The getting-a-book-published basics, part XII: things change — but not as fast as many writers would like

Yes, yes, I know: I usually open our discussion and gladden your hearts with a pretty picture, or at any rate one to get you thinking about our topic du jour. Today’s marginally pretty pictures, however, require a bit of initial explanation. Specifically, I want to give you a heads-up about how I would like you to use them.

So: please stare at the photos I am about to show you for a good, long minute before moving on to the rest of the post. I would like these images burned into your cranium before we return to our ongoing topic, how manuscripts move from the writer’s brainpan, through an agency, through a publishing house, to end up on your local bookstore’s shelves.

Never mind why; just stare. First, at this snapshot I took in my yard a year ago:

a-windchime-in-the-snow

Clear in your mind? Excellent. Now contemplate, if you will, the same view at a later date (and from slightly farther away, I now notice):

crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

Four months separate those pictures — either a very short time for such a radical alteration of the environment or an interminable one, depending upon how you choose to look at it. But whatever your attitude, the fact remains that both the wind chime and its observer feel quite different sensations now than they did then, right?

Bear that gentle observation in mind for the rest of this post, please. This series has, after all, been all about gaining a broader perspective on a great, big, time-consuming process whose built-in delays aspiring writers all too often — mistakenly — regard as completely personal.

Yes, it’s all happening to you, but the upcoming change of seasons will happen to you, too. Does that mean that nobody else experiences it? Or that today’s frosty blast of winter air was aimed at you personally?

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking to the basics: an overview of the trajectory a manuscript typically travels from the writer’s hands to ultimately sitting on a shelf at your local bookstore. Since what most aspiring writers have in mind when they say they want to get their books published is publication through great big New York City-based publishing houses — GBNYCBPH for short, although admittedly, not very short — I’ve been concentrating upon that rather difficult route.

As we have seen, in order to pursue that particular path — which is, as we shall see later in the week, not the only possible route to publication; people merely act as though it is — a writer needs an agent. Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction.

So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming. Should we writers rend our garments over this, bearding the heavens with our bootless cries, complaining to an unhearing collection of muses that it’s just a whole lot more difficult to get good writing published than it used to be?

Well, we could — and a startlingly high percentage of the public discussion of the writing life is devoted to just that. One can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not. And don’t even try to total up all of the blogs on the subject.

Two things are clear: there’s quite a bit of garment-rending going on, and this process is hard.

Although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warrants it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Without question, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as the North American literary world’s manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

Did I just hear a few dozen cries of “Aha!” out there? Yes, your revelation is quite correct: at one level, an agency is to a major NYC-based publishing house what Millicent the agency screener is to the agent, the gatekeeper who determines which manuscripts will and will not be seen by someone empowered to make a decision about publishing it.

But it’s laughably easy for an aspiring writer in the throes of agent-seeking to forget that, isn’t it? All too often, aspiring writers speak amongst themselves and even think about landing an agent as though that achievement were the Holy Grail of publishing: it’s a monumentally difficult feat to pull off, but once a writer’s made it, the hard work’s over; the sweets of the quest begin.

It’s a pretty image, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way?

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because I’m hear to tell you: seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

To put it lest histrionically, working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change. And that’s only natural.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
Are you sitting down? You should, because the answer to that question generally comes as a gargantuan surprise to those in the throes of agent-seeking: the main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books.

That’s not paranoia talking, by the way, nor is it merely the inevitable emotional letdown inherent in reaching a goal one has pursued for an awfully long time. It’s a ruthlessly accurate perception, usually.

How so, you ask with horror? Well, for starters, the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

* when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH;

* given that the agent’s initial answer to that first question will almost certainly be not yet, what revisions need to be made in order to render it ready;

* when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s flailing its way out of a serious recession);

* what additional materials should be included in the submission packet, and your timeline for producing them (because yes, Virginia, you will be the one producing most of marketing materials your agent will wield on your behalf);

* which editors should see it and in what order;

* how it should be submitted (one at a time, in a mass submission, or something in between);

* how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while (in general, quite a bit longer than strikes an impatient first-time author as appropriate);

* whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off or are toying with an offer from another publishing house);

* whether to pass along to the writer the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do — and not all agents who do pass along all of the feedback they receive from editors, especially if it contradicts their own views of the book);

* whether enough editors have given similar excuses that the writer really ought to go back and revise the manuscript before it gets submitted again;

* when a manuscript has been seen by enough to stop submitting it, and

*when to start nagging the writer to write something new, so s/he can market that.

I make no pretense of foretelling the future, but I don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to state with 100% certainty that those of you who land agents between the time I post this and two years from now will disagree with those agents on at least one of the points above. Probably more. And the vast majority of the time, you will not win that particular debate, because the agent is the one who is going to be doing the submitting.

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed a representation contract? And aren’t you glad that you already had those nice, peaceful windchime images rattling around in your head? (I thought you might like a brain-soother right about now.)

Now that you’ve calmed down — oh, like the list above didn’t make you even the teensiest bit angry — let’s take another gander at it. Notice how much work the writer is expected to do under this arrangement? You produce the manuscript or proposal, revise it according to the agent’s specifications, write any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider devoting next weekend to going through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), make any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…

And all the while, you’re supposed to be working furiously on your next book project. Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions any editor interested in your current book will ask.

Nice, deep breaths. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking about your next book roughly 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. A career writer — one who has more than one book in him, as they say — is inherently more valuable to an agent or a publishing house than one who can only think in terms of one book at a time; there’s more for the agent to sell, and once a editor knows she can work with a writer (not a self-evident proposition) whose voice sells well (even less self-evident), she’s going to want to see the next book as soon as humanly possible.

And no, at that point, no one will care that you still have a day job. It’s a reasonable objection, though.

A word to the wise: you might want to start working on your next during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — that’s agency-speak for showing it to editors — or getting ready to shop your book around. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work to wrest your fine creative mind out of the book currently in your agent’s beefy hands — but it’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than sitting around and fretting about whether your agent is submitting your last book quickly enough.

Or rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what will my agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time. Let’s also say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three.

If that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.

What happens next? Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies (like mine, as it happens) will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission.

Other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them. Many agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

While some of you are cringing, furtively adding up how much it would cost to produce 15 impeccable copies of a 400-page manuscript, I can feel others of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff. It also makes keeping the submission lists straight easier — because you don’t want your manuscript to be sent to either the wrong editor or the same editor twice, do you?

In a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission.

That just made half of you sit up ramrod-straight in your chairs, didn’t it? Remember how I told you that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn?

The inevitable result: your manuscript may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But the usual reason is — shout it with me now — things change. The manuscript that couldn’t interest an editor even if the agent did a striptease during the pitch (oh, there are stories) five years ago might get snapped up in a flash two years from now. And while the bookstores may be crammed with vampires and zombies now, they will be just as crammed with future fads next year.

See why it’s of critical importance to sign with not just any agent, but one whose judgment you trust, one who believes in your talent? A good agent is not just some guy who can take a brilliantly-written book and sell it — ideally, he’s the writer’s partner in long-term strategic planning of the literary variety.

And that kind of partnership, my friends, is well worth searching a while to find.

Because although this is a hard business, it’s also an ever-changing one. You want an agent who understands that ultimately, literary success is a long-term game. Myopically insisting that is true today is eternally true of the book market is just, well, historically ill-informed.

Things change — and that’s only natural. Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *