Monday, June 15, 2009

The Path to Publication: Bring Your Hardhat and a Sense of Humor


By WriterX

A few days ago, John Keats wrote a great post called Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before. He said something that I could completely relate to. He said, “Being a recording artist sucks.”

Man, can I relate.

I’m not a recording artist but most days I try to make my living as a writer. That might be even worse because at least John gets to hang out with cool people. Most days I only hang out with my laptop. And as I said to John in my comment to his post, some days I’d think it would be easier to make a living as a basket weaver.

Today’s post will give you a little bit of insight into my path to publication. It’s certainly not the only path. There are lots of ways to get there. But if you’re an aspiring writer of fiction or non-fiction, hopefully you can pick up a tip or two and learn from my many mistakes. A writing career is by no means impossible but unless you were born with a silver spoon or happen to have an uncle who owns a major publishing house, be prepared for a rough ride. But, the rougher the ride, the sweeter the success, right? Well, sometimes.

A bunch of years ago, I wrote my first book. I thought it was THE BOMB. It was a masterpiece and I was quite confident that it would become a bestseller and I would make millions and live happily ever after churning out a book a year on my secluded Montana ranch or whenever I damn well pleased. Well, that masterpiece still sits in my laptop, unpublished. And I still dream about owning a ranch in Montana.

Seems none of the New York literary agents that I queried about my masterpiece were as enamored by it as I was, but it was during that time that I learned how to effectively query agents and what makes these very strange people tick. So, the next step to getting published, after you’ve polished up your book, is finding an agent (unless you decide to go the self-publishing route and that’s a completely different post). Side note: There are some people who publish without agents but most of the larger publishing houses will not read a manuscript unless it is agented.

There are all sorts of ways to find literary agents: writers’ conferences, reference books like Writer’s Market, word of mouth, even reading the acknowledgement pages in books. You know, that first page in the book where the writer thanks everyone under the sun and fawns over his agent and editor. My recommendation is to check out two free web sites: PublishersMarketplace.com and AgentQuery.com. These web sites also offer helpful tips on how to write effective queries. Writing a query that attracts an agent’s attention is as important as writing your book.

It took me a year to find my agent. Most of the successful agents reside in New York, close to the major publishing houses, although not all. Do your homework on agents (e.g. read their blogs, their web sites, do google searches) before you sign with one. Remember that you’re looking for a long-term business partner, not a best friend. And not a scam artist either and there are plenty of those, too. Look for someone with a proven track record of selling books. Signing with a bad agent is worse than not having one.

When I signed with my agent, I naively thought that the rest would be history: My big-time NY agent would share my book with a big-time publisher, I’d be offered a multi-book deal for six or seven figures, and then my publicist would begin scheduling book signings and stints on talk show programs to promote my book. Hah!

That’s not what happened but my agent did give me a great piece of advice. He said, “Keep writing.” And so I did. As it turns out, it wasn’t my first book that attracted the attention of a publisher. Or the second. Or even the third. It was my fourth.

Along the way, I’ve gotten plenty of rejection. Tons. Truckloads, even. I’ve had to make edits and changes to my books that I haven’t always agreed with. I’ve had to wait weeks, sometimes months, only to hear “no.” And then, in between all of the anxious moments, sometimes I’ll write something that connects with an editor at a publishing house and the rest becomes history.

The publishing industry, like the music industry, is so completely subjective: What one person likes, another will hate. And vice versa. And maybe that’s what makes it so frustrating. And, even a little exciting. I’ve also learned that persistence is key, timing is critical, and a little luck never hurts.

27 comments:

LoneWolfArcher said...

Writer X, great to see you guest posting here!! Of course I am biased as I have been a fan for several months now.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Thanks for the great article. This was very interesting. I never would have guessed that an agent would stick with a writer through multiple unpublished novels.

It's also interesting that you say that your "the bomb" novel is the one that nobody wanted. I have heard something similar from many artists in all kinds of fields -- that people didn't respond to what they thought was their best work.

I actually see that in law too. I will often be sure that a particular argument will be the ONE that will sway the judge, only to find that they care only about some other argument. Thus, I guess, the key to success is flexibility.

freedom21 said...

Great Post! Thanks!!

Writer X said...

LoneWolf, thanks! Appreciate it.

Andrew, Not all agents do. That's why it's important to research and find one that believes in your writing. I have several writer friends who've been through several agents and still aren't published. I got lucky in that regard. Mine stuck with me. Regarding my first novel, I still have hope that it will get published. Some day. I'm just waiting for the right time when the subject matter of my book will be en vogue again. Timing can be everything.

Writer X said...

Thanks, Freedom21!

JG said...

Yes! I love these! I'm an aspiring scribbler myself, so any and all advice/experience is more than welcome. I was fortunate in college to be instructed by some puublished authors (some self-published, some published through the university, and some the regular old-fashioned way, like you described). So, anyway, thanks for sharing. Now I'm really curious to know what you've written, but I guess that would defeat the purpose of the whole secret identity thing ;)

Writer X said...

JG, good luck with your writing. Nice to hear that you had some good teachers in college, too.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

About how long did it take you to get your first book published after you found your agent? And do you know if that is a typical amount of time?

Writer X said...

Andrew, it took two years, total. Unfortunately, this is typical. But, once an editor/publisher likes what you've written, they make a decision pretty fast. It's waiting for your agent to make that magic connection with an editor who'll love your book that takes all the time. That's when it gets frustrating and you hear a lot of "thanks, but no thanks."

ScottDS said...

Good post, Writer X!

I've always been interested in a writer's process - does he/she write in the morning, at night, by hand, on a computer, etc....?

Is this something you can elaborate on in a future post?

Writer X said...

Scott, Would be glad too.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

Two years doesn't sound so bad I guess. During that time, did you have to do anything? For example, were you dragged along to meetings or did you have to make presentations? Or did your agent do all the work?

On ScottDS's comment, let me second his request. I think it would be fascinating to hear about the whole process. :-)

Writer X said...

Andrew, your agent does all of that work for you--pitching your book to editors, talking about it at conferences, lunches (a lot of books get sold during lunch, believe it or not), etc. And, I should add, your agent doesn't get paid until he/she sells your book. It's quite a leap of faith. So, again, that's why it's important to sign with a reputable agent you trust. Any agent that asks for money upfront is a scam artist.

LawHawkSF said...

WriterX: Thanks for an interesting post and some great tips. Now I know that it's going to take me more than two weeks to become rich and famous after I finish the Great American Novel I've been working on for twenty years. It's about half-finished, but now I know there's hope.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, never fear. You could easily be that small percentage of writers who can claim the fairy tale: "I wrote my book and then two days later I found my agent and got a six-figure book deal!" Stranger things have happened. But, back in the real world, my story, unfortunately, is a little more typical.

SQT said...

Nice to see you Writer X.

I've "met" a lot of authors online since I get emails asking me to review their work and I've read a lot of their posts about the publishing industry-- and it all pretty much reinforces what you've said. I also have a lot of friends going through the submit-reject cycle over and over. To say writing is a tough career would be putting it lightly.

Writer X said...

SQT, it's too bad that it's as tough as it is, although my agent once told me that if writing were easy, everyone would be doing it. On the flipside, I am glad that self-publishing has taken off like it has. I know plenty of talented writers who just don't have the stomach for the submit-reject-repeat cycle and who could blame them? Some days I'd rather stick a needle in my eye (well, not really, but you know what I mean).

And it's nice to meet you, too!

StanH said...

Nice post Writer X! It sounds like most business deals, hurry up and wait. Many deals are struck at lunch, in my experience once you get them to lunch you’ve got something to talk about. My daughter is a tremendous writer, unlike me the words just flow. I’ve turned her onto your post. Look forward to the next essay.

Writer X said...

Stan, you're absolutely right: it is a business, just like anything else. And if you don't produce, your agent/publisher replaces you with someone else. It's very much a "what have you done for me lately?" kind of scenario.

patti said...

i am a writer as well. unpublished in the big time, but still with hope in my heart. i am always up for writer stories. thanks for sharing. here's hoping for the next to take off!

Writer X said...

Thanks, Patti. Keep at it. It will happen.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I've got another question. If you can't get any nibbles from a publisher, could you convert the book into a script and try to sell it Hollywood? Are those two worlds related in any way?

And have you heard of people getting scripts published and then using that to get book deals? Or does that make no sense?

Writer X said...

Andrew, yes, I have heard of writers developing screenplays from their books. I've never written a screenplay but I believe the format is a bit different from a manuscript. I would imagine that the opposite is true as well (turning a screenplay into a book). In any case, I would think you'd still want to get an agent; otherwise, you would need to get real creative and aggressive on making contacts with Hollywood producers/executives and their staffs. Not an easy task but not impossible either. Of course, it would always help if you were related to Ron Howard or George Lucas but that's another story entirely.

A good agent has contacts in both worlds. A lot of books that are successful get optioned for movies but you usually end up hiring a screenwriter to write the screenplay. Rarely does the author who wrote the book write the screenplay.

Khassie said...

Its these facts that keep me from starting the book I keep meaning to write. I'm a published writer but of the journalist type (starving journalist type that is) but of course there's the book that I've always wanted to write. Just can't seem to get it started because the odds of ever having it published are so slim.

Writer X said...

Khassie, forget about the odds and just write it. Believe me, if I can do it, you can, too. The best part of the stage you're at right now is that you can write your book simply to write it. Enjoy that part while you can.

Khassie said...

I'm wondering if it would help to borrow someone's toddler, stick him in a stroller under a table at a coffee shop and write it out on legal pad. :) Think so?

Writer X said...

Khassie, it seemed to work for JK Rowling. Give it a try.

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