Monday, July 13, 2009

Getting in the Game

By Writer X

Last time I blogged at Commentarama, I talked about how I went about writing a book. Today, it seems logical to talk about what you do after you’ve finished your masterpiece. One caveat: The opinions here are not scientific nor were animals harmed in the development of any conclusions. Not that I know of. The tips, thoughts, and suggestions mentioned in this post are simply a result of my own trial and error (heavy on the error) in getting in the game of traditional publishing.

So, once you complete your book, there are a number of paths to take. Some include:

1. Self-publish. Many writers use vanity presses like PublishAmerica or Lulu.

2. Submit directly to editors. Some editors, mostly at small and medium-sized publishing houses, accept unagented manuscripts. This number seems to be dwindling, though. I’m not exactly sure why, although I think it might have something to do with the large number of unemployed people (so much for Hope and Change and the Stimulus) and a large percentage of those people have decided to give a writing career a try. Editors say that they are being inundated—and not in a good way.

3. Find a literary agent. A good literary agent has contacts; a good literary agent knows how to sell a book to a publisher. He should be able to get your book into the right hands instead of just sending it to someone who uses it for kindling.
I went the traditional route: I found an agent, doing it the old-fashioned way, after much rejection, blood, sweat, and more than a few tears. I slogged together a query letter and finally wrote the one that got an agent’s attention. (Note: A query letter is typically a one-page letter that very concisely summarizes your book and your writing accomplishments in a compelling way.) And for a home run description of your book, think book jackets. A good book jacket description will entice you to turn to the first page of a book at the library, right? That’s exactly how you should approach your own book description in your query letter.

My query letter led to a request to read my book and, soon after, a contract with my agent. And I believe I mentioned in an earlier post that my first book never sold but, fortunately, my agent stuck by me and has gone on to represent other books that I’ve written. That said, here’s an important word about literary agents. . .

The tendency for new writers is to send query letters to every single agent along the eastern coast, including everyone listed on free web sites like or I do NOT recommend flooding agents with your query letter. I recommend that you do your homework and limit your search to perhaps 10-15 agents. Choose one that has a proven sales record (a new agent with a respected literary firm is okay); choose one that sells books that you enjoy. Above all, choose one with whom you believe you could have a long-term relationship. Read their blogs, web sites, and tweets. Believe me, an agent-writer relationship is a lot like a marriage but without any of the fun parts. You don’t want someone who’ll make you miserable and dump you as soon as the going gets tough.

And I know that finding an agent sounds loads easier than it actually is. It’s not easy. But it’s not impossible either. It’s important to remember that good literary agents have a vested interest in finding well-written books. If you’ve written a page-turner, they’ll want to know you. And without writers, agents would be obsolete. But, a bad agent is worse than not having one. It’s your reputation on the line, even more than theirs, and the publishing world is a lot like high school: It’s small, cliquey, and bad gossip spreads faster than good. Choose your agent wisely.

Some agents will tell you that they prefer writers with some publishing credentials. So, here’s a tip: Write some short stories and submit them to print or on-line magazines. Some magazines pay; many don’t, but at least after publishing one or two you can mention it as a publishing credit in your query letter. Saying that you self-published a book does not fly with many of the older, crustier agents, unless you’ve sold a ton of books. However, I’m finding that a lot of the younger agents are more open to writers who’ve self-published but the writing still has to be compelling. Again, read their blogs, tweets, and web sites to learn about their likes and dislikes.

I haven’t tried self-publishing but I do know writers who’ve self-published their way to much success. The author of THE SHACK, William P. Young, comes to mind. And some days self-publishing is very tempting. How cool would it be to publish a book that I love and then publish it tomorrow? You make more money on the sale of each book and you have more control but you are completely responsible for promoting it versus a traditional publisher who not only edits your book (both a positive and negative) but then can get your book into the hands of people through its networks that you may never reach on your own. As self-publishing evolves, I’m sure traditional publishing may look less attractive. And, who know? One day it may even go the way of the dinosaur. Some writers I know wish that would happen sooner rather than later.

But before you proceed with any of these options, you should already have completed your book, polished it, and feel very passionate about seeing it in a bookstore. If you do, then your tone will be reflected in your query letter and you will be one step closer to getting in the game and it will feel less like you’re diving into the deep end of the ocean.


LoneWolfArcher said...

WriterX, these columns on writing and publishing a book have been invaluable. I have several book ideas I have been kicking around and am about to start one in earnest. Here is my question:

Should I just write it and then try to publish it? Or does it make sense to write an outline and the query letter, get an agent, then write the book if there is publishing interest?

Writer X said...

LoneWolf, if you're planning to write a fiction book, then your book must be completed first before you begin querying.

If you're planning a book of non-fiction, then you should have the first few chapters written at least, along with a book proposal. Then when you query, you should mention your proposal. The proposal will be key and must be stellar. The proposal should also contain a marketing plan. In this instance, then the agent will want to see that you've already established a platform (e.g. you've got fans via a blog, through public speaking, etc.)

Good sources include Writer's Digest, Writer's Market, and

That help?

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, thanks for another great and informative article! :-)

I've got a couple questions. When you send your query letter, should you include your book or any part of the book -- for example a couple chapters?

Also, in terms of being published, are there things that count and things that don't? For example, does it only count if you've had the kind of story published that you are trying to sell as your book? In other words, if you were selling a book on gardening, would it help to have a Sci-Fi story published?

And, can you write different genres or do they want to see you stick to the one (e.g. Sci-Fi, mystery, fiction)?

Writer X said...


Don't send anything to the agent along with your query unless they ask for it. Their web sites and blogs will tell you what to send. Some just want the query. Others want the query plus the first 5 pages. Others may ask you to send the first chapter with your query. So, it depends. That's why it's important to do your research beforehand before you send off a query. As an aside, most agents now prefer email queries while there are still a few holdouts that prefer snail mail.

It would help to publish a short story in the same genre of your novel but I don't think this is a hard and fast rule. The important thing is to show that you're out there, other people like your work, you're getting published, you understand the markets.

Regarding writing in multiple genres, I do. :-) I think the tougher jump might be to go from fiction to non-fiction, although nothing is impossible. I wouldn't mention in a query that I write in multiple genres, however. The query should focus on your particular book and its genre. Once you get established with an agency, then you can start telling your agent (and sending him) other manuscripts that you've written, assuming he wants to see them.

Writer X said...

Andrew, another point about agents. Most good agents specialize in certain genres. Only a few represent EVERYTHING. Again, another reason to do your homework because say, for example, you want to write Thrillers and Young Adult fiction. It's quite possible that the agent you're focusing on only represents Thrillers and Mysteries. So, when you want to write Young Adult novels, you may have to work with another agent or at least another agent within your agent's firm--if there is one. And most agents are kind of funny about that--they want to be your one and only agent. It can get tricky. But, sell your first book first and then worry about it.

StanH said...

WriterX: Do you have charge backs. I know when you sell some large retailers they have what’s called a, “guaranteed sale,” where if your product doesn’t sell the retailer can return the unsold products and pay you for what did sell. If this is the case, is this the publishers problem, the writers problem, or both, or does it not apply with books?

Writer X said...

Stan, I do not have a whole lot of experience with chargebacks. If you self-publish, this becomes your direct problem. If you publish through a traditional publisher, generally they will handle that accounting aspect for you. But, yes, this issue can apply to book sales. As a writer, you certainly wouldn't want this to happen to you because then how willing will the retailer be to buy your next book? You want your book to sell because you make money on royalties.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X,

That's interesting. I always assumed that once you got into one genre, you were pretty much stuck. That's actually very good news. I've got lots of book ideas, but they seem to be in several different genres, and I would hate to get one published and then be stuck forever in that genre no matter what.

When you sign with an agent, do they normally sign you to the one book only or to anything you produce (like a right of first refusal)?

And, can they make you write a sequel?

Writer X said...

Andrew, as you're starting out, it would probably make sense to stick within that genre until you get established, although it's certainly not a requirement. Write what you love, remember?

I've known writers who've signed contracts for just one book; some even have caveats that say the relationship will be terminated after x months/years if the book doesn't sell. A good agent will use a standard contract which says that either party can agree to part for whatever reason, usually after a 30-day notice.

Regarding the first right of refusal, that's usually given to the publisher that buys your first book. They will want to get a look at your next book before anyone else but it is not a guarantee that they will buy it.

And, make you write a sequel? That is probably just about every writer's dream. Most writers wouldn't say no to writing a sequel.

Unknown said...

WriterX: Your whole series is fascinating. For one thing, I always thought you just went to an agent, a simple thing. Now I realize you practically need a consultant just to decide on the agent. At least I now know who to consult before I make a move--namely, you. Now if I could just get past "it was a dark and stormy night."

Writer X said...

LawHawk, it really should be easier than it is. Like anything else, I guess, you need to do your homework and not jump in blind.

But, a good agent will make things a bit easier for you so that you can write books that hopefully he can sell. Yet another reason to find a good agent.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, This may be more of a topic for another column, but how much do you interact with your agent? Do they get updates on drafts? Do you participate in marketing? Periodic visits? What else?

Writer X said...

Andrew, contact is mostly via email and the occasional phone call if a draft needs more explanation. That would be one of the questions you'd want to ask any potential agent. Make that two. (1) How many clients do you have? (2) How do we stay in contact?

Weeks, even months can go by if you're working on a book. However, if you have a book currently on submission--meaning he's shopping it around to various editors--contact will be more frequent.

Even during a lull, I'll keep in contact and let him know what I'm working on, get his opinion on a story idea, etc. But, keep in mind, that you are probably one of about 30-50 clients. You don't want to be a pest; at the same time, you don't want him to forget about you either.

Yes, once a book sells, you stay involved, mostly with your publisher/publicist on marketing your book, especially as a new author.

CrispyRice said...

This has been really fascinating. Writing and publishing is not a world I ever see myself in, but I love hearing about things I know nothing about.

(Yes, I spend a goodly amount of time on the National Geo and Discovery channels.) I also read a lot of nonfiction for precisely that reason - it gives me insights into worlds I don't know about and will never experience.

Thanks! :)

Writer X said...

Thanks, Crispy Rice. Glad you found it interesting.

William said...

WriterX: Great column, thank you. What is the difference between a small publishing house and a big publishing house?

Writer X said...


Thanks for the kind words!

A big publishing house like Random House is more well-known, publishes more well-known authors, has bigger budgets, bigger networks versus a smaller publishing house like Patriot Press which publishes lesser known works (that can always sell themselves and become "big" books, though.)

From a writer's perspective, you may get more control over your book with a smaller house and that can be very attractive, too.

There are pros and cons to each, but when you're starting out, you'd pretty much sell your book to the man in the moon to get your first sale. You're counting on the depth of your agent's experience to submit your book to the right places.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, thanks again for the series. I find this fascinating.

Maybe this would be better done in a future article, but can you tell us how the whole marketing process works?

For example, do you need to attend book signings all over the country? Do you go on television (like Oprah)? Do you get involved in the advertising campaign (is there one)? And how do they market books?

William, Welcome!

Writer X said...

Andrew, you're welcome.

Book publicity means different things, depending upon the name recognition of the author, the size of the marketing budget for the book and, of course, it never hurts to have Oprah on your speed-dial. Sadly, I do not.

I'll save book promotion for another post. You'd be surprised how much of the responsibility (including financial responsbility) falls directly upon the author.

patti said...

writer x: i bow before you. i am searching for an agent, but the right agent. one who isn't afraid to laugh with me.

Writer X said...

Good luck, Patti. I'm sure you'll find one that you'll be happy with. A sense of humor never hurts. :-)

Anonymous said...

Writer X,

This is all great advice!

You said the toughest jump might be from fiction to non-fiction. How about in reverse?

I have a completed fiction manuscript (I don’t think I’ve padded it but 150,000 words for a first time author is way too much. Now the cutting begins!). I also have a very unique qualification in a non-fiction topic. It’s a niche but I believe a strong niche that hasn’t been filled. It is a popular subject – one that comes to national attention at least once a month – and one upon which both the far left and far right agrees. But, it has to do with school-aged children. My fiction novel is “salacious” with a lot of gratuitous sex and violence – maybe not that much but if I had an elementary school-aged child I wouldn’t want him/her to read it.

My thought now is to focus marketing on the non-fiction project because I believe it is an easier sell. Because an author’s name is his/her brand, would selling the non-fiction hurt when it comes to selling the fiction project?


Writer X said...


Great questions. Making the jump isn't that difficult if you already have an established name. And, if the books are compelling, it shouldn't matter. Hopefully you have/can find an agent that represents both fiction and non-fiction.

Regarding your fiction novel, Erotica is a hot genre right now--no pun intended. If you're concerned about the conflict with your non-fiction manuscript, you might consider using a "pen" name.

Regarding which book to market, I'd go with the one you love the most, the one that is the most polished. Research the appropriate agents and then write yourself a top-notch query letter that focuses on one of the books. Once you're established with an agent, then talk to your agent about your other book and ask for guidance on how/whether to market it.

Good luck!

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