As those of you who have been reading this blog for a nice, long time are no doubt already aware, many of my best ideas for blog posts come from readers’ comments and questions. Frequently, readers will frame questions that, if I’m honest about it, just wouldn’t occur to those of us who deal with manuscripts professionally to pose. For instance, why a manuscript should feature indented paragraphs (the answer is yes, in case any of you were wondering) or whether it’s permissible to have the slug line in the header and the page number in the footer (the answer is no) are just not questions that would come up if one stares at properly-formatted manuscripts all day.
Or improperly-formatted ones, for that matter. I know it may seem a bit hard for writers new to standard format to believe, but after a while, you honestly do develop an almost visceral sense of what looks right and what looks wrong on a page. (And for those of you who just wondered, “What does she mean, standard format?” never fear: I’m going to be revisiting the right way to format a manuscript for submission very soon. Improved by reader questions and comments from the last time I went over the rules, naturally.)
As fond as I am of posts that come to me in this manner, I must say, there’s a type that tickles me even more. Every so often, a reader will ask a question that prompts me to murmur, “Oh, go look in the archives — I must have covered that at some point on the blog,” into my tea. In my own defense, most of the time, this reaction is abundantly justified; surprisingly often, folks will apparently overlook both the MASSIVE and I think well-differentiated category list on the lower right-hand side of this page and the search engine in the upper right corner. (How do I know that they missed these? It’s not all that uncommon for someone to ask that I address a topic for which there are several specific categories on the list.)
Yet from time to time, I will find myself wondering if I actually have covered the topic in question. An hour or a day after I finished murmuring, I may well be frantically searching my own archives for something I could have sworn I posted about eons ago.
So we all have 13-year-old reader Malak to thank for the rather startling realization that I’ve never done a straightforward post explaining how books get published. You know, a single column to which I could refer someone curious about where to start.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of posts on the intricacies of finding an agent, how to prepare a manuscript for submission, how to pitch your book at a writers’ conference, and so forth. Yet mysteriously, I have apparently neglected to address the single most likely question that a writer absolutely new to the process would be likely to ask.
I wasn’t kidding about how intuitive the ropes can seem to someone who has been climbing around on them for a lifetime.
In my own defense, this isn’t the juiciest topic for those already familiar with the basics, or one that’s likely to elicit many chuckles from my readership. In fact, bringing it up at all is practically the definition of a thankless task: not only are some of the aspects of the biz I’ll need to discuss downright depressing, but since there’s a lot of conflicting information on the subject floating around the web and the conference circuit, there’s also a high likelihood that this is going to be one of those series where readers write in, demanding that I reconcile what I’ve said here with something they’ve heard somewhere else — presuming, I suppose, that all of us who write about marketing writing regularly get together in a massive auditorium and vote on how best to get our collective story straight.
Wait — what was I thinking? Why on earth would I put all of us through that?
Oh, yeah: because this is information that everyone even considering trying to bring his book to publication needs to know. And aspiring writers who misunderstand how books do and don’t get published are likely to waste their time and resources on unsolicited submissions that will inevitably get rejected.
In other words, those of you who just murmured, “What’s an unsolicited submission?” are precisely the people for whom I am writing this. And Malak, of course. (How impressive is it that he’s completed a draft of his first book at 13, by the way? Are there other teenage members of the Author! Author! community pulling off feats like this? Leave a comment and tell us about it!)
So to our muttons: today, I’m going to begin to remedy the oversight. Because there are several ways a book can end up on a shelf in your local literary emporium, I’m going to break up the question into several parts. First, I’m going to tackle the classic means, publication through a great big publishing house.
But first, a little history — and while we’re at it, let’s debunk a few widely-believed myths.
How books used to get published during the Taft administration, or, how a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers (mistakenly) believe the industry still works
A hundred years ago, the publication process was pretty straightforward: an author wrote a book, contacted an editor at a publishing house, and if the editor liked it, he (it was almost invariably a he) chatted about it with senior staff; if he could convince them to take a chance on the manuscript, he would edit it for publication. Printing presses were set in motion, and in due course, the book was available for sale. The publisher sent out advance copies to newspapers, so they could produce reviews.
Of course, that was back when there were few enough books published in these United States that most releases from a good-sized publishing house could garner a review in a major newspaper or magazine. Now, so many books are published in any given year that only a tiny fraction of them enjoy the substantial publicity of a newspaper or magazine.
Which is why, in case you’ve been wondering, you’re far more likely to see a review of the eighteenth novel by an already-established author than the brilliant debut another. Assuming that the newspaper or magazine in question even carries book reviews anymore.
Back to days of yore. Amazingly, considering that authors often possessed only one copy of their manuscripts — remember, the photocopier wasn’t invented until 1938, and it wasn’t commercially available until two decades later — it wasn’t uncommon for writers just to pack their books into boxes and send them to publishers without any preliminary correspondence. The result was what’s known in the biz as an unsolicited submission, but unlike today, when a manuscript that appears on an editor’s desk out of a clear blue sky is invariably rejected unread, publishers would set these books aside until some luckless employee of the publishing house had time to go through the stack.
This ever-burgeoning source of reading material was known as the slush pile. Although solicited submissions (i.e., those that the editor has actually asked to see) have probably always enjoyed a competitive advantage, slush pile manuscripts did occasionally get discovered and published.
They also, predictably, got lost on a fairly regular basis. Thus the old writerly truism: never send anyone the only copy of your manuscript.
Because there were fewer manuscripts (and publishing houses were more heavily staffed) before the advent of the personal computer, a writer did not need an agent: it was possible to deal directly with the editor who would handle the book, or at any rate with the luckless assistant whose job it was to go through the slush pile. But back when the hefty Taft was overseeing the nation’s business, it was also still completely permissible to submit a manuscript in longhand, too.
Times change, as they say. One of the ways that time changed the publishing industry was that publishing houses began expecting to see fiction and nonfiction presented to them differently.
The fiction/nonfiction split
Both historically and now, novels were sold to publishers in pretty much the form you would expect: as complete manuscripts, and only as complete manuscripts. At least, they buy first novels that way; until fairly recently, the major publishing houses quite routinely offered fiction writers who had written promising first novels could snag a multi-book contract. It took until the 1990s for publishers to notice that a commercially successful first book is not necessarily an absolute predictor of whether the author’s second or third book will sell well.
As a result, while multi-book contracts still exist — particularly in genre fiction, which is conducive to series — they have become substantially less common. While previously-published authors can occasionally sell subsequent books based upon only a few chapters (known, unsurprisingly, as a partial), novelists should expect to write books before they can sell them.
Nonfiction, however, is typically sold not on the entire book, but via a marketing packet known as a book proposal. There are several hefty categories on the archive list at right on how to put one together, but for the purposes of this post, a generalization will suffice: a book proposal is a packet consisting of a description of the proposed book, a sample chapter, descriptions of subsequent chapters, and an array of marketing materials. Typically, these materials include everything from a detailed analysis of similar books already on the market to an explanation of who the target readership is and why this book will appeal to them to a marketing plan. Traditionally, previously published writers also include clippings of their earlier work.
Basically, a book proposal is a job application: in effect, the writer is asking the publishing house to pay her to write the book she’s proposing.
That does not, however, mean that the writer will get paid up front, at least not entirely. Because buying something that does not exist obviously entails running the risk that the author may not deliver, the advance for a book sold in this manner is typically paid in three installments, one when the publication contract is signed, another after the editor has received and accepted the manuscript, and a third when the book actually comes out.
Call it an insurance policy for authorial good behavior. Apparently, novelists are regarded as shiftier sorts, because to this day, the only acceptable proof that they can write a book is to have already written one.
Everyone clear on the fiction/nonfiction distinction? Good. Let’s move on to one of the other great cosmic mysteries.
The lingering demise of the slush pile
Just to clear up any misconceptions floating around out there: if you want to sell a book to a major U.S. publisher, you will need an agent to do it for you. The slush pile is no more; currently, all of the major houses will accept only represented manuscripts.
Like any broad-based policy, however, it comes with a few caveats. We’re only talking about the great big publishers here; there are plenty of smaller publishers that do accept direct submission. One hears tell of some children’s book divisions at major houses that still accept direct submissions; if an editor meets a writer at a conference and positively falls in love with his work, it’s not unheard-of for the editor to help the writer land an agent (usually one with whom the editor has worked recently) in order to side-step the policy. Stuff like that.
But it’s not wise to assume that you’re going to be the exception. If you’re hoping for a contract with a big publisher, get an agent first.
This was not always a prerequisite, of course. Until fairly recently, one element of that fiction/nonfiction split I was regaling you with above was that while novels had to go through an agent, nonfiction writers could submit proposals directly to publishers. Not so much anymore.
You novelists out there are a bit restive, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear some of you complaining, and who could blame you? “This is starting to seem a trifle discriminatory against my ilk. NF writers are presenting substantially less writing than fiction writers; a proposal’s what, 40-60 pages, typically? As a novelist, I’m expected to produce an entire book. I would have thought that if publishing houses were going to distrust anybody enough to want an agent to vouch for ‘em, it would be the author whose book they were buying at the idea stage.”
Don’t upset yourselves, oh novelists; it’s not good for your stomach acids, and besides, since everyone needs an agent now, it’s a moot point. But I suspect that the answer to your question is that that publishers habitually receive far more fiction submissions than nonfiction ones — interesting, given the long-standing industry truism that fiction is easier to sell, both to editors and to readers. (It probably also has something to do with the fact that nonfiction books are often proposed by those with clip-worthy previous publishing credentials, such as magazine articles and newspaper columns, but believe me, the other reason would be more than sufficient.)
Before petty bickering begins to break out between fiction and nonfiction writers over a situation that has more or less vanished anyway, let’s turn our attention to a more absorbing topic: why would the big publishing houses feel so strongly about agents that they would all agree upon a represented-books-only policy?
The rise of the agent
Although many aspiring writers regard the necessity of procuring an agent as a necessary evil at best, agents perform an exceedingly important role in the current publishing market: not only do they bring brilliant new writers and amazing new books to editors’ attention, but they are now also effectively the first-round submission screeners for the publishing houses. By passing along only what they consider marketable and of publishable quality, agents thin the volume of submissions the publishers see on a monthly basis to Niagara Falls, rather than the Atlantic Ocean.
In other words: they reject so the publishers don’t have to do so.
It’s easy to resent agents for this, to think of them as the self-appointed gatekeepers of American literature, but that’s not really fair. Much of what they assure that the editors never see honestly isn’t publishable, after all; I hate to disillusion anyone (and yet here I am doing it), but as Millicent the agency screener would be the first to tell you, a hefty majority of the writing currently being queried, proposed, and submitted is not very well written. Even very promisingly-written submissions are often misformatted, or would require major editing, or just plain are not quite up to professional standards.
Or so runs the prevailing wisdom; we could debate for weeks over the extent to which that’s really true, or how difficult it often is for genuinely innovative writing to land an agent. Suffice it to say that if the major publishers believed that agents were rejecting manuscripts that their editors should be seeing, they presumably would change their policies about accepting only agented manuscripts, right?
Think about it; I think you’ll find it makes sense. You’re perfectly at liberty to continue to resent it, of course, but it will help you to understand the logic.
“Okay, Anne,” I hear some of you reluctantly conceding, “I get that if I hope to sell my book to a major U.S. publisher, I’m going to need to find myself an agent. But if you don’t mind my asking, what do I get out of the exchange, other than a possible entrée to an editorial desk?”
A good agent can do quite a bit for a writer. First, as you reluctant conceders already pointed out, an agent can make sure your manuscript or book proposal lands on the right desks: not just any old editor’s, but an editor with a successful track record in acquiring books like yours and shepherding them through the sometimes difficult publication process. (Don’t worry; I’ll be talking about that part later in this series.) Pulling that off requires both an intimate knowledge of who is looking to buy what right now — not always an easy task, considering how quickly publishing fads change and editorial staffs turn over — but also the connections to enable a successful pitch to the right audience.
In other words, for an agent to be good at his job, he can’t just send out submissions willy-nilly; he must have the experience to target the editors who are most likely to be interested in any given book.
Agents also negotiate book contracts for their clients, act as a liaison between the author and the publishing house, and help mediate any disputes that might arise. Like, for instance, if the publishing house is being a mite slow in coughing up the contracted advance.
Yes, it happens, I’m sorry to report. And if it happens to you, you’re going to want an experienced agent on your side, fighting for your dosh.
Admittedly, it will be very much in your agent’s self-interest to make sure that you’re paid: in the U.S., reputable agents earn their livings solely from commissions (usually 15%) on their clients’ work. That means, of course, that if they don’t sell books, the agency doesn’t make any money.
Think about that: agencies are seldom non-profit enterprises. Doesn’t it make sense that agents would not take on manuscripts that they do not believe they can sell in the current market, even if the writing happens to be very good indeed?
Typically, the agent will handle all of the money an author makes on her book: the publisher pays advances and royalties to the agency, not directly to the author; the agency will then deduct the agent’s percentage, cut a check for the rest, and send it to the author. In the U.S., agencies are also responsible for providing their clients and the IRS with tax information and documentation.
Since self-employed people like writers have been known to get audited from time to time, you’re going to want this level of verifiability. Trust me on this one.
To recap how things have changed since William Howard Taft roamed the earth:
Way back when: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at major publishing houses directly to market their books.
The reality now: with few exceptions, a writer will require an agent to approach a publisher for her.
Way back when: fiction and nonfiction books were marketed in the same manner, as already-completed manuscripts.
The reality now: fiction is sold on the entire manuscript; with certain exceptions, nonfiction is sold as via a book proposal.
Way back when: nonfiction writers could approach major publishing houses directly with their book proposals.
The reality now: agents submit both fiction and nonfiction books on behalf of their authors.
Way back when: agents played a substantially smaller role in the overall dynamic of U.S. publishing.
The reality now: they largely determine which manuscripts editors will and will not see.
Way back when: an author often formed a personal relationship with his editor and other publishing house staff, sometimes lasting decades.
The reality now: the editor who acquires a book may not still be the editor handling it by the time it goes to press; a good agent can do a lot to help smooth over any resulting difficulties.
Whew — that’s quite a lot of information to absorb in a single post, isn’t it? I’m going to stop for the day, to give all of this time to sink in. Next time, on to what happens to a book after an agent submits it to an editor at a publishing house!
Yes, yes, I know: this isn’t precisely fun material to cover, but you will be happier in the long run if you’re familiar with it. And the next time a new reader like Malak asks how publishing works, I’ll know exactly which part of the archives will hold the answer.
Keep up the good work!