Just what am I getting myself into? Part VIII: a bit of perspective, or, had I mentioned that things change?

One of the things that intrigues me most about blogging is how well its slow build-up of layers reflects the complexity of real life. As much as some of those encountering this blog for the first time might like for me to post a single (or even single-page) essay that covers everything an aspiring writer might need to know about, say, querying (presumably presented as bullet points), it’s too multifaceted a process to be conducive to quick, one-size-fits-all answers. By addressing its mysteries over a number of posts, I endeavor to move all of us here in the Author! Author! community toward a deeper understanding of how querying — or synopsis-writing, or narrative construction, or whatever the topic at hand happens to be — actually works. It’s not for someone looking to glean enough to get by in the course of half an hour of net surfing, admittedly, but if landing an agent actually were so simple that a winning strategy could be conveyed in a single page’s worth of bullet points, blogs like this would not have an audience.

Reality is just more complex than that. My apologies to those of you in a hurry.

If it’s any consolation to those who would prefer easy answers, I think about this issue quite a lot, far more than is apparent from any given day’s post. Because I do try to answer every reader question, a significant portion of any blogging session is usually devoted to addressing readers’ comments on archival posts. Occasionally, as happened yesterday, the volume and complexity of your fine questions is high enough that answering them eats up all of the time I had scheduled for blogging.

I’m bringing this up not merely to justify skipping yesterday, nor even to encourage archive-combers to keep coming up with good follow-up questions (but do keep ‘em coming, folks), but because the overall pattern of readers’ questions could not possibly be apparent to those reading only the most recent posts. Practically every time I log onto Author! Author! to construct a new post, I am greeted with at least one reader question that runs like this:

I am trying to land an agent, but I just read online/heard a rumor/gleaned from a writers’ conference that there is a secret rule amongst agents to reject any query/submission/writer that does X. Since the professional disgust to X is universal, why aren’t you warning aspiring writers about it?

I could, of course, save myself a lot of time by resorting to a generic answer: because the reality is far more complex than that most readily pops to mind. However, that’s not an answer likely to soothe any aspiring writer’s fears. Sometimes, allaying them is easy: many a supposedly inviolable Rule X is simply untrue, or at least not universally true. Sometimes, someone will have misheard an agent’s statement at a conference and passed that misconception along as a Rule Eternal; equally often, individual agents’ personal preferences get reported widely as a great sea change in the industry. Then, too, debates rage online about issues that barely raise a ripple at the average agency.

Or, to put it another way: the array of information being flung at aspiring writers these days is complex. Believing every passing rumor, even if one limits one’s credulity to those that seem to come from relatively credible sources, is a good way to drive oneself nuts.

But the fact is, beyond a limited number of professional expectations — manuscripts being presented in standard format, for instance, or a query letter’s being limited to a single page — there actually aren’t all that many universal knee-jerk rejection or acceptance rules. As tempting as it might be to believe that the publishing world is that simple, it just isn’t. Every book category, every agency, and even every individual agent or editor has individual preferences.

Compounding the confusion for those who long for one-size-fits-all guidelines for publishing success, the industry itself changes all the time. Not necessarily in the way that tends to be the focus of online debate — at this juncture, haven’t we all devoted more than enough precious seconds of our lives to the tired old debate about one space or two after a period or colon, when for aspiring writers, the answer can be summed up in nine words: it depends upon the agent or editor reading it? — but in terms of what is selling now.

Or, more important to agents but not as visible from the outside, what editors are buying now with an eye to publishing a couple of years from now. Since those selections are inherently speculation-based — an acquiring editor would have to possess an awfully good crystal ball in order to know for certain what the world will be like two years hence — how could the supposedly constant rules of what manuscripts will strike a pro as marketable not alter constantly?

This is a vital question for any writer approaching the industry for the first time to consider. One of the peculiarities of the publishing world is that statements about what is selling right now (or, more accurately, what agents believe readers will be buying in 2013) are almost invariably phrased as aphorisms, as though the statements being made are true for all time. Even when they are not, aspiring writers often hear them that way: while to an agent or editor, nobody is buying Book Category Y anymore is merely a statement about current market conditions, to a writer who happens to be shopping around a novel in Book Category Y, it can sound an awful lot like nobody will buy a book like yours, ever.

Allow me to illustrate the difference graphically.

a-windchime-in-the-snow

It would be completely accurate to look at this picture and make a statement like it’s cold in that back yard; flowers do not bloom there, right? Yet look how completely the situation has changed when we look at the same wind chime just a few months later:

crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

That eternal-sounding statement isn’t applicable anymore, is it? 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 one looks 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 in mind for the rest of this post, will you, please? Today, we will be talking about how to maintain perspective.

For most aspiring writers, maintaining perspective — or even gaining an accurate view — on where their efforts to get published or land an agent, fall into the larger scheme of things is exceedingly difficult. Your manuscript is your baby, after all: it’s hard to think of it, or even the query for it, as just one amongst the tens of thousands that Millicent the agency screener will see this year. Because one’s own book is so important to oneself, it’s awfully tempting to regard it as inherently exceptional — or, on the flip side, to decide that its rejection could only be the result of newly-minted Rule X, a knee-jerk rejection trigger about which the average aspiring writer knows nothing.

In practice, neither is likely to be the case. Queries and submissions are rejected for a wide array of reasons, some generic, some agency-specific — and some related to purely temporary market conditions. Learning how agencies and publishing houses actually handle manuscripts can go a long way toward helping an aspiring writer figure out the difference between what he can control and what he cannot.

Not to mention whether he should regard a currently chilly reception for his book concept as a permanent condition, or merely a passing blizzard. Gaining the knowledge to tell one from the other can make the difference between pushing forward valiantly with a manuscript and just giving up on it.

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
Throughout this series, 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 path, a writer needs an agent.

Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: 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? Well, we could, and often do: indeed, 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.

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

Personally, 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. After all, 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 their manuscript screeners 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.

Or, to cast it in the terms we were discussing above, another level of personal preference and future-prediction by which any manuscript by a first-time author must pass in order to get published.

But it’s easy for a 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 thought, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way? Seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, agent-seekers everywhere gasp, aghast? 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.

Working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
The main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books. It’s an accurate perception, usually: the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

*when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH, and, given that the initial answer will almost certainly be no, what revisions need to be made in order to render it so;

*when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s in 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 marketing materials at this stage);

*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;

*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);

*whether to pass along the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do);

*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 the agent can market that.

I make no pretense to 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 these points. 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 the contract? Sorry to burst that pretty bubble.

Take another gander at the list above, taking note of just how much the writer actually does under this arrangement: producing the manuscript or proposal, revising it according to the agent’s specifications, writing any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider taking this weekend to go through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), making 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 on your next book project.

Yes, what you just thought is quite correct: in considering whether to take on a new client, an agent may well want to know not only about the manuscript he requested, but any future books the writer might have in mind. There’s a good reason for that, too: “What are you working on now?” is one of the first questions an editor interested in your book will ask your agent, so don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking it about 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place.

Why? Well, a career writer — one who has more than one book in her, 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.

So you might want to start working on it during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — or is getting ready to shop your book around, a process that can take many months. It’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than rending your garments.

What does the 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 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. (And 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, 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, planning to 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.) Most agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

I can feel some 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, and 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: remember how I discouraged you from querying or submitting in January, because agencies have so much to do then? 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?

In short, you 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. Generally speaking, it’s considered fair for a new client to ask once for a submission schedule, but not to check in more than once a month or so thereafter. Nagging will not move you up in the queue.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that your book’s submission date has arrived: your agent has made up a list of editors likely to be interested in it, and either spoken with each editor or communicated by letter or e-mail; the manuscript is thus expected. The agency then sends it out. As I mentioned above, submission strategies differ:

(a) Some agents like to give a manuscript to their top pick for the book and leave it there until the editor in question (or the person in-house to whom the editor passes it; that happens quite a lot) has said yea or nay. Since editors have every bit as much material to read as agents do, this can take months; since most publishing houses employ editorial assistants to screen submissions, it can take a long time for a manuscript to make it up the ladder, as it were. If the answer is no, the agent will send the book out to the next, and the process is repeated elsewhere.

If you’re thinking that it could conceivably take a couple of years for a book to make the rounds of the relevant editors at the GBNYCBPH, congratulations: you’re beginning to understand the inherent slowness of the submission process.

(b) Some agents like to generate competition over a manuscript by sending it out to a whole list of editors at once. Since the editors are aware that other editors are reading it at the same time, the process tends to run a bit faster, but still, the manuscript is going to need to make it past those editorial assistants.

If you’re now thinking that because there are now so few major publishers — and the mid-sized presses keep getting gobbled up by larger concerns — an agent who chose strategy (b) could conceivably exhaust a fairly extensive submission list in quite a short time, and thus might give up on the book earlier than an agent who embraced strategy (a), congratulations are again in order. The options honestly aren’t unlimited here.

(c) Some especially impatient agents will send out a client’s work to a short list of editors — say, 3 or 4 — who are especially hot for this kind of material, or with whom the agent already enjoys a close relationship. If none of those 3 or 4 is interested in acquiring it, the agent will want to move on to the writer’s next project. If the writer does not have one waiting in the wings, or if the agent has a high client turn-over, the representation relationship may be terminated at this point.

If your jaw is currently occupying space on the floor, I would guess that you haven’t hung out at many writers’ conferences, chatting with agented writers. Since (c) is so common, pretty much everybody who has spent much time around publishing knows at least a couple of writers who got dropped this quickly.

“But Anne,” many a disillusioned soul calls out piteously, “isn’t this strategy pretty inefficient for the agency? It seems like it would require far more energy — and Millicent-hours — to recruit a dozen short-term clients, in the hope that one of their books will sell to those three or four editors, than to sign one in whom the agent truly believed and shop her work to forty editors.”

Not everyone would agree with that logic — riding the winds of change can require flexibility. Agents who pride themselves on keeping up with the latest publishing trends, where speed of submission is of the essence, sometimes to embrace this strategy; unfortunately for some writers, it’s also popular with agents who are looking to break into selling the latest hot book category, regardless of what they have had been selling a year ago. If the book happens to sell quickly, this strategy can work out well for the client, but otherwise, the writer who signs on for this had better have quite a few other projects up her sleeve.

The problem is, agents who embrace this strategy are not always very communicative about it with prospective clients. If you’ve been to many writers’ conferences, you’ve probably met a writer or two who has been on the creative end of an agent-client relationship like this; they’ll be the ones rending their garments and wailing about how they didn’t know that the agent who fell in love with their chick lit manuscript had previously sold only how-to books.

Make a point of listening to these people — they have cautionary tales to tell. Part of the reason to attend a conference is to benefit from other writers’ experience, right?

One of the things they are likely to tell you: the possibility of a short attention span is a very good reason to ask an agent interested in representing your work if you may have a chat with a couple of his clients before signing the contract. If that seems audacious to you, remember: a savvy writer isn’t looking for just any agent to represent her work; she’s looking for the RIGHT agent.

There is, of course, another submission strategy. May yours be the manuscript lucky enough to prompt it.

(d) If a manuscript generates a lot of editorial interest — known as buzz — an agent may choose to bypass the regular submission process altogether and sell the book at auction. This means just what you think it does: a bunch of representatives from GBNYCBPH get together in a room and bid against each other to see who is willing to come up with the largest advance.

I can’t come up with any down side for the writer on this one. Sorry.

Regardless of the strategy an agent selects, if he has gone all the way through his planned submission list without any nibbles from editors at the major houses, one of four things can happen next. First, he can start to submit the work to small publishing houses; many agents are reluctant to do this, as small publishers can seldom afford to pay significant advances. Second, the agent can choose to shelve the manuscript and move on to the client’s next project, assuming that the first book might sell better in a different market.

Say, in a year or two. Remember, things change.

Third, the agent may ask the writer to perform extensive further revision before sending it out again, especially if several editors have expressed the same reservation about the book. See why an agent might instruct her Millicents to pay attention to whether a prospective client has followed the agency’s stated submission guidelines? Since requested revisions are not usually welcomed by writers — “What do you mean, cut out my protagonist’s sister? There’s an entire subplot based around her…oh, you want that to go, too?” — who displays difficulty following written directions may reasonably be expected to require more coddling at revision time.

Fourth — and this is the one most favored by advocates of strategy (c) — the agent may drop the client from his representation list. If that seems shocking, you might want to brace yourself for the rest: it’s not at all unusual for agents fond of this fourth strategy not to notify their clients that they’ve been dropped. The writer simply never hears from them again.

Yes, this last is lousy to live through. But in the long run, a writer is going to be better off with an agent who believes enough in her work to stick with her than one who just thinks of a first book as a one-off that isn’t worth a long try at submission.

I’m mentioning this not to depress you, but so if your agent suddenly stops answering e-mails, you will not torture yourself — or him — with useless recriminations or box yourself in with ultimatums. If your agent does not respond to reasonable requests for contact, just quietly start querying other agents right away, preferably with your next book. (It can be more difficult to land an agent for a project that has already been shopped around for a while.)

Enough dwelling on the worst-case scenario. On to happier topics!

What happens if an editor decides that she wants to acquire my manuscript?
Within a GBNYCBPH, it’s seldom a unilateral decision: an editor would need to be pretty powerful and well-established not to have to check with higher-ups. The vast majority of the time, an editor who falls in love with a book will take it to editorial committee, where every editor will have a favorite book project to pitch. Since we discussed editorial committees earlier in this series, I shan’t recap now; suffice it to say that approval by the committee is not the only prerequisite for acquiring a book.

But let’s assume for the sake of brevity that the editorial committee, marketing department, legal department, and those above the acquiring editor in the food chain have all decided to run with the book. How do they decide how much of an advance to offer?

If you have been paying close attention throughout this series, you should already know: by figuring out how much it would cost to produce the book in the desired format, the cover price, how many books in the initial print run, and what percentage of that first printing they are relatively certain they could sell. Then they calculate what the author’s royalty would be on that number of books — and offer some fraction of that amount as the advance.

All that remains then is for the editor to pick up the phone and convey the offer to the agent representing the book.

What happens next really depends on the submission strategy that’s been used so far. If the agent has been submitting one at a time, she may haggle a little with the editor over particulars, but generally speaking, the offer tends not to change much; the agent will then contact the writer to discuss whether to take it or to keep submitting.

With a multiple-submission strategy, events get a little more exciting. If there are other editors still considering the manuscript, the agent will contact them to say there’s an offer on the table and to give them a deadline for submitting offers of their own. It’s often quite a short deadline, as little as a week or two — you wouldn’t believe how much receiving the news that another publisher has made an offer can speed up reading rates. If there are competing offers, bidding will ensue.

If not — or once someone wins the bidding — the agent and the editor will hammer out the terms of the publication contract and produce what is known as a deal memo that lays out the general terms. Among the information the deal memo will specify: the amount of the advance, the date the editor expects delivery of the manuscript (which, for a nonfiction book, can be a year or two after the contract is signed), an approximate word count, the month of intended release, and any other business-related details.

Basically, it’s a dry run for the publication contract. After all of the details are set in stone, the publisher’s legal department will handle that — or, more commonly, they’ll use a boilerplate from a similar book.

What neither the deal memo nor the contract will say is how (or if) the author needs to make changes to the book already seen or proposed. Typically, if the editor wants revisions, she will spell those out in an editorial memo either after the contract is signed (for fiction) or after the author delivers the manuscript (for nonfiction). Until the ink is dry on the contract, though, it’s unlikely that your agent will allow you to sit down and have an unmediated conversation with the editor — which is for your benefit: it’s your agent’s job to make sure that you get paid for your work and that the contract is fulfilled.

Which brings us full-circle, doesn’t it? The publisher has the book, the writer has the contract, the agent has her 15%, and all is right in the literary world. I could tell get into the ins and outs of post-contract life — dealing with a publisher’s marketing department, the various stages a manuscript passes through on its way to the print queue, how publishers work with distributors, how authors are expected to promote their books — but those vary quite a bit more than the earlier steps to publication do.

Besides, things are changing so much in the publishing world right now that I’d hate to predict how the author’s experience will be different even a year from now. All any of us can say for certain is that writers will keep writing books, agents will keep representing them, and publishing houses will keep bringing them out, in some format. As the author’s responsibilities for the business side of promoting her own work continue to increase — it’s now not at all unusual for a first-time author to foot the bill both for freelance editing and for at least some of the promotion for the released book — how much publishing with a GBNYCBPH will differ from going with a smaller press five or ten years from now remains to be seen.

After all, things change. Keep up the good work!

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