We have so much time and so little to see. Wait a minute! Strike that…reverse it! Thank you.
Has this series on how manuscripts move from great idea to publishing contract left your collective heads spinning, campers? It wouldn’t be surprising — as we’ve seen over the past few weeks, the prevailing notion of how, and even why, books get published is frequently at odds with what first-time authors actually experience. I constantly meet aspiring writers who walk in expecting to land an agent with their first query, their agents to generate a bidding war for their books within days of having signed them, their unchanged manuscripts bound and available for sale at Barnes & Noble a month after that, and their smiling visages filling the screen next to Oprah a week later.
It’s the writer’s version of that magical moment in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when our downtrodden little hero realizes that he — yes, HE — is one of the lucky few who will get to see first-hand how Willie Wonka makes his marvelous candy. Suddenly, all of Charlie’s troubles are over, and a magical world opens up to him.
As those of you who read the book may recall, it wasn’t that simple for Charlie. It isn’t for a writer who lands an agent, either.
Believing otherwise while trying to get published will just leave an aspiring writer feeling astonished, bruised, and undervalued. And hurt feelings aren’t the only danger here: if a writer insists upon clinging to the amazingly pervasive twin fantasies that (a) agents and editors are workers in a non-profit industry solely devoted to the discovery and revelation of literary talent, and (b) therefore the only possible reason a manuscript might meet resistance is low writing quality, he often ends up concluding, wrongly, that it’s not worth his while to keep trying.
Many a marvelous manuscript has been lost to the world as a result. That should sadden all of us who love good writing.
What should a talented newcomer expect instead? Well, for starters, a great deal of homework, to ferret out which agents have the best track records for selling her kind of book and learn how to present her work professionally; a fairly high percentage of rejections on the way to acceptance; an agent who demands changes to the manuscript or book proposal before submitting it to editors; months of submission to editors; further revisions after a publishing house acquires the book, and an expectation that she will have to do a good deal of the legwork to market her own book after it comes out.
In other words, a long, hard road. And when you get inside the chocolate factory, it isn’t all that magical; it’s just a business, albeit a glamorous one.
Accepting that, and learning not to stress too much over the vast majority of the process that’s completely outside a writer’s control, is crucial to writerly happiness. The stress-control method I recommend may not be as immediately appealing as some of the ostensibly sure-fire quick query fixes out there, but it has been road-tested: find out what the pros expect and learn how to present your writing in that way.
I know, I know: I may be fighting a losing battle here, urging creative people to be practical. For many, many writers — published and aspiring both — concentrating on the creation of beautiful prose to the exclusion of dealing with mundane practicalities is not only a way of life; it’s a point of pride.
Case in point: last April, I was sharing a delightfully steamy bowl of Thai coconut soup with an exceptionally talented author of literary fiction (who shall remain nameless for the nonce, but rest assured, I’ll let you know when his next novel comes out) when the waitress informed us that we had just spent many hours discussing things writerly, and the kitchen would like to close. At the end of a roughly ten-minute discussion of the locations of places that might conceivably be willing to serve us coffee at that hour, the author sighed and said, “Well, maybe I should just go home and start my taxes.”
Since it was by then 10:30 pm on the night before said taxes were due, I naturally assumed that he was joking. Judging from his reaction to my hearty guffaw, though, he hadn’t meant it as a joke: he honestly had not begun to think about his imminently-due return.
I would be tempted to think of this reluctance to plan for the hard realities of life as merely part of his substantial and complicated personal charm, but the fact that most of the working artists of my acquaintance seem to indulge in this particular form of procrastination leads me to suspect that it may be endemic to our breed of creative dreamers.
Let’s face it: as a group, we tend to defer serious thought on the business side of being an artist until we actually find ourselves in the situation, don’t we? As we’ve discussed throughout this series, many, if not most, aspiring writers long for publication with a major house, but don’t take the time to learn what that would actually mean in practical terms, let alone prepare for it.
For example, several years ago, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries to a room stuffed to the gills with intelligent, well-read writers. These folks had really done their homework, and most of them had novels, memoirs, and nonfiction proposals very close to being ready to be sent out the door.
As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their descriptions of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.
“That’s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want from your agent?”
The room fell silent, as if I’d just said something tremendously rude. And no wonder: like most aspiring writers, my students wanted desperately to believe that once Willie Wonka had cracked the gate for them, all of their dreams would come true.
I am used to this; it always happens at this point in my classes. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”
Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice. As we discussed why that might be a plus, however, I could tell that they were uncomfortable with the prospect of adding something this specific to their wish lists — an interesting reluctance, considering that as we saw earlier in this series, an agent who does not have those connections is going to have a significantly harder time selling a writer’s manuscript than one that does.
So I persisted: “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”
This one was difficult even to get the students to talk about in theory, let alone express a personal preference; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation scared them a little. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.
This truth is so important to a writer’s happiness in working with an agent that I’m just going to go ahead and restate it as a rule: a writer needs not just any agent to represent her work; she needs the right agent.
Given that most aspiring writers give up before they’ve given their manuscripts a sufficient chance to succeed, I’m going to round out this series by talking about how they can falter after they do succeed, at least at clearing the first major hurdle on the path to publication. Today, we’re going to discuss the often astonishingly disorienting moment when a writer receives an offer of representation.
Yes, yes, I know: we’ve already talked about this. I’m revisiting it because in this decision, above all others, it’s vital for a writer to be practical, rather than romantic.
Because, really, do you know much more about what goes on in that agency than what Charlie knew about how Willie Wonka made his chocolate? Most of the time, all a writer offered representation really knows is that the agent in question sells books to publishers for a living.
Pardon me for asking, but are there Oompah-Loompahs involved?
Seriously, process is important to consider. As we discussed earlier in this series, how an agent chooses to handle a manuscript can have almost as strong an impact upon its market prospects as whether he chooses to handle it in the first place. It’s not all that uncommon for good writers to end up feeling that their careers are being stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.
For a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who are unrepresented or between agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. After a long, hard spell of querying and/or submission, ANY agent willing to represent a book can start to look pretty good. So when the aspiring hear such complaints, they may be tempted to conclude that if the complainer’s book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the manuscript itself had some irredeemable fault.
Sound familiar? They should: if you’ve ever queried or submitted, you’ve probably heard one or more of them ringing in your head throughout countless hours of self-doubt. They’re the same set of justifications aspiring writers often level at themselves when their queries or submissions don’t immediately get picked up.
Whether the writer thinks these things of herself or others think it of her, these unwarranted critiques stem from the same source — those twin fantasies I mentioned above, the myths about how publishing is supposed to work. And why shouldn’t we think that of one another? Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer.
There is a perfectly good reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable. Many, many self-styled experts make quite good livings in this manner.
And more power to the ones who are gifted at it, I say: when aspiring writers improve the aspects of the road to publication that actually lie within their control, while learning not to obsess about the myriad aspects of querying, submission, marketing, and publication that are utterly outside the author’s ability to affect them, the process becomes not only easier, but substantially less frightening. Like using language correctly and effectively, promoting one’s writing utilizes a set of learned skills.
I regularly teach this type of class myself (for both writers’ organizations and small writers’ groups, should any of you be interested), regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent or Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.
The power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes, as we saw earlier in this series. The reason for this easy to explain — the consolidation of the major publishing houses, abetted by fears about the recent contraction of the economy and the perceived threat of electronic publication — but hard for a gifted writer trying to break into the biz to accept. Agents and editors at small publishing houses (who sometimes also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.
This should all sound familiar to you by now, right? Since you are already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not continue to harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.
Whenever I point this out to my classes, however, my students do not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them will inevitably ask, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”
The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections.
Thus, that story writers so often hear at conferences: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it.
Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor. Especially if the agent has a track record of giving up after just a handful of submissions.
What may an aspiring writer learn from this? As with querying, until a manuscript has been circulated for a while, no one can really say for sure how marketable it actually is.
The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers. Now, it is the norm for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal before sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor.
Which means — chant it with me now, campers – it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.
I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it (or were before we discussed it in this series). Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my memoir’s representation contract revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.
Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask for mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.
Naturally, I explain all of this to my classes. By this point, my students are usually sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. As much as I would like to reassure each and every one of them that their work would sell well and immediately, the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare.
As I MAY have intimated once or twice earlier in this series, I think it is quite unfair to aspiring writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.
I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my first book was one of the few exceptions: from winning a major nonfiction award at a conference to signing with my agent to book sale was only eight months, positively lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed the agency contract through when the book was first sent out to editors was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal my agent’s behest.
Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually rapid, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.
This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. We all like to think that once the inspiration fairy has bonked us on the head often enough to get us to churn out a complete manuscript, that’s that. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. (Again, I know I’m reviewing material we’ve covered already in this series, but since this is the last post, I’m entitled to a spot of review.)
“Phew!” these writers tend to think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”
With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon. The agent, in this fantasy, is just a one-time broker.
Now that you know from having slogged faithfully through this series that working with an agent is quite a bit more complicated — and lengthier — than that, I ask you the question I put to my students: what do you want your agent to do for you other than to sell your book?
Ponder that for a moment, please. It honestly couldn’t be more important to your long-term happiness as a writer.
Remember a few posts ago, when I mentioned that too many aspiring writers take the time to learn a little about their soon-to-be agent before gasping a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation from someone who may or may not be the agent of their dreams? The best antidote to an uninformed decision, I suggested, is to ask the offerer a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?
Again, this should all be sounding familiar, right? So why am I bringing up this discussion yet again?
For practical reasons, I assure you. While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the ensuing discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months after you sign, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.
Strange to think of your future agent that way, isn’t it? It’s a pragmatic view of working with an agent, rather than a romantic one.
How might a savvy writer go about being pragmatic in this conversation? Well, by asking practical questions. It behooves you, for instance, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; is this a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor? If you’re the type of person who is driven crazy by uncertainty, for whom no news is definitely not good news, you will want to know whether the agent prefers to issue periodic updates on the status of books being circulated, or whether you should feel free to ask whenever the wait starts to seem long. Knowing in advance how frequent contact has to be before the agent starts to feel hounded can save a writer a heck of a lot of chagrin down the line.
Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Find out whether the agent likes to give extensive, line-specific feedback, general feedback, or no feedback at all on a manuscript. If you are the kind of writer who hesitates to change so much as a comma without double-checking with someone else, you’ll probably be happier with a heavier commenter.
If, on the other hand, you tend to fly into an ungovernable rage at the slightest suggestion that your work is less than perfect…well, you’re probably going to want to see a doctor about your blood pressure before you sign either an agency or publication contract; the professional writer’s life tends to be stuffed to the gills with agents, editors, marketing specialists, etc., suggesting forcefully that changes really ought to be made to a manuscript. But if you already know that you would prefer to keep editorial input minimal, a more hands-off agent may be a better choice for you.
You should also ask for a current list of clients — listings on agency websites are not always up-to-date — and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what those writers’ books are like. (Don’t even CONSIDER skipping this step; skimming over the first chapter of several of an agent’s clients’ books can tell you a great deal about both her literary tastes and how heavy-handed an editor she is.) You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.
That’s not to say, of course, that what makes another author happy will necessary work for you. Just as all of our manuscripts are different, so are each of our needs and desires for this peculiarly intimate relationship. It is, however, more information for you to consider as you walk into representation with your eyes wide open.
So I ask you again: what do you want from your agent, other than to sell your books? How do you want to work together? Or, if you’re being honest about it, has your only criterion been that the agent in question would say yes to you?
Bears a bit of thought, I think.
Especially for those of you who are hoping to be career writers, rather than simply the authors of a single, well-respected book. While the common fantasy of being swept off one’s feet by someone spouting fabulous promises of fame, fortune, and a spot on Oprah’s book club list is all very nice, being aware of the realities of how books actually get published, what role your agent will play in that process, and how you would like your work to be handled will enable you to come up with realistic expectations that will help preserve you from the awful fate that often dogs aspiring writers who suddenly find themselves with agent: having gotten precisely what you thought you wanted, yet still feeling disappointed because what you got was not a fairy tale.
Down-to-earth expectations can, perversely, render it easier to achieve magnificent outcomes — and not just for you. If you choose well, aligning yourself with an agent who both has the connections to sell your work, expectations for it that similar to yours, and communication preferences compatible with your own, you’re probably going to end up being a better client. By approaching finding an agent deliberately, cautiously, and with an understanding of your own goals and working style, rather than blindly rushing into a contract with anyone who is interested in representing you, you are much, much likelier to feel supported throughout the publication process — and end up with the results you want.
So investing some thought in figuring out just what it is you do want is writerly time well spent.
If all of this sounds like dating, well, it is: writer-agent relationships often outlast the average marriage. You don’t want to wake up in a year and find yourself in a long-term relationship with an agent who no longer makes you feel your work is special, do you?
Why am I bringing this up at the very end of a dense series on publishing realities, you ask? So you may lift your eyes from the long, hard road to publication and ponder not only the ultimate goal of seeing your book in print, but the professional marketer — which is, after all, what an agent is, right? — you hope will help you get it there.
Congratulations on making it all the way through this long, serious series; I hope it will prove helpful to you. May each and every one of your books end up in the chocolate factory best suited to it.
Next week, I shall get even more practical, delving into the often-misunderstood nitty-gritty of how professional writers present their work. As always, keep up the good work!