing and building up a brand name.
LD: It was true a long time ago. Agents will nurture for longer than editors will. Editors now must justify their salaries in a way that they never had to before. Unless that writer gets fabulous reviews and there’s a whiff of a Nobel Prize in the air, then that editor has to maintain a wall between himself or herself and the writer—or else the editor will end up standing next to the writer, looking at the publishing house from the outside rather than the inside.
FE: I’ve been around for a while, and though things were never “great” still there are definite differences today. People used to buy a book they loved but didn’t think would be a great commercial success, for small money, publish it well and hope that it would help establish a writer for his/her next book. Today no one (of the major houses at least) wants to spend small money on a book with small expectations. They just can’t buy those books; they need to meet minimums in terms of the number of copies they can get out. Also, previously if someone was a good writer, credentials and platform weren’t nearly as important as they are today. Now, without that, it’s a long, difficult, uphill battle and most editors aren’t willing to fight that fight. So yes, things are different.
4. If you could give a new author one piece of advice to help advance his/her career, what would it be?
JK: Build up your credentials! By that I mean: One, learn to make your writing as solid, tight, and wonderful as possible; and two, become an “authority” on your subject, with some kind of very strong regional, or national, platform.
LD: Cultivate a following on National Public Radio. Come up with a high concept gimmick.
FE: Build credentials—short stories or magazine and newspaper pieces. Contests, supportive quotes from any major name you know. Build up a good case for why your work needs to be taken seriously, and then, amazingly enough, it will be. That’s no guarantee it will be bought, but at least it will be read and that’s an important first step.
I also asked one final question, half-jokingly: “When you become a literary agent, are you automatically required to use the word ‘subjective’ in your rejections?” Liza Dawson says
yes: “Every time we send out a rejection notice we’re afraid that we’re going to spark a suicide, or reject a fabulously successful novel and the author will then make merciless fun of the agents who rejected the book and post the pompous rejections on his web site.”
Felicia Eth had this response: “You know, I do use ‘subjective’ myself, because it is. In fact, I don’t love ‘commercial’ novels, with all that implies, and probably reject a fair number of them that are good and likely to sell. But that’s not what I do, not what I like, and though other agents probably think I’m nuts, that’s my criteria. Authors should know that. I told someone this week that I don’t do Mob novels—and said, ‘yes I probably would have rejected The Godfather.’ So that’s how subjective it is.”
An important thing to remember is that this ruthless business is also difficult from the agent’s perspective. The goal of an agent is not to crush the spirit of a new writer, who often has great potential but simply is not ready to seek publication. The only way to succeed is to write, rewrite, edit and write again, until your work is perfectly polished. At that point, remember the business of publishing is, indeed, subjective. What one agent hates, another may love. You simply must keep going until you find the agent who loves your work.